Monthly Archives: March 2011

Wonder – Dan Boyle (Lethe Press)

Buy it Now direct from Lethe Press or from our Amazon.com store – Wonder: A Novel  

In our wheels that roll around

As we move over the ground

And all day it seems we’ve been in between the past and future town

We are nowhere, and it’s now

—Bright Eyes “We Are Nowhere, And It’s Now”

As young women, Maude Flaherty and Anna Kreutzberg became the best of friends, as their fathers served in the diplomatic corps of their respective countries—the United States, and the USSR—at a time when much of the world was tipping toward the particular abyss conjured by that maniac of ferocious genius, Adolph Hitler. Maude and Anna had marveled at the delights of Geneva, then later the 1936 Berlin Olympics. And it was in Berlin where they parted—their fathers having been recalled due to the roil of events in Europe—giving each other gifts of books, and swearing their friendship would be eternal, their connection inseverable throughout time and space.

Fast-forward sixty, seventy years. Maude has birthed two children, now grown: Tom, a fifty-four year old physicist at Caltech who happens to be gay, (and entered seminary to become a priest, but opted for science instead; and buried a lover, Ken, ten years before); and Kate, a long-suffering daughter who is bitter toward both her brother and her mother. Kate is unable to refer to her mother as “Mom,” and, long ago, voluntarily cut herself off from her brother, Tom, who Kate’s now-dead husband, Bill, believed influenced their only son to become gay.

Maude’s diagnosis of dementia necessarily brings the small family together. But Maude’s dementia is clinically skewed: “Your mother,” [the doctor observes,] “has a very unusual case of dementia. In most cases, the ganglia die in bunches. But hers are more like a fine line of brain tissue along the out edges of the temporal lobes. To be honest with you, I have never seen or read of such a case as hers.”

Much of the conflict set, I must admit the next component of this novel was, at first, way, way beyond my knowledge or understanding. But Boyle’s placing Tom, the physicist, on a sabbatical from Caltech in order to be with his ailing mother and, coincidentally, being presented with the opportunity to conduct a public seminar on the advances in physics sponsored by the University of Washington provides the unschooled reader with a fascinating perspective on what this novel is essentially about. I’ll let Boyle, through Tom, explain: “Perhaps the strangest and most amazing discovery that has occurred in physics during the past ten years actually comes from quantum mechanics rather than string theory. It is the notion of quantum entanglement.

“Einstein—of course, who else?—was actually the first one to predict that if quantum mechanics was taken at face value, it implies that something way over on one side of the galaxy can be instantaneously linked to something on the other side of the galaxy. For example, if I kick up my heels and do an old soft-shoe, my entangled partner will do exactly the same thing instantly, even though he is ten light-years from me.

“Einstein brought this up to show how ridiculous quantum mechanics is. 

“…And yet, we have learned that although this might seem ridiculous, it is true. It does in fact happen. Two particles can be quantum entangled so that they transcend time and space.” (The italics are mine.) 

Quantum entangled. This, if I understand Boyle’s arguments via Tom, represents the essence of what is called String Theory: “…the magnificence of the possibility that a unified theory of the universe…might possibly have been discovered, that microscopic vibrating strings were the answer to everything in the universe, that many dimensions—eleven at last count—exist beyond space and time, that it is these strings that allow quantum mechanics and relativistic theory…to work together.”

Boyle masterfully connects the proverbial dots between such heady theories in physics and the temporal necessity to deal with his mother’s affliction and, indeed, with the strained dynamic of family. There is, too—(something that has demanded of me more than a few moments of fantastical fancy)—the utter fascination with that “…beyond space and time…” thing. Indeed, are Maude’s almost catatonic episodes of absence from the here and now reflective of her diagnosed dementia? Or, yes, is Maude entangled within a reality that the best of minds call theory? Is it just her memory that takes her back to such detailed, intimate, quite charming visitations with Einstein himself, and Martin Luther King, Jr.; her presence in Tennessee at the trial of John Scopes who had the audacity to give credence to another theory, that of evolution? Is Maude’s cognition of her best friend’s, Anna’s, death just a coincidence?

