Gerry B's Book Reviews

Gay Male Fiction Since Stonewall by Les Brookes

Where is gay culture going?

 [Note: Non-fiction studies of this nature do not fit well into the ‘star-rating’ criterion. Therefore I have not assigned stars.]

Forward: The conflict between assimilation and radicalism that has riven gay culture since Stonewall became highly visible in the 1990s with the emergence and challenge of queer theory and politics. The conflict predates Stonewall, however—indeed Johathan Dollimore describes it as “one of the most fundamental antagonisms with sexual dissidence over the past century.” How does gay male fiction since Stonewall engage with this conflict? Focusing on fiction by Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, David Leavitt, Michael Cunningham, Alan Hollinghurst, Dennis Cooper, Adam Mars-Jones and others, Brookes argues that gay fiction is torn between assimilation and radical impulses. He posits the existence of an internal one, a struggle in which opposing impulses. He aims to show the conflict as an internal one, a struggle in which opposing impulses are at work.

 About the author: Les Brookes is an Associate Lecturer at The Open University, tutoring in twentieth-century literature. Previously Brookes taught at Anglia Ruskin University, where he also gained his doctorate.  Brookes has written for Overhere: A European Journal of American culture and given papers at Warwick University and the Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies.

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 Review by Gerry Burnie

 To answer those questions regarding why I would read and review such a work as this, let me say that I have an abiding interest in what it means to be gay; where it has emerged from; and where it is going from here—or, in this case, from Stonewall (1969).

 I should also point out that Gay Male Fiction Since Stonewall [Routlidge, 2009] was originally written as a PhD thesis, so it is necessarily academic in nature, and not for everyone’s taste. Nevertheless, it raises some interesting and thought-provoking issues from a rational perspective. Mainly, whether gay culture has achieved what it wants (wanted), which is to be accepted, and should abandon radical, pre-Stonewall politics to melt back into the crowd. Or whether there remain sufficiently threatening, revisionist elements that require the need to be political in new and post-modern ways.

 Having said all that, I’m not certain Brookes has answered these issues directly. By that I mean that I literally don’t know if, in 200-plus pages of academic debate, there is an opinion offered one way or the other. The problem (for me) was the arcane language which, I suppose, is to be expected from an academic paper of this nature. Nonetheless, it seemed somewhat obscure even after that was taken into consideration. Viz:

“Genet’s [Jean Genet, “Our Lady”] concern with authentic selfhood, with identity as disguise, emerges in his attitude to the masculine-feminine binary structures and treatment of sexual stereotypes.” And,

 “To reduce this alternative to “decadent hedonism” is to ignore the wider implications of Wilde’s [Oscar Wilde] aestheticism, which … subsumes many different kinds of subversive impulse within its metaphoric allusiveness.”

 For sociologists and English majors, however, this has to be a seminal work. Brookes has chosen a formidable list of writers to sample, and has then delved deeply into their various approaches to gayness. Indeed, it is almost an anthology of their writings. This is what he set out to do, and in that regard he has achieved his purpose.

 To me, however, the most interesting section of the book comes near the end in an interview between Brookes and Edmund White (1996), author of Hotel de Dream (2007); The Married Man (2000); The Farewell Symphony (1997), etc. In it White makes some observations that are particularly worthy of note.

 For example, when asked why all his works were about “initiation,” he had this to say: “So much gay fiction is really about initiation, whether it be into gay society or into gay sex or into the adult world or into the recognition of oppression or prejudice.”

 On egalitarianism (quoting De Toqueville): “Since all human beings are naturally snobbish, in a democracy the signs of rank will be much more sinister and complicated than they are in a straight forward aristocracy.”

 When asked to answer one of his critics who complained that White’s novel A Boy’s Own Story contained no discussion of “the usual difficulties of gay youth.” He states:  “I think the last objection comes from an earlier period when gay critics tended to feel that gay fiction should be in some way representative of the tribe. There was a feeling that you were always a spokesperson for your people.”

 Finally, and for me once again, White’s most interesting observation came when he was discussing American “consumerism” in which everything is quantified, “In terms of number of inches of penis, number of years of your age, number of dollars of your income. You were just a kind of sum total of all these figures and obviously, on some scales, you were inevitably sinking.”

 Plus ca change.

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March 27, 2010 Posted by | Non-fiction | Leave a comment

Important Annoucement For Viewers- good news!

