A feel-good, curl-up-beside-the-fire read
Publisher’s blurb: Christmas is a time for giving – what do you do when no one gives a damn?
For Zachary Weston Christmas means sleeping on a churchyard bench in the freezing snow with nothing better in his future. Thrown out of his home for being gay, he is left without money or, it seems, anywhere to go.
Until a stranger shows him that some people do give a lot more than a damn.
Ben Hamilton is a rookie cop in his small home town. He finds a young throwaway, fresh from the city, sleeping on a bench in the churchyard on a snowy Christmas Eve. Can he be the one to give Zachary his own Christmas miracle?
Review by Gerry Burnie
At the risk of seeming Grinch-like at this time of year, I found The Christmas Throwaway by RJ Scott [Silver Publishing, 2010] a bit too saccharin for my taste.
The premise of the story is that Zachary Weston, an almost-eighteen-year-old castaway, thrown out by an abusive, homophobic father, takes refuge in a small town with a small police force and young cop (Ben Hamilton) who happens to be gay.
Moved by the young lad’s plight and the spirit of Christmas, Hamilton takes him under his wing and under the protection of his family—most particularly his nurturing mother. Zachary is readily accepted by all, except for Jamie—Ben’s married brother—who quite reasonably has some reservations about bringing a total stranger under his mother’s roof. Other members of the supporting cast are Ellie, Ben’s younger sister; Mark his long-standing, best friend, and Melanie—Mark’s wife and the town doctor.
After considerable toing and froing the inevitable happens, and Ben and Zach fall in love. The issue of Zach’s previous home life is also resolved—quite surprisingly in the end.
Journalistically, this is a well-written story. The premise, although somewhat lacking in originality, is also well-developed with some interesting plot twists here and there. Where it suffers, however, is in a noticeable lack of any real tension or drama. The characters are just too cloyingly nice to one another, and what tension there is comes across as mildly contrived.
Nonetheless, it is a feel-good story with likable characters and a happy ending, and if are looking for a good curl-up-beside-the-fire read, then this is a book for you. Three-and-one-half stars.
Merry Christmas to all
And the very best in the New Year!
It’s sure to get you into the Christmas spirit
Story blurb: “Every year, he put on the red Santa suit. Every year, there were more sick and needy children to attend to. And every year, as word of his activity spread, Jimmy [Lomax] collected more money and gifts to distribute.” This book will be especially fascinating for all readers interested in history and human interest stories. Christmas is a time for celebrating with friends and family and for sharing stories, memories, and good cheer. This compilation brings to life the very best holiday stories from across Ontario. From the early days of exploration to the modern day, and from heartwarming inspirational tales to dangerous escapades, this is a collection to treasure for many years to come.
About the author: Cheryl MacDonald has been writing on historical topics for nearly 30 years. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines, including The Beaver and Maclean’s, and she has written a number of books, mostly relating various aspects of southern Ontario history.
Cheryl holds history degrees from the University of Waterloo and McMaster University and is currently pursuing graduate studies. A grandmother of two, she lives on a large rural property close to Lake Erie and about 90 minutes west of Niagara Falls.
Review by Gerry Burnie
Christmas is about cherished memories and traditions, and while Canada has no unique Christmas traditions, per se, it does have a long history of events and experiences that are unique in their own way. “Christmas in Ontario” by Cheryl MacDonald [Altitude Press: Amazing Stories Series, 2004] is a collection of these heart-warming stories which can be shared by the whole family. For example:
“On Christmas Eve 1668, a 14-year-old girl lay fighting for her life at La Jeune Lorette, near Quebec City. Théresèse was a member of the Huron, a nation that had been pushed out of their traditional homelands near eastern Georgian Bay by the Iroquois. To comfort herself, as well as to mark the approaching holiday, she sang Jesous Ahatonhia, a carol which described the birth of Christ in a setting that closely resembled the Ontario wilderness.
“While there is no definite proof, traditional accounts claim the carol was written by Father Jean de Brébeuf (1593-1649). A French missionary, Brébeuf was a skilled linguist who eventually wrote a Huron grammar and dictionary, so it is highly plausible that he translated the Christmas story into the Huron language.”
Jean de Brébeuf was martyred at Ste.Marie Among the Hurons, a Jesuit mission on the shores of Georgian Bay on March 16, 1649, making Jesous Ahatonhia, or “The Huron Carol” the oldest carol written in North America.
Another early recollection comes from Catharine Parr Trail who, reluctant to part with her sister at the end of Christmas Day, she accompanied her home through the woods around Peterborough, Ontario, (c. 1830s) and recorded the event as follows:
”Just as we were issuing forth for our moonlight drive through the woods, our ears were saluted by a merry peal of sleigh bells, and a loud hurrah greeted our homely turn-out, as a party of lively boys and girls, crammed into a smart painted cutter, rushed past at full speed. They were returning from a Christmas merry-making at a neighbour’s house, where they too had been enjoying a happy Christmas, and long the still woods echoed with the gay tones of their voices, and the clear jingle of their merry bells, as a bend in the river-road, brought back on the breeze to our ears.”
