Out in Print’s Best of 2014

IMG_0754What a marvelous year for LGBT books it was.  Yet again, I am taken aback by the creativity and passion of our community as well as its insistence on delivering quality stories told with panache and verve. Some were driven by character, some by plot, and others by fact and opinion–but they were all worthy of reading. Picking the ten best is always the toughest part of the year, but having an embarrassment of riches and difficult decisions is far better than scrounging for candidates. In no particular order, then, my handsome Duncan presents to you Out in Print’s Best of 2014:

1) Cub – Jeff Mann (Bear Bones Books)51ysL4tB5OL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

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Young adult gay books have exploded into the marketplace, but Mann’s Cub concentrates on teens who are not exactly in the mainstream–those inspired by scruffy companions, walks in the woods, and Greek myths instead of Beyonce and skinny jeans. That alone makes this book unique, but Jeff Mann is able to find the boy he was and puts that kid into the boys he creates, coming up with a story that charms. In many ways, this is the ultimate young adult book because it explores the possibility of being your own animal instead of following the paths carefully laid out for you. It’s a novel about taking chances and becoming who you were meant to be, and as I said in my original review, if it doesn’t become a YA classic, there’s no justice.

2) The Shoal of Time – J.M. Redmann (Bold Strokes Books)BSB-ShoalOfTime

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Speaking of taking chances, you need cojones the size of watermelons to take a sucessful series character like J.M. Redmann’s Micky Knight and do something to her you know fans of the books will be totally up in arms about. A transitional move? Sure. But, according to other Goodreads and Amazon reviews, it was one many of Redmann’s readers were unable to choke down. Whether or not it will lose her readership remains to be seen, but her bravery and willingness to reboot the series is laudable. However, that’s not the only reason to pick up this book. It’s a worthwhile addition to the Knight canon. The mystery (about girls sold into sex slavery) is interesting and serves as a great vehicle for an expansion of Knight’s character.

4413) Death in Venice, California – Vinton Rafe McCabe (The Permanent Press) 

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This homage to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice updates the story of Aschenbach and Tadzio and exports it to California. McCabe wisely foregoes the temptation to play this for laughs, however, and gives us a darkly satirical look at youth, aging, and the attendant problems of both. Witty and slyly written, its philosophy never overreaches itself, so it stays accessible instead of becoming arch. The main difference between McCabe and Mann is that Aschenbach and Tadzio never meet, where as the analogous Jameson Frame and his paramour Chase have a torrid affair. This, for me, changed the focus from the original, but perhaps that’s what the shift was meant to do. Either way, there’s much to enjoy and be engaged by. I’ll never look at Botox the same way…

4) Butcher’s Road – Lee Thomas (Lethe Press)51TbYncew9L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

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Who else but horror writer extraordinaire Lee Thomas could take a ruined pro wrestler, Irish and Italian mobsters, and a secret society of alchemists out to retreive a stolen relic and come up with something as compulsively readable as Butcher’s Road? As horrifying as the bloody scenes are, they’re never gratuitous, and Thomas’s characters are as complex as any found in Stephen King or Peter Straub. The plot is compelling and has enough twists to keep even the most jaded reader on his toes. I found myself trying to slow down and savor this, but in the end it was no use. It’s like trying to ration pistachios.

BSB-QueerlyBeloved_25) Queerly Beloved: A Love Story Across Genders – Diane and Jacob Anderson-Minshall (Bold Strokes Books)

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Keeping same-sex relationships together is difficult enough work considering the challenges couples face, but when one of the lesbians in question realizes she needs to transition to another gender, where does that leave the other half of the duo? Is she still a lesbian? The obvious answer is that she’s whoever she defines herself to be, but when you live in the public eye, as does the editor-in-chief of The Advocate, an easy answer isn’t always correct. Diane and Jacob Anderson-Minshall have met their challenges head on, learning and loving despite all the changes accompanying Jake’s transition. Their story is fascinating and told with humor, vulnerability, and grace. More than a memoir, it’s a study in binary gender roles. And bloody marvelous.

