Category: GLBT Reviews

Review: WEATHERING THE STORM by Caitlin Ricci

Weathering the StormWeathering the Storm (Young Adult gay romance) by Caitlin Ricci

Harmony Ink Press

It took me awhile to pick this book up because I just didn’t care for the look of the model on the cover – not fair, I know, but I do think covers are a factor. And after I started reading, I realized that the model looked nothing like the actual character in the story—we’re told on p 43 that Robbie Messana has flaming red hair, and it’s his brothers who are brunets. Whoops!

I didn’t feel drawn into the universe, either – the obvious bully of a father, and the downtrodden narrator making excuses for his abuser. This, though, was a great bit of characterization. It sets up the primary conflict neatly, and I suspect for many younger readers it mirrors the built-in conflicts of adolescence. At first, the reader can’t be sure if Robbie is just having a pity party or his father’s a mean jerk.

That’s cleared up pretty fast. Robbie’s father really is a cruel, resentful man who takes out his anger at his wife on two of their kids. He manages to make what ought to be an ideal life for a horse-loving kid into a regimented drudge. It’s all work and no play, and while Robbie’s older brother is a carbon copy of his father, the younger boys are constant targets who get no praise and all criticism.

Things go from bad to worse very quickly when his wife apologizes to her sons and walks out on Dan Messana. It was difficult to think highly of her, because if she had not realized that her middle son was her husband’s favorite object of abuse she wasn’t very good at protecting her kids, and she didn’t make any attempt to take any of them with her.

After a couple more disasters, Messana Senior loses his job (most likely due to his anger management issues) and takes the three boys (Daniel Jr., Robbie, and Ben, the youngest) to live with his brother-in-law, Caleb, while he looks for another trainer job. For apparently the first time in his life, Robbie gets a look at normal family life, and quickly makes friends with the only other kid his age on his uncle’s ranch. This story is a romance, so it’s not much of a surprise when Robbie and Sam form a friendship based on their mutual love of horses and the isolated situation.

No spoilers here. We get a satisfying HEA, but you have to read it and find out for yourself.

It has the added diversity of being an interracial romance, and I liked the fact that the only person who has any Ace Katzenbooks continued problems with that is Robbie’s father.

I have a couple of minor criticisms: One is that the bad guy is very, very bad and the good guys are very, very good. Not much nuance to these characters, though since we see them all through the eyes of a couple of teenagers, that does fit the way kids often see adults. Also, I do wish the author had let Robbie – in first-person narration – describe Sam when they first meet, because the first clue we have that he’s African-American is when Robbie meets Sam’s mother. Since Messana is racist, it’s not likely that Robbie would have had the chance to get to know any kids of other races as friends and I think he would mention that. It’s a fairly minor point, except that Messana’s racism is what pushes Uncle Caleb’s easy-going nature to the point where he has to lay down the law and that precipitates a very satisfying resolution.

This is a book I’d recommend to anyone looking for a gift for a gay youngster – or, really, any kid who likes horses. Four pawprints! (in this case, maybe hoofprints…)

Review provided by Ace Katzenbooks for the June 2015 issue of The Book Breeze.

Review: THE LONELY WAR by Alan Chin

The Lonely WarThe Lonely War by Alan Chin

DSP Publications

This novel won 4 well-deserved Rainbow Awards when it was released in 2010. It is the story of Andrew Waters, son of an American oil executive and a Vietnamese woman (Vietnam was then called Indochina) who is educated by Buddhist monks and wishes to join the temple. After Pearl Harbor, he is ordered by his father to join the US Navy – and in Asian tradition, he must obey.

It’s hard to express my admiration for what Alan Chin has accomplished without going overboard—pun intentional. There is amazing scholarship in this story – sleeping arrangements aboard American ships in the tropics, survival tricks for turning a stomach-turning source of protein into vital nourishment, simple explanations, shorn of patriotic arrogance, of the balance of powers that led to the war in the Pacific. It all serves as a swirling background tapestry for the story of a soul’s journey from a temple to a minor naval ship to a POW camp, through opium addiction in occupied Japan, and finally to peace.

