Acres of Perhaps: Stories and Episodes – Will Ludwigsen (Lethe Press)

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Although the books I review are mostly queer, occasionally I’ll publish a review of something that’s only tangentially queer or not queer at all. But as this space is dedicated to queer lit, any deviation has to be really worthwhile, and Will Ludwigsen’s Acres of Perhaps: Stories and Episodes fills that bill.

Ludwigsen’s imagination is incredibly fertile, and he is at his best when taking well-known events, situations, or people and warping them out of orbit. The title story is a perfect example. The tale of David Findley, chief writer of a fictional Sixties horror anthology television series called “Acres of Perhaps,” proves a strong start to Ludwigsen’s collection. This aspirational “Twilight Zone” has become a cult classic, studied in universities, and generally revered by rabid fans. But auteur Findley has a secret life, including a wife and in-laws, which catches up to him and snatches him back from life as a writer in L.A. I don’t want to present any spoilers, but this story of alternate lives and parallel time lines captivates with its elegance and poetry.

The “Acres of Perhaps” TV show also appears between stories in the form of episode synopses, and though the book is only five stories long, each one of them packs an incredible punch. “The Zodiac Walks on the Moon” reimagines that serial killer’s correspondence to startling effect, but the next three stories are the longest and the ones which have lingered longest in my memory.

“The Leaning Lincoln” starts off as if it’s going to be a talisman story about an object that causes harm to anyone possessing it, but it becomes much more than that as it refocuses from the boy possessing the poorly-made Lincoln figurine to the fate of the figurine’s maker and how the boy’s father (whose evil only matches that of my own father) induces him to commit a horrible crime. This one made me shut down my Kindle after I was finished and do a lot of thinking and staring out the window. “Poe at Gettysburg” is a fascinating bit of revisited history featuring Edgar Usher Poe as President of these United States dedicating the cemetery at Gettysburg with that famous address. But it’s no less fascinating than “Night Fever,” which transplants Charlie Manson and his Family to the disco era, putting Manson in a white cowboy suit and a truck bomb in the middle of Studio 54. Oh, and both Steve Rubell and Truman Capote make appearances as well. That it does so in an epistolary format, comprised of book and magazine excerpts and transcribed interviews, is even more interesting.

Maybe Acres of Perhaps captured me so because it cleaves so closely to my own spheres of interest: Poe, serial killers, Sixties TV, and shitty parenting, but whatever the reason, Ludwigsen’s talent for imagining and creating the perfect vehicles for those flights of fancy is unquestionable. It’s the best non-queer book I’ve read all year long. Highly, highly recommended.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Wake Me When It’s Over (A Charlie Mack Motown Mystery) – Cheryl A. Head (Bywater Books)

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When you come from Detroit, you rarely see your hometown portrayed in a book–and when you do, it’s usually negative. For all its problems, which are legion, it’s still great to read something that touches landmarks you grew up with and doesn’t either deride or negate them. So, I was inclined to like Cheryl Head’s second Charlie Mack Motown Mystery, Wake Me When It’s Over before it really got started. Once it did, I was totally hooked.

Charlene “Charlie” Mack and her team of private investigators are hired by a consortium of auto dealers to protect the Detroit Auto Show from a possible terrorist attack on Cobo Hall. Is the threat coming from outside via the Chinese car manufacturers entered in the show, or is it masterminded by the security director himself, Geoff Heinrich? Mack’s friends at Homeland Security might know, but they aren’t in the mood for talking. So, what better reason to send in Mack’s girlfriend, Mandy, to do a little personal reconnaissance of Heinrich? But even she doesn’t know where the bombs are planted. Or who’s planting them.

In the course of this book, you will find out more about the structure and layout of Cobo Hall than you ever wanted to know. Sometimes, I felt as if I was reading all the whaling parts of Moby Dick in a row. Most of the info, however, gets used and what doesn’t makes other pieces of the narrative clear, especially when the investigative team starts trying to find the aforementioned bombs. Head includes a lot of details, but careful attention to their placement will make the climax even more rewarding.