97815902102776) Beginning With the Mirror – Peter Dube (Lethe Press) 

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Peter Dube is one of my favorite authors, so he’s bound to make my short list any time he comes out with a new volume. Although I’ve read a few of these stories previously, such as his Edgar Allan Poe-inspired “Corvidae,” most of these were unfamiliar to me. Dube’s fictional forays all blend some dream-like or fantastic elements with reality until it becomes difficult to tell which are which, and these ten stories are no exception. I love his style–literate, but never oppressive or showy, and although some might find these tales dense, I find a close reading to be an extremely rewarding and enjoyable experience.

Joy_Exhaustible7) Joy Exhaustible: Assaracus Presents the Publishers – Bryan Borland and Seth Pennington, eds. (Sibling Rivalry Press)

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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.

jacket_med8) The Geography of Pluto – Christopher DiRaddo (Cormorant Books)

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Newcomer Christopher DiRaddo’s debut novel is masterfully told, full of heart and heartbreak. DiRaddo’s gift for dialogue is only matched by the clarity and directness of his prose. He also has a finely detailed sense of place and time, but he never lets either of those overwhelm the characters. The setting emerges as naturally as a sunrise. The plot is less important than character here, but what happens is not as interesting as the characters’ reactions. Indeed, this was a book I couldn’t put down because the main character drew me in and held me so totally. Universal and eminently readable, this is a first novel from an author to watch for in future.

la-4x69) Lincoln Avenue: Chicago Stories – Gregg Shapiro (Squares & Rebels/Handtype Press)

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By a long shot, Lincoln Avenue is the shortest book here. Its twelve stories clock in at just over a hundred pages, but their brevity is part of their power. Raised in Chicago, Shapiro’s prose evokes the industrial Midwest in ways that only fellow Midwesterners like myself, will truly recognize. For us, there is a whiff of reality around these pieces that adds another dimension. That doesn’t mean that coastal people won’t like it. If you come from an urban area, there’s much to remember here. Shapiro looks at that decaying landscape with a poet’s eye but spits it back at you with a serpent’s tongue. Fully realized despite its length, Lincoln Avenue is a marvelous short read that will have you thinking long after you’ve finished it.

BSB-BlueWaterDreams10) Blue Water Dreams – Dena Hankins (Bold Strokes Books)

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Not your typical romance. Oh, it has the HEA ending, but the cynical intellectual hipster pose of its characters is totally blown out of the water when they succumb to emotions. Most romances tend to distance themselves from philosophy and discussion, but Hankins embraces those. That’s not to say it’s dry. In fact, it has some extremely hot sex–something I neglected to mention in the original review because I was so blown away by how well-drawn its characters are and how naturally they interact. An absolutely terrific first effort by a novelist I’ll enjoy reading even more from in the future.

And there you have it, Out in Print’s Best of 2014. I hope you order and enjoy each and every one of these. And if you do, don’t forget to tell us about it.

© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler


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Blue Water Dreams – Dena Hankins (Bold Strokes Books)

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Anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis knows how much I admire and respect those writers who break rules and challenge themselves and their readers. Nowhere is this truer than in the romance genre, whose traditions and expectations are, perhaps, more hidebound than most. In her debut novel, Blue Water Dreams, Dena Hankins has made some interesting choices that pay off in a big way.

Lania Marchiol, a cis woman who enjoys her freedom and independence editing a magazine she prints the old-fashioned way, finds both of those threatened by transman documentary filmmaker Oly Rassmussen. They couldn’t have fallen in love at a worse time. Lania is transitioning from part-time optician and full-time small circulation magazine editor to buying a boat and sailing around the world single-handedly. Oly is finishing up a film he made with his best friend, Jeremy. When love enters the picture, whose plans get derailed? Whose dream gets sacrificed? Whose life becomes secondary?

Most romances open and close on the hinges of emotion, but what I found refreshing in Blue Water Dreams was its non-cynical intellectualism. That’s not to say characters in many romances aren’t smart. They just don’t converse like they are. We see Lania and Oly and their friends engaging in interesting philosophical discussions–not so much as to overwhelm the reader, but enough that we understand their deeply-held viewpoints and opinions. And what’s especially delicious here is seeing how the flow of their emotions totally overwhelm the intellectual distance they attempt to maintain. That’s really the balance and equilibrium that gets disrupted here.

