Monthly Archives: October 2009

The Rest of Our Lives by Dan Stone (Lethe Press)

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When it’s successful, humorous writing looks so effortless that we forget how much effort goes into it. There is a subjective element to humor that makes it very, very difficult to pull off on the page. Is the author as amusing as he thinks he is?

Happily, Dan Stone’s novel The Rest of Our Lives is genuinely funny. Two young male witches, the opposite of each other in many ways, meet and fall in love, only to discover that their love affair is centuries old. They met in previous lifetimes, sometimes as a mixed-sex couple; and their love didn’t always—well, didn’t ever work out.

This premise has a screwball edge to it—it reminds me of the René Clair film I Married a Witch. And as in classic screwball comedy, there is true romance afoot. Maintaining an even, light touch throughout, Stone delivers scenes of steamy love and hand-wringing angst that carry the reader along like a breeze. His narrator, Colm, is especially winning; he has the native wisdom and dicey self-esteem of a protagonist from a Stephen Macaulay novel.

While we are held aloft and lightly tickled by this story, we might contemplate how the author has taken an adage—“opposites attract”—and given it a twist that feels old and new at the same time. Old, because this bit of folk wisdom has existed in stories ever since man first took chisel to stone; and new because these particular opposites have a supernatural twist. They differ, not only in looks and temperament, but in temperature—cold for Colm, hot for Aidan. Part of the fun of the book is seeing how the hot and cold aspects of their magic work for them, and sometimes against them.

Stone gives no hint of a sequel, but there is plenty of room for one. I hope I get to see these characters again…without waiting a lifetime.

Reviewed by Wayne Courtois


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Beantown Cubans – Johnny Diaz (Kensington Books)

I love books that take me to another place, that show me something of someone else’s culture or something new about mine – books that entertain as well as educate me in the customs, language and cuisine that comprise another way of life. Johnny Diaz’s Beantown Cubans is not one of those books. It’s not even close.

Beantown Cubans is the story of Carlos Martin, a Miami transplant who finds himself teaching high school in Boston after suffering the recent loss of his mother. He hooks up with Tomas “Tommy” Perez, another former Miami resident who now writes for a Boston newspaper and together they go to malls, out to bars, stop for lunch, work out at the gym, talk about Tommy’s alcoholic boyfriend Mikey, listen to Gloria Estefan and have coffee at Barnes & Noble. And that’s pretty much it.

But these boys are fiercely proud of their Cuban roots. They must be – they mention them in every single frickin’ chapter, screaming so loudly you can almost hear the upper case letters heralding their CUBAN values, their CUBAN parents, their dark CUBAN good looks, their CUBAN accents and their search for a good CUBAN sandwich. If that wasn’t enough to get the point across, they pepper their speech with Spanish words like “hijo” and “bueno” and “loco” to remind you how CUBAN they are. It’s enough to make you don your slicked-back Ricky Ricardo wig, grab your conga drums and play “Babalu” on the rooftop until you’re devoured by rabid neighborhood squirrels driven into a CUBAN rodent frenzy.

None of this would be so bad except that Diaz’s CUBAN characters are two-dimensional and bland. They are to CUBAN what Taco Bell is to Mexican food. It’s a good thing his chapters, which alternate the two POV characters, are titled either “Tommy” or “Carlos,” because their voices are not distinct enough to tell them apart. Diaz, a pop culture writer for the Boston Globe by trade, falls prey to the journalistic habit of telling too much and not showing enough. Create multi-dimensional characters that your readers can invest in and let them tell the story. Stay out of it as much as you can.

But this formula has worked for Diaz in two other books – Miami Manhunt and Boston Boys Club – and so another Kensington career is made. If someone recommends this to you, be stern. Slap them viciously and delete them from your cell phone.

It’s the CUBAN thing to do.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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A (Brief) Conversation with Sarah Schulman

Interviewed by Jerry Wheeler

Novelist/activist/playwright Sarah Schulman is a woman of few words, but we got her to jot down a few for Out in Print about her latest book and some of her working habits.

Jerry L. Wheeler: What was the catalyst for “Ties That Bind?” Was there a particular incident that sparked your writing it?
Sarah Schulman: Honestly I can’t remember.

JW: You mention both your family and some therapeutic experiences in the book – were those difficult to write since you did not have a fictional persona as cover?
SS: The problem with the five or so pages of personal experience is my fear that some people will then continue to pretend that familial homophobia is a personal problem, when in fact it is a cultural crisis.

JW: One of the book’s main concepts is the intervention of third parties in private relationships. Have you ever been the one to intervene? What was the outcome? And to follow up, has anyone ever intervened with a family member on your behalf?
SS: No one has ever intervened with my family on my behalf. I have intervened on behalf of violated people asking for help many many times in my life. Perhaps daily.

JW: As a professor, you obviously come into contact with a lot of younger people – is the process of coming out getting easier for them than in previous generations or are they confronted with the same problems?
SS: I teach on Staten Island, a throwback borough that really should be part of Texas (as it is in my new novel THE MERE FUTURE). The homophobia is pervasive and gay students’ lives are hell on our campus. Gay students and Muslim students experience constant diminishment in the classroom from their peers.

JW: You clearly have some opinions about how the LGBT culture is treated in the mass media – do you think current programs like “The L Word” or the now-defunct “Will and Grace” hurt us or help us in the long run?
SS: I believe that the L Word has been cancelled.

JW: As the holidays are rapidly approaching, what would be your advice for those members of the LGBT community who will be going “back home” for family gatherings in terms of standing your ground and refusing to be shunned?
SS:I don’t understand your question. My position is that gay people must have a place in their families. Your question implies the opposite.

JW: I always find writers’ creative processes interesting – how do you work? Do you outline or just have a general idea of where the piece is going and let it flow organically?
SS: I never outline.

JW: Do you find writing novels or plays more satisfying, or are they equally so?
SS: I have graphomania, apparently, so any kind of writing is fine.

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Island Song – Alan Chin (Zumaya Boundless)

Buy it Now at Giovanni’s Room or at Amazon through The Dreamwalker Group.

In my lexicon, “beach read” is perjorative, signifying a piece of fluff that requires no work, has little payoff and is devoured by readers who have the attention span of a gnat with ADD. You know – stuff published by Kensington. Occasionally, however, I run across a memorable book that is a delight to read, has a great payoff and fits perfectly in the beach bag. Alan Chin’s “Island Song” is such a beach read.

Writer Garrett Davidson isolates himself in a desolate Hawaiian beach shack to write a cathartic memoir of himself and his late partner, Marc. Enter native boy Songoree, the housekeeper/cook who goes with the shack. And also enter Songoree’s grandfather, a Hawaiian shaman who believes Garrett to be just the man to help him spread his mystic gospel. Songoree and Garrett become an item, much to the chagrin of Songoree’s surfer buddies and the local Christian reverend, who insult paradise with their homophobia. Oh, and there’s a terrific shark attack, too.

Chin handles all these plot elements like a pro, building the love story between Garrett and Songoree slowly, mixing in the memoir and tossing Grandfather and his aphorisms in at just the right time. And then there’s the sense of place … Unlike the last island book I read (see “Kuta Bubbles” by Alan Brayne), this one puts me right on the beach smelling the sea breeze and feeling the sand between my toes. And Chin’s description of Songoree’s cooking is … well, I gained ten pounds in the first three chapters alone.

Of course the ending is happy. I would have felt cheated otherwise, but I don’t consider telling you that spoiling it. The fun here is in the journey and the terrific side trips Chin has chartered, like the aforementioned shark attack, a chilling episode you’re not sure will end well, and a retaliatory bar fight where we do hit back for once. No more mister nice gay – HRC are you listening?

All in all, “Island Song” is a well-written romance with some interesting twists and fully realized characters driving the plot. The only drawback is that you may have to spend some extra treadmill time at the gym after reading about Songoree’s meals. That rice really packs on the pounds.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences – Sarah Schulman (The New Press)

Buy it Now at Giovanni’s Room or at Amazon through The Dreamwalker Group.

My father and I haven’t spoken in about ten years. We never really had a good relationship, but that seemed to change when my mother died. He became more tolerant, more open to change, but old patterns re-emerged after he remarried. Then I came out and met my late partner, which totally changed things. We were allowed at family gatherings, but those events were strained and always made Jim and I feel “less than.” My father eventually forced me to make a choice. It wasn’t him.

I offer this not for sympathy, but as an introduction to my thoughts on Sarah Schulman’s compelling and thought-provoking new book, “Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences.” There are no ties that bind tighter than family bonds, and no one can hurt you as easily or as deeply as your family. Schulman rightly postulates that abusive behavior in the family unit encourages and enables abusive treatment of gay men and women in general society.

Almost every member of the community can attest to the veracity of this position, and our usual reaction is to withdraw, as I did. Although withdrawl alleviates the immediate hurt, it hardly cures the problem. The offending family members “get a pass” without changing their behavior, and we are left out of our natural family unit, forced to create outside support systems and new “families” to whom we are not related except by common circumstance.

Schulman’s solution is simple yet devestatingly complex – third party intervention as societal obligation. We do it for alcoholics and domestic abusers, right? But we’re talking about intervention in the family, that most private and personal of all our building blocks. However, as (I believe) Carl Rogers said, “What is most personal is most universal,” and if we can solve homophobia in that unit, the gains will eventually show in society as a whole.

This intervention, however, is not without risk. You will definitely lose a relationship with your co-worker if you tell him that his treatment of his gay son is disrespectful and not right. But if you don’t tell him, who will? We all know the answer. No one.

Schulman tackles this ambitious subject with clear-headed, jargon-free prose that is as readable as it is sensible. She illustrates her points with very personal examples from within her own family as well as her therapy sessions. And she doesn’t linger on or belabor those points. She makes them and moves on, resulting in a short book whose brevity belies its gravity. It’s an important and original work that deserves to be read by every member of our community – and their families.

As for me and my father, I fear it’s too late and we’re both too old to change our behaviors at this point. Too much water under the bridge, so to speak. But I hope Schulman’s book and its inevitable imitators will encourage intervention in other, more malleable families and damn the consequences – because the only consequence that should concern us is equality.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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A Conversation with Steve Berman

Interviewed by Jerry Wheeler

Living in New Jersey, Los Angeles and New Orleans among other places hasn’t been enough for speculative fiction author and Lethe Press owner Steve Berman. He’s spent many years creating his own worlds, most notably for his acclaimed young adult ghost novel, Vintage, and his Fallen Area series. Add to that nominations for every accolade from the Lambda Literary Award to the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards and you have an extremely talented and knowledgeable author/publisher/lecturer. I got a chance to speak with him for Out in Print recently about his influences, his processes and his plans for the future.

Jerry L. Wheeler: What made you decide to start Lethe Press?
Steve Berman: Back in 2001, I was the Marketing Director for a small religious press (don’t laugh). Print-on-demand technology was just beginning and Lightningsource contacted me. The more I learned, the more I considered how POD might help me with my writing career–at the time I was a bit stalled and thought a self-published short story collection (which became Trysts) might be the way to attract attention. So I founded Lethe Press with the intention of not only releasing my work but also work that had been long forgotten… thus the name.

JLW: What do you like about publishing? What do you get from it that you don’t get from writing?
SB: Well, I really do like to help other writers. So if I can help another’s voice to be heard, I’m pleased. And, well I can release and support the genre I care about the most: queer speculative fiction.

JLW: As an accomplished horror/speculative fiction writer, what scares you?
SB: I’m flattered you consider me “accomplished.” Loneliness scares me. The thought of being stuck in an apartment, old and frail, and not having anyone to call or speak with. Dying alone to me must be the worst death.