And she has a great villain in Geoff Heinrich. Snooty and smarmy, he’s the kind of lug you love to hate. However, risking a bit of a spoiler, Heinrich isn’t the most detestable character here. That accolade would belong to Bernard Dudiyn, the despicable technician for the plan. And Head delights in portraying his least attractive characteristics most vividly. Lest you think everything is moving vans and Birkenstocks in LesbianLand, Head also brings a terrific tension to the Mack’s relationship with Mandy. Mack is newly out, and not particularly comfortable with their relationship being public. It might be the racial difference or even a touch of internalized homophobia, but whatever the origin of the difficulty is, it provides Head with some interesting territory to cover when she’s not working the mystery.

Wake Me When It’s Over is a nice, tight thriller–perhaps a bit slow to start, but very rewarding once it takes off. The dialogue crackles, the plot slides, and by the time the first third is finished, it’s running like a well-oiled Caddy. So, get a copy, climb in, and turn ‘er over.

See you on Woodward Ave.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Lurid Sea – Tom Cardamone (Bold Strokes Books)

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Cardamone’s latest novel is nothing less than a poetic tour de force of that most wanton, inebriating and ecstatic of the gay arts – cocksucking. But that isn’t to say it’s simply an erotic romp. To the contrary, The Lurid Sea, like all of Cardamone’s superlative erotica, offers sustenance – dare I say satiation? – for those in search as well of the literary, the thought-provoking, the topical and the timeless.

In fact, there’s a lot of time travel in this tale. Our protagonist, the “godling” Nerites, a bastard son of Neptune and a human mother, discovers his enthusiasm for the male anatomy – and more specifically its genitalia – as a precocious youngster, courtesy of his libidinous older brother, Obisidio, himself the spawn of god and human – only this time from his mother’s torrid rendezvous with Pluto, god of the underworld. This is a Roman tale, so there’s no need to be squeamish about incest, let alone bastardry or homosexuality – in fact, Nerites doesn’t just satisfy his brother, but his father Neptune, who he unknowingly chances upon in the bowels of some bathhouse. Butch Daddy doesn’t take lightly to his son’s predilection – he apparently thinks it below a god to worship at the root of creation – and subsequently curses his bastard son to henceforth wander through the watery ocean of time.

But before he does, Nerites perfects his skills at fellatio with Obsidio, who like death is bold and insatiable – he’s also beautiful, dark and well-hung. Their incestuous relationship begins in a graveyard – in another boy’s grave actually! But that’s not to say that Cardamone’s erotica is comic, because it’s too smart for that, suffused as it is with a rapier wit and a philosophical humor about the human condition that lifts it to a level far above any clownishness or cheap gags. There’s a kind of knowing grin that can only be described as Roman (“My lips felt bruised. I swallowed. This night would try my strength, my soul, and definitely my lower jaw,” and “I caught him checking the time on his phone while fucking my face”), reminding us all that we are no different than Nerites in our heart of hearts, each of us a hopeless supplicant at the altar of Priapus, begging for more, or failing that, simply taking it.

Cardamone is adept at describing the decadence of Rome which he illustrates with such a knowing colloquiality that it’s hard not to wonder if he may have once lived during those times as a member of a patrician Roman family – or perhaps he is the time-traveling Nerites himself! Because there is an uncanny blitheness to his description of Rome and all things Roman that is both delightful, “queered” and deeply satisfying:  “At the Baths of Caracalla, while my friend and I were both getting our skin scraped and oiled by masseuses,” and later “the panting slaves gladly set the palanquin down,” so Netrites could have a go with the cruising “Praetorian Guards, off duty and drunk.” He did the same in the wondrous stories in his collection Night Sweats, among which are standouts from the time of antiquity – the memorable “Blue Seaweed” and “The Love of the Emperor Is Divine,” to name just two of my favorites.

