Category: book review

Review: Wool by Hugh C. Howey; Ex-Gay Author: Surrogacy is like Slave Trading

Review: Wool by Hugh C. Howey

I’ve been curious about Howey’s work for a while, so I finally decided to read Wool, which is a post-apocalyptic dystopian story and a genre with which I’m not too familiar. In fact, the main reason, in full disclosure, I decided to read Wool is because I’ve read about Howey in a few online articles and I was just plain curious. So he had a lot to live up to because I’d already formed a few preconceived notions (which I hate doing) and I don’t like being disappointed.

As it turned out, I actually liked this book and Howey’s interesting writing style far more than I thought I would. There’s a certain descriptive pattern throughout the story that kept it not only believable for me but also kept me imagining each situation, glum as some of them may be at times. I thoroughly enjoyed the interaction between characters, and I felt as if Holston was a strong, but nurturing, character. I now see why there are so many good reviews. I think it’s because the writing style alone resonates with readers and helps pull them into a story with likable characters that could have been bleak and depressing but instead turns out to be more emotional…with depth of emotion. And that’s not easy to describe in a review. Frankly, I still don’t think I nailed it as well as I should have.

I also like the way Howey breaks a few of the “traditional” rules with this story. Coming from a publishing-editing-writer’s background the way I do I often pick up on things most readers might not. In this case, one of the things I spotted first with the writing were the similes. For twenty long years I’ve been told by pedantic editors who drove me crazy I shouldn’t use similes and they never offered a solid reason why I shouldn’t. So I had no choice in the matter. I was under contract; I didn’t use similes and I let the know-it-alls have their way. But after reading Howey’s story and enjoying the way he does use similes in some places (they aren’t everywhere) I now wish I could go back and make a few changes in a few things I’ve had published. In this sense, I think Wool is ground-breaking, without even trying to be that. Writing, as with language, should always be evolving.

Although this isn’t my genre as stated above, I should mention my favorite style of fiction is the short story, with the novella being second. Once again, Howey had a lot to live up to with me this time. As an author who has written (and had published in anthologies and alone) more short stories in the past twenty years than I can even count at this point I know how difficult it is to pull “it” all together, so to speak, with a limited amount of words. But Howey, to my surprise, managed to do this so well I think Wool trumps many of the short stories I’ve read in the past. I also like that he clearly marked all time frames and I didn’t have to wonder where I was…or where the characters were. With stories like this I don’t want to think too hard. I want to be entertained. And I will not apologize to anyone for that.

Another thing about the novel that I loved was the balance between dialogue and narrative. It’s not uncommon nowadays to see entire stories…or novels…written almost completely in dialogue (with horrible dialogue tags) which is always a turn off for me because I know it’s either a short cut or the writer just doesn’t know any better. In most cases it’s the latter. In this case, however, Hugh Howey balances well executed dialogue with descriptive narrative in a way that keeps the pace moving and the reader interested, and even concerned about what’s next.

This is just one small example of what I mean:

Holston dreamed of such things while he scrubbed dutifully on the third lens, wiped, applied, sprayed, then   moved to the last. His pulse was audible in his ears; his chest pounded in that constricting suit. Soon,   soon, he told himself. He used the second wool pad and polished the grime off the final lens. He wiped and applied and sprayed   a final time, then put everything back in its place, back in the numbered pouches, not wanting to bespoil the gorgeous and healthy ground   beneath his feet.
Howey, Hugh (2011-07-30). Wool – Part One (pp. 43-44). Broad Reach. Kindle Edition.

From the events following earth’s devastation to the underground silos of human retreat, a social web of creative existence that has become a way of life will take almost any reader to the point of hypnosis within the first few pages. And I don’t use the word creative loosely. I now see why this story has resonated with so many. I also think that for readers just getting into this genre…or even just getting into e-books…this would be an excellent place to start. Even if you find a few things you don’t like, the overall story/concept won’t leave you disappointed.

If anyone has any questions I didn’t cover, e-mail me in private.

You can find Wool here on Amazon.

Ex-Gay Author: Surrogacy is Like Salve Trading

Speaking of similes, this one’s a real gem.

But it’s the “ex-gay” part of this post that caught my attention at first. Robert Oscar Lopez is an author and a professor at California State University. He says he was once gay and had relationships with men, but after some kind of religious transformation he found women hot, I guess became suddenly attracted to vagina,  married a woman, and he’s been with her for 12 years. I don’t know how else to put that other than as bluntly and as ridiculous as it sounds when he says it.

And now, Lopez is speaking out and saying that surrogacy can be compared to slave trading. But more, he’s directed this comparison to gay couples who use surrogates.

‘In both Ohio and the United Kingdom, there has been a push, mostly by gay men, to issue birth certificates that indicate neither the egg donor nor the surrogate mother’s name’ Lopez wrote.

 ‘This would transform a birth certificate from a document recording where a child came from into a bill of sale and contract for ownership of human chattel … We’ve seen this before – not only in the United States, but going all the way back to Rome.

 ‘Yes, I know the word “slavery” is incendiary. But we have to take surrogacy seriously, because this could escalate into what we saw between the 1400s and 1800s. Human beings have blind spots. Systems that begin on a small scale have a habit of growing rapidly, turning far more monstrous than people would have predicted, and then becoming world-historical atrocities solvable only by traumas like the American Civil War.

