MURDER ON CAMAC by Joseph R.G. DeMarco Tuesday, Sep 22 2009 

Murder on Camac

Murder on Camac
Joseph R. G. DeMarco

Publisher: Lethe Press (August 22, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1590212134
ISBN-13: 978-1590212134

Murder on Camac is a P.I. novel so believable even I, who have not read many such books, was totally pulled into the story.

Marco Fontana, our hero, is a gorgeous Italian-American Private Investigator. He’s wary and a little cynical, as you would expect of a P.I. He’s also highly intelligent and sensitive-not the weeping kind of sensitivity but the kind that makes him aware of what makes people tick, how they think, and he’s a pretty wicked judge of character. Nor is he your average fictional P.I.; on the side Marco also owns a troupe of male strippers (with class and a whole lot more!). He is, in fact, good-looking enough to dance in a G-string himself – if he loses a particular bet with a friend.

The book has a cast of colorful characters, from a many-times-widowed Russian secretary to a stunningly handsome Catholic Monsignor, from a teenage hit man to a heartbroken stripper, and many more in between. DeMarco presents even the supporting cast perfectly; if he had gone a shade further with the characterizations some of them would have become stereotypes and the story would have been ruined for me, but with precision artistry he shows just enough but not too much.

Helmut Brandt, a youngish, successful author, is shot and killed on Camac Street in Philadelphia one night. The police dismiss it as a mugging gone bad, but Brandt’s much older lover believes it was murder, and he hires Marco to get at the truth. Brandt, you see, had rattled quite a few cages with his first book that levied broad hints that Albino Luciani – known to the world for four short weeks in 1978 as Pope John Paul I – had been murdered. Brandt had promised that his second book, nearing completion at the time of his death, would prove that men high up in the church were responsible, possibly including members of a shadowy organization called P2. But where – and what – was the proof? Brandt was dead, and not even his lover knew where he had hidden his manuscript and research notes. And why, since decades had passed and most of the principals were dead, would anyone think it necessary to murder Brandt? Or could he have been murdered for more mundane reasons, such as jealousy? Or could the one behind Brandt’s murder be the twitchy rival author who wanted to stop his competition dead in his tracks? Or could it actually be what the police said: simply a mugging?

Marco gets to the bottom of it all and unearths the guilty party, as of course he would. Before he reaches that point, though, he is threatened, nearly run down by a car, cracked on the head and hospitalized with a concussion, and, worst of all, he’s completely baffled. But he is Marco Fontana and you know he’ll get his man. Red herrings and MacGuffins abound, and I was often tempted to peek at the ending. But I didn’t. And I was glad I behaved myself.

Murder on Camac
is a fast, entertaining read. I expect we will be seeing more of Marco Fontana in the future, with or without the G-string. I give it five Sherlocks and a Watson.


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.

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.

SAPPHO SINGS by Peggy Ullman Bell Sunday, Jun 14 2009 

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.

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


Angel Land
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.

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

Witch’s Boy
Alex Beecroft

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: (May 7, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1847537294
ISBN-13: 978-1847537294
Available on

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


Blake Fraina
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.

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:

Novel: The Phoenix (ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year HM)
video for The Phoenix:
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 
Short story, “Mariel” — Blithe House Quarterly
Short story “Mr. Newby’s Revenge” to be in Fall issue of MystericalE at