A House of Light and Stone – E.J. Runyon (Inspired Quill)

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In 1965 Los Angeles, Defoe “Duffy” Pilar Chavez is a precocious ten year-old and the ugly duckling of her family. She’s skipped two grades, she writes poetry, she tells enchanting fun-filled stories to her little brother as they play. She and her four siblings, by several different fathers, were separated for five years in foster homes, not knowing how the others fared. They are now reunited with their mother who angrily ekes out a subsistence life for them.

Mr. St. John, their social worker, gives the family a gift of Gibran’s The Prophet as a Christmas gift, with a chapter marked as “for” each of the family members. Duffy’s chapter is Self-Knowledge. One day Mama announces that they are moving to a new house. This alarms the children, as a similar announcement signaled the beginning of their fragmented lives in foster homes. Artie, the oldest, gives each of the other kids two dimes for emergency phone calls: “If it’s a trick and we’re going to be picked up for foster homes again, you keep these dimes,” he said. “There’s an extra in case you lose one. If they take these away from you, just find some bottles to sell and hide that dime somewheres they won’t find. No one’s gonna do us like last time.”

With the haunting unfiltered acceptance of a ten year-old seeking to make sense of the world she lives in, Duffy leads the reader into her complex journey, her Quest for self-knowledge. She cobbles together a frighteningly cohesive belief system out of her experience of abuse, religious doctrine, a dawning experience of special affection for other girls, and a self-sacrificing sense of responsibility for her mother’s happiness.

Runyon’s writing is smooth and pitch-perfect, never loses the sense of Duffy’s age or her situation, never shies from the beauty, pain and abuse of it, simultaneously stark and psychologically complex. Duffy narrates her story without rancor as she searches for her place in a dangerous world, accepts the burdens she believes are hers to carry, and attempts to solve the problems she believes are hers to fix.

A House of Light and Stone takes its name from one of Duffy’s poems, a poem she destroys without letting the reader see it. It is a wonderfully told story, and utterly compelling. Not only is the writing outstanding, but the core essence of the story is well worth pondering as it carries its painful realities to a completely satisfying resolution. I urge you to read and savor this exceptional book. You’ll be glad you did.

© 2015 Lloyd A. Meeker

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Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures – Julie Marie Wade (Bywater Books)

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I first became aware of Julie Marie Wade when I read When I Was Straight, published by A Midsummer Night’s Press, which I enjoyed tremendously. This volume, however, apparently preceded it and is being reprinted by Bywater Books, and I’m so happy to be able to give it a bit of a push. Wishbone is an absolutely absorbing memoir full of poetic prose, indelible imagery, and a fractured timeline that makes perfect sense despite its non-linear progression.

Certainly, there are as many ways to recount a life as there are to live it, and none are more wrong or more right than others. Most writers opt for a chronological approach simply because it’s the easiest way to tell the story, involving far less work on their part as well as the part of the reader. The fragments of personality that Wade presents look haphazard at first, but as the book progresses, and we see more and more of them, the pattern becomes clear. It’s like a broken mirror whose pieces have been arranged into a semblance of its former self, regaining its shape the farther back one steps.

If all this sounds like too much effort for a reader to make, it isn’t. The pieces are incredibly creative, with time and character shifts that confuse then dizzy at their verisimilitude once their purpose becomes clear. In “Dreaming in Alpha,” Wade rides the bus with her mother fifteen years before her birth, talking to her about  life, love, and J.D. Salinger, and she meets her grandparents-yet-to-be in “Early Elegies,” dialoguing with a grandfather who died when she was but a child.

But my favorite fragment–the one most fully realized in terms of creativity and relevance to the life in question–is unquestionably “Third Door,” which assumes the aspect of a game show featuring portions of her mother’s (and her) life. Her father is behind Door #1, Door #2 contains a lifelong friend who desperately wanted to be her mother’s husband, and Door #3 reveals her mother and a girlfriend of hers named Lara as they share a sweet kiss watching Marilyn Monroe in “The Misfits” in the balcony of a movie theatre.  Touching, telling, and totally involving.

Indeed, Wade’s mother is never far from the narrative, no matter when or how it’s being told. She’s in “A Life on Land,” contrasting Wade’s love of the water with her own fear of it (which also contains a harrowing, barely-missed gay bashing), “Black Fleece,” which sees the beginning of Wade’s thyroid problem, and “Carapace,” where Wade discovers the concept of death.

