ISLAND SONG by Alan Chin Thursday, Jul 16 2009 

Island Song

ISLAND SONG by Alan Chin

Publisher: Zumaya Publications, LLC (September 8, 2008)
ISBN-10: 1934841021
ISBN-13: 978-1934841020

Alan Chin’s Island Song is many things: exotic, spiritual, lyrical, and lovely. The author’s visual touch when he word-paints a scene in Hawaii is so lush as to almost overwhelm the senses. I have a soft spot for books that are beautifully written but which do more than entertain; they actually teach the reader something. Island Song does this. And does it in such a way that it’s unobtrusive, as when Song, the beautiful young Hawaiian, explains to Garrett the interconnectedness of all life.

The first chapter is one of the most evocative I have read for a long time. An old man chants a plea to the island gods, and as he does the young man with him sees something eerie and frightening, something that may not be there, and he feels brushed by an all-encompassing Power. The old man is called Grandfather by all, and is the spiritual leader of the island. The young man is Songoree, destined for and being trained to walk the same path Grandfather has taken, to take his place eventually. In the same way other faiths have waited for promised leaders, they are waiting the being called the Speaker. He is to be what St. Paul was to Christians. Who he is, where he may come from, whether he is young or old, no one knows. Grandfather just knows that he will come.

In the meantime, Garrett Davidson, a Californian who has never recovered emotionally from the AIDS-related death of Marc, his life-partner, is seeking a place where he can be alone with his grief and the depression that has led to chronic, severe pain in his head. His goal is to write about Marc and their life together. The story of Island Song is one of the physical, mental, and emotional recovery of this man, and his awakening to new love and spirituality. A large part of his recovery is the unexpected and unwanted love he comes to feel for the exuberantly innocent and alive Songoree, beloved by the islanders, and called Song. Never has a character had a more apt name, because his whole being is a song of existence.

However, the author is not one to let the reader rest peacefully on the flow of his prose. Several times, when least expected, something startling bursts to the surface: homophobia, which runs like an undercurrent beneath the story; a startling backstory trip to a San Francisco gay bathhouse; a stunning suicide; a violent bar fight. Chin’s facility with description is faultless, whether he is writing about the exquisite beauty to be found below the surface of the sea or relating the grit of life.

I also very much like the way Chin handled the scenes of making love. They were very well done; they were graphic without being gross; they came at the proper place in the story; and they were never thrown in just to be titillating. And best of all they were, truly, scenes of physical love in the fullest sense of the word.

Characterization is mixed. Garrett, Song, and Grandfather are as beautifully realized as figures in a Renaissance painting. You come to know them intimately and they are unforgettable. I wish the character of Audrey had been fleshed out a little bit more, and three of the characters—Owen, his lover Micah the rebellious preacher’s son, and Micah’s father the homophobic preacher—are close to being stereotypes. Owen and Micah, though likable, seem to always to be scampering holding hands. (They don’t, actually, but that’s the impression I was left with.)

The only real quibbles are more “quibs” than “quibbles,” things that personally put me off a tad. First was the style, which was present verb tense. I have never liked books written in the present tense, but because Island Song is so well done I was able to ignore the tense…until the first flashback. Because the flashbacks were also in present tense, I then became distractingly aware of the tense. The other issue more than likely bothered me because of the “I wouldn’t have written it that way” syndrome common to novelists who write reviews. The final two chapters, while pleasant, felt tacked on like an afterthought, and read more like the first two chapters of a sequel. (I hope there is one!) I felt that the last words in the book should have been the end of Chapter 30: “All things begin within the density of silence.” That is so profound and so in keeping with the general feeling of the story, it (to me) just seems more apt.

At the risk of repeating myself, Island Song is a wonderful debut novel. I have never left the Midwest, but with his artistry Alan Chin took my heart and mind to Hawaii. Island Song is very highly recommended.

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I invite you to go to the “Conversations With Authors” page, and sit down with Alan Chin and me for a conversation about the book and his life. This is the first of a series of conversations I will be doing with authors.

