Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"The Angel of Thirteenth Street"

Review - "The Angel of Thirteenth Street" by Eden Winters

Stunningly beautiful work

Very Highly Recommended

Noah owns a bar on Thirteenth Street.  Actually Twelfth Street, but who wants to tempt fate, right?  In a tough neighborhood filled with drugs, violence and prostitution, through sheer force of will and personality he turned the place into a spot people would want to visit again.   Rugged, scarred, alone, his real mission is to help get young men working the streets back home, or at least somewhere safe.  On the streets, they call him, sardonically, the Angel.

Jeremy is eighteen now, aged out of the foster care system, but not finished with high school yet.  Alone on the streets, he is trying to stay safe long enough to finish school, win a scholarship and go to college.  He just has to dodge the street gangs and pimps looking to recruit new talent.  Seems his old boyfriend Trent is a recruiter for Willie, the pimp who runs the area. 

A chance encounter brings Jeremy to Noah's attention.  Determined to keep the young man safe, he makes a deal with the devil to keep Jeremy safe.  Seems Willie is Billy, Noah's boyfriend from his days living on the street.  Can Noah save this young man's future without damning himself along the way?  And can he open himself back up to love?

This book was one of those amazing perfect storms that doesn't happen very often.  The characters are so sharply drawn, but disturbingly human and shaded and nuanced, the storyline engaging and relevant without pretense, the dialogue crisp, and the romance heartbreakingly painful and bittersweet.  I was drawn in and grabbed from the first page, and was unable to put this book down until I had devoured it whole.

All of the main characters are so strongly constructed - Noah, Jeremy and Willie.  Jeremy is the true innocent - eighteen, a streetsmart survivor, open and vulnerable without being a fool, but tough and resilient without hardening his heart.  Noah is a knight with a mission; paying his savior back by helping as many young men as he can leave the sex trade.  He is so wrapped up in others, he sacrifices himself and his happiness. 

And the most intriguing and complex character of all - Willie.  A streetwise hustler as a young man, now a ruthless and hardened pimp and procurer, he is an enigma.  He both uses young men, according to his own twisted code of ethics, but also funnels runaways back to Noah for rescue, under the guise of "thinning the herds".  I was both drawn to and repulsed by him, but totally, totally fascinated.

And this book is all about relationships. 

Jeremy, such a young man with an old soul, self sufficient, betrayed by his one boyfriend.  I would have expected him to be bitter and hardened, but Ms. Winters chooses to make him still a romantic at heart.  He falls for Noah, but is it a case of gratitude and hero worship or true romantic feeling? 

And Noah, so closed down to love, but so hopeful, just for others.  He has dedicated himself to rescuing these young men so they have a true chance at happiness, but at the cost of shutting himself off any chance of love and hope for himself.  What stirs in his gut for Jeremy cuts dangerously close to what he felt for Billy, so he clamps it down under the pretense of the age difference.

And Willie, or Billy.  So quick to deny Noah his love when they were younger, and so determined to remind him he doesn't believe in love.  This man appalls me, but there is just something about him that kept making me  Noah loved him.  Why?

And then we find out why, and our hearts break and we bleed along with these tragic young men and then we are put together again and made whole and get to hope for them again.

God, I loved this book.  I read it through twice just to savor what it tastes like and feels like and smells like when a master prepares a feast for me. 

Read this and wonder.


"Tipping the Balance"

Review - "Tipping the Balance" by Christopher Koehler

Great character study of two beautiful men

Very Highly Recommended

Drew is a driven man.  He is a successful real estate salesman, flips houses on the side, and has created a comfortable life for himself.  He is out and proud, and has fought to be respected as such.  His best friend Nick, coach of the CalPac rowing team, has found the love of his life in rower Morgan.  More and more, Drew is seeing the hole in his life that not having a partner causes, and it hurts.  He wants a man for himself.

Brad was on the rowing team with Morgan, but graduated.  He works for his father but is dissatisfied with the job.  Lives at home but hates it there.  Is known as a straight party guy who has a different woman every week.  But when he met Drew at one of the regattas when he was rowing, something shifted inside.

Drew has an immediate attraction to Brad, but knows he is straight.  He just hopes there is maybe something more there.  But he is willing to just be friends to have the big lug in his life.  And Brad finds himself thinking about the man everyone knows is gay.  Finds himself fascinated by him, and drawn in a way he doesn't understand.  Maybe they could be friends. 

When Brad's father pushes him to find someway to market the disaster of a housing development, Brad sees the perfect opportunity to make friends with Drew and find out what this strange attraction is all about.  He doesn't know that Drew has been on Nick and Morgan to get Brad's contact information for weeks.

When the two finally get together for lunch and become fast friends, will be enough for either man, or prove to be too much?  And will the business partnership they found grow into something more personal? 

This is, hands down, one of the best character studies I have read of a straight guy who slowly acknowledges an attraction to a gay man.  It was fascinating, touching, heartbreaking, empowering and so very very tough and tender all at the same time.  I was drawn in immediately, thrown into this slow seduction of a book, and was never let go.  The evolution and slow unveiling of what proves to be a revelation of not only Brad's awakening as a gay man, but Drew's journey towards discovering of his own heart was powerful.

