Angel Land by Victor J. Banis Sunday, Mar 22 2009 

angel-land

Angel Land
By
Victor J. Banis
Publisher: Quest
ISBN-13 978-1935053057
224 pages
Available: Print & Amazon Kindle
Because there are so many wonderful books and authors, I intended to review no more than one book by each author just to be fair, but sometimes a book comes along that just has to be talked about. So I guess I have to rescind my original decision.

Angel Land by Victor Banis will keep you off balance like nothing you’ve ever read before. It switches not only p.o.v., sometimes within the same chapter, but switches voice as well, from the first person narrative of the escapee, Harvey Milk Walton, to the third person thoughts of other characters. Only a master like Banis could pull this off without driving the reader crazy.

Angel Land is sly, sardonic, and funny. It’s also frightening and will make your scalp crawl with the feeling that Banis is channeling George Orwell and you’re reading the next 1984.

Angel Land is a tale set a century or so in the future, after the global society has been devastated by wars and pandemics, all the things we see now, carried to their ultimate end. It was an end that came “not with a bang but a whimper”, to quote T.S. Eliot. Among the other curses of the 20th and 21st centuries, the HIV virus has mutated repeatedly until reaching the always fatal HIV-VII, known as Sept, a virus so virulent it does not even require human contact. And there is a soul-chilling reason for the mutation, one that will make you gasp.

Into this vacuum of power came The Reverend Elihu Gaston, founder of The Fundamental Christian Church. Is he the antichrist? Though such a thing isn’t suggested in the book, as one who read the Bible many times when I was younger I couldn’t help thinking that he certainly fit the requirements. The other churches were swallowed up by Gaston’s new church; everyone not a believer in Gaston was suspect, especially Jews, Baptists, and Catholics; though free in theory they are severely restricted in every way . Supposedly as a way to deal with AIDS/HIV, Gaston divided much of the nation into Fundamental Christian Territories, of which Angel Land was the first. There, tourists can “See—close up—the Bridge of the Golden Gate, once crossed by motor cars,” and the walls of the ghetto that, in the dim past, been known as the Castro, that is Angel Land’s Zone of Perversion. Officially sanctioned violence and murder of gays makes some of the inhabitants of the ghetto believe it might not be such a bad thing after all: if the walls keep them in, they can also keep the brutes out. It doesn’t always work that way.

Angel Land has a twisted plot about marginalized people in a disintegrating world run by a rabid demagogue aided by a committee of equally rabid demagogues, a world in which the European Middle Ages seem to reoccurring with a dark helping of Hitler and Stalin at their worst, stirred in. It’s a society where books are banned, knowledge by any but the rulers is illegal, freedoms are virtually unknown except for the few; a society where a form of slavery is perpetuated, particularly upon the young, and gays leave their ghetto at the risk of their lives.

The characters in this book are vintage Banis: brave with the courage of the mythic Stonewall drag queens; defiantly smart and smart-ass like the first Harvey Milk; able to sometimes find love in spite of the danger; daring to flip the bird to deprivation and hatred.

Our hero is, perhaps, an unlikely one: Harvey Milk Walton, a skinny kid who’s not particularly beautiful (imagine that, in a gay novel!), a slave who has accidentally killed his master and fled for his life. In the ghetto Harvey finds friendship, love, sanctuary, his courage, and a purpose that transcends and transforms his life. There is Dell, the blustering, blunt, and brave lesbian and Sarah, the abused, feral child she adopts. The endlessly quotable “Auntie” Tom, present in spirit if not in flesh. The elderly Manager, a man of age, wisdom, and quiet defiance. Chip, Harvey’s friend. And many more wonderful characters worked in true Banis fashion.

Is every gay character brave and admirable? Not at all. Banis would never create such an unrealistic cast. And that’s one of the things you can count on with a Banis book: the situations and plots may be unusual; the people are always believable.

