Tag Archives: queer romance

Best Gay Romance 2014 – Timothy J. Lambert and R.D. Cochrane, eds. (Cleis Press)

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I tend to shy from universal absolutes like “every fan of gay romance will love this anthology,” but hold on a moment while I ponder that.…Still thinking…Right. I’ve got nothing. Ergo, yes, I think every gay romance fan will want to add this to his or her TBR list.

I discovered some new favorite authors and found new facets to authors whose work I’ve enjoyed before. One complaint often lodged against romance anthologies is how each piece resembles the last. Not here, and that nice bonus is accentuated by skilled editorial flow.

The opening story is charming and light. “Strange Propositions” by Eric Gober lives up to its name. With relationship scenarios such as “May I invite you to a movie that I won’t be going to myself?” and “Would you like to go to a protest dressed as a chicken?” Gober has created a tale that will make readers smile while showing the importance of stepping out of one’s comfort zone.

Speaking of leaving behind what’s comfortable, sometimes the way to risk the utmost vulnerability is to offer a long overdue, heartfelt apology followed by a stammered appeal for a second chance. The job Rob Byrnes does showing the complexity of regret, apprehension, and longing in “Carver Comes Home” is remarkably moving and vivid to the point of being cinematic.

Description is again an incredible strength in “Sight” by Jordan Taylor. Here, the immense, hollow loss that is almost certainly experienced by anyone who has gone blind is tempered by a loving partner’s exceptional ability to verbally paint a picture.

Jameson Currier’s “My Adventures with Tom Sawyer” was another story written so beautifully, I kept thinking “I hope someone sends this to the O’Henry Prize anthology.” The intricate details were phenomenal and the overarching theme—allowing yourself the bliss of the present instead of clouding the moment with the disappointment that it won’t last forever—felt both touching and significant.

Thanks to the story “Hello Aloha” in Foolish Hearts and “Dandelions” in this volume, I’m now a fan of Tony Calvert. If ever a fictional character needed a reality show, it is the busybody mother of Calvert’s main character, Jim. The combination of quirky humor, homespun “wisdom,” and the protagonist’s introspection make this story a joy.

With “True in my Fashion” by Paul Brownsey, I’ve discovered another new favorite writer. Brownsey masterfully shows his character meticulously building and trapping himself in his own web of adorable neurosis. We learn here that sometimes a person’s flaws are what make him most endearing. That and how the main character tries to cover up those flaws are what make “True in My Fashion” one of the most charming stories I’ve read.

Each story deserves its own paragraph, but the equivalent of the Academy Award Orchestra is telling me to wrap it up.  However, I need to mention the smile-inducing characters and adorable dogs from Shawn Anniston and Alex Jeffers, the distilled essence of companionship from Kevin Langson and Georgina Li, new definitions of family and acceptance from Felice Picano and Lewis DeSimone, delightful moments captured in vignettes by James Booth and N.S. Benarek, and the beauty of seeing a long time love with brand new adoration from David Puterbaugh.

The editors, in their commentary, bring up concepts that can make romance work. First, likable protagonists who go out on a limb, taking risks that could leave them crushed. Second, likable “contagonists” or objects of affection readers will know are worthy of that risk. Third, devotion, understanding, or longing that makes the reader understand, on a gut level, that this is right—these guys want more than anything to spend their lifetimes making each other smile. Will you find those elements here in spades? Yes, yes, and yes.

Reviewed by Gavin Atlas

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Down in Cuba – Vincent Meis (Fallen Bros Press)

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When Down in Cuba begins, it’s been three years since Martin and Leo have seen each other. We know right away it’s over between them. Leo’s little girl Anabela remembers tío Martin from the photos that Leo has kept. She’s wearing clothes that Martin has sent as a present.

When the chronological story begins, Martin Vandenberg is a 46-year-old tenured professor at a small school in southern California. His academic specialty is Martí, Cuban intellectual, poet and hero of the Cuban War of Independence. Vandenberg has been married for over twenty years. He has a daughter he adores. Apparently he’s never questioned his relationship with his wife or his sexuality. In fact, he’s been running pretty much on autopilot for a long time.

When he receives a year’s sabbatical to write a book on Martí, he goes to Cuba to begin his research. On one of his first nights in Havana, he meets Leo, a handsome Cuban half his age. Leo blows the doors off the closet that Martin Vandenberg didn’t know he lived in.

In a declaration of passionate denial that many of us who married women will recognize, he declares, “You hear people talk about, you know, being in a closet. What does that mean? I never felt like I was in a closet. Leo is an attractive guy. I was drunk. I swear to God, this is not going to change my life.”

But it does. As it must.

Told in Martin’s nervous POV, Down in Cuba is a romantic tragedy in which flawed characters fail to get what they believe they want. Martin and Leo struggle within their cultural imperatives and mores, each wanting somehow to bridge the gulf between them. The silver lining to the tragedy is that they both find a truer life than they had when they met.

