Foreign Affairs: Male Tales of Lust and Love – Daniel M. Jaffe (Rattling Good Yarns Press)

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Daniel M. Jaffe’s latest—a collection entitled Foreign Affairs: Male Tales of Lust & Love—might lead one to believe that he has written a collection entirely of erotica (especially with that provocative cover illustration!). And while I must disabuse you of that notion (yes, some of the stories are titillating, but most are not), I strongly urge you not to pass this collection by.

Jaffe has already written two novels (The Limits of Pleasure, Yeled Tov), a novel-in-stories (The Genealogy of Understanding), and a prior collection of short stories (Jewish Gentle and Other Stories of Gay-Jewish Living). His novels deal with the intersection of Gay and Jewish identities, and these themes reappear throughout his short stories. The dozen stories in his latest collection all feature a male protagonist, who is American, and they all occur abroad; those, however, are the only common traits shared by all twelve stories. Many of the protagonists are Gay, but a couple are not; some are Jewish, but again, not all are. All of them, regardless of their sexual orientation or ethnicity, are searching for something: usually it is to fulfill desire (illicit or not), but some seek knowledge, or to make peace with the past (in some cases entire centuries of the past), or even redemption (in one case, quite literally). The “Affairs” in the title is meant in all sense of the word.

I realize now that the above is not entirely true: all of the stories are filled with the colors, scents, and flavors of the places where they are set. In addition to each one serving up a sensual feast, these stories are filled with the intimate details of a traveler who has navigated these landmarks, viewed these artworks, and visited these neighborhoods. (Spoiler alert: in his Afterword, Jaffe recounts how each story was inspired by his travels to the places in question.) It sounds cliché, but reading these stories feels like being in Dublin, Mexico City, Seville, Munich; and I suspect that many quarantine-weary readers will enjoy the escape.

Always before, when I review a collection or anthology, I end up focusing on a couple of stories that either stood out, for whatever reason, or appealed to me personally (usually because of some fantastical element). After reading this collection, I have to confess that I enjoyed reading all of the stories herein, even the ones that were horror (“In the Colony,” “The Return,” “Walpurgisnacht”) or lacked a fantastical element (“Innocence Abroad,” “The Trickster,” “El Bochorno”). Whatever your pleasure—be it erotic delight, absurdist humor, a bit of otherworldly magic, or simply the vicarious thrill of the armchair traveler—I can guarantee that you will find something to enjoy in this travelogue; like as not, several somethings.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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The Man from Milwaukee – Rick R. Reed (NineStar Press)

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Rick Reed always looks in directions others don’t, finding inspiration and possibilities in territory untraveled by other writers. In this case, he twists a sort-of romance around a Jeffrey Dahmer obsession and comes up with a short, sharp, shock of a thriller that you can probably finish in an evening if you don’t stop to snack too much.

Emory Hughes is under a lot of stress. He’s the sole support of his sick mother and his uncaring sister, and the pressure is starting to show. Sensing a kindred spirit, he becomes fascinated with the Dahmer case and even ends up corresponding with the killer. Those letters are the highlight of his day, but he also finds some relief in a new relationship with Tyler Kay. When his mother dies, his sister leaves and so does Tyler. All Emory has left is Dahmer and the letters. Or does he?

No matter what genre he’s writing in, Reed never fails to entertain. Here, he builds up a nice sense of dread with the requisite shocks here and there to keep you interested. Emory is proper creepy, especially when his mother dies and he undergoes his transformation from undisciplined slob to a lean, mean, wannabe killing machine. Tyler is also an interesting character, all the more so because he sees Emory’s fascination with Dahmer, yet he continues to stay in contact with him. Emory’s sister also shines as a supporting character, making a solid transition from uncaring to life-saving.