When Harvey, to his amazement, finds love it is with a tormented soul named Aram; more than that I’m not going to tell you; you’ll have to read it for yourself. The Bad Guys are bad to the bone, some of them, like the jack-booted, taser-armed Lay Workers, are overtly bad. Others wouldn’t lift a finger to crush a bug and who mouth scripture and platitudes…but who are the Ultimate Evil because they are the creators and maintainers of the evil.

Books of froth and fun have their place and sometimes even I like them. But as you undoubtedly surmised, Angel Land isn’t a froth-and-fun tale. It’s full of grim, black humor and it’s a book that gets the thought processes whirring, a book that grips you by the gut. It’s a book that would make certain people froth at the mouth from indignation if they dared to read it. My kind of book.

Because I find Banis’ language usage so engaging, I can’t end this without quoting a sampling of my favorite lines. The Sept. virus: “A dish, a fork, a spoon, probably a cow jumping over the moon, almost anything could be the instrument of infection, almost anyone the messenger of death.” Legendary things called automobiles: “Of all the jewels of antiquity, none fascinated me more than those, the automobiles, songs of freedom sculpted into metal.” The suppression of other faiths: “One by one the lesser fishies succumbed to the great black shark in the sea of religion.”

I know you won’t be surprised when I say Angel Land is highly recommended.

A Face Without a Heart by Rick R. Reed Thursday, Mar 12 2009 

face-without-a-heart
A Face Without A Heart: A Modern-day Version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray
By Rick R. Reed
Paperback: Backinprint ISBN: 0595399169
Amazon Kindle: Bristlecone Press
Author’s website: http://www.rickrreed.com
Image above is the Kindle cover

I first read “The Picture of Dorian Gray” when I was around 13 and really had no idea what kind of debauchery he was getting into (this was the 50’s!), but it nonetheless filled me with creepy, delicious horror. I read it many times in succeeding years and each time I read it, Dorian’s wickedness was clearer. It has remained one of my favorites (the book, not the wickedness).

All too often, when classics are rewritten into a contemporary setting, the result is depressingly unsatisfactory. Happily, award-winning author Rick R. Reed succeeds in recreating the greed and decadence hidden behind the beautiful face of the ageless Dorian who keeps pushing the envelope of evil until he finally goes too far and the devil literally gets his due. Reed achieves the delicate balancing act of being true to Wilde’s tale while putting a patina of his own shivery vision over it, enhancing but never obscuring the original.

His anti-hero is Gary Adrion, an anagram of Dorian Gray, and the cynical Lord Harry Wotten (who was actually my favorite character in Wilde’s book) is transformed into a cynical black drag queen named Lady Henrietta Wotten. Decadent London of the 1890’s becomes decadent Chicago of 2006+. One of the most inventive devices in the book is that of making the painting of Dorian Gray a living, changeable hologram of Gary Adrion. (Wilde would be enchanted by the idea.) The shock at the end when Gary comes face to face with the hideous, evil thing he has become is more stunning than Wilde’s scene in which Dorian saw the painting.

At 196 pages it is proof that Rick Reed doesn’t waste words, that every syllable of every word has a purpose and works toward an effect. He is a gifted, prolific writer, a master of horror and, I expect, would be successful in any genre he chose to put his hand to. Someday soon I hope to read his “Orientation,” which recently won the Eppie Award for Best GLBT Novel of 2008.

Witch’s Boy by Alex Beecroft Monday, Jan 5 2009 

witchs-boy
Witch’s Boy
By
Alex Beecroft
Website: http://www.alexbeecroft.com/

Since reviewers are not supposed to gush and are supposed to find something to criticize, I’ll do that and get it out of the way before I get to the Good Stuff. There is an occasional wrong word and once in a long while there is a misspelled word. The layout is much like that for an ebook, with a space between every paragraph, which is a little off-putting. And … well, there’s no ‘and’. Honestly, those are all the negatives I have to offer. So if anyone sees this as a “gushing” review, then so be it.

