Monthly Archives: November 2009

Retail Hell – Freeman Hall (Adams Media)

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

It’s happened to all of us at one time. You’re sitting around the break room at the day job talking with your co-workers about the crazy bosses/customers/patients when suddenly someone remembers you’re a writer. “You should write a book about this place,” you hear. “It’d be hysterical.” Freeman Hall’s Retail Hell is that book. And it’s anything but hysterical – in the sense of humorous, that is.

An aspiring screenwriter, the very gay Hall pays the rent by selling handbags (not purses – a line that he seriously overworks) at an upscale clothing store he calls The Big Fancy. We are introduced to his bosses, his co-workers, his zany customers and even treated to winking glimpses of his screenplays during dreams about his retail experiences. Hall tries hard to be funny, working the Augusten Burroughs/David Sedaris vein so popular these days. But he tries so hard it’s like opening that vein with the jagged lid from a rusty cat food can. This passage is on the back cover of the book:

“I think you left these behind,” I said, handing them to her. This happens all the time when women try to return bags they’ve used. Tampons, lipstick, coins, Tic Tacs, and condoms are the top treasures found.

‘Greasy’ let out a sigh, as if I were the problem. “I was just trying my things in it. I really don’t see what the problem is here. It’s none of your business what I keep in my handbag.”

It is when my commission is at stake! I’m not your Designer Handbag Rental Service! My name is not!

And this is fairly representative of the rest of it – cute character names like Greasy, acid-tongued exchanges over the sales counter and capitalized phrases and exclamation points to make sure you don’t miss the Humor inherent in these Stock Situations!

Having said that, I realize that a big part of Humor is recognition of yourself or others. Perhaps I haven’t worked enough retail to make this funny to me. However, 304 pages of the same smart salesman/hard-working employee vs. stupid customer/idiotic boss scenario is going to tax even the girls in the stockroom, especially with the mean misogynistic streak running through it.

I also realize that another component of Humor is Warmth, and Retail Hell has none. It’s a cold, complaining read that often smacks of an overly long Human Resources complaint by an employee threatening to launch a lawsuit if he has to work through his break One More Time. And if you’re going to use a pop culture figure as a means of describing a character, make sure you spell it right (It’s Edna Turnblad from Hairspray, not Edna Turnblatt). Google is your friend – and as long as you’re online, you might as well shop for handbags there.

Unless you want the salesman to Talk Behind Your Back!

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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The Hour Between by Sebastian Stuart (Alyson Books)

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

It’s the beginning of the 1967 school year, and closeted Arthur McDougal has been kicked out of Manhattan’s prestigious Collegiate School. He is shipped off to Spooner in Connecticut, a somewhat shabby prep school run by Christian Scientists known for its liberal admissions policies for troubled kids.

There Arthur meets Katrina Felt, the daughter of a famous Hollywood diva and an Oscar-winning musical director. Though Arthur is the narrator, he and the other characters orbit Katrina. She is vivacious, charismatic, and talented. She has the ability to charm, if not fascinate, everyone she meets. Her life would seemingly be the envy of everyone if not for her dependence on drugs and alcohol, a problem Arthur earnestly attempts to fix. While the troubled-child-of-the-stars theme is a bit predictable, the author infuses enough life into the details to keep it from being cliché. There are also other intriguing plot threads including a struggle for control of the school, a handsome jock who just might be bi-curious enough to do more than flirt, and a secret Arthur’s upper-crust parents have been unwilling to divulge.

Stuart relies heavily on arch, slick dialog and enough Connecticut Lockjaw voice that you half expect someone to say “Lovey, let’s have Gilligan fan us some more with those palm fronds.” At first, it seemed overdone, but as the characters differentiate themselves and the plot broadens, the effect is pleasantly atmospheric. Arthur’s descriptions are often beautiful or humorously original. (“She wore a hat the size of a pizza.”)

Like so many teen male protagonists, Arthur McDougal has been compared to Holden Caulfield. That’s not quite warranted as Arthur doesn’t have the same level of sharp observations that cut through society’s tendency towards fraudulence. He’s also noticeably more passive than Holden, letting Katrina lead their adventures. On the other hand, Arthur is a very likeable and dynamic character bravely going through the coming out process, having his first sexual experiences, and taking steps to direct his uncertain future while Katrina, the other Spooner students, and the Spooner School itself may have trouble doing the same. This is an engaging, atmospheric book that will appeal to readers that enjoyed Felice Picano’s ability to capture a bygone era. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gavin Atlas

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Conquering Venus by Collin Kelley (Vanilla Heart Publishing)

Set primarily in Paris during a turbulent summer in the mid-1990s, Collin Kelley’s ambitious and entertaining debut novel focuses on the secrets and desires of a quartet of troubled characters. Martin Paige is a twenty-two year-old would-be writer still grieving over the suicide of Peter, his high school boyfriend, while co-chaperoning a group of high school graduates to Europe with Diane Jacobs, a thirty-eight year old divorcee and school teacher Martin met in a Memphis support group. David McLaren, one of the student’s on the trip, is an eighteen year-old jock and the object of Martin’s affections but not yet ready to commit to any one of them or accept his own desires. Into this mix appears Irène Laureux, a sixtysomething agoraphobic Parisian editor, whose balcony overlooks Martin’s hotel room and its accompanying dramas.

Kelley, a well-regarded Southern poet and journalist, employs all of the tourist spots of Paris to flesh out the scenes between his American expatriates — there are drunken confessions and revelatory trips to the Eiffel Tour, Sacre Coeur, the Louvre, and Notre Dame, among other locales, though both Diane and Martin quickly prove they are ill-equipped to be chaperones. Lucky for both of them that the author keeps most of the students invisible and out of the plotline because the author does little to make the adults sympathetic or experienced guides for their young charges. Martin is overly somber and Diane’s wit is often more coarse and sarcastic than comic or illuminating, which may possibly be Kelley’s intent, since he does have some redeeming qualities in store for her at the novel’s conclusion. Kelley is more successful at delineating Irène and her paranoias and struggles as she befriends Martin and gingerly tries to step outside her apartment for the first time in decades. “We’re both trapped in our own way,” she tells Martin one night. “Perhaps it is fate that we met. Maybe we were brought together to help free each other. Somehow.”

Irène is haunted by the unsolved mystery of her husband’s death almost thirty years before. Martin is seeking absolution from his memories of Peter. Diane is trying to free herself of the misery of her marriage. And David is on the verge of becoming a teenage alcoholic, spying on the adults from the hotel’s rooftop. Kelley, however, doesn’t rely on his characters fates to shape his narrative. The writing is crisp and the novel’s pace is a swift and compressed one, with finely detailed dreams, gypsy readings, hospital apparitions, undiscovered journals, and an abundance of metaphors (tattoos, classical statues, and poems). The plot reaches its melodramatic height when his characters survive a terrorist attack in the Paris subway and their paths begin to change. The back story — and mystery of Irène’s husband’s death in the late sixties during a riotous time in Paris’s history — is particularly fascinating and well-researched, though the shift in focus as Irène and Martin turn detective to piece together the unsolved clues makes the remainder of the plot anticlimactic when it returns to David and Diane and the novel’s resolutions.

Kelley has indicated that there might be more in store for his characters — this novel is the first of a projected trilogy — and readers of this first novel will undoubtedly want to read more by the author.

Reviewed by Jameson Currier

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