But that wouldn’t be nearly as worthwhile if the characters weren’t as well-drawn as Hankins manages. Lania is pitch-perfect. I loved her inability to depend on anyone as well as how she learns to reel that back in so that she can maintain her relationship. The scene where they argue power dynamics over who gets to pay the check is telling in more ways than one. And Hankins has done an equally thorough job on Oly, a challenging love-‘em-and-leave-‘em kinda guy who has fallen in love with great reluctance and more than a little fear.

Of the important secondary characters, both Oly’s best friend, Jeremy, and Lania’s father, Adam, have their moments in the sun. As a fully rounded character, Jeremy has the edge over Adam, who seems to be a bit one-dimensional at times, but this is a minor quibble at best. Jeremy may seem more involved because his dreams are linked with Oly’s, and Adam doesn’t have that advantage.

That small point aside, Blue Water Dreams is a very interesting and totally engaging read that treads some interesting paths before it ultimately turns towards its HEA, and by the time you get there, you feel as if the characters have earned it. Even more exciting is seeing Hankins’s vision and knowing that whatever her next project is, it’ll be on the TBR pile.

© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Fucked: The Gay Lives of Straight Men – Ken Shakin (Lethe Press)

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In the front matter for this collection of fifteen well-written short stories, Shakin uses the Urban Dictionary to provide the book’s definition of the word “fucked.” This is perfectly in keeping with the setting, characters and tone of these stories, all of which are decidedly urban.

Even his language announces that if you are looking for a bucolic stroll through romantic ideals, you’d better look elsewhere. Shakin’s agressive, punchy vocal rhythms are pure city, sharp, hard corners everywhere, hard as cinder block corners of a warehouse. His clever word play, which sometimes becomes overly precious, held this reader fascinated.

In his preface he gives us the first key to his rationale — “…sex, if nothing else, is about stimulation.” The ostensibly straight men in these stories are looking for a kind of stimulation they can’t get from the women in their lives. Shakin leads us into an exploration of their boredom, and how they try to banish it.

The stories themselves are highly editorialized anecdotes, often carrying an unusual confessional quality to them, as if for reasons unnamed these men eagerly divulged their secrets to the narrator, even when the narrator doesn’t participate in the action.

The anthology makes a really interesting read, often as unpleasant as the stories are interesting, providing a running commentary on the complexities of repressed sexuality — especially the stories we tell ourselves so we can tell them to our bed partners — told with the cynical ennui of the truly jaded. Whether that ennui actually belongs to the author or not doesn’t really matter. Shakin carries off the narrator’s posture perfectly. It is the detached, mildly disdainful voice of someone who has surrendered belief in the possibility of experiencing anything more than he’s already had.

Overall, the narrator serves not as participant but as reporter, chronicling the tangled sexual journeys of the men whose stories he collects. His intellect is acute, providing insights with the deft and subtle cruelty of an impatient, psychologically sophisticated eye. This phone exchange with the narrator’s accountant in the collection’s second story, “Gay for a Day” is an example:

Now he seems to be the one who needs advice. An exchange of professional services? I can’t do his taxes, but I do seem to be inspiring him to tell a story.

I’m not surprised by the role reversal. When I left his office we still hadn’t resolved my taxable sins or finished his confession. The man obviously needed to get something off his chest. I picture his chest suddenly, the hair on it, and on other parts of him. I picture him stark naked except for glasses, socks and shoes. I picture him masturbating on the phone, while he tells me what needs to be said. Or doesn’t. For the sake of my taxes. 

“After our last conversation I thought I should explain myself.”

No need. Whatever turns you off is fine with me.

“I’m not gay,” he insists.

I’m not either. Except when I’m having sex.

“I’m straight.”

Me too. Except when I’m lying.

“But once a week I go to the men’s room.”

Ah, of course. The men’s room. Where men go when they have to.

As seems to be true for most cynics, Shakin’s narrator tells us fulfillment doesn’t play a significant part in his sexual/romantic equation. As he closes the last story in the collection, he provides his core message: “But there’s nothing sexier than a good tease.”

Is the tension of desire is better than satisfaction? Whether or not you agree, you’ll find something to think about in these stories.

© 2014 Lloyd A. Meeker

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Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

IMG_0585Out in Print is taking the week off to cook for our dinner guests, but we would like to take this opportunity to thank all of our readers, followers, groupies, and hangers-on for their support. We will return next Monday with guest reviewer Lloyd A. Meeker’s review of Ken Shaklin’s “Fucked.” We wish you a wonderful holiday!

