Monthly Archives: February 2012

A New Normal – William Neale (MLR Press)

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I know you’ll be shocked by this admission, but I’m not a hot, chiseled, tattooed, hairy-chested Marine. Nor, at my age, do I have any hope of attaining that goal. But don’t I deserve love too? According to the brace of romances I’ve read lately, I’m out of luck. But the guys in William Neale’s A New Normal are far more fortunate.





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Major Jake Vincenzo knows his nineteen-year-old son Mark is gay and in love with Cade, and that’s okay. Jake’s gay too. And in love with Cade as well. When Mark is unable to immediately attend a camping trip Jake has promised both the boys, he goes with Cade and confessions are made. Once Mark arrives, things get difficult, but that’s not the only difficulty Cade will encounter. His family doesn’t approve of either his choice of education or choice of mate.

I tried hard to like these people, I really did. But they’re soooooo perfect—perfect hearts, perfect bodies, perfect minds, perfect tattoos, perfect actions (even under difficult circumstances). Flaws are the building blocks of characters, and working through or overcoming them is what generates dramatic tension, making a static piece dynamic. These characters have none of the imperfections that provide for a commonality with the reader, rendering them unrealistic. Even when his love for his son’s best friend becomes intolerably apparent, Jake does the right thing. Always the right thing.

The structure of the book is also problematic. Neale spends so much time at the idyllic cabin in the woods letting us watch the boys frolic in the lake as Marine Dad cooks perfect meals that the set up for the ending is ignored, resulting in a rushed, anxious climax that would have been far more effective if built to with slow, deliberate tension. We know that Cade’s religious mother is a nutcase not because we see it, but because he tells us so. We should be allowed to discover this earlier for ourselves and let that simmer on the back burner so that the actions she takes at the end seem more an extension of her character rather than a plot device to move us towards a conclusion.

But Neale can certainly paint a pretty picture. The cabin in the woods is idyllic for a reason, and Neale really nails a fine sense of place in these passages. His dialogue is also realistic, if a bit altruistic at times—but that only fits. These people wouldn’t ever be anything else but.

I would love to see these characters twenty years on, when Mark and Cade are just beginning their forties and, perhaps, regretting swearing permanent devotion when they were nineteen. Would they feel the same way about each other? And how would Jake handle twenty years of frustration and “settling” for an old love when he could have taken his son’s man back in the day? Now, that would have been interesting.

Instead of so damn perfect.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Half Pass – Astrid Amara (Samhain Publishing)

Buy it now direct from Samhain Publishing.

Depth and subtlety in character are both essential for
romances—indeed, for any story worth reading. Who can care about a caricature?
And if I don’t care about a character, what’s the point in reading about him?
Even worse is when you see unexplored potential, and that’s what made Astrid
Amara’s Half Pass so tough to get through.

Recently unemployed Paul King has inherited Serenity Stables
from his late aunt. His plan is to turn it around quickly, make a bucket-load of
cash and go back to his old life in San Francisco. But the broken down property
is a tough sell, so he’s stuck mucking out stables and wishing he were
somewhere else—until Olympic horse trainer Estevan Souza comes to town to work
with Tux, a million-dollar horse and Serenity Stables’ last salvation. But when
Tux vanishes, Paul and Estevan are forced to put their heads together to solve
the mystery. And build a relationship.

The main problem here isn’t so much the predictable plot or
telegraphed solution as it is the broad strokes with which these characters are
painted. That’s a particular shame in the case of Paul, who has so much
potential—a stable owner with a horse phobia who loved his aunt but loathed her
business. Estevan is merely a dark, mysterious, closeted figure. We get no
sense of why he’s in love with Paul. He just is. Paul’s helpers around the
stables are just that—helpers. We don’t know why they stay or what makes them

But the broadest strokes of all are saved for Paul’s cousin
Collin, who also lives in a house on the property. His first words to Paul (and
the reader) are “Hello, fucker.” When you start a character out that angry, you
can’t ratchet him up a few notches when the occasion calls for it. He becomes,
once again, a caricature of hatred with some hastily scribbled explanatory
notes as to the reason for their emnity.

I also found the lack of a sense of place a bit disturbing.
There is no more picturesque place than a stable, and this one seems nearly
antiseptic. It’s supposed to take place in Washington, drenched in the beauty
of the Pacific Northwest. But that doesn’t come through on the page.