The read is short (about 145 pages), but its length belies the punch it packs and the work that it accomplishes. It reminds me very much of Gregg Shapiro’s excellent Lincoln Avenue from last year, though the territories they mine are vastly different. Highly recommended!

© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Dragon Horse War: The Calling – D. Jackson Leigh (Bold Strokes Books)

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I’m still out of breath. I usually have a couple of days to think about a book before I write the review. Due to time constraints this week, however, I didn’t have that luxury and had to finish this one up quickly. Luckily, Dragon Horse War: The Calling is so compelling that I zipped through the last forty or so pages with some time to spare. And I don’t have to think too hard to find praiseworthy elements in D. Jackson Leigh’s first fantasy. Already an accomplished author of many romances, Leigh takes on fantasy and comes up aces.

The Collective, a small governing body, has ruled Earth peacefully for many years, but this time of peace is threatened by an upstart group called The Natural Order and their leader, Cyrus (aka The Prophet), who wishes to supplant The Collective with a religious hierarchy that smacks of evangelical hatred. This threat prompts a Calling from The Collective, bringing First Warrior Jael into the picture. She and her newfound love, First Advocate Alyssa must raise an army of dragon horse warriors to defeat The Natural Order and restore harmony. Can they defeat Cyrus and his followers? Or will the sheer magnitude of their task be too much for them?

Savvy storyteller that she is, Leigh understands that good world-building rests on the cornerstone of character, and she sets up three dandies in Jael, Alyssa, and Cyrus. She does a terrific job of highlighting Jael’s weaknesses as well as her strengths, and turns the First Warrior into an altogether human character who hates the job she must do. Rather than just provide support, Alyssa comes in to her own as a fully-realized character as well. But Leigh’s neatest trick may have been showing the big bad guy, Cyrus, as twisted because of the loss of his family (which we see right up front) rather than some inherent malevolence, making his fall from grace particularly poignant.

I’ve admired Leigh’s prose since her Goldie-winning Every Second Counts, but romances don’t usually come with battle scenes or action sequences, so I approached the first one (trainee warriors bonding with their dragon horses–a particularly tricky process that sometimes ends up in incineration) with some trepidation. I needn’t have worried. It was well-paced, perfectly timed, and even featured a tremendous toasting of a trainee that allows Jael some great character moments at the funeral pyre. And the climax where the warriors take on The Natural Order is even more breathless.

So, even if fantasy isn’t quite your thing, you should give this a try. Leigh’s backdrop is a world you already recognize with some slight differences, and the characters are marvelous. There’s a villain, a love story, and…ah yes, “thar be dragons.”

© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Love Together: Longtime Male Couples on Healthy Intimacy and Communication – Tim Clausen (CreateSpace)

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Ryk and I took a gay cruise a number of years ago, and during the large mainstage show that first night, the emcee took a poll of the audience asking how long the couples on the trip had been together. Several rounds passed before finally one last couple had their hands up. They’d been together over fifty years. The emcee called them onstage and did a short interview, asking them what the secret was for being together for that long. One man leaned down to the microphone and said, “Two words: yes, dear.” The advice for longevity in Tim Clausen’s Love Together isn’t that succinct or that easy, but the flavor is there.

Clausen has gathered twenty-two interviews from couples who have been together from twelve to sixty years. Among others, he’s interviewed a Christian pop-singing duo, a Canadian couple who write and illustrate their own gay erotic comics, two Paris-trained chefs, a Buddhist couple, a Catholic theologian, and the first military couple in America to get married. And he does not shy away from questions concerning sex, intimacy, money, and whether or not the relationship has been or is open.

Clausen’s role as interviewer is to ask questions, and get out of the way as his couples respond. And respond they do, with deep thoughts, blithe assumptions, and heartfelt honesty. Clausen gives these men their forum and stands back as they deliver no holds barred answers to some thoughtful and insightful questions. Clausen does not interpret, roll-up, or summarize their responses which, depending on your viewpoint, is either the book’s chief asset or its biggest flaw.