First, I actually do know a little about this topic. Tony and I have niece who actually is a surrogate as I write this post today. And she’s not doing this for a gay couple. She’s doing it for a straight couple. Her only motivation in doing this is to help a couple have a child of their own. It’s an effort of love and emotion. And trust me, the last thing on her mind is slave trading.

This guy needs to go back to men.

You can read more here.

Review: Snapped by G.A. Hauser

Review: Snapped by G.A. Hauser

I think I started posting that G.A. Hauser was an author I enjoyed reading way back when I first started blogging, or at least close to it. But I haven’t reviewed any of her books in a while and when I noticed her new book, Snapped, and read the description I decided it was time to take some time off and enjoy reading for pleasure again.

And once again, I wasn’t disappointed with Snapped. I hate to even mention this because it seems like such a dull statement at this point with any m/m book, but I used to refer to Hauser as an example of a woman writing gay fiction who does a damn great job at it. I have even used her as an example when I’m writing hetero fiction, hoping to capture in my own work what she’s been doing for so long with m/m books. And that’s the authenticity factor. With Hauser it’s often more intense sometimes than others, and perhaps this is because of her background as a woman working in criminal justice.

In Snapped, I think Hauser touches upon a few things that many of us can relate to these days with regard to sabotage and ethics and books. I don’t want to go into detail about that because this review would become a novel itself with regard to reviews alone. But in this case the book discusses an author writing with a pen name who has allegedly written what many would consider controversial topics, but with an interesting catch, so to speak. Then Hauser draws the reader into a twisted plot that includes blackmail, espionage, fakery, and a very interesting romance that kept me turning the pages to see what would happen next. I’ll stop there because I don’t want to give any spoilers.

It’s a fast paced book that leaves characters questioning ethics and loyalty, without telling too much too soon to ruin things for the reader. I often tend to predict how books will end and I’m usually right. That doesn’t bother me in the least and sometimes I like knowing how books will end, especially if they’re done well. However, in this case I kept wondering what would happen…or how something would turn out.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that I enjoyed reading about fictional writers involved in this kind of suspense because of Hauser’s background in criminal justice. The truth is that most writers live somewhat quiet lives and suspense doesn’t enter their lives. I know nothing about criminal justice and don’t want to know anything about it other than what I’m reading in fiction for pure entertainment and escapism. In other words, I want the author to make it all up as he or she goes along. And I want all things embellished as much as possible to make it larger than life. In this case Hauser took me to another place, and at the same time a slightly familiar place with which I could identify to a certain extent with books. I know intellectually all fiction is embellished, but I can’t help thinking (or wanting to think) that emotionally the author was really there doing all this just like his or her characters.

If you’re looking for something exciting, with in-depth character development and good solid writing that doesn’t hop all over the place, this is one reason why I think you’ll enjoy Snapped. I would recommend this book to anyone without thinking twice for this and the sheer fact that it kept me interested/entertained from beginning to end. But I also want to add that there is something unusually sexy about all G.A. Hauser’s books I find hard to describe. And I’m not talking over the top sex, or even highly erotic sex. It’s in every sentence and every scene, even when the scenes aren’t supposed to be sexy…just the sexy tone/voice, or the hidden force to catch readers (for lack of a better word) she uses in all her books. It’s something you know is there while you’re reading, but not something you can actually pinpoint.

You can find the book here on Amazon.   And also here at where the book has already received a bestseller star.

Review Pretty Boy Dead; ESPN and Michael Sam

Review Pretty Boy Dead

Update: 3/8/14 Pretty Boy Dead was nominated for the 2014 Lambda Awards. You can read more about that here.

I don’t normally read mystery/suspense novels, but there are times when I make the exception and Jon Michaelsen’s Pretty Boy Dead is one of them. I was not disappointed this time, and I might even go back and re-read this at some point in the future because I think the gay parts in the book deal with issues (for lack of a better word) to which many can relate, especially those who work in certain fields.

The basic premise revolves around murder, a screwed up kid, and a questionable system. Sgt. Kendall Parker is a detective (with the Criminal Investigation Division) who has a few interesting fundamental flaws I thought made him more realistic and intense. The way Michaelsen portrayed him created a sense of drama that added more conflict to the storyline. In other words, he’s interesting and you want to know more about him as you continue to read. The lines below sparked my curiosity.

“Parker stared at the corpse, seeing not the man lying before him, but the haunting image of another. The obsession was never far from his mind, clouding his thoughts and perhaps his judgment.”

I often wonder how much personal detective/crime experience mystery authors like Michaelsen have because this book led me to believe so much came from either excellent research or personal experience. It wasn’t rushed or pushed too fast, which I think would make it more realistic with respect to real criminal investigations of this nature. But it doesn’t stop there because the insights with respect to social issues are also covered in a way that seems to draw closely to personal experience in an overall sense. And when I see this it leads me to believe an author is an astute observer of life and the social/human condition. But more than that, in between all of this there are a few interesting political situations that tend to lean more toward the tawdry side of what happens in the real world. The things most of us don’t know about.

