Pigeon – Richard Natale (Blazing Heart Publishing)

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I first ran across Richard Natale a few years ago when I edited some of his work for Bold Strokes–Cafe Eisenhower, Junior Willis, and Love on the Jersey Shore. One facet of all three books I enjoyed immensely was Natale’s characters. They’re always interesting and complex, but they also consistently make the tough decisions and stand up for the right things. That’s especially important for a murder mystery, which Pigeon, Natale’s latest, essentially is. However, that’s only the starting point for this richly detailed and well-told story.

American artist Yancy Gallagher has been invited to lecture at the same Italian university at which he took his degree a few years before. As he gets settled in, he reads of a local murder. Certain details convince him the unidentified dead man is actually Rudi, his ex from when he was a student there. His search for Rudi’s killer takes him to some “corporate” (read mobster) types who run a circuit of clubs Rudi was managing. Yancy, Rudi’s mother, and an understanding police detective combine forces to bring Rudi’s killer to justice–with some surprising results along the way.

As mentioned before, Natale’s characters are always worthwhile but here he’s transported them to a lovely Italian town. Although it does not become a character itself, it lends an undeniable air of languor to what is usually a harried and perilous situation in a more urban setting. Those metro murder interviews are conducted with wisecracks and threats, but Gallagher’s investigation is much friendlier, often taking place over a nice glass of red in some al fresco setting. That does not mean those inquiries are any less tense or driven, just that they’re more polite on the surface. And, perhaps, just a bit deadlier because of it.

And the mystery itself is well worth your time. Initially straightforward, Rudi’s fate becomes more and more questionable with each revelation until Natale has you not knowing what to believe. The twists and turns are intricate but also wholly believable, and they never serve the plot over character. Moreover, it never feels rushed or incomplete. Compliments also go out to the cover designer. The artwork perfectly conveys the slightly surreal environment.

Pigeon, then, is a beautifully layered mystery full of well-drawn major and minor characters. You won’t see the ending coming, but it will make perfect sense once you’re there. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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The Orange Spong And Storytelling At The Vamp-Art Café – St. Sukie de la Croix (Rattling Good Yarns Press)

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It’s 1924, and the Vamp-Art Café in Chicago’s Towertown opens from 6 p.m. ‘til midnight, seven days a week. The neighborhood is inhabited by bohemians, burlesque and vaudeville stars, film actors, writers, artists, poets, political radicals, circus and fairground folk, female and male impersonators, hobos, “temperamentals,” and vampires.

The above quote is from the introduction to The Orange Spong by St Sukie de la Croix. The titular “Orange Spong” is Ra, the Sun, who, it turns out, is the god of vampires. For de la Croix’s vampires can walk about the Roaring Twenties in broad daylight, and need not fear garlic, crucifixes, or holy water; nor do they drink blood. So the vampires who frequent the Vamp-Art Café are nothing like the bloodthirsty revenants of Stoker’s Dracula or F. W. Furnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (which, by the way, they disdain as libelous lies). Rather, they have more in common with the sophisticated and cosmopolitan immortal characters of Anne Rice—minus the blood-drinking.

So what do vampires do if they’re not drinking blood, either indiscriminately, or specifically of the evil doer? In general, these vampires instead confer immortality upon mortals by sucking out their fear of death; specifically, the denizens of the Vamp-Art Café meet every night to tell stories from their centuries-long existences. The Orange Spong records one such evening, with the seven pieces therein flanked by eight interludes “Back at the Vamp-Art Café,” which introduce each of the storytellers. Many of the speakers are ex-pats from Europe, meeting in this Chicago salon, paralleling the similar Parisian salons populated by contemporary American artists.

Although some of the vampires in this novel are centuries, if not millennia, old, most of the stories fall during the fin-de-siècle period of the nineteenth century or immediately preceding/following. One notable exception is the final story, “In the Beginning,” which ironically closes the collection of stories with the vampires’ origin story—an Adam and Eve story retold from a vampiric point of view.

Despite all of the historical name-dropping throughout the collection of stories (e.g., the Brontë sisters and Lewis Carroll), it is clear from the quote above that vampires are not part of what we consider “normal” or “polite” society—they exist always on the fringes of it. Two stories (coincidentally, my favorites) in the middle of the collection especially deal with outsiders: “The Other Side of the Door” and “The Woman in the Puddle.” The first describes the love between a ventriloquist and his dummy; the second describes the journey of a man who initially flees the woman he sees reflected in water, until he finally gives in and follows her. Both stories also explore the theme of transformation, as the ventriloquist’s dummy becomes a vampire over the course of the story (for even nonhuman objects can confer immortality in de la Croix’s milieu), and the protagonist of the latter also transforms—not into a vampire, but something distantly related.

Regardless of whether you are a vampire purist or not, these stories will entertain you, while they titillate you with their strangeness, provoke you with their ideas on the nature of art or immortality, or amuse you with their unusual historical details. Certainly you will never look at a head of lettuce the same way again.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Southern. Gay. Teacher. – Randy Fair (Atmosphere Press)

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The title raises some questions for me right away. Is the period at the end of each word supposed to indicate emphasis, as one does in Social Media Shorthand these days, or is a more subtle categorization at work here? And what of the order? Are these attributes in order of importance? Having been two of three of these, I can certainly relate to Randy Fair’s experience and celebrate his commitment to gay activism as well as maintaining a career in secondary education instead of bailing out on one or both somewhere along the way. Southern. Gay. Teacher. is an interesting look back at that career with the appropriate lessons for all.

Fair taught in Atlanta during the 1990s and so, saw many changes and was involved in the March on Washington. All of these experiences are reflected in his memoir as well as his classroom. Any teacher in the game has their share of war stories, and Fair is no exception. From stunning successes to shattering failures, we’ve had them all, and they’re all in these pages – as are administrators and fellow teachers running the gamut from lovely to loathsome. Some are out, some are not, some are straight, but they all have an opinion on the school GSA.

He includes some biographical information by way of introduction, but once those chapters have concluded and his academic career begins to take off, we tend to lose the personal side of this equation. We know, for example, that he attended the March on Washington and understand it affected him deeply, but we never really see how. We also never see the romantic side of his life, and you might well say that it’s none of our business and has nothing to do with the subject of being a Southern gay teacher. You might be right. But its lack is noticeable and as a result, sometimes the narrator seems more dispassionate than he is.

That said, there aren’t enough of these memoirs on the market – stories of gay men and women not living in safe urban enclaves–if anywhere is safe these days–and fighting for respect for themselves and others on a daily basis. Teachers like Randy Fair are where real change starts, and we should all be glad to share in his experiences, maybe taking a bit away to use for ourselves tomorrow.

JW

© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Home – Jenn Alexander (Bywater Books)

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One of the reasons I find genre lit so interesting is that many forms follow such a strict formula, you’d think readers would weary of knowing just where the peaks and valleys fall, and start playing “spot the potential obstacle” early in the plot. But they don’t. Fans of genre lit, be it romance or mystery, are more interested in process than outcome. The outcome is always predetermined. That doesn’t mean you can’t change the ending up somewhat, but the love must be won and the mystery solved. How you get there, however, is your business. So, plotwise, Jenn Alexander’s Home has few surprises – but the journey is full of off-road wonder.

Novice chef Rowan Barnes moves from her hometown of Portland to a dream job in Texas, but things are less than ideal. She isn’t doing well on the job, and she isn’t all that wild about Texas. She misses her family and friends, and she really isn’t sure she can cope. Enter Kate Landreth, local cattle rancher. The first time Rowan picks up the order for the restaurant at Kate’s ranch, the fire is lit. But Rowan is hesitant to enter a relationship when she’s not certain she’ll stay. When she gets fired from the job that brought her there, she has to make a tough decision.

If the peaks and valleys aren’t plain enough, there’s also Kate’s father, a crusty old rancher permanently sidelined by a horse accident, reluctantly fading into the background as his daughter assumes control of his ranch. You can almost hear the scenes clicking into place as these characters ride their emotions to the ending. And although that sounds cold and somewhat cynical, let me assure you those characters are so well-drawn that you’ll be involved no matter how many times you’ve been down that road. Rowan is just the right balance of adventure and regret, and Kate is a stabilizer for both Rowan and her father – so much, in fact, that you wonder how she will get her needs met. By the ending, however, that becomes apparent.

And that ending… It’s so tempting to end with a wedding. It’s expected and natural, and what better way to celebrate the love that’s struggled 264 pages to bloom? Had that been the route Alexander had chosen, I wouldn’t have minded. I’m not heartless. I cry at weddings, and I probably would have at this one, too. But she does something else; something unexpected that lifts this into a different realm. It’s certainly a happy ending, so the outcome is satisfied and maybe you will have seen it coming. I didn’t.

Regardless, Jenn Alexander’s “Home” is a deft romance that never drags or wastes your time. The characters are all great, the dialogue is natural, and the cover is lovely and evocative. What more could you ask of a summer read?

JW

© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic! – Miah Jeffra (Sibling Rivalry Press)

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One of the most marvelous qualities art has is that it inspires more art. It’s self-propagating. Sometimes its lineage is direct, and other times it’s obscured, but it’s always the gift that keeps on giving. The groundbreaking album The Velvet Underground & Nico, Brian Eno famously observed, only sold 30,000 copies initially, but everyone who bought one started a band. And the music mutated and grew into something different. Similarly, author Miah Jeffra uses everything from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Madonna’s “Holiday” as springboards for the highly personal essays that comprise The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic!.

As with any collection, some pieces will work better for each individual reader than others and for me, this didn’t really get started until the third essay in, “Otherwise.” Although I didn’t know the subject of the ekphrasis (Joan Brown’s Noel in the Kitchen), I was taken with this short but vivid exploration of the senses, ending in a pointed question. “Latitudes,” although it doesn’t list a work, amplifies a snapshot of the author’s mother during a road trip – an unsentimental, unsparing portrait in words of a relationship captured on film. “Just One Day Out of a Life” is a smartly observed, Jean Shepard-ish childhood memory of butterscotch candies and Christmas at the mall with a farting Santa.

Childhood figures prominently in many of these essays, particularly the author’s relationship with his mother. The most interesting familial aspect, however, is a fictional sister, Shenandoah, the narrator invents. Although her creation is never directly addressed in detail, she weaves ghost-like, in and out of most of the narrator’s childhood anecdotes until you wonder whether or not his brother was wrong when he finally calls the author on it and insists she never existed. It almost seems like an affront by this time.

But Jeffra certainly isn’t stuck in that time frame. “Trying to Shove Ourselves Back Together” is a treatise on gender expression, “A Miracle of Miracles” takes on childbirth, “The Treachery” is about white Jesus, and “The Being of Such an Unlikely Thing” even directly references Jean Shepard and his infamous one-legged lamp. From the author’s letter to Keith Haring (“Make Sure to See the Exit Door”) to the perfection of a Zen garden (“The 15th Rock”), Jeffra consults his experiences for answers to the big questions, usually finding more questions.

For all the philosophizing, this collection works best when it keeps an eye on the personal. One of my favorite Carl Rogers quotes is, “What is most personal is most universal,” and I’ve always tried to keep that uppermost in my own writing. Jeffra has also absorbed that dictum, as illustrated in the final piece, “The Shape of Gratitude,” which is about his wedding. It’s one of the more prosaic essays here and certainly breaks no ground in either subject or form, but its overall effect is that of a glance into the very heart of a life. Its simplicity is exquisite, and the last line is as pithy a summation as anyone could possibly wish: I wanted, more than anything, to be honest.

And it’s that honesty that makes The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic! a great read.

JW

© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper – A.J. Fitzwater (Queen of Swords Press)

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I had some fun playing around with a sharp, concise opening summary for this title. Watership Down meets Sinbad the Sailor? If The Tale of Despereaux was directed by Ilene Chaiken? Neither captures entirely Fitzwater’s unusual undertaking, which features a plucky, skirt-eschewing, female-loving capybara who’s destined to find love and adventure on the high seas.

Fitzwater first introduced her rodent, lesbian pirate hero Cinrak in a pair of previously published short stories. Voyages rounds out Cinrak’s life in a collection of fantastical exploits, which jump ahead in time and location. It really does remind one of the tales of Sinbad from The Arabian Nights both in structure and in tone. The seas are full of wonders, some deadly and some which hold magical rewards for those who are brave enough to seek them out. Sailors—of any gender—are a rowdy and fearless lot who don’t mind when a little humor comes along at their own expense. Fitzwater takes on that zany, swashbuckling brand, and she’s fully and lovingly committed to her delightfully wacky world of anthropomorphic lesbians of all sizes, species and gender-expressions.

In the opening story, we meet young Cinrak, an orphan with fourteen star-years under her junior pirate sash. She doesn’t have a bad life living at an orphanage in the port city of Ratholme, but oh to join a pirate’s crew and see the world on one of the tall masted galleys that come to trade at the wharf. Cinrak always felt different from her land-locked kin, and she realizes it’s because she has pirate salt in her blood. Impressing the famous rat Captain Mereg, she earns a spot as a cabin kit aboard the fearsome Cry Havoc.

Subsequent tales show Cinrak as a captain in her own right, sorting out treachery in the Felidae Isles, winning the hand of the rat queen Orvillia in a competition to lasso the stars, helping a kraken named Agnes reunite with her true love, taking trips to the End of the World and the Heart of the Ocean, and more.

She’s accompanied by a core group of companions that includes a menopausal phoenix, an opera diva marmot, a wee chinchilla who wants to be a boy-sailor, and a jaunty merman. It’s a vivid and memorable supporting cast for sure, and the author has a great talent for inventing character and place names that evoke a whimsical fantasy setting.

Magical adventures are one side of the story, but in equal measure, Voyages is a celebration of the freedom with which lesbian and transmen should and could live their lives. There are plenty of romantic pairings within the all-female rodent crew, and readers will also find portrayals of polyamorous lesbian relationships vis-a-vis Cinrak’s choice to marry both the theatrical marmot Loquolchi and the stately rat queen Orvillia. The aforementioned trans chinchilla Benj gets a heartwarming treatment as a youth fulfilling his gender transformation. Fitzwater stays within the bounds of “family entertainment,” and as such, the stories have potential to reach a wide audience and be enjoyed by juvenile and adult readers alike.

A great book for fans of lesbian-centric worlds and those who never lost their childhood imagination.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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The Ungodly Hour – Laury A. Egan (Interlude Press)

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Pandemic or no, spring approaches. The days are getting balmier, at least here in Colorado, and the afternoons are getting longer. After the reading rush of judging the Ferro-Grumley awards this year, I was looking forward to a bit of a lazy spring/summer read, and Laury A. Egan’s latest mystery, The Ungodly Hour, did the trick nicely.

Dana Fox is a New Yorker temporarily ensconced in Mykonos, teaching a photography workshop to tourists. She’s been doing it for a number of summers, but this year is different. Mykonos has been invaded by church-going anti-gay protesters, and a serial killer targeting gay men is on the loose. Dana accidentally snaps a photo of the murderer, who ransacks her darkroom. Despite Dana’s new relationship with a hot policewoman named Cybele, both she and her students are in danger. Maybe even from themselves.

Egan evokes Mykonos well, and the setting pervades the story, giving it an airy, sun-kissed aspect you don’t usually find in mystery thrillers. This serves the plot well but also echoes the assignments she gives her photography students about light and dark and finding the subject within the shadows.

