Pride Recovery Day – “Yuri: A Pride Memoir”

Hello everyone, and Happy Pride Month. Denver celebrates its Pride this weekend, so there will be no review on Monday, June 19th. Regular reviews will resume June 26th. However, to keep you amused, I decided to post a piece I originally wrote for the late trans activist Matt Kailey’s anthology of Colorado authors, Focus on the Fabulous and was reprinted in my collection of stories and essays, Strawberries And Other Erotic FruitsIt’s called “Yuri: A Pride Memoir,” and I hope you enjoy.

I’ll call him Yuri. He was short and stocky, with short brown hair and watery aquamarine eyes. In his early thirties, Yuri had only been out for a few furtive years in his native country. He was staying in Denver on a tourist visa with some people he’d met online. It would be his first Pride parade.

My friend Arthur had found Yuri in a chat room and asked him out to the Wrangler, a local leather-and-Levis bar, for a drink the Friday of Pride weekend. I went along to provide moral support for Arthur and an excuse to leave if necessary.

Their eyes met, and it was magic. It was bliss. It was heaven. It was a quick drink and then total abandonment. They hopped in a cab before my ice could melt, leaving me at the north end of the bar to be pawed by a drunken bear with a shaved head who leered at me, fell asleep, then woke up and leered at me again. I wasn’t sure if he was tired, drunk, or narcoleptic.

When Arthur and Yuri arrived at my Pride party the next day, they looked as if they hadn’t seen much daylight. Their eyes may have been dull, but they only looked at each other anyway. Yuri sat on Arthur’s lap or with his back between Arthur’s legs as they stretched out on the lawn beneath the shade of the box elder in the backyard, eating from the same plate. They were at the charged particle stage of the relationship, where constant physical contact had to be maintained or they’d be thrown off into the dating vortex once more.

We hated them. No. We envied them. We didn’t hate them until after the third pitcher of margaritas, when we started taking bets on whether the relationship would last hours or days. And even then, we still envied them—because they were long gone by that time, off to Arthur’s apartment where Yuri was spending Pride weekend, leaving us to speculate on their future until well past midnight.

We reconvened at eight the next morning at Arthur’s love nest, where he answered the intercom in the foyer of his condo building on the first ring and buzzed us in, bounding down the hall to greet us.

“This one’s a keeper!” he said, pointing back at his apartment and leaping around us with the glassy-eyed glaze of too much love and too little sleep. That clarified the situation. We’d all had experience with Arthur’s keepers before, kept for somewhere between a week and a month before being thrown out like overripe bananas.

Once inside, we smiled, nodded, and made nice with the doomed Yuri, treating him with goodhearted generosity, secure in our assumption that he probably wouldn’t last past Wednesday. It was, after all, Pride weekend—as Yuri continually reminded us. His enthusiasm was as refreshing as it was irritating. Charming in a goofy way, he wore a snug NYPD logo T-shirt, matching ball cap, black leather shorts, and boots.

“I have uniform fetish,” he explained. We smiled and nodded some more. “When do we leave?”

“In a few minutes,” Arthur replied, his hands on Yuri’s shoulders. “Don’t worry, we won’t miss anything. We just have to go two blocks.”

We downed our mimosas, made last minute bathroom trips, and moved in the general direction of the door. Yuri prodded and swept us along, his camera already out of the bag. He snapped pictures of Arthur locking the door behind us, and then he was gone, covering the two blocks by the time we had congregated on the sidewalk. We heard him calling Arthur’s name, and Arthur was soon running off, too. As we got closer, we saw Yuri, posing with his arms around a group of Denver cops, his grin as toothy as a sturgeon’s. Arthur manned the camera while Yuri shouted out the angles he wanted.

“From here! Now here! Try one from this side now.”

The shoot might have gone on forever if we hadn’t heard the motorcycles. The crowd buzzed and necks arched as parade watchers tried to see down the street. Yuri leapt away from the policemen with quick thanks, grabbed Arthur’s arm, and disappeared into the crowd. We followed more slowly, taking time to say hello to people we knew as we worked our way towards the Colfax Avenue parade route.

Motorcycles roared as we approached the curb, and there was Yuri, giving a “thumbs up” to the camera, posing on the knee of a butch leather dyke on a Harley. Then Arthur and Yuri scurried to the sidelines, where Arthur lit a cigarette. Yuri frowned at him when he wasn’t looking, pretending to check the camera.