And for someone like me who doesn’t read much mystery/suspense I found the characters and storyline believable. That’s a big thing for me as a reader. I can’t say that’s something I always find in this genre, which is one reason why I don’t read it too often. I didn’t feel as if I was being yanked around and sold a bill of goods with contrived scenes and less credible situations. In this case, I felt at times as if I’d entered a world so unfamiliar to me I wanted to linger a little longer to see what else might transpire. As for more technical aspects, the writing is solid, the book is well executed from cover to edits, and I didn’t find any issues at all with the digital formatting.

If you’re a mystery fan I think you’ll enjoy this, and if you’re not into mystery all that much I think it’s a good way to get into the genre because of the depth of story. It’s not simple and I found several surprises I won’t divulge now. I would have no issues recommending this book to anyone. My only regret is that I took so long to get to it. I’ve had it for a while and just kept putting it off for other things, which was a huge mistake on my part.

You can purchase the book here, at Amazon, in both digital and paperback.

 ESPN and Michael Sam

This article is interesting because I’ve been wondering the same thing, but not with ESPN. With other places I’ve seen the Michael Sam disclosure discussed. For those who don’t know, Sam is a football player with University of Missouri and he recently came out to what I think is a huge barrage of coverage considering there are so many other important things happening right now. He’s even trumping the death of Shirley Temple in some places, which is big. But some news/sports outlets seem to have an issue covering his story smoothly. Or, it looks as though some would rather not deal with it.

Even anchors like Robert Flores, who are supposed to be the show’s steadying hands, seemed to have trouble saying the word “gay.” Tortured pauses and jumbled sentences abounded as the men on set reckoned with the notion of homosexuality. If SportsCenter — and ESPN’s television network — are the central hub of sports news, their broadcast on Sunday night was quietly depressing.

On a more positive note, I was watching my local Philadelphia ABC news affiliate the other night and they covered the story of Michael Sam without a hitch or a single misstep. In fact, they actually offered positive commentary which is something they don’t normally do. It was all normal and comfortable.

You can read more here in Rolling Stone.

Review: Lethal Obsession Deserted

Review: Lethal Obsession Deserted

I love any book that begins with an acknowledgement to Glenfidditch, however, that was only the beginning with this one. Lucca is a lonely, arrogant, rebellious young man who seems to crave attention from his family. However, due to this lack of attention from family he winds up finding it in a few questionable places. Almost as if he’s daring himself to see how far he will go. And in the same respect, his self-destructive nature could also be described as vengeance toward his family. His only consolation in Italy is his mentor, Sal, who sometimes seems too nice for a young man who needs more guidance. The first chapter moves fast, and the the story really begins when Lucca asks Sal to take him to America. Only that makes life more complicated, and it changes Lucca in ways he couldn’t have predicted.

Lucca becomes obsessed with the idea that he needs to be worth something to someone, which is almost a direct quote from the story. And in order to prove his worth, and to prove how determined he is, he stuns his family with something they never saw coming and disappears into the world of BDSM in Denver, CO, with his friend, Marcello. When the family realizes he’s gone, Carl, from the prologue, enters the picture through friends of friends and he reluctantly begins a search for Lucca. But Carl also has a story of his own:  Carl opened the door and stopped for a moment to process the feeling that hit him every time he entered the club, the feeling that he’d just tumbled down the rabbit hole and into a sexual wonderland. And at this point in the book I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how well the subject of BDSM is handled. There’s nothing too graphic, but it’s the concept that is treated with respect to those who are into the scene, which I found interesting as a bystander who isn’t into BDSM. I don’t see that often in BDSM books.

In the meantime, Lucca and Marcello form a closer bond because of their circumstances and I often felt as if Lucca feels responsible for Marcello. From there, the BDSM scene continues in more interesting ways I’d rather not say to avoid spoilers. Marcello is not as savvy or articulate as Lucca, and he becomes a liability Lucca’s not sure he’s willing to deal with. As the character of Carl is explained in more detail, we see him as a stronger, almost stubborn man who is determined to get what he wants and we’re not certain about him just yet. All we know is he wants to find Lucca.

In some scenes that follow, the BDSM world is shown to be a sometimes dangerous place for young men who aren’t as careful as they should be. Marcello discovers this after a particularly bad scene he does because he needs the money. This is when we see a stronger side of Lucca as he convinces Marcello to go home. In the same respect, he refuses to go himself in spite of the things he knows he must do to survive. Then Carl enters the picture again and ignores his own feelings because he’s promised Lucca’s parents he would bring him home again. He then becomes a counselor, or guardian of sorts and tries to convince Lucca his family really cares about him.

What happens after this is a surprise. In fact, like with most of Michele Montgomery’s books, there are a few surprises I didn’t expect and I don’t want to spoil them for the reader. From a more technical POV, the book is written well, with careful attention to detail and it’s not overwritten. I speak and read book Italian, but I think it’s important to mention this for those who don’t. The dialogue constantly moves the story forward and that’s interesting because part of the book is set in Italy and the characters are Italian. However, this is handled very professionally, without words and phrases…or colloquialisms…that stop the story, or that the average reader might not understand. We know they are Italian and the book continues in English so it will move forward. It’s a clever trick most seasoned novelists understand. And not one that’s easily obtained. Montgomery has a way of drawing the reader into the story with dialogue in all her books, but I found this one especially well-executed.