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SAPPHO SINGS by Peggy Ullman Bell Sunday, Jun 14 2009 

Sappho Sings

SAPPHO SINGS
Peggy Ullman Bell
Publisher: CreateSpace
ISBN-10: 1438214316
ISBN-13: 978-1438214313

Sappho Sings. And so does Peggy Ullman Bell in her lyrical, painstakingly researched, emotionally involving novel about the Poetess of Lesbos.

Will Durant in his “Life of Greece” is quoted as saying that Sappho “called herself Psappha, in her soft Aeolian accent” and Psappha is the name by which she is known through this wondrous novel. Because the title uses the more familiar name “Sappho”, that is the name I shall use.

Many people have heard the name of Sappho but not many know who she was, what she did, or what she was famous for. There is, however, a sadly amusing idea in certain quarters that Sappho was “the founder of Lesbians,” to quote someone of my acquaintance. (I didn’t know Lesbians were “founded” but I guess that’s a different issue.) At any rate, she is associated in modern thought with Lesbians (in the sexual sense, that is, not as in “citizens of Lesbos”) and nothing else. Many people don’t even know that the Island of Lesbos, in the Aegean Sea, actually exists and is not some mythic legend like Atlantis. I did actually know it existed, but that’s the extent of what I knew until I read Sappho Sings.

Though Sappho was a prolific writer of poetry only a few original fragments of her work remain in existence, and it is with these fragments that Bell weaves the mesmerizing tale of an accomplished, passionate woman as real and flawed as any woman alive today.

Bell’s vision of Sappho begins with her as a fatherless, feisty teenage girl, small in stature but a lion in spirit, who defies a tyrant and pays for it by being banished from her beloved island home and the adored little brother whose birth took her mother’s life. On the miserable journey from Lesbos to Syracuse, Sappho loses her lifelong friend and betrothed, Alkaios, in a storm. She is rescued and “captured”—at least that’s her view of it—by Kerkolos, a sea-going, wealthy merchant, who takes her to his home in Syracuse.

He treats her with utmost respect that eventually calms her fears of becoming a slave or concubine, and his gentle ways, so at odds with his appearance, win her over to friendship. They wed, and Sappho gives birth to his daughter. She feels great fondness for him, if not passion, and is grief-stricken and frightened when she finds herself suddenly widowed and at the mercy of her truly horrible mother-in-law.

Eventually Sappho initiated in the rites of the Sisterhood of Iphis and discovers that, though she is capable of physical passion with men, her heart is taken by women. The cast is large; some of the names are vaguely familiar from Ancient History in High School many years ago. I didn’t find them very interesting back then. Now they certainly are!

The characters are unforgettable, especially Praxinoa, the nurse and lifelong friend; Lycos, the elegant and somewhat effeminate man whose loving friendship also lasts throughout the book, and the tall, Nubian queen, Gongyla, the love of Sappho’s life, a woman who sold herself into slavery to save her people from a similar fate. I will never forget these people who have been my companions for many days.

Bell’s knowledge of society and of place seems encyclopedic and yet not overwhelming. The language is just archaic enough in structure that it keeps you grounded in the ancient world but not enough so that it seems overdone. Names are pronounced in footnotes, which is very helpful. Sappho Sings is also the most sensuous book I have ever read: the lush descriptions of place, the elegantly expressed passion of depicted intimacy are poetic without crossing the line into the ludicrous, as sometimes happens when less gifted authors attempt it.

It is simply a wonderful book. It is not a quick and easy read, and it’s certainly not a genre romance although love of many kinds permeates the pages. Part of that is the author’s love of her subject.

This book should be winning awards. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

BLUE HEAVEN by Joe Keenan (old-but fun review) Saturday, Apr 25 2009 

blue-heaven
BLUE HEAVEN
By Joe Keenan
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
ISBN-10: 0140107649
ISBN-13: 978-0140107647

I read this some years ago and recently re-read it while killing time in a hospital waiting room. It gave me some laughs at a time when I really needed them, and I just had to share it with you. It has no socially redeeming value, the characters have no depth and are stereotypes. But who cares? It’s hilarious.

