Three Evergreen 2012 Dreamspinner Holiday Short Stories by SA Garcia, Laylah Hunter and Charlie Cochet

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The Colors of Pastor Saul by SA Garcia

Rating: 4 stars

Pastor Saul Thompson operates a food kitchen for the lost souls and people fleeing from the wars his country is engaged in.  But thee is more to Saul then meets the eye as Saul can see Death or the Black Mantle coming for the people he serves.  Sometimes, Saul can make the Black Mantle retreat by his actions and sometimes even his intervention is not enough to save those who congregate under his roof from despair and death.  And each time, his “sight” or actions bring down a blackness upon himself that is becoming ever more frequent.  Then a man called Pink Cap comes into his sanctuary and everything changes for Pastor Saul, including the belief that miracles can still happen.

This is an unusual little story for the Holiday season and Advent calendar.  It takes place in an alternative universe in a wartorn country whose citizens are diseased, dying or just healthy enough to be conscripted into the army.  Pastor Saul is the last line of survival for people living on the edges, so very close to death and despair, something his government for whatever reason does not appreciate.  Pastor Saul would include himself among those classified as marginal but a true oddity, he sees colors around all the individuals, and as death and sickness close in, those colors turn dark just before the Black Mantle arrives to feed off the person before they die. This gift or curse is something he has kept to himself. The author’s vivid descriptions of Saul’s universe and chilling portraits of its inhabitants paint a picture of a dismal world populated by defeated and dying citizens with Saul acting like the boy with his finger in the dyke holding back the waters of destruction.  Then an amazing thing happens when a man called Pink Cap enters Saul’s life and their relationship allows both men to start to thrive once more.   True to Garcia’s world building, there is no HEA but even the slight glow of hope for these men are like the embers of a fire sparking back to life.   I would recommend this story, just not as a holiday read.

Safe Harbor by Laylah Hunter

Rating: 3.5 stars

When Blake’s father died  seven years ago, Blake was reeling in grief compounded by confusion over his sexuality.  His solution was to run away to the sea.  Now his ship has returned to port, and waiting on the dock for him is his best friend,  Tom.  Tom is the person who caused Blake to question his sexuality and make him realize that he was gay.  Now  Tom makes it clear that Tom forgives Blake for running away as long as Blake agrees to stay with Tom and his grandmother for Christmas.  And from all indications, Tom has realized other things about Blake as well. Can it be that Blake has finally found a safe harbor for good and get the happy ending he has wanted with Tom?  At Christmas time everything is possible.

At 30 pages, this is a short, sweet story of young love and coming out of the closet.  Hunter has a nice feel for her characters and settings although more of a back story would have been nice.  We just have three people here,  Blake, Tom and his grandmother, a most tolerant and exceptional woman.  it seems that during those seven years of missing Blake, Tom realized that he is gay and that Blake was gay too. This is a gentle tale of young love with appealing characters.  A very nice, quick holiday read.

Mending Noel by Charlie Cochet

Rating: 2.75 stars

Elf Tim works for the Abominable Administrative Department at North Pole City and is majorly unhappy.  His Elf Boss, Noel, is harassing him and making his life miserable.  Other elves have transferred out of the department, but Tim seems stuck.  Stuck in a bad  job,  and with a bad boss out to get him.  Other elves, those hardbitten and mean work as the Frost King’s toy soldiers, those brave and smart end up as Rein Dears, flying the planes to deliver the toys.  But  Tim was’t even considered good enough to cut it as a Ribbon Curler in the Gift Packaging Plant, even after graduating from Claus College.

But when Tim stumbles into a plot by the Rat King  to destroy the Christmas spirit, he will have to work with Noel and Jack Frost with his helper Rudy to safe the day and even find some Christmas spirit of his own.

As you can tell, Charlie Cochet has turned a collection of traditional Christmas legends upside down and inside out, creating a North Pole City where Rein Dears are the glamourous flyboys with slutty sugarplum fairies to attend to their every need instead of reindeer pulling a sleigh. The North Pole is no longer a charming snowcovered gingerbread town but a Christmas City full of bureaucrats, homophobes, and thugs to go with the elves who have positions that range from Kringle’s Construction Firm worker to an elf who delivers coal for the furnaces (and dumps it on top of Tim).  I think this story contains some very clever tweaks on Santa Claus and the North Pole, and it is equally clear that Cochet enjoyed herself writing this story.  I just wish I had had as much fun reading it as she did developing her concept.

I didn’t.  Perhaps I love my traditional Christmas too much to enjoy such hard hearted concepts as Christmas sugar plum  fairies as whores, or a place where the work is such drudgery that the workers are as bogged down in Bah Humbug and  despair as anyone found in the blighted areas of any big city.   Yes, there is a happy ending but it is the stuff I had to wade through to get there that almost made me put this down before I finished.  Really?  There has to be homophobia even at the North Pole?  There are certainly enough sluts, and thugs and jerks of all types everywhere else in the world.  For me, they don’t need to be at the North Pole at Christmas, and I don’t want them in my holiday reading.  Sorry, but I would skip this one.

Mending Noel cover

Safe Harbor

Review: The Celestial by Barry Brennessel

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Rating: 5 stars

Life can be hard on a farm, especially if the only two full bodies people are yourself and your Ma.  Nineteen year old Todd Webster Morgan is acutely aware of this fact as he watches his Ma work from dawn to dusk just trying to make ends meet enough to support the two of them and her crippled younger brother returned from the war.  Uncle Ned fought for the losing side and came home with half his leg gone and his personality turned bitter and acrimonious. Todd Webster does what he can but there are no jobs to be found on the far outskirts of Sacramento where they live.  Then Uncle Ned mentions the money to be made mining for gold in the Sierra Nevadas and Todd Webster sneaks away in the dead of night determined to make enough money for them all.

