Reviewed by Elizabetta

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(The series is rated 5 STARS – Individual ratings of the books can be found below alongwith the review.)

SERIES: Tarnished Souls
AUTHOR: Dev Bentham
BOOKS: 4
PUBLISHER: Loose Id Publication 

FIELDS OF GOLD (book two, Tarnished Souls series)

Fields of GoldBLURB: Life is full of compromises. That’s what Avi Rosen tells himself. He’s a yeshiva boy turned historian, working on his dissertation and stretching his meager stipend by moonlighting as a closeted politician’s houseboy. Their relationship used to feel like a real affair. Lately it seems more like a job.

It isn’t until he meets someone decent that he realizes how corrupt his life has become. Pete is a tall blond farmer who charms Avi with his dazzling smile and his straightforward life. But even if he can believe this refreshingly honest man doesn’t have his own political agenda, will Avi find the strength to emerge from the dark life he’s chosen and find a future in the sun?

REVIEW:

Avi was a yeshiva boy; he was raised and schooled by an orthodox Jewish family; though he’s since left that life. He felt the deep disapproval of his strict father when he came out to his family. Now, Avi is as far from that childhood as he can be. Nearing thirty, and a poor, seventh-year grad student, he supplements his living expenses by being a kept man. He doesn’t think too hard about living in a well-known political figure’s pied-à-terre apartment next to the state capitol, and being paid for its upkeep as well as for sex. It seems an easy fix though he won’t face the toll it takes on him, even when his good friend Isaac (from book one, Learning From Isaac) tells him as much.

Tarnished Souls is an apt name for this series, and Avi has had a lot of the shine taken off of him. He can’t get his dissertation written, caught in a rut of indecision, he can’t seem to move on. Until one day when he literally falls at the feet of a tall, handsome farmer and gets the shake he needs. Pete sells his organic farm produce at the local farmer’s street market and falls just as heavily for Avi. Gentle Pete who lives off the earth, is grounded, and represents a new beginning for Avi.

It is difficult to sympathize with Avi. He is handsome, well-educated, talented and he could have the world at his fingertips. But this tarnished soul has to find his own way and it is to the author’s credit that we want to read along the journey. What saves Avi is his strong connection to his faith. Even though he’s left the synagog he observes some of its traditions. Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the Jewish new year and the High Holidays around it are important to Avi. At the end of the story he buys apples and honey, symbols of starting the new year with sweetness after having atoned for past sins and wrong-doings. Each new year brings renewal; Avi feels alive again with Pete. Once more, Bentham polishes up these flawed characters to show goodness and potential. We can relate to them even if we don’t always agree with their choices.

ELIZABETTA’S RATING: four-stars_0

BUY LINK: Loose Id Store :: Book Store

 

SACRED HEARTS (book 3, Tarnished Souls series) 4.5 STARS

Sacred HeartsBLURB: Life’s a gamble–and lately David Schwartz’s partner has been losing so much that David must close their restaurant, the hippest little place in Portland. He sells everything and moves back home, but at thirty-five, he’s not eager to sleep alone in his childhood bedroom or to be supported by his father for the second time in his adult life.

David’s had enough. He needs to start over, maybe with someone like the elusive man he’s been seeing in his dreams. An old friend offers him a job catering a movie set in Puerto Vallarta. It’s been years since David’s alcoholism spun out of control along the highways of Mexico. Determined to experience Mexico sober, he stuffs his few remaining possessions in a backpack and takes the next flight down.

As Mexico prepares for Christmas, David lights Hanukkah candles, celebrating the return of the sun and wishing for true love. On the first night of Hanukkah, David meets a tall, dark stranger who rocks his world in a secluded moonlit cove. Is this the mystery man of his dreams–the answer to David’s prayers? And what must David sacrifice to make his dreams come true?

REVIEW:

“There’s a line in the AA literature that talks about being spiritually bankrupt. I’ve had two serious relationships in my life… the first was Antonio. His death left me spiritually bankrupt… more recently, the other, Rick, left me financially bankrupt, and while it sucks big-time, it’s a much better way to go.” — David

David, a recovering alcoholic, has had his share of bad luck and bad choices. Years ago, living in Mexico, he lost his first love in a tragic accident and then lost himself in a bottle. At the start of this story he has just been betrayed by the weakness of another lover and lost his livelihood, his restaurant. David, a gourmet chef, seizes an opportunity to start over, returning to Mexico to take a job as part of a catering crew for a movie production. There, he meets John, the man of his dreams (literally); a ‘merman’ summoned from the ether. It seems that David has been beset by dreams of a gorgeous, unknown man emerging from sea waves.

