Gerry B's Book Reviews

Love Means Courage – Andrew Grey

Publisher: Dreamspinner 

Four stars 

Outline: Len Parker is laid off during the recession in the early eighties and decides to go back to college at home in rural Michigan, where he reconnects with his best friend from high school, Ruby. He’s overjoyed when she marries Cliff Laughton and overcome with sorrow when she dies an untimely death, leaving behind her husband and two-year-old son. Out of work again, Len finds a job at Cliff Laughton’s sorely neglected farm. Cliff is still mourning his wife, struggling to raise his son, and has little enthusiasm or energy left for work. Len immediately begins to whip the farm-including the two Laughtons-into shape. Working side by side, Len and Cliff grow ever closer, but loving another man takes a lot of courage. They’ll have to stand together as they face faltering business, threatening drought, misguided family, and Midwestern prejudices to protect what might be a lifelong love. Prequel to Love Means… No Shame 

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 A good, solid read, masterfully written, and an invitation to more works by Andrew Grey. 

Review by Gerry Burnie 

“Love Means Courage,” Andrew Grey (Dreamspinner Press, 2009) is the first Andrew Grey novel I have read, but it definitely won’t be my last. Grey writes in a very straight forward narrative with just enough poetic description to make it colourful. I like that. I also like the way his characters are developed; strong, distinct and consistent throughout. Even two-year-old Geoff Laughton is a strong personality is his own way; although the phonetic baby-talk is a bit disconcerting at times. 

I also like the way the story develops—especially the relationship between Len and Cliff. Everyone who has ever written a ‘coming out’ story will readily admit that it is a tricky business to get the mix of credibility and pace just right; too fast and it seems contrived; too slow and it appears coquettish. Happily, Grey strikes an agreeable balance. 

Similarly, the events of the story unfold in a logical sequence, and with a fair amount of credibility going for them. This is particularly true of the faming scenes, which leads me to believe that Mr. Grey has spent some time on a farm in his background. 

Love Means Courage” is a good, solid read, masterfully written, and an invitation to more works by Andrew Grey.

January 23, 2010 Posted by | Gay fiction | 9 Comments

Gay American History: Lesbian and gay men in U.S.A. – Jonathan Katz

Publisher: Plume; Rev Sub edition (April 1, 1992)

Five stars

Outline: This unique and pioneering work is a comprehensive collection of documents on American gay life from the early days of European settlement to the emergence of modern American gay culture. Hailed by reviewers, it offers a new historical perspective on this once invisible minority and its 400-year battle. Photographs and illustra

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A must read for every GBLT at least once

Review by Gerry Burnie

I have just completed “Gay American History: Lesbian and gay men in the U.S.A.” by Jonathan Katz, and I highly recommend it for every GBLT person in the world! For centuries GBLT individuals were denied an existence as literally “unmentionable,” and such history as was recorded said more about the biases of the writers than the lifestyle recorded. Jonathan Katz, a respected academic and activist, has therefore performed a great service by compiling a definitive, readable anthology dating from the 16th-century onward.  

It is by nature a dark period of history, and a serious indictment against virtually all holier-than-thou religious dogmatists, their bible-quoting political counterparts, and a host of so-called “professionals” in the persons of psychiatrists, psychologists and doctors. It is also a celebration of those resilient individuals, both male and female, who endured five centuries of unspeakable abuse—physical and mental—to emerge into enlightenment. However, the past should not be forgotten so that it will never repeat itself happen again.

January 23, 2010 Posted by | Non-fiction | 2 Comments

Queer Cowboys – Chris Pickard

Publisher: Palgrave MacMillan (2006) 

Three 1/2 stars

Outline: “Brokeback Mountain” exploded the myth of the American cowboy as a tough, gruff, and grizzled loner. “Queer Cowboys” exposes, through books by legendary Western writers such as Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, and Owen Wister, how same-sex intimacy and homoerotic admiration were key aspects of Westerns well before “Brokeback’s” 1960’s West, and well before the word “homosexual” was even invented. Chris Packard introduces readers to the males-only clubs of journalists, cowboys, miners, Indians, and vaqueros who defined themselves by excluding women and the cloying ills of domesticity and recovers a forgotten culture of exclusively masculine, sometimes erotic, and often intimate camaraderie in the fiction, photographs, and theatrical performances of the 1800’s Wild West.

