Whistling in the Dark by Tamara Allen Monday, Apr 6 2009 

whistlingWhistling in the Dark
Tamara Allen
Publisher: Lethe Press
ISBN-10 1590210492
ISBN-13 978-1590210499
see publisher’s website for buy links lethepressbooks.com
Available in print & electronic

I’m a sucker for any book about music and musicians, and a sucker for a well-written book about gay men, and a sucker for anything in the era 1890-1930. And Whistling in the Dark gave me all three. Tamara Allen made a convincing New York on the cusp of Prohibition, and has created characters the reader comes to know and care about.

Jack Bailey is cynical, unapologetically homosexual, smart-assed, a little bit flamboyant at times, quick-tempered, prone to drinking and gambling and borrowing money from questionable sources. And beneath the bluster and the Attitude, he has been wounded psychologically by double tragedies: service in France in WWI and the influenza death of his beloved parents before he returns home. If the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder had been invented then, it would certainly apply to Jack. Jack isn’t a musician, except in a ham-handed sort of way, but he believes with his whole heart in the future of technology, in his case in the magic of wire and tubes called radio. He is determined to keep his parents’ business going, a mom-and-pop store of oddities and imports, (including a live crocodile named Woodrow) but has no head for business. What he has a head for is getting into trouble with the law, loan sharks, and potential bootleggers.

Sutton Albright is also a young veteran damaged by life. He had it all: good looks, wealth, adoring and indulgent parents and he grew up in the Midwest, far from the corruption of the Big City. A gifted concert pianist with a brilliant future, a war injury took away. He lights in New York, rootless, futureless, unable to go home. On first returning home he enrolled in a university only to become involved with a male teacher and finding himself expelled. He has no way of explaining that to his parents, no way of explaining that he is a “pervert.” (The word “gay” has not, at this time, gained common usage in that context.

Sutton is mistakenly caught up in a police sweep of a public park and jailed over night. There he first meets Jack. Friendship eventually becomes more, and that, plus Jack’s devotion to developing radio and Suttons’ hesitant resumption of playing the piano, combine to make this a compelling story. Rather than go further with a plot synopsis (I’m awful at them), let me just tell that you will enjoy this book if you enjoy stories of “opposites attracted” to each other. Here are two damaged young men who find each other, sometimes irritated and a little quarrelsome, sometimes tender and loving. Eventually comes the time when Jack has to face an unhappy choice that could lead to a new life for Sutton.

The supporting characters are very well done, individualistic without being overpowering, and most of them are Jack’s friends, eventually becoming Sutton’s friends as well. I especially liked Ox, who was big, and shy, and often mistaken for being slow. I felt there might be just the tiniest bit of stereotyping in some of Jack’s gay club friends; they reminded me a little of the “bitchy queens” in the film “The Boys In the Band.” But the characters in Whistling in the Dark aren’t as annoying.

It’s an outstanding debut novel and I’m sure Allen has many more just waiting to be written. Highly recommended.

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Gus the Great & other circus stories I enjoy Friday, Oct 17 2008 

Gus the Great by Thomas W. Duncan, a historical novel about a circus, is one of my favorite books of all time. I see that there are used copies available, most of them pretty cheap, on Amazon. It’s been long out of print, but it’s well worth the time and trouble to find it:

I first read Gus the Great more than 40 years ago. I have since read it many, many times. It sits on my shelf with age-tanned paper, a ragged cover, and a broken spine. I handle it reverently. The character of Gus is unforgettable–with his fast-talking flim-flam, his bulk, his complete and utter belief in himself and his PT Barnum outlook. Gus breaks hearts and swindles men with equal aplomb and yet there is something poignantly lovable about Gus. Through it all there is the circus, like a character in itself. Every character is vivid, and when the big cat trainer meets his appointed end you feel it was justly deserved. I was delighted to see this book available on Amazon. I would like to see many people fall in love with this book the way I did. Anyone who likes Water For Elephants or circus books in general, will love Gus the Great. It would make a great film.

Another circus book still available is The Catch Trap by Marion Zimmer Bradley. It’s the love story of two male trapeze artists, Tommy and Mario, in the 1940’s and ’50’s. Beautifully written, as are all of Bradley’s books, it’s also exciting, compassionate, and vivid.

A third one, also available inexpensively on Amazon, is a little self-published book called Circus Buffoon by Danny Chapman. The book is set in the more modern-day circus. The writing itself is naively amateurish, almost endearingly so, and the plot is rather “Greatest-Show-On-Earth”-ish, but because the author is a former circus clown in real life he brings wonderful reality to the details. It would be neat if a real editor and publisher would work with him and republish it professionally. There are used copies available cheap on Amazon.

I hope if any of you read any of these books you’ll let me know your thoughts on them.