The romance with Cybele develops quickly, perhaps too quickly, with the definite promise of a new beginning for both of them at the end of the book, but whether or not their relationship can weather life on another continent remains to be seen. It would be an interesting premise for a sequel. I would also like to have seen more of the cross-carrying Christian militia, maybe even from the first. The killer is appropriately dark and Egan provides a nice red herring or two to muck things up.

So, this breezy little thriller requires a longish afternoon, some cheese and olives with a bit of ouzo (or grappa, if you prefer), and a light breeze blowing through your backyard. Reads like this are what summer’s all about.

JW

© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Satellite Street – Eleanor Lerman (The Permanent Press)

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Sometimes, the mail brings me grief. Sometimes, the mail brings me joy. And every so often, it brings me something that piques my curiosity–which is better than either of those. The elements in Satellite Street are pretty disparate–a son whose father is in the beginning stages of dementia, a trans girl who can speak to the dead, a deceased disc jockey, and the “professional skeptic” who outed the DJ long ago and ultimately caused his demise. Eleanor Lerman, however, has wound them into a wonderful, heartfelt narrative I kept thinking about long after I’d finished.

Paul Marden, a sixty something year old New Yorker, is slowly recovering from a sudden illness and is hiding out where he grew up, in a coastal town previously ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. The house he rents is in a space-themed subdivision on Satellite Street close to the nursing home his father is in. Lelee, a transgender girl who says she can communicate with the dead, also lives in the same project. An accident with Paul’s dad in the nursing home involves Paul in a beyond-the-grave feud between The Great Oswaldo, the skeptic, and Happy Howie, the dead gay DJ, facilitated by Lelee. Paul isn’t sure he’s up to dealing with his father, let alone solve the supernatural problem, but he and Lelee have no choice.

Lerman does a terrific job setting her scene. The atmosphere of the hurricane ravaged coastal New York town to which Paul retreats suffuses the book, and perhaps that aura of ruination is what attracts Paul. He’s finally found somewhere as broken down as he is. But you can’t rebuild without demolishing, and it’s that air of possibility that allows Lerman to bring all those jigsaw pieces together to form the bigger picture.

I know I’m supposed to be paying more attention to the relationship Paul has with Lelee, and it’s certainly worth its weight to the plot, but I connected emotionally with Paul and his ailing father, Louis. The love they have for each other is as evident as their frustration with each other. Their exchanges are honest and real, containing some of the best writing in the book.

My only problem–and it’s a minor one–is that the mechanics of the climax, the supernatural confrontation between Oswaldo and Happy Howie, seem forced. I’m not talking about the confrontation itself, but the manner in which it happens. To say more would be spoiling it, but I can almost guarantee you’ll understand what I mean when you get there. I can also guarantee that by the time you finish the book, you will have forgotten all about that gaffe.

Lerman has written a fascinating book, full of beautiful moments and unexpected turns that will have you recommending this to your friends.

JW

© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Not Dead Enough – J.M. Redmann (Bold Strokes Books)

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Although this came out last year, I didn’t get a chance to read it before now. And I had to read it. Along with Cari Hunter and Cheryl Head, Redmann is one of my favorite authors. I’ve been hooked on the Micky Knight series since I read the first one years ago, and Redmann keeps coming up with wonderful plots and delicious complications. Not Dead Enough is cut from this same cloth.

A new client of Micky’s is out to find her missing sister, but she winds up in the morgue before the check has cleared. Or is it the sister she was looking for? Cordelia’s realtor cousin, Karen Holloway, might know as she did some paperwork on a house for the same woman. Or was it? This may be Micky’s thorniest case yet, involving multiple identities, a crime family with strict control of its women, top-drawer scotch, and–since this takes place in New Orleans–vivid descriptions of po’ boys and mugginess.