I would recommend this book to anyone for several reasons. One, because it’s so well-written. And two, because even if you aren’t into the BDSM scene it’s interesting to read about them in a book like this that’s more focused on love, emotion, rebellion, and the kind of relationships that grow from some underlying connection that’s not always visible, but is there all the time. And once again, I’ll take these characters with me for a long time.

To read more and purchase the book, click the photo above which is a link to Amazon.

Review: Actors Anonymous by James Franco

Review: Actors Anonymous by James Franco

I finished this novel last night and figured I’d better post a review while it’s still fresh in my mind. And that’s because in many ways it reminds me of a graduate course I took senior year in college called Communications and Literature. I was supposed to take this lame senior seminar as a requirement, but with a little foot work and a really cool advisor in the fine arts department who had some national fame at the time (and signed anything I asked him to sign because he knew how hard I worked in his sculpture classes) I figured out a way to bypass the senior seminar and take a graduate course that focused on literature, interpretation, and communications.

The course was so intense the professor admitted on the first day he didn’t get it either, especially the semiotics and semantics. And the reason I’m even mentioning this now is because while I was reading Actors Anonymous I felt as if I’d been transported back to that graduate course all over again. Actors Anonymous, like the graduate course, is the kind of book that needs to be absorbed a certain way, and parsed with an articulate eye. So far, in reading most of the mainstream so-called professional reviews I haven’t seen anyone do that with Actors Anonymous. I’m not talking about Amazon reviews now. I highly respect all customer reviews and everyone has an opinion I respect. I’m only talking about people who get paid to write reviews for mainstream publications, and who should know better. Unfortunately, I guess they didn’t take any grad courses in communications and literature.

One aspect of communications and literature I learned about in the grad course I mentioned above is that we tend to interpret literature differently at various times in our lives. In other words, I might feel completely different about Actors Anonymous ten years from now if I reread it again in the future. If you don’t believe me, revisit a novel you read ten years ago and see if you feel the same way about it. As our lives and circumstances change through the years, we often tend to interpret the books we read in different ways. For me, at this point in my life, I think I appreciated Actors Anonymous as much as I did because as a career fiction writer I understood what was written on the page, and also what was written between the lines of the pages. I probably wouldn’t have felt this way ten years ago.

Due to the fact that Actors Anonymous is so abstract at times I can’t get into a full plot description because the novel doesn’t really follow the normal course of novel writing. I have no doubt it’s fiction for the most part. And yet it’s not an anthology, and I should know because I’ve been in far more anthologies than I can even count at this point. What I thought it did was follow a theme that revolves around acting, the deep need to act almost to the point of addiction, and all the traps that accompany fame and fortune if an actor is successful. And it’s done in a current (and simple) way that I think is about as real as any novel I’ve ever read before. If there were a genre labeled “Reality Fiction,” this would be a perfect fit. There’s no proverbial sugar-coating deal going on here, and in the same respect it wasn’t too over the top in a way I might have questioned.

The book does bounce at times from chapter to chapter, which I thought added more abstract appeal. There’s a chapter with texts discussing a realtor who boasts about things like her glorious adventures to her deep desire for what I thought was supposed to be interpreted as affection. I could be wrong about that, but it was an interesting chapter anyway. And it’s really the way a reader interprets the chapter that matters most. And then there are chapters like McDonalds I and McDonalds II where an unusual guy who seems to drift with the breeze tries to pull his life together by working in fast food and making a few extra bucks on the side by performing sexual favors for some poor unfortunate who’s not going to get laid any other way. In fact, throughout the novel I found many well written sex scenes. But they aren’t sex scenes that are designed to stimulate the reader in a sexual way. Most are raw, they devolve into the darker side of life most struggling artists experience at one point or another, and they often left me wanting to shower (or rinse my mouth with peroxide). However, the fact that they had this brand of clarity only made the novel more intense for me and the overall reading experience.

If I had begun a book like this and found the writing overdone or poorly executed I probably wouldn’t have finished. Thankfully, none of the characters “barked,” in the dialogue tags and no one’s “feet climbed up the stairs.” However, the word economy, the exact way each sentence flows into another, and the structure of the narrative kept me turning each page into the early hours of the several mornings. I would love to have seen the original manuscript without revises just to compare it with the final book. It’s been so well edited and made so tight I couldn’t find one single flaw with the writing. Even the sex scenes worked, and scenes like this in other novels I’ve read tend to be over-written many times. But not once during a single sex scene did I read a sentence like, “He brought her off.” This might sound like a minor detail to many people. But if you read a lot and you know the difference, it’s a huge thing for others.

Whether or not this novel was written to be sarcastic at times could be anyone’s guess. I did detect a hint of snark and WTF-ery in an amusing way (Perez Hilton: smile), but it’s not the first time I’ve seen that in fiction of this nature and I’m sure it won’t be the last. The voice in a general sense kept me reading, even during a few of the bumpy sections where I had to go back and figure out what had happened. For me, that was fun. I have eclectic taste and I like reading abstract works that challenge the norm every once in a while just as much as I sometimes like reading Debbie Macomber. I’ve already recommended Actors Anonymous to people I think will like it as much as I did (or get something out of it), and I’ve cautioned a few who I know would expect something else. As a writer, the one biggest fear I’ve always had was getting nothing but three star mediocre reviews. Because the books that get the most balanced reviews between one star and five always seem to be the most challenging to the reader. They touched a nerve, they made someone think, and whether they pissed someone off or thrilled someone else, the extreme is always what matters most in the end in fiction.

