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REVIEW:  Almost like being in love by Steve Kluger

REVIEW: Almost like being in love by Steve Kluger

9780060595838

A high school jock and nerd fall in love senior year, only to part after an amazing summer of discovery to attend their respective colleges. They keep in touch at first, but then slowly drift apart.
Flash forward twenty years.

Travis and Craig both have great lives, careers, and loves. But something is missing …. Travis is the first to figure it out. He’s still in love with Craig, and come what may, he’s going after the boy who captured his heart, even if it means forsaking his job, making a fool of himself, and entering the great unknown. Told in narrative, letters, checklists, and more, this is the must-read novel for anyone who’s wondered what ever happened to that first great love.

Review:

Dear Steve Kluger,

I first read this book three or four years ago and ever since it has remained on my top ten lists of favorite m/m/gay romances. Not all books manage to stay on my favorites list because new and better ones come along, but your book is still there.

The blurb states it but I want to say it again – the story is not told in a regular narrative style. I am not sure if it can be called an epistolary novel, because it does not only consist of letters. It has clips from imaginary newspaper articles, diary entries, memos that characters would write to their employees and letters to friends. This is how the story is told, and if such a style does not work for you, you will not like this book. Otherwise I highly recommend buying this one the moment you finish reading this review.

The first chapter introduces us to your seemingly standard characters from YA gay romance – jock and nerd. Despite the way story is written, I thought the book managed to convey both guys’ thoughts extremely well and from the very beginning I was intrigued by both of them. They become friends who want to know more about each other and learn more and more about each other, until they realize that they are in love with each other. They get to their first kiss as Craig describes it to us:

“I kissed him, I fucking kissed him. First our noses touched and then I kissed him.
I shouldn’t have smoked the joint. I knew that was a mistake! But what else can you do when you’re playing catch and it starts to pour? If there hadn’t been one of those metal arch things with the benches underneath, it never would have happened – we’d have jogged back to school, wet and unkissed. This was a conspiracy!”

We learn that the guys had an amazing summer together after they graduated high school but eventually drifted apart because they went to different colleges.
However, instead of continuing the story chronologically, the second chapter flashes forward twenty years to 1998 and we are now introduced to Travis as a college professor. I hope this can give you a little glimpse of Travis as a history college professor.

“ BOOK PROPOSAL.
“Alexander Hamilton and the Designated Hitter”.
Issue: Once we’d won our independence from the Crown, how were we going to set up the House?
Objective: proving that the baseball and the United States Constitution were founded on the same set of rules, as outlined in the Federal papers by Alexander Hamilton”

The whole book proposal is a bit more detailed, so if you end up reading a book, you will get to read it in the longer form, but I think the topic alone gives a good glimpse at Travis’ personality.

After that chapter we meet Craig, who in the year 1998 is an attorney in a small private practice and who seems to have a passion for changing the world around him. Craig also seems to credit Travis for instilling in him the desire to change the world. Craig is also with Clayton, who I fell for probably faster than I fell for both Craig and Travis. Clayton is just such a nice guy, someone who suffered an abusive childhood and is scared now that people whom he loves will leave him. As an aside, I have read so many m/m romances where the heroes had abusive childhoods and I am yet to see many stories where the writer spends so few words describing it and invoking the sympathy for Clayton right away as opposed to writing many pages full of angsty storytelling.

“But nobody needed to be loved more than my boyfriend did. When the father he’d idolized had found out his kid liked men, he’d thrown him out of the house bodily. (“You make me sick,” he’d said, slamming the door on his only son.). Clayton never sufficiently recovered, especially after old man died. Instead, he inherited a legacy that became his trademark: If it looks like they’re going to dump you, beat them to it. It saves a lot of wear and tear on the heart. So I never allowed our skirmishes to get in the way for too long”

As much as the style allows, the chapters switch between Craig and Travis (and those characters who they communicate with, like Craig’s boyfriend Clayton, Travis’ friend Gordon, and so on).