The meaning of these dreams puzzled me. Certainly, neither David nor John seem given to belief in the supernatural. They are spiritual men, however, and woven into the story is a theme of the Jewish holiday, Hanukkah, and the solace its rituals bring to David. That John is Catholic, and an ex-priest, gives this sub-theme more weight. This is not a paranormal story, so I ultimately saw the dreams as a plot device (a sort of deux ex machina) to get around the insta-love trap of a short story and give a sense of kismet. As a device, they didn’t really work for me and I could have done without them. Luckily, they didn’t greatly detract from the story.

I believe in that immediate attraction between John and David, that because of their life experiences, they could be very ready for each other by the time they meet on that beach in Mexico. Fact is, this author just does it for me— has such a gift for crafting a sense of place and then filling it with real, sympathetic people. This is warm, buttery writing, as delicious as the food described and prepared by David, and as beautiful as the paradise he is dropped into. Some books just pull you right in. It’s not only about the story but about the author and how they can shape and present the work. Like a delicious meal made with love.

Sacred Hearts is book three in Bentham’s Tarnished Souls series but it (as with all the books) can be read as a stand alone. One last thing, and it’s really what keeps me from a 5 star rating… I wonder how David and John would fare away from the protection of their paradise, back in the real world. It’s not just that I want more of these two but rather that I’m not completely convinced by the end of the book that their story is over.

ELIZABETTA’S RATING:

BUY LINK: Loose Id Store :: Book Store

 

BREAD, SALT, AND WINE (book 4, Tarnished Souls)

Bread, Salt and WineBLURB: Some wounds never heal. George Zajac grew up in a religious family with a father who beat “the swish” out of him. Now he’s a troubled man. At thirty-eight he moves across the country to start a new life in Los Angeles, working as the catering chef for a prestigious French Restaurant.

Kenny Marks, a writer who’s currently waiting tables, is everything George cannot be–flamboyant, proud and sexually confident. Enthralled by Kenny, and against his own better judgment, George agrees to a date. Sparks fly. The sex is better than good. But even after the two get close, George remains crippled by humiliating sexual hang-ups. Still haunted by his childhood, he lingers in the closet and can’t commit to a relationship with Kenny.

Love is the great healer, but is it enough? George’s emotional scars could drive Kenny away, and with him, George’s last chance at happiness.

REVIEW:

This is the final book in Bentham’s Tarnished Souls series and it is a wonderful wind up to what has been a thoroughly enjoyable visit into this world where love is celebrated as “the great polisher of our tarnished souls”.

All of the men in the series have been lost or damaged in some way, but I think it’s George’s story that pulls at my heart the most. The idea of a child beaten for who he is is heartbreaking, and the lifelong damage that this wreaks on his heart and soul is immeasurable. George carries the psychological marks of his father’s anger meted out in a corner of their barn on an Iowan farm; this ritual of ‘beating the swish’ out of the young boy. Now, George is nearing forty and he has lived in the dark, in denial and shame, wrestling with his identity. Another favorite character is Kenny, who has kept the ‘swish’ and is fabulous just as he is. He forces George to face his demons. How Kenny shares his compassion, love and patience with George is remarkable.

I really like how George’s catering business is portrayed in the story. We get a feel for his life and the people around him who support him. Like Cheryl, a co-worker and quiet friend throughout. I also like how the author uses the Jewish holiday, Purim, as an analogy for fighting bigotry and hatred. By participating in Kenny’s celebration, George finally shows that he will no longer bow to bullies or hide from who he is.

Through the series we’ve followed the ups and downs of eight compelling men who are connected by friendship (book one, Learning from Isaac, is not reviewed here). While the first three books can be read as stand-alone, I would recommend reading them in order with this as the last. Also connecting the stories is the thread of Jewish tradition and rituals of major holidays that runs lightly through them. In each, a turn to ritual has helped see the men through. The title in this final book refers to the Polish wedding tradition in George’s family of sharing bread, salt, and wine to ward off hunger, bitterness and thirst. All good things must come to an end. It is a treat to see all the major characters together again in celebration at the end of this story, a fitting completion to a wonderful series.

ELIZABETTA’S RATING:

BUY LINK: Loose Id Store :: Book Store

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Elizabetta is one of the official reviewers on The Blog of Sid Love.

To read all her reviews, click the link: ELIZABETTA’S REVIEWS
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