Bought and Paid For - Michael Halfhill
Iím not finding this novel easy to review because I read it thinking it was a one-off, only to discover from Cerisaye (who knows the author) that itís the start of a series. As the first in the series, I think it works very well: Iím dying to read the next part.
The author handles some very contentious issues in this novel very well. The title is literal: the boy Jan is sold by his mother to Tim, an enigmatic older man.† Fortunately for Jan, Tim is looking for someone to inherit his mantel as the CEO of a mysterious secret society that works to ensure the balance of world order. Heís also looking for a lover and he initiates Jan into sex, not always in the same careful way he introduces him to the work. Tim has issues that make his physical relationship with Jan quite unbalanced and eventually Jan rebels.
Iím not sure I needed the bigger plot (the secret society) in this book, and Iíd have been quite happy to explore the idea of an older man buying a boy (actually saving him from becoming a hustler after his mother kicks him out of the house) and initiating him into the delights of gay sex. I find that only a few masters of the genre can make such "international thriller" plots sound realistic (John Le Carre and John Grisham spring to mind). But then, I find their books so emotionally barren that I donít actually enjoy them, emotional content having been sacrificed to make the themes of secret agencies, spies, and international intrigue plausible. Iíd rather have less plaus (it is a word, honest!) and more emotion. Michael Halfhill provides!
Itís worth mentioning the beautiful cover on this book, and the gorgeous website for the series: http://www.michaelhalfhill.com/michaelhalfhillcom_002.htm.† If those donít tempt you to buy it nothing will.
So, a good start to a series, and I for one will start bugging the author soon to have more of Janís story!
I read this novel over an afternoon, swept along by strong narrative drive and quirky unpredictability.† It reminds me of those glossy 60s international adventure romps where every character is larger than life and you happily accept the peculiar.† Think† James Bond, The Avengers or Man From U*N*C*L*E.† The book, however, has staying power beyond superficial excitement of a simple adventure story.
Jan Phillips is 18, a normal kid from a lower class Philadelphia neighbourhood. His whole life has been taken up with family and study, following strict teachings of priests and nuns at the Catholic school from which heís just graduated, Latin amongst his accomplishments. Jan had been destined for college, until mentor Father Sobinski left for Rome.† A bright boy inclined to dream, heís understandably resentful that his future has been taken from him.
Janís mother, a widow with 5 children to support is struggling and careworn beyond her years.† One day she drops a bombshell that changes the direction of Janís life: heís a man, now itís time to go into the world and earn a living.† Not easy when youíre young, inexperienced and over-educated for menial jobs.† Itís hard to imagine a parent doing this to a child, but poverty and hopelessness can lead any of us to acts of desperation, so I donít judge.
Unable to find work, in fear and despair Jan heads for the city centre ďtenderloin districtĒ to sell his body.† Young for his age, Jan has golden hair and sweetly innocent features.† Heís never had sex and isnít sure of his sexuality, filled with Catholic guilt by the priests.† Janís decision doesnít come out of nowhere.† Itís well set up and he agonises over it convincingly. If youíve seen Wicktor Grodeckiís series of films about teen hustlers in Prague youíll find Janís plight only too realistic.
Unknown to Jan his fumbling forays into street prostitution are observed by an older man in a sumptuous flat high above the ďMary-Go-RoundĒ cruising district where ďhawksĒ chase ďchickensĒ.† Tim Morris, an influential lawyer, watches the boy he christens Goldie Locks, drawn to his unease and obvious unfamiliarity with the tricks of his trade.† Tim and Janís paths cross again one rainy day when they both take shelter in a flower shop.† Jan agrees to go home with the older man to get dried off.† Tim doesnít fit Janís image of the kind of man whoíd have to buy sex. Heís sleek and tall, with model good looks.† When Jan enters Timís apartment he steps from his old life into something altogether different, and a lot more exciting.
Tim sees in Jan something heís been looking for over lonely years, and heís prepared to go to unusual lengths to keep the boy in his life.† Tim appears a sinister Svengali figure, whose motives are unclear but suspect, reinforced by his treatment of the boy in some uncomfortable sex scenes necessary to establish the character at this stage in the story. Revelations about Timís past and how it relates to young Jan, in whom Tim sees himself reflected as in a distant mirror, are carefully woven into the story, forcing re-examination of his motivation.† Janís mother loves him and has his best interests at heart, grasping an admittedly unconventional way of helping her son, fully aware of possible dangers.† She does only what Jan asks, and heís old enough to do what he wants in any case.
Tim has a whole new world to reveal to Jan, a place of international intrigue and dangerous conspiracy.† Weíre whisked with them to farflung countries on a Grand Tour, as Tim shows Jan the privileges of wealth and power, also, on a darker note, the cost.† Train journeys, clandestine meetings, lethal encounters, all that and more holds our attention, yet this novel engaged me on a more subtle level.
What appears on the surface a fantastical thriller involving a shadowy non-government organisation responsible for keeping world balance, works too as a complex character study, focused on the nature of love, relationships and how the past informs the present.† The author trusts his readersí intelligence to make connections rather than spoon-feeding† detail that would spoil the impetus of his story.† I appreciate a book that makes me draw my own conclusions based on what characters say and do, and gives leeway to the readersí imagination.† The book isnít short on descriptive detail, and thereís some fine writing on display.
The coming out story is a staple of gay fiction, and here itís given a novel twist, tangled into a Boyís Own Adventure thriller. Janís awakening sexuality and Timís need for love ought to draw them together.† Tim remakes his protťgť in his own image, further educating the youth in history, international relations and cultural diversity.†† Although Jan shows promise under Timís guidance, he fails to get the one thing he really wanted, and that aspect of the novel touched my heart.† At the core of the book thereís a dramatic love story.††† Romance that can be sweet and tender but has darker undertones reflecting complex characters we struggle to understand, yet come to care about because theyíre human beings, warts and all.† By the end Jan knows who and what he is, prepared to accept his destiny.† I was glad to hear another Jan Phillips novel is to be released early next year.
Published by: iUniverse.com. ISBN: 0595304907Buy from Lambda Rising Booksellers in the States