Review: Hidden Conflict (various)

Hidden Conflict presents four novellas that tell the experiences of gay military men, their families and friends, during times of conflict and war. Each story presents a unique voice at a distinct time in history.

Review by Vashtan

I’ve been in a reviewing funk over the question how to review and to what end. While I still believe that honest reviews require the occasional lashing, I concur with a friend who holds that reviewers should offer advice to authors as well as readers. Now, that requires a slightly different approach, and makes this a bit more difficult.

Not only would a reviewer have to express an opinion on something as intangible as moods and one’s personal reflections (easier thought than written), but also find the perceived “fatal flaw” in the writing and point it out so it can be fixed. This approach actually places a reviewer in the camp of the editor. What I then review is not just that author’s command of the craft, but the editor’s ability or inability to spot and fix issues. A weak book would then be not only the fault of an author, but the flaw of an editor in not fixing it, and the publisher for acquiring the text and contracting it. I will have to do more thinking about it.

Thankfully, “Hidden Conflict” is, by and large, an easy vote. I really enjoyed it. One word of warning. This is not a collection of romances. Only one text fits the bill and provides a happily ever after (at least we can hope that), while the other texts explore loss, suffering, social stigma, “fitting in with the boys” and barely-verbalised or expressed desire. This is also not the book for steamy sex scenes, so I would place this firmly in the camp of “gay historical writing”. What this book gives you is four intense,
emotional journeys, each one firmly grounded in history and fact. We see Native Americans counting coup, experience the mind-numbing shelling of WWI and the terrible wastelands of mud and rain, and the loss of families and boyfriends knowing their loved died “somewhere across the ocean”. Alienation, shell-shock, and the terror of war. In this, the authors explore the mind of the fighting man; the comradery,
the emotional bonds forged on the battlefield, looking out for one’s fellow man. As a historian with a strong bent towards military history, I’m always astonished at how war brings out the best and worst in humanity; both our bestial natures and our utterly selfless ability to sacrifice and preserve, and to value life most in the destruction of it. I felt the authors all grappled with those questions, so this is not a book for those who fancy men in uniforms getting it on. It’s so much more than that, which makes it difficult
to review.

All of the stories are well-written and carefully edited; the cover expresses the essence of the book well as a collection of four different voices. “Romance” as in romantic attachment, the possibility to love, the desire to love and hold features in the anthology, of course. It can be a love story against all odds and society as in “Blessed Isle” by Alex Beecroft, a (possibly) unrequited love and uncanny, ambivalent, maybe brotherly love as in “Not to Reason Why” by Mark Probst, or the potential of love that was sadly cut short like so many lives during WWI in “No Darkness”, and, with a different slant in “Our One and Only” by E.N. Holland, which focuses on the survivors and their ability – or inability – to move on after loss. But the setting is very real, too, and I found no major flaw with the research in terms of military and gay history. A different reviewer pointed out issues of military protocol in some of the stories, but as a civilian, I didn’t spot them.

Now comes the part where I have to choose a favourite, I guess, and the vote is clearly on “Blessed Isle” by Alex Beecroft. I read her “False Colors” and it blew me away, and she did it again, with less words. Minor craft issues I had with “False Colors” (focusing on viewpoint, voice, and pacing) are gone in “Blessed Isle”. Beecroft continues to astound and amaze, and this story went down like very old, accomplished Bordeaux wine, served just exactly right. It’s not a story that you can “just read”, you have to savour it. The language was pitch-perfect, and I recommend taking your time to work out the nuances and let them resonate. Sometimes, prose is so well-made that it becomes a rush and a pleasure all by itself. The story Beecroft tells and the exploration of the characters just heighten the pleasure, but it’s always her prose that gets me first. Were “Blessed Isle” on it’s own, it would be a rare five stars.

The reason why the others aren’t my favourites (I hope that sentence makes sense) are minor. Each story would rate highly on its own (in the 4-star range), but I have minor quibbles with each one. “Not to Reason Why” by Mark Probst is emotionally honest (and I love authors facing those emotions – it takes a special kind of bravery), but I
didn’t fully warm with the main character, Brett Price. While it was painful to see him stumble through the battlefield and tell us all about the horrors of the massacre (well-done, gruesome writing), I didn’t quite warm with him. He appeared through much of this as a love-struck puppy, and I kept wanting to tell him to “man up” and stop
pining. But then, how many of us do manage to do that when our friends tell us? Exactly.

“No Darkness” by Jordan Taylor sets out on a very difficult task—to tell a story with two men in a cellar, fearing impending death, and growing close by telling their stories. The story is heavy on dialogue, and attempts to draw the characters by dialogue, a task that
it didn’t quite accomplish for me. While I can believe that hysteria and stress (one is wounded) can make people sound more cheerful than I would expect them to sound under such circumstances, there were moments in the dialogue where I thought that the characters were on the verge of being self-indulgent, telling all those anecdotes while
quite literally fighting for their lives. I’d expect more of the raw stress and fear to come out, so I would have tightened up the dialogue quite a bit more than was done. The strongest parts of the story, I felt, were those where the characters don’t talk.

The last story, “Our One and Only” by E.N. Holland explores the loss of a loved one, a life lost in battle during WWII, from the viewpoint of his lover. I struggled a bit with this story; while I understand that many struggle to move on after a loss, I felt forty years of
mourning was excessive, especially since the surviving boyfriend never had any other relationships and has never fallen in love. Instead of romantic, I felt “what a waste of one’s life”, but maybe I’m too cynical. The story explores the surviving boyfriend’s life, his
inability to let go, how he is part of the family of his beloved Edward, taking Edward’s position, while keeping his mourning mostly silent, “lover” becomes “good friend”. Nevertheless, I felt the story dragged and would benefit from some well-placed strategic cuts.

As diverse as these stories are, there is one for everyone, and I believe nobody can read this without being profoundly moved by the writing and the depth of emotion the authors explore. Bravo.

Cheyenne Publishing (print)  Bristlecone Pine Press (Ebook)

2 Responses

  1. I think, having experienced a lifetime of reading reviews for both plays and books, that a reviewer’s prime job should be to INFORM the reader of the style and content of the piece in question. The best reviewers are transparent in that respect. They may not love a peice but we can feel that we might enjoy it and vice versa. The worst reviewers are those who wish to REFORM a genre. The latter suffer from an unfortunate opacity created by their own egos.

    And Vastan…you made me want to read this book.

  2. Ken, thanks for your input. I clearly need to read more good book reviews (and I don’t mean blogs so much as magazines and newspapers) and find my own way. Who thought writing reviews was so hard? :)

    You could do much worse than reading this book. I enjoyed it. :)

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