Witch’s Boy is the first book I’ve read in eons that almost left me speechless.

It is self-published through Lulu—and, incidentally, has a beautiful cover, something all too often missing in self-published and small-press books. I don’t know if the author submitted it to mainstream publisher, but she should have. It’s a dark masterpiece of raw emotion, vivid color, violence in thought and deed, convoluted plotting, unforgettable characters and descriptions. Maybe Tolkienistas will consider this to be sacrilege, but Witch’s Boy is a modern Lord of the Rings in one volume.

Although thirty years ago I read The Hobbit, and Lord of the Rings, I’ve never been much of a fantasy reader so I can’t really compare it to others of the genre,. More recently I have read two others which I enjoyed and have reviewed on this site (Orphan’s Quest and Immortal Journey.) One thing I especially liked about Witch’s Boy was that, although it’s a fantasy, the setting felt very medieval European or perhaps Russian, with people and place names that felt familiar enough they didn’t bring me up short. There were serfs, castles, familiar plants, mountains and trees, ravens and fish, white wolves and horses. In short, the setting made it all very believable and familiar, and to someone who likes realistic books that’s a definite plus.

It is as full of Good vs. Evil as is the Bible. Witches (who are not at ALL of the stereotypical “boil-boil-toil-and-trouble” or “Bewitched” variety!) are primary. The first witch we meet is a peasant child, Oswy, who has been sold into slavery, or so he believes, and who is unaware he was born with the powers of witchcraft. The second one we meet is Tancred, the embodiment of evil, a creature who is guilty of every vile act in the book, though we first meet him in another guise—a man of just ordinary evil rather than metaphysical evil. The third is Sulien FitzGuimar who, at first, also seems evil. When we come to know him we realize that he is a tragic and noble figure, and every moment of his life is a struggle not to become like his mentor, Tancred.

There is a subplot which, at times, seems puzzlingly disconnected from the main story, but such is Beecroft’s gifted plotting that it all comes together and we realize that Adela’s story is spectacularly crucial. When we meet Adela she is a young Lady set to become a nun, whose all-concealing black garment, a grima, hides not only her face and form but a rebellious heart. She literally escapes from a forced marriage with an unscrupulous and wicked man and puts her life in peril by doing so. Along the way to her sanctuary she meets both magical creatures in the form of elfish shape shifters, and beyond-horrible demons and a beyond-exquisite angel. I love it that Adela’s reaction to the beauty and mystery of elves and angels is just as confused and frightened and yet intrigued as any of us would be.

One of the best supporting characters is Leofwine, the kind of man Knights of legend were meant to be – brave to a fault, kind, generous, and loyal unto death.

Violence, horror, and the insatiable thirst for revenge permeate the book. Some acts carried out by Tancred, demons, and other forces of sickly evil are often breathtakingly cruel; one is perpetrated by the child-witch, Oswy, while he is possessed by Tancred.

Beecroft’s descriptions are music in print. If you’ve ever listened to “Night on Bald Mountain” by Rimsky-Korsakov, based on themes by Mussorgsky, then you have an auditory idea of the descriptions in this book. I’m not a very visual writer, myself, and am tremendously impressed with those who are—and I am in awe of the visuals in this book. I’m going to pick a handful of very brief ones at random.

“…the squabbling of rooks and crows as they fought over a dead hare, its soil-brown fur appearing and disappearing among the clot of black.” (page 147)

“…moorland swept up in billowing rises to a higher hill, and then to a sharp peak crowned with a tumble of gray boulders and another thicket of thorn. … The bare hills shone like a child’s face scrubbed for a festival.” (page 205)

“A wind sprang up—silver edged, glittering—and streamed around her. Her hair unraveling from its braids, lifted and floated behind her—showering crystal bells onto the earth. … and behind her, green as every kind of leaf, each feather edged with sunshine, her great wings unfurled in a fan of spendor.” (page 232)

“Like writhing black slime they came creeping out of the arrowslits, oozing head-downward over the walls. …The presences which lurk unseen in nightmares were made visible, the beings who haunt night’s shadows were coming down over the battlements with heavy reptilian purpose.” (282)

Dang! That’s addictive. If I don’t stop now I’ll wind up typing the entire book!