Perhaps the book’s Postscript offers an answer to my suspicions about his past lives. It’s a wonder in itself, describing his discovery of and fascination with the ancient world and his wide reading on the subject. In fact, I jotted down several titles as it’s a useful and comprehensive listing of some of the finest classics of the era, including those of Tacitus and Virgil, as well as more modern books that follow in that tradition, including Michael Rumaker’s A Day and Night at the Baths, Rechy’s City of Night, Delaney’s Hogg, and of course Boyd McDonald’s series of books (The Lurid Sea is dedicated to him), an invaluable and vast collection of “real homosexual stories,” arguably the most joyful compendium of candid and unbridled homosexual joy our modern culture has produced – rivaling the ancients really. You’ll also learn here about Cardamone’s own well-regarded tome, The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered, a collection of essays on out-of-print gay books, which sadly include some of our best literature, and certainly much of our boldest.

But I digress, and so in the spirit of The Lurid Sea, let’s get back to cocksucking! Which Nerites does again and again as he travels, “leaping continents like stones that bridge the stream of time,” from place to place and epoch to epoch, highlighting his favorite haunts: the aforementioned Japanese sauna, the infamous Continental Baths from the golden age of homosexual excess, and even surreal locales like a sunken ship full of ghostly sailors, or bathhouses with libraries, betraying Cardamone’s love of books and his eroticization of same. And it’s not just a grand tour of the bathhouses of history, but as well a grand tour of male beauty. Cardamone’s protagonist does not suffer from that all too human foible of ‘a type’. No, he likes them all, from spindly little twinks who whimper as they spackle your throat to furry husky gingers who kick you across the floor after giving you their nut. There’s even a sweet little old Japanese man who Netrites had blown decades before (our “godling” doesn’t age). He once again couples with the man, giving him the opportunity “to link again with his younger self, a wormy ouroboros of timeless semen.” They then spend the night together on “a thin tatami mat.” Cardamone again and again lyrically evokes this poignant brotherhood of homosexuals, a theme that is sadly less and less explored or expressed in gay literature nowadays.

The poetry of this work is superlative – how not to savor lines like these: “orgasms like rare albino birds coaxed toward initial flight,” and “his penis … like a dull ruby red carp lounging in the surf, puckered slit agasp,” or just as good: “the plump undercarriage of a heavy cock.” And while visiting that favorite Japanese bathhouse where he slept with the octogenarian: “Wishing the strands that dripped from my chin and ear would actually take root in the ground, grow and solidify, until I was unmoving, not a statue but a fountain that flowed in reverse, fed by all the men of Japan.” In fact, we might need to add Cardamone’s The Lurid Sea to his own list of ageless and incomparable erotica. He spares nothing in celebrating the great gay art, the holiest and most sacred of the gay libido – the supplication, generosity and utter union of the cocksucker and his paramour’s cock.

But lest you think it’s all just a romp, the fate of Obsidio’s quarries adds a dark drama to the festivities. As a son of Pluto, we soon learn that Obsidio’s sperm is fatal – dark, like “masticated, rotting grapes,” – killing mortals, and only sparing Nerites because he’s half-god and immune. And so the specter of AIDS arrives in the story, with vivid descriptions of dessicated bathhouses, “scenes of cruel murder and obscene castastrophe…black semen seeping out of cold cavities.” Realizing his brother has followed him across time, Nerites is faced with an epic choice: become Obsidio’s wanton slut slave, thus containing his lust, or by not doing so, allow his brother’s libido to continue to destroy countless millions. Nerites as PREP? Cardamone could have gone there! I’m not going to tell you how he resolves the issue, as I’ve revealed enough spoilers for one review, but I will say love triumphs.

I will also say that there is no reconciliation with the lost father, which I was hoping for, but there is the empowering queer consciousness of the spurned son as Nerites expostulates so eloquently: “I grovel like a god. All that I give, I give without any thought toward compensation. I give with the kindness that begets worlds and moons, stars even.” Cardamone is nothing if not proudly queer, so this not really a demerit to the story. If the book has any other drawbacks, it would be in that I wanted Nerites to reconnect with his boyhood bathhouse pal, Publius, and of course, that the book isn’t a few hundred pages longer. I’m hoping for a sequel, and beyond that – because I think Cardamone such a fine writer – an attempt at the great American novel as he is a scribe who deserves a wider readership and the recognition of a true master.

For now, we’ll have to settle for being driven to our knees by this fine storyteller.