A disco thump preceded the arrival of the twink bar float, but Yuri saw it coming first. “Look,” he shouted, “they are dancing.” And then he broke into the most arrhythmic cluster of moves a non-neuropath could possibly make, whipping his baseball cap in the air and grabbing Arthur from behind. Yuri ground his crotch deeper into Arthur’s ass with each block the float progressed, until it was finally within leaping distance. He then tossed Arthur aside like Godzilla discarding a busload of tourists and advanced on the dancing twinks with his finger on the camera’s shutter trigger.

They must have seen him coming. Just as he moved within focusing range, they began pelting him and the rest of the crowd with a mix of condoms and rainbow refrigerator magnets. Yuri seized upon the trinkets as if they were manna from Heaven, lowering his camera and stuffing the tiny pockets of his leather shorts. It didn’t take long until they were full.

Throughout the morning, Yuri collected kitschy favors and free passes from every float and car that passed, hauling Arthur around by the waistband of his cargo shorts. He crammed Arthur’s pockets so full of loot that his misshapen thighs bulged—picture Pan in flip-flops and a Cher T-shirt. And when Yuri wasn’t picking up treasure, he was taking pictures of banners and political candidates stumping for votes.

“Look, look,” he said excitedly, pointing at a tanned woman with graying brown hair, sixtyish but marching enthusiastically in a PFLAG T-shirt, her face polished with a thin sheen of sweat. The placard she carried read “I LOVE MY GAY SON!!!!” Yuri snapped a picture.

“I love my gay son!” he said. “Can you fucking believe it?”

 

I could believe it, but apparently he couldn’t. Ugly American that I am, it had taken me that long to understand that he was documenting a sentiment that he didn’t see expressed regularly at home, as if to prove to himself that a place existed where you could be proud of who you were.

Yuri’s enthusiasm took on a more poignant note for me after that. I saw him with admiration instead of annoyance, watching a man in the throes of becoming, of stepping out from behind whatever walls trapped him so that he could gaze at the vistas they had obstructed. I had scanned those same horizons long ago, but they were too familiar to move me anymore. Their magic had turned to monotony. Watching Yuri discover them gave them a vitality they hadn’t had in years for me.

For a moment, I was nineteen and going to my first Pride parade—innocent, vulnerable, and staggered by the complexity of my newfound community. My stomach became queasy with possibilities, the way it had then, and standing right there on the corner of Colfax and Emerson in Denver, on a bright, hot morning in late June, with thousands of my fellow queers surrounding me, a tear welled up in the corner of my eye—just the way it had that day, so many years ago.

 

Three hundred and seventy two pictures later, it was over. The last banner had flown and the last float had dropped its loot. Yuri stood holstering his camera amidst the parade detritus. Stray condoms dropped out of his overstuffed pockets every time he moved. Plastic bracelets were stacked like vertebrae up his arms. The Mardi Gras beads garnishing his head and shoulders clacked as he and Arthur jogged toward us.

“Did you see the parade?” he shouted. “It was so beautiful!”

“Of course they saw it,” Arthur said, beaming at Yuri.

“What now?” Yuri asked, shifting his weight from one foot to the other like a five-year-old who needs to pee.

“I thought we’d all go back to my place for another round of mimosas, then head down to the festival,” Arthur said. “Is that okay with everybody?”

We all nodded and murmured our agreement as Yuri’s brown eyes widened.

“More? You mean there is more?”

“Of course. There’s a whole festival with food and music and stuff.”

“Just for being gay?” Yuri asked.

Arthur grinned with smitten indulgence. “I guess you could say that.”

Back at Arthur’s place, Yuri downloaded photos onto his laptop. He shouted and pointed at the images, reliving the last forty-five minutes as heartily as he’d spent them. He catalogued and sorted the pictures, and when he was finished, he fidgeted in Arthur’s computer desk chair while we talked and drank.

Finally he sighed, went into the kitchen, and came back with a bottle of water. “When is festival?”

“Oh, it goes on all day,” Arthur said. “We don’t want to get there too early—it’ll be easier to move around once the parade crowd thins out.”

Yuri sipped and frowned as if he was swallowing more than water, a look Arthur must have noticed. “But we could start walking down there,” Arthur hedged, looking at everyone else for agreement. “C’mon, drink up and let’s hit the road. Anyone need the bathroom?” Even when he was in love, he was still in total control.

The reek of funnel cakes, deep-fryer grease, and warm beer hit us as we were crossing Broadway in front of a verdant drag queen—stick-thin and outfitted in green tights, green tutu avec spangles, bobbing antennae, magic wand, and green platform boots. Yuri grabbed her around the waist and posed with her in the middle of the intersection while Arthur snapped his brains out.

They hit the festival like a tornado gutting a trailer park, cutting a random swath of mirth and exhilaration. We were swept along breathlessly, lurching from one destination to the next until we couldn’t do it anymore. We wanted some time to talk with friends, have a quiet beer, or at least sit down. We made plans to meet them by the fountain in two hours to go to lunch.

They showed up two hours and forty-three minutes later, staggering under the weight of at least ten plastic sacks full of T-shirts, brochures, flyers, and handouts. Well, Arthur was staggering anyway. Yuri looked as if he were ready to run a marathon.

Three memory cards!” he shouted as he ran toward us. “Three memory cards full!” Clearly a personal best.

His energy was no longer infectious. We were all showing signs of Pride wear and tear—especially Arthur, who had a good ten years on Yuri.

“Are we ready for lunch?” Arthur asked wearily, dragging his bags on the ground.

Lunch threatened to be more of the same. Yuri snapped various views of us at the table, demanding smiles and poses until the waitress politely forced him to sit down and look at the menu. He wasn’t even going to drink the Jagermeister shot we ordered for him until we convinced him that it was a Pride ritual. The next three shots were his idea.

The alcohol kept him in his chair long enough to scroll through his pictures until the food came, passing the camera around to share a few choice shots. Once he had eaten, he sank fast—into drunken gratitude.

“I say thank you to all my new American friends,” he slurred as he put his arm around Arthur. “And I especially like to thank my daddy, Arthur.”

Arthur choked so hard, it appeared that the Heimlich might be in order. His face reddened and his eyes bulged until he finally swallowed the word daddy. And the sour look on his face said he didn’t much like the taste of it. Yuri was too busy hugging us to notice. A photo of them at that moment would have proven more prophetic than any taken that weekend. They broke up in less than a week.

 

Arthur soldiers on, in search of yet another keeper. Yuri moved to Canada and got married to a sugar beet farmer named Dale in Saskatchewan a month later, but that doesn’t matter. I only include it because the stories I like best have endings. That weekend is all that matters. Both Arthur and Yuri will have that to savor whenever their lives get too bland.

Because Yuri’s life will become bland. If he stays in the gay community, no matter where he is, leather dykes on motorcycles and green sequined drag queens will become as commonplace as putting on his shoes or brushing his teeth. And even though all the fanfare is not just for being gay—even though it’s about history and civil rights and struggle and oppression and celebrating the escape from our collective closet—he’ll find that freedom breeds complacency, even though it shouldn’t. And when that happens, I hope he finds a way to fill his eyes with wonder once again.

We should all be so lucky.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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I Stole You: Stories from the Fae – Kristen Ringman (Handtype Press)

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The mail brings me delightful surprises every so often. The burden of circulars and slick mailers gets to be too much for my  pith-helmeted letter carrier, and she leaves a gift among the bills–just to keep me coming back to the mailbox, you know? And that’s what Kristen Ringman’s book of fae short stories is. A gift from places unknown. Okay, it really comes from Handtype Press out of Minnesota but a book this otherworldly and shrouded in mist needs murkier, less prosaic origins.

The concept here is a series of stories from a variety of beings–a Thai ghost, a dream thief, a crow fae, and an Icelandic birch tree elf–about their obsessions with and acquisition of, for lack of a better term, victims. Each story begins with “I stole you…” but their similarity ends there, for these stories are as wide-ranging and diverse as anything I’ve read lately. Ringman, however, never loses the mystique. The atmosphere of twilight mystery does not dissipate until the last page. Granted, this fever dream of fourteen short stories lasts just over a hundred pages, but one can’t look into this world for too long before it vanishes. And that’s how it should be.

As to the stories themselves, several stand out. The opener, “The Meaning, Not the Words” introduces the concept with succinctness and, marvelously, sets the tone with a few, well-chosen broad strokes. Then, the wonder begins. For the canine lovers in the crowd, “A Real Dog,” featuring an Irish spirit trapped in the body of a dog, will have you rushing to hug your furry friends. Dogs are also a prominent part of “Shining Orange,” in which sees Uluka, the goddess Lakshmi’s mount, stealing the spirit of a person who saves dogs. Indeed, the reasons for stealing humans are incredibly varied but many border on obsession, as in “Love Within Tangled Branches,” about the aforementioned Icelandic birch tree elf taking a human for love despite the objections from the rest of his clan and even the birch trees in the forest itself. But some of these tales are dark, especially the spirit who steals suicides in the haunting “So Many of You Want to Die,” and the crow fae looking for victims to feed on in “A Murder of Two”:

Like I said, I first pecked out his eyes. Two jewel candies slid down my throat. Then the bullets. One by one, I gathered them up in my beak and spit them out into the dirt. I licked his skin. I licked all the blood mixed with rain until he stopped bleeding, until the rain stopped, too. I pecked one hole after another into his soft flesh. I gulped each piece of his skin down. With my beak, I absolved him of more judgments. No more struggles. That human was finally free when he was turned into bones scattered over moss.

None of the stories address gay or queer characters or issues per se, but the pansexuality of these spirits combined with Ringman’s intimations that no sexual, gender, or even species boundaries exist when dealing with fae, shifters, or other fairy folk certainly lands the book firmly in queer territory. I Stole You is a remarkable work that will open a few windows in your soul and let the wind of the fantastic blow through.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Ada Decades – Paula Martinac (Bywater Books)

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Heroic protagonists of large epics have their place in historical fiction, and it’s pretty much at the top of the pantheon for many. For me, however, small stories about regular people who live their lives in their own quiet way depict heroism more accurately and reflect history more clearly. And that’s exactly what Ada and Cam do in The Ada Decades, a lean-yet-meaty series of interconnected short stories brilliantly rendered by Paula Martinac.

Ada Shook is a librarian new to the Charlotte, NC public school system, which is suffering from the growing pains of integration in the 1950’s. Being from a mill family, Ada has seen this racial divide up close, but nothing prepares her for her experiences in education or for Cam Lively, a girls’ P.E. teacher, with whom she falls in love. The ensuing eleven stories follow their courtship, careers, relationship, friends, and history as the area changes and life happens over seven decades.

Not a great deal of time is given to either Ada or Cam’s coming out, which I found refreshing. We all have coming out stories, of course, but while each is unique, they follow along some pretty similar paths. Instead, Martinac chooses to create a textual photo album, freezing episodes in time with the same cast of characters in different poses. You can almost see the sepia creeping up the page in as your mental camera dollies in on a snapshot of Cam’s friend, Lu, who begins “The Book Club, 1958”:

“Everybody calls me Lu,” the woman in a pearl necklace and flowered sheath said. Ada recognized her immediately; she’d seen her at the movies with Cam. Lu was dressed for a garden party, even though Cam had assured Ada the get-together at her apartment was “casual.” Ada tugged at her simple pleated skirt, wishing she had worn her go-to-church dress instead.

The book club, of course, is a ruse by Cam to get to meet Ada. Sweet, yes. Cloying, never. Ada is tart and never hesitates to say what she thinks. But with a few deft strokes, Martinac sets a scene, seeds a conflict, and drags you inside that Kodak moment glued on heavy stock and pressed in plastic. Her prose, much like I picture Ada, is without frills, substituting simple grace for flair. And the same atmosphere carries over to the cover, which I found particularly apt.

But it’s what’s inside that counts, and you get not only Ada and Cam, but a solid cast of supporting characters who accompany them. My favorite of these is Twig, an indomitably faithful guy whose partner, Auggie, loses his way early in the story, leaving Twig the survivor. Lu also becomes important as Ada and Cam deepen their relationship.

The Ada Decades is a beautifully written account of extraordinary people satisfied with living ordinary lives. Quiet and unassuming, it’s a lovely read.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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Seventeen Stitches – Sean Eads (Lethe Press)

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I’ve read enough Sean Eads to know, upon starting his collection, that I was in for a mix of dark and disturbing tales. With Seventeen Stitches, however, Eads often dialed up both beyond my expectations.

I feel like I should preface that I rarely read horror, and when I do read horror, I shy completely away from zombies as something I know I will never enjoy. Given that many of the stories in Seventeen Stitches are ones I could describe as horror, and more than a few of those are also zombie stories, this collection left me more than a little off-balance.

But let me start in my comfort zones: a few of the stories that fall into speculative fiction more weird than horrific.

“My Father’s Friend” was a standout, where a young man who has long seethed with a hatred for his titular friend of his father—who denies his son anything remotely close to affection—learns that the friend in question is in fact a temporally displaced version of himself, and has to make the choice of whether or not to continue the cycle, given that this is one way he can earn respect and love from his father. The story bubbles with a grim tension and walks the edge of something almost nihilistic.

Of a similar tone is “Living in the Worlds Without You,” where another familial breakdown leaves the reader wondering—in the best way—whether or not grief or something off kilter in the multiverse is at play.

Bending weird further, “The Two Front Ones,” takes Capone-era gangsters, mashes them up with secret organizations, hidden secret plans, and the teeth of the son of an influential man as the McGuffin in question. Ditto “The Alamo Incident,” where a hunter of the beasts of the interior of the newly expanding United States comes face to face with one of the more peculiar “monsterifictions” I’ve ever read.

The weirder and darker the tales go, the more Eads seems to delight in pushing boundaries. I’m not sure I know another author who would make the fairy tale of the Gingerbread Man and cross it with a zombie apocalypse (which, of course, broke out from infected strains of bread dough).

Stepping more into the horrific, Eads presented me with one of the most chilling vampire horror shorts I’ve yet to have read (Previously a title held by Stephen King’s “Popsy”), as well as a succubus story with a dark psychological thrill, a cleverly retold mash-up for a werewolf tale, and even a bridge troll. Blood and guts are definitely on display in many of these tales, even before we get to the zombies. Beyond the gingerbread man story, the other zombie tales include an Oscar Wilde story—“The Revenge of Oscar Wilde”—which I think will test the limits of even the hardest lovers of the zombie genre (it ends the collection on what I can honestly say is the most unique note of all the tales, and not something I imagine most readers have encountered before). Also, there’s the darkly amusing notion of the best hope against zombies being an acting troupe in “To ‘Bie or Not To ‘Bie,” a story where zombies are paralyzed by a good theatre performance, and thus youths are trained as actors to entrance the zombies before beheading them.

For all that horror is not at all my cup of tea (and especially gore and zombies), I know I’m certainly in the minority. Eads has a penchant and talent for twisting the imagination toward the dark, and even those stories that build on familiar ground tend to tilt sideways mid-way. Though not something I’d suggest for readers of lighter speculative fiction fare, if you’re at all a fan of gazing into the darkness and considering what might gaze back, I think you’re a reader who’d be well served by Seventeen Stitches.

Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine

© 2017, ‘Nathan Burgoine

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Rural Liberties – Neal Drinnan (Signal 8 Press)

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Rural Liberties begins with the death of Rebecca Moore, the most beautiful and talented girl in Moralla, New South Wales, Australia—“jewel of the Sapphire Coast”—a fading seaside town of 3500 people, 350 km south of Sydney, 550 km northeast of Melbourne, “somewhere on the way to someplace else.” The questions surrounding her death—why was she on the Princes Highway in the pouring rain at 4 AM, all but naked, with drugs in her system, and traces of semen on her?—are never answered to the satisfaction of her fellow townsfolk: instead, they provide the catalyst for everyone’s subsequent downward spiral into debauchery and enlightenment.

Before her untimely death, Rebecca had nursed dreams of leaving Moralla by starring on Aussie Diva, singing “Don’t Cry Out Loud” by Melissa Manchester. After Rebecca’s death, it falls to Briannah Saunders (the second most beautiful and talented girl in Moralla) to audition for Hot Sista, Australia’s longest running reality TV show, and thus place Moralla on the map. Briannah’s quest to accomplish this objective (working with and against Reece Martin, the creator of the Hot Sista franchise) is one of the major narratives of this novel.

Meanwhile, Tasmin Day and Guy Martin (Reece’s brother) arrive in Moralla and buy the property where Rebecca was gang-banged before her death (their real estate agent being Briannah’s mother Maxine), intent on turning it into a retreat center (the eponymous `Rural Liberties’) for relationship workshops and personal development. Naturally, once the property is developed and operational, it takes almost no time at all before rumors of orgies and Satanic rituals begin to circulate throughout Moralla; the town’s reactions to an eco-resort that provides workshops on Tantric sex provide the other major narrative of Rural Liberties.