There’s a hint of the old TV series Kung Fu in this tale—the basic scenario of a young Buddhist man of mixed racial parentage thrown into conflict, the occasional flashback to give context to a situation. But the similarity ends there. Andrew is no martial arts master, confidently in control. Instead, his soul journey takes him from a still center and into turmoil that tears him apart, never realizing that his one constant virtue, his care for others over his own welfare, never alters. And his life comes full circle when he fulfills a promise to a dead lover, then finds that instead of being the one suffering from unrequited love, he can relieve another man’s longing.

I’ve got nothing to criticize except the proof-reader who left vile for vial and dribble for drivel. The Navajo put an intentional error in every work of art—maybe these were done on purpose.

This is the most beautiful book I’ve read in a very long time. It is magnificent.

Read it.

Review provided by Ace Katzenbooks for the June 2015 issue of The Book Breeze.

Review: KINDRED SPIRITS by Alicia Dyal

Kindred SpiritsKindred Spirits by Alicia Dyal

Dreamspinner Press (April 2015) 49 pages / GLBT Romance

This novella has two appealing main characters, one of them a chunky, hardworking bear of a small-town bar owner, the other (the narrator), a sophisticated city bartender with a controlling mother and a load of guilt. These two meet in spring when Mike, the bar owner, is in Chicago on a business trip and happens to drop into the bar where Casey works. There’s instant chemistry, but on his way to Mike’s hotel room after work, Casey gets the devastating news of his brother Brandon’s sudden death and rushes off without calling Mike to let him know.

Fast forward to autumn: Casey is living in the wreck of a house Brandon wanted to rehab, trying to work off his guilt at not spending enough time with his brother when he had the chance. Ms. Dyal captures the painful emotions of loss very well, and Casey’s obsessive guilt is very convincing. His desperation at running out of money and the need for a job are completely believable, and – since this is a romance – I can accept that the bar Mike owns happens to be in the small town where Brandon lived. (They had to get back together somehow, after all.) I can see that Mike has a similar situation with guilt and obligation because he’s lost his dad and has had to take over the family business. Clearly, the story is about two men helping each other break free of old baggage. And the sex, when it finally happens – the building anticipation is very well-done – is steamy and affectionate.

But … The story feels rushed from the point that they reunite. There are improbabilities all along, starting with the idea that a man of 23 would answer a call from his mother on his way to a romantic encounter with the first guy who’s had such a strong effect on him. Since he was already in the lobby of Mike’s hotel, it made no sense that he would not even leave a message at the desk before taking off to deal with his brother’s death. (He tells Mike later that he had no way to reach him, which was a bald-faced lie and I was surprised Mike didn’t call him on it.) We never do find out what happened to Brandon, except that it involved a hardware store and an accident. A critical episode like that needed just a little more explanation.

The situation with Brandon’s house doesn’t make sense, either. The author states the Brandon put in enormous amounts of time on the place, but when Casey gets there it has only a microwave and intermittent plumbing, and even though he has poured his life savings into the place, when the story picks up again it doesn’t sound as though his time and money have fixed anything at all, His mother, who is a doctor, doesn’t seem to recognize that Casey is suffering from depression and probably needs an intervention. Instead, she cuts off support.

Then Casey goes to look for a job, and reunites with Mike … and the storyline goes south. Casey apologizes for standing Mike up, they click perfectly, all difficulties fall aside, tough problems resolve themselves instantly, a big stubborn bear who has been resisting good advice from people he trusts suddenly turns compliant when someone he barely knows says the same thing—and a rep from the notoriously difficult music industry hands over the keys to the magic pumpkin because Mike doesn’t want to do the touring that music promotion requires. It’s too much, too fast, too easy, and I felt shortchanged because the characterization was really good and I wanted a story with more substance.

I’d like to give this more paws, and if the author had taken the time to flesh out the potential of this scenario, I think it would have been a much better read. Five stars for sensuality, and for portraying a plus-size gentleman as sexy and attractive, but the pacing just does not work for me. For a reader who only wants to get to the clinch, okay, but I do wish Alicia Dyal had given this storyline time to develop more fully. Just as I was getting to know the characters and really wanted to see them tackle Brandon’s wreck of a house and the difficulties of juggling a music career and a bar and really getting to know each other, they have some lovely hot sex, pack up Billy Bass—and that’s all, folks.