There is, however, one plot point not fully resolved. I can’t be too detailed as it’s a spoiler, and it certainly doesn’t damage a finely told tale all that much, but the omission of its resolution did leave me wondering when all was said and done. I don’t know if it was left open for a possible sequel or if Reed’s editor was just asleep at the switch, but as I said, it doesn’t harm the narrative. Kudos to the art department as well for coming up with a nicely evocative cover.

So, Rick R. Reed’s latest, The Man from Milwaukee, is a fast-paced thriller from a sure hand at his craft. It’s a nice change of pace from the horrors of the daily headlines.

JW

© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Never Turn Your Back on the Tide – Kergan Edwards-Stout (Circumspect Press)

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The subtitle of this book is Or, How I Married a Lying, Psychopathic Wannabe-Murderer and Kinda Lived to Tell. Heady stuff, that. On the other hand, how many of you out there have glimpsed some psychopathology up close and personal. Raise your hands. See?  It sort of goes with the queer territory, or at least it used to. I haven’t been a gayling for a number of years, but I can’t imagine things have gotten substantially different. It’s the commonalities that matter, however, and Kergan Edwards-Stout covers those bases with wit, intelligence, and just a little bit of sarcasm.

Edwards-Stout calls this a fictional memoir, which is to say that the facts are pretty much there, but he relates them as he remembers them. I get it, and it’s a fair distinction for those who need that. I just want a good story, which he more than delivers. The facts are less important than his veracity, and I believe him. Besides, principals who feel wronged can always write their own books.

Still, a whole life can be daunting. To combat that, Edwards-Stout has wisely opted to present his in smallish convo-over-coffee-sized bits that go down remarkably well and can be either savored slowly or gobbled. He hits the usual biographical points of interest–parents and their peccadilloes, childhood trauma, firsts, and lasts, but he also recounts his forays onto the stage and movie set. His amateur acting experiences are by turns sad and hilarious, but always entertaining.

Of course, a major part of the book is the relationship that inspired the title, some details of which remind me of the protagonist, Gabe, in Edwards-Stout’s 2012 book, Songs for the New Depression. Those scars run deep, and it’s no surprise that a presence so perversasive shows up elsewhere. But he never lets that relationship run away with the book, keeping it far more in balance narratively than I’m sure it was when he was living it. It could be tedious, but Edwards-Stout has a keen sense of when to let it go and move on to something else.

Never Turn Your Back on the Tide is an enjoyable portrait of a life still in flux, well-written and thoughtfully presented–a book for those of you who married the psychopath as well as those who didn’t.

JW

© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Songs and Poems – Felice Picano (Cyberwit)

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Felice Picano has written over thirty books, mostly novels, short story collections, memoir, even some plays and screenplays, but Songs and Poems is his first poetry collection since The Deformity Lover and Other Poems (1977). In the promotional page to his collection Picano notes that “it should really be titled Early Songs and Poems and Later Songs and Poems.” Many of the early poems were actually written before those in Deformity Lover; their publication now is due to the generosity of Picano’s friend, Dennis Sanders, who returned copies of “Fragments, 1972” and “On the Morton Street Pier, 1970,” which Picano had feared lost.

Picano indeed does organize his collection into two parts, early and late (i.e., poems that either predate or postdate Deformity Lover), each roughly equal in length, containing eleven and thirteen poems respectively. The earlier poems encompass a variety of forms, from sonnets (“Country-Pop Sonnet”) to odes (“Apples”) to pieces that are almost haikuesque in their brevity (“A Scroll by Mu Chi,” third in “Repaintings.”) The section ends with several longer pieces: selections from “On the Morton Street Pier, A Poem Suite,” “Repaintings” (four distinct poems, each describing a different objet d’art), and ending with “In Memoriam: Wystan Hugh Auden, 1973.” “In Memoriam” is definitely my favorite of this section: a beautiful homage, it describes perfectly the sense of dislocation one feels upon learning of a friend’s death (often under perfectly ordinary, even boring, circumstances), the reminiscing afterward, the refusal to avoid communal rituals of mourning in favor of more personal memorials.