My suggestion to anyone vetting this book for purchase would be to check out all the reviews and read the samples. My warning would be to beware of  all the so-called professional mainstream reviews that talk more about the author and the author’s fame than the actual contents of the book.

I purchased the book in digital format on Amazon for 5.99.

Side note: I think you can retrieve your iTunes if your drive crashes. (It’s in the book.)

Lady Gaga’s Bare Butt; M/M Review: See the Light by Cassandra Carr

Lady Gaga’s Bare Butt

For those of you who might be interested, there’s a link to an entertaining GIF with Lady Gaga’s bare butt.

Still dressed the seashell bra and thong underwear from her “Applause” performance that opened the evening’s show, the singer flashed her bare butt on camera, which she was shaking to the sweet sounds of JT.

This happened at the MTV VMAs while Justin Timberlake came out on stage.  I didn’t watch…her butt or the VMAs.

As a side note, while I’m sure there are a few people interested in seeing Lady Gaga’s bare ass, I think most of us would rather see Justin Timberlake’s.

M/M Book Review: See the Light by Cassandra Carr

One of the reasons I don’t write book reviews often is because they take so long to write. So I’ve decided to post a few mini reviews every now and then. This one is about a book I read over the weekend titled, See the Light by Cassandra Carr. The book is considered M/M, it’s the only book I’ve ever read by this author, and you can find it here.

The main theme of the book revolves around two closeted hockey players, Jason and Patrick. While I do like M/M books with jock themes, I’m not always a fan of any book that talks about the sport more than the love story. In See the Light, I was not disappointed. The author mentioned enough about hockey as a sport to keep me involved in a plot that was about hockey, but didn’t bore me with too many hockey details that would have been irrelevant to the love story. I also found the way Carr handled the relationships and interactions between the hockey players to be short and sweet, but at the same time extremely real. In other words, closeted gay hockey players put up an invisible wall to keep themselves protected. Their lives depend on this. As a gay man I fully understand this, and Carr did a great job at portraying what it must really be like for closeted gay hockey players. Nothing seemed fake.

I also enjoyed the awkward way the two characters come together in the beginning, which is really about as awkward as these things get in real life for most gay men. I kept thinking as I was reading that these are really many of the things I’ve experienced as a gay man, which kept me turning each page to see what would happen next. The topic of top and bottom was also a part of the book, which I don’t see as often as I would like in M/M romances. This top and bottom issue, for lack of a better way to put it, is something so fundamentally important to any intimate gay relationship it can either make or break a gay couple on the first date. And, the top and bottom issue has nothing to do with gender power or politics. It’s something innate to gay men sexually speaking and has nothing to do with how they behave when they are not in intimate situations. Carr scored highly here, too.

This book is also erotic romance. And the erotic scenes were not only excellent, but real. I found them sexy, well executed from a tech POV, and superior in detail with an individual style. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the way Carr wrote about Jason and Patrick acting as if they were sex maniacs at some points in the story. They do act that way, and any gay man knows why. Gay men don’t get a normal puberty like straight men. We are denied that and when we finally reach an age (that age varies with all gay men) where we realize we can act on our human sexual desires, we tend to over dramatize them both internally and externally to a certain extent. Half the time, just like the characters in this book I’m reviewing, we don’t even realize we are doing this.

The writing style of this book was neat and tight, without most of the usual issues I find horrifying in so many romance novels, gay or straight. The dialogue tags did not make me cringe, and the dialogue constantly moved the story forward. The only thing I noticed were a few too many similes, however, I’m not one of those readers who shun all similes. I “like” them and I don’t think they take the reader away from the story in this case at all. In fact, they add to the story in most cases. 

The ending was a little ambiguous, but the author has posted on Amazon that she will be writing a sequel to this book to tie things up. I don’t mind that. I like cliff hangers and I like knowing that I have something to which I can look forward. 

If I post this review on Amazon or Goodreads, I’ll give it five stars. If I were presumptuous enough to ever grade an author, I would give this book an A+. And I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in fiction that shows what it’s really like to be gay and closeted in a very straight, often unforgiving, world.


Book Review: Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou

I first heard about Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou from an interview at the back of Time Magazine called “10 Questions.” I’d just finished an autobiography by Valerie Harper, I read something similiar before that, and I wasn’t in the market for another memoir. However, after reading those ten simple questions in Time, I decided to buy the Kindle version of Mom & Me & Mom anyway.

The book begins with the earliest part of Angelou’s life and how she and her brother, Bailey, had been sent to live with their maternal grandmother. Their mother, Vivian Baxter, thought it would be a better environment for them. As a result, when it was time for them to leave the racially charged south as young adults a few years later and return to San Francisco to live with Vivian again, both Maya and Bailey held reservations…and a certain amount of resentment…toward Vivian for sending them away in the first place.