First - Brad.  This man touched my heart.  His pain and awkwardness and fear and bravery and big heart got me, just slayed me.  He was so scared, and made so so many mistakes but always, always kept his compass north facing Drew.  Mr. Koehler just slammed the ball out of the park with this characterization.  Told all his life that he amounts to nothing, that every action he makes isn't good enough, he learned to hide his heart and his mind and put his spirit to sleep.  When being a part of Nick's squad woke his heart up, meeting Drew awakened his soul.  And we got to see him blossom. 

And Drew.  He first saw Brad as a hunk of a man, someone to seduce and have his way with.  As he put it to Nick - "You have your rower, why can't I have one?"  His plan to turn the straight boy, or at least get laid out of the deal, evolved into something so much more than he ever anticipated.  Because what he thought he saw in Brad initially - an intelligent, fun and sexy man -  woke up his heart from its slumber also.  He was forced to look inside and acknowledge that he wanted more in his life than work and the occasional bed mate also.  He wanted, no, he deserved, love.

What really worked so well in this flat out winner of a tale was the wonderful growth of both men.  They each were faced with challenges that sometimes broke them.  Brad, with his hateful and belittling and dangerous father, was crushed emotionally and spiritually.  His fear rode him until he shattered.  And Drew - his unwillingness to draw back from "full out gay man" to allow Brad to some out at his own pace almost cost him everything.  And the brutal assault on him almost killed him physically and spiritually.

And yet.  And yet both men, survivors, scarred and hurt and broken and aching and bleeding, stood and took what was offered.  They rose above, and learned to lean on each other as well as stand on their own feet as whole, strong and proud men.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the lesson we all can learn.  So simply, strength and love come from sharing the pain.

Beautiful.  Just...beautiful.  These two men, just got me.


"Rocking the Boat"

Review - "Rocking the Boat" by Christopher Koehler

Great story about doing the right thing and love

Highly Recommended

Nick Bedford is one busy man.  He is the coach of the California Pacific College rowing team, is in grad school, teaches and works off season in construction just to get by.  Approaching 30, he is still a very fit man, and could still row on one of the teams he coaches.  And he is gay and in the closet.  And more and more, he finds himself thinking about one of the members of his team.

Morgan Estrada is on scholarship at CalPac, majoring in Comp Lit and rows for Coach Bedford on the men's 8's.  Part of the reason he keeps rowing?  He has a bit of a crush on his coach.  While he is not out of the closet completely, he isn't in completely either.  But when he sees a man he likes, he goes after him.

There are two months before the biggest competition of the year for the CalPac team, and Nick isn't going to allow any distractions to get in the way of pushing his team to their limits, and winning.  And while there is one huge distraction is his way - tall, handsome Morgan - his professional ethics will not allow him to act on his attraction.  And Morgan might not even be gay.  And he doesn't have time for this.

When Morgan sets his sights on Nick, will he set them both up for heartbreak?  Or is love possible?

This well written, beautifully detailed and very satisfying tale of love between two men who, by all rights, should not be together is handled with a gentle hand by Christopher Koehler.  He has taken a subject that has been covered by many different writers in many different ways - the relationship between a coach and an athlete that turns romantic - and brings a new insight into the struggle between what the heart wants and what the right thing to do may be.  In many ways, it reminds me of "The Front Runner", but Patricia Nell Warren; the thoughtful slow build of a relationship between two men who find themselves in love but have to ask themselves, is it the right thing to do.

Mr. Koehler has created a wealth of interesting and vital characters here.  Nick and Morgan are wonderfully complex, and as they struggle with their attraction to each other and the not knowing - if each other is gay, if it's the right thing to do - they show more and more shades of their personalities.  And show very human flaws.  The secondary characters, such as Drew, bring bright colors to the canvas and make these two more and more human and believable.

There is great tension is this story.  The rules governing student athletes and their coaches are in place for a reason, as is shown with so much relevance in the situations currently with Penn State and Syracuse occupying so much of the news.  As Nick and Morgan are forced to ask themselves, should they enter into a relationship that is consensual and between two adults, the reader is forced to examine those questions also.  If it is driven by the athlete, should the rules apply so strictly.  Or is, in fact, the power imbalance so black and white that the student, and indeed the coach, should be protected at all costs?  It can be argued both ways, and there is no easy answer. 

And the tension between being "out" and being closeted.  Athletes perhaps find it the hardest to be out without consequences, rightly or wrongly.  Nick's struggle with to be out to his crew causes him great pain, but also puts great strain on his relationship with Morgan.  Morgan has had an easier path being out with his family, but Nick has different and more complex issues to take into consideration.  Again, the reader is forced to look inside and ask hard questions for himself.

And that is one of the great strengths of this book.  There are no easy answers.  Nick and Morgan struggle and accept and fight and look around for answers and make huge mistakes and cause pain to each other.  But that is how life works.  It is messy and a struggle and there are great highs and terrible lows and we just ride the wonderful roller coaster and take a deep breath and make our way through.  We hope we make the right choices and don't cause too much damage along the way.  Just like in real life.

Because at the end of the day, the wonderful thing about this book is its believability.  Nick and Morgan are two guys I have met in my life.  They struggle, work, play, want, love, make mistakes, cry, laugh, and make me want to know them and, most of all, care about them.

I liked these guys.  And I like what Mr. Koehler has crafted here - a fine story of two men who find each other and create something good together.

