Friday, October 30, 2009

Coin Operated Boy by Bryl R. Tyne

Reviewed by Kathy Kozakewich

Published by Noble Romance Publishing; October 2009

This is the latest of Bryl Tyne’s stories that I’ve bought and read and loved. In the short time since I discovered the stories of this wonderful writer, I’ve acquired them all. Bryl’s story-telling is fresh, vital and engaging and the characters are very real people... even if they’re not human. Case in point, Chal.

Although, to be fair, even as an android he has far more human characteristics than expected. His creator, Silk Pecatti, was an absolute genius when it came to robotics and in Chal all his talents came together to create an astounding whole. In fact Chal amazed even Silk once he found him again.

Chal... wow! This really is his story. Coin Operated Boy details his journey of discovery from nothingness to finally understanding the reason for his existence and his place in Silk’s life.

I was, by turns, amused, amazed and astounded and completely and totally engaged. Bryl delights in bringing an emotional self-discovery to the characters and we, who follow along, are not only entertained but find for ourselves a nugget of truth in our lives.

Well done Bryl... and keep the stories coming. As long as you write ‘em, I’ll buy ‘em!


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hidden Conflict: Tales From Voices Lost in Battle

An Anthology of Four Novellas

Reviewed by Victor J. Bannis

Blurb: Hidden Conflict presents four novellas that tell the experiences of gay military men, their families and friends, during times of conflict and war. Each story presents a unique voice at a distinct time in history.

A terrific quartet of beautifully realized stories exploring hidden loves and secret desires, set against backdrops of war and violence. And, as the blurb says, each told in unique voices.

Mark R. Probst's Not to Reason Why is set in 1876, on the eve of the massacre at Little Big Horn. Corporal Brett Price and his best friend, Sergeant Dermot Kerrigan are both a part of Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry as it rides to a fateful rendezvous with rebellious Sioux forces. Brett is in love with the happily married Dermot, but the hardships of their journey bring them even closer together, until finally Brett confesses his love and is rewarded with a single kiss before they engage in one of the most grisly battles in American history. There's not much suspense, since we all know where this is headed, but Probst compensates with vivid descriptions and apt dialogue: "Haven't you ever noticed," Brett muses, "how these things are reported in the newspapers? When we win they say it‘s a victory, but when they win they say it‘s a massacre?" The battle scenes are horrific indeed, but even more painful is the picture the author paints of Brett's not altogether requited love. Yes, he and Dermot are best friends. Yes, Brett gets a kiss, just one. And, yes, Dermot loves Brett too, but not in the same way. A loving friendship may be harder to endure than the absence of love altogether. A little love is like an arrow to the heart of one who pines.

The two men in Jordan Taylor's No Darkness don't even progress to the kiss, though their awareness of the possibility, and ours, is palpable. The setting here is 1915, during World War I, on the Western Front. In a tale worthy of Poe, an enemy shelling leaves Lieutenant Darnell and Private Fisher trapped and injured in the root cellar of a farmhouse. Injured and struggling to survive their stygian tomb, they two men pass the time exchanging stories of their upbringing and trying, with almost certain futility, to find some means of escape. Here the theme of love is poignant and muted. A growing closeness suggests the possibility of physical sharing, but their backgrounds and their injuries – and ultimately the military conflict - conspire against it. The possibility of their love is smothered in darkness. Excellent characterizations.

E. N. Holland's Our One and Only begins in 1944, with World War II, but spans forty years and is told in decade long segments. Here it is not only the love between Eddie Fiske and Philip Cormier that is hidden, but more tellingly, the pain that Philip must endure alone when Eddie is killed in battle. Philip carries his memories of Eddie in his heart until at length he finds the one person with whom he can share it. Despite the tone of gravity throughout, the story ends on a surprisingly upbeat and very satisfying note. Here, plot triumphs over character, but the result is a beautifully encapsulated story of one man's lonely life and a loss that informs it decade after decade. How difficult it is to shut everyone, even those closest to us, out of our hearts. And how little those in our lives really know us, though they may believe that they know us well. The author clearly understands the burden of pain long borne.

