Monday, October 25, 2010

Nerdvana, An anthology edited by Fred Towers

Reviewed by Victor J. Banis
Published by Star Books

4 ½ out of 5 stars

As a general rule, I don’t pick up books of hardcore erotica. That is not a judgmental thing—a few decades ago, I might have approached them with considerably more enthusiasm, but I am an old and well traveled bridge (in the words of a song from WWI, “tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching…”) beneath which a lot of water has passed and today those bodily parts and their various functions hold few erotic surprises for me.

On the other hand, the premise of this one—that the biggest sex organ is the brain—corresponds very closely to my own thinking. I have always found intelligence sexy. What’s more, looking at the list of contributors, I immediately spotted one of my favorite authors, Bryl Tyne, so I knew at worst I could count on at least one genuinely satisfying read.

My expectation was unduly pessimistic, however. What I found was a collection of stories in which, with the majority of them in any event, you could take out or water down the sex and still have some pretty good (if a bit lean) reading. And it is kind of sexy to see writers celebrating the nerds and the geeks, at least to my way of thinking. Hey, you may even recognize yourself. I did. I suspect a great many gay men were nerds as well—more, anyway, than were the hunks and the jocks, however fully they dominate the fictional scene. And to be honest, a slight young thing in spectacles and a ready blush has always been far more of a turn on for me than a football hero.
I’m not going to attempt to review each of the fifteen stories individually, but I would hate not to mention:
Exposed, by Bryl Tyne – yes, just as I expected from this writer, a well rounded and intriguing story, though I confess I’m not very up on computer games. Still, it seemed convincing to me, which is what a good author does, and Bryl does particularly well.

Gan Haatzmaut Yerushalayim by David Muller – I don’t think I’ve ever run across a gay story set in Jerusalem, so I had to give this one marks for that, at least. But it is quite creative apart from that, and the settings felt authentic. It reminded me very much, in fact, of some stories I’ve heard from a friend who has been there. His tales made me wish I could go, and so does this one. If it weren’t for all that tramp, tramp, tramping over the bridge.

A Night in Midgar by Augusta Li – more video games (you see, I really am a dinosaur) but in this instances two con attendees assume the roles of the warring characters, with steamy results. Sort of like if Batman and Robin went at it. Hmm, did they, or was that only in my dreams? If you had the same kinds of dreams, you’ll appreciate this one.

Hardboiled by Landon Dixon – another genuinely creative piece of erotica as the author takes the author in and out of various fantasies – sort of Walter Mitty on a double dose of Viagra. Stylistically very nice, and it does have a hard boiled voice to match the title.

The Bully on the Playground by Helen E.H. Madden – this seems at the start to be somewhat run of the mill, maybe in part because it’s the last story in the book and by then we’ve already come upon (oh, those puns do get away from me) a number of bullies, but the author has surprises in store, and the story goes off on a much darker track. The endings to erotic stories are generally pretty predictable, but this one is not.

That I singled out these few examples is not to suggest that the others in the collection are sub-par; they are not. There’s no pretense of high literature here, whatever that is (someone recently asked me to define “literary story” and the best I could come up with was “tiresome”) but these stories are vastly better than the old Tijuana Bibles that I knew in my salad days. The anthology as a whole is far meatier (another pun!) than your average collection of whack-off stories. Exactly how one will respond to this kind of thing really depends on what a reader is looking for in a book, but if that is plenty of sexy action with a genuine nod to story values and good writing, he will almost certainly be happy with this collection.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Big Diehl, The Road Home by George Seaton

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Publisher: MLR Press
Pages: 407

After six years of service to his country, during which he saw combat duty in Iraq, Big Diehl has received his discharge from the Army and is headed back to Wyoming. His only goal is to confront his father for the repeated molestations he suffered as a boy. But before he can even things with his old man, Diehl finds himself in the center of a homicide investigation and on the run from the law. When it looks like his “adopted” family in Casper can’t help him, he is comforted by a stray dog, who turns into a true friend. Can Diehl resolve his issues and pick up life where he left off six years earlier? Possibly, but that road home is a long one, with plenty of blind curves.