That said, if you’re looking for a quick, undemanding read,
you could do worse. The equestrian angle is interesting and if you haven’t read
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short story, “Silver Blaze,” the
mystery might even hold some surprises for you. The sex scene even works pretty
well. But if you’re into motivation, dramatic tension, dynamic characters, and
a setting that works…

…ride on, my friend. Ride on.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Detours – Jeffrey Ricker (Bold Strokes Books)

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There’s nothing I love more than blending and melding genres
to create something unique, and I really admire those authors who have the
creative guts to do so. Jeffrey Ricker has invented a wonderful debut in Detours—part
ghost story, part road trip, part romance, but entirely witty, irreverent and

Joel Patterson meets Philip while vacationing in London, but
their beginning is interrupted by the ending of Joel’s mother, who suddenly
dies of cancer. He quits his job in order to fulfill his mother’s last request
to take the RV she and his father have never used cross country to an old
family friend. Complicating factors? Joel’s high school friend, Lincoln, who
invites himself along for the ride, not to mention his mother’s ghost—and for a
dead woman, she has a lot to say.

Mashing these genres together should be difficult, but
Ricker makes it look like a breeze. This is, in large part, due to his
wonderful characters. Joel is hopelessly confused about life and love, but he’s
so damn winning that you find yourself rooting for him from the get-go. And you
know he’ll resolve his problems in spite of himself. It’s Mom who steals the
show, however. By turns caustic and caring, she dispenses her indespensible
advice as freely as her ethereal right grants her.

But as charming as those characters are, I found myself
drawn to Joel’s father, who must rebuild his own life in much the same way Joel
needs to, without the advantage of having a love offstage waiting for his cue.
Poor guy gets the dog, Dudley, instead. Come to think of it, that’s not a bad

The only character I found less than fulfilling was Philip,
who makes an appearance at the beginning and then not again until the ending
draws near. I understand the plot difficulties in bringing him in sooner, but I
wish we’d gotten to spend more time together. However, that’s of little concern
with such great scenes as Joel visiting his mother’s friends (and her romantic
rival) Sylvia and Gerald. These high comic pieces are hysterical relief from
the ineffable weirdness that is Lincoln, who may be good in bed but is lousy in

Detours is a great read from start to finish, full of
delightful twists and inventive turns that lead you to a heart-tugging destination
with no GPS required.

Just get on and ride. 

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Traveling Light – Lloyd A. Meeker (MLR Press)

Buy it now from MLR Press
I wasn’t sure what to expect from a book which bills itself as a “shamanistic mystery”—those two concepts go together about as well as chocolate cake and grape juice. The only thing I was sure of was that the book would either be perfectly wonderful or devestatingly inept. Thankfully, Lloyd A. Meeker’s Traveling Light is closer to the former rather than the latter.  
Hospice nurse and shaman-in-training Ian McCandless is visiting his family when his brother is killed in a convenience store holdup and dies in McCandless’ arms. Against the advice of his tutor, Ang, McCandless struggles to complete his training while using his ability to walk between the worlds to gain information about his brother’s killer. But his success in melding these two goals is complicated when he falls in love with a spirit from another time whose murder is imminent. 
If you have even a casual interest in shamanism, Traveling Light offers just the right amount of information—enough to ground you in the spirit world but not weigh you down philosophically. You get a good sense of why McCandless may not be able to reconcile his two journeys and what compromises he must make to bend those roads towards the same destination. 
Meeker’s sense of pacing is dead on. Neither the real life nor spirit world portions drag—both have crisp dramatic tension and dynamic characters. The sometimes testy relationship between McCandless and Ang provide for some exciting exchanges. Ang is a particularly interesting character. Meeker has wisely eschewed painting him as a sage fount of wisdom—though he is that—who speaks in stereotypical aphorisms and epigrams. He is a spiritual master with some very human flaws; a welcome relief from the way this sort of character is usually presented. 
McCandless is also intriguing—eager to become a shaman but equally as ready to break the rules he knows he must follow. I wish more had been made of his relationship with Sam, the non-believing boyfriend. There was a lot more dramatic potential there than the affair with the spirit man, even though that would have had a major effect on the plot and its resolution. 
Meeker’s prose is strong and sure—not overdressed, especially in the spirit world. But that plainness in description is necessary to, again, ground the reader and make that world concrete enough so that we can suspend disbelief. His dialogue is a bit stiff at times, coming off as more lecture than conversation, but that sometimes happens when complicated concepts are presented. That, perhaps, is the trickiest ball of all Meeker juggles here. 
Traveling Light is a great combination of spirit walking and murder mystery with some fine moments and a totally satisfying ending. A sure bet for a cold winter evening. 
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Something Like Summer – Jay Bell (Jay Bell Books)

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Nothing is more important to a novel than its structure. Without the proper frame, the best characters and the most interesting plot won’t hang together correctly. The end result might be readable but will ultimately make the reader feel askew—as if something’s not quite right. That’s one of the problems with Jay Bell’s Something Like Summer.