Entwined in these two major strands are numerous other sub-plots, which are much more serious in nature, even if presented in a humorous fashion. Andrew Pritchard, consumed by guilt for his role in Rebecca’s death, spends his time building memorials to Rebecca and haunting OutoHere.com, a website devoted to people trying to kill themselves. Fifteen-year old Saul (Briannah’s younger brother and Maxine’s son) grapples with his sexual identity in episodes that are simultaneously cringe-worthy and laugh-out-loud funny. Summer Rae (arguably the most mature and self-actualized individual in the novel, but then she isn’t from Moralla) joins the staff at Rural Liberties and puts Tasmin and Guy (and their teachings) to test. Reading to the end is the only way to find out who finally ends up on top. So to speak.

Despite its beginning, Rural Liberties is no mystery, but rather a biting send-up of TV pop culture and its promise of instant fame, small-town gossip, baby boomer/Gen X/millennial (take your pick) entitlement, and 21st-century morality (or lack thereof). With its short chapters, satiric wit, and sensational story, it is the perfect summer beach read.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

© 2017, Keith John Glaeske

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Gatecrasher – Stephen Graham King (Bold Strokes Books)

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I’ve long been a lover of Space Opera, but it was so rarely a place I saw myself represented that I drifted away from it over my years as a reader. I always felt a disconnect: how come we got to the stars, but there’s never a queer person in sight? Why can’t the cocky space pilot be bi? Why can’t the tech-smart engineer hook up with another guy?

Well, they can. Allow me to introduce you to the Maverick Heart Cycle.

When I first read Stephen Graham King’s Soul’s Blood, I fell in love with his trio of Lexa-Blue, Keene, and the sentient space ship, Maverick Heart (Vrick to the ship’s friends). Space Opera is difficult to pull off well. Balancing world-building, which so often includes linguistic nuances to show an evolution (or devolution) in culture, alongside the narrative itself is a tricky act.

In the first book of the Maverick Heart Cycle, Soul’s Blood, gender-neutral honorifics, sentient (and also agender) space ships, and a galaxy full of colonized planets were all juggled with ease. It took me no time to be hip-deep in the high-tension danger of a culture clash between a technologically-centred city and a nearby colony of more eco-centric and meditative genetically modified individuals with various telepathic and psychokinetic abilities. That our three heroes were an unlikely group to face off against a planet-wide potential war made it all the better. Keene, handsome gay technician with his sharp mind a potential romantic liaison on-planet; Lexa-Blue, a bisexual kick-ass pilot and gunner who I wish had her own television series; and Vrick, the sentient (and oft sarcastic) artificial intelligence ship that gets them to and from danger worked together, bent and broke rules, risked everything (and sometimes everyone) and came out on top, more or less.

When Gatecrasher came out? I had my ticket in hand.

The trio I’d come to love adventuring with get a few new additions in Gatecrasher, and they’re welcome recruits. We meet Ember, a con-man and thief, and his accomplice, Malika, who wears attitudes, personalities, and outfits with equal ease, as they pull off a high-tech robbery that drips with Space Opera technology and once again shows off King’s flair at worldbuilding so casually you’d barely notice it’s happening. This is a real gift of King’s prose: within a few words, you’ve got a picture of a whole world, an entire subcategory of technology, or some new facet of his universe. It never feels like an info dump. And when you’re dealing with a book about space gates, code thieves, virtual assassins, and mono-filament grapples, this gift gets a lot of use.

Much like Soul’s Blood, Gatecrasher introduces us to a new corner of the galaxy, raises the stakes, and then puts the group on a ticking clock to avert major disaster and death. The stakes feel all the more personal this time, which surprised me: I quickly found myself rooting for the new characters as they were introduced, and I had zero notion of who might make it to the end of the book. There were definitely going to be deaths but I didn’t want anyone to die. Similarly, there were a couple of twists to the narrative I didn’t see coming, and I love that feeling of genuine surprise that, on reflection, had clues enough not to make it feel like it came from nowhere, but instead had me grinning at the cleverness.

Now, where Soul’s Blood felt in many ways like Keene’s book (it was his romantic entanglement that got them involved in the narrative), Gatecrasher felt more like Vrick’s book, and this was a surprisingly welcome thing. In Soul’s Blood, Vrick came across as a fun, almost sidekick of a character, an AI who was surprisingly just “one of the guys” on their adventure, but in Gatecrasher, Vrick’s characterization evolves into being much clearer about just what it meant to be a non-human artificially intelligent construct.

