Heartsnare – Steven B. Williams (Lethe Press)

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A year ago, Eric Mayfair was in the hospital, with only his mum Jhardine and best friend Tim to keep him company as he slowly, painfully, succumbed to a terminal heart condition.  Except that when it finally came time for him to die, neither one had the emotional strength to remain with Eric.  As a result, neither witnessed his unexpected, miraculous rebirth—not that Eric’s life improves any afterwards.  Because a year later, Eric still has no explanation for the uncanny occurrence, and it’s scarcely a blessing to either him or his mum:  Jhardine supports both of them by working a job she hates, because Eric can’t find, much less hold a job.  Neither has any sort of love life, and Jhardine soon discovers that she now has health problems of her own.  All Eric knows is that he now feels a new heart beating inside his chest, a black, dark thing that seems responsible for his heightened senses, and other…things.  And when Tim is brutally murdered, monsters and evil powers begin to appear in Willingsley, and things go to Hell—fast.

So begins Heartsnare, book one of The Umbraverse by Steven B. Williams.  As Eric investigates the mystery surrounding Tim’s death, he meets and befriends Alistair, a fellow “shadow former,” and finally learns the cause and reason for his own rebirth, and that there are other worlds besides his own.  He learns too that he is now caught in a war, a battle between shadow formers and “umbra”—living shadows that kill and then possess people—a fate that has befallen Tim, and soon others in Willingsley.

Heartsnare reads as compulsively as a Stephen King novel:  Williams’ characters are all ordinary Yorkshire working-class folk, going about their mundane lives, trying to make ends meet, navigating complicated love lives and all the rest of life’s daily nonsense.  It is they who bear the brunt of the fallout resulting from the war between light and darkness that has fallen upon Willingsley.  But for all the darkness in this novel (and it is plenty dark), there is also humor to offset it—although sometimes the banter between Eric and Jhardine seems more appropriate between a gay man and his straight gal pal, rather than a son and his mum.  (Note to American readers:  Mind you, the dialogue is written in a true-to-life Yorkshire dialect, and there’s nowt you can do about it love, just keep eating your crisps while you read, there’s a good lad.)

Heartsnare owes as much to A Wizard of Earthsea as to Stephen King.  The idea of living shadows created by immortal wizards, who then must defeat their shadow-selves, is not new to fantasy fiction, whether literally or metaphorically.  And when their magic is powered by shades to begin with, then it becomes even more difficult (if not impossible) to sort out the angels from the devils.  And without giving away too much of the climax, Eric can only defeat the Tim umbra when he realizes who he is truly fighting.

Heartsnare is completely self-contained as a story, but there are plenty of questions to explore in further books.  The shadow formers’ system of magic will surely be fleshed out (so to speak) in further volumes, and an equal number of mysteries surround Jhardine as her son.  So just as A Wizard of Earthsea begins a series of acclaimed fantasy novels, this book is only the beginning of Eric’s quest—for mastery of his powers, finding answers to the questions of his life, and possibly even love.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

© 2017, Keith John Glaeske

 

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Fried & Convicted: Rehoboth Beach Uncorked – Fay Jacobs (Bywater Books)

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Fish gotta swim and Fay Jacobs gotta fry.

As relentless as her beloved Rehoboth Beach tide, Fay Jacobs rolls in with Fried & Convicted: Rehoboth Beach Uncorked, another compendium of columns from Letters from CAMP Rehoboth and Delaware Beach Life. Now allied with the fine folks at Bywater Books, Jacobs will most assuredly keep the commentary ebbing and flowing for as long as the sea repeats itself in shells. And in these days of uncertainty and upheaval, having something to depend on is important.

Jacobs’s topics are neither unique nor incendiary. They’re mundane episodes of the suburban life most of us live, no different than the domestic humor of Jean Kerr and Erma Bombeck–two columnists I’ve mentioned in the same breath with Jacobs in other reviews of her work. And just like those two writers, she’s developed her own unique brand of quiet, gentle humor. Note, however, that doesn’t mean it’s slight or even the slightest bit “less than.” Taken in sequence with her other books, her latest is an addition to the chronicles of one queer life Jacobs has been building since she came out, telling her individual story while reflecting many of our own. In that sense, she is more of an iconoclast than the quaint, elderly(ish) Jewish matron she appears to be.

That she has, once again, reinvented herself–this time as a stand-up comedian–comes as no surprise to anyone who has read her work. The laughs, the point of view, and her uncanny sense of timing are all present in the text. Her droll delivery in person only amplifies them. I’ve gotten a chance to hear Fay read a number of times, and she’s always a delight–but her performance never distracts from the material, making it all the stronger.

But beyond that, I’m always impressed by the openness and sincerity in Jacobs’s work. Whether she’s drinking martinis or ziplining (or both simultaneously), her exuberance and zest for new experiences comes through. As her work is rooted in popular culture, a certain number of columns dealing with passing fads are less successful than the others, but even those provide a bit of nostalgia for days when we had things to think about other than Donald T—p, economic disaster, and the re-marginalization of queerdom. Indeed, Jacobs’ last few columns are about T—p’s installation.

Despite the magnitude of our recent political upheaval, it’s a comfort that queer writers like Fay Jacobs will continue to find humor amidst the horrible. If you’ve never read her before, this is a perfect place to start. If you’re already a fan, you don’t need me to convince you.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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Skyscraper – Scott Alexander Hess (Unzipped/Lethe Press)

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From its brevity to its cover, which I like to think depicts the view from the  floor of the book’s prominently-featured puppy cage, Scott Alexander Hess’s short erotic novel about BDSM, architecture, and rebirth revels in its own apparent simplicity. It’s less than a hundred and thirty pages. The cover is light and spare, the buildings surrounding the title transformed into wire and white space. One word title. Author name. Barely anchored into place. This is not a book that encourages frivolity or anything less than essential. It’s a potent distillation and a great read.

Atticus is a Manhattan architect badly in need of a creative renaissance. He won his current job with his first few successes in the industry but has been coasting for a while. Atticus meets Tad, a dom top with a Fight Club jones, at a leather bar. In between bouts, Tad leads Atticus deeper into the BDSM world. In this sexual awakening, Atticus finds his skills returning and soon wins an important new design project at work. Working closely with his client, Victor, Atticus discovers some disquieting rumors about a past relationship Victor had with Tad and has to find out whether or not they’re true.

Skyscraper could have been a torturously complicated book, brimming with metaphor and pretentious literary devices, with much room for rumination and a sub-plot or three. But part of its charm is that it simplifies the whole subject of midlife–or at least midcareer–crisis to a bare bones, nearly transparent narrative everyone can identify with as it hints at the individual complexities beneath.

The prose isn’t flat, but by the same token, it doesn’t go out of its way to set a scene. Similarly, the tone is dispassionate and reserved, Atticus telling us about his white hot passion instead of letting us get too close to it. That would normally come across as passive, but Hess’s choice of detail and constant ear on his voice prevent the character from slipping in that direction.

Being fond of and accustomed to the work of Jeff Mann, I thought the BDSM was a bit mild. That puzzled me at first. Hot, yes, but I expected more explicit sex and longer passages (yes, that was intended). However, the more I considered the author’s choice, the more sense it made. It’s certainly in keeping with the dispassionate tone, and the domestic breeziness of leaving casual notes for Atticus as to what kinky position Tad should find him in when he got home rather than addressing him directly adds yet another layer of removal. With all its inherent dispassion, however, it’s not a distant read. Atticus has a distinctive voice, and his willingness to plum the depths of whatever relationship he can have with Tad is well told.

Skyscraper is a little wonder of a book that packs a great deal into a small package, and it will leave you thinking about the relationship between success and failure.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Dahlia Field – Henry Alley (Chelsea Station Editions)

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As any regular reader of this blog knows, I’m a huge fan of short fiction and will always dive headfirst into an anthology or a single author collection. I won’t like everything in a volume, but if the author/s and I connect ten times out of twelve or thirteen, that’s pretty successful. I know relationships based on more tenuous bonds. But what happens when the connection rate is less than optimal? Is it a bad book? Bad author? Bad reader? Those are a few of the questions I ask myself as I write this and stare at the cover of Henry Alley’s collection, The Dahlia Field.

I’d started this eagerly, having read the blurb and peeked at the titles in the Table of Contents. The author and I have some commonalities. We’re about the same age and, thus, have had a lot of shared experiences.  Logically, we should have connected more often than the few stories that worked for me, but art is hardly logical, is it?

It’s not like we didn’t understand each other, either. It’s hard to miss the disconnection and longing inherent in “Ashland,” for example, which sees a man named Earl attending the performance of a play parodying King Lear, written by his gay son. It isn’t until he attends the AIDS fundraiser afterward that he learns his son is positive, a fact he confirms by telephone the next morning. Similarly, “To Come Home To” looks at boredom and new beginnings as house painter Garrett leaves his previously depressed fledgling stage star boyfriend Ethan. Both these should have struck sparks, but neither was particularly engaging to me. Unfortunately, that was true for most of the other stories here.

That said, Alley and I did connect on the last two stories: “My March on Washington,” a wonderfully bittersweet romance that takes place during the 1963 civil rights march, and “Would You Mind Holding Down My Body?,” a well-observed story of how a straight/gay friendship does or doesn’t weather one of the two guys coming out. The latter story has two of the most interesting and complex characters in the book and seemed to have a different set of nuances and a completeness the others lacked to some degree or other.

Aha, I thought. We just needed some time to connect. So, I re-read the first story, “Border Guards,” in hopes of being able kindle some interest, but a glass wall seemed to go up once again. Nevertheless, if you’re a lover of short fiction, this might just be your cuppa as Alley is a writer worth reading. We may not have hit it out of the park, but that doesn’t mean you won’t discover a new voice or find something here I couldn’t. And, as I said, the last two stories really were marvelous.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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‘Nathan’s Audio Corner: An Asian Minor: The True Story of Ganymede – Felice Picano (Lethe Press/Audible – performed by Jason Frazier)

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 When you listen to audiobooks on a regular basis, as a listener you start to find performers you love. Before you know it, when you’re looking at the lists of audiobooks, you’re searching the listings not by title or author, but by who performs the audiobook, and then reading the blurbs of the books they’ve done. Finding a new and awesome performer is like finding a new author, and in fact absolutely leads to just that: finding new authors through the performer.

I have a trio of performers like that. Barbara Rosenblatt, Jane Entwhistle, and Jason Frazier. Every time I go looking for a new audiobook, I quickly search the three out to see if they’ve got anything new, and when they do, it jumps to the top of the list for consideration.

So, you can imagine my joy at finding a new Jason Frazier. In and of itself, that was a fine, fine thing. He doesn’t narrate, he acts. His voice acting is so great I’ve twice now purchased audiobooks for which I have already read the books physically, and listened to them as a second read-through. To be clear: I nearly never re-read. But Jason Frazier doing Steve Berman’s Vintage? And Gavin Atlas’s The Full Ride?  There was no resisting, and it was a joy to revisit.

Now, add to that the realization that this new book narrated by one of my favorites is a novella from Felice Picano, and all hesitation was gone. I’d clicked before I’d even read the description. I had it queued up for the next dog walk, and in the space of two days I was done.

An Asian Minor: The True Story of Ganymede is a very small class of narratives: mythology retold with a clever and consistent voice. Quite a few times while I was listening to the story, I caught myself thinking of Mark Merlis’s An Arrow’s Flight, but where Merlis crafted a unique contemporary hybrid of the myth and a modern world, Picano instead does stick to the time period in question as Ganymede tells his story, but it is told now, by the immortal in the present day, with all the colloquialisms and long-view wisdom the eternal and immortal young man has gathered since.

That conversational voice, written so cleverly by Picano and given such charm and insouciance through Frazier’s performance, is magic in a bottle. Or, well, an earbud.

As Ganymede sets us straight on what really went down from the time he was born, receiving a troublesome destiny, this breezy tone delights with amusing asides and clarifications of many a mistake in the retelling of the modern myth: most centrally, Ganymede insists, the notion he was somehow some innocent doe-eyed youth with no idea of the powers at play around him. Picano’s Ganymede is nobody’s fool, and indeed knows that when one has a destiny writ large, the best way to play it is to try to turn large into huge.

It’s also telling that in Picano’s prose, and with Frazier’s voice, this story puts Ganymede on an even playing field with the gods who would tempt and curry favor of him. Yes, he’s a youth, but he’s no fool. And these are, after all, the Greek gods who are by no means infallible themselves. As everyone around Ganymede starts to see perfection in the beauty of his form, Ganymede refuses to give up trying to keep what control he might have. This is a Ganymede in search of as grand a destiny as he can cram into one vague prophecy. He’s smart, and wily, and willing to go toe to toe with multiple gods as he entertains offers, and then risks and gambles for the next—hopefully better—thing to come along. Matching wits with multiple gods, the story of how Ganymede came to be the chosen of Zeus is told with a delightful twist or three along the way.

An Asian Minor: The True Story of Ganymede isn’t a long audiobook, but the energy and talent packed into the piece grabs attention. The recollections of his smart and sexy immortal had me laughing multiple times, and in Frazier’s capable hands the words simply sprang to life.

If you’re looking for a short, engrossing, and not-just-a-little-bit sexy audiobook about the foundation of the ultimate Sugar Daddy relationship, look no further. Ganymede awaits.

Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine

© 2017, ‘Nathan Burgoine

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Wallaconia – David Pratt (Beautiful Dreamers Press)

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Please look at the cover to the left and note the cedilla, which WordPress cannot accommodate, in the title. The somewhat exotic pronunciation of the pictured Massachusetts salt marsh makes the location sound like an independent and separate country populated by its namesake, one Jim Wallace, the protagonist of David Pratt’s (Bob the Book, Looking After Joey) latest novel.

On the verge of turning eighteen, Jim Wallace is looking forward to losing his virginity to longtime girlfriend Liz, hoping this will somehow “fix” him. Before those repairs can be completed, however, Jim finds himself helping neighbor Pat Baxter out in Baxter’s bookstore. In addition to finding an unexpected friend and ally in out and proud Baxter, Wallace also encounters a fellow student he bullied years ago, who had left the area and returned to visit, helping Pat in the bookstore as well. Jim faces the choice between living his truth or not.

I suppose because of the age of its protagonist, this needs to be labeled and marketed as a “young adult” book. Not, as Jerry Seinfeld points out, that there’s anything wrong with that. The realities of the marketplace are what they are, but I hope that won’t prevent other audiences from picking this up because it has lessons and observations germane to other age groups. A coming out story? Well, that’s part of it–but the book runs deeper than that.

The relationship between Pat and Jim is interesting, even idyllic–an essential component of the imagined country in which Jim lives. Not every gay man finds a mentor so willing or generous with his time and insights. Equally as serendipitous is the outcome of his meeting up with Nate Flederbaum, the boy Jim had previously bullied for being gay. I can’t say more without being a spoiler, but lessons are learned all around and all is forgiven. Even Jim’s parents take the news with little heartbreak. The one exception to this is Jim’s girlfriend, Liz.

Having given her virginity to Jim, she has more than a small stake in their burgeoning relationship. She endures his confession with more restraint than may seem reasonable to some, but she’s clearly devastated. And while they gamely try to remain friends, both know it’s useless. Her reactions are emotional but not as histrionic as I’d imagine. Less than idyllic, maybe, but still an easier row to hoe than not. Which leads me to wonder if this version of Jim’s coming out may be part of Wallaconia itself, an imagined outcome masking a not-so-perfect emergence.