OK, here’s the short review: if you like dense, dark, intelligent, action-packed, beautifully written books Buy It! Urge your local library to buy it also.

The Witch’s Boy
By Alex Beecroft
Paperback: 316 pages
Publisher: Lulu.com (May 7, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1847537294
ISBN-13: 978-1847537294
Available on Amazon.com

King of Cats: A Life in Five Novellas, by Blake Fraina Tuesday, Dec 30 2008 

king-of-cats

KING OF CATS
Blake Fraina
0595307566
$16.95
I Universe
Forward Magazine Book of the Year Award, Bronze Medal

I read KING OF CATS by Blake Fraina three or four years ago, and only recently realized I had not added that review to my review blog—an oversight I truly regret.

I hope readers will not keep prejudices against the iUniverse label—often, alas, justified– from reading this book. It’s true there are some errors that a traditional publisher’s editor would have caught, and that’s unfortunate, but they don’t distract from the intense, dark stories.

This is no light read. It has layer upon layer of meanings beneath the obvious and should carry a warning: ENGAGE BRAIN BEFORE READING. If the book has a weak part, it’s the first novella which is told in first person by a wannabe filmmaker obsessed first by a painting, and then by a kid named Elliott. It’s the only novella in first person in the book, and Sam, the filmmaker, doesn’t appear in any of the other novellas.

Five novellas make up KING OF CATS. In terms of time, they leapfrog. The first, “King of the Cats”, about the filmmaker, takes place in 2002. The second “The Bargain” is set in 2001. Number 3, “Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter” is 1995. Number 4 “My Father’s House” is 2003. And “Hidden History” is in 1987. It’s not as off-putting as it sounds. When you read them, it actually makes sense. It’s like the famous movie scene with the fun house mirrors—this splinters off of that which splinters off something else….

On the surface, the rest of the novellas are about “sex, drugs, & rock ’n’ roll.” But under the music of electric guitars, drums, drugs, and promiscuity there is a seething pit of anger and physical abuse, neediness and tragedy, and most heartbreaking of all, the waste of potential in human life.

This is a complex book with characters that you alternately feel sorry for, despise, sympathize with, sometimes love, but will never forget. Elliott, the pathological baby-faced liar and hustler. Adam, the singer who spends a lot of time trying to convince himself he’s not gay just because he has sex with men. The character who will never leave your mind is Jimmy, the guitarist—to his fans and contemporaries he’s so cool he’s a gay Fonzie on drugs, somebody who gets what he wants when he wants it. They don’t see the tortured soul that looks through his eyes. By the end of the last novella, “Hidden History” you have seen Jimmy’s soul being twisted like a lone tree in the wind.

Highly recommended to adult readers.

I hope we may soon see another book from Blake Fraina, a vastly talented writer.

Orphan’s Quest: Book One of the Chronicles of Firma by Pat Nelson Childs Sunday, Nov 2 2008 

Orphan’s Quest: Book One of the Chronicles of Firma

By

Pat Nelson Childs

ISBN #978-0-9795912-1-1 (softcover)

Available also in hardcover and E-book

Publisher: Glynworks Publishing

© 2007

 

I hope the author doesn’t mind a comparison. I do this because I am not really a fantasy reader and so am unsure what is more or less standard in the genre and what isn’t. I read Tolkien fifty years ago and that was it.

 

Orphan’s Quest is Lord of the Rings for the rest of us, especially for those who think there might have been more between Sam and Frodo than meets the eye. Orphan’s Quest is colorful, action-packed, intricately plotted, filled with vivid descriptions of places, weapons, etc. that have the combined flavor of Medieval Europe and Middle Earth.