The book is structured in time-blocks arranged out of sequence, opening almost at the end. The intervening time-blocks are not flashbacks, but current-time episodes that will eventually give meaning to the beginning as well as the end.

While I’m not a fan of stories with reshuffled timelines, I appreciate that Meis chose this technique in support of the story. It creates a diffused ebb and flow in the relationship between Martin and Leo, keeping its fate ambiguous until all ambiguity is dispelled.

Martin is concerned that Leo is interested in him only for money or to escape Cuba. Ultimately, Leo proves the stronger, more honest and self-aware of the two. As capricious and self-centered as Martin believes Leo to be, Leo forces Martin into authenticity that he couldn’t have achieved without him. He forces Martin to come out—a gift far greater than anything Martin gives Leo.

Through Leo, Martin learns what week-to-week survival in Cuba requires: selling soap on the black market or raising roosters for fighting, befriending foreigners, easing frustration with rum and cigarettes.

Leo may be a good-hearted opportunist, but he is also an artist whose dark paintings reveal a haunted place in his soul. He is uncompromising and honest in his self-interest. He is scarred and tattooed. He is a wild being, full of passion.

One day in Old Havana, Martin and Leo make love standing at a window while a political rally fills the streets below them:

“Tell me what you hear, coño.” He sounded angry. I laughed. “Come on. You’re making me crazy. Stand up by the window. Look out. Look at the people. Look at the funny people on the street.” […]

“Look at the people. Look at my country,” he whispered, his mouth on my ear, the hot wisps of air tickling deep nerves. “All right,” he said. “Now. Do you feel it? Do you feel it? Look at the people. Can you see them? Come on. Look. Look. Look.”

Like a catalyst in a chemical reaction, Leo forces Martin to break open, but remains unchanged himself. He wields a frightening kind of integrity.

Down in Cuba is a gripping, thought-provoking, emotionally satisfying book. The characters are strong and fresh. The writing is immediate and unadorned, yet it creates a subtle, mercurial, even elusive, Cuba. It draws the reader into a collision of cultures that sheds a stern light on unexamined expectations of fairness, and attitudes that Americans like Martin might carry, such as presumption of a moral high ground that may not be warranted.

I urge you to read this book.

Reviewed by Lloyd A. Meeker

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Mind Fields – Dylan Madrid (Bold Strokes Books)

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Love can cure just about anything that’s wrong with your life, which is a lesson the most jaded among us should remember from time to time. That’s what keeps the whole genre of romance novels afloat. Sometimes those books are believable and sometimes not, but when the buy-in is there, the piece can pack a dangerous punch. And Dylan Madrid slugs it out with the best of them in Mind Fields.

Broke college student Adam Parsh is just beginning to realize what his best friend Victor Maldonado, who has been crushing on him for some time, means to him when he’s offered a tutoring position in the home of the ultra-rich, mega-sexy creep Dario Vassalo, a married Greek tycoon. But Parsh is not the first boytoy tutor he’s hired for his daughter Anastasia. Will Adam forsake paying the rent and follow his heart instead? Or will the temptation into riches become too great?

The answer isn’t as easy as you might think. Madrid is a savvy writer who throws a number of stumbling blocks in the way as Parsh makes his decision. Vassalo’s money has also enabled Parsh’s mother to get a promotion at the financial institution she works at because he throws a substantial financing project their way. Parsh’s maddeningly tentative relationship with Victor is another obstacle, as is his fondness for his charge Anastasia. In fact, all of the characters from Parsh’s mother right down to Vassalo’s wife, Evangelina, are so well-written and compelling they lift the somewhat standard plot high and force us to re-examine it in a new light. Victor’s vulnerability, in particular, is heartbreaking. Even Myrtle, the salty cabdriver who runs Parsh back and forth from his apartment to the mansion, gets a turn in the spotlight.

Parsh, however, is the star of the show and gets to expose all facets of his personality: his brash outer confidence as well as his soft, malleable center. He is, however, less flexible than anyone else here, serving to anchor the plot and be the shore the other characters crash against. Everyone else has a quirk. Parsh does not, and for this reason, he seems less interesting than the others on the surface. His shrewd observations, however, drive the plot and illuminate the personalities surrounding him. Vassalo is an able, perhaps even affable, villain. However, he turns effectively dark and threatening when menace is needed. The only ball which seems to have gotten dropped is Parsh’s roommate Stacey, a budding alcoholic who early on seemed to be adding to Parsh’s daily drama in a very real way but disappears almost entirely in the last third of the book.

But Mind Fields, thanks to Dylan Madrid’s skill, is more than the sum of its parts. He combines these discrete pieces into an extremely readable and altogether believable whole as energetic as it is entertaining.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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