Okay, okay–way meta, right?

I’m reading far too much into it, and I’ve got no time to go back and re-read for something that may or may not be there, but the more I think about the book, I wonder if the cracks between Wallaconia and a harsher reality might not be a bit more apparent the second time around. Something to consider as you read. Because you should read this book. I’ve enjoyed Pratt’s work ever since I came across Bob the Book, and I’ve never been disappointed once in his characters or his well-turned prose. And I wouldn’t put it past him to sneak some sort of meta-metaphor in a “young adult” coming out story.

That’s just the kind of author he is.

JW

© 2017 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Eros and Dust: Stories – Trebor Healey (Lethe Press)

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I picture three Trebor Healeys.

The dense forest hides many more, but three in particular creep out from the between the trees most often: one poetic, one crazed with lust, and one shaggy with heat and dust. A fourth one, regretful and elegiac, can also be relied upon for regular appearances. When all of them work in concert as they did in 2012 for A Horse Named Sorrow or Faun, their combined power is formidable. But the shorter pieces such as those found in his recent Lethe release, Eros and Dust: Stories, reveal the strength of those beasts on a more individual level.

That boy-crazed one may be the most prevalent, reigning supreme in “Los Angeles,” about a Chaturbate addict and a plan gone horribly wrong, the psuedo-pedophiliac “Lolito,” and the definitely pedophiliac “The Pancake Circus.” The latter is particularly disturbing, not for how off-track the narrator’s dick drives him, but for the way his Clown Daddy normalizes an abhorrent act. The metaphor is strong any time but becomes nearly prescient when seen in light of the current political situation.

Actually, this musk pervades all Healey’s stories as flawed characters use faulty reasoning to make bad choices. We’ve all been there, right? One of the differences between Healey’s longer fiction and his short stories is that very often the protagonists of the latter don’t get a chance at the redemption the heroes of his novels do–an odd omission due to the Catholicism exuded by these tales. It’s not that redemption isn’t possible (and I’m thinking for the narrators of “Los Angeles” and “Lolito” in particular); it’s just not presented as an option.

The horny Healey is usually flanked by the shaggy one, the hot grit he exudes providing a dusty, transient backdrop that serves the author well. Whether the setting is parched Los Angeles, the Oaxacan desert, or a PV resort, the Santa Ana winds blow hot on the heels of his characters. Going to the heat, getting out of the heat, dealing with the heat–all motivations that make these characters as restless as their lust.

The poetic one pokes his delicate nose in all stories as well, but makes memorable appearances in the character sketch “El Santo” and the transient restlessness of “Pilgrim Soul,” but again, this one’s influence is everywhere–especially on the too-short “Puppets”:

I started seeing his puppets all over the place…he made puppets who took pills and were cathetered; he made demon and angel puppets; puppets of crack whores and drag queens, muscle boys and campesinos; puppets in gabardine suits and puppets in silk kimonos. He made puppets of political personalities–Jesse Helms, Reagan and Bush, the Pope–and he made monstrous puppets named HIV and PCP, KS and CMV–big ogreish things with arms to their ankles and enormous malformed dicks. With big sad eyes. They looked back at me hungrily out of lit-up windows in darkened, empty shops on Guerrero or Valencia Street long after midnight, the fog sifting down, enveloping everything–all the streetlights like dandelion seeds.

And there’s that pesky, elegiac Healey, bringing forth his solemn reflections in the middle of the bawdiest episode to remind you that life reveals its most serious sides in quirky ways. Thus, the aforementioned “The Pancake Circus” becomes more an elegy to lost innocence than what its surface indicates. That’s the way the fourth dude works. Sometimes you don’t notice his effects until a couple of stories pass or until the whole thing plays out (“Imp”) and then his part in the liturgy becomes apparent.

Each voice is as distinctive in solo as it is an essential component of the blend. Truly a marvelous trick to pull off, and Trebor Healey does so. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2017 Jerry L. Wheeler

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