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Review: Josef Jaeger by Jere’ M. Fishback

Josef Jaeger turns thirteen when Adolf Hitler is appointed Germany’s new Chancellor. When his mother dies, Josef is sent to Munich to live with his uncle, Ernst Roehm, the openly-homosexual chief of the Nazi brown shirts. Josef thinks he’s found a father-figure in his uncle and a mentor in his uncle’s lover, streetwise Rudy, and when Roehm’s political connections land Josef a role in a propaganda movie, Josef’s sure he’s found the life he’s always wanted. But while living in Berlin during the film’s production, Josef falls in love with a Jewish boy, David, and Josef begins questioning his uncle’s beliefs.

Complications arise when an old friend of his mother’s tells Josef that his mother was secretly murdered by the SS due to her political beliefs, possibly on Roehm’s order. Josef confides in his Hitler Youth leader, Max Klieg. Klieg admits he knows a few things, but he won’t share them with Josef till the boy proves himself worthy of a confidence.
Conflicting beliefs war within Josef until he must decide where his true loyalties lie, and what he really believes in.

Review by Hayden Thorne

I always get all giddy and delirious whenever I come across genre LGBT YA fiction. 🙂 It remains a tiny and overlooked niche, and I hope that it enjoys growing exposure and respect through an expanding list of good quality titles like Josef Jaeger.

Now I must admit that I was hesitant at first to read Jere’ Fishback’s novel, as I really don’t have the stomach for Nazi-themed fiction or film. I’ve watched several movies before, and I always fall apart before the end, a wretched, sobbing mess. Since reading is more involved compared to watching, a novel focusing on Nazi Germany (or just Nazis in general) makes me dread what might be waiting for me in between the pages. Have you seen A Love to Hide? It took me over a week to recover from that movie. Had that been a novel…

But these stories should never be ignored, and with the book also being young adult and a coming-of-age one, I got over myself and plunged in. And I’m glad I did.

The first thing you’ll notice when you read Josef Jaeger is how incredibly detailed Fishback is in his description of Nazi Germany. Bayreuth, Munich, Berlin, Nuremberg – people, places, food, everything. I’m not sure if he’s traveled to Germany before or if he’s done extensive studies on the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, but his knowledge of the place and era is exceptional.

That said, it does take a while for Josef’s story to unfold. Yes, I love it when authors take their time in telling a story, and the novel has a certain sweeping, epic scope to it. Josef travels from place to place, meets several characters along the way, and in the course of his adventures, learns about the darker yet incredibly complex side of human nature.

The downside, however, is that there are a number of scenes that were info dumps. Fishback is very particular in his descriptions, but they do go overboard at times, stretching Josef’s credibility as the narrator quite a bit. First of all, he’s only thirteen, and the novel follows his adventures in the course of a year or a little over a year. He’s shy, self-conscious, and very, very naïve. Yet, every so often, he’ll describe certain places and objects with a knowledge that you can only expect from someone who’s older and an actual expert on certain subjects, i.e., such as the exact sizes of cobblestones. Another effect of this is a dragging down of an already slow-paced story, so much so that I found myself lightly skimming over a few places that were chock-full of descriptive details that didn’t really add to the plot.

There’s so much attention paid to the environment and to the side characters that the novel reminds me of David Copperfield in the way Josef’s character progresses from wide-eyed innocent to a more jaded (but wiser) young man in the end, though the novel ends with him being only a year older.

Like Dickens’ novel, Josef Jaeger gives us an incredibly diverse cast of characters, each of whom is wonderfully developed to the extent that you feel as though you’ve been reading about them since the beginning even if they’re only there for a really short time. From Josef’s opera singer mother to his storm trooper uncle and Ernst’s heterosexual kept boy and the actors in Berlin, etc., there’s no dull moment in Josef’s young life at all, and more often than not, he’s a captive audience, watching in awe as people strut around before him – chain smoking, having sex, beating each other up, protesting the growing persecution of the Jews, and so on.