Ben Bentley meets handsome, athletic, funny, absolutely perfect Tim Wyman in high school, enduring mixed signals, family difficulties and the usual spate of problems before they finally achieve a (nearly) idyllic existence. Until they’re discovered. Zoom forward a few years and Ben is again in love with Jace—until Tim re-enters the picture.

Half the book is devoted to those teenage years (and the teenagers already behave, think and speak like twenty-five year olds), then we skip ahead three years for approximately a hundred pages then a short thirty pages to the epilogue five years away. As the characters never seem like teenagers, their transition to adulthood is less than believable. As good a writer as Bell is (and he does indeed have a way with dialogue and plotting), he does not make this work.

The logical conclusion that the reader comes to when Tim re-enters Ben’s life is that Ben will have to make a choice between the perfect boyfriend of his adulthood and the perfect boyfriend of his recently departed teen years. That would be lovely, allowing an opportunity for Ben to grow through making a decision. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens. One of the points of this triangle is eliminated, effectively rendering Ben’s choice a moot point. He’ll have to settle for one perfect boyfriend. Even worse, this is done in less than ten pages. Then an epilogue, and bang we’re done.

The ending is horridly, noticably rushed—enough to negate 260 odd pages of stewing, angst and internal monologue—as if the novel began its life as a YA piece, then grew too large and needed to be lopped off quickly before it got to the 300 page mark. Perhaps a better idea would have been to slice those teen years in half, and use that room to deepen the characters as well as lay some foundation for the ending. The result would have been smoother, with less reader frustration approaching the last page.

The good points? Bell, as stated before, does well with dialogue and plots nicely. Ben, if not a convincing teenager, is a well-developed character as is Tim. The relationship they find as “teenagers” is realistic and drawn with well-observed details. Ben’s best friend Allison is also interesting, especially her relationship with her father. But I felt so cheated by the ending that I really had to think before I remembered what I liked about the book.

So if you’re a forgiving, astute reader, you’ll find something to like in Something Like Summer, and perhaps you won’t even feel frustrated with it. If you’re a writer, however, use this as a cautionary tale. With an unhappy ending.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Every Time I Think of You – Jim Provenzano (CreateSpace)

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Due to one thing or another, I find myself reading a great
deal of gay romances lately—largely because I have so many of them they’re
falling off my shelf. And, although I know it’s a function of the genre, I’m
finding them very…um…heteronormative. This isn’t a dealbreaker in and of
itself, but the last couple I’ve read are YA, intensely focused on the joys of
monogamous relationships and permanent bonds formed during teen years. Such is
the case with Jim Provenzano’s Every Time I Think of You.

Reid Conniff is a high school track runner who falls for
rich kid Everett Forrester—funny, smart, and apparently captivated by Reid.
Their relationship is idyllic, with Forrester’s moneyed parents the only flies
in the ointment. However, their bonds are tested when Forrester is injured in a
freak lacrosse accident which leaves him wheelchair bound, perhaps for the rest
of his life.

Provenzano’s teens—and this is a big problem for me with
some YA—speak, reason and act very much like thirty-year-olds. This speaks
volumes in terms of Reid’s obligation to Everett. Is it realistic that a 17
year old boy can have that singularity of purpose, that level of commitment, to
another 17 year old boy? Among adults, it seems much more likely than with this
age bracket. 

But this is fiction, you say. Shut up and enjoy the story.
And I did. Very much. Provenzano’s characters are rich and complex. Reid’s
parents are a bit quick to accept his relationship with Everett, but Forrester’s
folks are stand-offish and suspicious enough to provide the tension.
Provenzano’s sense of pace and plotting are dead on, so things never drag, and
his prose is straightforward and never showy. It’s a well-told tale whose aim
to inform as well as entertain certainly hits the mark.

Still, there is a small voice in my head that tells me Reid
should question his commitment and not embrace it so fully without some angst,
some internal discussion about how this relationship will shape the rest of his
life. As it is, Everett questions this end of things more than does Reid. If
I’m to buy into this, give me a reason. Give me a character trait expressed
elsewhere as evidence that Reid sees himself as a caretaker.

Despite these misgivings, Every Time I Think of You
is an interesting, heartfelt read whose HEA ending doesn’t cloy. If I want
realism, I guess I’ll have to watch “Real Housewives of Scranton.”

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Holy Rollers – Rob Byrnes (Bold Strokes Books)

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I know Rob Byrnes from the annual Saints and Sinners conference in New Orleans and have found him to be a smart, witty conversationalist—you know, the kind of guy with his tongue tucked firmly in one cheek and a martini olive in the other. But I had not read any of his books. I was looking forward to Holy Rollers, which not only met but exceeded my expectations.

