Thursday, November 27, 2014

First Exposure by Alan Chin



Reviewer: Teddy, Gay List Book Reviews
Publisher: Bold Strokes Books
Pages: 264
Teddy gave this novel the highest rating, and had this to say about it:
Review:  I came across this quote recently “Beginnings hook readers, endings create fans”, I don’t remember where I read it, but it came to mind as I started to write this review. I have been a big fan of Alan’s work since reading the first chapter of ‘Butterfly’s Child’. Alan’s writing always sits so well with me, I love his creative descriptions of the mundane to that of pure beauty. His words always flow so well on the pages, and his characters are not made to be unrealistically, hot or hideous. They’re perfectly natural beings, with real emotions and flaws. Not one character is too perfect to be real or too mysterious to be anything other than human. You could pass one of Alan’s characters in the street, meet them on your journey to work, work alongside them possibly or whilst hanging out with friends. Now it’s not because these characters are boring that I’d associate them with everyday life, but because Alan has the ability to give them life in the pages of his books.
The characters in First Exposure are not just a photographer or a painter or a sailor. Alan’s descriptions are expressed so well that you can almost hear the click of a camera, the flick of a paint brush and feel the crispness of a shirt. With each character all sides of their personalities are revealed, allowing you to know them intimately. A character you may feel uncomfortable with at the start could well be the one you fall in love with at the very end. 
Petty Officer Second Class Skylar Thompson, is aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln supercarrier. Skylar is married to Rosa and they have a son, Hunter. Skylar questions his career choice as his family struggle to make ends meet on his pay from the Navy. This leads Skylar into turmoil over his actual career and that of his preferred, dreamed of vocation as an artist. Although he is popular and has friends on board his ship, he often feels uncomfortable in the company of the other men who are loud mouthed, shallow and crude. Skylar doesn’t like the sexual connotations made against some of his fellow crew members, especially one man, Dumphy. Skylar is a straight man but feels compassion and a little sorry for Dumphy, he admires Dumphy’s courage to stick it out. 
Seaman Ezra Dumphy has had life pretty tough, he is a young gay man with a love of photography. Never without his camera, Ezra is fascinated by Skylar and craftily steals shots of the man. I really liked Ezra as he is a survivor, Ezra falls into terrible situations. Life has a habit of kicking him where it hurts, but he’s a toughy and despite his appearance he does his best to take care of himself. He wants to be loved, have friends but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly and he gives as good as he gets. With a father who beat him and a mother who doesn’t appear to have protected him, he spent much of his teens living on the streets. 
When Skylar and Ezra are brought together serving aboard the same ship they unexpectedly find themselves looking out for each other. Through this story their worlds collide leading them to new friends, new lives and sanctuary, but it’s not without tribulation. Fueled by resentment and revenge Skylar and Ezra have to first sail through some very rough seas. 
If you love a gritty tale, true friendship and forgiveness you’ll not be disappointed here.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Amen’s Boy By Jacob Campbell And William Maltese