Now because of that, just like David Copperfield, Josef Jaeger seems to be more of a peripheral participant in his story. He reports what happens around him, and more often than not, he’s less an actor in everything and more of a boy who’s being acted upon. His story takes place at a time when Hitler’s just beginning his campaign against Communists and the Jews. Through Josef’s eyes, we see the growing tension in Germany and the vile propaganda finding increasing traction among disaffected Germans.

While Josef reacts to these events, I still found him curiously detached, emotionally, except for those scenes involving his developing romance with David, a Jewish boy whose family’s slowly being deprived of their rights. It’s because of the heavy focus on the unfolding political events in Germany and how they affect the people around him that I think Josef’s development as the main character becomes secondary. He cries, he gets excited, etc., but we’re told of those, and he neither evokes nor explores deeper feelings.

To some extent, it helps us keep a certain level of objectivity toward a very harrowing development in world history. On the other hand, I found it a little difficult empathizing with Josef.

This heavy focus on environment and secondary characters also undercuts the conflict that Max Klieg, a Hitler Youth leader, brings into Josef’s life. If anything, this particular detail in the book is the most problematic to me. Max appears about a quarter of the way in, when Josef joins a Hitler Youth group. Then he vanishes, not to reappear till near the end of the novel, where he plays a significant role in Ernst Roehm’s undoing.

Because Max’s reapparance is so far into the book, I didn’t feel as though Josef’s sudden hatred of his uncle is convincing enough. This specific conflict happens too late, too suddenly, and too quickly, and Josef never really goes through a long process of confusion or re-evaluation that would’ve otherwise shown a clearer shift of attitude toward his uncle. Had Max deepened the doubt and suspicion in Josef early on (already planted into his mind by another character who vanishes), we’d have a more developed exploration of the conflicting nuances of human nature. I feel that the Berlin scenes involving the production of a Nazi propaganda movie, while interesting, could’ve been scaled back considerably in favor of a better developed dilemma involving Josef and the only family member he has left.

As a minor aside, I’m also a little baffled over Josef’s mother’s death. I’m not sure if I missed something, but Josef was told at the beginning that cocaine was responsible, and then later on, he says that it’s a heart aneurysm. *If you’ve read this novel and can clarify this, please do so in the comments. I could be mistaken and would appreciate an explanation.*

Even though I didn’t feel as much of an emotional connection with Josef, I did enjoy the other characters. David and his family, the actors at UFA, and especially Rudy, were the ones who stayed with me long after I finished reading the book. Poor Rudy’s the biggest tragedy in this novel. He’s the one who never gets a fair chance from the get-go, and while he does some pretty stupid things, I really didn’t want to see him end up where he is at the conclusion of the novel. I almost feel like writing AU fanfic just to give him a second chance.

That said, Josef Jaeger is a real treat, one of the more intelligently-written YA books I’ve had the pleasure to read. It’s thought-provoking, wonderfully dense, and well-researched, touching on one of the darkest moments in world history. Kudos to Jere’ Fishback for giving us a behind-the-scenes look into the rise of Hitler without sentimentalizing things or toppling into melodrama through his use of clean, concise language and Josef’s matter-of-fact voice.

Warning: Underage sex.

Buy the book:  Amazon UK Amazon USA E-book

Review: Calico by Dorien Grey

“Calico” is something of a breakthrough novel in that it spans a bridge which is only now opening for two-way traffic. The author describes “Calico” as a “western/romance/adventure/mystery with a twist”…the twist being that its cowboy hero/protagonist just happens to be gay.

Calico Ramsey finds himself with the responsibility of seeing that two 17 year old orphaned twins from Chicago, Josh and Sarah Howard, get safely from the rail line’s end to their aunt in Colorado. But things have begun to go terribly wrong even before the twins arrive, and it doesn?t take long for Calico to realize someone does not want him to reach his destination (though how anyone even knows the trio’s destination is a mystery to Calico).

There is enough action, adventure, and mystery to satisfy both diehard western fans, and even those who don’t normally care for the genre. The gently developing romance is non-threatening to those who have lived their lives on the “mainland” side of the bridge, but offers a unique insight into the 10 percent of the population living at the other end of the bridge.