JLW: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
SB: In elementary school I used to write and illustrate these horrible spy-spoof stories. The other kids would groan when I told them. Somehow I got a bit better, sold my first story at age 17, and was (foolishly) convinced writing was so easy. Hah!

JLW: What attracted you to speculative fiction over other genres?
SB: My mother adores the old Universal horror filmes and would ask me to watch them with her as a kid, so I’ve grown up loving the fantastical and otherworldly. As a writer, I appreciate the wealth and depth of strange elements and themes in a writer’s arsenal to best express his ideas. Want to write about something forbidden? You can use an apple, made of emerald, that falls from a dead tree. See? Seems easy, right?

JLW: Who are your writing influences?
SB: My influences have changed over time. At the start, I wrote very bad horror stories. I think I read too much Barker and Lovecraft. Then I started reading more magic realism like Jonathan Carroll. And my writing took more of a turn to urban fantasy. Then I started selling young adult fiction and I became a devotee of Kelly Link.

JLW: How did you become interested in young adult fiction?
SB: It was never my original intention to write a young adult novel. But Vintage turned out that way; my best friend Holly, who has always wanted to be a young adult novel informed me that I had ventured into that field. An accident? Perhaps. What I appreciate about teen readers is that they feel so passionate about books. They inhale them, cherish them. When was the last time you went out on a date with a guy who expressed that sentiment (and if you have, let me know if he has a brother…).

JLW: What’s your creative process like? Do you outline or just have an idea and write from there?
SB: A weird idea or situation will strike me hard and fast. I’ll write a few lines or paragraphs down. Take a break. Some days later I’ll flesh out more. Eventually, I’ll strike a wall. That’s because I have not really discovered what sort of story I need to tell. It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re writing the correct story. So I take a few weeks off, but I’m still always turning the story over in my head. Rotisserie style. If I’m lucky, there’s that epiphany and I can go back and finish the tale. I also rely on critique partners a great deal. Holly Black and I have been reading and helping each other’s writing for over a decade. I can also call upon such writers as Jameson Currier, Alex Jeffers, and Will Ludwigsen. It’s not enough to simply send them the story; you need to tear it apart, rip that rotisseried bird to the giblets as it were, to find the oyster and what you need to tell.

JLW: Have you ever had an idea that you can’t seem to write but still won’t go away?
SB: Plenty. But if I told them, they’d get loose and find new Daddies. So I best keep them secret.

JLW: Who do you read these days?
SB: Well, I read a lot of everything. Short gay-themed essays and fiction for Best Gay Stories. Gay fantasy, horror and science fiction for the Wilde Stories series. This year I’m a judge for the Cybil awards (an online award given to the best in young adult fiction). Add the work of friends and I barely have time to read for pleasure.

JLW: Can you ever turn off being a writer and editor, or do you internally edit even when you’re reading for pleasure?
SB: Never. It’s one of the reasons I’m a very slow writer. I’m constantly revising, in my head, on the “page” (screen? monitor?). I have to force myself to write sloppy with some first drafts just so they will gush forth and can be revised later.

JLW: Are there places you won’t go or subjects that are too taboo for you to write about?
SB: Nope. I don’t write many graphic sex scenes these days because they have become tiresome. I wrote a fair amount of erotica for a period, but I quickly discovered what intrigued me the most about the stories was the weird elements I was adding. Soon, the smut diminished as I went odder and odder…

JLW: What can we expect in the future from Lethe Press?
SB: Hopefully many years of good books

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M4M – Rick R. Reed (Amber Quill Press)

Buy it Now at Amazon through The Dreamwalker Group.

I’m always on the side of an artist who steps out and tries something different. That kind of experimentation refreshes both the artist and his audence, whether or not the attempt is totally successful. But in his first go at erotic romance,M4M, horror author Rick R. Reed doesn’t have to worry about his success rate.

