I was recently invited to do a review for STARBooks Press, a gay erotica publisher that I contribute short stories to. I had the pleasure of reading Michael’s Secrets by Milton Stern. Though not a novel of erotica, there are a few erotic scenes. However, the novel tells the story of…oh, let me just give you the blurb and then my review to follow.
Just when things are looking up for Hollywood television and screen writer, Michael Bern, his TV show is cancelled, his best friend dies face first into her birthday cake, and his dog decides to take an eternal nap in her favorite chair. To escape the unending drama of Tinsel Town, he accepts an offer to move to Washington, DC, and co-write a screenplay with his friend, Sharon. But, anyone who knows Michael knows that drama just follows him everywhere, and it is usually of his own making.
He meets and falls in love with Steve, a narcissistic “leather queen in a sash,” as his friend Mark calls him. The sex is hot, but it is followed by the emotional game of push-pull. Just when Michael extricates himself from this relationship, he finds out the darkest secret from his childhood, and emotionally raw, he allows himself to be pulled back into Steve’s world only to fall harder than ever. But, there is someone else – Sam, a nice Jewish actor, who would be perfect for Michael, yet it’s the oldest story in the book. He liked a man he never loved and loved a man he never liked.
At least Rona and Doreen, the surviving girls from his mother’s Tuesday night Mah Jongg game, are there to add much needed humor to Michael’s oh-so-dramatic life in DC. Now living together, Rona and Doreen reveal secrets from Michael’s past that explain his attraction to men who use him then discard him.
If it all sounds dreary and depressing, it isn’t because MILTON STERN’s wit and style entertain us once more as he finds humor in everything, and in MICHAEL’S SECRETS, he does not fail to deliver.
Michael’s Secrets by Milton Stern is a beautifully written story with well-drawn, vivid characters. The protagonist, Michael Bern, is a delightfully sympathetic character. I enjoyed journeying with him into his world of romantic heartaches and self-discovery, always facing whatever darkness his life presented with humor and the desire to retain his personal integrity and goodness no matter how much he’s been mistreated. The fact that Michael also stands firm and faces deep pains from his childhood and teenage years at the hands of his truly awful mother and her husbands only adds to his likeability.
The supporting cast of characters, too, is wonderfully drawn, especially of course, the elderly Jewish women who’d cared for Michael since he was born. Their humor was so hysterical I was laughing out loud and there is one line in particular that is one of the funniest lines I’ve ever read in a book. (You’ll have to read it to find out which one I mean.) And even though these characters and others are introduced in Stern’s other novel, On Tuesdays They Played Mah Jong, Stern does such a good job of constructing this story and the emotional situations, that Michael’s Secrets can be read completely stand alone. Although, the humor is so engaging, you’ll probably want to read the first one as well if you already haven’t.
That said, I really only had one complaint about the book. The ending was, I felt, disappointing. I reflected for a long time on exactly what was bothering me about an otherwise funny, sweet and engaging story and came to understand it was this: A story like this needs to end on a note that uplifts the reader, that makes him or her feel a certain hope about the possibilities of the human heart and spirit. The body of the novel does just this. However, in spite of the fact that Michael does grow and learn and change to some degree througout the course of the story, the very last scene felt like a watered down conclusion to everything Michael had endured in his life, the romantic heartbreaks, the abuse, the betrayals as well as the joys, love and humor (all rich and touching to say the least). Not that an ending has to be happily ever after in order to be fulfilling. I don’t mean this. I just felt that Stern fell short of bringing the depth of Michael’s rich experience into the very end. He seemed to draw a fatalistic conclusion about relationship that said, “oh well,” instead of showing that he was going to continue forth in his life, drawing on the wellspring of self-love he’d gained during the course of the story. I felt let down in this regard. If the rest of the book hadn’t been so wonderful, I’d just say, “oh well,” myself and chalk it down to the fact that it was a poorly written book. But Stern is clearly a talented writer with a sensitive approach to life. I just felt that with a little tweaking at the end, this work could have touched upon that depth.
In spite of this, I would recommend Michael’s Secrets to anyone who enjoys a read filled with humor and the journey of a person who cares about people and who wants a better life for himself and those he loves.
This book is intended for adult audiences.
245 Pages (Print)
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