Breathe – Cari Hunter (Bold Strokes Books)

41G3SDpH4aLBuy from Bold Strokes Books

Cari Hunter is one of my favorite action/adventure/romance authors. I thought her Dark Peak Series was terrific, and I’ve also enjoyed each of the one-offs I’ve read. If you sense a “but” coming up here, you’d be wrong. Breathe is easily their equal, a snappy combo of police procedural and romantic beginnings.

Jemima Pardon (Jem) has a reputation for bad luck on her paramedic assignments (breech births, impossible rescues, etc.), but it’s no worse than Police Constable Rosie Jones, who finds herself working on the same victims. Of course, they keep meeting accidentally until the spark is struck, then they’re off investigating the death of a teenage boy with the back of his head caved in, leading to an all-out search for a mysterious girl named Talia.

One of the reasons I read is for immersion, and Hunter accomplishes this on a couple of fronts. First, the Brit slang. I love it. Whenever I encounter a culture different from my own, I always gravitate toward either its food or its music (or both). Here, Hunter makes British junk food into idiomatic delicacies I had to Google some recipes for. And if the references are occasionally obscure to American ears, context usually wins the day.

Hunter also immerses the reader in water. No major exterior scene here is complete without a downpour. It’s either misting, raining lightly, or pissing down. The British have as many terms for rain as the Eskimos do snow, and I think they’re all collected here. The book has so much water I wondered if the title wasn’t intentionally ironic. Not that it’s a bad thing. It’s certainly an element to contend with and use to ramp up tension during those action scenes Hunter does so well.

But it’s not just the action scenes that pop. The burgeoning relationship between Jem and Rosie is both sweet and unsentimental, and it unfolds as naturally as does the plot. At no time does it feel rushed or simply one of the elements that needs to be balanced. They have charming chemistry, and I hope to see it continue.

Cari Hunter’s Breathe is a worthwhile, solid entry in her catalog, sure to please old and new fans. But don’t forget your rubbers and your mac. It’s pissing outside.

JW

© 2019 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

 

 

 

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Choirmaster: A Mister Puss Mystery – Michael Craft (Questover Press)

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Lammy award-winning mystery author Michael Craft’s latest novel is a cozy, small town whodunnit with a compelling cast of characters, including a talking cat.

Fictional amateur sleuths tend to be “detective-adjacent” such as criminal defense lawyers (Michael Nava’s Henry Rios series), investigative reporters (R.D. Zimmerman’s Todd Mills series), or at least TV crime noir fanatics (Marshall Thornton’s Noah Valentine from the Boystown series). It’s a helpful convention to provide the hero with the access and the know-how to solve the crime.

Craft takes a different approach with his leading man Brody Norris. Brody is an architect of all things. But as the junior partner in his husband’s illustrious firm and a fellow of society in a tony Wisconsin hamlet, Brody’s social connections make him something of a secret weapon for the local sheriff when he’s sorting out foul play. Brody also may be getting help from his eccentric friend’s possibly telepathic Abyssinian Mister Puss, though Craft plays it coy with that bit of esoterica. It could just be Brody and his friend Mary Questman are projecting their subconscious thoughts onto the beloved feline as pet owners are known to do.

Brody’s investigative quest begins when the young, handsome and gay choirmaster of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church is found dead at the organ while the church is nearly engulfed in flames. A quick study of the circumstances reveals a host of intrigues. The deceased had a well-known allergy to nuts and had a plate of cookies on the organ console, baked for him by the middle-aged church secretary who was harboring a hopeless crush on the young man. The parish had just been given notice the ancient church will be condemned unless costly repairs are made to bring it up to code. Alternatively, some in the church leadership are campaigning to demolish the old church and construct a new one, which could involve lucrative self-dealing.

In the middle of that debate is Joyce Hibbard, the ambitious new rector of the parish who happens to be in Brody’s social orbit. Joyce is the wife of his husband Marson’s old college buddy Curtis Hibbard. Having had a successful career as a lawyer and never before been religiously-inclined, Joyce’s call to faith late in life is curious.