Reviewer: Edward Dutton
Publisher: Borgo Press
Pages: 208

The reviewer Amos Lassen recently introduced me--via Facebook--to a writer called Jacob Campbell, who lives in Louisiana and writes confessional “fiction” about his time as a minor seminarian, and later, as an out-gay resident of the French Quarter.
The relationship between Campbell and myself has been rewarding from an artistic perspective (we both write about similar themes) and it’s also exposed me to incredible works of queer fiction: Campbell’s own. First among these has to be his novel Amen’s Boy, which is similar in many ways to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, only queer and just as powerful. 
Despite being labeled as a “fictionalized memoir” about sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, Amen’s Boy isn’t simply a book about abuse. If it were merely a novelization of current events, it could hardly deserve to be called “literature”; and Amen’s Boy is a highly “literary” novel, as I’ll explain.
The abuse described in the novel--mainly perpetrated by priests against boys or by teenagers against younger boys--plays a major role in the adolescent narrator’s psycho-sexual and spiritual evolution. But it never comes to define the novel as simply a “text about abuse.”
Rather than understanding Amen’s Boy through the lens of current events--which many of its readers, on Amazon and elsewhere, seem to want to do--encouraged by the publisher and, perhaps, their own experiences--I think it’s important to respect the book’s integrity and read it for what it is: a literary narrative that draws on elements of mysticism, modernism, and coming-of-age, gay literature.
One aspect of the book’s “literariness” that transcends the documentary genre is the powerful voice of the boy-narrator, Thaddeus Merton (“Tad,” or “Tadpole,” for short), who experiences everything through the lens of a kind of transcendent, Joycean aestheticism. Thaddeus’ abuse is explored, at first, from a child’s point of view–not capable of deep reflection–and in a way that focuses on rich, sensory and instinctual experiences. It’s only later in the novel that a series of epiphanies and self-revelations reveals the true nature of what has happened to him.
Whereas Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man seems conditioned in his Catholicism--and Joyce’s rejection of his church is conclusive at the end of the novel--Thaddeus seems to live his faith profoundly and Campbell never opts for black or white answers. This is reflected in the ending of the novel, which could represent a spiritual redemption for Thaddeus--the rejuvenation of his vocation–or a psychotic breakdown.
By allowing spirituality to remain a possibility for Thaddeus, and by refusing to “overcome” religiosity in favor of pure aestheticism, as Joyce does for Stephen, Campbell creates a novel that lends itself just as much to spiritual autobiography as it does to modernism.
At times, Thaddeus’ first-person narrative transforms into a highly-wrought, mystical text--akin to the writings of Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross rather than a gay novel. And perhaps this is the most post-modern thing about the novel: the difficulty one experiences trying to explain it in terms of generic conventions and its refusal to give up exactly what its ending means.
The author shows us how an adolescent can find a damaging comfort in the “secret closeness” of an abusive priest–in this case, a sad, balding character called Fr. Terry. The insidious, soothing intimacy Thaddeus shares with Fr. Terry is experienced as a grateful escape from the brutality he suffers at home–at the hands of his sadistic brother and his weak parents.
This is true not only of the abusive relationship with the priest but of Thaddeus’ entire relationship with his church, which includes his duties as an altar server, and his conversations with Fr. Terry in the Sacrament of Reconciliation–which the priest uses, shamefully, to groom the boy for both sex and the priesthood.
This paradoxical blending of heavenly and hellish themes culminates in the author’s haunting portrayal of “Mettray,” a minor seminary where Thaddeus pursues his vocation to the priesthood.
Named after the penal colony in which Jean Genet was incarcerated for 3 years in the 1920s, the Mettray of Amen’s Boy becomes Thaddeus’ home for an equivalent 3 years. Its name evokes the irony that a child can experience “home” as both a heaven and a hell.
Similar to Proust’s “Combray,” Mettray is Campbell’s greatest achievement, if only because the descriptions of the seminary ground Amen’s Boy with such a vivid sense of place one often feels transported while reading, returning with a sense of sadness about the horrors that occur there and, confusingly, with a longing for the joys.
When Amen’s Boy is over, the aura of Mettray remains. You may even wish to return there–despite the fact that horrible things occurred. For nothing is black and white at Mettray: the soul-crushing brutality one experiences there exists side by side with the possibility of redemption.

Monday, August 25, 2014

First Exposure by Alan Chin



Publisher: Bold Strokes Publishing

Rating: 5 of 5 Stars

Blurb:
Straight, married Petty Officer Second Class Skyler Thompson battles homophobia from his navy buddies, the military, and his wife when he takes a job creating flower arrangements at a gay-owned florist. But rather than yield to pressure and quit, he refuses to give up the joy of creating beautiful arrangements, battling homophobia for artistic expression. His dream is to leave the navy and open his own florist shop.

Ezra Dumphy—his shipmates call him Dumpy because of his obesity—is a gay sailor who likes to dress in drag. He is shunned by his shipmates, tragically lonely, and uses drugs to cope with his solitude. What he wants more than anything is someone to share his life with.

Can these two men, opposites in every way, help each other achieve their dreams?

My View:
“Life, friendship, love, was a crapshoot.”
After just two chapters into this book, I had bought into this story, to Ezra and Skylar, to their lives, to this author’s writing.

