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A Ribbon of Love
When my best friend, Helen, went to Paris with her mother, I asked her to bring me back a Paris blue ribbon. Helen’s mother didn’t approve of her daughter’s homosexual friend, so I never got my ribbon. Now, Barry Brennessel has given all of us romantically inclined homosexual boys a ficelle of intertwined stories that span three continents and move back and forth in time in his highly romantic Reunion (MLR Press, 2012).
Brennessel sets a tone of romantic mysteriousness with the first story, “Ficelle,” which also provides the interpretive string for tying together all the stories that follow. Our main character is American foreign student Brian Caleb, who is introduced in the book’s second, and in many ways most enigmatic story, “Shin-Kiba Park.” Brian, who is something of a failed romantic hero, falls in love with fellow student, a Czech boy named Ondrej, while studying French in Tours. Ondrej, whose attitude towards this most romantic of Romance languages is somewhat lackadaisical, and who proves to be an elusive boyfriend, tells Brian he’d prefer to be studying Japanese. So one day when Ondrej fails to appear at their favorite café and seems to have otherwise vanished from Tours, Brian uses his scholarship money to travel to Japan to search for his lover and has an encounter in a public park.
The second story, “Marco…Polo…,” is set back in the States where Brian’s long-suffering spinsterish sister, Sheila, has been left to care for their dying, homophobic father. While trying to track down Brian she clicks on the wrong link in a browser search that leaves her computer disabled by a flood of pornographic images. While waiting for the Geek Squad to arrive, she reminisces on her difficult mothering relationship to her brother and the heritage of paternal homophobia they both suffered through. The Geek who appears is anything but—“She ran her index finger over his card, the raised letters reminding her of goose bumps.” Here Brennessel shows his mastery in crafting a surface story that is delightful on its own, yet also resonates with each of the other stories in the collection. For example, the very title makes us think of
Brian’s search for Ondrej, and the final line of the story, “One always knew where the other one was,” is ironic and hopeful at the same time, since Sheila doesn’t know where Brian is, and Brian doesn’t know where Ondrej is.
Each story is so intricately entwined with the others that it is difficult to point to any one as being a favorite, although the third story, “Nagasaki,” came closest to earning that superlative from me. Here Brennessel follows a seemingly peripheral character Brian encounters in Tokyo in “Shin-Kiba Park” and through Yuji, he takes us back in time to war-time Japan and the tragic loss of love. Brennessel’s use of the peripheral as a metaphor for the central is part of his mastery as a storyteller. In “Nagasaki,” he uses this effect with great subtly. For example, when Yuji and his fellow rent boy Toru re-enact a love scene for their patron, Takahishi Akio, to help him to recapture the memory of his lost love, Matsuo Genkei, Takahishi captures the motion of their lovemaking in a drawing, his “pencil moved back and forth in a very pleasing rhythm.” Likewise, Brennessel uses the metaphor of a telephone connection to evoke the tragedy of lost love, “Yuji kept the phone pressed to his ear. He would listen to Toru’s gentle breathing until the connection was lost.” A lover vaporized in the American atomic bombing of Nagasaki looks forward to the book’s namesake story, “Reunion,” where one of the character’s deformities also points to a tragedy in the past with ramifications for his happiness in the present. This story also introduces us to our second romantic hero, the sexy Asian-American, Jason, and the title, once again, evokes the over-arching storyline that reunites all of these stories in Jason and Brian’s love story.
Brennessel creates worlds within worlds, by following characters whose paths cross Brian’s and through their many stories creates one story. In “Unfinished,” we discover where the elusive Ondrej has really disappeared to and what he has left undone. This is the one point on which the reader may feel as if Brennessel has disappointed—unrealistic though it may be, we would prefer if Brian’s story could somehow end with Ondrej’s, but Brennessel knows better and Brian’s journey has to lead him home, “The very beginning of Brian and Jason.”
For those who follow this column, you may recall my antipathetic review of Brennessel’s debut novel, Tinseltown. I concluded that review by hoping that his next “experiment” in fiction might not blow up in the lab. This complex story within a story within a story is a beautiful experiment that succeeds on every level. “Shin-Kiba Park” in this collection was nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize in 2008, and this completed collection deserves many more critical accolades. For more Barry Brennessel, go to www.barrybrennessel.com.
Game of Cocks
I don’t know enough about dirty talk in the Middle Ages to say that Alex Ironrod has gotten it wrong in Red Knight Rising (MLR Press, 2012), but a few words here and there strike me as anachronisms. Would medieval knights use words like “sexual” or “masturbation” or phrases like “explore our bodies” or “I want to feel that massive rod of yours inside me”? But I would give Ironrod the benefit of the doubt because every other historical detail in this massively entertaining novel of romance during the Third Crusade is textbook accurate, complete with an historical endnote, “Everyone’s Guide to the Crusades.” From armor to finance to troop transport to fighting strategies to Courts of Love to breech clouts to leather cocks, Ironrod has done his research.