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March 22, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Polar Reaction by Claire Thompson

Sophisticated Raunch

 

 

The savage Antarctic winter is closing in, and three research scientists are scheduled for the last flight out—until an unexpected blizzard traps all three of them in the compound. There’s Tuck, who only joined the project to be close to sexy-but-straight Brendan, the man of his dreams. And Jamie, who has always admired the other two from afar.

Thrown into a dangerous situation, the three of them turn to each other for survival, solace … and more. As Brendan overcomes his confusion over his impulses, the trio begin a sexual exploration that explodes into passion and unbridled lust.

Yet once the rescue helicopter airlifts them to safety, Brendan comes to his senses, returning home to his carefully constructed, closeted life. But there’s a Brendan-shaped hole left behind in Tuck’s and Jamie’s hearts. There’s only one way to fill it—by breaking through Brendan’s reserve to reclaim the man they love.

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Review by Gerry Burnie

For some reason or other I received two Claire Thompson novels on my desk this week, Polar Reaction, and Texas Surrender. At first I considered writing a joint review, but shelved that idea when I discovered that they are two very different concepts. Therefore, I will review Texas Surrender at a later date.

According to her bio Claire Thompson has written over forty novels, and it shows in Polar Reaction (Samhain Publishing Ltd., 2010). There is definitely a maturity in her writing that comes from having worked out the kinks along the way. This level of maturity is also evident in the way she shades her prose with a whole spectrum of colour, from the darks to the clever flashes of insight that she intersperses so deftly.

”He recalled the way Tuck had looked at Brendan the night before, the longing palpable in his face. Yeah, there was a pretty good chance Tuck was a least curious, but how far did it go? Did he know Jamie was gay?

“It was tempting to find out, but did he dare? They still had to work together back in the States. What if Jamie’s hunch was wrong? Maybe he could work it so any overture on his part could be couched in other terms. Like the old aching-muscles gambit. Which in his case wouldn’t even be a lie. He was so tense from the storm, his neck felt like a twisted iron. Deciding to go for it, he gripped the back of his neck and winced for Tuck’s benefit.”

The above passage was chosen randomly, but it serves to illustrate how she is able to improvise her ideas in a way that doesn’t distract from the main theme.

And the main theme is three hunky guys trapped in a small compound on the edge of the world, cut off from civilization and in real danger of perishing there. To hasten things along they all have same-sex tendencies to some extent, and this results in plenty of graphic M/M/M sex, sometimes going on for pages, but once again there is a sophistication in the way she couches it within the story. In other terms, it doesn’t become the story—until the second half.

I particularly liked her handling of the Arctic situation, which I presume was the result of extensive and careful research; nevertheless, she captures the tension and drama of the circumstances such that the reader is inevitably caught up in it.

I was a bit disappointed, however, in the way the polar segment ended, abruptly, and the way the second half turned its attention to the sexual relationship between the three men. Moreover, the second part struck me as being somewhat anticlimactic.

Overall, however, it is a good read with a interesting story and plenty of sex to satisfy a variety of interests.

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March 20, 2010 Posted by | Gay fiction | Leave a comment

Sam Steele: The Wild Adventures of Canada’s Most Famous Mountie by Holly Quan

It should be made mandatory reading in every elementary school history course taught, and for every person who is preparing to become a citizen of this country

 

 

Once or twice in our lives, some of us are lucky enough to witness or even to participate in an event of historical importance. Sam Steele made a career of it. During the pioneering years of the Canadian West, Sam Steele was not only present but took an active role in virtually every significant historical event. Sam Steele was an adventurer and a heroic figure who commanded awe and respect. He just did the right thing. At the right time. In the right place.

About the Author: Holly Quan lives in the foothills of southwestern Alberta among the poplars and coyotes. She’s the author of two guide books, in addition to writing magazine articles on travel, food, horses, marketing, and whatever else piques her interest. When she’s not working on her novel manuscript – a work now many years in the making – she loves to ski, ride, hike, swim, drink wine with her friends, and howl at the moon.

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Review by Gerry Burnie

The adventures of (Sir) Sam Steele should definitely put to rest any notion that Canada lacks a colourful history, or, indeed, real life adventurers the equal to Pat Garrett and Davy Crockett. Moreover, Holly Quan’s brief biography, Sam Steele: The Wild West Adventures of Canada’s Most Famous Mountie (Altitude Publishing Canada Ltd., 2003) makes a good appetizer for larger and more detailed biographies, including Sam Steele’s own autobiography: Forty years in Canada: reminiscences of the great north-west (sadly not listed for sale on Amazon.ca).