These strong emotions follow the move back to San Francisco. And in this book Maya Angelou discusses the difficulties Vivian Baxter had in trying to win the trust…and respect…of her two children. Bailey seemed to take it better, where Maya missed her grandmother and didn’t even want to call Vivian “Mother.” It’s all explained well, and it portrays Vivian as a strong, determined woman, with an intrinsic brand of wisdom her daughter, Maya, seems to have inherited from her. And while I was reading I kept wondering why I didn’t dislike this woman, Vivian, who had sent her two children away to live with their grandmother more than I did, and I think that’s because this story is told in a way that shows no one is perfect and we all do the best with what we have. Vivian Baxter did this with her head held high, diamonds in her ears, and a pistol in her purse.

At one point in the book, Angelou discusses being raped at a very young age. Of course I’d read about this before and it wasn’t a big surprise. But there are surprises in the book, and things I didn’t know about Angelou I won’t give away now as spoilers for those who have not read it yet. In a general sense, as the book moves forward and we see Maya learning more about Vivian Baxter, each experience Maya has is centered around Vivian’s grand style, her pragmatism, and her ability to love as deeply as a mother can love.

Toward the middle of the book, we see Maya growing into a woman, and dealing with a few of the realities we all face during those early years. Again, no spoilers, however, I found myself liking Vivian Baxter even more during several events that could have altered the course of Maya Angelou’s entire life if it had not been for Vivian’s Baxter’s support. And yet, at the same time, there was nothing simple about Vivian Baxter at all. And although Angelou never really gets into this in any details, Vivian had a full life of her own, and was loved by both men and women. But never once controlled by anyone.

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about Maya Angelou’s books is her ability to wave that proverbial magic wand and turn a pumpkin into a golden carriage, so to speak. She takes ordinary situations, and comments, and turns them into exercises in wisdom in a way that’s so poetic you wind up rereading them as they come up in the book. There’s one section in the book where Maya is dealing with a new career, being a single mother, and trying to be as independent as possible given her circumstances. She’s overwhelmed to the point of absolute panic, and it’s as frightening to read as it must have been to go through at the time. Yet in the end, she leaves us with one simple, basic word that seems to make everything okay again: gratitude.

Although the difficulties of growing up African American during a period when racial tensions were high, to put it mildly, did come up, I never once found this book focusing on race. It’s mentioned on occasion, and then it’s time to move forward. At one point Angelou did mention how difficult it was to be a single mother. She was working two jobs at that time, and balancing what little time she did have with her son. It all came to a climax after she’d read an article in a magazine while sitting in a doctor’s office one day. Angelou’s son had serious allergies and the article talked about how allergies subside when the children get more attention. This infuriated her for several reasons, mostly because she didn’t have the luxury of spending more time with her son. And once again, Vivian Baxter came to her side, gave her support, and turned things around with a few simple words and a very generous loan.

I would recommend this book to anyone without thinking twice. I’m giving it five stars because there’s no place to click where I can give it ten. It’s the kind of book that would be a great read if you have the time to do in one sitting. And if you don’t, I suggest reading it before you go to sleep at night because it’s the kind of book that makes you feel better about yourself when you wake up in the morning.

If you don’t believe me, I suggest you read the free excerpt on Amazon before you go to bed tonight, which is what I did before I made the purchase. You can get there from here.  

Book Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

I don’t think I could add anything too different from what’s already been said about The Casual Vacancy in over three thousand Amazon reviews. I’ve noticed that the reviews are mixed, and about half either loved the book or half didn’t. I’d like to add up front that I did not read anything in the Harry Potter series because I’m not a fan of that genre. I saw a few of the movies and I yawned through them. Once again, because I’m not a fan of that particular genre.

But I am a fan of J.K. Rowling now and it’s all because of The Casual Vacancy. I’ve read where a lot of people didn’t like the fact that there are so many characters. I found this aspect not only refreshing, but also something most writers aren’t capable of doing. As a writer I know how difficult it is to weave multiple characters into a plot and I don’t do it often because it’s so difficult to keep the story flowing and at the same time keep reminding the reader who the characters are. And I didn’t have any issues following all the characters in The Casual Vacancy. In fact, what kept me reading and thinking about the book was what was going to happen to these characters. And there’s really nothing extraordinary about them, and yet you wind up caring about them.

I will admit that I started this book a while ago, and then I put it aside because I got busy with other things. But that’s something else I loved about it. I do that with authors like John Irving sometimes. I’ll start the book, get to a certain point, and then stop reading for a few weeks…even months sometimes…and then come back to it right where I left off. And after all that time, if the book is good enough, those characters and the plot are with me to a certain extent. I can’t say that about many other books I’ve read in my lifetime. And that’s because a book like The Casual Vacancy only comes along once in a while.

I noticed a lot of people compared TCV to Peyton Place. I would go so far as to say that it did remind me of Peyton Place, but I don’t think Grace Metalious was anywhere near the author J.K. Rowling is. If I had to compare Petyon Place to anything nowadays I would probably compare it to Fifty Shades of Grey instead of The Casual Vacancy because I think Metalious and E.L. James are probably on the same level as far as author skills go. And that’s by no means a slur to either of them. They both wrote great books and people loved them.