Furthermore, her marriage to Curtis is mainly for appearances. Curtis needed a beard to fit in with the high-powered New York City lawyer set, and similarly, Joyce needed a husband at a time when being a career-driven woman required softening one’s image. Though the fact that Curtis was trying to get into her choirmaster’s pants makes Brody wonder whether Joyce had resolved the issue of jealousy in their marriage.

Then there’s the choirmaster’s ne’er-do-well younger brother who’s been after his brother for money and stands to inherit a fortune as the sole heir to their parents’ estate. Curtis and his good friend and ex Yevgeny, a former world-renowned ballet dancer, are also possible suspects as they had been competing for the handsome choirmaster’s affections. And reports of anti-gay violence in nearby Green Bay suggest homophobia could have been a motive.

Craft knows mystery writing. As Brody gets deeper into sleuthing, the reader is breathless from possibilities and flipping pages briskly to find out what’s really going on. Craft doesn’t break any boundaries with the story. It’s cozy mystery through and through (did I mention there’s a talking cat?). But for readers who like their whodunnits Miss Marple-style, with terror afoot in quaint places and not much blood and gore, Choirmaster is vacation-reading gold.

In fact, there is something unexpectedly transgressive about the story. Gay genre fiction tends to demand the hero finds some romance along the way and favors characters in the prime of gayhood. Craft’s Brody Norris is a happily married fellow in his late thirties with a husband twenty years his senior. Their challenges of gay living concern domestic themes like choosing the right menu for a dinner party while many of their gay and lesbian friends and neighbors struggle with “to be or not to be” and navigate double lives. The story focuses on gay men of a certain age and a certain income bracket, and the portrayal rings true.

A lovely murder mystery that will charm the author’s loyal following as well as fans of Richard Stevenson, R.D. Zimmerman, and Mark Richard Zubro.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

 

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Anais Nin at the Grand Guignol – Robert Levy (Lethe Press)

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Anais Nin (1903-1977) was a woman writer ahead of her time. Born to Cuban parents in France, she was trilingual in her lifetime. She lived in Paris with her banker/filmmaker husband from 1924 to 1939, when she wisely escaped to New York in time to avoid the German occupation of France. She became known for her apparently tell-all journals, published in edited form while she was alive, which revealed her emotional sensitivity, her bohemian lifestyle, and her affairs with several famous men. She was persuaded to publish her erotic short stories, originally written for a mysterious private patron. Anais Nin has been a role model for erotic writers ever since.

After Nin’s death, the 1990 film Henry and June popularized one phase of her life in Paris, when she was in an erotic triangle with American writer Henry Miller and his wife June. In 1992, her diary from 1932-34 was republished with all the censored information restored, including her affair with her own father, a musician and composer.

Was Anais Nin drawn to Le Theatre Grand Guignol? This doesn’t seem clear from the existing records, but Robert Levy’s fictional version of one of Nin’s diaries from 1933 is uncannily plausible.

The “Grand Guignol” was a small theater in a former church in Paris where the gothic architecture perfectly suited the gruesome subject-matter of the plays performed there. Established in the fin-de-siecle (1897), it attracted a cult following into the 1930s, but attendance declined after the real-life atrocities of the Occupation and the Holocaust. The theater closed in 1962.

In Levy’s version, Anais Nin goes to the theater with her husband, Hugo, and both are aroused by a scene in which a doctor mutilates a female patient. Anais responds to her husband’s “squirming:”

“I bring his hand to my lips and kiss his knuckles, the room electrified with murmurs and movement as the patrons resettle in their seats. Like me, they are unsure how to feel, how best to absorb and respond to what has just taken place before them. Did they see their own objects of desire and longing in the patient, the way that I saw June? Did it make them feel the same exquisite satisfaction, the first twinge of a new and awakening pleasure inside?”

Between trysts with her lover, Henry Miller (after June’s departure from them both), writing sessions, and appointments with her real-life psychoanalyst, Dr. Allendy, Anais returns to the “Grand Guignol.” There she meets real-life lead actress Paula Maxa, an opium-addicted creature of the night who tries to protect Anais from her master, pimp, or stalker, Monsieur Guillard. “Maxa” apparently doesn’t know that Anais has already had a disturbing vision, or encounter, with Monsieur in Dr. Allendy’s office, in the dark box called an “isolation accumulator,” in which a patient is supposed to focus on dispersing negative emotions such as guilt and shame, and eventually feel herself “awash in positive light.”