Samuel Benfield Steele was born on the family farm in 1851 in Simcoe County, Upper Canada (now Ontario), and spent much of his youth in the nearby Town of Orillia learning to ride and other useful skills that would serve him well in his later life. At age 14-years he enlisted in the militia formed to guard against Fenian cross-border raids, and from there he volunteered for the federal militia called together to restore order with the Métis in what is now Manitoba.

“The journey was an exercise in endurance,” writes Quan: “The troops marched across southern Ontario to Sault Ste. Marie, where they boarded ships bound across Lake Superior to what is now Thunder Bay. That was the easy part. From the lakehead, 965 kilometres (600 miles) of rock, rivers, muskeg, and heavy forest lay between the troops and their destination, Fort Garry on the Red River (now Winnipeg). There was no railway yet, and the road was nothing more than a trail blazed through the bogs and bush. In fact, for the most part the “road” was a water route of interconnected lakes and streams with numerous difficult portages through mud, swamps, and dense forest.”

Unfortunately, for Sam, the uprising was over by the time they arrived so the troops turned around and marched back to Ontario again. However, Sam stayed with the militia—now promoted to corporal at age nineteen—but when the new provincial government was in place the militia was disbanded as well. Nevertheless, the new Canadian government decided it wanted its own army to replace the British troops, traditional peacekeepers, and Sam quickly joined the recently established Canadian army—being the 23rd person to do so.

Two years later however, in 1873, the federal government established a mounted police force for the West, the North West Mounted Police, and Sam saw his chance to get back to his beloved frontier. Therefore, in 1874 the now Sergeant Major Steele (age 23) began one of the most rugged marches that have ever taken place in Canada, across the vast, uncharted territory of the West.

“The going was tough for the already beleaguered group. Grasshoppers razed the grass, and rain turned the wagon track to deep mud. Quicksand was another hazard many men had never experienced. Sam, among the strongest in the troop, was continually called on to help wrestle horses, oxen, and cattle of boggy deathtraps.”

That was only part of the adventure. Having little grass to eat the horses became so weak that they frequently collapsed in their tracks. Therefore the men had to lift them and encourage them to walk a bit further before collapsing again. This prompted one of them to quip. “I thought I’d have an easy ride to the Rockies with a good horse to carry me. Instead I’m having a tough walk to Edmonton, with me carrying the horse.”

The march to Edmonton, 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles), ended on October 31, 1874, but not without one last struggle with nature.

“Sam was preparing for sleep when someone shouted that a horse was in trouble in a nearby creek. Grabbing a rope, he waded into the ice-cold stream and deftly passed the rope around the struggling horse, tossing the other end to men on the bank. But before Sam could get out of the water, the horse slipped, dragging Sam and several men down. In the dark, with only moments before men and horse succumbed to the freezing current, the quick-thinking man made it out of the water, then he hauled the next man out, and so on, until troops and horse were all free of the ice and water.”

This, then, was the stuff Sam Steele was made of, and only the beginning of his remarkable career that included chasing criminals, defying native leaders, upholding the law—and having the time of his life. Indeed, he saw the establishment of a nation, the signing of treaties, the resolution of a rebellion, the building of a railway, war in South Africa, and action in WWI.

In my opinion this bit of Canadian history should be made mandatory reading in every elementary school history course taught, and for every person who is preparing to become a citizen of this country, for therein is the essence of Canadian pioneer culture: Dedication, adherence to standards and perseverance.

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March 14, 2010 Posted by | biography, Canadian biography, Canadian content, Canadian historical content, Military history, Non-fiction | 1 Comment

The Phoenix by Ruth Sims

A masterful piece of writing, credible and enjoyable from start to finish

 

 

At fourteen, Kit St. Denys brought down his abusive father with a knife. At twenty-one his theatrical genius brought down the house. At thirty, his past-and his forbidden love-nearly brought down the curtain for good. This is a compelling Victorian saga of two men whose love for each other transcends time and distance-and the society that considers it an abomination. Set in the last twenty years of the 19th century, The Phoenix is a multi-layered historical novel that illuminates poverty and child abuse, theatre history in America and England, betrayal, a crisis of conscience, violence and vengeance, and the treatment of insanity at a time when such treatment was in its infant stage. Most of all it is a tale of love on many levels, from carnal to devoted friendship to sacrifice

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Review by Gerry Burnie

Ruth Sims’ The Phoenix (Lethe Press, 2009) is the first of her several novels I have read, but it definitely will not my last. My first impression was of the tasteful and relevant cover, beautifully designed by Ben Baldwin.  It is truly refreshing to see an M/M novel that isn’t adorned by a muscle-bound, headless torso or a bulging ‘basket.’