Well done.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

"Simple Gifts (Cornwall Novella #2)"

Review - "Simple Gifts (Cornwall Novellas #2)" by L.B. Gregg

Just a Christmas miracle

Very Highly Recommended

I will tell you a secret.  Most people I know think that "Silent Night" is my favorite thing about Christmas.  It is emotional, quiet, all the meanings of Christmas in one song. 

But my real favorite thing, and you have to keep this just between us, is "The Little Drummer Boy".  I remember as a kid seeing the stop action special on tv, and the little drummer boy all alone, playing his little heart out for the Boy King.  And I thought, even then, that's me - alone, a little different, with nothing much to offer.  You see, even then, before I knew what "gay" was, I knew something was different about me and it was something only God would understand.  And Christmas was an especially hard time, since I never really thought I fit in with my large family.

And when I read this stunning, haunting and hopeful story, I was right back there as a kid, watching a thing of beauty and instinctively understanding that it was speaking to me, right to my heart.

Jason is an orphan, abandoned by his mother at six years old and raised in the foster care system.  He learned the ancient art of origami from his mother, and now uses it to calm his soul.  He has never really fit in, but he craves a family, just doesn't know how to do it.  He is friends with the Sharpe family, and shared one night with Robb, the older son, before he left ten years ago.

Robb is back from his posting in the Army, home for Christmas, damaged both in body and spirit.  He doesn't really want to be there,  but the need to see Jason one more time rides him.

When an accident at the Sharpe Christmas party requires that someone watch over Jason overnight, Robb steps in and helps.  But will their reunion bring them closer, or will the ten year absence prove too much to overcome?

To say I fell in love with these two damaged, vulnerable and solitary men would be an understatement.  Ms. Gregg has done what so few can do - created fully realized, believable, sympathetic and wonderful characters in a very short novella.  Robb is broken, home from the Army and in obvious physical and mental distress.  And Jason, such a lovely young man, his heart hurting at every turn but capable of creating such beauty (read the description of his apartment and try not to be amazed and shattered) but so very very alone.

And after these two men come together one more time, at Christmas, Jason understands that he has to open his heart and let Robb go, to heal, and to hopefully come back to him.  Someday.  And Robb leaves.  And then the small cranes start to fly back home, a promise.

Like Jason's origami, this simple little tale folds itself into a crane.  A promise.  The promise of love and reunion and family and Christmas.

If I don't get anything else for Christmas this year, my heart is happy and my soul nourished by this sweet sweet lullaby.


Saturday, November 26, 2011

"Ty Hard"

Review - "Ty Hard" by Laura Harner

Tough and troubled cowboys - I am in!

Highly Recommended

Ty is fresh out of the Navy.  Out of the hospital, rehabbing his body, mind and spirit.  He is on his way to visit his good friend. mentor and replacement father from the service, who is now the cook on a ranch.  He arrives right in the middle of an emergency, and when he discovers his surrogate dad just died, it's too much for him and his mind shuts down.

Cass is the owner of the ranch, and is taken with the handsome young Ty.  When Ty passes out, he immediately takes charge and takes Ty under his wing.  Watching the young man grieve his friend, he finds himself caring more and more.  Not knowing all of Ty's past, he tries to protect the man, give him a safe place to heal and find himself.  But he WON'T fall in love, damn it.

Ty decided to stay for a while, get his bearings and see what's next.  He's never been with a man before, and isn't sure what he wants.  When Ty turns down one suitor and Cass kicks the guy off the ranch, things start going wrong.  At first, small acts of sabotage.  then the danger grows and it all points to the guy Cass got rid of.  When the danger turns personal, will Ty's past catch up to him?  Will he be able to recover?

This book was SUCH a pleasant surprise.  When I initially bought it, I thought, cowboys - you can't go wrong with cowboys.  But what I got was oh, so much more. 

I got two sensitively drawn men who don't know how to give their hearts. 

I got two broken, damaged, strong guys without a clue what they are doing, only that they feel something that should be pursued.

I got a lovingly visioned portrait of a guy damaged by war, not comfortable in his skin anymore, thrown away by family, convinced he can't have what he wants.

I got sweet romance, hot sex and a growing love.

I got action, suspense, and a who-dun-it.

And I got hope.  Hope that Ty can leave all his hard past behind, that Cass can relax into the caring, loving man he can be, and most of all, that even the most broken of us can find our place in this world.

Ms. Harner has done herself proud with this loving tribute to tough yet vulnerable men.

As Oliver would say, Please, may I have another?  Pleeeease, Ms. Harner?



Review - "Boots" by Angel Martinez

Fun and sexy, touching adult fairy tale

Highly Recommended

Willem is at a crossroads.  He has lost his job, his cheating lover, his home, and his father.  He was left $300 and the family cat, Puss.  Refusing to stay with his older brother, he is unsure what to do next.

Puss is really Yorukaze, a kasha, a cat demon.  Banished by one of the gods, he is sent from master to master to guide and assist.  Unable to return home, he is at the mercy of those who choose to take his service.  And he has been led to Willem and his family.

Pasha's job, it seems, it to find Willem a home a job and a man to love.  After that, Pasha will have to move on to his next assignment.  But what happens if he doesn't want to go?  Because Pasha, it seems, can assume a human form, and is the embodiment of what Willem is searching for.  When Kasha decides to set Willem up with a nice guy, get him a sponsor for his work, and a home, will he be able to put his feelings for Willem aside?