On the surface of things, it may appear like these are trope-worn characters with trope-worn backgrounds, but this is not the case. Chin has given these people lives through their struggles and the crutches with which they try to deal with those struggles. He’s given to them talents and the joy they feel when they get lost in them. The level of emotional honesty is unavoidable, it’s so real.

Ezra and Skylar share a connection, though through different media. The result is a door that opens practically on its own.

To him, art was somehow sacred, the way you gaze up at a night sky and wonder if you’re standing on an electron that revolves around a proton in a series of infinite universes, and suddenly your mind expands and you experience your reality in a new and more significant light.

Anyone who has ever gotten lost while looking at a photograph or watching a playing musician or reading a passage in a poem, or anything of the like, will understand that feeling. There’s no turning back from it, either.

Desperation.

Fleeting joy.

Deep pain.

Strength.

Loneliness.

Wispy hope.

Sadness.

Unexpected chances.

This writer has a healthy comfort level with language and knows how to use it. It’s such an interesting juxtaposition, his use of what I can only call celebratory prose in writing about difficult things taking place in complicated, uneasy lives. The styles aren’t all similar but I got the same feeling from his writing as I do when reading Harper Fox or Edmond Manning. The words the words the words.

There are a few cases of what feels like overindulgence in that language, but when it’s this enjoyable, I let it go like a two-day old bagel.

At some point during all of this, I realized I wouldn’t be able to ever forget these characters. Beautiful, sweet, carrying their burdens, frightened, hopeful and working to survive. Again, it’s the writing. It brings inspiration and darkness to life.

“Flowers are more delicate, more ethereal than the plants they emerge from, and they have scent, which is amorphous. They are the bridge between the physical and the formless, body and spirit. Flowers are a metamorphosis of the plant in the same way spiritual awakening is to a human.”

Hollister, one of the supporting characters and co-owner of the flower shop with his partner Miguel, says this to Skylar as they work on creating some arrangements for an event. This is one of many, many turns in this story for multiple characters. I have to say, as well, that in this kind of story, I almost don’t like to use the term “supporting”, as if they aren’t important all on their own. Believe me, every character in this book is meant to be there.

Unpredictable characters making unpredictable choices. I like that I didn’t always agree with those choices or that they didn’t always feel right for the characters. Whenever that happened, it forced me to reexamine my understanding of them. How great is that? Highly involved reading is the name of the game here. Love it.
There are all types of relationships explored in this story: friendship, co-workers, married couples, child/parent, long-time companions, lovers, and all of them feel very real. Real means emotional, relatable, they made me think, stayed with me, and I couldn’t wait to get back to reading about them each day.

“Honey, did you ever have a kite pull you right off the ground when you were a kid? If so, then you know the thrill I get when I work with flowers.”

There’s a nostalgic feel to this book. I’m not even sure how I can “prove” that, except that it does. Maybe it’s the overall style of the storytelling Chin has. I think that’s what it is. I want more.

This is not an easy read given the wide array of tangled, difficult subjects examined and experiences revealed. Despite all of that, I felt peaceful when I was finished. Looking back at everything that happened, everything these characters put themselves through, I never would have predicted peace being my final reaction. Just like the story itself, it was unpredictable.

This is a novel that, frankly, defies categorization. It left me utterly satisfied. It’s very personal. And that last scene? I still can’t find the words to adequately describe how it made me feel, all of these days later. I do know that I want more of Ezra’s story.
I could not recommend this book more even if ‘more’ meant… more. Read it.

Buy Links

I would like to thank the publisher for providing me with the eARC of this title in exchange for my honest opinion.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Pawn of Satan Written by Mark Zubro





Reviewer: Jon Michaelsen
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Pages: 303




Chicago police Detective Paul Turner is back and in a big way. This time Turner and his petulant partner, Detective Buck Fenwick, catch the case of a murdered Catholic bishop, who was gay and not much of a secret among his brethren. The bishop’s badly disfigured body has been discovered in a seedy part of Chicago near the river and it is going to take the quick-witted and longtime partnered duo, Turner & Fenwick, to solve the case, and especially when it appears everyone within the local Catholic hierarchy is a suspect.