We learn that Travis cannot find a boyfriend who will satisfy his “Boyfriend checklist” (a hilarious one, but it is really hard to quote stuff from this book because so much of it is not in a regular format and this checklist alone takes three pages in the book). He eventually realizes that he never forgot Craig and starts a crazy adventure of trying to find Craig and see if the love they shared can be rekindled twenty years later.

“Okay, maybe he doesn’t need a psychopathic history professor showing up from the Twilight Zone, and maybe he won’t even like me anymore. But he still has my heart – and if he is not using it, I want it back. Otherwise I’m going to go on loving him for the rest of my life. And there’s not a damned thing either of us can do about it.
Somehow I never got around telling him that.”

Travis eventually finds Craig, I do not think I will spoil anything by telling you this, but the little complication is that Craig, while not being able to forget Travis altogether is also genuinely in love with Clayton, who as I said before is a kind, generous soul. I will not tell you what happens, but there is a happy ending for everybody. I can tell you that amongst many other things that I think Steve Kluger did so well, this book completely spoiled me for the resolution of the love triangle. I hate love triangles in most stories, especially if everybody is good people, because I do not want to see anybody broken hearted. I sigh happily every time I reread the ending of this book.

I also think that this story mixed humor and serious things really well – as the reader learns about the lives Craig and Travis lived apart for twenty years we of course hear about the AIDS epidemic for example. How could we not hear about it, since it affected them and their friends so much? But I never felt that the writer used a heavier touch describing it than the rest of the book and for me it worked perfectly.

I have to admit, I think everything worked perfectly for me in this book. The characters I can never forget and want to imagine that they are living their lives helping people around them. The writing style, the humor, I liked it all.

Grade : A

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REVIEW:  The Hidden Law by Michael Nava

REVIEW: The Hidden Law by Michael Nava

Dear Michael Nava:

I decided to take on Wendy the Super Librarian’s TBR Challenge this year, and February’s theme is series catch-up. Wendy is adamant that we don’t have to follow the theme if we don’t want to (or don’t have an appropriate book in our TBR), but I was more than happy to stick to it for this month, because Book 4 of the Henry Rios series has been calling to me. This series, about a Chicano lawyer in 1980s/1990s California, is one of two great mystery series with gay protagonists which set a standard in the subgenre (no, I’m not forgetting Adrien English, but he came a bit later and Josh Lanyon is the first to point to these trailblazers). I’ve written about the other, Joseph Hansen’s Brandstetter series, here at Dear Author before. And I wrote a sort-of review of the first Henry Rios book, The Little Death, at my personal blog a while ago.

The HIdden Law Michael NavaThe Brandstetter and Rios books share similarities: both characters are intelligent, decent, caring men and both series are set mostly in late 20th-century southern California. But while Dave is taciturn and reveals his inner self obliquely and with bits and pieces of information, Henry is much more self-reflective on page, and each installment grapples with some aspect of his past and present psychological issues. Earlier books focused on his homosexuality, his ethnic and class background, and his family. In this book we learn much more about his fraught relationship with his father.

So far, every novel has had three themes driving the story: the mystery and Rios’s journey to solving it, his personal journey (which is usually shaped by aspects of the specific crime), and a romantic subplot. In the past two novels Rios has been involved with Josh, who is HIV positive and has been since before they met. The relationship has been rocky, and it comes to a head in this installment. I’m not a huge fan of Josh, although Nava certainly portrays a realistic relationship, especially for the times, and I think the tension between the two of them, which is caused primarily by the fact that Josh considers himself to be under a death sentence while Henry is HIV-negative, is well depicted and rooted in the time in which it is set. I’ve thought since Book 2 that Henry could do a lot better, but by the last chapter I had a much higher opinion of him.