Although the mystery itself is complex and has a big cast, Redmann juggles the elements with a sure hand, lingering long enough to either establish or embroider the characters while making sure we understand how they fit into the larger picture. The complexity builds without you realizing it until you’re as deeply involved as Micky, no matter how much she doesn’t want to be.

But one name in the cast looms larger than any other, and that’s Cordelia, Micky’s ex. Yes, she’s back in New Orleans. No, they haven’t seen each other. Yet. Since NOLA is the biggest little town in the USA,  we know they have to eventually meet. And I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say they do in Not Dead Enough. The unsatisfactory circumstances under which this happens, however, are admirably bizarre and worthy of both Micky and CJ. And Redmann. And if that isn’t impetus enough to buy this, you’re reading the wrong blog.

Other reasons? Strong dialogue, lots of interesting minor characters–including a new Quarter denizen, jaded and rakish Rob Byrnes (where have I heard that name before?)– and sub-plots, and a continued exploration of Micky’s flawed but all too human character. She’s one of my favorite detectives because she’s occasionally sloppy or stupid, especially where Cordelia and Cordelia’s friends are concerned.

Not Dead Enough, then, is a great addition to the Micky Knight series. If you haven’t read them, this is a great place to start. If you have, you’ll love it just as much as the others.

JW

© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Two Plays: The Snow Queen, November Door – David Pratt (Hosta Press)

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David Pratt, Lambda Award-winning author of Bob the Book, plus the author of three other novels and a collection of short stories, has come out with a new work: Two Plays: The Snow Queen, November Door. Originally written almost twenty years ago, The Snow Queen is based upon a short story Pratt wrote by the same name. The two plays are here presented together for the first time. Both plays focus on the same two characters (the Narrator, Steven Underwood, and Jo Osbourne) and each presents a different pivotal time when their lives intersected.

The first play, The Snow Queen, takes place in the Narrator’s hometown in north central Connecticut, when he is eleven, and Jo is thirty-eight. The Narrator remembers how and when he first met Jo, describing the beginnings, trajectory, and eventual ending of their brief friendship. Jo is an adult, but unlike all the other adults that the Narrator knows: she lives alone, the other townspeople ostracize her, and it is clear that she recognizes a kindred (read: queer, in all senses of the word) spirit in the young Narrator. She, unlike the other people in the Narrator’s life, accepts him as he is. Unfortunately, due to outside forces (and Steven’s insecurities) their friendship does not last. The second, November Door, occurs twenty-seven years later in the same town, when Jo is sixty-five, and the Narrator is now thirty-eight: for different reasons (but both stemming from their common queerness) both characters have left town; and also for different reasons, both have returned—she permanently, he temporarily.

The first play occurs during the fall/early winter of 1968, ending at Christmas, while the second happens just before Thanksgiving of 1995, which suits the meditative, nostalgic quality of the narrative. Despite the explicit historical references in both plays, there is a timeless quality to the story. Both plays have to do with remembering the past, but with different purposes. The Snow Queen is mostly an interior play: Steven, as the Narrator, does all the reminiscing, making his first steps toward self-discovery, whereas in November Door, both characters are present, confronting each other and the past, especially the intervening years after the events of the first play. The gentle, poignant tone of the first play is replaced by a sharper, less forgiving tone in the second as both characters are forced to come to terms with their actions and the resulting ramifications.

Personally, I feel that a play—like poetry—should be performed, not merely read silently (sometimes even regular fiction should be read aloud.) Although each play is complete in itself and could be performed separately, the two plays together form a diptych and, therefore, I think, should be performed (or at least read) together. (Apparently each play premiered in subsequent years. I don’t know if they have ever been produced together.) Given the interior nature of The Snow Queen, it would not be necessary to perform it first, even though the events it portrays occur earlier than those in November Door—I wondered as I read the two plays, if the Narrator was actively remembering the events of the first play while experiencing the events of the latter. It would be too confusing to produce both plays simultaneously, obviously, but this heightens the sense that the story takes place outside of linear time. And while you can not leave the past or escape it, sometimes you can make your peace with it.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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