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An interesting and informative anthology 

Review by Gerry Burnie 

While my usual genre is historical fiction, I am always on the lookout for research of a historical variety. Therefore, although it has been around for a while, “Queer Cowboys: And other erotic male friendships in nineteenth-century American literature” by Chris Packard (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) is one such work. 

The stated objective of this thesis is to explore the “bonds that hold … [same-sex partners, i.e. ‘sidekicks’] together, particularly the erotic affection that undergirds their friendship.” To do this it painstakingly explores the “originary” texts of seminal, nineteenth-century writers who, individually and collectively, created the prevailing stereotype of the devoted same-sex partners. Moreover, the author undertakes to “teach readers how to recognize homoerotic affection in a historical discourse that was free from the derogatory meanings associated with post-1900 evaluations of male-male erotic friendships”—a not overly presumptuous ambition, given that Packard teaches literature and writing at New York University and New School University. 

 Okay, I am one such hypothetical reader, so let’s see how well Professor Packard achieved his objectives. 

At the risk of oversimplifying Packard’s thesis, it starts with an underlying premise that before 1900—i.e. before “the modern invention of the ‘homosexual’ as a social pariah”—cowboy relationships were freely represented as quite a bit more affectionate than they are after that date. Moreover, although the stereotypes generally depicted ethnic warfare; citing the threat of “savagery” as justification for ethnic slaughter, and the freeing-up of territory to make way for European homesteaders, writers like James Fennimore Cooper wrote about friendships, “even marriage rituals,” between members of warring groups based on shared values. In addition friendships between young whites and natives were quite common. These mixed friendships usually had the natives tutoring the boys in the primitive ways of the wilderness, and included rituals of brotherhood, i.e. exchanging blood, and other physical, nuptial-like rites. 

Notably absent from this literary same-sex scenario is any role for femininity, which is described by one quoted authority, Walter Benn Michaels, as “…the problem of heterosexuality.”  The ‘problem’ being the threat of reproduction in a period when fear of mixed-ethnicity through sex or marriage was keen in American culture. Moreover, femininity and reproduction ran contrary to the strong, independent, and particularly ‘free’ nature of the cowboy characters. 

“Within canonical as well as ignored literature, high culture as well as low, homoerotic intimacy is not only present, but it is thematic in works produced before the modern want him to be queer. America’s official emblem of masculinity is not one who settles down after he conquests … rather, he moves on, perpetually conquering, and repeatedly affirming his ties to the wilderness and his male partner.” 

Having thus stated his hypotheses, Packard then goes on to support these with an anthology of mostly “canonical” writings—i.e. Cooper’s “The Leatherstocking Tales,” Owen Wister’s “The Virginian,” and Walt Whitman’s poetry.  He also introduces some lesser known examples, such as Claude Hartland’s “The Story of a Life,” Frank Harris’s “My Reminiscences as a Cowboy,” and Frederick Loring’s “Two College Friends.” 

While circumstantial, when read from a homoerotic perspective Packard makes a very compelling case, over all.  There are no ‘smoking-gun’ examples, of course, because such blatancies would have been considered excessive by Eastern readers—meaning east of the Mississippi, but it is evident that the implication was there just below the surface. Consequently, he has also taught us how to recognize homoerotic affection in “historic discourse.” 

To get to that level of edification, however, the reader has had to wade through an Introduction that I found to be a jumble of complex ideas, confusingly presented and fraught with academic jargon—i.e. “nexus,” “praxis,” “lingua franca,” and so forth. A case on point: 

Given the instant and undying popularity of cowboys in U.S. popular culture during a period of rapid national expansion, to identify a homoerotic core in its myth about the supremacy of white American masculinity is to imply that American audiences want their frontiersmen to practice nonnormative desires as part of their roles in nation building. In other words, if there is something national about the cowboy (and other frontier heroes of his ilk), and if there is something homoerotic about American national identity as it is conceived in the American West.” 

