The Giddy Death of the Gays and Strange Demise of Straights – Redfern Jon Barrett (Lethe Press)

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Set in Swansea, Wales, The Giddy Death of the Gays & the Strange Demise of Straights is an engaging and thought-provoking read. It’s a story about breaking free of restrictions — relationship conventions, geographical place, traditional gender identity.

The story has four POV characters: Caroline, Rutti, Richard, and Dom, although Rutti is the most powerful and colorful character, even if not the protagonist in the usual sense. From the beginning of the book Rutti animates the story with wit, insight and defiance. Zie uses gender-neutral pronouns as part of hir world view. There are twelve flashes into three points in the future, in which use of these pronouns (and the gender fluidity they represent) have become universal. It was immensely satisfying to see that at 80 Rutti is still triumphant, happy, and fully realized as hirself.

As the story begins, The Skyline — a shabby, mediocre nightcllub (although everything in Swansea is at least shabby if not squalid) burns to a shell. The nightclub doesn’t feature except for its burning — it’s a harbinger of change for the four heroes about to break free of the sullen boredom of life in Swansea, with its drinking, emotional violence, squalor, and merciless cold rain.

Caroline, Dom and Richard feel their way into a polyamorous relationship, and Rutti’s solo journey is catalyzed by a sweet, magical character with the stage name of High Hopes, though everyone just calls hir Hopes. And zie is exactly that for Rutti.

The present-time scenes are cleverly crafted to appear random, almost aimless, slow to take shape, but always true to charming chapter titles like The Pet Fundamentalist, Beware of Rooms with Plastic Plants, or Off-White Feminism and Low-Fat Fascism.

Frankly, I didn’t much enjoy the jumps into the future, but as the book unfolded I realized they were needed to give the story its shape and meaning, its sense of destiny. They are written in a cool third person POV (with the telling exception of Rutti’s), in contrast to the first person chapters in the rest of the book. It took some adjusting to stay with them.

Is The Giddy Death of Gays & the Strange Demise of Straights a manifesto for polyamory and gender fluidity, or a quirky, well-conceived, interesting and optimistic read? Yes. And after you read it I promise you’ll want to talk about it with your friends, which may be the greatest endorsement of any novel.

© 2015 Lloyd A. Meeker

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Love’s Bounty – Yolanda Wallace (Bold Strokes Books)

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The prolific Lambda Literary Award winning Yolanda Wallace strikes again, this time using coastal Maine as the backdrop for romance. Like her fellow Bold Strokes authors Carsen Taite, D. Jackson Leigh, Cari Hunter, and others, she proves herself most capable and reliable, coming up with fully-realized characters, interesting conflicts, and nicely-turned plot elements.

Ashley (Shy) Silva needs to get out of South Boston for her own good, so her uncle sends her to Portland, Maine to work on a lobster boat captained by lovely Jake Myers. Jake takes a chance on the “greenhorn,” finding her surprisingly responsible and eager to learn. She also finds Shy attractive, and the feeling is definitely mutual. Shy has her own reasons for not wanting to get romantically involved, but Jake has a few deep, dark secrets of her own. Can they both get past their pasts and concentrate on building something for the future?

Since this is a romance, I think we all know the answer to that one, but Wallace puts enough obstacles in the way to keep you guessing until the very last. And far from being contrived, the difficulties spring very naturally from their characters and situations. In particular, I found the origin of Jake’s PTSD timely and logically motivated. However, Shy’s unwillingness to let go of her family’s dictum not to date outside her ancestry is also compelling.

Shy’s additional problem is an inability to let go of Lucy, her old “girlfriend” from South Boston. Some of the best scenes of the book are the awkward ones when Lucy comes to visit Shy in her new surroundings and tries to erase any gains Shy has made by being away from bad friends and worse habits. You know right from jump this girl is a problem, and she proves that in spades.

Wallace, in fact, builds her characters with such comfort and ease that you feel as if you know them within only a few paragraphs. She has a terrific eye for detail and a style that is unpretentious and uncomplicated, yet strikes all emotional chords–the hallmarks of a true pro. And she brings together all the elements for an immensely satisfying conclusion.