I happen to think that George Seaton is a very talented writer. I thoroughly enjoyed his first novel, Big Diehl. And although I liked this sequel, The Road Home, I had a number of issues with it, so I’ll get them out of the way up front.

The thing I was most surprised with, was the extensive back story. I expect a sequel to give some back story to set the scene and remind me of a few plot points of the previous work, but this back story droned on for over a hundred pages, recounting everything that happened in book one. Since I had read book one, I found the recap boring and unnecessary. Even for someone who had not read book one, this back story was, in my opinion, not needed, because the author gives plenty of back ground while he tells the current story.

This author has a wonderful and unique voice. His slow, country-twang voice alone puts the reader in the Wyoming territory. But I found myself getting annoyed at phrases that kept popping up over and over and over. I lost count of the times he mentioned “six years” and “tin house” Those and others felt like a mantra popping up every other page. At one point during a bar scene, the author used the term “tipped his drink to his lips” four times on four consecutive pages. These repeats pulled me out of the story each time I tripped over them. That, along with other minor issues with the text, made me think that the prose was not as polished as the original Big Diehl.

The last negative I’ll mention is that this story centers around a homicide, which brought a great deal of tension and suspense to the story, and was good. It really peaked my interest. Yet, I felt that the resolution to the crime came too early in the story and was too easily resolved. It left me slightly disappointed.

That all said, I can whole-heartedly recommend this book to all readers. As I’ve stated above, Seaton’s voice is a joy to read, and the story and characters kept me turning pages well into the night. This is a story about love, and family, and even the bond between humans and animals. There are so many touching scenes that are handled with consummate skill. The characters pull the reader into their issues, their hopes and desires, to the point where the reader is not sure how s/he wants the story to end. This is a worthwhile read for people who place integrity and family above everything else, but by all means, feel free to skip the first hundred pages.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Pelota By Sarah Black

Reviewed by Victor J. Banis
Published by Changeling Press
ISBN 978-1-59596-839-5

4 ½ stars out of 5
Sarah Black is one of my favorite writers, and like much of her writing, this one is about two young men from different cultures—in this case, Inuit and Basque. Oliver, though he is not Basque, is obsessed with all things Basque. Jack, Japanese American, is equally obsessed with all things Inuit, and neither of them quite fit into the societies in which they find themselves.
When the wreck of a Basque whaling ship is discovered in the arctic tundra, the two young men are separately sent to the isolated and now empty whaling camp of Red Bay in Labrador, to study, from their different points of expertise, the artifacts uncovered in the excavation.

They have the place to themselves and, at first, each convinced that his specialty is the more important, they quarrel over the primacy of Basque and Inuit culture. Did the Inuit game of handball come first, for example, or the Basque version, pelota? They challenge one another to a game, but in no time at all they have discovered a game they like even better, and an even more consuming passion, the pleasure to be found in one another’s bodies. With their growing love for one another comes a growing respect for the other’s point of view. Maybe Basque and Inuit do mix after all. Cultures aren’t meant to stand apart.

It is a sweet story, romantic and sometimes intense. The passions the two young men share seem to reflect the wildness of the setting in which they find themselves. The plot is minimal, but the characters likable and interesting. There’s a tendency to offer more information than a reader might want on the two disparate cultures, and here or there it felt to me like the author was in a hurry, but neither of these criticisms diminishes the pleasure of a good story, well told by an author who knows what she is about.

A fine way to while away an hour or so, and highly recommended.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Short Story Review: Tell Them Katy Did by Victor J. Banis

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by Untreed Reads Publishing
Pages: 9

A woman walks home in the early hours after sharing a few drinks at a lesbian bar. On her way, a sexy woman comes up and tells her there are five hoods following. They run and hide in a graveyard, narrowly escaping their pursuers. The woman who saved our heroine turns out to be Katy, but she disappears as quickly as she came out of nowhere. When our heroine visits another lesbian bar, trying to track down this mysterious savior, she finds an unbelievable story behind the woman.