Good characters, excellent scene-setting, but I think this author could have done better.

This review was provided by Ace Katzenbooks for the May 2015 issue of The Book Breeze.

Review: RAY OF SUNLIGHT by Brynn Stein

Ray of SunshineRay of Sunlight by Brynn Stein

GLBT YA, coming-of-age, romance Harmony Ink Press (March 2015) / 180 pages

Warning: Possible spoilers

I didn’t expect to like this book. When you know at the start that it’s a romance between a Juvie offender and a kid with terminal cancer, and when the first-person main character sounds like a brat from the first page, it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm.

But I`m glad I kept reading. Brynn Stein surprised me. Russ, the violent kid who starts out whining about being forced to do community service after injuring his stepbrother, begins to calm down once he`s out of the Ace Katzenbooks house and in a bigger world with sane, compassionate adults. He develops into a young man whose empathy is sparked by contact with much younger kids whose lives have been plagued by much harder problems – severe burns, neurological disorders, cancer. And, naturally, one of the young patients, CJ, is a boy near Russ`s own age. CJ’s history is even worse—and, sadly, true to life—but who spends what energy he has acting as a clown to entertain the little kids.

It doesn’t take long to see that Russ is not exaggerating about his difficult home life. His homophobic mother and bullying stepfather are as nasty a pair as ever stumbled out of the Westboro Baptist cult. The saving grace in the family is Russ`s step-brother Pete, an unexpected ally.

The narration bothered me at first because the narrator’s vocabulary did not sound like a kid who had trouble in English class—but that is eventually explained because it’s the character speaking in retrospective, as a young adult. And that makes all the sense in the world, because there is no happy ever after for this pair, and after CJ`s death it probably would take Russ a few years before he could tell the story.

I`m giving this four paws – it`s very good, and high marks for including a character who is living with massive disability, but I think all of Russ`s school problems resolve just a little too simply.

Definitely a fine book for young people, and not a bad one for adults, either.

This review was provided by Ace Katzenbooks for the May 2015 issue of The Book Breeze.

Review: DAYS OF LOVE: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time

Days of LoveDays of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time by Elisa Rolle Published July 2014

This book, a compilation of Elisa Rolle’s blog entries over a period of several years, is a work that belongs in every college and university that has a Gender Studies or Queer Studies program. If I were wealthy, I’d order copies for every public library in America.

Elisa is well-known by gay authors and fans of gay romance for her reviews and film listings – I have found things on her blog that I’ve seen nowhere else – but I think that this book will outlive her and serve as a lasting resource for anyone who wants to get a sense of the scope of gay history. T

hat may make this book sound dry and academic. It is anything but. This is a wonderful collection of love stories, sometimes joyful, sometimes tragic, always real. For those of us who came out after Stonewall, Days gives a glimpse of how tough things were for those who came before. For our elders, who lived through it, I hope it gives the recognition that is their due.

If I were doing by-the-number scores, I would give this ten catnip toys out of a possible … 5.

It is just that good.

Reviewed by Ace Katzenbooks for the April 2015 issue of The Book Breeze.

Review: WALK A MILE by Sarah Madison

Walk a MileWalk a Mile by Sarah Madison

Dreamspinner Press (October 2014) Gay romance/suspense/sci-fi

My standard of a good series is whether the story arc makes sense no matter where you start. I can see, with Walk A Mile, that I would have preferred to start with the first book, but even though I do want to go back and read the first one, this one still makes sense. The reader gets sufficient backstory to understand what’s going on, but not so much that the story bogs down.

Not that the story is likely to bog down, when the first scene throws our two heroes, FBI agents Jerry Parker and John Flynn, into an airborne standoff with a would-be hijacker determined to kill everyone aboard the plane. We get a pretty good sense of the relationship between them by the time they have overcome the threat and gone through the bureaucratic gauntlet that follows. And the real story hasn’t even started yet.

When I first read the synopsis I thought this might be an old reworked X-files fanfic. If it is – or if the idea came from X-files – it’s one of those good ones that surpasses the original series. Flynn may have some issues in common with Fox Muldur, but he’s a lot more likeable. And Parker, while as smart as Scully, makes a few cringe-inducing mistakes out of good intentions and a desire to help Flynn get past some personal problems.