The dark Scottish Red Knight, Sir Bruce, mentors the young and blond English White Knight Harry, future Earl, on the field of battle and in bed. Both are called to defend the Holy Land under the banner of King Richard the Lionhearted of England during the Third Crusade. This Crusade to recapture Jerusalem from the renowned Muslim commander, Saladin, ended in something of a stalemate with the withdrawal of the Christians. Interestingly, the battle continues to this day, but here Ironrod intelligently avoids projecting anachronistic modern attitudes about the Crusades and Muslims back onto his medieval protagonists. Ironrod’s knights are motivated by a sincere faith and an earnest valor and even in battle and in chains they retain an honorable respect for their Muslim combatants.
Of course, Harry and Bruce are also motivated by their love for one another, even when forced out of obedience to King Richard to service their sire’s insatiable appetite for BDSM—King Richard is historically noted as gay. And here I’d like to return to the subject of language and tone, because even if Ironrod were quoting from a monastic sex manual, it is the reader’s perception of the language that matters more than the actual accuracy of the language. Representation is abstraction. Sometimes to make something seem real you must represent it differently than reality. All of which is to say, even if knights fucking each other didn’t really talk like this, Ironwood still makes it damn hot.
Which leads me to consider a different aspect of representation of homosexual love in this historical romance. Some may think that Harry’s tutor, Father Joseph, may have rather too tolerant an attitude towards same-sex love to be believed of a medieval priest, but here, again, Ironrod knows better. John Boswell’s magisterial Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (University of Chicago Press, 8th Edition, 2005) proves through the analysis of contemporary documents and art that medieval Christian attitudes towards homosexuality were more tolerant than those of our Enlightenment era.
The ambiguous ending seems to point towards a welcome sequel of the amorous adventures of Harry and Bruce. These knight riders like it rough, and if you do too, get more Alex Ironrod at www.alexironrod.com.
Pat Brown’s latest, Latin Boyz (Amber Quill Press, 2012) doesn’t entirely work for me, but Brown’s hot “failure” is better than most romance authors’ tepid successes, mostly because she isn’t afraid to punch through our expectations of romance to deliver something harder and sexier. A dark nihilism overshadows the love between Brown’s romantic antagonists, Gabe and Alejandro, making the ending more bleak than hopeful.
And that’s not surprising in a novel that opens with a drive-by in Cypress Park in South Central Los Angeles that leaves Gabriel Aguila’s mother dead and his sister, Natalie, mentally disabled. Gabriel’s father is dead before the novel opens and his older brother Jaime is in prison, leaving 20-year-old Gabe to care for his disabled sister and elderly Tio on his tips from his job detailing cars. By the time LAPD officer Alejandro Cerveras responds to a second drive-by, Gabriel has a strong dose of BA, bad attitude:
“Why’re you sorry? You pull the trigger? You know who did? If you do, don’t be sorry, go out and cap their ass. It won’t bring my family back, but at least you’d be doing something, which is a lot more than the rest of 5-0 doin’.”
But when Alejandro reaches out and touches his arm, “A burst of electrical heat went straight from his fingertips to my groin. In horror, I realized I felt the stirrings of an erection. I jerked away from the touch, but not before Cerveras’ eyes widened and I knew he felt the same rush of desire.
Alejandro is already involved with the community through volunteer work at the local rec center, where Gabe skateboards with his buddies, and Alejandro uses the opportunity to get closer to Gabriel and his family. Alejandro is genuinely moved by Gabe’s sister Nattie’s plight and, of course, he is increasingly drawn to Gabriel. He becomes more and more involved in their lives and Nattie begins to show signs of improvement, while Alejandro helps Gabe get a better job and buys him a “battered, ancient Oldsmobile someone had
painted baby ass pink.” Gabe fights Alejandro’s affection every inch of the way and Alejandro also faces retribution for his growing relationship with Gabe from his homophobic patrol partner, Donnelly. He also gets attitude from his mother who doesn’t approve of her son hanging out with a cholo from South Central. Meanwhile, P-Bull from the Locusts is still gunning for Gabe, “P-Bull always had a hard-on for me. At least he had since P-Bull got jumped in to the Locusts and I didn’t.”
At the heart of the novel, Gabe’s sister Nattie is hope. Though mentally disabled, her heart is loving and she brings together Alejandro and Gabe in their common desire to make her life as happy as possible. The tension builds as Gabriel wars within himself between his desire for vengeance against P-Bull and his yearning to surrender to his feelings for Alejandro. Meanwhile, the tension between Alejandro and his homophobic partner, Donnelly, heats up to murderous levels. This is where the novel goes south for me. Gabriel’s hot-headedness and desire for vengeance against P-Bull builds the plot tension from line one. When he buys a gun, our dread is palpable. Like Hedda Gabler’s pistols, if we see a gun, it better mean something—but neither the gun or Gabe’s hot-headedness lead to the novel’s climax. Likewise, the mounting tension between Donnelly and Alejandro is relegated to little more than atmospheric background—a dud firework. Brown even seems to forget that Alejandro gets a black eye at Donnelly’s hands; Gabe doesn’t comment on his black eye for several pages even though they live together. Similarly, Brown hints at a deeper history between P-Bull and Gabe—“And most of all, fuck P-Bull, who traded his friends to be a banger”—one that might have involved some sort of mutual sexual attraction, but never develops the lead. Then Brown ruthlessly robs us of the novel’s one hope, sucker-punching the reader into a grim realism that I found hard to stomach. The ending is not so much cathartic as despairing. Though Brown leaves an element of hope, it is difficult to see what kind of future Gabe and Alejandro can still have. Yet, here I have to praise Brown because what other romance writer would even try something this powerful?