 

There is a group of stalwart friends on a dangerous quest; a handsome, swashbuckling elf with magical ability and deadly aim with an arrow; an Elven city, a mysterious and malevolent evil power out to destroy the friends and, indeed, the entire world. There are noxious swamps, trees that communicate, and poisoned weapons; bizarre creatures that fly, swim, and shift shapes; hideous and deadly Harpies. There are wooden ships, arrows and swords galore, even enslavement by a race of warrior women.

 

Running through the narrative is a gay love story, that of the elf Flaskamper, nicknamed “Flash,” and the orphan, Rokey, who is not quite what he seems to be in the beginning. Rokey is not even quite what he, himself, thinks he is. Repeatedly, his life and the lives of his companions and his true love are threatened and, since this is the first in a trilogy, it ends with a cliffhanger. However, I hasten to add that it is also a very well done stand-alone novel, which some series books are not. I would say more about the plot, but I always try to avoid spoilers.

 

One of the things I, personally, found very appealing about the book is the way Childs handled the love scenes. Did Flaskamper and Rokey have sex? Yes, they did. Was it described in erotic detail? No, it wasn’t. They were written in such a way—without silly euphemisms, incidentally—that a younger reader isn’t going to be puzzled or shocked, and the reader who is old enough to know the details can use his or her imagination. I like that. Another thing that struck me as especially poignant was Childs’ invention of the appellation “samer” for homosexuals, who were accepted in Firma. Isn’t “samer” a lovely, evocative term? Much nicer than any of the words used in our world. I wish someone had thought of it a long time ago.

 

Though I was a tiny bit hesitant in starting the book simply because of the fantasy factor, I’m so glad I read it. I thoroughly enjoyed Orphan’s Quest. Childs is an excellent writer with an elegant use of language that I appreciate. I hope someday, when I have waded through my stack of waiting books, to read the rest of the trilogy.

 

Though this book is an adult story, it is also geared toward young adults. I feel that any reader who likes good writing will enjoy it, even if fantasy is not normally a reading choice. I’ve never read Harry Potter but I expect Harry Potter fans would like it.

 

Christmas is coming. This book would be a great gift, and to book lovers there is no better gift than a book.

 

Also now available: Book Two/ Scion’s Blood

Book Three / Numen’s Trust is tentatively scheduled for release in late 2009

Author’s website: www.chroniclesoffirma.com

 

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.

VOYEUR: a suspense novella by Jon Michaelsen Saturday, Oct 4 2008 

Originally, I did not intend to review short stories or novellas, originally, but have since decided “Why not?” My first is called Voyeur by Jon Michaelsen. Voyeur is a short novella included in an anthology entitled MEN and e-published by loveyoudivine Alterotica. Buy links are below.

Voyeur
by
Jon Michaelsen

Take one bored and lonely youngish account executive named Kevin, who lives on the 28th floor of a high-rise. Add a pent-house in a building only 26 stories high, where there lives a young, physically perfect specimen of young manhood who can be seen—accidentally at first—sunning himself, working out, living a healthy, athletic and apparently idle lifestyle.

Kevin begins by being curious, and soon graduates to binoculars, a camera with a telephoto lens, and obsession to the point where he can’t sleep, his work slides, his job is in jeopardy. When the mysterious object of Kevin’s obsession appears at his door one day, battered by a jealous lover and seeking help, Kevin is undone. Not long afterward a man is found dead in the penthouse and everything points to Kevin as the killer.

Michaelsen carefully crafts the tension in his story, taking the reader into Kevin’s mind as he sinks into ennui and then is energized by his discovery of the beauty across the way. We see his growing unhealthy obsession as he watches and lusts after the stranger. The sex scenes are more graphic than I usually like, but Michaelsen’s writing is such that they are an integral part of the story and not just thrown in to be titillating; he blends them seamlessly into the fabric of his tale.