What follows is a fun, touching and fulfilling fantasy.  Willem is a sweet and strong young man, looking for love but getting used and discouraged instead.  And Pasha is a smart mouthed, sarcastic bad boy of a demon.  But underneath, he is like so many other hard guys - a vulnerable guy who wants someone for his own.

This is a very adult fairy tale.  The characters are drawn so well.  We feel how lost and sad Willem is, how much losing everything in his life has hurt him.  Especially his father; even though they had fought about his being gay, they were reconciling when Horst died.  And Pasha - how much loss and pain there has been in his existence.  And how much he has sacrificed over the years, and how much he is still willing to give up once he finds the man he has been searching for.

Ms. Martinez has crafted something special here.  This tale could be just a sex romp, or a farce.  Instead, she has made this a tale of love, sacrifice, tenderness and car.  I was enchanted.  And isn't that what a fairy tale is supposed to do?

Just wonderful.


Friday, November 25, 2011

Five Short and Sweet Tales

I am doing something a little different here.  I have picked five shorter works I have read that I really enjoyed and devoted a post to them.  If you haven't read them, give them a chance!!!

Five Short Books I Recommend

"My Lieutenant" – by Sharita Lira writing as BL Morticia

Nathan is an artist living in New York City.  His last asshole of a boyfriend couldn’t decide what to be, gay or bi.  When Nathan kicked him to the curb, he retaliates and trashed Nathan’s apartment.  Only he didn’t plan on getting caught by Bryant, Nathan’s new neighbor.  Newly divorced and out of the Navy, Bryant is immediately attracted to Nathan and pursues him as only a lieutenant in the service can.  Will Nathan give him a chance, or is Bryant too newly out of the closet for him to take a chance on?

This is a great story about a guy who has been burned one too many times by guys who won’t commit.  The ironic part comes when HE becomes the one afraid to commit when Mr. Right shows up.  There is a playfulness in this story that appeals to the romantic in me – this could have been played out into a heavy angsty piece, but Ms. Lira keeps it light and fun and short.  Nicely written and complete.

"A Lie I Can Live With" – by Eden Winters

Otis is the quintessential nerd – glasses, slightly overweight, a computer geek.  Gay, single and looking for his Mr. Right.  He doesn’t see the harm in lying a little on his profile on until he gets busted by a client who was interested in his false persona.  When he is talked into posting an honest profile complete with pictures, he is afraid he will be alone forever.  Then Garret answers his ad.  Garret, the handsome, built young banker who can have any man or woman he wants.  What could he see in Otis?

I am a huge fan of Ms. Winters, and especially appreciate the real emotions she brings to her works.  Otis could be me, and there are NOT that many writers out there who take on characters who are anything except physical perfection.  There are wonderful points made by Garret in this touching and beautiful song of love about attraction, acceptance and honesty.  I liked this work a lot, and would love to see more of these characters.  I think there is a book somewhere for Otis’ friend who makes him tell the truth and take a chance.  He deserves his HEA too.

"Forever Dusk" – by Lisa Worrall

Jonah lets his best friend Theo talk him into coming to a club catering to vampires and wannabe’s.  Getting over a break up, he thinks, why not?  When he is groped by a drunk customer, he is rescued by Sebastian, the owner of the club.  While the chemistry is immediate and intense, will they find any common ground?

This is a TERRIFIC short story, and has all the elements I look for in a well written work of any length.  Interesting characters, hot sex, chemistry, and fun and unexpected plot elements.  Ms. Worrall has a nice touch in everything she writes, and she delivers here in this surprising and effective short work for Halloween.

"A Picture Perfect Holiday" – by ZA Maxfield

Caleb in out and proud, the president of the photography club at his school and totally into the start quarterback of the football team.  The same quarterback who defended him from some bullies years before.  The straight quarterback who never speaks to him.  Christian plays football, struggles as a student, takes care of his younger twin brothers who play soccer with Caleb’s twin brothers, and works at his father’s restaurant.  When Caleb makes a CD of highlights from the brothers’ soccer games and tries to give it to Christian, will he make a bad situation worse, or open the door for a friendship between the two men?

There are very few writers who consistently deliver a satisfying, lovely and touching story with everything she touches.  This is no exception.  The characters are drawn so truly and perfectly, and we care immediately.  This being a Christmas tale, there HAS to be a HEA, and we are not disappointed.  I would love to see these two young men get a full book.  They are that interesting.  Please???

"Love Means…Healing" – by Andrew Grey

Len lost his partner of twenty years a few months ago. He works on the ranch they owned, watches out for the son of his heart and his new partner, and grieves quietly.  He loved his partner since they were in high school, and thinks that part of his life is over with.  But when he looks at Chris, something gets under his skin and bothers him.  Chris is retired from the Marine Corps after thirty years of service after a loss of his own.  He needs a quiet place to heal himself, and even though he has never worked a ranch before, something about the peace he finds at the ranch soothes his soul.

I fell in love with the characters in all of Mr. Grey’s Love is… series, and have been waiting for Len to get a story of his own for a while.  This is a sweetly sentimental tale, perfect for Thanksgiving and the holiday season.  There is healing and romance, and the maturity of the characters is respected throughout this tale.  These two men are so lovingly drawn, and the respect Mr. Grey has for them shines through.  This was a great Thanksgiving night read for me.  Thanks for giving such a sweet and honest effort.