By giving you the interview alone, Clausen removes himself from the equation and allows each couple to bring themselves to you without that extra added layer of participation, making for some very honest and unvarnished portraiture of exactly what makes these relationships tick and why. To me, this is invaluable because it allows the voice of each couple to come through loud and clear so that when Byron Roberts (of Byron and Dennis) talks about throwing one of his fits, I can hear him doing it, or when Eric Marcoux (of Eric and Eugene) talks about losing a partner of sixty years, I can feel his heart breaking. That’s the writer in me, for nothing interests me more than characters.

That said, I would have enjoyed a postscript from Clausen summarizing what assumptions he has made from interviewing these terribly forthright and brave gentlemen. We get some of that in the introduction, but the clinician in me wanted more at the end.

However, that’s absolutely minor carping from a reviewer. What you need to do is simply dig in and experience these forty-four lives and how they have come together and stayed together for amazing amounts of time. The similarities will become apparent, as will the differences. Make no mistake, this is an important book if for no other reason than the lack of others like it on the market. And it is even more important as it’s largely in the words of the men who live these lives. Highly recommended.

© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Double Exposure – Bridget Birdsall (Sky Pony Press)

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I don’t read YA much, except occasionally for Out In Print. It’s not because I don’t like the genre–several authors such as Jeffrey Ricker, Alex Sanchez, and Leslea Newman usually strike some sparks that I respond to. I just find myself reading other things. However, I’m all about trying something that goes above and beyond the ordinary, so when I received Bridget Birdsall’s Double Exposure, about an intersexed teen basketball star, I was anxious to dive into it. And, with one reservation, I largely enjoyed it.

Alyx Atlas, an intersexed fifteen-year-old bullied out of her hometown in California, moves to Milwaukee with her recently-widowed mother and tries to make a new start of it. At first, all is fine. She makes the girls basketball team and is beginning to put it all together when she runs afoul of fellow player Pepper Pitmani. Pepper discovers Alyx’s secret and decides to go public with it, threatening the playoff chances of the team as well as Alyx’s new life.

The positives in Double Exposure far outweigh the problematic. Birdsall does a terrific job of voicing Alyx, sounding like a fifteen-year-old rather than a thirty-year-old writing a YA book. That alone sells the book for me. Many YA authors lose their credibility instantly because they are unable to achieve this, but Birdsall makes it look easy. That she does so without using slang that immediately dates the book is even more remarkable and ensures a much lengthier shelf life for the novel.

And you certainly can’t fault Birdsall’s command of character. Alyx is complex and three-dimensional, as frustrated with herself and her secret as she is determined to be who she needs to be. She is the glue holding the book together. Her mother is somewhat of a cipher, but her uncle Grizzly turns in a great performance as a biker polar bear. And Birdsall also knows her basketball, weaving that thread all through the book from the first time we see Alyx in Milwaukee.

All those pieces in place, it’s a shock that the major plot complication telegraphs itself from the moment the team becomes eligible for the playoffs (and even before). That it comes as a surprise to any of the characters, including Alyx, undercuts their credibility. And then, nearly as soon as it has been raised, it simply goes away and doesn’t appear to have been a serious obstacle at all. As savvy as Alyx is, she should be preparing her defense for it from the get go. And by eliminating the threat before it really has legs, Birdsall misses some dramatic opportunities that could have made the ending even more worthwhile and heartfelt than it is.

Nevertheless, Double Exposure is well worth your time and certainly recommended for anyone who enjoys well-written, timely YA.

© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Men of the Manor: Erotic Encounters Between Upstairs Lords and Downstairs Lads – Rob Rosen, ed. (Cleis Press)

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Truth in advertising is well served in this Cleis Press anthology of thirteen short stories edited by Rob Rosen — the title pretty much tells you exactly what you’re going to get: Men of the Manor: Erotic Encounters Between Upstairs Lords & Downstairs Lads.

Told from both servant’s and master’s points of view, these stories set in the early twentieth century are primarily an erotic romp through a period that was never exactly as described, but close enough to make them light-hearted fun, and somehow vaguely prophetic of the leveling of class structure brought about by two world wars and the Great Depression.

In fact, the range of treatment in addressing the power differential between upstairs lords and downstairs lads became much more interesting to this reader than the sex scenes, since sex in its graphic detail hasn’t changed all that much for men like us in thousands of years, while notions of equality, power and privilege have undergone drastic evolution.