I must advise that Boyle demands the reader work with this book. Wonder is not a book that will allow the reader to find that particular nirvana of detachment many readers seek. No, if you read this book you must be engaged; you must set aside, as I did, any preconception that physics is just, oh, too out there to be interesting. Boyle makes it interesting, even captivating.

Yes, there are some rather abrupt changes of POV in this novel that were, at first, a little unsettling. But then—finally understanding what Boyle required of me—I found myself entangled in the possibilities of beingnowhere, and it’s now. Or, is it the possibility of being somewhere, and it’s then? 

Reviewed by George Seaton

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Never Say Never Anthology – Todd Allison, ed. (Silver Publishing)

Buy it now direct from Silver Publishing or from our Amazon.com store – Never Say Never Anthology  

I’ve always enjoyed reading anthologies. You get a variety of voices, stories, plots, and characters. It’s like when you were a kid at Halloween coming home and dumping out your bag of candy, never knowing what you’re going to find, and of course there were always items in the bag that you didn’t like, mine were three musketeers bars. I hated the nougat, I still do.

Never Say Never Anthology is a collection of stories all set around Valentine’s Day, another one of those holidays that can be a real crapshoot. Luckily Todd Allison knew what he was doing when he selected the four stories that make up this collection. They are each well written, have strong characters, and with a few exceptions make for an enjoyable and rather hot reading experience.

Here they are in order of appearance in the collection.

A Secret Valentine – B.G. Thomas

Steve is a divorced man who has come out in hopes of finding happiness by being who he truly is. Unfortunately, Steve first experiences the ugly side of gay life: liars, cheaters, and men who just want anonymous sex. Things begin to look up for Steve when he meets a man who is everything that Steve wants in a boyfriend; the problem is Bill only wants to be friends.

B.G. Thomas has a well-written story in A Secret Valentine. His characters are strong, likable and get into some really interesting scenes, especially with the twins. I did feel however, that the story was a bit predictable. I knew how it would end long before the last page was turned. Still it’s a good story, and definitely worth your time.


A Valentine for Evrain – Xavier Axelson

Evrain is the owner of a chocolate store, and not just some run of the mill kind of place he’s the best in the business. Everyone in town knows him, that because he’s done pretty much everyone in the town thanks to his special talents in making the chocolate treats. It’s Valentine’s Day, a holiday that Evrain hates, but he puts his distaste for the day aside to make sure his customers get what they deserve for their special day.

Xavier is relatively new to writing m/m erotica and romance, but he has come onto to the scene in a big way. His writing is tight, well developed, and always steaming hot. His character, Evrain jumps off the page at you with his sexy attitude mixed with a little arrogance. And what he does to a shipment of fresh strawberries…well you’ll have to read it to find out. I’m looking forward to reading more from Xavier in the future.


Stripped – Shae Connor

When Jon decides to spend Valentine’s Day in a Manhattan strip club he gets more than he bargained for when Blake, gets up on stage. Jon becomes infatuated with Blake and pays for a private dance in the backroom. Blake expecting the usual horny customer is surprised to find out that Jon doesn’t want the dance, he wants to talk. Breaking most of the clubs rules about customer/stripper relations, Jon and Blake spend a very hot, sultry night together. Was it just a hot one-night stand, or the start of something special?

Shae has done a brilliant job casting these two characters. They are both strong, likable, and what I would call honest in their portrayal. The story, which is well written, has emotion, a touch of romance, and some great sex. I’ve not seen other stories by Shae, but after reading this, I’ll be looking for more from this author.

Valentine 2525 – RJ Scott

It’s the year 2525, and humans are being cloned as companions. Meet Max a man who never wanted a companion that is until “Sam,” a cloned human that was mistakenly given a human trait – emotion. Sam fears this “flaw” and tries to end his own existence before he is “erased” but Max has other ideas.

I’ve never been a big science fiction fan. Frankly I avoid them at all costs, but I knew I had to read Valentine 2525 for the review, so I did. The first part of the story, I had a difficult time getting through. It’s futuristic language and bizarre unpronounceable names made for a rocky start. I stuck with it however, and was surprised to find a very well written and imaginative story hidden within.