I finished Alex Beecroft's Blessed Isle (set in 1790, the British Age of Sail) convinced that she is some kind of sea witch, who had kept me in thrall from the first word onward. Although hers is the first story chronologically in the book, I've saved it till last because, notwithstanding the uniformly excellent work from the other contributors, I personally feel this one is the jewel in a very splendid crown.

I don't want to spoil a convoluted story by giving away too many of the details, but as just one example, a storm at sea is evoked with such splendid terror I felt as lashed by the wind and the rain and as sour with fear as the hapless sailors. Scarcely less stormy is the love that gradually develops between. Harry Thompson, Captain of The Banshee, and his Lieutenant, Garnet Littleton, both of them brilliantly evoked. The author uses the conceit of alternating entries in a journal, thus allowing herself the intimacy of a first person point of view, and the elbow room of a second POV as well.

Let it be said her story is not without its faults. A penchant for historical accuracy veers dangerously close a time or two to pedantry. And I feel downright churlish in mentioning the sometimes less than seaworthy plot. Like an old tub set adrift, it bobbles and weaves and leaks, and threatens a time or two to sink under the weight of its own contrivance. I should also add, however, that this is not unlike those 18th and 19th century novels of which the author is obviously a fan. Happily, her splendid prose is an ocean wind that blows everything before it, in the end bringing our vessel to the safety of the harbor. There are simply very few writers in any genre who can write this well.

I recommend this anthology heartily, and Blessed Isle with special enthusiasm, if only so that readers can see with what power words can be wielded.

Ebook from Bristlecone Pine Press at
Print book from Cheyenne Publishing at

Murder on Camac By Joseph R.G. DeMarco

Reviewed by Victor J. Banis
Lethe Press, 2009

This is a terrific read, and a bit of a departure from your typical gay mystery novel, in that while the story is set in the present, at its heart is another, decades old, mystery – did dark elements within the church assassinate Pope John Paul the first? So, then, consider this the kind of book Dan Brown might write, if Mr. Brown were just a little more gifted as a writer – and of course, supposing Mr. Brown wrote gay mysteries.

Therein, however, lies a problem for me. Because like Dan Brown's novels, this one is primarily plot driven rather than character driven, and anyone familiar with my writing history is surely aware of my bias in favor of character driven. How then do I write the unbiased and glowing review this book deserves, without turning what is meant to be about this individual work into a dissertation on the differences between the two?

Hmm. Well, for starters, I have to make clear that I refer only to my own personal bias, and that in reality, neither approach is necessarily and inherently better than the other. Yes, literary fiction will almost inevitably be character driven. Macbeth, as a prime example, is entirely about the fatal flaws in the characters of Mister and Missus Macbeth. Only have him say to her early on, "You know, hon, I don't think I'm all that keen on being king," and the story's over.

So, character driven is superior, right? No, not so fast there, Bucky. It's a rare and probably misguided author who doesn't give at least passing attention to the marketplace, and to a very great extent, plot driven fiction rules in the commercial arena. Not just Dan Brown's books, either, though it's kind of hard not to notice them. I would venture to say that at any given time, many – probably most – of the novels on the best seller lists are plot driven. This is in part because there are a great many readers who don't care a fig for enlightenment or coming to terms with themselves when they read, they want a story that keeps them turning the pages to see what happens next – and here, in general, is where plot driven fiction excels. Plot driven writers more often than not tell terrific stories. That is, after all, what they are focused on.
And before I leave this subject, about which entire books could be written, I should certainly say that the two often merge, as they do here, to some extent. In writing, as in life, things are not often altogether black and white.