M4M is comprised of two novellas previously published in electronic form – “VGL Male Seeks Same” and “NEG UB2” – both featuring Dorito-chomping theatre publicist Ethan Schwartz and his newly-found boyfriend Brian. In the first installment, Ethan snags Brian after a bumpy Internet interlude where he uses a much handsomer pic to sell himself. Craigslist anyone? I wouldn’t be spoiling the read to say it all comes out fine in the end.

It’s the second piece that stands the book on its head. Ethan, not exactly a sexual adventurer, finds himself diagnosed HIV-positive with only one possible way he could have caught the disease – new boyfriend Brian. Or is it? Can Ethan and Brian overcome this breach of trust to continue their relationship or will their new love go out with Monday’s trash? If I told you, that would be the spoiler.

I particularly liked the parallelism between the two novellas, plot-wise (both plots turn on Internet twists) and stylistically. They even start out with the same sentence pattern – “Ethan White was alone.” and “Ethan White was stunned.” with both plots serving to remedy those conditions. And Reed is a powerful writer, creating two multi-faceted characters you’ll be happy to meet.

The tone, however, is different in the second novella. The first is light and breezy, but the second is much darker as befits the subject. Ethan is still the same 1940’s-movie-loving romantic, but his sense of romance has been injured by Brian’s perceived betrayal. This shift in tone is what lifts M4M from standard – albeit well-done – romance fare into a realm where the characters are allowed to grow and change.

M4M isn’t the roller-coaster ride Rick R. Reed fans are used to, but instead turns out to be a refreshing change of pace that shows his versatility and his talent for making us cry as well as scream.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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The Butterfly’s Wing by Martin Foreman (Lethe Press)

Buy it Now at Giovanni’s Room or at Amazon through The Dreamwalker Group.

First published in 1996, The Butterfly’s Wing is an affecting and engaging novel about a relationship between two men, and what happens when an act of terrorism forces them apart. Andy, an officer in a world aid organization, is kidnapped and held hostage in Peru, leaving Tom alone in England, not knowing what is happening to his lover or if he will ever see him again.

The power of this story lies in the two voices that are telling it. Tom, who has been alone on their jointly-owned English smallholding for over a year now, tries to relieve his pain by starting a journal, in the form of a long letter to Andy. This device is wisely chosen by the author, for Tom, who has had a hardscrabble life moving from one waitering job to another, lives an existence that is centered on Andy, and the second-person narrative powerfully conveys his need:

Do you remember everything about me? My hair and the spots of my skin? Can you hear my voice? Do you remember holding me? Where your arm fits into my waist and your hand holds my head? And my nose and mouth in your neck, kissing you? Do you remember all that?

Elsewhere in the world, in a miserable cell where he doesn’t even have enough food or blankets, Andy at least has pen and paper, so he’s writing too. He’s a well educated man and his journal takes a more conventional form, though there is raw emotion there too:

This is hell. This is the hell I have seen others suffer, but I have always escaped. This is the hell of solitude and poverty and illness and pain. This is the hell of torture and famine and death. This is the hell of no hope, no fucking hope.

Perhaps now is the time to mention that reading this novel is no walk in the park. And yet, if that’s a downside to the book, it’s also part of the upside. There is nothing inauthentic in these pages. Martin Foreman has done important work in HIV in the developing world, and his grasp of world politics and economics convincingly informs Andy’s writing and his arguments with his captors. Just as tellingly, every detail of Tom’s life on a struggling farm seems real. To an important degree, this book and these lives have been lived by the author.

Tom and Andy also reflect on their lives as gay men. When Tom came out he was disowned by his family, while Andy met with only grudging acceptance from his parents. Tom and Andy are, in their own ways, amazed by the love they have found for each other. But there is nothing private in their world, and when the media “break” the news that Andy is gay and has a lover waiting for him at home, the new angle to their story has the potential to harm them both. Will Tom’s sexuality gain him ill favor among those who would otherwise help him in his search for Andy? Will Andy’s captors kill or torture him because he is gay?