"In From the Cold"

Review - "In From the Cold" by Mercy Celeste

Like a storm waiting to erupt

Highly Recommended

Tension. This book is all about tension.

Quinn is a country singer who has hit the big time. Since leaving his Tennessee hometown, he has battled drug and alcohol addiction, hard times, family fights and an attraction to his best friend that broke that friendship.

Nathan is a deputy in the same small town he and Quinn are from. Twice divorced, former Marine Corp, from a wealthy family, Nate is happy enough. As long as he can keep ignoring Quinn.

When a crisis involving Quinn's father, the sheriff of the town they both grew up in, forces Nate to call Quinn back home, the old pains and attractions boils back up. The tension between these two men is intense - can they find some common ground to get through this tragedy?

Ms. Celeste has created a tale that crackles with tension here. The tension between two old friends who became more than that. Between fathers and sons. Family. And when the worst happens, all that grief and old hurt and love and anger and lust and history spills out and over and consumes these two hurting men.

But the tension doesn't stop there. As the search for the man responsible for this crime intensifies, additional players come onto the scene and make Nate and Quinn even more tense. Because Quinn has been keeping secrets from everyone. Secrets that hurt Nate, bringing back all his hurts and wants. And when a TBI agent questions both men, they realize their secrets are anything but hidden.

And the tension builds.

What I appreciated most about this hot, intense and very very satisfying book was the tense interplay between Nate and Quinn, and how it relates to the reason why Quinn's father was shot. As the two lovers get closer to each other, the danger gets more real and closer to home. And when it overtakes them and one of the guys is in danger, we feel how close to the line both men are.

And just when we thought it couldn't get any harder to breathe, something even worse happens. I swear, I thought I was going to grind my teeth to powder, and the tension in my shoulders gave me a headache. Because I came to care about these two characters - their wasted years, the circumstances they let come between them, the stupid misunderstandings, the wasted pride. It is like when the air gets heavy and your lungs fill with humidity and something has to give right before a huge summer storm rolls in. All that potential and energy and you know it's going to erupt and you wait and you wait and you hope it will happen and it just keeps building and you need it to just BURST or you will.

Only when the lightening starts and the rains falls, it frees you up. Here, we just gasp and bleed and hope these two can put the pieces back together and that they will be alright again.

And hellfire, when I got to the last page, only then could I relax a little. But the tension is still there. And damn it, it's GOOD. And DAMN IT I WANT MORE.

So Ms. Celeste did her job. Left me wanting. And I really can't ask for more than that, can I?


Thursday, November 24, 2011

"Desert Run"

Review - "Desert Run" by Marshall Thornton

Good, gritty nontraditional m/m story

Highly Recommended

Don is an entertainer in a third rate cocktail bar in Palm Springs circa 1973.  He's out of the army, single, and doesn't mind picking up the occasional hot woman and having a good time.

When Shelly walks in to the lounge, she is a hot looking blonde, in town for a convention and hot to trot.  That she looks oddly familiar raises his red flags, but not enough to keep him from hooking up.  After a brief few days and a lot of fun and sex, Don's past shows back up to cause a LOT of trouble.

Seems Don is really Ricky D'Amico from Chicago, ex-army, and on the run from a terrible situation that has him changing his identity and laying low, unable to contact family or friends.  Shelly's revelation of who she is and that she recognizes him stuns and worries him, and then, quickly has him in the run yet again.  Then, what starts as Don pool sharking to get money to stay on the run from the troubles chasing him leads to his meeting and falling into a friendship with Harlan, a young man being kept by a middle aged movie start.  A male star.  And what follows is an action packed, thrill ride of mobsters, movie stars, murder and memories. 

This is NOT your average m/m story, and that is a VERY good thing!

This is first and foremost a story about an average guy trapped in a situation anything but average, but out of his control.  What happened in Chicago starts a chain of events that has Don constantly looking over his shoulder, reacting and on edge.  Shelly's stumbling across him by accident brings all that he has tried to put behind him right back in his face, and drives the action throughout the book.

And this is a great ride of a book.  The action fast paced, the fear palpable and Don propelled into reactions designed to keep him safe for one more day.  Mr. Thornton has crafted a very believable character in Don - a Vietnam era veteran (this is 1973) who suffers from light PTSD and flashbacks.  He is brutally adaptable, able to make quick decisions, but is a man with a conscience.  He is used to doing what is necessary to survive, and all of the actions he takes in this well written, excellently paced roller coaster of a book are consistent and believable.

What sets this book apart from merely being a well written action story, however, is the addition of the m/m element to the mix.  While on the run, Don is thrown into a situation where he meets Harlan, a young gay man.  Don's initial intention is to use him for a place to stay, never intending for anything sexual to occur.  Don discovers that he has an initial connection with the guy - or at least to getting off.  As he gets to know Harlan, however, he has to question himself as to whether there is something more to his attraction than Harlan's being just an easy way to get off, or if there is an emotional connection.

And that is what makes this such a relevant and exciting book for me.  Don is on the run, fighting for his life.  And Mr. Thornton works in a nicely told interlude where Don contemplates his sexuality.  It fits seamlessly into the tale, and adds texture and depth to the character.  I never questioned where Mr. Thornton was taking me or how we were getting there - I just sat back and let this masterful storyteller take me along for a fun, exciting and ultimately satisfying ride.