Never Say Never Anthology is a well-written collection of stories with some talented writers behind them. Valentine’s Day is just one day out of the year, but love, sex and romance lives on day after day. You don’t need fifteen or twenty stories in your bag of goodies to enjoy a good selection all you need are these four for a wonderful treat.

Reviewed by William Holden

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Probation – Tom Mendicino (Kensington Press)

Buy it now at TLA.com or from our Amazon.com store – Probation
 
One of the qualities I seek in any piece of fiction is honesty. You can lead me into any situation, any conceit, any head as long as you do so with a voice that is true and a character who is honest with him or herself. Tom Mendicino’s debut novel, Probation, has the sort of truth and honesty that comes close to universality, and we are all the richer for it. 
Andy Nocero throws his marriage and sales career away on a risky blow-job with a trucker at an interstate rest stop. As a consequence of being caught, the court demands one year of therapy during his probation. He enters into therapy with reluctance, trying to cope with life out of the closet as well as his mother’s sudden illness—but his real salvation comes from an attempt to save another. 
Mendicino is masterful at bringing out the heart and the pathos in the smallest of episodes, deftly daubing his canvas to complete the picture of a man who cannot yet see what he wants because he can’t forget what he had. One of the many examples is Nocero’s bookstore trick, Duffy Donlan—a chunky, lonely bear who Nocero fucks in a booth and then gives a lift home, where dead dreams and a dying mother wait for him. They share instant coffee and a moment of closeness before Nocero backs away, realizing that no matter how pitiful he believes Donlan to be, he’s not far away from it himself. 
Probation is full of touching, meaningful episodes like this, but none more touching than those involving his family—his own dying mother, his already dead father and his sister, with whom he has a prickly relationship. He cannot forgive her, but he can’t help needing her, especially in the face of their mother’s illness. What brings them together again, if only for an evening? Beatles’ albums.
And, praise God, they aren’t warped after decades of hibernation in this
sweatbox of an attic. Leave it to my mother to pack them so tightly, so 
        expertly, that moisture and heat hasn’t destroyed them. I have a moment of
drunken insight. This is what she preserved them for. Tonight. My sister and
I argue over which record to play first. Finally we compromise and drop a
stack on the spindle … And so the night passes, nothing resolved, nothing
settled. But for a few hours, we play Rubber Soul and Revolver loud enough
to wake the dead and stay pleasantly smashed and I am the ten year old she
loved and she is eight and I can love her back and all the years of polite 
estrangement still lie in the future. 
Mendicino’s weaves Nocero’s emotional strands around visits with his therapist, Matt, much abused by Nocero but essential to his recovery. This relationship is the least fulfilling, but Mendicino manages to bring this to fruition by the end of the book as well. Is the ending happy? I won’t spoil it, but it is the ending I wanted to see.
Probation is a gift—as meaningful and harmonious as John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Dignity Takes a Holiday – Rick R. Reed (Dreamspinner Press)

Buy it now direct from Dreamspinner Press or from our Amazon.com store – Dignity Takes a Holiday
 