Perhaps I am a bit slow on the uptake, but I didn’t find the “In other words” any more elucidating than the original statement. 

Happily, once he launches into the body of the argument his tone becomes somewhat less esoteric, and apart from belabouring some points—giving a new dimension to the term ‘moot point’—he presents a very interesting and informative perspective on nineteenth-century thought. 

Those looking for titillating erotica, however, are bound to be disappointed but well-informed after reading this work.

January 23, 2010 Posted by | Gay Literature | 11 Comments

Common Sons – Ronald L. Donaghe

Publisher: iUniverse

Four 1/2 stars

Story outline: Set in a small town in the middle of nowhere in the mid-1960s, Common Sons not only anticipates the coming gay revolution, but delineates its fields of battle in churches, schools and society, pitting fathers against sons, straight teens against gay teens, and self-hatred against self-respect.

From the opening scene (where a reckless bout of drinking at a dance ends in a very public kiss between two teenage boys), the citizens of the small town of Common, New Mexico, become aware of the homosexuality in their midst.

The two boys are unable to deal with their struggle in private as the story of their public kiss spreads through the small town. Some seek to destroy the relationship between the two boys, while others seek to destroy the two boys themselves. Common Sons is a moving tale of self-discovery, love and finding the courage to come out and come to grips with truth in the face of hatred and adversity.

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Review by Gerry Burnie

An inspirational read, and an absolutely must read for anyone coming out—young or old. 

I must say with regret that I have only read one of author Ronald L. Donaghe’s nine novels—thus far. Having said that, Common Sons (iUiverse 2000) is a marvellous place to start. 

It is a tale of two teenage boys, Joel and Tom, growing up in the dusty town of Common, New Mexico. They do the usual things like cruising the main street in Joel’s pickup, and eating hamburgers at the A & W, but there is fundamental difference between them. Joel is a farmer’s son with a pragmatic way of looking at things, and Tom is a Baptist minister’s son with only a biblical view of reality. Albeit, they are also in love with one another, although neither of them realizes this at first. 

Ron Donaghe has also done a remarkable, and equally superb job of emphasizing the oppressive atmosphere in which their love is destined to bloom, i.e., the oppressive heat, the howling sand storms, and the relentless boredom of Common itself. Add to this a cast of narrow-minded bigots, sneering bimbos, and Tom’s fire-and-brimstone breathing father, and the stage is set for an adventure in human endurance. 

The catalyst is an ill-advised but quite innocent kiss at a 1960s dance—read a “pre-coital warm up with beer and brawls” before the ‘main event.’ Joel and Tom also get around to the main event in the pick up truck, the first event for both of them, and in the cold light of dawn they each reflect on it from their different perspectives. 

That’s as far as I will go with the plot—for fear of ruining it for others. Instead, I will deal with the many admirable points that the author has incorporated into this novel. 

Point one: The author has approached the topic of ‘coming out’ with sensitivity, insight, and a remarkable degree of reality. Those of us who came out in the 1960s, especially in insular community like Common—or Pefferlaw, Ontario, Canada, for that matter, can attest to how well he has captured the isolation that Joel and Tom might have experienced when they realize that they were ‘different.’ We can also attest to the extent, and delight that others went to pointing this out to us. 

Point two: Ron Danaghe has also given us insight into the dark ages of psychology, when homosexuality was considered a mental illness, or, at best, a deviation. The greater part of society would now regard this as “quackery,” but it did exist along side religious dogma. 

Point three: Referring to the last point, Donaghe has approached the topic of religious dogma—especially “literalist” religious dogma, with remarkable objectivity. Donaghe’s is an intellectual approach—as is the Reverent Suskine’s Unitarian view of it in the novel, so this is not the indictment it might have been. 