I wish we had more of this in the genre to choose from - action driven stories where the m/m element was secondary but important.  I love me some HEA and hot sex, but there is a place for this type of book in the genre also.

Good work!


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"Bear, Otter and the Kid"

Review - "Bear, Otter and the Kid" by TJ Klune

They don't get much better than this

Very Highly Recommended

"This is the way my world ends." 

With this opening sentence, we meet Derrick (Bear, to those who know him), and discover that, one day short of his 18th birthday, three days shy of his high school graduation, and three months away from his leaving to start college, his mother has left.  Left him alone and in charge of his five your old brother Tyson (Kid).  With the help of his girlfriend Anna, his best friend Creed and Creed's brother Oliver (Otter), Bear picks himself up and gets on with the business of making sure the Kid is cared for and loved.

Over the course of the three or four years covered here, we see love.  Love between two brothers, between friends, between a man and a woman, and between a man and another man.  We see love end, love begin, and love transformed.  We see love used as a weapon, love as an excuse, and love as a means of control.

We get the Kid's definition of love.  "I think it's when you can't go on another day without the other person.  That they make you feel like your stomach is on fire but in a good way." 

We see it when a heart is broken and love ends.  "You've broken my heart, but it was mine to give."

And we have our hearts broken when Bear tells the Kid their mom deserted them.  "I heard the first gasping breath come out of his little body. 'Bear!' he cried into my ear. 'What's going to happen to me?  I'm not big like you!  What's going to happen to me?'"  And Holy Hell, didn't I choke up at that...

What happens is...I almost don't have words for it...a glorious, imaginative, sprawling, touching, living heart of a book.  TJ Klune has taken these characters and built a tale of family and love.  We follow Bear's story, as he deals with his mother's leaving, raising the Kid, his on and off again relationship with Anna, and his struggle with whatever it is that exists between him and Otter. 

Because at heart, this book IS about Bear and Otter.  How love can start and stall and transform and be something that brings two people together and yet keep them apart and take you by surprise.  The question that looms over the entirety of the book is, will Bear allow himself to trust and love, and will he allow it to be Otter?

Mr. Klune has crafted this story so lovingly and so completely, and invested his characters with so much personality and life that I found myself yelling at them one moment, so angry at their denseness and stubbornness, then gasping and swallowing against the lump in my throat and fighting the prickling of tears in my eyes as their care and concern and love for one another shone through.  And marveling at how true to life the feelings and reactions were. 

I forgot, sometimes, in my frustration with Bear that he is still a very young man.  His shouldering of the responsibility of being mother, father and brother to the Kid in many ways froze him emotionally, and didn't grant him the time to grieve and get angry and be a normal young man.  I found myself aching to give this young man a hug while at the same time wanting to shake the stuffing out of him.  And that is where I think Mr. Klune's genius shines through.  It is almost impossible to NOT react to Bear; he is all elbows and knees and sharp corners, and they stick out and poke the reader to react with and to him.  I found myself drawn again and again to the Staind song "Epiphany" when pondering him.

"I am nothing more than a little boy inside
That cries out for attention
though I always try to hide
'Cause I talk to you like children,
Though I don't know how I feel
But I know I'll do the right thing
If the right thing is revealed
'Cause its always raining in my head
Forget all the things I should have said"

He is a little boy, hurt inside, and I want to just grab him and make it all right for him.

And as much as I love Bear, I love Otter and how he fits with Bear so well.  He could very well be a caricature of a gay man, but he is so shaded, so colored with depth.  Sometimes the sorrow is almost palpable, and then the light shines through, and I think, God, I want a man like this for myself.

And the Kid - I hate precocious children in movies and television.  But this young boy is so three dimensional, there is never a wrong or sour note struck.  He is the younger brother we would all love to have - wise but so very young and so flawed and just one more heartbreak away from a catastrophe.  And yet, never a misstep.  Held together by Bear and Otter and Anna and Creed.  Just a wonderfully conceived and executed young man.

This book is one of my favorites of any genre I have read.  I adore Amy Lane's "Promise Rock" books and place this in the same category as "All time favorite if I were trapped on a deserted island and could only take one book" books, because of the shared theme of family being what you make it, not what you are born with.

Mr. Klune, you have created a fine, fine work here that will be one of my favorites for years to come.  You must have a huge heart to have created such warm, alive and meaningful characters, and I bless you for it.  I wish I had the skill and words and talent, as you do, to do your beautiful book justice.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"The Time of the Singing"

Review - "The Time of the Singing" by Louise Blaydon

Lovingly crafted take of being true to oneself

Highly Recommended

Israfel Vacek, at an early age, learned he was different.  Reserved even as a kid, with a love of learning and books and dead languages.  Introspective.  Attracted to other boys.  His twin brother Micheal, athletic and outgoing, straight, the perfect son.  When Michael discovers his twin's "perversion", worried for his soul, he sets in motion a series of events that leads to Israfel's joining the priesthood.  After all,  it's not a sin to be gay, just to act on it, so Rafe will be safe there, learning the self control to fight his demons.

His posting at a church in a smaller town seems like just the place to minister to his flock.  Peaceful and quiet.  Until he spies Nate Mulligan.

Nate, teenage son of pious parents, and his younger brother Tom serve as altar boys for the Padre.  He is cocky yet devout.  A believer who also is a sinner in the eyes of the church.  A beautiful young man, full of life and hope and spirit, he looks at Israfel first as a man, not a priest.