One other bleep, and this would be minor, except I hero-worship Detective David Laine from Brown’s ongoing LA Heat series, is that Brown introduces Laine as a peripheral character here in Latin Boyz and then leaves him with nothing in particular to do. The moment he walks on the page, he should have some part to play in resolving the conflict, even if minor, but instead he is the well-deserved object of Gabe’s criticism of the cops as just a bunch of do-nothings who keep shuffling paperwork while the Locusts terrorize Cypress Park. It looks like he will have a part to play when he discovers that P-Bull is a loose cannon that the drug cartel bosses plan to eliminate to keep the drug money flowing smoothly on the streets, except that this becomes just another plot rabbit hole, it goes nowhere towards the plot’s resolution.
The Canadian Brown should be made an honorary citizen of Los Angeles because, as always, she perfectly captures that city. As the hot Santa Ana winds blow, and fires rage around the city the tension builds higher and higher for Gabe and Alejandro. The fires are “destructive,” “a force of nature…as powerful as the tides.” The love scenes between Gabe and Alejandro are equally hot and Brown keeps them tantalizingly close to coupling while frustrating the reader, which makes the scene where they finally do make love all the more intense. Despite my frustration with her ending and my difficulty in seeing how Alejandro and Gabe’s love can survive their loss of hope, Brown leaves us begging for more heat. For more of P.A. Brown, check out www.pabrown.com.
For those who can’t get enough of Southland mystery, Lucius Parhelion’s The Man Who Liked Wintergreen, one of Torquere Press’s Spice It Up series, is must reading. This quick, novella-length mystery contains enough snappy, rapid-fire delivery to resurrect Humphrey Bogart, if Bogie were gay (if only!). The plot moves so fast it works best by reading it like Burma Shave signs along the roadway, but slow down for the more interesting relationship between underworld lawyer, Mike Warren, who takes the cases of Communists, hoodlums, scapegraces and professional girls in a 30s LA that is hypocritically moral, and “the Reverend Johnny Breuer, part-time crusader and full-time do-gooder…a character respectable enough to make Mike nervous.” They stop for drinks at a gay bar after the Rev. Breuer deflects a bullet intended for Mike’s heart. Mike warns the Rev, “It’s something of a den of vice.” To which the Rev replies, “Then I’m in the right place, at least according to the gospels.”
Parhelion revives the lost art of the innuendo of homosexual pick-ups from the
days when the wrong lift of the eyebrow to the wrong undercover cop could get your picture in the papers the next morning. When Warren has to take precautions even in inviting Johnny over to his beach house, lest nosey neighbors call the vice squad, we remember Bowers vs. Hardwick. But Mike is a sucker for underdogs and Breuer’s Cranthorpe Settlement House is being threatened by powerful shysters on the board who are set to gamble away its trust fund on off-shore gambling boats, plus he is falling for the taste of wintergreen on the Reverend’s lips. Can he finagle the crooks off the board and avoid vice long enough to bed Johnny? Pick up this breath of fresh mint to find out at www.torquerepress.com.
Keep Your Hands on the Wheel
Road trip! For those who can’t leave romance at home, now you can bring it along with you. An increasing number of m/m and gay romance books are recorded on audiobooks. The numbers are admittedly limited in comparison with the hundreds of romances that are available as print and e-books—at least for the audiobook seller I’m hooked up with, Audible.com, a division of Amazon—but hopefully the lists will grow through increased demand.
I was especially excited to see two of Geoffrey Knight’s Fathom Five series listed: The Riddle of the Sands and The Curse of the Dragon God. These wonderful gay action-adventure romances will read beautifully as audiobooks and should make the miles fly on your vacation road trip or your daily commute. But I only have one credit a month, so they are on my wish list, instead I chose to download for my road trip to San Francisco in my new Scion iQ, Knight’s Drive Shaft, a sexy little novella about two grease monkeys pitting a Dodge Viper against a Ducati Monster in a race to see who’s on top. Spoiler alert! They both win! Other great finds on audiobooks at Audible include Josh Lanyon’s Fair Game, James Lear’s A Sticky End, Neil Plakcy’s The Handsome Prince, Jan Irving’s The Hired Man, and Andrew Grey’s Seven Days. At least, those are all the books in my queue. Bend over and let me drive!