Alone in the dark, Anais imagines herself on a beach when she sees a being with “silver-yellow eyes” emerging from the water. The being is strong and male, and Anais feels him dragging her by the ankles into the sea to drown.  At this point, the threatening male figure doesn’t introduce himself.

Soon afterward, however, the man with the penetrating gaze shows up everywhere in her life: at Paula Maxa’s door while Anais is visiting, and at a masquerade party that Anais attends with Hugo, where Monsieur Guillard accuses Anais of summoning him to find her. He echoes what Paula Maxa has already told her: once Monsieur claims you, there is no escape.

Is Monsieur a seductive, sadistic father-figure conjured from the depths of Anais’ masochistic hero-worship of powerful men? Is he a supernatural being? Is he the resident spirit of Le Theatre Grand Guignol?

“Maxa” suggests to Anais that Monsieur has given her the magical power to enact the fears and secret desires of every member of the audience, and that this power must be paid for. She lets Anais know that she can’t protect “Maxa” or any other woman but herself from Monsieur, and that this can only be done by staying away from him.

So far, this slim novel looks like a mildly erotic study in traditional feminine masochism and psychological horror.

However, Levy’s version of Anais is resourceful as well as curious. She comes to the profound realization that although a supernatural being or an archetype can never be killed, human flesh is mortal. The requirement of human flesh for lust to operate on not only makes Anais and other female victims vulnerable to physical violence, it also makes Monsieur vulnerable when he appears in human form. The Man is not all-powerful after all.

Many years before the advent of Second-Wave Feminism, Anais discovers the wisdom and strength in a group of women focused on a common purpose.

Not all the mysteries are resolved by the end of this book, and that is part of its charm. Levy persuasively imitates Anais Nin’s writing style, and his imagery fits the subject-matter. In the last scene, Anais writes: “I turn, and I face him [Dr. Allendy.] I face them all.” Fear, desire, surrender and resistance are shown to be inseparably connected.

Reviewed by Jean Roberta

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Duncan’s Fall Poetry Roundup

When Duncan isn’t playing with his bone, he reads poetry. You can probably tell that by his soulful, sensitive eyes. Oh, that’s not all he reads. He loves a good mystery now and then. Some Buddhist philosophy. Reprints of old Erma Bombeck columns. But he has five new selections for your autumnal enjoyment he’s been working on all summer. It’s not that he reads slow; he has trouble swiping on the Kindle.

Have You Seen This Man?: The Castro Poems of Karl Tierney – Jim Cory, ed.

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The idea of the unheralded and tragically short-lived artist is hardly a new one, but it seems particularly poignant in the case of Karl Tierney, a poet working in San Francisco in the 1980s. The 50 poems he left show a poet almost fully-formed, time being the only ingredient necessary to improve the depth and maturity of his work. Sadly, he did not have that luxury. Nor did we. What we do have, however, is by turns emotional, dispassionate, sad, and hilarious–all with a craftsman’s eye for detail. One of my favorite pieces, “Caligula or Nixon Leaving” is as applicable today as it was then:

…and as the helicopter lifts from the Rose Garden lawn/from someplace like Istria or Capri and a fat bank branch/three guards roll up the red carpet/as if we’d never invited him into the palace/in the first place.

Informed by everything from sleazy sex to Billy Idol, these poems are far more entertaining than a legacy should be, and that makes their scarcity all the more lamentable.

Genre Fluid – Dan Webber (Big White Shed) 

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Dan Webber bills himself as a reluctant bear and an attempted vegan who has performed in many spoken word shows only to be told he’s a comic at poetry nights and a poet at comedy nights. When faced with material as witty, earnest, and well-observed as this, the last thing that should concern us is which box it goes in. “Homo on the Rocks,” “Anonymous at 6 am,” and “Some People Never Learn” are among my favorites in this slim but fully packed volume. The ending of “Child of the 90s” in particular resonated with this child of the 70s.

On New Year’s Eve 2016/I told my oldest friend I preferred men to women/And he was livid/Not because I liked guys/Because I had lied to him for all these years/I’d never told him when I was most happy.