There’s good variety in the anthology’s story settings, and most of the writing is good, too. Occasionally a plot seemed too thin or loose for the action, but then these are erotic stories first and foremost. While post-Victorian decorum in language occasionally strayed into the jungle of purple prose, it wasn’t often. Still, in one story squeezing a nipple became “pinching the prominent protuberance” which shattered the spell of the story for me.

Some of the story memes were familiar — and essential for the theme of the anthology. The first story, Dale Chase’s The Maze, featured the classic aristocratic man stuck in a loveless marriage, discovering the virile gifts of his insatiable, rough-mannered gardener.

Other stories were surprisingly cold and cynical, and I was intrigued that all but one of these were told from the servant’s point of view. Some characters were merely opportunistic or manipulative, as in Brent Archer’s Seducing the Footman or Salome Wilde’s Booting. The most chilling, however, was Michael Bracken’s tale of a butler’s calculated theft and blackmail, Mutable Memories.

Of the romantic stories, three stood out as exceptional. Xavier Axelson’s short piece Finsloe was the tenderest and sweetest romance. In the back matter, Felice Picano’s piece Folly’s Ditch is described as extracted from a longer work, which makes sense. Although it certainly stands on its own as a story, it implies more untold than told — an almost dream-like tale of a young actor turned prostitute recounting to his unseen and unnamed benefactor how he came to be working in the whorehouse where they met, and from which the benefactor has rescued him. Rob Rosen’s Bohemian Rhapsody features an artist, a magical, romantically wild character who sweeps into an aristocratic household, paints a portrait and disappears, leaving the household changed forever.

Other entries offered unapologetically improbable romps. Of these, Michael Roberts’ Manor Games and J.L. Merrow’s kinky Brass Rags were especially inventive and fun.

So if you enjoy erotica set in Edwardian England and the gilded age in the US, you’ll enjoy this collection of stories about upstairs lords and downstairs lads — and how they negotiate the differences in their, well, positions.

© 2015 Lloyd A. Meeker

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That Door is a Mischief – Alex Jeffers (Lethe Press)

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Writing about supernatural creatures and events has its own peculiar challenges. Beginning writers know that the biggest hurdle is trying to inject humanity into those creatures, and that’s where they almost always go wrong. Humanity cannot be injected into or imposed upon characters; it has to spring organically. The reader has to see it, feel it, and know it. Having read much of Alex Jeffers’s previous work, I knew that wouldn’t be a problem for him. That Door is a Mischief may have one foot planted in Fairyland, but it has a very human heart.

Liam Shea is a fairy–the kind with golden eyes, green blood, dragonfly wings,  and an adverse reaction to iron. Gay? Well, he might be that as well. His dads, now split up, definitely are. Through an episodic series of linked short stories, we follow Liam from childhood to adolescence to what might or might not be death as he finds love and family and walks between fairyland and our world.

The first three installments: “The Wild Fairy,” “The Ordinary Boy,” and “His Dads” lay the foundation by exploring Liam’s origins (a baby who died during birth but was switched out with a fairy changeling) and his difficult adolescence due to any number of differences distinguishing him from his friends. One might assume the book continues to be an interesting exercise into fantasy. With “The Changeling,” however, another far darker dimension opens up. Liam’s fairy puberty results in a type of pon farr, and his sexual awakening turns both polyamorous (he mates with both a male and a female human who have been turned out of the fairy world for some transgressions) and violent as the male dies and his body deposited through the doorway into fairyland.

From here on out, Liam straddles the border between his world and ours. Along the way, he falls in love, marries, divorces and remarries a man who bullied him as a boy, finds himself a pornographer as well as a gardener, takes care of foundlings society has washed up on their doorstep, and becomes a frequent visitor to the other land, which seems to repel him as much as attract him. I tried to pull a paragraph or two from the sections describing these lands but found they required context for their power. That said, Jeffers has a remarkable talent for setting that otherworldly scene. His prose is literary yet accessible and not pedantic.

More importantly, his characters never become caricatures. They never lose their essential human qualities, so they never seem less than universal. And he never loses sight of his characters. In the last installment, “His Husband,” the number of offspring by marriage and/or relationships threatens to overwhelm, but Jeffers reins it back just in time, delivering a finale as dramatic as it is satisfying. That Door is a Mischief is a remarkable read full of magic, wonder, and terrible beauty. Highly recommended.

© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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