One of the most enjoyable, if not utterly fascinating, aspects of Zubro’s Paul Turner mystery series are the sub-plots chronicling the every-day life of a gay father and his two teenage boys, one with spina bifida, his lifelong partner, Ben, and how they go about their everyday lives. Zubro excels in capturing the human experience facing challenges perhaps unlike the typical family, but like the typical family is what the reader gets to experience. There is no “why me” self-pity bestowed upon the precocious young man confined to a wheelchair or crutches, who exemplifies love, courage and enormous drive. Not to mention the older son, who happens upon his best friend in time to save the young man from hanging himself. Clearly, Paul Turner’s family provides him stability, and his longtime partner Ben, gives him the loving comfort he needs. But, it’s the job of homicide detective that completes Turner’s well-rounded life.



Pawn of Satan is perhaps the most complex novel to date written by Zubro, chock full of twists and turns, red herrings and false clues. Zubro’s knowledge of the Catholic Order is exceptional, facets of the novel meticulously researched. Readers of solidly written, complex mysteries will appreciate the clues to help identify the killer, but may realize their guess comes up short of the truth.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Boystown 4: A Time For Secrets - Audio Version - by Marshall Thornton – Narration by Brad Langer






Review by Jon Michaelsen



In Boystown 4: A Time For Secrets, Marshall Thornton has penned the first full-length novel featuring tough, rough around the edges, at times jaded, former Chicago cop turned private detective, Nick Nowak, which is perhaps my favorite of the series thus far. A Time For Secrets contains a stunning mystery that reveals an older gentleman’s longing to learn whatever happened to his long lost lover, a decades old murder and a mix of Chicago politics; the novel is first rate and deftly written with enough twists, turns and red herrings to keep a reader flying through the pages to find out what happens.

Also contained within the pages is further insight into the sometimes odd relationship between Nick and his cop-currently on medical leave-boyfriend, Bert Harker, who still has both feet firmly in the closet when it comes to his overbearing and unaccepting mother, Mrs. Harker. Unlike previous Nick Nowak stories, Thornton tosses in a budding friendship his lover, Harker, has with an ambitious young reporter with starry eyes, and seemingly ulterior motives. The boy inserts himself more and more into Nick and Harker’s home -- and relationship -- in the guise of learning more about the vicious Bughouse Slasher, the last case Harker was working before having to take medical leave as his health got worse.

The Bughouse Slasher case continues a story-arc that has existed since the release of the second Nick Nowak novel, Boystown 2: Three More Nick Nowak Mysteries and comes to a head by the end of the novel when readers learn Harker has been secretly carrying on the investigation into discovering the identity of the serial killer, perhaps aided by the doe-eyed young reporter who has now inserted himself into Nick and Harker’s relationship. Not surprising, really, considering the time – early 80s – and the openness of most gay relationships of the time, but readers come away with a real sense of the deep love Nick has for Harker, especially when he is forced to face his own jealously, something even Nick didn’t think he could ever exhibit.  

Once again, I listened to the unabridged audio book version. Boystown 4: A Time For Secrets. As I’ve said before, reading and/or listening to a Nick Nowak novel is like slipping on a well-worn leather coat, comfortable and warm and the same feelings holds throughout this novel. Nick Nowak continues his tough man, studly persona, while just beneath the surface he knows he must come to terms with his lover’s worsening health and be there to support Bert. Yet, it’s Harker who comes across stronger than Nick in this regard, working to prepare and provide support to his lover through the enviable, clear his conscience by finally coming out to his mother, and to enjoy what remains of his life.

Narrator, Brad Langer, who has narrated the previous Nick Nowak mysteries, has become Nick Nowak to me. His voice is perfect for the series and I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. Not only can I highly recommend Boystown 4: A Time For Secrets, but I can also assure any reader of mysteries the entire Nick Nowak mystery series is destined to become a classic, ranked up there with the likes of Michael Nava’s Henry Rios, Richard Stevenson’s Donald Stratchy and Greg Herren’s Chanse MacLeod series.

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.

http://www.amazon.com/Part-Hawser-Limn-Sea-Lopez/dp/1937627160