But there’s a literary quality to The Casual Vacancy that crosses that painfully thin line into mainstream commercial that truly interested me. From page one, I found myself caring about the people of Pagford and wondering what was going to happen to them. I also found reading about lifestyles in the UK just as interesting. In many ways, it’s not all that different from the US, and Pagford could have been my little town, New Hope, in Bucks County, PA….from the politics to the class warfare to the little secrets going on behind the scenes.

What some readers have commented on is that there’s a dark side to this book, and I just didn’t see that. There’s a realistic side. I saw that very plainly. But I didn’t see all the darkness and gloom. Like I said, it’s real and sometimes it’s intense. And sometimes there’s some wit and humor worked into the book when you don’t expect it. It’s also gossipy in the way many small towns are. But I just didn’t see all that darkness and gloom others talked about.

Rowling could have held back in some instances, especially with regard to the male teenage characters. And yet she didn’t, and I found this aspect of the book more like a character study. It surprised me, too. As someone who never had read Harry Potter, I honestly didn’t think she had it in her. This is why I didn’t want to get into an overall plot description with this review. So many others have done that well in other reviews, and I wanted to add a few different thoughts…if that’s possible…for readers who might be thinking of reading The Casual Vacancy but aren’t sure if it’s the book for them.

All I can say if that if you like things glossed over and hidden, and you’re not a fan of really reading about some of the more intense things in life, this might not be the book for you. If you tend to take the more difficult aspects of life seriously and you carry images around in your head for a long time, this book might not be for you either. But if you are interested in reading something that gets into the realities and complications of what life is like today, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprsed at how J.K. Rowling managed to pull this off. And I hope there are more books like this one in her future.

LGBT Book Review: Deeply Superficial by Michael Menzies

When I first started reading Deeply Superficial by Michael Menzies, I wasn’t sure where it was going. From the image on the book cover I expected biographical stories about Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward. I soon found out the book is more of a combination autobiography/biography, with personal accounts of the fascinating life Michael Menzies has led…mixed in with tidbits about both Dietrich and Coward. Weaving different stories into a book is not an easy thing to do, but it’s done well in this book. And Menzies makes it real without sounding too over the top like a few other bios I’ve read this year. He uses an endearing brand of self-deprecation devoid of all pretense, and you will find yourself cheering him on as he travels through life trying to figure “it” all out.

It’s clear from the beginning of the book Menzies was fascinated with Dietrich and Coward at a very young age. He grew up in an average home in New Zealand, longing for more excitement, glamour, and sophistication. At one point, he became convinced he was adopted and his real parents were, indeed, Dietrich and Coward. He does this in a clever, tongue-in-cheek way, and returns to this adoption reference throughout the book as his own life seems to be constantly mingled with Dietrich and Coward, usually through no fault of his own. (As a side note, I’ve been a fan of a book titled “The Magic of Believing” for many years. And when I read about the deep appreciation Menzies had for Dietrich and Coward I thought it was a good example of how the things we love and appreciate the most often come to us if we think about them hard enough…in a positive way.) In spite of his devotion to these two stars, never once did I think of Menzies as a celebrity stalker. He had too much respect for Dietrich and Coward for that. And he always spoke of his real parents (Clive and Mary) with great respect.

Dietrich understood. Professional commitments always came before personal wishes. This was a law by which she lived her life.

I also like bios where I learn things I didn’t know. And the Dietrich and Coward stories Menzies discusses in the book are abundant, from funny to painful. Especially the one part where Dietrich is leaving on a train. No spoilers. But I never knew that happened. I also didn’t know that Coward was often tormented with demons all his life. And none of this was done in a dishy way. It was all done with respect and I only came away more interested in the lives of Dietrich and Coward, not to mention gaining a new sense of respect for how hard they worked to achieve the things they did in life.

Coward knew the affair was so one-sided that it would inevitably collapse. He knew, too, that Traylor was not attracted to him (or any man for that matter).

Michael Menzies has led a fascinating life in his own right, too. From the time he ran away from home, to the experiences he had with someone dying of AIDS. For a gay man with a limited background and education, living during the closeted time period in which he had to survive, he worked hard and did well in various creative professions. From writing magazine articles to working in production for some of Hollywood’s biggest studios, he managed to finally attain a lot of the excitement and glamour he craved so much growing up. And he did it all on his own.

Eduardo was twenty-seven when I met him, and it was rare to find a man of his age who even knew who Dietrich was. He knew and loved Donna Summer, Grace Jones, Stevie Nicks, and surprise of surprises, he knew and loved Marlene Dietrich, too. He was a prize. I had to add him to my life, where he remains to this day, still a prize.

I’ve been lucky enough in my own life to have known several very successful gay men like Menzies who often acted as mentors when I didn’t know what being gay was all about. It’s a generation of gay men who make dinner an event that never begins a moment earlier than nine at night, with stories of fascinating people they’ve known, stories of exotic places they’ve traveled, and stories of interesting things they’ve done. And while I was reading Deeply Superficial, I felt as if I were listening to a couple of old friends of mine who once lived on Sutton Place in NY and designed homes for people who owned fleets of ships and famous NY restaurants. It’s a generation of gay men who don’t seem to get the appreciation (or respect) they deserve in this new less sophisticated world now where people don’t seem to mind wearing sweat pants in public and driving cars shaped like toy boxes.