No one would mistake Rick R. Reed for Metallica, but both artists are willing to take chances and stretch. Metallica took speed metal to its (then) limits with …And Justice For All but decided to add hooks, strings and radio-friendly song lengths for their next work, the breakthrough self-titled Black Album. Their fans cried they were sell-outs, betraying their roots. Similar cries may be heard from Reed’s boosters when they read Dignity Takes a Holiday, for it is not Reed’s typical work. 
It’s the story of Pete Thickwhistle, an overweight, flat-topped nebbish who gets himself in and out of scrapes, jams and predicaments, goaded and needled by his physically and mentally abusive mother, Helen. He finally meets the man of his dreams, but will Helen interfere? Even worse, will she live with them after the marriage?
Reed goes far out on a limb here, writing slapstick farce instead of his usual taut suspense and horror thrillers. Writers who take themselves into unfamiliar territory are to be applauded. The chances they take, whether successful or not, bespeak a willingness to grow beyond what their audience expects of them and that experience is usually reflected in a deepening—a re-dimensioning (I love making jargon up)—of whatever genre they’re better known for when they return to it. 
But that’s not what you want to hear, is it? You want to know if it’s any good. 
The answer is a qualified ‘yes.’ Qualified because Dignity Takes a Holiday is purposefully over the top and that alone may put some readers off. The abuse Helen dishes out is so severe and the situations Peter finds himself in are so outrageous that you may find yourself reading with a grimace instead of a grin. Funny, yes—hysterical at times. But painfully so. 
However, this is all set-up for the ending, which (and this is typically Reed) puts the preceding events into context and reveals the heartfelt relationship underlying the farce. The hitch is that some might not want to wait that long for the payoff. The obvious remedy would be to get all that humanizing done with first before the farcical interludes take place, but that would undercut the shock and some of the humor they induce.
You might love this (I did) or hate it, but it won’t leave you without an opinion. If you’re a fan of Reed’s, go ahead and give it a try. You have nothing to lose.
Except a little dignity, of course. 
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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The German – Lee Thomas (Lethe Press)

41C5BvKCIEL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_Buy from Lethe Press

There are books out there that I’ve read that just stick with me, you know what I’m talking about. The characters seem to linger for days or even weeks after you’ve read the final page. The strong dialogue and/or setting seems to float somewhere between your reality and another time and place. Those types of novels at least for me are few and far between. Luckily, we don’t have to wait any longer. The German is one of those rare gems.

The German is set in a small Texas town during World War II, and as in most small towns, the residents know one another, and they talk. This brilliantly written novel begins to unfold from the first page, as a young boy is found brutally murdered. The only clue is a small snuffbox stuffed into the victims mouth. Inside the box is  a cryptic note written in German. The town begins to speculate on which one of their neighbors murdered the young boy, but as each new body is found with a similar cryptic message inside the victim’s mouth, the good residents of this small town turn to one quiet and reclusive man who has very dark secrets of his own.

What sets this novel apart from so many others that I have read, is the extraordinary way in which the story is told – from intricately weaving together three varying points of view. You have Tim Randall, a young boy whose father is fighting in the war, Tom Rabbit the Sheriff of the small town, and finally the strange, dark voice of Ernst Lang, “The German” whose narration is fragmented, seductive, and perfectly chilling.

If you’ve never read anything by Lee Thomas, you’ve been missing out on some incredible story telling. The German, however, is like nothing he’s ever done before. Don’t miss it. Get the book today, trust me this one will stay with you for a very long time.

Reviewed by William Holden

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Witch Wolf – Winter Pennington (Bold Strokes Books)

Buy it now direct from Bold Strokes Books or from our Amazon.com store – Witch Wolf
 
One of the delights of paranormal fiction these days is the mashing of genres and characters into a supernatural whole in which different kinds of creatures can coexist with a grudging peacefulness. This is the world Winter Pennington takes us into with the breathlessly fast, action-packed Witch Wolf. 
Kassandra Lyall is a witch. She also used to be a police officer before she was wounded in an encounter with a lycanthrope. Now, she’s a werewolf herself—and head of Lyall Preternatural Investigations. Consulted by the regular police to solve two mysterious killings and hired by Rosalin Walker (another werewolf) to track down her missing brother, Kass finds both cases overlapping in some very deadly ways and must accept the assistance of the enticing vampire countess Lenorre to solve the mysteries. 
Illuminating and exciting, Witch Wolf  both educates and enraptures. Pennington has a way with fight scenes, managing to stay inside her character’s heads while making the battle vivid and immediate. Her Kassandra is no mere werewolf-tool, like Lawrence Talbot, waiting helplessly for another full moon. She is a thinker, an analytical ponderer who has met and become one with the wolf inside her. And though Kass is a lone wolf, she must learn about wolf-pack behavior in order to solve the case, providing for some very interesting passages. 
But even more interesting is the attraction between Kass and the vampire countess Lenorre. Lenorre is a rich, wonderfully expressive character whose arched eyebrows and cool matter-of-factness provide some much needed balance for the hot emotions of the wolf that lurks beneath Kass’s surface. And although the book is Kass’s, Pennington’s heart seems to be with Lenorre. 
Pennington’s pacing is superb. She slows the action down just long enough for a breather, gives enough information to let the reader ride along, then turns up the heat once more. And at 235 pages, it’s a quick read that hits the ground running and never looks back. I finished it in a couple of afternoons and was hungry for more. If paranormal mysteries are your cuppa, this will fill it right to the brim.
Sink your teeth into it and hang on. 
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Ivan and Misha – Michael Alenyikov (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press)