Which brings me back to Murder on Camac (and none too soon, some of you are thinking). I said at the beginning, this is a terrific read, not the least for the pleasure of its intricate and solidly constructed plot (okay, I am surely entitled to just the slightest nip of sour grapes, since I could never do this.) The author has done a masterful job of weaving together two separate mysteries, that possible papal murder years earlier and the shooting death of a writer (the police think a mugging gone awry) said to be writing a book which will prove that past murder. Detective Marco Fontana is asked by the dead writer's partner to investigate the shooting and in no time he finds himself ensnared in a web of deceit and violence that threatens to add him to the bodies accumulating.

There's plenty of fast paced action, the tempo picking up nicely as the pages turn. I give high marks for pacing, a gift which seems to elude a great many writers, some of whose names often grace the best seller lists. And, let it be said, an essential element in plot driven fiction if you're going to keep those readers turning the pages. Too often, alas, in character driven fiction, there simply is no pacing. You can grow old waiting for anything to happen in a Barbara Vine novel, as one example.

There's a generous sprinkling of humor here to lighten things up just when the tension becomes horrific. The author has a gift for the pithy phrase and while some of the secondary characters remain insubstantial, the principles are all deftly brought to life (the fact that a book is not character driven does not mean it can't have viable characters.) The protagonist, Marco Fontana, is particularly engaging.

The author has an especially keen eye for his settings. If you've ever been to Philadelphia, you'll recognize it in an instant. If you haven't, you'll feel as if you've been there, smack dab on the cobblestone streets, by the time you finish reading.

Oh, there's a secondary thread running through the story: our detective also manages a line of male strippers. Yes, this business does sometimes get in the way, but not so as a lot of folks are going to mind.

The burning truth of the novel, though, is the inseparability of past and present, and the inevitability of your sins catching up with you. Time erases neither our mistakes nor our misdeeds. We may think we have put them aside, have left them safely behind, but they are always just outside the door of present consciousness, the sleeping demons, and who can ever know when they will awaken once again to bring us grief? For evil, there must ultimately be atonement. Our lapsed Catholic detective Marco Fontana retains far more of his childhood's faith than he cares to realize, and he's a far better character for it. And this reaching for the higher truth, not always a feature of plot driven fiction, elevates Murder on Camac to a higher level as well.

All in all, this is a stellar effort that will leave readers eagerly awaiting the next book in what should prove to be a popular series.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

M4M by Rick R. Reed

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler
(Published by Amber Quill Press)

I’m always on the side of an artist who steps out and tries something different. That kind of experimentation refreshes both the artist and his audence, whether or not the attempt is totally successful. But in his first go at erotic romance, M4M, horror author Rick R. Reed doesn’t have to worry about his success rate.

M4M is comprised of two novellas previously published in electronic form – “VGL Male Seeks Same” and “NEG UB2” – both featuring Dorito-chomping theatre publicist Ethan Schwartz and his newly-found boyfriend Brian. In the first installment, Ethan snags Brian after a bumpy Internet interlude where he uses a much handsomer pic to sell himself. Craigslist anyone? I wouldn’t be spoiling the read to say it all comes out fine in the end.

It’s the second piece that stands the book on its head. Ethan, not exactly a sexual adventurer, finds himself diagnosed HIV-positive with only one possible way he could have caught the disease – new boyfriend Brian. Or is it? Can Ethan and Brian overcome this breach of trust to continue their relationship or will their new love go out with Monday’s trash? If I told you, that would be the spoiler.

I particularly liked the parallelism between the two novellas, plot-wise (both plots turn on Internet twists) and stylistically. They even start out with the same sentence pattern – “Ethan White was alone.” and “Ethan White was stunned.” with both plots serving to remedy those conditions. And Reed is a powerful writer, creating two multi-faceted characters you’ll be happy to meet.

The tone, however, is different in the second novella. The first is light and breezy, but the second is much darker as befits the subject. Ethan is still the same 1940’s-movie-loving romantic, but his sense of romance has been injured by Brian’s perceived betrayal. This shift in tone is what lifts M4M from standard – albeit well-done – romance fare into a realm where the characters are allowed to grow and change.