Love’s Bounty is the first Yolanda Wallace book I’ve read, but it certainly won’t be the last.

© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Portraits at an Exhibition – Patrick Horrigan (Lethe Press)

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One Tuesday afternoon in April 2005, a man named Robin takes the day off from work and attends the exhibit “MOTIONS OF THE MIND:  The Renaissance Portrait and its Legacy” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.  For approximately two hours he will focus his attention upon five portraits by John Singer Sargent, Sandro Botticelli, Albrecht Durer, Diego Rodiguez de Silva y Velazquez, and Hans Memling:  these five paintings date from the mid-fifteenth to the end of the nineteenth centuries, and depict a boy, a young man, a self portrait, an African slave, and an old man, respectively.

Each portrait is a story, of course, and Patrick E. Horrigan introduces each section of Portraits at an Exhibition with a story involving the model depicted, and/or the artist, or even an art historian or modern artist associated with each painting.  These stories assume different forms:  they range from the blank verse soliloquy of Pareja (the subject of the portrait by Velazquez) to the medieval prayer of the Old Man painted by Memling to the imagined communion of the art critic Yukio Yashiro with the Botticelli portrait (which involves his contemplation of the lives of model and artist).  As Robin gazes upon the portraits, reads the museum’s placards, and imagines their stories, he divulges his own story to the reader:  34 years old, a graduate school drop out, current gallery worker, he comes to the exhibition to take his mind off of a distressing encounter at a sex club the night before.  After an unsafe sexual encounter, the specter of AIDS hangs over him; but taking in the portraits of long-dead models, painted by long-dead artists, may not be conducive to escaping thoughts of mortality.

These stories are not alone in interacting with Robin’s story on this afternoon.  There are other patrons who view the paintings, but only one who directly interacts with Robin:  Bernard, a former monk, now a therapist, briefly speaks with Robin; as he examines the exhibit we learn his story as well.  Is their meeting meant to foreshadow Robin’s future?  Bernard—who knows that he is HIV+–accepts Robin’s e-mail address, but there is no certainty that they will either begin a professional or personal relationship.

The only other character to speak to Robin (“The museum will be closing in ten minutes”) is Dora, the fifty-year old African-American museum guard, who is reading The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James while on duty.  (Even the non-paintings mentioned in the text are portraits:  Robin happens to be re-reading Portrait of Dorian Gray.  I half-expected a reference to Modest Mussorgsky, but alas, no.)  Dora also reminds Robin “Not too close to the painting please,” a subtle reminder that while much of the appreciation of a painting is internal, experiencing a painting or work of art is also a physical experience, as it involves the senses—sight especially, but it can (rarely, I grant you) also involve smell and touch.  Viewing a painting in a museum or gallery also involves entering into the painting’s “space,” and almost interacting with it as one would a person (but far beyond the normal constraints of time and space).

Still, this novel is very much an internal, cerebral experience; as most of it comprises Robin’s and Bernard’s reactions to the artworks, and Dora’s reaction to the novel, it remains at heart an internal conversation between art and viewer—but an extended conversation that we are privileged to overhear.

© 2015 Keith John Glaeske

 

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Saving Julian – Mason Stokes (Wilde City Press)

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Just in time for summer I found Mason Stokes’s delightful Saving Julian. Though often a serious consideration of the place where desire, family obligation and fundamentalist religion meet, Saving Julian is also a funny, brisk tale of gay men finding love and romance in unexpected places. The titular hero is a sardonic rent boy with open contempt for the closeted old gents from whom he makes his living. Julian’s roommate, Aaron, watches in amusement and amazement as he bounces from one sad sack to the next, finally landing in the arms of a conservative Christian leader who actually issues him a contract, specifying that the jaded young man will act as—and only as—luggage lifter and nonsexual masseur on the Reverend’s next business trip. The Reverend is obsessed with male bonding, but no s-e-x!