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Tangled Roots – Marianne K. Martin (Bywater Books)

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I usually snap up whatever Bywater Books comes out with, and I have been exposed to some amazing authors this way–Hilary Sloin, Bett Norris, and Jill Malone among others. So, I was surprised when I received this prequel to Marianne K. Martin’s Under the Witness Tree, which managed to escape my attention. I’ve since added it to my TBR list, which in itself has grown to the size of a small novel, but Tangled Roots is a standalone that is sure to please.

Addy Grayson is a matriarch raising her granddaughters, Emily and Anna in early twentieth century Georgia, but the trials that she endured during the Civil War have lingering results that filter down to her charges–especially as Anna becomes best friends with the servant’s daughter, Nessie. The girls must cope with prejudice, Anna’s nursing career and goals, her involvement in the suffragette movement as well as their sexual awakening and attraction for each other.

Martin’s greatest gift is in her sharply detailed and altogether convincing characters. Addy Grayson’s strength and indomitable nature are palpable, and she is the glue which holds the family together. Anna is also finely wrought, as is Nessie. Their actions, their dialogue, their interrelationships with each other, are all absolutely true to their characters, and they never strike a false note. Her Georgia setting is evocative, and Martin does a wonderful job of portraying the racial and political attitudes of the time period.

So why am I so frustrated by the brevity of this book? Partially because Martin creates such a terrific place to be that I never wanted to leave it. This book, only 208 pages, could be half again that long and still keep my attention. The suffragette stuggle alone could have carried the additional length, never mind any additional exploration of Anna and Nessie’s relationship. But perhaps Under the Witness Tree has those bases covered.

Nevertheless, Tangled Roots is an amazing portrait of two women caught up in the social and political strife of their time, as warm and real as it is engaging. Highly recommended.

© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Beginning with the Mirror – Peter Dube (Lethe Press)

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Whether walking alongside surrealist poet Rene Crevel (Subtle Bodies), forging his own fictional path (The City’s Gates), or approaching life as recipes in a grimoire (Conjure: A Book of Spells), Peter Dube’s work always provides a literary perspective that carries weight and importance, dazzling his readers with his facility with language and his ability to straddle the line between reality and dream state. The ten stories comprising Beginning With the Mirror mine much the same territory to marvelous effect.

Though more conventional than Conjure, conventional is a relative term as applied to Dube. The first four stories ground the reader in Dube’s approach to storytelling, linked by the fact that they’re all about the elements: “Blazon” (fire), “Tides” (water), “Funnel Cloud” (air), and “Furrow” (earth), their narrators recalling childhood incidents which continue to haunt their adult lives. But no matter how well-written, a quadriptych does not a book make, and Dube has other tricks up his sleeve.

Everything here has something to recommend it, be it the style, the metaphor, the thought, or an admiration of the rhythm of the language. Plot? Yes, but always secondary to character and voice. Bones to carry their flesh. But when Dube’s characters move, they strike sparks–as in the violent and twisty “Needle,” where Drake recalls a brutal affair with Blue as he’s getting a tattoo. What that tattoo says is as surprising as the ending. Brilliantly mean and absolutely fascinating. I also enjoyed the quiet “Drifts,” which sees love between boys from two rival tribes as our civilization morphs into one far more disconnected than the current incarnation due to a true extinction level snowpocalypse, as well as the Poe-inspired “Corvidae.”

But the most delicious of all these morsels, “Vision,” has a man named Cam attending the death watch for close friend Dean, who is convinced–in his painkiller fog–that demons are coming for him. Transitioning effortlessly between the real and the fantastic, Dube creates their Venn diagram and stakes out the territory in the middle as his character’s point of view. Even at the end, you won’t be sure what the truth of the matter is.

As with Dube’s other work, a close reading will be a rewarding one. I have always enjoyed his palette of language and the way he polishes his extended metaphors until they glisten. These ten stories leave you with much to think about as well as admire.

© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Damage Control: A Memoir of Outlandish Privilege, Loss and Redemption – Sergei Boissier (Argo-Navis)

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Toward the end of Sergei Boissier’s memoir, he mentions a particularly odd physical service his domineering mother had her lapdog  perform on her–in front of her children yet, and I wondered, “Do I really need to know this?”