Who knew scamming the Mafia could be this funny? OK, OK, it’s also dangerous. But funny! At least reading about it is hilarious when you’re reading Blue Heaven by Joe Keenan. Not a new book, it was copyrighted in 1988, but—dare I say it again? Funny.

The story is narrated by one of the principals, a struggling playwright named Philip Cavanaugh. Philip is gay, as are many of the people he knows, including his best (usually) friend and first-boyfriend-while-in-their-teens and occasional mattress buddy, Gilbert Selwyn. Gilbert is a pretty, scheming, self-centered, ambitious lover of luxury and lots and lots of money he doesn’t have to work for. Gilbert’s mother’s most recent husband is Tony Cellini, whose vast wealth, unbeknownst to the naïve woman, is from Mob activity.

Gilbert attends a Cellini family wedding and is starry-eyed at the mountains of loot the newlyweds get from the family/Family. His thinking goes something like this: wedding = gifts and money, unbelievable piles of both. He needs money. He ALWAYS needs money but is allergic to work. Ergo: the perfect answer would be to have a wedding which would bring in tons of gifts from the family/Family. Only one problem: a wedding required a female bride.

Enter the villain(ess) of the piece: Moira Finch, who is as much a pretty, scheming, self-centered, ambitious, lover of luxury and all the things money can buy as is Gilbert. However, while Gilbert has a few, slight and barely noticeable scruples, Moira has none. As in, NONE. Moira’s mother is married to a British duke. (And thereby hangs the tale). Moira and Gilbert come up with the perfect scheme. They will marry, rake in the swag, stay married a few months, then divorce and divvy up the take. What could go wrong? A better question would be: what could go right?

The two conspirators become three when they rope Philip into helping, for a price (he really does need a computer). The three become four when things start to go wrong in a major way and Philip goes running to his good friend and collaborator, Claire, who is smarter and more sensible than Philip and Gilbert combined and who MIGHT be able to make the devious Moira stop weaseling about and complicating things. Moira, as it turns out, is far more devious and things are far more complicated than they knew. Then the four become five when a hysterical gay chemist, Winslow, is convinced (with a lot or effort) into putting on drag and pretending to be Moira’s mother the Duchess. But he can do it only if he’s coked to the gills, and while under the influence of coke and Ecstasy s/he flirts with the widowed, elderly Don and ends up engaged to marry him as soon as she divorces the Duke…

Before it’s over, a mechanized Christmas Wise Man is assassinated by a gun-blazing bodyguard; three warring factions of the Family have separately threatened the five conspirators with various, creative, and gruesome methods of death and each demands something different—and contradictory—from them or else; the horny, gay, teenage son of a mobster tries to lure Philip into flagrante delicto under the same roof as his homophobic dad; there is a shootout at the wedding, the Duchess vanishes leaving behind nothing but her bloody gown which does not contain her body, and … well, there are more twists, turns, double-crosses, triple-crosses, blackmail, and one-liners than you can imagine.

Only one other book made me laugh as much, and that was Ruby Sweetwater and the Ringo Kid. Les Miserables it is not. But if you ever appreciated send-ups, silliness, Monty Python, MAD Magazine, Saturday Night Live, and Laugh-In you’ll love it. I recommend it if you need a laugh.

Joe Keenan, who was one of those responsible for that intelligent, very funny, and still lamented sitcom, Frazier, also wrote two sequels with Gilbert, Philip, and Claire: Putting on the Ritz, and My Lucky Star.

Dispatch to Death — mystery with a delightful character Thursday, Sep 11 2008 

Dispatch to Death

Martha Miller

New Victoria Publishers

222 pages

 

There are times a girl just can’t catch a break.