I will say nothing about the ending of the novel except to note that it has one, and that it is up to each reader to decide whether or not the resolution is satisfactory. But no one will be able to read this book and remain unmoved.

Andy is familiar with the work of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, and invokes those names in his journal. I would add Malcolm Lowry to the short list of fiction writers who have painstakingly explored the intersection of the political and the personal, seeking those profound moments when something as slight as the stir of a butterfly’s wing changes lives on the opposite side of the world. Oh, and add Martin Foreman’s name to the list, also: he has earned it.

Reviewed by Wayne Courtois

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The Haunted Heart and Other Tales – Jameson Currier (Lethe Press)

Buy it Now at Giovanni’s Room or at Amazon through The Dreamwalker Group.

Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, most everyone has a ghost story. Some are scornful, some fully embrace the spirit world and others ride the fence. Jameson Currier has told a bunch of them in his career and he’s finally collected them in one spectral bundle called “The Haunted Heart and Other Tales” from Lethe Press.

What impressed me most about this collection is the wide variety of stories. Currier’s subjects, both human and spirit, are from varied walks of life – and afterlife. His characters are not merely stock players sent to deliver a scare but nicely fleshed out, three-dimensional people. Yes, even the ones who have no flesh.

The universality of these stories also strikes me. It could be a straight couple with kids in the chilling haunted snow-globe story, “The Woman at the Window” or in the breathless action of the crazy-jealous lover shooting “Incident at the Highlands Inn,” but Currier’s gay characters claim these tales, making them ours. Powerful stuff, indeed.

The title story, “The Haunted Heart” is all ours, being about not only AIDS but also about one of those lifelong friendships many of us have that could, at any point, turn a beautiful romance. This story is exceptional for the subject matter as well as being from the point of view of the ghost, a sailor who latches on to many of the central character as he travels from one location to the next.

Other standouts for me include “Wait!” about an encounter with a ghostly boy as well as his live parents, “The Man in the Mirror,” which recently appeared in Icarus (see our very first review for this blog) and “Death in Amsterdam,” whose ending took me back to the last shocking frames of an old Donald Sutherland movie, “Don’t Look Now.”

So, forget the beach reading. Summer’s over and autumn creeps up on us like a shadow in the sunlight. Celebrate it by reading this perfectly chilling collection of tales from one of the modern masters of the genre. And don’t let that squeaky floorboard distract you – there’s no such thing as ghosts, right?


Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Assembly Required – Raymond Luczak (RID Press)

I always enjoy reading stuff by people who walk between worlds. Their viewpoints are usually fresh, their insights truthful and their language informed by both of the spheres in which they travel. With one foot in the Deaf world and another in the hearing, Raymond Luczak is no exception and Assembly Required is his story.

From his beginnings as a butcher’s son in Ironwood, MI to his coming out at the prestigious Gallaudet University in DC, Luczak details childhood memories, university experiences and his love of music, art and literature as well as technology. He also gives us a primer on “How to Meet a Deaf Man,” covering the different way hearing men treat Deaf guys as well as why Deaf men and women are so politicized.

You didn’t know that? Neither did I. I had no idea the Deaf community was so passionate and polarized by American Sign Language (ASL) as well as other internal issues. But even though I learned a great deal from this book, I also found out I have much more to learn.

Luczak’s language is simple but far from simplistic. Rather than over-writing passages about personal heartbreak or the joys of discovering who he is both as a gay man and as a Deaf one, those portions of his life are blissfully under-written. Many memoirists have not learned that less is usually more and exhaustive descriptions of their feelings serves to limit those experiences they seek to describe rather than make them truly universal.

My only complaint about the book is that it’s criminally short at less than 150 pages. It’s also a bit scattered – not that I need a chronologically correct version of Luczak’s life, but a more sequential ordering would have given me a better grounding to understand his struggle.

But don’t let that stop you from experiencing this fine lesson in humility and humanity from someone who sees gay issues from a fresh, unique perspective and can communicate his perspective with powerful common sense in a language we can all understand.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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