Flynn has one great big problem, too: contact with an alien artifact (in the previous book) has turned him telepathic, and there’s no ‘off’ switch—only coping techniques that help reduce the mental chatter. Having a partner who is also his lover and willing to watch his back has probably kept him out of a psych ward, but they need to find out what happened and how to reverse it. Unfortunately, the artifact was stolen, leaving no clues as to who now possesses it. This story is about the agents’ search for a second artifact that has appeared in Flynn’s old stomping grounds, the Washington DC area.

Ms. Madison throws several surprises at the reader, and the first one hits you when they find the extraterrestrial McGuffin. Hinting that Parker gets an idea of what Flynn has to deal with from his telepathic “gift” is about as much as I can say without creating a huge spoiler.

And… then, things get complicated. It’s a wild ride that ends with the final resolution of a tragedy that has tormented Flynn for all his adult life, a satisfying takedown of a disgusting bully… and yet another twist that leaves both men with a better understanding of each other but another set of hurdles to overcome.

I enjoyed this story a lot, partly because of the sudden surprises and partly because Sarah Madison writes like an adult with some experience of how painful and complicated relationships can be. Parker makes some mistakes, but his well-intentioned mistakes do force Flynn to face and finally resolve some issues from his past that he has been hiding from for years. This author also has an interesting take on how much of a person’s “self” is that elusive thing called a soul, and how much is a quality of the physical body and the fall of the DNA dice. The medical tone is good, too—no cheap, tv-style serious injury followed by immediate recovery. When these guys get hurt, it takes time to heal. Also under the “adult” label—in case anyone was wondering—the sex is steamy and just right. It doesn’t get in the way of the story but you know these two are really hot for each other. Best of all, an uncharacteristically kinky episode is seen not just as kink, but a symptom of an emotional issue. I don’t see that very often and I really enjoyed the way Ms. Madison handled it.

I’d have given this story all five paws-up except for two things: Parker seems to be very careless about sharing extremely personal, private information via online chat with a person he has apparently never met in person. I have to assume that as a Fed, his communication is coded to infinity and beyond, but I also think the FBI would monitor his laptop, so his openness with her is kind of unlikely. (It is possible that the first book explained this seeming lapse of security.) Also, I had expected the “alien artifact” to be explained within this story, and it is not, which hints that the following books are going to be a major Easter Egg hunt for more of the things. That was actually disappointing, because I had hoped that they would resolve the problem and move on to other cases. I would have wanted to read the next book anyway – and I want to go back and read the first one.

4.5 paws up for Walk a Mile!

Reviewed by Ace Katzenbooks for the April 2015 issue of The Book Breeze.

March GLBT Reviews

GIFTS NOT YET GIVEN AND OTHER TALES OF THE HOLIDAYS by Kergan Edwards-Stout GiftsGivenPicPublisher: Circumspect Press Pages: 186

Kergan Edwards-Stout has complied a collection of fourteen short stories all centered around different holidays. Yet, these stories are not about holidays, but about turning points in character’s lives, where the emotions and magic of the holidays push these characters past those turning points. These are tales of personal awakenings, where dreams are achieved, hope is found, life is cherished. Many are touching, others sad.

Like all short-story anthologies, I found this work a bit of a mixed bag, connecting with some stories, some characters, and not others. I felt the author’s talent shown brightest with Glenbourne, Il, where a woman, Sarah, struggles to gain acceptance from her in-laws. And in The Old Rugged Cross where a mother leaves her home in Alabama to be near her son in L.A. I found these characters genuine, and their stories thought provoking.

The author’s prose is well-paced and beautifully written, yet I often felt there was simply too much telling, as apposed to showing, and I also found the author’s habit of head-hopping a bit distracting. As much as I enjoyed each of these stories, I feel that this collection does not live up to the promise that this talented author exhibited so eloquently in his first novel, Songs For The New Depression. Still, this anthology is a worthwhile read.  (Reviewed by Alan Chin)

THE QUEERLING by Austin Gary Publisher: Deckle Press (2013) Pages: 256 Preston Nesbitt became the QueerlingPicstar of a controversial YouTube video gone viral, yet because he has no memory of participating in the video, he’s been confined to a Portland, Oregon mental hospital. Preston is a precocious, eccentric, sixteen year old, who has the ability to diagnose everybody’s psychological condition but his own. The story is told through Preston’s journal entries, where he hopes to convince his doctor and parents that he is not delusional.