The mystery is an interesting one, and as I’ve found to be the case in the previous novels, the original crime and the search for the killer place the reader in a rich, dense culture. The dead man is a Chicano politician and the suspects range from LA gang members to a fellow patient of a halfway house where he spent time in rehab for alcohol abuse. We see characters from earlier books and Nava creates a familiar, authentic context from a part of California that is rarely portrayed in the romance or mystery genres. For readers and authors who want to see more POC settings and characters, this is how you do it. Here’s how Nava writes a scene in which both characters are speaking Spanish, and in an endearingly realistic touch, Rios is slightly embarrased by his lack of fluency before his client’s grandmother:

I thanked her for the tea and cookies, complimented her house, and asked her about the sailor. He was her husband, she said, who had been killed at Iwo Jima. I expressed my regret at her loss, and she received this with the equanimity of someone who had been receiving such condolences for nearly fifty years. I drank some tea, ate half a cookie, and then said I wanted to ask her some questions about Michael.

“Ah, si, mijito,” she murmured.

She nodded when I asked her whether he had stayed with her in the days before his arrest. Then I asked her whether he had been visited by a girl and a young man, about Michael’s age, who had come in a small white car.

“Pero, si,” she replied, and added that they had come for him almost every day. He would leave with them for a few hours, and then return for dinner. Once they had stayed to eat, and they had both been well-mannered and respectful. “Muy amables.”

A Californian will instantly recognize the people, the locations, and just the feel of the place. But we’re not dumped into some “barrio” story; the minority characters (black and Latino/Latina) range from politicians to homeless people to wayward children of rich businessmen to lawyers, the way they do in real Los Angeles and in California more generally. As I have throughout this series, I enjoyed the twists and turns the mystery took as it was unraveled. I guessed correctly who the killer was a little more than halfway through the book, but I didn’t see all the nuances coming, and they greatly enriched the story beyond the simple crime it seemed at first to be.

The part of the story that dealt with Henry’s past, specifically his relationship with his father, didn’t work quite as well for me in the first half of the book, but the second half brought the storylines together powerfully. As in the novel preceding this one, Howtown, the way the past and the present join up and help Henry move forward is one of the great strengths of the world Nava has created. Each installment has a slightly different focus, in and this one the portrayal of a troubled, abusive father and the toll on his son rings true and is rooted in a specific social context:

My father had been a man who, outwardly, was a respectful, responsible member of our small community, a collection of neighborhoods called Paradise Slough, the Mexican district of a town in northern California, Los Robles. It was not too different in spirit from Boyle Heights, the neighborhood I had just come from, a Spanish-speaking village in an Anglo city. Disdained by the majority, its people were tribal in their outlook and mores. Its cornerstone was the family, and in the family the father ruled, irrevocably and without question. Outside, in the larger world where they labored under the contemptuous eye of Anglo bosses, the fathers were social and political ciphers. No wonder, then, that in the families they tolerated no dissent from their wives and children. And they drank. They drank to wash down the slights they endured by day and to enlarge small lives which became heroic in alcohol-glazed rumination, but at their cores the fathers knew the full measure of their unimportance and, so, finally, they drank to quiet the rage.

But the rage would not be completely calmed. How could it? The church told them their reward would be in the next life, but this is small consolation for the back-breaking labors of the present, the years of enforced humility. When the rage exploded, they struck out at the only ones over whom they had any power: wives, sons, daughters, particularly the sons in whom they saw their own lost youths.

The writing is, as usual, excellent, although once in a while I felt as if I were being told too much. There is a lot of internal monologue in this book (it’s a characteristic of the series), and sometimes it didn’t quite work. But Nava sets such a high bar with these books that we’re talking about good v. very good v. very, very good. In each of the four stories I’ve read (there are a total of seven in the series), when I come across something that feels slightly off, I spend a fair amount of time wondering if its the book or if it’s me. And if that isn’t the hallmark of quality, I don’t know what is.  Grade: A-

~ Sunita

 

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