Review by Alex Beecroft

When Calico Ramsey’s uncle Dan is gunned down by a hired killer, Calico inherits not only Dan’s ranch, but also a responsibility to Dan’s newly orphaned nephew and niece. He promises to see them safely into the custody of their Aunt Rebecca, even though nobody to whom he speaks has a good word to say about the woman. The twins’ parents died in a fire following a visit from Rebecca and her husband, so when Calico and the twins are almost killed themselves in a fire the first night out, Calico begins to suspect something sinister. As their journey continues it becomes clear that someone is trying to kill the three of them before they can get to Rebecca’s house. Calico must protect his two charges, figure out what is going on and why, and deal with the burgeoning love and attraction he feels for Josh.

I really enjoyed this book. I’m not a big reader of Westerns, and am not, unfortunately, any kind of expert in the time. Nothing in the setting of this book, or the behaviour of the characters pinged me as wrong for 19th Century America, but take that with a pinch of salt as I can’t speak with any kind of knowledge on the subject. What the book reminded me of most of all was the kind of TV Western series which I watched when I was growing up. It had the same kind of strong but decent, openhearted characters, a laconic expression and stoicism that covered up deep emotions and a real appreciation of a seemingly endless landscape, with all the beauty and freedom and danger that represented.

I was also reminded of these old series because the book proceeds in a number of episodes, each of which end in a cliffhanger. There is a lot of welcome action; a memorable gunfight, runaway horses, arson, ambushes and kidnapping – there’s really no chance to ever get bored. And if, like me, you find constant action a bit wearing too, you’ll still like this book because the action is interspersed with some lovely quiet moments; companionship around the campfire, the very sweet and tender romance between Calico and Josh, moments where the beauty of the countryside comes through, and moments of good food and hospitality from strangers who become friends.

After reading Brokeback Mountain, it’s slightly hard for me to believe that neither Calico nor Josh have much in the way of angst about accepting their attraction for men in general and each other in particular, and even harder to believe that nobody in the book who knows about it seems to have a problem with it. But Dorien Gray writes the characters in such a way that I was prepared to believe that these particular people are simply fortunate in their emotional makeup and friends, rather than feeling that the whole society was anachronistic.

I enjoyed the fact that the greater part of the story took place over a journey from the railway station to the Aunt’s house. It really gave a picture of how difficult travel was in those days. I also enjoyed the mystery, and although I had worked out who the villain was, and why they were doing this, by the time it was revealed, I hadn’t done it so early on as to be disappointed with the heroes for not realising it earlier.

My main problem with the book, and why it only gets a four and a half star review rather than a five, is the ending. The final confrontation with the villain is over very easily and for a moment I almost thought we’d lost a gunman. Although I find I was wrong about that and he was accounted for, my impression was still that the villain is disappointingly easily dealt with at the end.

More than this, though, I felt that the romance was denied a scene that it needed to round it off. Throughout the book, Calico had been saying to himself and Josh “I’ll think about that later. I’ll think about it when you’re 18. I’ll think about it once we’re out of this life threatening peril.” All of which was very sensible and you couldn’t help agreeing that he was right to look at it that way. However, the end of the book finds Josh 18 and the life-threatening peril out of the way, but there never is a scene where Calico does that thinking and makes that ‘yes, we’re a couple’ decision that the book (I thought) had been leading up to. So I felt the romance part of the plot suffered from a lack of resolution. I’d have liked to see Calico make the commitment to Josh that had been hinted at throughout.

However, the ending does leave the two of them together, so I can happily imagine that they get that bit sorted out off camera, so to speak, and although I would have liked to see a more romance focussed ending, it doesn’t in any way take away from how much I enjoyed everything that went before it. I’ll definitely be reading this one again with a lot of pleasure.

Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Banshee by Hayden Thorne

Nathaniel, or Natty as his family calls him, is a young man at a crossroads. His mother wants him to spend time with her family, far better off than his father, who is a poor vicar. His father would rather he do just about anything else, and his cousins have no interest in getting to know him. So what’s a young man with very few prospects to do? When Natty meets Miles Lovell, a sophisticated friend of his cousin, he thinks he’s found something worth his while. During their long visit together, Natty discovers things about himself that he never expected, and manages to acquire a ghostly companion, as well. Haunted by a faceless woman, who seems to appear when he’s at his weakest, Natty struggles with his own nature, and with his family’s increasing difficulties. His mother is distant, hiding things from him as she never has, and his father is growing old and tired before his eyes. While Natty tries to find his place in the world, his childhood is crumbling around him, and he becomes more and more convinced that his persistent spirit is a harbinger of doom. Caught in a web of deceit and desperation, Natty must decide whether he will let his life be ruled by others, or if he can make his way on his own, or if the family banshee will bring about his ruin.

Review by Alex Beecroft

I started reading this book under a misapprehension which rather coloured my enjoyment of it. You see, I thought it was m/m romance, and I kept waiting for the romance to kick in. Come on, I thought, at this rate we’ll reach the end and they’ll never get together!

And then I did reach the end, and I had to reconsider everything.

After a bit of thought, I realized that the book was never meant to be a romance. It’s a coming of age story – a story about a young man’s journey from childhood to adulthood, via a confused and tragic adolescence. The fact that the young man is attracted to other young men is almost incidental beside his struggle to find out who he is, and to get the people around him to accept him as an adult.

Once I’d got this sorted out in my mind, I was able to read it again and appreciate what it was doing, rather than what it wasn’t.

Hayden Thorne has a real gift with language and if this had been put before me as a memoire written in the 19th Century, I would have happily believed in its veracity – her language is that authentic. The pace and atmosphere of the novel is also very similar to 19th century classics like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and I felt it had a real kinship to both books.

We begin with an account of the hero’s childhood, where he is condescended to by his socially superior cousins. His mother foolishly eloped with his father, and although they have been happily married for years, still his father is just a lowly vicar. After having been all but disowned, his mother is intent on winning back her place in her family, and his father allows this, despite being too proud to go with her and risk looking like a supplicant.

All this, which seems incidental trivia at first, is going to be wound skilfully back into the story later, in what is a beautifully plotted book. Nothing can be assumed to be irrelevant here, and there are clues as subtly placed as in any mystery.

As Natty grows, he forms a special attachment to his cousin’s friend, Miles Lovell; an attachment which is returned. Through this friendship, Natty comes to realize that he is attracted to men, and that he is deeply in love with Miles. Miles, however, is due to be married to a young lady, and even if he were not, he is socially so much Natty’s superior that they have no real chance of a life together. This causes Natty surprisingly little general anxiety. For a vicar’s son, he seems remarkably unconcerned about God’s attitude to his inclinations, and if the story had been focussed entirely on his sexual awakening, I might have found his lack of faith disturbing 😉 His lack of conflict with his faith, at least.

However, Natty’s realization that he is attracted to men is the least disturbing thing in his life at this point. His mother and father are quarrelling and their marriage is under threat. His own future is the subject of pressure and rebuke from his family. His mother’s connexions want higher things for him than he wants for himself, his father is reluctant to take handouts and the situation between his parents is deteriorating. And worse than all of this, he finds himself being haunted by the silent and awful figure of a white lady who comes upon him whenever he is out of doors and makes his every journey an ordeal of terror.

For my money, the ghostly parts of the book really stood out. They genuinely made my hair stand on end. Really well done and frightening!

Nathaniel must find it in himself to fact this terror, to face the disillusion of his family, and to grow up, and he does. I’m not going to say what happens with the ghost, because when I realized what was happening there, I was full of admiration for the author’s plotting, and I don’t want to spoil that satisfying moment for others. But suffice it to say, everything is resolved admirably, and sometimes surprisingly. Just don’t set your heart on a happy ending for Natty and Miles together, the way I did. It isn’t a romance, and if you read it as one, you will be disappointed.

If you read it as a coming of age story, however, it’s wonderful. So I recommend you do just that.

Buy: Powell’s Books, Prizm Books,

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