 

Case in point: Trudy Thomas, cab driver. One ordinary, soggy Illinois day Trudy picks up a rain-drenched fare, a mysterious young Hispanic woman named Anita Alvarez, and drops her off near the governor’s mansion. It was the last ordinary day Trudy would have for a long, long time.

 

A routine cleaning of Cab Number 4—which is painted lavender for reasons that have nothing to do with being gay—turns up a key. And then all hell, as they say, breaks loose.

 

Within days Trudy finds a co-worker murdered in the ladies’ room, Cab Number 4 broken into, and her own personal information missing from the office files. It’s all downhill from there for the hapless Trudy. Before it’s over, she is shot, hospitalized, stalked, threatened, and locked in a trunk God knows where. And that’s just scratching the surface of the perils Trudy (“I’m not a hero. I’m a cab driver”) faces in this lively mystery.

 

I really like Trudy. She’s an ordinary woman struggling to support herself and her mutt dog on what she makes as a cab driver. That she is a lesbian is neither a big secret or a big deal. She loves her Harley and her dog, and asks for nothing more out of life than to get by and be left alone.

 

Dispatch to Death is a great get-wrapped-up-in-a-quilt-on-a-chilly-evening book, with a cup of hot chocolate and marshmallows on the table beside you.

 

Martha Miller’s writing is crisp, clear, and unmuddled. The story is written in first person, a notoriously difficult technique, but she does it well. Her characters are three-dimensional and real, and the plot is a dizzying series of twists that will keep the reader guessing until the low-key, satisfying conclusion.

 

My only criticisms are few and very minor indeed. I really didn’t need to know that Trudy likes to wear boxer shorts. And the frequent appearance of brand names dropped into the text quickly became distracting.

 

But minor glitches aside, I highly recommend Dispatch to Death to anyone who wants a fast-moving, enjoyable mystery to read. It would also make a darn good TV movie. I see Joan Cusack….

 

I have also read Ms. Miller’s mystery “Nine Nights on the Windy Tree” and her “Tales From the Levee” — the latter peopled with wonderfully eccentric characters done with Miller’s usual flair and grace. I highly recommend all of them.

 

Reviewed by Ruth Sims

Author, “The Phoenix”

 

author’s website: www.marthamiller.net

Eclectic Book Review Blog–what it is Monday, May 19 2008 

May 19. Welcome to my new Book Reviews blog.

I will be reviewing books of all kinds–some gay, some not, a lot of historical, some nonfiction–anything that strikes my fancy. Some of them won’t even be brand-new books, though hopefully they will still be in print and available on Amazon or elsewhere.

I don’t write negative reviews. Not every book is going to appeal to every person, but every author has poured time (sometimes many years) into that book and this reviewer will not rain on his or her parade. If I don’t like it, or didn’t enjoy it for some reason, than I’ll just pass on reviewing it. Every review is ONE PERSON’S OPINION, nothing else. Just because I didn’t care to review a particular title doesn’t mean the next reviewer won’t be ecstatic!

I’ll try to remember to put the genre/type of book in the title for your convenience. This is all new to me and I’m learning as I go.

I’m going to start out with reviews I’ve already posted elsewhere in order to have something here now, and will add to it when I can. Comments are more than welcome.

This will be an eclectic list, so I hope you can find something you enjoy or learn about a book you were unaware of.

And in case you didn’t know, here’s some blatant self-promotion:

 
author:
Novel: The Phoenix (ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year HM)
video for The Phoenix: http://youtube.com/user/badcock24
now available on Amazon & fine bookstores
 
Short story, TOM: or, An Improbable Tail–in two anthologies: Charmed Lives (Lethe) & Best Gay Romance (Cleis)
and in April issue of Forbidden Fruit e-zine http://www.forbiddenfruitzine.com/ 
Short story, “Mariel” — Blithe House Quarterly http://www.blithe.com/
Short story “Mr. Newby’s Revenge” to be in Fall issue of MystericalE at www.mystericale.com