And God, how Israfel wants him. 

When Nate notices the interest and returns it, Israfel's buried desires surface and threaten to explode.  Will his devotion be enough, or will he sin with this beautiful young man?

What follows is a startlingly well developed, well thought out and beautifully crafted crisis of faith and conscience.  The pacing of this gem of a book is slow and steady, but so perfect for the issues being examined here.  Not only are Istafel's reasons for becoming a priest in the first place in question, but his attraction, perhaps inappropriate, for a member of his congregation.  And a much younger man - 17 years old to his 29.

I found the dynamics of his relationship with his twin to be fascinating, his willingness to defer to Michael's supposed wisdom a response to his discomfort with his homosexuality, and to how the Catholic Church views it.  Israfel's innate goodness is at war with a faith that demands that he not act on his feelings - I can understand his brother's need to protect but still have a little bitterness towards him for pushing his brother into a vocation that hides his feelings rather than deals with them in any constructive way.  By protecting him, he stifles him and condemns him to a future bereft of love.

The last quarter of the book really soars.  The slow build to Israfel's realizations about himself, his orientation, the guilt and pain and self denial, and then the dawning of his realization that God's desire and plan for him doesn't preclude love was so lovingly laid out.  His spiritual growth mirrored his growth in his personal power and confidence, and was a wonderful sight.

The last chapter, as we see his future laid out, warmed my heart.  How can one not love a man like Israfel?  I certainly came to love him, and his Nate.  I do wish he had had one last scene with his brother Michael, but it in no way detracted from the story.

Ms. Blaydon has told a deep and rich story of love, growth and destiny while being true to oneself spiritually and emotionally.  Difficult and touchy subjects, but handled oh so very well.

Nicely done.  Worth the read - do not be worried by the seemingly slow start.  This book build and then flies like a dove.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

"Dawn in the Orchard"

Review - "Dawn in the Orchard" by Coooper West

Nice slow build to a satisfying romance

Highly Recommended

Gary is a professional musician originally from a small town in the South but living in Chicago now.  Not much holding him in Chicago - his closeted lover is dating women to make his family happy, he is sleeping on friends' couches, and his career is stalled since he suffers from crippling stage fright.  So when his aunt dies and leaves him a farm back in North Carolina, he packs up and moves back home. 

Chuck moved back home to North Carolina from Atlanta after college to help out his father.  Oldest son, family expectations and needs keep Chuck firmly at home, raising his two children, running his antique store and overseeing the family businesses.  And him firmly in the closet.  His outlet for fun is playing fiddle at the Thursday night jam sessions at the local bar.

When Chuck and his father pay a call on Gary to make sure the agreement they have with Gary's aunt to harvest the pecans from the orchard on the farm still stands, the chemistry between the two sparks. 

There are all sorts of reasons for something between the two men not to work.  Family pressures.  Small town narrow mindedness.  Past failed relationships.  Gary's music career in Chicago.  Living closeted.  Are there enough reasons, then, to try?

These are two men who have real life issues that must be addressed before anything real can develop between them.  Gary's uncertainty about his career, then his refocused energy when his muse comes calling again.  His fear of performing live. His lingering anger about his ex-partner jerking him in and out of the closet, then his hurt when the man dated a woman to keep his family happy.  His ambivalence about staying in North Carolina.  And most importantly, his fear Chuck would never acknowledge their relationship in public.

And Chuck.  Divorced with two children to raise.  A family business for which he has responsibility.  A father and family who will not tolerate his being gay.  And his unwillingness to step out and be what Gary needs.  And have what he really wants.

Being a native Southerner, I can appreciate the sensibilities at play here, and the pressures to remain quiet about any gay relationship.  The slow pace of life in the South was captured to a "T".  What I appreciated was how Ms. West used our slower pacing to draw out the relationship building between the two men.  So many writers have the main characters have an immediate spark which leads them into the bed and then madly in love within the first 20 pages.  Not so here - we are treated to a nice slow build.

Perhaps most impressive, to me, was the realistic reactions these two men had to the pressures that wore on them.  Anger, both at the circumstances and with each other.  Fear, that the fragile bond they were developing would snap because of Chuck's family.  Joy, at the connection their music gave them. 

And then, love, slowly and gently acknowledged, a quiet surprise for both men.  Ms. West used a deft hand here - these are two men I have met and known many times in my life. She got them right, and really, that is the highest best-est thing we can hope for, isn't it?  That a writer shows us, as gay men, how we are, not how they think we should be.  That takes love, and trust. 

It's as sweet as the tea we so love here in the South.  Job well done.  Bravo, Ms. West.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

"The End of the Beginning"

Review – “The End of the Beginning” by John Goode

Hugely successful follow up to “Maybe with a Chance of Certainty

Very Highly Recommended

If you haven’t read “Maybe…” – GO READ IT AND COME BACK!  If you have, or don’t mind some minor spoilers, read on…

Brad and Kyle are students at Foster High School in Tyler, Texas.  Brad, the star player of the baseball team, is popular, from a wealthy family, and has the run of the school.  Kyle, from the wrong side of the tracks, is quietly intelligent and invisible, not even registering on the popularity scale.  Somehow, improbably, these two have discovered each other and found common ground.  Both from horribly dysfunctional families, both hiding, both tough on the outside but fragile on the inside, battered on the inside and out.  Both gay.