P.S. — I’d like to add that my own book, The Phoenix, has a section in the last half wherein the main character joins the circus. It’s not a long part of the story but it’s fun.

VIENNA DOLOROSA by Mykola Dementiuk–Porn or Brilliance? Monday, Sep 8 2008 

Vienna Dolorosa

By Mykola Dementiuk

Synergy Press 2007

256 pages including Cast of Characters and Glossary

 

I’ve lived all my life in Tornado Alley. Hundreds of times I’ve felt the heavy oppression of motionless air, watched greenish-black clouds pile up on the horizon, and known that something terrible, beyond my control, was developing. Vienna Dolorosa levied the same sense of foreboding.

 

The story takes place in a single day in 1938, at various locations in Vienna on the last day before the Nazi takeover.  The majority of the action occurs in the Hotel Redl, a down-at-heels hotel saved from complete failure by the advent of an intriguing, intelligent creature named Friska Bielinska. But Friska is not quite what she appears to be, and neither is the Hotel Redl. The Redl has tourist rooms but it also has a secret: it’s a brothel for men who like boys dressed as girls.

 

The story is told through the denizens of the hotel/brothel. These people include a brown-shirted Nazi official who becomes the victim of the most hideously vicious attack you will ever read, something for which I was as unprepared as he was. There is a street urchin named Petya who is a survivor of poverty and abuse, who sells himself to live. Petya is clever, tough, and surprisingly sweet. Another is a buxom hotel maid who likes women though she delights in teasing men. Others are: the owner of the hotel, an aging dandy, and a Jewish tourist couple. Most of all there is Friska.

 

Friska is slim, attractive, and feminine in her manners and attire. Adversity in her own life has made her compassionate, someone who cares about people, whether they are customers or her boy/girls. And she is a he. Friska is referred to throughout as “she” because, as we would say today, she identifies as a woman. If the story had been set in the 21st century instead of 1938 I suspect the author would have made her transgendered instead of a transvestite.

 

Most of the action is appallingly brutal, and much of it is carried out either by Nazis or with the approval of Nazi officials, including the arrest and horrific punishment of one of their own caught with another man. The villains are monstrous but identifiably human—the policemen carrying out punishments, the SS, the soldiers, the citizens who turn upon anyone who is or appears to be different, or who simply has angered them for some reason. The major players are complex, especially the noble-spirited Friska, and Petya, whom you want to rescue and protect. 

 

Vienna Dolorosa has been denounced as pornographic, but pornography is intended to titillate and arouse; anybody who gets aroused by the events in Vienna Dolorosa has a serious problem. It’s true there is an overwhelming amount of graphic sex and graphic violence of every description but each incident builds the story brick by horrifying brick. It is said that truth is in the eye of the beholder; the author puts faces on the faceless victims of violence and forces you to behold. There are no funny, fat, stupid Sgt. Schultzes among Dementiuk’s Nazis, and no happy endings.

 

The narration is very good, written with a wonderful eye for detail. Sometimes it is intrusive and takes the reader out of the moment (on the other hand, perhaps that is a kindness!)  However, except for the intrusiveness, I find the historic narration to be a clear and passionate commentary on one momentous 24-hour period and what led to it.

 

I have only a few quibbles, which are as follow.

 

The characters of the incestuous father and pregnant teenage daughter are extraneous. They didn’t really add anything to the story that I could see, and they clogged an already large cast.

 

Two situations struck a jarring chord. The gang-raped woman has orgasms with each rapist and her reaction and movements afterward are unrealistic. The same applies to the young girl who gives birth. Though the birth and death of her baby are dreadful in its graphicness, the follow-up is unrealistic and unconvincing. Rape is traumatic, physically and mentally. Childbirth is painful for grown women, let alone a simpleminded young girl who doesn’t understand what is happening. Yet other than superficially, neither the young woman who was raped nor the victimized girl seem to be much affected once it’s over.

 

I also feel that Kurt’s ultimate fate, about halfway through the story, goes way over the line of gratuitous violence. In my opinion the horror could have been effectively stopped with the surgical scene, which was sickening enough. The story didn’t need the additional assault, which stopped my reading for several days. (I won’t detail more than that because I don’t want to create a spoiler.)

 

I recommend Vienna Dolorosa with the following caveats. DON’T read this book if you have a weak stomach, are faint of heart, or are offended by ‘alternate lifestyles’. DON’T read it if you are looking for escapism because there is no escape in this book, not for the characters and not for the reader. On the other hand, if you can read historical accounts of hatred, genocide, and atrocities, if you want to read a brilliant and extremely disturbing book, you should read Vienna Dolorosa.  Just take it in short doses.