The Reverend ends up getting busted anyway, confessing to the microphones, denying everything and hiding behind his own peculiar gospel of men fulfilling “homoemotional” needs. Julian gets fifteen minutes of unwanted fame, and at this point, Aaron decides to go underground, enrolling in one of the Reverend’s gay conversion therapy workshops in order to really nail the man. So begins a lively game of get-the-hypocrite. So, too, begin various games of attraction, as some workshop members, including Aaron, find one another, shall we say, distracting? Ultimately, as Aaron and company move toward exposing the Reverend and getting their very creative revenge, even the Reverend’s wife and son get drawn into the–ahem!–action.

Saving Julian is funny, especially in its conversion therapy scenes, and the plotting is zany, but Stokes also raises questions–through the actions, feelings and pronouncements of the Reverend–about what men’s needs really are. We nudge and wink over all the talk of “homoemotional needs,” but we all know what it is simply to be held by another man and feel the warmth. The pseudo-psychological double talk makes sense, and the struggle of the religious man who just wants some earthly succor becomes compelling and real.

I will not give away the delightful–and in some ways touching–resolutions. Suffice to say that they are happy for most, melancholy for a few, and satisfying for the reader. Saving Julian is a terrific read for summertime or anytime, and perhaps an essential read, given how tensions keep flaring between fundamentalists, who maybe just want some male warmth, and gays, who maybe just want the same thing.

© 2015 David Pratt

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The One That Got Away – Carol Rosenfeld (Bywater Books)

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I have a soft spot for debut novels. There’s something wonderful about an author stretching his or her wings and really giving the long form a go for the first time. As a reader, I get almost as exhilarated as the writer. So, I was prepared to enjoy short fiction author and poet Carol Rosenfeld’s first novel, The One That Got Away, but I wasn’t prepared for how wise and outrageously funny it is. Rosenfeld promises much, and she delivers in every way.

Middle-aged wedding consultant Bambi Devine (aka B.D.) has recently come out to herself and her friends, but she’s having some difficulty adjusting to life inside the rainbow. The girl of her dreams, Bridget McKnight, is already in a relationship with Natalie Lamont. But Natalie is also involved in a hot and heavy friendship with fellow mushroom enthusiast, power dyke, and feminist author Maxine Huff. Is their friendship platonic or something more? If it’s something more, does that mean B.D. stands a chance with Bridget? And where does that leave private investigator Angel, who pursues B.D. almost as hotly as B.D. does Natalie? Like all good clickbait stories, I’ll just say ‘the answer will astonish you.’

From B.D.’s gay drag queen boss Eduardo to her own lovable schlub schtick, The One That Got Away is obviously a comic novel imbued with a wonderful sense of irony and any number of winking asides skewering the lesbian community in New York City. B.D. is a tremendous point of view character, full of wit and self-deprecation, and Rosenfeld writes her with a glorious eye for detail. Consider her reaction to her friends, Annalise and Ellen, running lines from the film Desert Hearts, a film B.D. hasn’t seen:

In fact, I was watching girl-on-girl porn films. They had titles like “Girls Night Out, Vol. 34″ and featured actresses with names like Kittie Hawk and Goldie Locks. The women had tousled blonde hair and long polished nails that made me a little anxious. Occasionally, their technique seemed hampered by glances up at the camera, as if to say, “How am I doing?” But my body wasn’t a film critic. I wasn’t sure whether or not to share this, because I hadn’t figured out if Annalise and Ellen were erotic lesbians or pornographic lesbians. As with mushrooms, misidentification could have grave consequences.

As funny as The One That Got Away is, however, the book turns on a totally unforeseen plot development that gives the last few chapters a poignancy and depth I never expected from a work amusing enough to make me laugh out loud in an airplane. This shift in mood elevates the novel from “good” to “stunning,” and Rosenfeld negotiates this emotional minefield with an assured ease that makes it look like a cakewalk.

In short, Carol Rosenfeld’s The One That Got Away is one of the best debut novels I’ve read since ‘Nathan Burgoine’s Light, which is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is this book. The curse is that it’s going to be tough to follow.

© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Glittering World – Robert Levy (Gallery Books)

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One summer—maybe this one—four people leave New York City for Nova Scotia:  Michael “Blue” Whitley, a restauranteur heavily in debt to the mob; Elisa, his best friend; Jason Howard, her husband, a former broker, now a therapist; and Gabriel Peck, Blue’s co-worker and current love interest.  Blue is returning to Starling Cove, site of a former hippie commune and where he spent his early childhood, which he barely remembers, to sell the house he inherited from his grandmother; the others join him for a week of vacation.

Their visit soon becomes anything but relaxing.  Starling Cove is full of secrets, and while Blue may not remember his prior time there, he is still remembered by some of the older residents that have remained.  Gradually, memories from Blue’s past return to his consciousness, including the time, when he was a child of five, that he went missing for weeks in the woods.  And then he goes missing again—but this time Elisa disappears as well.

As Jason and Gabe struggle to locate Blue and Elisa, they simultaneously must grapple with the mystery of Blue’s first disappearance.  By turns they are aided and/or hindered by the inhabitants of Starling Cove, who distrust outsiders with their secrets—or are disbelieved by the rational Jason when they do open up.  For, if the old-time residents of the Cove are to be believed, Blue and Elisa have been Taken by the Other Kind, for purposes that are far from benign.

Complicating this mystery are all the secrets that the four newcomers are keeping from each other.  While Blue is forced to confront secrets about his blood family, his family of choice—Elisa, Jason, and Gabe—must each confront their own broken family histories.  Jason especially is forced to confront the truth of Elisa’s relationship with Blue, a relationship that, because of its long history, he can never fully supplant.  The theme of families we are born into versus the families we create will resonate with many GLBT readers, but not content to leave it at that, Levy complicates this theme:  the protagonists often feel alienation from both their blood families and their families of choice.  Finding one’s “true” family—be it by blood, marriage, or choice—is no guarantee of acceptance.

Slowly the mystery and horror unfold, as each of the four protagonists provides their own history to the overall narrative.  Part mystery, part dark fantasy, and mostly pschological thriller, The Glittering World is a terrifying debut by Robert Levy, who takes everything you think you know about the Fae, the Other Kind, the “People of Peace,” and changelings, and Cranks It Up To Eleven.  These Sidhe are not some playfully mischevious, amoral, decadent, UnSeelie Court who amuse themselves by toying with humans; they are fully and truly alien, in every sense of the word.  You have been warned.

© 2015 Keith John Glaeske

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Nights at Rizzoli – Felice Picano (OR Books)

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Conversations with Felice Picano, should you be lucky enough to have one, are always fascinating experiences because you never know who will show up in them. The guy knows everyone. On both coasts. So, as much as I enjoy reading his fiction, I really love reading his recollections of his time in New York City. And his latest, Nights at Rizzoli, is a gem from start to finish.

Rizzoli, for those who don’t know, is–or was–a Fifth Avenue bookstore which was a magnet for book-buying celebrities. Picano worked there as a sales clerk beginning in the early 1970’s, meeting such luminaries as Maria Callas, Jerome Robbins, Elton John, Jackie Onassis, Salvador Dali, S.J. Perelman, Mick Jagger, Richard Thomas (remember him?), and Rose Kennedy, in one of the most memorable encounters in the book.

Lest I mischaracterize the book, however, this is not just a collection of  anecdotes–though Felice has many of those. Instead, it’s a series of finely-drawn cameos set among the large backdrop of New York City in the 1970’s. This was a time of great struggle and immense learning. His brush caresses the intellectual and sexual climate of the times, which was heady in ways NYC hadn’t been before and certainly not since. Although it’s nearly a cliche–okay, definitely a cliche–the city, along with Felice himself, are the two constant characters in this book. They are the protagonist and the antagonist, though I’ll leave it to you to decide who is who.

Picano was not the only employee of Rizzoli, though, and his characterizations of his fellow employees–the manager, Mr. M, and head clerk Antonio in particular–are wonderful example of the fine detailing he embellishes his people with. They jump out of the book at you, nearly overshadowing the celebrities they all serve. By the end of the book, you know them as well as if you’d worked with them yourself.

Nights at Rizzoli is perfectly crafted memoir, as evocative of the time in which it is set as it is of the celebrities which populate it. Highly recommended.

© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler

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