This fine book picks up where “Maybe with a Chance of Certainty” left off.   Responding to Kyle’s being bullied, Brad has outed himself to his classmates to protect Kyle.  We find Brad the next day, contemplating what he has done, and doing some soul searching.  Did he do the right thing?  Can he take it back?  What will his friends thinks?  His family?  Teammates?  Can it be undone? 

In the course of dealing with all this fear, which is ultimately what this book is about – fear, and will Brad master it – he meets a kindred spirit.  Tyler, an older and hopefully wiser version of Brad, helps him in a weak moment.  He recognizes himself in Brad, and gives him the best advice of his young life - “Trust me, living with a life full of regrets is just about the shittiest way I can think of existing.”  God, where was my Tyler when was 16, 17, 18?

“I promise you the only thing worse than being a rat trapped in a maze is being aware that you were that rat.”  With one simple observation, Brad’s soul is bared to us.

Where “Maybe…” was more about Kyle, this is definitely Brad’s story.  We find out much more about what makes Brad tick, his fears, his hopes, his family, and most importantly, what he wants out of life.  And we see, though his eyes, how very tough it is to be young and gay in a small town.  How love can make us vulnerable when nothing else can touch us, and how fear can grab even the toughest of us by the throat and the heart and shake us until we are weak.  How even knowing the right thing to do can scare us so badly, we will give up on ourselves and the ones we love to protect what is.  Because what might be – no guarantees there, are there?

And that, in turn, makes us take a hard look inside.  And makes me wonder, if I were in Brad’s position, what would I do?  And that, my friends, is the sign of a great writer.  Most anyone who writes can tell a competent tale – it takes an artist to make us stop and think.  To hold up a mirror and invite us to look, think, feel.  And make no mistake, with this book, Mr. Goode is an artist.

“At that moment I knew I’d follow him anywhere he took me.”

I feel the same way, Mr. Goode.  Keep writing like this and take me with you.


"The Boy Behind the Red Door"

Review – “The Boy Behind the Red Door” by John Goode

Just A GREAT Christmas Story

Very Highly Recommended

Ten Reasons John Goode Rules the World

1.  He creates memorable characters that experience real emotions, talk like real people talk, and worry about those things real gay guys worry about.  They may live in North Texas, but the guys could really be in any small town in the United States.
2.  He knows the difference between being alone and being lonely.  One a guy can live with, the other sucks really really bad.
3.  He knows there are three types of gay guys – virgins, sluts, and the rest of us.  Virgins don’t know the difference between being a slut and being a regular guy yet.  Sluts want Mr. Right now.  And regular guys, we want Mr. Right, and will go through periods of voluntary celibacy in order to be true to our hearts.
4.  He believes in true love.  Or Twu Wuv, Buttercup.
5.  He isn’t afraid to make his characters afraid.  His gay men know it isn’t easy to be vilified as evil and perverted, loved (falsely) as icons a la Queer as Folk or something out of Sex in the City, or to be a young guy who knows he is different and thinks he is the only one in the world who feels that way.
6.  He focuses on the main characters, and doesn’t waste energy creating characters who don’t serve any purpose than as window dressing.  His guys have lives, people in them, and have things to do, but the focus never shifts off of where it needs to be – with the two guys who matter.
7.   He doesn’t shy away from making his men unlikable in some ways.  They are real, and have feet of clay sometimes.  Not all of us can be super heroes every day; sometimes, we need to be saved.  Or slapped silly.  And he does both.
8.  He gets that the moment when a gay boy discovers “the gay”, it can scare the pants off of you, fill you with no small amount of self-loathing, and can go a couple of ways.  Denial and to the nearest girl, or eventually to quiet self acceptance.  Sometimes step two follows a good long period of step one.
9.  He writes stories that are just the right length.  And friggin leave me wanting more more more, but gets the value of tying the story up in a way that leaves the reader satisfied without being stuffed.
10.  Have you seen the boy?  I mean, SERIOUSLY adorable.

Now, for the real review.

Matt is a North Texas transplant, living in San Francisco.  A former high school jock, now he is the technical editor for a high tech blog.  Single, frustrated, he hasn’t met anyone who can live up to his teen obsession, the teen who lived down the street from him, beautiful and unapproachable.  He couldn’t wait to get the hell out of Dodge (well, Texas) and get on with his life.

Reluctantly making his annual Christmas trip home, alone again, Matt is restless as he sees his brothers, all married with children.  A quick trip to the local electronics store to pull his brother’s fat from the fire, he runs into Tyler, the mysterious boy who lived in the house with the red back door.  Will the meeting, a long time in coming, live up to his long held fantasies or will the boy behind the red door be just that – a fantasy?

Mr. Goode has revisited the town of Foster, Texas, setting of “Maybe With a Chance of Certainty”, and introduced us to two more wonderful teens who grew into fine adults.  His strength is in his characters – the men in his stories are nice guys who happen to be gay and looking for love.  They are also unfailingly charming in their own way, blundering through their lives unaware of their real charm and looking for a man to love who wants them for their one-and-only. 

This charming short story sits just right for a cold winter evening, warming the heart and satisfying the hopeless romantic that, let’s face it, we all become at this time of year.  Merry Christmas, Mr. Goode – I just hope you have something as wonderful under your tree this year.