Webber shifts effortlessly from comic to serious, changing the layout up with different typefaces and pictures and little bits. His predicament about being pigeonholed highlights what I’ve always wondered about the line between poetry and standup comedy since I first heard Lenny Bruce and Allen Ginsberg. Webber’s insights are very interesting indeed.

Spring Sonnets – Don Yorty (Indolent Books) 

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Where Webber is non-traditional, New York City poet Don Yorty provides a more formalistic approach with sonnets to spring written during a six year stretch from 2003 to 2009. Those fourteen lines of iambic pentameter are to poetry what the five-paragraph essay is to composition, and you can be just as creative within that structure as you want to be. Yorty’s eye turns to everything around him, tying it all back to spring with the mention of a flower, a scent, a food, or a memory. And his subjects are myriad. But writers never stray far from their own heads, so we get sonnets featuring pencils, smudges, and of course, writing itself:

Writing’s a thing of opposites, putting/on clothes, taking them off, whispering shouts/starting a fire and then putting it out./You don’t want to burn the pages

This is clearly a lot of poetry, but this collection is definitely worth your while. Savor it slowly–one or two at a time–and make your spring last until the snow flies.

Love and Detours – David-Matthew Barnes (Blue Dasher Press)

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This is also a large collection, but many of these poems have appeared elsewhere and it’s wonderful to have them neatly compiled in one place. A writer of many guises and genres, Barnes’s poetry is very dynamic. It’s always on the move. Someone’s running or walking or searching. These are pieces of escape, of rebellion, of restless adolescence. Love and Detours is all about destinations and shifting places, imbued with Eighties pop culture. One of my favorites, “Walking to K-Mart to Buy a Dolly Parton Album,” is also an award-winner:

Someone protects me when I’m ten: a boy/ in my class. He’s stronger than the others./He waits for me each day, walks me home./He’s convinced I’ll be the next/Nancy Drew and encourages me to open up/my own detective agency. He colors the green/construction paper signs we tape in store windows.

From the geographic name-checking in “Looking for Homer” to the freestyle images of “Subway Stations, Atlanta,” Barnes’s poems are all conscious of the fact that they are memories–that is to say, they have a self-realization that these events are in the past, observed from a safe platform of better-if-not-well-adjusted adulthood. I can guarantee you’ll relate.

Infinity Standing Up – Drew Pisarra (Capturing Fire Press)

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Sonnets, yes. But unlike the above-reviewed Yorty, Pisarra’s sonnets are more directly Shakesperean in nature. And lustier. Not only that, but Pisarra has a wicked sense of humor that makes this one of my favorite volumes. “Sonnet 45” is about a vinyl single, “Sonnet 11 PM” about bedtime, “Sonnet 666” about Satan, “Sonnet 69” about…well, you get the idea. I love Pisarra’s warped viewpoint and willingness to take on any subject, such as the penis in “Sonnet 6″‘:

Hey shlong, listen up. Hey penis, pay attention./Pecker! Turn your unblinking eye over here./Oh, thick-headed prick, oh tool of no pretension,/ oh wood that could, and dick shaped like a can of beer/I have ogled and gagged. I have ridden such cock.

But the effect is not all fun and games. “Sonnet -1” is about a particularly tough break-up, and “Sonnet 12.11.15” is a portrait of the beginning of a relationship which may or may not still be extant. Pisarra is as confident and sure on the serious side as he is with wit and a well-turned phrase. As with the Yorty, I’d do one a day just to keep your spirits up.

And there you have Duncan’s Fall Poetry Review. He’s looking for something to read for Winter, so if you’ve a mind, drop a line.

JW

© 2019 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Endangered Species: A Surly Bear in the Bible Belt – Jeff Mann (Lethe Press)

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Be warned: Endangered Species: A Surly Bear in the Bible Belt by Jeff Mann is aptly named—there is plenty of righteous indignation here. He suffers no fools gladly, and aims his wrath at homophobes and hypocrites of all kinds—regardless of their religious or political affiliation—and takes no prisoners.

Of course, that is not all that this volume of essays is: it also contain wry humor, nostalgia, regret, and even some acceptance and detachment. Mann wrote the twenty-two essays contained herein (of which thirteen have previously been published in print anthologies or online) over the past ten years, between 2009 and 2017. (Reader warning: Mann explains in his introductory Author’s Note that these essays were not initially intended to be collected together, so there’s a fair amount of overlap in autobiographical details. Mann eliminated some of this repetition when reprinting these essays, but kept some in order to preserve the integrity of individual essays.) That being said, they run the gamut: to borrow a culinary metaphor, this volume is a smorgasbord of writings, everything from short, lyrical elegies (“David”) to serious, substantive pieces about teaching Appalachian writers in college curricula (“The Feast Hall, the rsenal, and the Mirror”) and his literary influences (“Romantic”).

Most of Mann’s essays reflect on the various intersections in his life: being Gay; living in Appalachia; being a leatherbear; being a Gay leatherbear in a non-urban part of Appalachia. Mann recognizes that he is cast very much as a niche writer; nevertheless, most Gay readers will be able to connect with him to some extent when he writes about such universal topics as family, both by blood (“Amy”) and by spirit (“Big Queer Convocations”), and home. Additionally, older readers will empathize with Mann’s looking back as he nears middle age, and grows more contemplative. (Oh, the aging leatherbear is still surly; but now he has learned to choose which battles he will fight.) And Mann simply could not write a book of this length without also discussing food (“Scrapple,” “Muslim Food”).

While these essays are without doubt entertaining, the real value for the reader is that Mann writes unapologetically and with unflinching honesty about topics that most writers shy away from: the kind of sex that turns him on (passim), the memory of a long-ago affair (“Thomas”), hiring a hustler (“Whoremonger”), the envy he feels towards writers better known and more successful than he (e.g., his own father!), and his feelings towards the Civil War (“Confederate”) and about gun ownership (“Watch Out! That Queer’s got a Gun!”). These last two essays in particular demonstrate that Mann, rugged individualist that he is, is not afraid to hold an opinion at odds with “orthodox” liberal Gay thought. It is the rare reader that will agree entirely with Mann.

So, to those readers new to Mann and his oeuvre, this volume will be full of surprises; even long-time followers of Mann will find something new to chew upon. And as I noted above, this book is not entirely surliness: Mann writes about all the things that make life worth living—food, sex, nature, poetry, and beautiful men. And whether you gorge yourself on this feast entirely in one sitting or savor it course by course, you will find something to your taste, be it an exotic new perspective or the equivalent of literary comfort food.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White By the Book – Tom Cardamone, ed. (ITNA Press)

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Tom Cardamone has made a mission of rescuing Gay writers and their writings from the dustbin of history. His The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered (2010) lists twenty-eight Gay literary forefathers, as remembered by current Gay writers. In his latest anthology, Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White by the Book, he focuses on a single writer, and his mission is somewhat different: celebrating a giant of Gay letters who has little chance of being forgotten.

(Full disclosure: it shames me to admit that I have arrived so very late to this party. Of White’s body of work, I have read only his most recent The Unpunished Vice, and, well, The Joy of Gay Sex–not that one exactly reads the latter, at least not from cover to cover. I read the former as an advance reader’s copy, but I encountered the latter as a closeted teen in a Waldenbooks at a mall in a nearby city.)

In any event, I have been given an excellent road map to rectify this lack. Crashing Cathedrals is a hefty book: clocking in at 443 pages (plus author bios), it contains 33 essays written by a veritable Who’s Who of Gay literati, discussing 30 different titles authored by White. The heft is not surprising, given that White’s oeuvre is scarcely insignificant: he has written both fiction and non-fiction—novels, biography, memoir, essays, and reviews—during a career that spans decades, from just after Stonewall, during the ravages of the AIDS epidemic, White’s “exile” in Paris, into the twenty-first century. Most of these tributes were written specifically for this volume, but it also incorporates nine reprints, including the introduction to the Modern Library edition of A Boy’s Own Story by Allan Gurganus, as well as contributions originally published online in such venues as the Lambda Literary Revue and Chelsea Station. (Again, not surprisingly, the title with multiple essays is the classic A Boy’s Own Story, with essays not only by Gurganus and Robert Glück, but also Brian Alessandro, who worked with White’s own husband Michael Carroll on a graphic novel and screenplay of this seminal title.)