But I digress. It was nice to read a book like this, written from such an honest, genuine POV. Menzies also talks about his long term relationship with several funny tips on how to make a relationship last for a long time, one of which is separate bedrooms and bathrooms. (As another side note, those of you writing m/m romance might find it interesting to know that a lot of gay men in long term relationships…especially the gay men I’ve known…don’t share the same bedroom.) The book is also extremely well written (and edited) and I did NOT find one single offensive word, sentence, or paragraph that made me cringe…from a writer’s POV. The story flows with an even pace, moves fast, and I found myself reading much later into the night than I’d planned. In fact, I read this in two sittings mainly because I wanted to see how it ended.

 When people ask me the secret of a long and happy relationship, I always tell them separate bedrooms, and more importantly, separate bathrooms are the answer.

I would recommend this book to anyone without thinking twice. And I think that if there are any younger gay men who are interested in reading about gay men from this generation, it’s the perfect book to grasp what things were like for the gay men who’ve paved the way…without even knowing it in most cases…for the rest of us.

You can purchased the book here.

And here’s a combo author bio and blurb as per Amazon:

In this dazzling memoir that also serves as a dual biography of stage and film legends Noël Coward and Marlene Dietrich, producer Michael Menzies chronicles in hilarious detail his life-long obsession with the theater in general and these two international superstars in particular.

Born in New Zealand, and physically a doppelganger of his father, Menzies was convinced at an early age that he did not belong in the outdoorsy, sports-mad country of his birth, but on the glittering stages of the world’s most glamorous theaters. And a twelfth birthday present from his mother confirmed this,

Allowed to purchase any gift, as long as it was a book, Menzies was drawn immediately to the autobiography of actor/writer/composer Noël Coward, and was soon consumed by it. He identified hugely with Coward, so much so that he came to believe that he must be his love child. But with whom? Menzies worked out that his mother must be Marlene Dietrich, who happened to be among Coward’s inner circle. As Menzies writes, “the dates didn’t really fit but were close enough if one fudged a little”.

The book follows Menzies’s decision to leave New Zealand and takes him on a voyage around the world to confront Coward and Dietrich and announce himself as their son. It’s not long before he realizes that this could not be so, but he continues his search for them – and their pasts, nonetheless. He finds echoes of their lives in London, Paris, New York, Berlin, Switzerland, Jamaica, all of which he recounts in this book.

Deeply Superficial is a tribute to Menzies’s four parents: Clive and Mary Menzies, who guided his early years and allowed him the freedom to indulge his imagination ,and Coward and Dietrich who gave him the inspiration to “above all, behave exquisitely”, which remains potent in him to this day.

Book Review: The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

Unless you’ve actually experienced a horrific event in your life that is so shocking it not only defines your past but also your future, it might be difficult to grasp the magnitude of The Beginner’s Goodbye. In other words, that one day in your life…or maybe even minute…that defines everything about you and tests you, where there was your life before the event and then your life after the event. People who have experienced these sudden losses, so strange by nature they never could have been predicted, will know what I’m talking about. You’re never the same again.

In this book it’s the sudden loss of a spouse, in a relationship that was far from perfect and yet it worked for both husband and wife. And this sudden, unpredictable loss leaves Aaron not only in shock, but also going through all the stages of grief, from blame to acceptance. One minute he’s living his normal ordinary life and the next he’s living someone else’s life and he’s not sure how to start over. But more than that, he’s not ready to let go of his wife either. There’s so much left unsaid and so many things he wished he’d done he begins to run into his dead wife in the most unlikely places…or at least he thinks he does.

The intricate relationship between Aaron and his wife before her death is examined closely, and those who know and understand what being married for the long haul is all about…the compromises and frustrations and the little things taken for granted…will laugh and cry at various stages of this book. Even the reaction Aaron has to his own home is depicted in such detail, and it’s so real, people who have lost their spouses will be amazed something like this could have been written so well. One day he’s enjoying the less than perfect aspects of his home and the next he can’t even stand to look at it from the curb.

As the story progresses, Aaron slowly moves forward toward his new life, by stumbling and tripping (literally and figuratively) with each step he takes. This is the new life he never imaged he would have. He does this in his own quiet way, by remembering little details about his dead wife’s flaws and attributes. He examines his marriage all the way back to the moment he met his dead wife. And by doing this he not only learns more about his dead wife and his marriage, but he also learns a few things about himself he didn’t see while he was married. At times it’s funny; at times it’s painful. For those who have experienced trauma like Aaron’s experienced, at times it’s even difficult to read.

I’m not going to give out any spoilers in this review because that would ruin it for all the people who will understand where Ms. Tyler was going with this book, and who will relate to Aaron. The writing is solid and tight, without overwritten sentences or poor dialogue tags. There’s no unnecessary dialogue to slow down the pace. What’s there moves the story and the characters forward with each sentence. And the only down side to reading a book like this by Anne Tyler is that now I’ll have to wait at least another two years for her next novel.

My one suggestion would be to advise readers not to read the book description by the publisher. It does contain a spoiler I thought was intricate to the story, and had I read it before I started the book I would have missed out on one huge surprise in the book. I don’t know who wrote this book description, but he/she clearly doesn’t know how to write book descriptions very well.