The above abbreviated summary will have to suffice as an overview of the story because otherwise it is so intricately constructed that to elaborate on any one part of it would be to risk giving away the plot. However, this doesn’t prevent describing certain aspects of it in a general fashion, i.e. characterization, setting and pace.

The novel opens in full flight with a running introduction to Jack Rourke, street urchin and pickpocket-thief, and his twenty-minutes-younger twin brother, Michael. The setting is the seamier side of London in 1882, effectively described as “…dingy shanties, tenements, gin shops, pubs and little shops with flyblown windows.” Nevertheless, Jack is clearly in charge as they go about putting together an ill-gotten purse to one day escape “him:” Their black-bearded, abusive and sadistic father, Tom Rourke. The mother—a secondary character—is also introduced from the wings as a battered wife who lacks the willpower to escape him; even by 19th-century standards.

Right from the get-go, therefore, the reader is transported back in time in the company of strong, juxtapositioned characters. Indeed, Jack’s character is such that he practically steps from the page as a tough, cocky and street-wise kid with a heart for his less-capable twin brother. Moreover, while we all recognize that he is an unapologetic thief, we still like him; and even more importantly we care for both of them and their collective welfare. That is the sign of a good story, masterfully conjured-up by the author with nothing more than ink on paper—and imagination, of course.

Quite a large cast of characters are introduced after them, both principal and secondary, but all of these have a definite place and purpose and are never gratuitous or cluttering as far as the story goes. Moreover, whether major of minor, they are all developed to be distinct in some way, and therefore add their various shades of colour to an overall palette.

The pacing, which includes the unfolding of events, ranks alongside characterization as one of the strong points of this novel. On the one hand it takes time to develop complex characters and settings like these, and the risk here is to slow the pace such that it becomes tedious. On the other, the introduction of various events, in an event-driven plot, poses the risk of leaping from one to another to maintain a connecting thread. Here, the author has achieved a happy compromise that remains consistent throughout.

Not to be overlooked is the amount of research required to reproduce Victorian England to a credible degree is quite considerable—especially for a gal from “…conservative, Republican, tiny-town Midwest USA” who, according to her biography has never seen a moor! Well, the test of the ‘credibility factor’ is that I as a reader certainly believed it.

Highly recommended for those who enjoy a serious literary effort with a sexy adult theme.

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Read Part One of my second novel, Journey to Big Sky.  

March 10, 2010 Posted by | Gay historical fiction, Gay Literature | 1 Comment

Bitter Creek’s Redemption by T.A. Chase

A good effort, but …

 1/2

 

Bitter Creek is a town on the brink of war. Lines are being drawn and sides taken as two powerful men gather armies of gunfighters. The townspeople are helpless and the law worthless. One man has already died in the opening salvo of this land war and an air of fearful anticipation hangs over the town. Eagle, the half-breed who works at the livery stable, manages to survive by not taking sides, until one day a stranger rides into town. Eagle’s life changes, and he realizes that he can no longer hide with his horses if he wishes to be the man he claims to be…

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 Review by Gerry Burnie 

It is my philosophy that if a writer takes the time to write a novel (i.e. 50-pages or more), that effort deserves a star or two for the ‘sweat’ factor.  While not a passing grade it does recognize the work and dedication involved. Beyond that it’s all merit that counts. 

Ordinarily I read approximately three or four novels a week, and out of that number there may be one or two that don’t merit more than a minimum passing-star rating (2½).  Contrary to popular opinion this is not an arbitrary decision. There is a scoring process involved that makes it reasonably objective. Therefore, I thought that I would take this opportunity to explain how this is done. 

Journalism: This category looks at the narrative, and whether it flows in a logical, sequential fashion. If the style is ‘poetic’ (elaborately descriptive), does the description fit the situation comfortably, or does it get in the way? It also looks at the dialogue, and whether it fits the character doing the speaking.

Syntax: looks at the sentence structure: Does the structure flow comfortably, or are there stumbling blocks—the “up with I will not put” syndrome? This category also looks at paragraph construction, and whether it sticks to the topic under consideration. 

These combined categories equal 10-points, or one star. 