Vrick is not human, and this shines through so much clearer in this book. His views on privacy, for example, are chuckle-worthy, and his processes of justification for what amounts to some pretty deep infiltration into private information comes across so perfectly this time. Vrick is easily bored, is a bit light on ethical consideration, and has the ability to go and look pretty much anywhere. This curiosity gets the crew in over their heads when they discover something hidden more-or-less in the middle of nowhere space, and they decide to go look.

Also, I can’t help it, every time Vrick refers to the human crew as “Meat” I chuckle like a twelve year-old boy.

Can you read Gatecrasher as a stand alone? Well, I’m a purist, and I’ll always suggest people start at the beginning, but this second book in the Maverick Heart Cycle does pull off a self-contained narrative. Yes, of course, events from Soul’s Blood are mentioned, but not to the level of a major spoiler. Were a reader to pick up Gatecrasher first, I don’t think they’d lose much in the way of the experience.

But get them both. Trust me. Queer space opera rarely comes with the whole deal. A blooming poly romance? Bi representation? Gender and race explored in a future society handled with real skill and attention? Stephen Graham King brings it all and it’s very welcome, from the opening scenes to nail-biting conclusion.

King is at work on more. I’m glad. I want to explore more of his galaxy with his awesome queer crew.

Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine

© 2017, ‘Nathan Burgoine

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Scarborough – Catherine Hernandez (Arsenal Pulp Press)

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As we all know, working in the arts pays less than nothing most of the time. Most writers (and editors) have to have supplemental income, and with this aim in mind, I began substitute teaching last year. My school district is huge, encompassing white as well as “urban” neighborhoods, much like the landscape of Catherine Hernandez’s deeply-felt novel, Scarborough. I see the disenfranchised and immigrant children she describes daily. I feed the littler ones breakfast, like Ms Hina does. And I wonder if they can survive what’s been done to the country in which they landed.

Ms Hina is a recent university graduate whose first job is as a facilitator for a literacy program in a Toronto primary school, but any position involving children proves to be far more than its description. Among her charges are Laura, Bing, and Bing’s best friend, Sylvie. Laura has been neglected by her mother and obtained by her father, Cory, who knows even less about raising a child. Bing is a gay Filipino boy living with both parents, but his father is mentally ill. Sylvie is a Native girl whose family is struggling to find a place to live. Ms Hina slowly works past the prejudice of parents, careless bureaucrats, and the diversity of her children to forge a welcoming atmosphere for all.

However, any description of this novel will fall short. Just like the job it tracks, it’s more than the sum of its parts. A skilled writer, Hernandez uses all the emotion at her disposal to create deft, indelible portraits of these children and their parents. Once she has them onstage, she lets them interact with each other and shades those relationships as they develop organically. Nothing about Scarborough feels contrived or manipulative despite its range of emotions, and I never once heard the author instead of the characters.

Although all of Hernandez’s people are real and interesting, Laura’s father and Bing were particularly noteworthy. Cory aches to do right by his little girl and knows how she’s suffered from her mother’s inattention, but he simply doesn’t have the skills. And he’s too afraid to ask, automatically discounting Ms Hina because she wears a hijab. Bing is a fearless little boy who came out at an early age with the full support of his mother and extended family. But even with that love behind him, nothing can compare to the freedom he feels when he takes a Whitney Houston tape to karaoke and makes his statement to the world:

Just as the chorus began again, I jumped to my feet, ripped off my button up shirt and revealed my pink-sequined halter top. Everyone cheered. Under the auditorium lights, I felt the sweat on my arms both cooling and accumulating. Riding the wave of a sustained note, I felt my insides shine like a light beaming from my throat and through every finger. Truth. Truth. It felt like confetti. It felt like running. It felt like screaming. Me. Truth. Truth.

The details of Bing’s story are unimportant. We have all been Bing. We still are, really. It’s the screaming of that truth that’s important, now more than ever.

From Ms Hina’s epistolary battle with her supervisor to the tragedy of an apartment fire, Scarborough is an engrossing read that’s a lot like its cover. Hernandez sets us running down that subway corridor, anxious for what comes around the next corner. Heartbreak, to be sure. But also unexpected joys and big lessons. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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