The thirteen poems of the second section follow a similar pattern, beginning with shorter pieces, followed by longer works (“My Mother’s Life,” which is original to this collection, and “Window Elegies”) before ending with one final sonnet (the melancholic “Envoi”). Not surprisingly, the poems in this section are much more reflective, dwelling on such themes as loss, regret, and the inevitable endings (of relationships, of lives) that one encounters later in life. My favorites in this section are the aforementioned “Envoi” (because I cannot resist a good sonnet) and the (ironically?) titled “A Late Aubade.” The latter is part of a long tradition of “dawn songs”–poems about lovers leaving each other at dawn, after spending the night together; except here the lovers meet in the afternoon, perhaps to part at dusk.

This collection is aptly named. Poetry, I feel, should be spoken and heard, not just silently read: while reading these poems, I was struck by their innate lyricism, and thought how easily they could be set to music; in particular, a set of the later poems almost read like country-pop lyrics (“Lifted,” New Orleans Girls,” “Ashes and Ice,” and “Break Down”). Upon reading Picano’s promotional page I learned that, yes, indeed, many of these poems have been set to music: composer Walter Torgensen set some of the earlier poems, which Jackie Curtis sang in her act, and a California inmate from a medium security facility had set many of the later poems to music while incarcerated. These poems, indeed, should be sung and heard.

Picano writes with a clarity that makes reading his poetry a delight: no obtuse language or pretentious wordplay obscure the situations described therein—the reader never has to wonder what’s going on, or if an image is “just” a metaphor for what he’s “really” writing about. Even if you’re a reader whose love of poetry was destroyed by modern education, you will enjoy these poems for their humor, honesty, directness, and keen insight into the human condition.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Find Me When I’m Lost – Cheryl A. Head (Bywater Books)

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Da Mack is back!

Okay, she’s back minus one main character–but the loss is hardly noticeable, as this fifth installment of the popular Charlie Mack Motown Mystery series makes a brilliant substitution. The other elements, however, are all in place and operating like the sleek, well-oiled Detroit machine Head has constructed. Fans won’t be disappointed in Find Me When I’m Lost, and it’s also a dandy place for the newbie to start.

Charlie receives a frantic midnight call from Pamela, her ex-husband Franklin’s current wife. Franklin is missing, but that’s probably because he’s been charged with his brother-in-law’s murder. Of course, Charlie knows he didn’t do it, but she has no idea where he is or how to find him. The police and his father-in-law are convinced of Franklin’s guilt, but Charlie puts the weight of Mack Investigations behind her efforts to uncover the truth, leading to some twists, some turns, and some surprising conclusions.

One surprise here is the departure of Gil Acosta, who (along with Don), was a mainstay of Mack Investigations. Actually, that was foretold at the end of the fourth book. What’s surprising is the promotion of capable, highly organized office manager Judy into an investigative role. She acquits herself well, too, bringing some interesting perspective to the client interviews she does. Her easy banter complements the crew well, and the reader gets the feeling she’ll be settling in for the long haul. And although that’s it for the personnel changes, this book shows a bit more of the relationship between Charlie and Mandy.

And, of course, Head’s local color is tremendous, from the legal student/pole dancer named Cursory Brief to a sumptuous description of the pierogies at Polonia’s in Hamtramck, a delicacy I remember well, especially washed down with a 16 oz. Zywiec porter and a shot of raspberry syrup. But never mind the snacks. Can we talk about how easily this book slips down? It has great pacing and never crowds you up with extraneous detail. If Head mentions it twice, pay attention – it’s gonna show up later. The action sequences move with assurance and authority, and nothing feels forced or inorganic.

In short, Cheryl Head and Bywater Books come up with another winner in the Charlie Mack series. I don’t think they need any prodding for a sixth book, but they should consider themselves prodded.

JW

© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

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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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