But if Todd Webster Morgan thought life was tough before, he was unprepared for the realities of mining for gold high in the mountains.  Cold, dirty and hungry most of the time with little to show for it, Todd’s claim abuts that of a group of Irish miners with whom he has struck up a friendship with one of them.  One had to be wary of others all the time as claim jumpers and thieves were rampant as Todd knew all too well.  Then one night, tragedy struck the small encampment.  A celestial, as the Chinese are called, has been murdered on the mountain and Todd Webster’s friend accused of the killing.  In just one moment, everything goes wrong and soon Todd is running for his life. In the middle of all the confusion, another celestial comes to help Todd when he needs it the most and his name is Lao Jian. The two young men escape and start heading back towards Sacramento, running from anti Chinese sentiment, jumping box cars and escaping from robbers while finding love along the way.

The Celestial is an impressive and remarkable  story of a young man finding his way during life in California in the 1870’s.  Barry Brennessel skillfully brings to life an explosive period of time in American history through the characters of Todd Webster Morgan, his family, and his lover, Lao Jian.  We first meet up with Todd Webster Morgan on the mountain side high in the Sierra Nevadas where he and others are mining for gold and not having very much luck.  Brennessel’s vivid descriptions of the setting and the activities on the mountain make us feel the cold and misery of the campsite, the bad food and dirty conditions. Mining for gold was hard, back breaking work.  People have rushed out there to try their luck thinking their fortunes are assured only to lose all their money and sometimes their lives in the effort.  Claims for the land had to be filed and the paperwork in order as a claim was in danger of  being “jumped” and confiscated all the time.  Those that didn’t mine, preyed on the miners in a number of ways, looking to take their money. Far the the glamorous rumors of gold floating in the waters, the author paints a gritty portrait of miners barely surviving under close to intolerable conditions.   Over and over, throughout the book, Brennessel brings the era to life right before our eyes.  From the Chinatowns to the boarding houses Todd Webster rents a room in, we feel as much a part of the times as the characters. The author has clearly done his homework, from the tools to the laws yet n0t once does it come across as a history lesson. Just an outstanding example of historical writing at its best.

Barry Brennessel made another wonderful choice when he decided to tell the story from Todd Webster’s POV.  At nineteen years of age, Todd is “a man” as he often reminds others.  But to the reader his young age is still so readily apparent.  Todd misses his mother and uncle, and repeats his mother’s sayings often, especially when Todd Webster is trying to do the right thing by others.  Todd can still marvel at new sights before him yet still shoulder the burden of responsibility of someone older due to the times.I loved “seeing” each new town, experiencing it as Todd Webster and Lao Jian live it. Todd Webster (both of his first and middle names are important to him) has been frugal with his funds as he doesn’t spend it on drink and “hors” like the others on the mountain are doing. And he is advised to be quiet about the amount of money he has by his friend thereby giving us a very accurate picture of life on the mountain and the lawlessness of the area during those times.  These are  wonderful characters that populate this story. Lao Jian is as alive as Todd Webster, although we only see him from Todd’s perspective. Lao Jian’s quiet yet proud manner is a strong complement to Todd Webster’s somewhat impulsive prickly youthful attitude. It is easy to see what attracts them to each other, an attraction that grows into love along their journey. Everything about the characters seems “right”. Their speech, clothes and actions are grounded in history yet all come across as totally believable in every way.

Lao Jian and the other celestials we meet have been brought to America to work on the railroad and end up in camps on the outskirts of  town when their labor is no longer necessary.  The same arguments heard today over illegal aliens taking away jobs from those who “rightfully belong here” have their foundations, in part, laid out during this time period. Discrimination against the Chinese makes its impact felt as Lao Jian is barred from certain establishments and expected to ride outside of the stagecoach and we are as angry as Todd Webster over these actions.  Anti-Chinese sentiment was far spread in that region, the author skillfully brings to life the racial intolerance of the period but shows us the whole measure of the human response from outright hostility to indifference to those to filled buckets and formed lines to help put out the fires in Chinatown.

Barry Brennessel handles his characters sexuality with the same deft touch he displays throughout the book.  Todd Webster is aware that he doesn’t look or yearn for women the same as others do and at nineteen he is a virgin as much emotionally as he is physically.  Away from home, he starts to look at certain men differently without acting upon it.  That is until he meets Lao Jian.  Lao Jian is only slightly more experienced than Todd Webster and their first sexual advances towards each other is tentative and earnest.  Don’t expect any hot sexual scenes here.  What does happen between the two is more of the kisses, fumbling nature and the rest is “offstage” and private which is in keeping with the nature of these two.  Also in keeping with historical accuracy, the forbidden nature of their “sexual congress” is mentioned as is Todd Webster’s initial confusion over his sexuality.  But he comes to grip with it as Todd does everything else in his life and the way in which the relationship is handled  makes sense in every way.

I loved the ending of the book which culminates in letters written between Todd Webster and his mother, and then his correspondence with his great grandson.  Through the  letters, we learn of the changing times and the life Todd Webster Morgan and Lao Jian managed to achieve together.  I will admit to reading those last chapters several times, mostly with tears in my eyes and joy in my heart.  If I have a quibble with this book, it is that it passes all too quickly in 180 pages. Barry Brennessel packs a lot of life as well as history into this superlative story.  Do not pass this book by.  If you are not a fan of historical writing, this might make you one.  If you are one already, this book will climb to the top of the pile. This book was a Finalist, 2012 Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association Literary Contest.  It deserves that recognition and so much more.

Cover: This cover by Winterheart Designs will be one of the best of the year.  Just outstanding from the design to the sepia tones.  Loved it.