Buy it now at Amazon.com – Ivan and Misha: Stories
 

I want to give thanks to the divine
Labyrinth of causes and effects
For the diversity of beings
That form this singular universe,
For Reason, that will never give up its dream
Of a map of the labyrinth
— “Another Poem of Gifts,” Jorge Luis Borges

Alenyikov has given us the gift of gorgeous vignettes, some tightly bound to one another, some more loosely wrapped but all sublimely orchestrated; the melody, the flow of the words, the images, the cause and effect of life’s pinprick moments—long-remembered, long-suffered, long-treasured—emerge as remembrances of, and reflections on our own morass of collected moments, our own complexities, our own yearn for a map of the labyrinth of ourselves.
Seven vignettes, including a prologue and epilogue, are what we have here. And what we begin with are Ivan and Misha, motherless fraternal twins, ensconced within the dismal environment of an apartment in Kiev, where their father’s promises of a new life and a new mother remain unfulfilled, as fictional as the grand stories and plays he recites to the boys nightly. But then it happens: “Years passed, and one day people were talking about a wall. A wall had fallen. …and in only weeks, a month later, they were on a jet plane to New York.”
What follows are six sketches, all told with a different point of view. Ivan and Misha are in their twenties, their father, Lyov—changed to “Louie” six months after they land in New York—is seventy-five and in assisted living in Brighton Beach, where a mini-stroke has left him shakily moored both in the past and the present. Misha, fair-skinned, blue-eyed, is like his mother; he is sensible, a thinker, a film school student at Columbia, working as a production assistant, “a gopher,” for a film company. Ivan, like his father, is somewhat swarthy, short; his appearance is an aphrodisiac—a sensuousness not lost on men or women alike. Ivan drives a cab. “Geography ,” Misha tells us, “is not a minor detail with my Ivan. He’s a little bit bipolar and drives a cab.  …And his mind takes ideas and travels to places I cannot reach. He schemes for riches to share with me; he has dreams of a better world for all mankind, which is wonderful, but too often to count they have taken him to Bellevue… When Ivan bleeds, so do I.” Yes, they bleed as one. They always have.
Indeed, Ivan’s and Misha’s covenant goes much further. “If we had been Siamese twins…” Misha ponders, “…where would we be joined, I wonder: shoulders, head, heart, hips? I imagine us connected at our navels, destine to stare into each other’s eyes, he lost in my pale blues, me in his dark browns. Or sharing one set of testicles, or one cock. The thought excites me.” Ivan’s attraction to Misha is no less intense—something that will eventually be played out as an inevitability, predestined perhaps from birth. Against this background, Alenyikov weaves literary prose to poetry as if such a thing were easy to do. He exposes his characters—their quirks, their longings, their loves, their angst—with a lilt of pen rarely equaled.
There is so much in these little more than 200 pages. Repeating themes sift through the narrative in such a way as to leave the reader nodding, smiling even at the ability of Alenyikov to ease into a reintroduction of something that has come before from another angle, another light, another voice. The relationships of fathers and sons; mothers and sons; the interaction of siblings, both intimate and removed; psychoanalysis from a degreed practitioner (a mother), and also from a fraud who feigns blindness; the deaths of lovers or, more precisely, the deaths of those loved if only for a moment, or fleeting eternity; the dynamic of families, none completely in their parts or collectively sane; the love, the passion between gay men; oh, all of this here in this wee, fascinating collection.          