One of my favourites took place at a German prisoner of war camp, in 1917. Shortly before Christmas, the prisoners received an invitation to a Christmas party.
“At the time they were skeptical—after three years surrounded by barbed wire and bayonets, they had little reason to trust their captors. But more fromcuriosity then anything else, they accepted the invitation.
When they awoke on Christmas morning, two surprises greeted them. First, all the guards were unarmed. And secondly, right in front of the guardhouse was a huge Christmas tree, dripping with tinsel and dozens of presents.The prisoners were asked to gather round the tree Then the camp commandant spoke, telling the men how much he regretted that war had taken them so far away from home and family at Christmas, and how he hoped that the gulf between the two warring nations would eventually disappear after peace.”
Then a small gramophone began playing “Silent Night” and the commandant commenced to remove small presents from the tree, passing them out to each man.
If you are looking to get into the Christmas spirit this year, this collection of “heartwarming legends, tales, and traditions” has the right ingredients.
Anyone remember the “Cabbage-Patch Kid” craze?
Story blurb: Written in the language of the period, this vivid and utterly transfixing love story between two men is set in the nineteenth-century American Midwest. Douglas Fortescue is a successful poet in England who flees the country for America following an Oscar Wilde-like scandal insinuating sexual impropriety; Joshua Jenkyns is a feral young outlaw who was taught how to shoot a man at age six, and who, against the wishes of his father, teaches himself how to read, a skill that then unleashes a world of possibility beyond that which he knows. The two men meet when Joshua robs Douglas’s carriage and takes him hostage; soon, a remarkable secret is revealed, and these two very different men grow closer, even as Douglas’s brother tries to “save” him from his uncivilized surroundings.
Missouri was first published in Germany to wide acclaim. Now available in English for the first time, Missouri is destined to become a gay men’s camp classic for its earnest, romantic reinterpretation of a time and place in American history traditionally closed off to gay readers.
Review by Gerry Burnie
“Missouri” by Christine Wunnicke [Arsenal Pulp Press; Tra edition, 2010] is a story that either pleases or displeases; there is very little middle ground shown by its critics to date. Therefore, I will have to say that I liked it. I found it wonderfully zany; offbeat; and unlike any other gay, American Western tale I have every encountered.
Douglas Fortesque is an ambitious court clerk in northern England, and not just a little bit of a con man. He therefore lets his hair down (literally), dyes it black, starves himself until he has that gaunt, poet-like appearance, and pens utter gibberish to the wild acclaim of an effete London literary society. Indeed, the more outlandish he becomes the more acclaim he receives from a pretentious, gullible public.
Eventually tiring of this masquerade he retires to the country, but legitimacy only makes him less interesting and also vulnerable to his critics, and in a thinly veiled allusion to Oscar Wilde’s persecution he escapes to the United States where his brother wishes to buy property.
Meanwhile, Joshua Jenkyns, the young, slightly psychotic half-breed offspring of a notorious American outlaw is terrorizing the Midwest, learning how to read and becoming enamoured by the disjointed words of one, Douglas Fortescue. In a bizarre turn of events, therefore, these two unlikely characters cross paths and Fortescue is hurried away on horseback to become Jenkyns’ coddled hostage.
Thus begins a process of assimilation whereby Fortescue is stripped of his pretentions, and Jenkyns of his savagery, until they meet in an ethereal love-making scene that is beautifully understated by the author. Any other approach—graphic for example—would have cheapened it.
One of the criticisms that has been leveled at this novella is that it is too short (134 pages) to develop a complex story of this nature; and I agree that it could have been longer. However, in those 134 pages Wunnicke has developed two very unforgettable characters, a unique love story set against a stark, primeval wilderness, and an outcome that is totally unpredictable.
Highly recommended. Five stars.
Story blurb: “The City of Lovely Brothers” is a family saga, the history of Caladelphia Ranch, jointly owned by four brothers, Calvin, Caleb, Calhoun and Caliban Caldwell – how it grew and prospered, and how rivalry between the brothers led to its breaking up and decline. As the story evolves, it focuses on the love affair between the youngest brother, Caliban, who is lame, and Nick, one of their ranch hands, and how their relationship set the stage for the already open feud to explode and ultimately caused the demise of the ranch.
Review by Gerry Burnie
I enjoy this type of family saga; especially if it involves interesting, colourful characters. In this regard, ”The City of Lovely Brothers” by Anel Viz [Silver Publishing, November 2010] has a full cast of them.
The author’s approach is to conjure up a fictional city, “Caladelphia,” Montana, as though it actually existed. Moreover, by referring to its street maps, city limits and equally fictional landmarks—i.e. “Hokey Hill Mall,” he does a very convincing job of it, as well. It is also a clever way of introducing the Caldwell family, their history, and the four disparate brothers—Calvin, Caleb, Calhoun and Caliban. There is also a sister, Callie, who plays a supporting role to the others.