Through Preston’s writings, the reader finds that he is a savant with a rare form of Asperger’s, who rails against society’s wrongs. Much of this story seems like Holden Caulfield meets One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, yet it has a delightful turn of events that leads to a reality-bending conclusion.

This enchanting tale introduces one of the most complex, interesting, and amusing characters I’ve read in years. Preston Nesbitt, as a fictional character, is nothing short of brilliant. He is cocky, irritating, too clever, egotistical and rude, yet he touches your heart. He blends humor, deep-set emotions, and unique insights to conjure up a mesmerizing read. While telling his own inner conflicts, Preston lays out the backstory of his dysfunctional parents, and also showcases the pack of memorable misfit peers who are also on his mental ward. The author uses contrast, Preston against the other characters, to brilliantly show the protagonist’s virtues. This esoteric novel is a captivating delight, first page to last. Funny, thought-provoking, unnerving. Bravo.  (Reviewed by Alan Chin)

 

IN DISCRETION by Reesa Herberth   Riptide Publishing (Dec 2013)   Pages: 89   Genre: M/M Sci-FI   Score: 3In Discretion

Book description: Thanson Nez thought his career as a Discretionary would take him to the stars, not strand him on a space station.  Thanks to his last client, he’s carrying a secret he can’t get rid of fast enough. Already desperate for help, he runs into yet more trouble: his ex, and an explosion that paralyzes the station moments after their uncomfortable reunion.

 Kazra Ferdow, Station 43’s communications officer, is almost as blindsided by the return of his first love as he is by the sudden loss of power and life support. The station is a floating graveyard in the making, and something is turning its inhabitants into savage killers. Fighting human monsters and damaged tech, Kazra and Thanson must put aside their past long enough to try to save everyone.

It’s a familiar tale of secrets on a stranded space station.  I found the storytelling rather dry and matter of fact. I don’t feel the need to warn you off the story but it was not one of my favorites.  (Reviewed by Donna Keihle)

 

CIRCUIT THEORY by Reya Starck   Riptide Publishing (July 2012)   Pages: 43   Genre: M/M Fantasy Romance   Score: 5Circuit Theory

Book description: Dante and Byron are avatars. Driven by human beings, yet still only digital representations of their ideal selves. In reality, they live far apart, but share most of their waking and working hours together in a virtual world called Synth.

In Synth, like in most code, the laws are infinitely more simple and infinitely more complex. Navigating the system rules of virtual lovers is like steering through a minefield of deceit, suspicion, heartbreak, and half-truths.

 Under pressure, Dante makes a friendship that trips Byron’s warning bells, disrupting their carefully-ordered lives and calling into question the wisdom of trusting your heart to a man you can never touch in the flesh.

This is one of the most unique stories I’ve read.  In very few pages the author brings us on the emotional journey of three individuals who find that even in a virtual world we can’t escape who we are.

This is a must read.  (Reviewed by Donna Keihle)

 

FRAGIL BOND by Rhi Etzweiler   Riptide Publishing (Feb 2013)   Genre: M/M Sci Fi   Pages: 149   Score: 5Fragil Bond

Book description: Sniper Sergeant Marc Staille and his trusty rifle, Mat, are on bodyguard duty at a mining operation on a backwater planet. The resource-rich valley is crawling with tawnies, the native dirt-colored predators that hunt in packs and kill as well with tooth and claw as Marc ever has with Mat.

Commander Hamm Orsonna, leader of the fefa clan, is determined to chase off the invading aliens by capturing one for Intel with an unexpected weapon: pheromones.

This is a story about relationships, about accepting individuals for who they are not what they are.

In the beginning the closest relationship Marc has is with his rifle. Once captured, we watch the relationship between Marc and Hamm develop.  Initially with the expected emotions of anger, distrust, fear but something else, something unexpected – lust.   As things change between Marc and Hamm it triggers tension between Hamm and his clan. Leadership is challenged.

The pacing kept me turning pages, and the characters drew me into the story. I recommend this book.  (Reviewed by Donna Keihle)