In “Barrel of Laughs” it is through Louie’s eyes that we see him often sharing his thoughts with his new assisted living friend, Leo. He does not share with Leo, though, the visage of his wife’s suicide when the twins were almost two.  “I do not to this day understand why Sonya took the razor blades to her arms. … I never told my boys. I said she died in childbirth… …But I never spoke of the dark circles under her eyes after she’d lock herself in the bedroom for weeks; the sound of her weeping; the nights she disappeared. How her face would be distorted by rage, unrecognizable, then wide-eyed with grand and impossible schemes. Their memory of her—if it existed—had no more substance than a dream. Of that I am certain.” This soliloquy has import. Ivan, in rare moments, blames his brother for their mother’s death during childbirth—the lie their father has told them—because Misha was the last to be born. If Misha had not been born would their mother still be alive? Then, too, are Ivan’s demons genetic gifts from his mother. 
“It Takes All Kinds,” gives us Smith’s, Misha’s lover’s, view. Within the storyline describing Smith’s relationship with his mother, father and sister, his changing personas—and occasionally changing his name, as well—to suit however he sees himself at any given time, he is distracted by concern for the planet, even to the extent of buying a ticket to Antarctica to help with the cause. Or, he wonders, is it Misha’s virus he wants to leave behind him?  Smith’s distraction—a ticket to Antarctica in his wallet—becomes more sensible, more understandable than the dynamic of Misha’s family. “Smith’s thoughts drifted to the rain forests again, the melting ice caps, the spread of diseases that had existed for eons in isolated jungles. These concerns frightened him but were easier to understand than family. This, Misha would never get. Feelings about family were like religion Smith had learned since being with Mish. The differences were as profound as the approach to God defined by Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. And just as irreconcilable. In Misha’s world one was loyal to the death for family, even if they drove you crazy, even if they were crazy.”
“Whirling Dervish,” is Ivan’s realm where he first meets Taz, a fellow cab driver: a “Slender, lanky, bubble gum–chewing Taz—self-named after a post-collegiate trip to Tasmania had turned his world upside down, freeing him to ride the jet stream to anywhere but home, the anywhere being, at the moment, New York.” Ivan ceases to sleep, ceases taking his meds, neglects his pet rabbit, works back-to-back shifts, all because of his obsession with Taz. His world becomes surreal, dotted with cab fares that become an inconvenient intrusion, or a pleasing pause in the thousand-mile-an-hour, never-ending churn of his brain let lose from the constraints of, well, the modicum of normalcy he has leapt beyond.
“Who Did What to Whom?” is told by Kevin, who was with Vinnie, before he was with Misha, before Misha was with Smith. And who knows how many other withs each of them had had. Vinnie is dying. Kevin reflects on that time when, “There were no blood tests, no positives and negatives, no HIV, no safe sex. It could be from kissing or quiche, poppers, or brunches. More than once I shud-dered awake in that crack of time between middle of the night and dawn, thinking over and over, But Haitians don’t brunch, as if I could make sense of things.
Those were the days when you died real fast and there was nothing, at least in bed, that Vinnie had done that I hadn’t done, too.” This one is intense in the read.
The “Epilogue,” from Misha’s voice, is the recounting of a ferryboat journey to dump Louie’s—Misha’s and Ivan’s father’s—ashes halfway between Brooklyn and Staten Island, the location Louie’s friend, Leo, has insisted upon. Misha wonders: “Is the number of stars in the universe equal to the number of minutes in a person’s life? In Louie’s? Or the number of seconds? Or maybe it’s the number of times Papa’s eyes blinked?  The number is as important to me as Leo’s halfway mark between here and there. I want to capture Louie’s life before he leaves me forever. Is that selfish? Then I am selfish. I am filled with selfish.  He was my father, not Ivan’s. He was mine alone! And my friend, not Leo’s, not Estelle’s. More selfish. Maybe selfish is okay when your father is dead. When it sinks in, finally.”
Please understand the snippets I’ve given you are wholly inadequate to a full appreciation of what Alenyikov has done here. I hark back to Borges. Perhaps, finally, what Alenyikov intended was a reasonable quest to map the unmapable; a striving to get to the bottom of that illusive labyrinth of ourselves. It that was his intent, he succeeded…magically.    
Reviewed by George Seaton

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