 

To buy the book go to www.ViennaDolorosa.com 

Vienna Dolorosa will soon be available on Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SNOW MOON RISING — Historical, Holocaust Fiction Wednesday, May 28 2008 

My apologies for the funky appearance of this and a couple of other posts. There is a bug somewhere and I’m a bit frustrated. As soon as I get the bugs worked out there will be more reviews from myself and special contributors. Meanwhile…enjoy the post and have a giggle at my formatting.

SNOW MOON RISING

By Lori L. Lake

Publisher: Regal Crest Enterprises

ISBN 1932300503

With SNOW MOON RISING author Lori L. Lake has created something rare: a boldly written, meticulously researched book that will take your soul, wring it dry, make you cry, and make you think. 

SNOW MOON RISING covers seventy years in the life of Mischka Gallo, a Polish Roma (Gypsy), from the free but hard life of the traveling caravan through the manmade hell of a Nazi work camp, to life as a refugee in New York without even a name that is her own, to coming together with her one true love in middle age.
SNOW MOON RISING is masterful, a word I do not use lightly. The story recreates the world of the Roma, who were among the forgotten victims of the Holocaust.

The author has structured the book in a “bookend” style, which goes back and forth between 1989 and the years between and during the two world wars. The “bookend” structure diminishes some of the suspense, but it lets the reader make it through the horrible things that happen because you know that Mischka survives.


The book begins with Mischka, at eighty, talking to fifteen-year-old Tobar, her grandson in every way except biologically. Tobar is a typical American teenager who is unhappy about his life and hates his name. Then Mischka draws him into the story about his name and his heritage. It is a story Tobar–and the reader–will never forget.

Though Lori Lake is well known among readers of Lesbian books for her “Gun” series, this story of human vitality and courage will win her a legion of new fans.

 

 

 

AWAY — Historical Fiction, Jewish Fiction Tuesday, May 27 2008 

Away: A Novel

By Amy Bloom

Publisher: Random House, 2007

ISBN: 1400063566

“Away” by Amy Bloom is a modern classic. It is the Odyssey, with the part of Odysseus played by Lillian Leyb, a young Russian Jew in the 1920’s. In her little village of Turov her mother, father, husband, and, presumably, her toddler daughter, Sophie, are slaughtered in a Pogrom. Unwilling to admit Sophie’s death she searches frantically only to be told by a neighbor that she had seen the little girl in the river.

 With nothing left to remain in Russia for, Lillian begins a heart-rending journey that takes her from Russia to New York City to Alaska. She does what she has to do to survive in this strange new world, where she doesn’t understand the language or the customs. Survival isn’t always pretty. A joyful day comes that she is told Sophie is alive,  rescued by villagers who fled with her to Siberia. Lillian leaves New York instantly, to find her daughter even though it means crossing the United States with just the clothes on her back and maps given her by an old Jew who secretly loves her. The maps point the way to Alaska, the Bering Strait, and Siberia. She walks. She walks through mud, snow, mosquitoes, filth, and violence into love with a lonely man. When she becomes lost in a snowstorm he goes into the blizzard to search for her and Lillian loses once again.

 This is a story of a mother’s love, of the indomitable courage of a young woman who didn’t set out to be a hero, of determination in the face of the impossible. There is love in this book but no romance. Lillian deals with reality, from having her small store of money stolen early on, to being filthy and crawling with head lice, her feet blistered and  blackened. “Yes,” you will think,  “this is exactly what it would be like to walk, owning nothing, helped by no one, from New York to Alaska.” And you will wonder every step of the way, will she achieve the unachievable and find her little daughter? Will she ever know peace and love?

 A personal note: The style of writing in this novel is somewhat different from the average fiction, and breaks rules not usually broken by authors. Personally, I think she pulls it off. Judging from the split rankings on Amazon not everyone agrees with me. I would be very interested to see comments from other readers.

 I can’t recommend this book highly enough. This was my first Amy Bloom book; it won’t be the last.

 

 

Water For Elephants–historical fiction, Great Depression fiction Friday, May 23 2008 

Water For Elephants

By Sara Gruen

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

ISBN: 1565124995

 

Water For Elephants is a remarkable accomplishment, a wonderful book with colorful, unforgettable characters. It is by turns heartwarming, heartbreaking, exciting, and horrifying—with an ending that took me by surprise. I enjoy circus stories and have read several, none as good as this one (with the exception of Gus the Great). If you’re old enough to remember the film The Greatest Show on Earth, this is it but without the slick DeMille romanticism. Water for Elephants is raw and realistic, one man’s life in a circus and in a nursing home.

 

One of the most remarkable things is not even the circus part of the story. It’s the nursing home part of the story. The author appears to be fairly young, several decades too young to know what it feels like to be elderly, what it’s like to know you are failing physically, and afraid you’re failing mentally, what it’s like to remember when you were young and know you will never be young again. And yet… she very convincingly shows you the heart and mind of this feisty old man. One of the best historical novels I have ever read. I wish I had written it.