Reviewed by Trebor Healey

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Left, Gay & Green: A Writer’s Life – Allen Young (CreateSpace)

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There have been so many books about LGBT lives cut short, and promising, even flourishing, careers upended by AIDS and other tragic circumstances that when a book like this comes along, it’s kind of a cause for celebration. Here is a life from before birth to the author’s late-70’s. It is a good-looking, apparently healthy, active (he’s in a pool or pond), smiling senior pictured on the cover. Inside are batches of B&W photos going back to the early 1940’s, of families, farms, students in groups, young visitors in foreign lands, etc. This is a volume I would recommend to any millennial wondering where the past she can look to is and searching for a gay person she can admire. Because both are here.

Good luck and connections have to be allied to intelligence, ability, and ambition for one to become successful in life. Young had all of it. His background couldn’t have been more humble—his parents were chicken farmers in the Catskills in rural New York State. His early scholarship got him into the Little Red Schoolhouse, a bastion of communism in the 1950’s. Yet he ended up in an Ivy League college, and his abilities and his interest in Latin America at Columbia University slid him into several graduate programs in the U.S. and abroad leading to important work–appointments in Brazil, and even reporting on the newly communist Cuba. Young describes all the ins and outs of ideological shifts vs. political constancy he both underwent and witnessed in that troubled time, as well as the personal connections he made and the work he eventually got as a journalist in Washington, D.C. It could be said to be a meteoric rise.

Slowly it all shifted for Allen as it did for so many of us. Because even before the Stonewall Riot of 1969, he was grappling with not being heterosexual and that amazing protest brought it all to a head for him, as it did for so many others. Young joined the instantly formed Gay Liberation Front, which he accurately characterized as the “favorite hang-out of the freest of the gay people—those most likely to be labeled fag or drag queen —.” He never regretted it. The GLF was succeeded by the Gay Activist Alliance which had one focus, the abolition of all anti-gay legislation, which eventually succeeded. Within a few years, he and another member of that group, literature scholar Karla Jay, were putting together anthologies collecting the work of LGB authors who’d already written on a variety of subjects. Those books haven’t really been surpassed in their Gay Lib credentials, or in their range. Out of the Closet: Voices of Gay Liberation and After You’re Out became drugstore rack paperbacks that appeared all over the U.S. ensuring their influence for a  generation. Their Lavender Culture followed and each has since published a half dozen books.

While all that was happening, another Sixties movement attracted Young: the commune. Starting in various urban communes—and believe me there were plenty in Manhattan and Boston alone—he and several friends ended up purchasing a large piece of property in central Massachusetts. In order to remain there and continue building what eventually became Butterworth Farm, they had to find local work. Some became realtors in formerly abandoned New England mill towns, and then even politicians in those towns. The visually brilliant Carl Miller became a fabric designer who quickly rose to the top of his field. Young became a reporter for the local paper, The Althol Daily News, and when that work slowed down, he became the publicity arm of the area hospital. Reading about these men and other farms and communes is like reading another entire volume.

More recently, the land of which he is a co-guardian, as well as the lands around those acres have become a prime focus of Young’s activism. The Quabbin Reservoir and its surrounding wetlands have become a crucial locus of his and other ecologists’ concerns. Equally so, is retaining the established nineteenth century character of the mostly rural villages and towns in that area. Attempts by various industrial-commercial complexes to invade and alter that landscape have been staunchly resisted, but threats continue.

His is a full life, including friends, family, work relationships, and a long-time partnership. I met Allen Young at an early Gay Pride March in New York, I’ve stayed at his wonderful “Octagon House” at the farm, swam in those ponds, and pools, hiked those same hills, and shared in some of his great losses and in his successes. Even so, reading this book, I learned so much I didn’t know about his roots, his youth, and those around him, and even the times we shared. Obviously a “reporter” covering so much space in time and place can’t go as deeply as someone writing a more focused text. But there will always be a place on my bookshelf for Left, Gay & Green and I hope on yours too.