The volume is organized chronologically, beginning with White’s first novel Forgetting Elena (1977) and closing with his most recent memoir The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading (2018). Although one may read the essays in any order, I suggest reading them consecutively: as one reads the essays sequentially, one not only learns about White’s development as a writer, but also learns about the arc of his own life story. Thus Cardamone’s volume not only serves as a bibliography of White’s oeuvre, but also functions as a biography of sorts for him.

Lest one think that this volume is purely a pedantic series of obtuse critiques of White’s writings—with copious footnotes—most of the essays contained herein offer not only discussions about the specific work by White in question, but also personal reminiscences about “Ed”–where and when the essayist first encountered the work under discussion, and sometimes even how and when the essayist met him in person. And since most of the contributors are likewise writers, it is just as relevant knowing how White the writer influenced their work, as knowing how Ed personally mentored and inspired them. By reading this book, one not only gets a sense of Edmund White the writer, but also of Edmund White the person, and this festschrift is as much a tribute to the latter as to the former.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Justify My Sins – Felice Picano (Beautiful Dreamer Press)

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Felice Picano returns to the genre he founded—the great American gay epic, in a decades-spanning, dishy, Hollywood-focused story that brings to life both the thrill of sexual freedom and the trauma of AIDS in the Post-Stonewall era.

Victor Regina is the fictionalized hero who is partially based on Picano’s experience in TV and film per his author’s note. It’s 1977, and Victor’s just been launched into celebrity through the success of his straight romance novel that’s flying off the bookstore shelves. Now a film company wants to buy the rights and hire him to adapt the story for a TV movie of the week. It’s the ’70s, so of course they’re offering to fly him out to Los Angeles from New York City and set him up at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Thus begins Victor’s love affair with “El Lay.” He’s dazzled by the lifestyle of chauffeured sedans, rubbing elbows with movie stars, exclusive restaurants, and the risqué bars and bathhouses filled with gorgeous, horny men. Victor is a guy in his late twenties who has already cultivated a strong sense of self-importance, so he’s well-assured this is the world where he belongs. From the jump, he’s outsmarting the production team, impressing bigger fish in the Hollywood pond over comp’d dinners, and earning propositions from all the hottest men wherever he goes.

Victor is well-drawn as a queer man of a certain era who peppers conversation with witty French expressions and sexual innuendo aplenty while gabbing with his gay male friends. One isn’t especially enchanted to root for him at the outset when everything comes so easy to him. But what moves the dialogue-heavy story along is Picano’s breezy, clever writing and eventually some humanizing events in Victor’s life.

The book is subtitled A Hollywood Novel in Three Acts, and structured around Victor’s three attempts to bring one of his bestsellers to the big screen across three decades. It’s an enjoyably complex mammoth of a story that achieves quite a lot, from commentary on the deep-rooted obstacles to creative freedom in the film industry to an honest portrayal of gay life for the privileged set both pre-AIDS and at the height of the epidemic.

While the title relates to the title of Victor’s unproduceable romance novel, Justify My Sins, doesn’t quite gel or perhaps gets lost a bit in long passages of voyeuristic Hollywood anecdotes. While Victor’s smarminess annoys, there’s nothing sinful about his life choices nor is it a story of a torturous journey to self-acceptance. Victor’s unrepentant attitude toward his sexual escapades is one of his better qualities, and though he’s hardly a warm and fuzzy guy, he shows himself as a caring partner to his one true love who dies from AIDS, and later, most movingly, as a sturdy pal to a lifelong friend whose partner is dying. If his high opinion of himself counts as a fault, Victor redeems himself through loyalty and writing stories that are true to who he is when his platform allows him to do so. Given what’s at stake for him to live his life openly gay, one can’t find any sins to justify.

It’s difficult to not draw comparisons between Justify My Sins and the author’s celebrated Like People in History. Both works are sprawling epics that move from New York City, Los Angeles, and Fire Island with AIDS figuring in as a turning point.

Readers who enjoyed Like People in History are likely to adore Picano’s latest book, which approaches gay life in the 70s, 80s, and 90s with honesty and heart. It doesn’t hit the same emotional high notes, dragged down a bit to a lower register in favor of sexual exploits and celebrity exposé. But it still stands as good reading from a trusty historian of bicoastal gay life.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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