M4M isn’t the roller-coaster ride Rick R. Reed fans are used to, but instead turns out to be a refreshing change of pace that shows his versatility and his talent for making us cry as well as scream.

Find out more at

Monday, October 5, 2009

Island Song by Alan Chin

Island Song

By Alan Chin
Zumaya Boundless, 2008

Reviewed by Victor J. Banis

When it was first suggested to me that I write something for a blog site on forgotten or neglected works ( ), my mind went quite awhirl. Crime, she suggested? Oh, the choices available. Who, today, other than the occasional scholar, has read James M. Cain's Serenade, though in many ways it is his best work? But the very field of crime novels (perhaps the most American of all literary genres) conjures up so many delicious possibilities, so many reads permeated by Chandler's "scent of fear." Hammet's The Glass Key, perhaps? Is that really his "least interesting work," as some have suggested, or, as others have described it, "his most accessible?"

But wait. Not necessarily a crime story, I was told, which opens a still wider door. What of Maugham's The Summing Up, surely an elegant (if, as it turned out, several years premature) coda to the remarkable life of a man who still today remains an enigma. Or Forster's Maurice, whose essence is the mystery of one's own nature, and truly remarkable for having been written in 1914, so far ahead of its day that it dared not be published until 1971?

In the end, though, and not without great mulling about, I chose what might be considered, length notwithstanding, a "small" book, one which has not been around long enough to be described as forgotten, though I do think it has been unjustly neglected. Nor is it quite a crime story, though there are crimes in it. Violent crimes, yes, but more significantly, in my opinion, crimes against love, which surely ought to be heinous enough for any reader.

Alan Chin's Island Song is, for want of a better description, a love story, but it is so outside the boundaries usually pertinent to that genre that I fear I am starting off on the wrong foot by labeling it so. It could also be described as a "gay novel," but I don't think that label is any more appropriate, either. It is a novel about love, but of many sorts and of many aspects, and some of that love occurs between two men, but this is truly not the thrust of the story, only one element of it.

The novel begins on an eerie metaphysical note. An ancient Hawaiian shaman, known to everyone only as "Grandfather," and his grandson, Songoree, come to a small island in the middle of the night to perform a mystical ceremony, summoning the ancient island Gods, Kane and Pele. "Bring forth the Speaker," the old man chants. "Bring forth the Speaker."
The story's focus shifts to Garret Davidson. Two years after the AIDS related death of his lover in San Francisco, Davidson comes to Hawaii to write a book about his lost love. He wants only to be alone in the beach shack he has rented, to stare out at the endless ocean and heal his wounded spirit.

He has rented the shack, however, from Grandfather, who sends Songoree to serve as Davidson's housekeeper and man-of-all trades. At first, a bitter Davidson resists Song's ministrations, but the old Kahuna has his own plans for these two and in time they become entwined in an extraordinary relationship, a relationship increasingly resented by Song's surfer friends. Violence follows, vicious and sudden, like the bite of a great white shark.

Island Song is not only about the love that gradually grows between Song and Davidson, however. There is as well a profound love between grandfather and grandson; the love that both of them have for their island traditions; the love of friends. Even the all-sacrificing love of a dog for his human partner. Most especially there is a love of nature, and of the mystical.
Wafting through it all, like the tropical breeze rustling the leaves of the palm trees, is the author's love for his idyllic island setting and for the interconnectedness that he sees lying beneath the surface of all existence: "All things begin within the density of silence."

Alan Chin has penned an uplifting read that transports one not only to Hawaii, but ultimately and far more importantly to the island that lies within, the island of the heart. What the author would have us understand is that it is on this island where the wounded and the unhappy—and isn't that at one time or another each of us—will find the healing, the peace, they seek. This is its song.

A beautiful book. The real crime here would be in not reading it.

Victor J. Banis is the author of more than 160 published works in a career spanning nearly half a century. He has been called the "godfather of modern popular gay fiction" (Thomas Long, PhD). Learn more at

Learn more about Island Song and Alan Chin at: