Young Digby Swank – Owen Keehnen (Wilde City Press)

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“Only an Irish Catholic could be condemned to eternal Hell, and still worry that life would get worse.”  “Young Digby Swank” by Owen Keehnen

Here we have Digby Swank, an unplanned child whose moment of conception was notable to his mother, Lila, who, with her alcoholic husband, Rog, atop her, uncharacteristically opened her eyes presumably when sperm met egg, saw paint peeling on the ceiling, and said, “That will never do.”

And, alas, it never did really do. At least, for her it didn’t. Knowing no other way to pacify this strange child who seemed intent on further complicating her barely manageable life, she showered with sugar and carbs—a mother’s love through the convenience of consumption.

The infant’s first notable expression was a smirk; his first word was “me.” His first lie was telling his caretaker, Grandma Swank, that he loved her.

Before we continue, an axiom: One doesn’t actually practice Catholicism, rather one is haunted by it. And, perhaps alas—for those of us who understand this axiom—Mister Keehnen’s narrative does haunt…over and over again, at times delightfully darkly so.

Raised in the dreary burg of Running Falls, schooled by nuns at Holy Martyrs School, living in a lower-middle class family, Digby’s world revolved within a kind of Dickensonian cosmos where, I believe, he did the best he could with what he had.

His Grandma Swank was a stern taskmaster whose rosary became a weapon as she swung it at him, the crucifix and beads becoming “…nunchucks of the lord…” intent on exorcising Digby’s left-handedness, something she believed gifted by Satan. Digby’s introspection, however—a key to his persistence in developing whom he would become—allowed him to recognize that he shared a “…commonality between [him and Grandma Swank]…a desire for a more dismal reality, or perhaps a world that more accurately reflected the darkness each harbored inside.” Digby’s environment, his family, his teachers, all of it (the major economic force in Running Falls was the Band-Aid factory, for heaven’s sake!) embraced as the dark sides of an abysmal dream as he submerged within it.

Digby was plump and effeminate. He was flamboyant. He acted out inappropriately amongst his classmates and was taken to task by Sister Clementia for his insistence on over-essing his esses. Sent to the school counselor, the conclusion was that Digby certainly had “…difficulty functioning on a social level at Holy Martyrs.” How could he not, when it was his belief that “God was basically Liberace and His pad was nothing short of a Vegas show palace.”

Oh, let’s just say that Digby was so queer, in so many ways that the multitudinousness of his spirit was self-eclipsing. At one point, he even thought he was the Second Coming incarnate— God Himself. Then, banished from Saint Martyr’s for a time, he found Walter, a student at the public school, who provided a more worldly sophistication for him to emulate. Walter was “…witty, urbane, and slightly aloof. …He was the Noel Coward of the tween set.” And, AND, Walter explained sexual intercourse to Digby, a watershed perhaps, the machinations of which were duly affirmed when he was allowed to return to Saint Martyrs where he found the coolest, most progressive, newly-hired teacher there had become Mister Beloni, who, Digby discovered, had a boyfriend, both cuddling on “…a tasteful avocado couch.” Ahem…

And so it went with Digby until…well, until “…a trim blonde in a Speedo, named Roland, doing laps in a [motel] pool…”

No, I won’t give you the epiphany. You’ll have to read Mister Keehnen’s albeit quite long, but equally insightful, astute, funny, dark study of this boy, Digby Swank…where Mr. Berman is the mailman.

©  2014  George Seaton

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Spring Poetry Roundup Part II

Joy_ExhaustibleJoy Exhaustible – Assaracus Presents: The Publishers – Edited by Bryan Borland and Seth Pennington (Sibling Rivalry Press)

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Leave it to Sibling Rivalry to come up with the great idea of devoting an issue of their Assaracus journal to publishing poetry (and in some cases, prose) by the best and brightest current gay publishers. This volume is an embarrassment of riches for the beautiful and inspiring poetry, the deeply absorbing prose, and the informative articles about the publishing houses. Here you have terrific artists and businessmen like Jameson Currier, Steve Berman, Donald Weise, Felice Picano, Lawrence Schimel, Charlie Bondhus, Ian Young, Perry Brass, John Lauritsen, and Borland and Pennington themselves serving up chunks of their art along with insights about the publishing business in the beginning and now. The treat is in seeing both sides of these talented and driven individuals, giving the reader a feel for the men as well as the work they produce and publish. Rarely have I re-read portions of a book during my review period, but I did just that savoring parts of this collection. You’ll be well-rewarded if you can do the same. We need a second volume for the distaff side, Bryan and Seth. Please.

 

Hibernation and Other Poems by Bear Bards – Edited by Ron J. Suresha (Bear Bones Books)41tFO-9CvkL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

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And speaking of terrific ideas (and delectable covers), Ron Suresha has put together an incredible collection of bear poetry from such bearluminaries as Jay Neal, Daniel M. Jaffe, the always welcome and always interesting Jeff Mann, Emanuel Xavier, Owen Keehnan, Raymond Luczak, Alfred C. Corn, Gregg Shapiro, and so many others. From the pitstinkykink of Jack Fritscher’s “Lazy Bear Gym Exercise,” to the delicious “blow for bucks” of Shawn Syms’s “Head Money” to the road story of Dan Stone’s “Goldilocks and the Papa Bear” to the Christmas porn of Jeff Walt’s “Santa,” Hibernation has all of the bear bases covered. But in addition to all the basic reference points, we find some surprises delivered. Miguel Morales turns in an aching ode to aging in “Reflection,” and Rocco Russo delivers some heartfelt discourse on domesticity in “If I had the time”: There goes the buzzer on the dryer and/The bark of the dogs to walk and the towels/To press or was it the sheets to spread…/I had wanted to write you this poem/But alas I will navigate the terrain of/My household and wait to embrace you. As with the previous entry in this roundup, all I can do is ask for more.

 

ZebraFeathersCover-210x300Zebra Feathers – Morris Stegosaurus (Minor Arcana Press)

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On another side of the genre we find well known furry and performance poet Morris Stegosaurus delivering his first collection to Evan Peterson’s Minor Arcana Press. Absurdist, avant-garde wordplay collides with odd imagery made even more disturbing by its juxtapositioning with common everyday subjects to form a universe uniquely its own. The titles only tell a part of the story: “This is Where Monkeys Fuck Up,” “Amazon.com Customer Review of Tuscan Whole Milk,” “In Base 13 I Am Still Only 29,” and the bizarre “Only a Puppy May Lick the Drunk Death.” Well, they’re all bizarre, really, but Stegosaurus’s world is so well and completely constructed that if you stick with it, it makes its own sense and never colors outside of its own lines. Its humor and sense of playfulness is evident throughout, including my favorite, “YMCA Debunked”: Contrary to the opinion so eloquently expressed/in the Village People’s 1978 hit single,/staying at the YMCA is an unpleasant affair/to be avoided in all but the most desperate circumstances/…The mattresses are stuffed with bread crusts, and/instead of a Gideon, each bed stand contains a copy/of the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition bound in naugahyde. Stegosaurus’s world is well worth the trip.

 

Purpose & Devil Piss – Robert Siek (Sibling Rivalry Press)Purpose_Cover

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Back to Sibling Rivalry for a wonderful, if harrowing, collection from Robert Siek, Purpose & Devil Piss. Siek’s first collection is a masterwork of dread, menace, and foreboding. Even the most humdrum objects and concepts acquire a weighty danger, much like the clown on the cover–ostensibly cute but kinda creepy. Not that the peril here is supernatural. On the contrary, it comes from addiction, recovery, relationships, memories, and unignorable trauma. This is evident from the opener, “1979,” which name-checks horror movies The Brood and Phantasm and goes on to mention surgical steel, gloves, razors, and sealants. None of these are used on the narrator, of course, but their very presence lends an atmosphere of tension and fear. This is carried through in less obvious ways in such poems as “Leaf Blower,” “Turkey on Saturday,” “Hari-Kiri Holiday,” “Killer’s Morning,” and “Haunted Homo.” The search for a connection, even if it’s only for online sex, is never far behind, as in “Good Wording and Perfect Punctuation,” but even this has hints of danger: Maybe he can make me smile, or maybe he and I will write love poems/or letters or see The Color Purple for the tenth time together./Six different guys listed it as a favorite movie. One chose the book/as his best read ever. Like a homeless man balling pages
from a shredded dictionary and chucking them like basketballs/into a fire-pit garbage can, I continue to survive, to seek love./I forget an ex-boyfriend, a bad dream—an SUV/making a U-turn in the middle of a state highway—/you smash into the side and explode. Siek’s work is not to be read with the lights off.

 

9781590213551Waxwings – Daniel Nathan Terry (Lethe Press)

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Daniel Nathan Terry’s Waxwings could, on one hand, be called nature poetry, but its meaning and sincerity transcend that (and other) labels. Nature is never far from Terry’s mind, as you can tell from such titles as “Winter Moon,” “Burning the Peach,” “The Swan,” “Snow falls in Hartsville,” “The Witch’s Tree,” and “Landscaper’s Curse,” but what better metaphor for life and all it encompasses is there–especially for one who makes his living with nature as Terry, being a landscaper, does? And Terry’s language is beautiful. It’s measured, intricately-wrought and finely balanced, hardy enough to withstand multiple readings yet so delicate you’re afraid to blink lest a misreading destroy its beauty. But beauty like this is tough to decimate. Although it all works together in concert to form one whole portrait, one of my favorite pieces is the title work, “Waxwings,” which opens: Waiting for the school bus at the end of the gravel drive,/eyes skyward, the boy counts thirty-seven waxwings/necklacing the telephone wire. They are too distant/to see the glistening red drops for which the birds are named,/but he knows they’re there, at the tip of those folded wings/like seals on old correspondence between lovers. Other concerns crop up in this collection such as self-discovery (“Gay Son of a Preacher”), familial relationships (“The Last Christmas with My Brother,” grief (“Late Morning in Oakdale Cemetary”), and the question of whether or not permanence is actually permanent (“In the Tattoo Parlor”), but in the end Waxwings comes down to man’s relationship to the natural world around him, no matter what the setting is. Highly recommended.

And there you have Out in Print’s Spring Poetry Roundup. You owe it to yourself to pick up any or all of these slender collections, whether your interest is in the odd, the beautiful, or the inspiring. It’s a shame fiction writers of our station (and by that, I mean those of us who aren’t Stephen King or J.K. Rowling) make so little money from our craft, but what happens to poets is a crime. Once again, this is my call to support gay poetry so that the amazement can continue.

©  2014  Jerry L. Wheeler

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Spring Poetry Roundup Part I

aprilWhat better time to do the Spring Poetry Roundup than National Poetry month? And I’ll have two installments covering eleven chapbooks and/or regular releases between this week and next. Note that these works may or may not have been released recently, but I’ve only just gotten to them. My apologies to the poets and the publishers, but a mention is a mention, no matter when it comes. I’m always astounded at the quality of poetry I see coming from every corner of the community, and I think you’ll find an astonishing variety in the next couple of weeks.

 

Between: New Gay Poetry – edited by Jameson Currier (Chelsea Station Editions)Between_NewGay_Poetry

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Jameson Currier and Chelsea Station continues to impress with this volume with some very familiar names as well as poets I haven’t read before. The theme of this collection is the relationships between men–gay men and their lovers, spouses, exes, families, and friends. The breadth of this collection is astonishing, from tricks with sailors (David-Matthew Barnes’s “Blue Navy”) to the pangs of settling down (Jeff Mann’s “The Perils of Tres Leches Cake”) to indomitable grandfathers (Peter LeBerge’s “Breaking Open). With some entries heartfelt, some humorous, some hopeful, and some heartily homespun, this overview works best as a sampler of new poets as well as those who have been around a while. Dig in, and maybe you’ll discover a chapbook or two to order.

 

Broder_cover-213x300This Life Now – Michael Broder (A Midsummer Night’s Press)

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Divided into three sections: “My First Ten Plague Years,” “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Sodomite,” and “This Life Now,” this slim book from Lawrence Schimel’s A Midsummer Night’s Press packs quite the punch. Unlike much poetry about AIDS and the plague, this is not elegiac. It delves into the personal instead, sacrificing the broader points for a much sharper and individualistic perspective. The impact of the first section (as exemplified by the harsh “Tony Poem” and the blunt “Days of 1999″) are somewhat offset by the pre-disease personal history of the second, but the third is the most fully realized, as in the ingenious “Cases,” which examines our relationship to the natural world through a grammatical construct: “Nominative, locus of being;/the river rises, the river falls/The genitive’s whole, that of which one is part,/as the river’s breath that sweetens us/To the dative we abject ourselves,/as to the river we bring what we love.” Playful yet powerful, This Life Now is a thinking man’s ride.

 

Menthol Slim One-Twenty Blues – Walter Beck (Writing Knights Press) 0060-3060-MENTHOL-SLIM-Cover

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Walter Beck is one of my favorite young poets, as much for his attitude as his work. His Hoosier reactionary gonzo alcohol and vitriol fueled raves and rants strike deeply at the core of this old hippie’s soul. Beck may wear his pop culture influences on his sleeve, but he has internalized their lessons, and it’s always a joy to hear where he’s coming from. In this chapbook, Beck has been working for his Wild Turkey and brings us his view of life behind the counter of a gas station convenience store. The titles tell much of the story: “The Ten Commandments For Gas Station Customers,” “Pacing the Cage in #8030,” “The Register’s Shadow,” “Learning to Smile While I Sell You Cigarettes,” “Customer Portrait #3:Eyes of a Killer.” Beck’s work has a plainspoken, Midwestern directness whose underground underpinnings are reactionary and refreshing. If, at times, he sounds beaten down, carving out your own niche is hard work. As he asks in the closing of “Sales Floor Killing Blues”: “A sixty-hour stretch/In a shiny new black shirt/Is it all worth it?/Is it worth growing old and cold/under those fluorescent lights?/Is it worth holding that plastic smile/Until it turns into a scowl?/Is it worth it/To watch your world close in?” We know the answer, and in these days when selling out’s de rigueur, it’s good to know that someone else does too.

 

midnightnThe Midnight Channel – Evan J. Peterson (Babel/Salvage) 

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Evan Peterson is another of my favorite young poets. Deeply and wonderfully warped by horror/slasher films, Peterson wallows in the genre’s camp and culture and finds heart, soul, and meaning in what others dismiss as mindless. His latest, The Midnight Channel, sharpens (hehehehe) and refines his approach. From the opening piece, “Laurie Strode/Halloween” to the closer, “Ellen Ripley/Alien,” Peterson explores these slasher onslaughts with witty and pointed (okay, I’ll stop now) insight with brief–albeit violent–stopovers in other genres. Among my favorites were “Lucy Harbin/Straight-Jacket,” “Sergeant Neil Howie/The Wicker Man” and “Why I Want to Fuck Norman Bates.” Why would you want to fuck Norman Bates? Well, “He eats candy corn out of a paper bag/He knows how to sew a bird shut and doesn’t mind the sawdust/Even cute when he’s lying/He changes the sheets every week, whether they’ve been slept in or not/He knows how to clean up his own messes/He’s clever.” And, indeed, so is Peterson.

 

When I Was Straight – Julie Marie Wade (A Midsummer Night’s Press)Wade_cover-212x300

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This collection from Julie Marie Wade illustrates some fundamental truths about the coming out process. Divided into “Before” and “After” sections, the “Before” poems are all variations on “When I Was Straight,” while the “After” poems focus on various people who “Learn I Am a Lesbian.” The insights are certainly not news to anyone in the audience, but their expression is so genuine and wide-eyed, that those feelings of difference and inadequecy and hurt come rushing back. As Wade says, “When I Was Straight/It was like a game of Red Rover &/someone was always being sent over,/flung out into the field of un-belonging/& struggling to break back in/The team that called you didn’t want/you & the team that had you/couldn’t keep you. No one was/content to run or stay put.” As emotional as this is, the “After” poems are almost giddy in their excitement, honesty and irony, as in “When the Whole Office Learns I Am A Lesbian”: “Have you ever been to Provincetown?”/”How did you like ‘Brokeback Mountain’?”/”Do your parents know?”/”My cousin is gay and lives in West Virginia.”/”Was it hard for you in high school?”/”I want you to know I voted for Al Gore.” No matter what changes and how much, some reactions still remain, unfortunately, the same. And Wade has documented them admirably.

 

Next week, we will be looking at Daniel Nathan Terry’s Waxwings, Robert Siek’s Purpose and Devil Piss, the latest issue of Assaracus and other goodies. Until then, please make an effort to seek out some of these books and chapbooks. Keep gay poetry alive and well.

©  2014  Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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The Unwanted – Jeffrey Ricker (Bold Strokes Books)

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Part of the fun of reading YA novels these days is seeing the breadth of choices available for young people. When I was that age, we were rather limited as to what could be fit on a stone tablet. Today, however, the options for young adults seem to be infinite. As such, distinguishing yourself as an author becomes harder and harder. But Jeffrey Ricker has a chance to do just that should he continue in this genre, and his most recent book, The Unwanted is a fine start.

Jamie Thomas is not having a good day. He’s been beaten up by his nemesis, Billy Stratton, rescued by his best friend Sarah, his car’s in the stop, and his mother is an Amazon. Not that she’s been around much. She abandoned him shortly after birth, leaving him in the care of his father, so why is she–and her horse–in their backyard? Well, she needs his help. Seems Jamie is the object of a prophecy indicating he alone can save the Amazonian race from destruction by Ares and his undead hoardes. Together with Sarah, his bully Billy (whose mother is also an Amazon), and his father, they attempt to fulfill the prophecy.

Ricker’s first novel, Detours, although well-written and interesting, was less focused than it might have been, but he’s definitely learned his lesson here. The Unwanted is as sharp and laser-tuned as you could ask for. Steeped as he is in Wonder Woman lore and mythology, Ricker creates an extremely credible fascimile of the home of the Amazons, but all the mythos never gets in the way of the characters.

Jamie is an interesting hero, as uncertain and flawed as he is innately brave. He understands the risks as well as what’s at stake, and his nascent love affair with Billy is both tender and believable. Jamie’s mother, Maia, is also well-drawn, always conscious of protecting her offspring at the same time she protects her race. The Unwanted even has visits from goddesses such as Athena and Artemis, who are sufficiently portentious and obscure.

The ending, however, is where Ricker really shines. Giving such an epically heroic story its due HEA would be both rote and expected, but Ricker goes one up and delivers a HEA that’s not really a HEA. Or is it? That depends on which side of the story you look. Are the villains defeated? Well, er…yes. But beyond that, you shouldn’t stop reading and assume you know how things turn out. You’d be wrong.

In short, Ricker has crafted a wonderfully satisfying story that not only does his love of Wonder Woman justice, but brings the Amazon myth alive for an entirely new audience. He draws back the bow. He shoots. And he scores.

©  2014  Jerry L. Wheeler

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A Conversation with Steve Berman by Gavin Atlas

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Steve Berman describes himself as “mostly a writer of queer speculative fiction”. He is the author of the recently released collection, Red Caps: New Stories for Out of the Ordinary Readers. In addition, he is the author of the novel, Vintage: A Ghost Story and the short story collections, Trysts and Second Thoughts. He is also the publisher of Lethe Press and the most prolific editor of queer speculative fiction working today. Steve has been a finalist for many awards, including the Andre Norton, the Gaylactic Spectrum, the Golden Crown Literary, and the Lambda Literary Awards. He resides in southern New Jersey.

Gavin Atlas: Hi Steve! Thanks for doing an interview with Out in Print. To start, you’ve written in a number of genres. When choosing what to spend your time writing, what makes young adult fiction often have the strongest draw on you? Also, could you tell us about some of your favorite YA novels or short stories?

Steve Berman: Hello and thank you for all your interest in my writing. I think the reason why I often drift towards young adult fiction is because it is “fiction of firsts”—think of how many new experiences happen to us between the ages of fourteen and eighteen years old. First jobs, first real kisses, first heartaches, etc. (btw, I wish I could say that this notion is original to me, but my friend Holly Black coined it years ago). Writing about first time experiences is a powerful thing; it’s a greater impetus on the author than mere nostalgia. I’m actually more likely to have favorite authors than individual books or short stories—I would imagine other folk have similar experiences. I admire David Levithan for his wit and all he has accomplished. Holly Black would rank among my favorites even if we were not friends.

GA: My favorite character in Red Caps is your slightly sinister French tooth fairy. Is there a way I can be friends with Mr. Souris or hire him as a therapist without paying him in teeth? How did you conjure him up? What would you think of him if he somehow became a part of your life?

SB: Ah, Mr. Souris…he’s my trickster figure. I wanted to create someone with a great deal of flair that could be intimidating and yet comforting in turn. As a supernatural entity, he has abilities that make him inhuman, and yet he is not at all omniscient—the truth is, he’s as flawed as any adult. I don’t know if he would accept any remuneration except for teeth since so much of his identity involves his occupation, his purpose. If he visited me, I think we would have a very long discussion about what he does with all the teeth he takes. I fear the answer.

GA: From the Pine Barrens Devil to Shuka, Guardian of the Jungle, and Amelia Earhart sojourning through swamps, you make New Jersey feel full of magic. How would you describe your feelings toward New Jersey overall?

SB: Every elementary school student in southern New Jersey learns about the Jersey Devil by 6th grade. It’s almost part of the curriculum. Yet, New Jersey seems to be the butt of so many jokes that my instinct is to show readers a side of the state that invokes wonder rather than scorn.

GA: Your story “Three on a Match” brings up the nature of lies, and maybe even the necessity of them. There would be no fiction without lies, and lies can help create mystery or humor. Can you discuss some of the most fascinating lies you’ve been told or, if it won’t get you in trouble, that you’ve told yourself?

SB: Hmmm. I’ve been “catfished” twice by people pretending to be someone they were clearly not back in the early days of the Internet. Both times the lies they told to shield their real identity (and, in one case, feminine gender) became more outlandish until they collapsed like the square-cube law that prevents giant monsters from existing. When I eventually figured out what they did—never why—it was intensely painful because I thought I had found someone who really showed an interest in me. Lying might be fascinating but it can be truly hurtful. Being in the closet was my most successful lie. A lie so easy, that I slipped into it again during graduate school and managed to get a girlfriend without realizing how or what would happen next (the answer: a disaster).

GA: Here are two word associations.  Can you tell us what each means to you, in terms of yourself and your fiction? Your first word is: October.

SB: My first two “professional” sales were to two role-playing game magazines and released in October. So, for a while, my friends nicknamed me Mr. October. October also has my favorite holiday: Halloween.

GA: From your story “Bittersweet” your word is: Sugar.

SB: Sugar = Death for some. That comes to mind. White, granular or powder, could look like a drug, is seen by a drug by many. Sweetness = lies. All sorts of things come to mind. We both want sugar and hate ourselves for wanting it.

GA: Now, back to you. What makes you laugh the most?

SB: If I say Schadenfreude, does that make me the villain? I will say my favorite sort of movie is black comedy, such as Black Sheep, I Sell the Dead, and Reanimator.

GB: Imagine you’ve been given a life-size set of Kaiju monsters where “life-size” means big enough to destroy Tokyo. What would they look like? Since you control them, what would you have them do?

SB: I used to love Kaiju as a kid. But the whole square-cube law just echoes through my cranium every time I watch a giant monster movie: they cannot be, the laws of physics say they cannot be. Perhaps if they were so alien as to shock my brain, cause me to roll a d100 in SAN loss, I could go mad and turn them loose. But not in New Jersey.

GA: And last, what goals are you looking forward to accomplishing? And we’ll throw in a genie for you. What experiences would you most wish to have?

SB: I’ve yet to win any award for my own writing. Even though such things rarely translate into sales, they are a visual reminder that someone, perhaps an entire jury, thought highly of my storytelling. I’d like to fall in love. I’ve never been in a relationship. Never had a guy lie next to me in bed and say he loved me. I wonder how that must feel. I have seen it done in films, read about it in books, but the entire notion of romance seems like fiction, a lie, to me. It’s a plotline I doubt I ever will follow in real life, which leaves me devastated some days, some nights. I’d also like to own a secret volcano base.

GA: Thanks, Steve!

SB: You’re welcome.

Keep up with Steve Berman on Facebook or at steveberman.com.

©  2014  Gavin Atlas

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The Second Ring – Anthony Kobal (CreateSpace)

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“Axel, I said to myself, you are drawn too easily down the wrong path.”

 Axel, the protagonist in poet Anthony Kobal’s debut novel The Second Ring is a satisfyingly conflicted character. He comes from a family with a distinguished military tradition. Like all of Germany they were caught in the economic nightmare that existed between the World Wars, when the value of a carrot could change several times a day and currency had to be bundled into basic units of exchange.

As a cadet at Heidelberg Axel is already aware that he is Uranier and attracted to other men. He is recruited by Baron von Halbsmann, a relic of Junker aristocracy, to play naked doggy sex games, which pay Axel’s way through the academy. Shame and need reshape his sexual self as he becomes a soldier and officer.

Axel is a courageous enough soldier: he becomes a paratroop officer, and saves the life of one of his men during a jump. He takes his leadership very seriously, often even pompously, with the untroubled presumption of superiority characteristic of most who occupy a position of power within an exceptionalist, elitist culture.

Although indifferent to his country’s politics, even at war, Axel’s certainty that Germany will win the war gives him all the compass he needs to fulfill his role in the conflict. He and his troops are stationed in Norway, where he becomes obsessed with a Norwegian collaborator, Klaus, who is the Aryan physical ideal personified.

The relationship between Axel and Klaus forms the core of the story, and provides the common ground for the clever dual meaning of the novel’s title — the second ring is both the second sphincter in a man’s ass, and one of the components in the Enigma machine used by the Nazis to encrypt messages.

Kobal’s writing is colorful, creating an episodic wartime montage of the mystical and the mundane. Soldiers burn a brand on their hips with the troop insignia in a declaration of brotherhood. Axel loses a boot pushing against a truck stuck in mud. In one utterly compelling scene, a propaganda film team from Berlin comes to shoot footage showing the noble unity of Norwegian and German soldiers, and Klaus becomes the star of the project.

The war itself, while always present as the context of the story, is not a dominant presence. There are few military skirmishes. Instead, the bureaucracy, the routines, and the petty intrigues of status and privilege occupy the characters’ lives.

I had some difficulty with the book, too. The book is episodic in nature, and character arc occasionally loses some of its shape because of it. The prologue is not really a prologue, but a key moment from the climax, which irritated me more than it probably should have.

The Second Ring is a strong first novel with an unusual plot, an interesting WWII story centered on a deeply flawed protagonist and his obsessive love for another soldier.

©  2014  Lloyd A. Meeker

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Rush – Carsen Taite (Bold Strokes Books)

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You’d think the concept of building and maintaining tension in a story would be elementary for a writer, but I can’t tell you the number of books I read (both self-published and not) that build tension nicely only to squander it or bury it under a mountain of plot details. Carsen Taite, however, works tension like a boss in all her books, inlcuding her latest, Rush.

Someone is killing alumnae members of the Sigma Nu sorority, and prosecuter Danielle Soto figures to get a career boost by being on the task force to find the murderer. That goal could be hindered, however, by her falling in love with the beautiful Ellen Davenport, head of Sigma Nu’s alumnae association. And Ellen is hiding some personal information that may just help crack the case. Can they resolve their issues long enough to catch a criminal?

Well, the question is rhetorical at best. But before we get to the happy climax, Taite throws some interesting obstacles in her characters’ ways, making the relationship between Danny Soto and Ellen Davenport prickly and tentative enough to throw you off balance. That’s the tension spoken of earlier, and Taite starts laying the foundation for that right from the beginning. She never lets up, giving each positive interaction between the two a negative outcome. Both Danny and Ellen have so many secrets and so many layers that a relationship seems impossible at the outset, and Taite does nothing to alleviate this.

And with mysterious roses being dropped off at Davenport’s doorstep by the killer as well as some other neat twists and turns, the murder mystery is pretty damn effective as well. But just when you think you have that figured out, Taite throws in a last minute quirk that surprises. But the ending is as satisfactory as one could want in a romance thriller. Taite knows her craft well, and her prose is always breezily readable with no slow spots, plot holes, or narrative gaffes. The consummate professional, she entertains both outside and inside the bedroom. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

My only minor point of contention is that she could have made more of the economic disparity between Danny (poor girl who has worked her way through law school) and Ellen (rich sorority girl). Some of those elements do cause strife between them, but it could have been more pronounced. That, however, is just my (poor boy who worked his way through university) personal taste, and I doubt anyone else but me would notice.

Carsen Taite knows her stuff and struts it with grace and assuredness here. If you like romance thrillers, you’ll swallow this one whole.

©  2014  Jerry L. Wheeler

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