The grown-up Boissier is a psychotherapist, however, so for him every nuance and particularity of Dollsie, nee Dolores, his Cuban born Social Register aspirant mother, must be brought out and aired. If not, how can he possibly be “cured”? This unique and remarkable book itself is the cure, and so we readers are made complicit in the procedure. Which brings up an entire set of possibly unanswerable questions about what it is we do exactly when we write a memoir, what are the expectations we have and how are they met; and, as importantly, how we interact, and what we do precisely when we read such a memoir.

But first the book: it is compulsive reading. It is also well written. For the most part, scene after scene is prepared for, laid out, and then limned to a climax, and onward we go to the next excess, the next scene of folly or sheer temperament. Boissier’s own life is there, in full detail, and eventually so are those of his older brother, younger sister, and his stepbrother. But the star of the book, the overriding presence, is his mother. Books like this are needed if only to show that people like Dollsie do actually exist and not just managing concentration camps, or as wardens in prison schools. They exist on all levels of society, and in this case, when their enormous ego is allied to a great deal of beauty, charm, breeding and money, they also exist at the highest levels of society, where they are free to indulge themselves at their most twisted and perverse.

The author attempts many times to get at what it was that drove this woman who then never ceased to drive her children, and who managed to drive and then drive away her husbands and lovers. He gets into her past in Cuba, the life of privilege wiped away by Fidel Castro when the wealthy were forced to flee their country. He delves into her own family history’s oddities: how when she was a child, she often traveled with her nanny and her father’s mistress, while her father traveled with her mother. More than a single generation of official hypocrisy helped form this formidable woman, and Dollsie learned early on that if she didn’t take charge utterly that she too could end up like those cast off concubines and those long suffering saint-like wives who were her models while growing up.

I was reminded of the heroines of nineteenth century novels: Becky Sharp, naturally, but even more those morally dubious heroines of Spanish literature by Perez Galdos and Alarcon, those Dona Perfectas and La Regentas. Even though her theatres of sexual war were 1960’s venues like  Serendipity and the Peppermint Lounge and not some cathedral town or royal court, Dollsie left no stone unturned and even fewer un-thrown in her precipitous rise to what she had always expected should be her natural milieu. So millionaires and heads of state, couturiers and industrial magnates all had to kowtow or fall beneath the unceasing wheels of her personality, grinding out her inexorable rise. Speaking of one of her recent social conquests she lectures young Sergei: “You ‘d have to be hiding in a cave in Siberia not to know him.”

But such a rise when your talents are realistically few are perilous indeed and as a corollary, everyone around Dollsie also had to be impeccable in every way. Her first, not nearly perfect enough or ambitious enough husband, Sergei’s father, soon fell out of the picture as Dollsie tumbled ever upward, and while Boissier’s older brother was the perfect macho, polo-playing, hooligan male,  sensitive and gay young Sergei was his opposite in every way. He soon became the target of Dollsie’s greatest bouts of improvement, all of which were pretty much torments to him and form the bulk of this memoir.

But if Boissier is expert at dramatizing his mother and family’s life, he’s no slouch with his own : “The first day of school was a disaster,” he tells us, “And pretty much set the tone for the next nine years.” If he enjoys camp, he’s pulled out for doing girly arts and crafts, not canoeing. If he hates a boarding school where he is bullied, he’s stuck there a perennial victim. As a reader I wanted to yell, “Get a grip, kiddo! Kick ‘em in the nuts!” But I wasn’t bullied, so what do I know?

Despite everything, including the terrible inconvenience of being gay and coming out, he does survive. And he survives his mother too, who ends up dying of cancer in a long drawn-out almost comic-tragic manner. Ending up with Boissier writing, “And here we are at the end of her life, making polite conversation, the two of them (mother and brother) trying to build me up and make me feel good on my birthday…For we always have been a family that thrives on chaos and crisis. That’s when the best comes out in each one of us making us feel like knights in shining armor coming to the rescue … ” Well. Maybe.  And he does end up happy at last, a single parent of a lovely adopted girl.

When we read such books with such avidity, are we in fact encouraging more of them? I have to wonder. Or will monsters exist and need to be written about no matter who reads what? Maybe we should just forget about the philosophizing,  get a box of chocolate bonbons and a heart-shaped satin pillow to lie our head upon, and enjoy.

© 2014 Felice Picano

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