Calvin, the oldest of the siblings, is a stern, humourless man who assumes the role of head of the Caldwell clan after both parents die. He fills this role quite well, too, and apart from being somewhat dictatorial he is a good manager; expanding the ranch until it is one of the largest outfit in the territory.
Caleb is the next oldest, boisterous and a hard drinker—which ultimately contributes to his destruction.
Calhoun is a strong personality in his own right. It is inevitable, therefore, that these two should clash in an extreme case of sibling rivalry; especially when Calvin undertakes to severely discipline him for impregnating a servant girl.
Finally, Caliban is the baby of family blessed with good looks that are almost “Too pretty to be a man.” Moreover his good nature matches his looks, such that “No one could resist his laughing eyes and kind smile.”
Part II of the story then goes on to trace the rising fortunes of the Caldwell ranch, later named Caladelphia—meaning “The City of the Cal Brothers.” But the Greek translation could also mean “pretty” or “lovely” brothers. Ergo, the title.
Along the way a number of events transpire that are meaningful to the story. Needing a woman keep house, Calvin sets out on a quest to find a wife, and returns with one; a quite realistic touch, for it was often done that way without undue wonderment on anyone’s part.
Secondly, Calvin administers a humiliating whipping on his fifteen-year-old brother, Calhoun, for impregnating a servant girl; causing a lifetime rift between the two. And, thirdly, Caliban is thrown from a horse; sustaining a hip fracture that is poorly treated by the local doctor. This necessitates a trip to the populated community of Billings, Montana, where he is properly treated but requires several months convalescence. The time is well spent, however, because he advances his education through reading; such that he becomes reasonably well read. His brother Caleb comes to Billings to escort Caliban home, and also to further his sex education—although nothing physical transpires between them.
All of this is artfully woven together and advances the story at a pace that keeps the reader’s interest moving along. This pace continues as Caliban, concerned about how he might support himself when his hip gives out, decides to become a teacher. This necessitates a two-year absence from the ranch, and while in Laramie he is approached at least once by a man who is drawn to his beauty. However, Caliban rebuffs him.
While he is away Caleb decides to marry, and Caliban decides to ask one of his stable hands, Nick, to share his remote Cabin. Their friendship had been growing quite close, and since they were both single it seemed like a practical thing to do. Calvin objects on the basis that Caliban would be fraternizing with an employee, but Calvin is overruled by his wife, Darcie. On his return, therefore, Caliban and Nick discover that they share more than just a cabin, and for the first time Caliban is in love.
In Part III, Caliban and Nick are now a couple; albeit covertly, and the author has cleverly introduced a fictional diary that Nick has been maintaining since childhood. This gives their love story a certain aura of authenticity, and through their eyes we see the relationship between the other brothers deteriorating—particularly between Calhoun and Calvin. This situation is exacerbated as Calvin begins to subdivide the home-section of the ranch into a village-type development—which Calhoun criticizes as taking away from the ranch. In short, there is no middle ground for these two characters, and thereby the seeds of destruction of Caladelphia as a ranch are sown.
There is much that can be favourably said about this story. It is cleverly conceived; it is well written; and the first and second parts move along quite nicely. However, in the third part the pace is burdened by superfluous detail that doesn’t seem to add anything to the story. Moreover it is frequently repetitious, giving the impression that the author has lost control of the narrative.
Apart from these reservations, it remains a good read and is recommended on that basis. Three-and-one-half stars.
A discussion on ‘the short story’
Story blurb: Jess and Amber are two gal friends who are off on a vacation under the hot sun of Cuba. Jess is just recovering from a break-up with her longtime boyfriend Chris, and not quite ready to sample romance again, while Amber is making a meal of it and urging a reluctant Jess to do the same.
Enter a handsome Cuban entertainer named Vincente, with dark eyes and a gentle but persistent nature. Add a few Cuba Libres to the mix, and the ingredients are set for Finding Forever.
I don’t usually review either individual short stories or unpublished works, but with finding forever by Jacqueline Castillo it gives me a chance to talk about ‘the short story.’
In my opinion the key word is “short;” which means that the writer must step in with a hop-skip-and-a jump, deliver their best shot, and then step out with a resolving kiss or a tear. All in quick-quick time.
Overall Finding Forever is an admirable effort for an unpublished writer, and shows great promise. Jounalistically, it is well written, the sentences flow, the description is colourful, and the dialogue is realistic and meaningful. However, what is lacking is any real sense of drama or tension—i.e. the “punch” that leads to the resolution, and without it the story doesn’t reach its full potential.
Very much part and parcel with the above are the characters. Jess is pretty, Amber is precocious, and Vincente is dark and handsome, but these characteristics alone don’t make them interesting. What’s going on inside them? How deeply is Jess grieving over the loss of Chris? How shallow is Amber’s idea of happiness? And how smitten is suave, handsome, Latin Vincente? In a short story these have to almost literally jump off the page to grab the interest of the reader.
Nonetheless it’s a great start, and the key to good writing for first-timers or pros alike, is: rewrite, rewrite, rewrite!