[As a historian, I can also add that this homophobic view of sexuality has only existed for about six centuries. The Catholic Church was the first to declare it a sin, and then King of England adopted it into law to strengthen his political ties with the Holy Roman Empire. Ergo, it has more to do with politics than morality]. 

Having said all that, Common Sons is an inspirational read, and an absolutely must read for anyone coming out—young or old.

January 23, 2010 Posted by | Gay fiction | 1 Comment

The Filly by Mark R. Probst

Publisher: Cheyenne Publishing

Story outline: Escaping into the fantasy of his books when he’s not working in the general store, Ethan Keller has lived a sheltered life in his mother’s boarding house. One day, an enigmatic cowboy passing through the small Texas town takes an immediate liking to the shy seventeen-year-old. Ethan is intrigued by the attention, and the cowboy eventually charms him into signing on to a 900-mile cattle drive. Ethan soon finds that his feelings for this cowboy run deeper than just friendship. He never knew that this kind of love even existed; and now for the two of them to make a life together in the untamed west, they must face nearly insurmountable odds if they are to survive.

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An imaginative, charming story of young love

Review by Gerry Burnie

Mark Probst is an author with a marvellously rich imagination, and his first novel, The Filly, is proof positive of this statement. 

It is set in a small town in Texas in the 1870s, where we find seventeen-year-old Ethan Keller at work in Mr. Simpson’s general store. It is one of those quaint emporiums that sells almost everything imaginable, from biscuits to jigsaw puzzles, and in his spare time Ethan reads his beloved novels. 

Ethan is a nice, intelligent kid, somewhat shy and naïve due to his sheltered life with his devoted, widowed mother, so he finds adventure in reading such books as Tale of Two Cities. Therefore, it is not surprising that he is intrigued by a handsome, worldly cowboy named Travis Cain, who comes riding through looking for work. 

Travis is equally taken by Ethan, and a friendship quickly forms between them. The catalyst is “Cleo,” Cain’s beautiful and spirited mare, and from this we learn that, in spite of his bookish nature, Ethan is a superb rider. Moreover, his abiding ambition is to one day own one of his own. Both of these points come into play later on in the novel to make them quite a logical progression. 

The two other central characters are Miss Peet, Ethan’s former schoolmistress, and his older, sibling brother William. Miss Peet is a somewhat man hungry spinster, and William is a hard drinking, whore loving rebel, but intensely loyal to his “little brother.” 

Having thus created a cast of interesting and colourful characters, he then sets them to work interacting with one another in almost comedic fashion. First he establishes a bond between Ethan and Travis, and then casts Miss Peet into the arena with her with her rather rapacious eyes on Travis Cain as well. 

The Filly is far from a comedy, but I found this particular juxtaposition charming. 

The real turning point in the novel comes when Travis convinces Ethan to join him on a 900-hundred-mile cattle drive. This is where Mark Probst’s vivid imagination really begins to shine. I have read firsthand accounts of similar drives, and his account parallels these in both accuracy and atmosphere. Major drives like these were no cakewalks, and it was the making—or breaking, of a man to undertake one of them. 

Fortunately, it was the making of Ethan on this one, and the cementing of the bond between he and Travis as well. There were other challenges to follow, some of them dire, but I will leave these for other readers to discover. 

Strong points: Mark Probst’s imagination and his obvious understanding and dedication to western lore; his characterization—for they are all good strong characters, and also his courage to undertake his first novel. 

Not so strong points: Well … Travis does come across as a bit too articulate for his station. I was hoping that his mother might be a cultured lady who had schooled him, but that wasn’t the case when I met her in the novel. Nevertheless, this is only a minor quibble, and it does not detract from the overall enjoyment of the story. 

Recommended: The Filly by author Mark R. Probst. It is a charming story of coming out and gay romance set against the rugged background of the ‘old’ west. It is also a refreshingly unique perspective of cowboy life.

January 23, 2010 Posted by | Gay historical fiction | | 1 Comment

   

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