There are only a couple of things that bothered me about the story, and both are simply the result of its being a novella rather than a stand-alone book. It’s too short; I would like to see it expanded into a novel, see the tension built even more, see Kevin and the mystery man become more involved because that would make the ending even more startling. The other thing is also probably due to the word-length restrictions. I don’t want to write a spoiler here so I’m not quite sure how to put it. Let me just say that there is a resolution, that comes far too abruptly, and gives the impression of cutting the story off at the knees.

There’s no doubt that Michaelsen is a talented writer who can spin a good tale of twisted psychology! I recommend the story for anyone who enjoys shorter pieces with lots of increasing tension. I haven’t read the other stories in the anthology, but if they’re as good as Voyeur it would be well worth buying.

Buy links for the anthology:
Publisher: http://tinyurl.com/LYD-MEN
Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/MENwhoLOVEmen
Voyeur will be available at All Romance eBooks as a FREE download during the entire month of Nov 2008.
Author’s website: http://www.jonmichaelsen.net/

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two Spirits: A Story of Life With the Navajo Sunday, Aug 24 2008 

TWO SPIRITS
Walter L. Williams & Toby Johnson
Publisher: Lethe Press
ISBN: 1-59021-060-2
Award winning novel: Prize for Historical Fiction/Arch & Bruce Brown Foundation

Two Spirits combines a moving love story with a dark part of American history. Most American know, and choose to ignore, the historic treatment of the peoples who “were here first,” the broken treaties, the broken promises, the broken hearts and lives. It would be silly to pretend that the Indians (if I may use that non-p.c. term) didn’t war among themselves because they did. But they didn’t have machine guns and railroad trains and the belief that God gave them all the land from coast to coast, a.k.a. “manifest destiny.” Two Spirits is about one small group caught on the dark side of that manifest destiny: the people Americans called Navajo, but who called themselves Diné.

In 1864 the Diné were forced to walk 325 miles in winter from their green, fertile homeland in what we call Northeast Arizona, Canyon de Chelly, to what was actually a concentration camp at Bosque Redondo near Fort Sumner. At least 3,000 of their number died on the way. This was General James Carlton’s version of “pacifying” the natives. Carlton, by the way, was a real person. The U.S. Government allocated what probably was sufficient money for the displaced Diné to feed, clothe, and house them, but the money found its way into Carlton’s private coffers. Not only were the Diné starving and unable to grow crops in the inhospitable land, living in substandard shacks, and dying from illnesses, Mexican bandits regularly struck from what became New Mexico, carrying the Diné children to be sold into slavery. Carlton did nothing to protect his charges.

Into this living hell comes a shy, uncertain and untrained Indian Agent named William Lee from Virginia, a young man kicked out by his father for loving another man. Young Will is truly tested by many fires—both from within and without. He’s puzzled why he’s fascinated and attracted to the beautiful healer and wise woman, Hasbaá, a loved and revered member of the tribe. A near-tragedy reveals Hasbaá’s physical strength and Will soon learns that the beautiful, spiritual, strong woman is really a man—a two-spirit. Far from being shunned, as she would have been in white society, Hasbaá is considered blessed. Will and Hasbaá fall deeply in love and are joined in a union by the customs of the tribe.

There is plenty of action and danger in this book, as Will, the Diné, and Hasbaá face persecution and annihilation when Will uncovers Carlton’s corruption and evil. He delves deeply into the life and spirituality of the Diné and his beloved Hasbaá.

As an incurable reader of forewords, afterwords, and footnotes, I especially appreciated the commentaries at the end. “About the Historical Accuracy of This Novel” is as interesting as the book itself, explaining as it does about, among other things, the use of peyote, some of the mystical references, and the acceptance of two-spirit people. This is followed by “A Commentary” by Wesley K. Thomas, a member of the Diné. These brief extras are the cherry on top of the sundae.

Highly recommended!

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