In this insanely funny caper novel, Grant Lambert and Chase LaMarca, small-time crooks as well as life partners, hear about seven million dollars of tithes in a safe located deep within the walls of The Virginia Cathedral of Love, a mega-church run by one Oscar Hurley and one Dennis Merribaugh. Lambert and LaMarca gather a motley assortment of gay and lesbian crooks, choose a covenant-controlled suburban manse for a hideout and proceed to make their seven-million dollar dreams come true. Complicating factors include an ex-gay conference, an FBI investigation, a corrupt congressman and his gay aide, a twink with a penchant for see-through shirts, and a “Christianized” version of The Sound of Music.

As wildly divergent as these plot elements are, Byrnes makes them work brilliantly together. Religious right-wingers are an easy target for satire, but Byrnes’ shots are never cheap. One of my favorite bits is about Hurley’s office desk, a monstrously ugly piece of furniture fashioned from cypress, cedar and pine (the woods used in making the True Cross) called—naturally—The Desk of Christ, complete with a worn spot touched by parishoners to be closer to Christ. Can’t you see that in Newt’s office? But even the Desk of Christ has a role to play in the heist.

Byrnes works the plot angles for all he’s worth, milking laughs from the most unlikely of sources, and even his minor characters have bits of brilliance. My favorite is Tish Fielding, their nosy, Nazi-like neighbor in Old Stone Fence Posts Estates, who worships the covenants of the HOA like the parishoners do the huge stone (or, rather, concrete) cross outside the Virginia Cathedral of Love.

Laughs aside, Byrnes has a keen sense of pacing, a sharp eye for telling character details, and a great talent for the set-up. He builds a solid foundation of suspense, always placing that Holy Grail just outside the reach of his crooks and snatching it away whenever they get too close. Do they actually get the seven million? Well, yes. And no. I can’t say more for fear of spoiling Byrnes’ wonderfully written finale.

Holy Rollers is a laugh-out-loud, pee-your-pants funny caper story that will have you seeking out his other efforts as soon as you finish this. And smiling long after the last page has been turned.

© 2012, Jerry L. Wheeler

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Hot Head – Damon Suede (Dreamspinner Press)

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Men in (and out of) uniforms have long been a staple of
erotic fantasies, but the 9/11 tragedy upped the ante and made firemen … ahem …
hot commodities, especially for calendars—each month a new, cut stud
wearing parts of his turnout gear and wielding a strategically placed axe.
Sure, it’s a cliché, but Damon Suede ups it yet again in his novel, Hot Head.

Griffin Muir is in love with his childhood best friend and
fellow firefighter Dante Anastagio but has had to repress his feelings due to
his failed marriage and their homophobic job. But when Dante runs into
financial difficulties and decides to do porn at the HotHead site for a few
extra dollars, Griff can’t keep from watching his j/o scene over and over. And when
Dante urges Griff to shoot a scene with him for even more money, a decision
must be made. Several, in fact.

The plot is somewhat predictable, but Suede’s writing makes
the going worthwhile. In particular, both Griff and Dante are complex,
interesting people—unsure of their own feelings but definite that they’re not
gay. Or are they? Each wrestles with his emotions in different ways. Dante acts
out and Griff internalizes. Either way, they make each other miserable even
though they can’t stay away. Their job forces them to interact as does Dante’s
family, who look on Griff as an adopted son.

At times, Griff’s misery and frustration gets a bit much,
but just when it starts to wear thin, Suede changes things up by focusing on
one of the two best minor characters in the book. First, there’s Alek, the
Russian émigré who runs HotHead. He’s a pornographer with a conscience and
knows what makes his website run smoothly. However, he treats his models with
an unexpected sense of humanity, becoming more of a surrogate father and
benefactor than an exploitative employer. Secondly, there’s Tommy—another
firefighter and family man who Griff sees participating in a rough alley fuck
outside a gay bar. Griff cannot see Tommy the same way after witnessing that
incident, and the events that force Tommy out of his closet also cause Griff to
begin his journey towards self-acceptance.

It would hardly be a spoiler to say that Suede gives the
reader the HEA ending he builds to, even though it’s carried on a bit too far
in the family dinner episode that closes the book. Part of me was totally
satisfied by the ending but another part wanted a resolution that was less than
perfect because life is pretty messy and things don’t always go as expected.
Either way, the journey is more important than the destination, and Suede has
fashioned a smartly written, deftly plotted romance that will make you smile.
And the sex scenes are definitely hot.

But what else would you expect from firefighters?

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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