Reviewed by Felice Picano

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Now I’m Here – Jim Provenzano (Beautiful Dreamer Press)

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I’ve always marveled at the contradiction of hundred of thousands of mostly straight sports fans stomping their feet and clapping to “We Will Rock You” as done by Queen, probably the gayest rock band in history with the gayest front man ever. Something about that just tickles me–until they slop beer down the back of my neck. But whatever chord Queen struck, it resonates to this day with both fans and authors. In his newest novel for Beautiful Dreamer Press, Now I’m Here, Jim Provenzano uses his knowledge as a fan and his skill as an author to tell the story of two small-town Ohio boys.

Joshua Lee Evans had a musical gift from the beginning, and was fortunate enough to have parents who encouraged him to use those talents. David Koenig lived on a pumpkin farm and had a hateful, alcoholic father whose wife left him because of his temper and bad habits. It was love at first fight. But the maturation of those feelings was a long road, punctuated by music lessons and farm work. When it finally came together, however, the boys knew what magic it was. A stupid school streaking stunt (popular during the mid-Seventies, when this takes place) puts David in a “rehabilitation” camp for wayward youth courtesy of his father as Joshua leaves town for the big time after graduation, a cover version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in his back pocket. They will come together again, rest assured, but even reunions are fraught with frailty in this sweeping, epic romance.

This story will confound your expectations. If this were a standard M/M book, Joshua would be a tremendous success. But he’s sent back to Serene, OH with his tail between his legs, having not lived up to his promise in Los Angeles. David fares better with life on the farm, but it all seems hollow after Joshua. You keep waiting for their reunion, and you’re giddy with relief when it happens–as it would in M/M. But Provenzano has one last slap in the face for you, which I won’t reveal since I’d rather not indulge in spoilers. If you’re looking for a HEA, however, forget it. And that’s fine with me. Life does not always have happy endings, and sometimes we have to work to find meaning when our characters are given a less-than-optimal finish.

All this would mean nothing in the hands of a lesser writer, but Provenzano has honed his craft and takes you on this dizzying ride with the able assurance of a pro. His rendering of the mid-Seventies is deadly accurate (and I should know, I was there too) and will bring a smile of remembrance to your face if you were coming of age then. He never missteps or falls short of the mark emotionally, either. The characters are all organic, built and embroidered on with well-chosen detail, and this never once feels false or contrived as many romances do.

So, even if you’re not exactly a Queen fan (and why not, I wonder?), you’ll enjoy this supremely well-plotted and populated romance. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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The Monkey Cages – Casey Charles (Lethe Press)

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Sixteen-year-old Tommy Cadigan is caught in the throes of desire—not for his girlfriend Pam, but rather for Kurt McKellar, the linebacker of his high school football team, as it turns out. With no one to confide in but his best friend Freddie Udall—an effete bookworm, who is even more picked on than Tommy—he sneaks out one evening to the Julia Davis Park in downtown Boise, Idaho, to the “Monkey Cages,” a pathetic “zoo” that serves as a cruising spot, especially for older men trying to pick up teenage boys. And it is there that Tommy runs into (literally) his best friend’s father, an elder in the local Mormon church and pillar of the community.

If that were not enough, into this maelstrom of adolescent hormones, unexpected knowledge, and moral complexity enters Tommy’s football coach and history teacher Martin Williams, a young, hot, twentysomething Korean War veteran, recently discharged from the military on a “blue ticket” for being a homosexual.  Tommy soon becomes infatuated with Coach Williams, and initiates a liaison that Coach Williams resists at first, but to which he inevitably succumbs.  Unfortunately for them both the 1950s “Pink Scare” has reached the American heartland, and they both become enmeshed in a scandal that soon overwhelms Boise.

Casey Charles’ The Monkey Cages takes us to this earlier, more “innocent” time.  Set during the Boise homosexuality scandal of 1955 (which made the cover of Time magazine, as noted by Charles), The Monkey Cages is only part fictionalized oral history; the greater parts are coming out story, romance, and courtroom drama.  Actual historical figures from the scandal make cameos, or are referenced to (if Wikipedia is to be trusted), but the main narrative focuses upon Tommy and Coach Williams.  Given the time period, it is almost a foregone conclusion that the story will not end well for the principal characters:  Tommy escapes relatively unscathed (as the obvious victim in this scenario, despite his clear agency), but Coach Williams suffers serious consequences, despite (perhaps because of) Tommy’s impassioned plea in court that their love is among the best things that has ever happened to him.

And, to be honest, this lies at the crux of my own ambivalence with this novel:  beautifully written, a gripping story with a sympathetic, attractive protagonist—who is engaged in a romantic relationship with an underage teenager, who moreover is his student.  Yes, the age difference is not that great between them (just a few years), yes, they were caught in the momentum of the larger witch hunt, yes, times were so much different then, with so many men forced to live closeted lives, if only they could have lived more honestly….but this essential fact remains, and I for one cannot simply elide over it.

To Charles’ credit, both of his protagonists at least are aware of the ethical quicksand they are standing on, however much they may disagree with the moral stance taken against them.  And Coach Williams, having already lived through a military court marshal, knows full well the ramifications of another court case.  Despite this knowledge, both choose to be honest about their relationship.  Of course, Tommy’s relationship to Coach Williams encapsules the major tension exposed by the scandal:  on the one hand, homosexuality was perceived as a mental illness needing treatment; on the other hand it was a criminal act leading to juvenile delinquency (with older homosexuals preying on younger, more vulnerable boys) and therefore must be punished.

Despite my reservations concerning this novel, there is no doubt that the “Pink Scare” ruined the lives and reputations of many men, even those who engaged in sexual acts with consenting adults; and that there is always a high price to be paid for honesty.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Of Echoes Born – ‘Nathan Burgoine (Bold Strokes Books)

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It’s no surprise given the title of ‘Nathan Burgoine’s new collection that the twelve stories herein are built on echoes. Colors, sounds, emotions, and characters reverberate both within each story and between them. Supporting characters from one story take center stage in another and get referred to in passing in a third. Readers familiar with Burgoine’s other works will see echoes of those in here as well. The theme is present even in the collection’s structure: half of the stories presented are reprints – echoes of the anthologies they originally appeared in – given new light by the way they’re now presented in conjunction with the six stories that are brand-new.

Many of the stories, but not all, have a romantic element, something Burgoine is well-known for. Like his other work, the romance is sometimes meet-cute, sometimes awkward, and occasionally steamy. Sometimes it’s unrequited or misunderstood. These encounters made me smile and feel for a moment like all could be right with the world. But Burgoine doesn’t shy away from the truth that even in our current “it’s much better” climate, there’s a danger to being gay in public. A memorial mural is defaced at the start of one story; at least one main character has been the victim of a violent gay-bashing; another is subject to the disgust of, and eventually disowning by, his parents. Realistically, not all of the characters’ struggles come from outside the community: the specters of heart disease, AIDS, Alzheimer’s, and death from natural causes rear their heads as well. The characters always find a way to work through or rise above the negative, but not without effort and tears.  Even in the stories’ darker moments, there’s always a glimmer of hope, a way to move on. And every story includes at least a moment, if not more, of genuine comedy to break the tension. Romance, drama, comedy: Burgoine’s stories echo real life in all the right ways.

The Village, Burgoine’s fictional gay business/residential district, is as much a character as the men and women who populate or visit it. Businesses like Bittersweets (the coffee shop) and NiceTeas (the tea and sandwich shop) are referenced repeatedly, and just enough description is given that an enterprising reader with certain skills could probably create a map of the area after a careful reread or two. The Village is a place of subtle magic, magic some characters are aware of and others don’t seem to notice. It seems like one of the prerequisites to owning a business in the Village is not only to be LGBTQ+, but also to have a special ability or magic that enables you to look out for or provide support/solace to, your neighbors, co-workers, and customers. And unlike much urban fantasy, the magic here is wielded not to save the world but rather to change it for the better, one person (or ghost or building) at a time. When the story hangs on magic being used to save a person’s life or avert some other bad outcome, the stakes are always highly personal.

A short story collection that borders on being a mosaic novel, Of Echoes Born is a great entry point into ‘Nathan Burgoine’s work: full of heart and raw emotion, bringing the “it’s a small world” interconnectedness of real life into a vibrant fictional setting I hope we see more of in the future.

Reviewed by Anthony R. Cardno

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