This is a simple story, one that has been told in several different forms. The thing that makes this story immensely enjoyable is the quality of the writing. The author pulls you into the story by the third sentence, and keeps you there until the last word. A mere nine pages, but each page is packed with vivid descriptions and meaning. Every word counts. Remove one word, and the sentence is diminished. Take out one sentence, and the story’s structure falls apart. This is sparse writing at its best. With the fewest words possible, the author takes you on a most enjoyable ride.

I’ve said it before, Victor Banis is a master of short fiction. I can highly recommend this wonderfully-told yarn.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Wandering the Rainbow by David Jedeikin

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by Holistic Ideas Press
Pages: 304

After striking out in a “committed” relationship, a friendship, and a not so exciting system’s engineering job, David Jedeidin decides to put a little distance between him and his problems. He embarks on a seven-month solo trek around the world. What unfolds is an array of sites and experiences that spans six continents. Traveling as a flashpacker – backpacking with creature comforts – Jedeikin writes about tourist sites, back-alley hangouts, and hooking up in gay nightclubs.

From Big Ben in London, to Table Top in Cape Town, to the ruins at Machu Picchu, Jedeikin’s travels detail everything human in a dozen different cultures. In addition to describing the sites and delving into local hangouts, this travel log gives a very real glimpse of the sometimes lonely, sometimes mind-expanding journey that a lone traveler must face.

The first thing that struck me about this book is the high quality of the writing. The prose is light and breezy, and carries the reader along effortlessly. The superb writing is how this travel log managed to keep my interest all the way to the last page.

As an example of his writing, check out this description of Cairo: “I stare out at the monstrous city, a liquid expanse of lights stretching to the horizon, and ponder the paradox: on the one hand, the cafes, street life, and urban chemistry make it one of the most exciting places on Earth – in many respects, it could be London, Paris or New York with a cultural and climatic twist. And yet…it’s hobbled, a great beast weakened by time and circumstance. Economically the country has been stagnant for decades. It feels as if Cairo is just lying in wait for Egypt to rise again, so it may once more take its place as one of the great centers of the world.”

Jedeikin did a nice balance of describing the sites and blending in his personal experience of dealing with people in foreign cultures. But what I found almost totally missing was the inner journey. Being away from friends and family, dealing with foreign tongues, laws and customs is hard-ass, lonely work. A person goes through radical changes, or should to my way of thinking. But there were only a few places in the book where the author opened up and talked about this inner journey, and how that affected his outlook on the problems he left behind. I was left wondering if the journey didn’t really change him, or if he chose to not discuss those changes with the reader.

Likewise, the author didn’t spend a of lot print giving insights into the local people, their outlook or issues in the world. It was as if he were more concerned about what sites he was seeing rather than the people around him. When he did talk about other people, many of them were Western backpackers like himself, which I didn’t find particularly interesting.

Having twice traveled similar around-the-world journeys myself, one for six months and one for eight, there were few destinations that the author mentions that I have not spent time in – Russia and South America – so I was able to get a pretty clear view of how deeply he delves into the culture at each location. My opinion is that although this book covers an extremely wide range of destinations, it only goes a few inches deep in any one of them. Of course, for Jedeikin to have gone into depth at each spot, the book would have been well over a thousand pages. So perhaps he hit a nice balance to keep the reader entertained.

My enjoyment of Wander The Rainbow is based on a simple and ancient premise: That the experience of other travelers is our best map to a strange land. Jedeikin’s stories will delight you, warn you, make you laugh, perhaps even shock you. He describes a spectrum of adventures that will deepen your understanding of different cultures and enrich your sense of what it means to be human. This is a book I can highly recommend to anyone who dreams of distant lands.