Regarding syntax, the sentence structure in Bitter Creek’s Redemption is fairly good for the most part. However, while the prose is sequential enough the reader is frequently assailed with people and events coming out of the blue, pell mell, without any lead-up or preparation. This is so from the opening paragraph where we are introduced to Eagle, the main character, “[H]e’d been working in the livery stable,” (emphasis mine). What livery stable? Then, in the very next breath we are confronted by Ralph Ramsey—equally unknown—but who has been shot for some unexplained reason, somewhere and by a person or persons unknown. Rather than elaborate on any of this, however, the writer goes on to focus on a horse. 

“Murmuring low in the tone he’d learned horses loved, he approached the gelding. The chestnut laid his ears back, but made no effort to run or evade Eagle’s hand. He snatched up the reins and led the trembling horse into the barn. Everyone knew the chestnut was Ralph’s pride and joy. The man babied it worse than a mother hen with a chick. Something bad must have happened to cause Ralph to run the gelding almost to death.” 

Therefore, at this point we know more about a horse—that as far as I can see is quite inconsequential to the story—than we do about the main character and one of the important side characters. The seven-page chapter then goes on to introduce a succession of characters, either directly or indirectly; “Barking Dog,” who is Eagle’s half-brother and apparently hangs out in cemeteries late at night, and Irv Johnson, the rather boorish owner of the livery stable and Eagle’s boss. It also makes reference to Eagle’s Indian mother and his half-white status. Nevertheless, there is not a clue regarding how these people fit into the story or, indeed, why. 

This trend is continued in Chapter 2 when Eagle’s counterpart is introduced in the person of Travis Ramsey; but rather than developing his character the writer chooses to focus on yet another horse: “Be careful, Travis says. “He [the horse] doesn’t like people and he’ll take a chunk out of you if you’re not paying attention to him.” Therefore, the reader is left scrambling to make sense of it all. 

Dialogue is a fairly open topic, and need not be particularly grammatical if the speaker isn’t. It is primarily an extension of the character’s personality. However it should ring true as something the character might say, and should not attempt to make an ‘ordinary Joe’ sound like an Oxford Don, i.e., “I will do that brother, and I will help you gather them tonight.” (Emphasis mine). Caricaturizing the dialogue is not a good idea, either, because the reader will surely pick up on it. For example, “After you’ve delivered those horses, get your dirty Injun arse back here and clean out those stalls.” [Emphasis mine]. It does seem a bit over the top even for a churlish oaf like Irv Johnson. 

Marks awarded for these two categories: 5/10, or .5 of a star. 

Plot: This category is almost self-explanatory. There is no rule that says a plot has to be original so long as the writer has given it a fresh approach. However, it would take quite a lot of freshness to rejuvenate a plot based on a town caught in the middle of a range war, and with a subplot about some unknown but fortuitous, money-making event in the offing. Also an honest but unlikely hero cast in the role of uncovering this dastardly scheme and saving an otherwise undeserving populace. That one has been around since Hopalong Cassidy and Tom Mix.

Story development: Regretfully there is nothing in the way the story develops to add freshness to the plot. On the one hand the writer seems to be constantly in a hurry to get the story told, and not sure where the story is  going on the other. For example, one moment Eagle and Travis are engaged in a nose-to-nose argument, and the next, 

“All thought and caution fled from Travis’s brain as Eagle’s hard chest brushed over his and, even through the layers of clothes, he felt Eagle’s solid muscles. Reaching up, he buried his hands in Eagle’s hair and crushed their lips together.” 

As a result of this impetuousness the story seems contrived as every crisis is met with the introduction of yet another character, or by Eagle’s Indian brothers; who seem to have an uncanny ability to be in the vicinity as needed. 

Score for this part: 5/10. 

The ‘Wow!’ factor: This category recognizes outstanding or excellent achievement; those stories that maintain a very high standard of writing throughout, and include unique and/or original content. (10/10 . or one star)

No score recorded for this part.

My observation as a reader is that there are some really engaging passages here, where the writer has taken the time to round out the scenario. Eagle is certainly interesting as a half-breed, and with some deserving research that aspect of his personality could be developed into a worthwhile subplot. In addition, the other characters could have been much more colourful with some ‘fleshing out.’ For example, what does Irv look like? Does he have any nervous habits that would betray his basic insecurity? For that matter, what does the town of Bitter Creek look like? Therefore, for what it is worth those are the questions I found myself asking, and I suspect others were asking as well. 

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March 1, 2010 Posted by | Gay fiction | Leave a comment

   

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