Monthly Archives: February 2010

A Field Guide to Deception – Jill Malone (Bywater Books)

Buy it Now at ByWater Books or at Amazon through The Dreamwalker Group.

I love “iceberg” books like this – small and simple on the surface yet massive with complexity beneath the waterline. Malone has crafted a rich, rewarding read full of intriguing characters that somehow never move or act quite as you expect, which makes A Field Guide to Deception quite deceptive indeed.

It’s the story of Claire, who is raising her boy and grieving the death of her aunt, an author of field guides for mushrooms (well, actually Claire wrote them for her – the first deception in the book) and Liv, the carpenter she hires to re-do her aunt’s house. Liv has a tendency to haunt the bars looking for girls to bang, but it’s more out of diversion than actual desire. She is tired of the one-night-stands but doesn’t want the vulnerability of commitment. Of course, they end up together. But there are complications –one of whom is Bailey, Liv’s best friend who is also in love with her.

Far from being a book about simple relationships – because there are no such things – A Field Guide to Deception has an incredible sense of dread. You really root for these women to make a go of it, yet everything they say and do dooms them from the start. As Liv says at one point, “We suck at this.” And they do. But so do many other couples, and they manage to stay together. Do Claire and Liv stand a chance? It’d be mean of me to tell.

Malone underwrites and underplays the drama beautifully, sketching her characters with languid surety until they’re fully formed. This book is less about plot than it is about human nature, so genre readers may find this slow going, but I found the people here so genuine that the paucity of plot points didn’t bother me in the least. But the last twenty or thirty pages, which contain a startling event the ending turns on, move the story firmly and clearly to conclusion. And they do so in such a subtle, disarming way that you’re smiling with satisfaction as you come to the epilogue.

My lone complaint is that the epilogue seems tacked on as it really adds nothing to the essential story, but the point is so minor as to be completely irrelevant and it’s so damn well-written that it’s forgiveable. A Field Guide to Deception is beautiful, essential reading.

And that’s no deception.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Equal to the Earth – Jee Leong Koh (Bench Press)

Buy it Now from Bench Press.

The stark simplicity of the geographic formations which adorn the cover of Singapore-born poet Jee Leong Koh’s Equal to the Earth has much in common with the poems inside. They are products of their environment – rooted and grounded in water, earth and air –and all the more beautiful for it.

Koh draws inspiration from many events and people to create his word scenes, but none are more vivid than the poetry he draws from places. From Lachine Canal, Montreal to Nebraska City to Montauk to the ubiquitous New York City, Koh reveals his interior by the examination of his exterior surroundings.

Particularly interesting is “Fire Island,” a suite of seven poems inspired by that locale and have some beautifully vivid ocean imagery as well as a wonderful piece called “Cherry’s Bar after Frank Bidart,” which tosses lines from Keats’ unfinished Hyperion and an onstage breakdown from a drag queen named Ginger into the Mixmaster to come up with a thoughtful rumination on the (non) difference between art and feeling.

If Koh isn’t quite as experimental in other places, his mastery of more prosaic forms of poetry is always in evidence. He turns down the advances of an older man at a dance bar in “New Year Resolution,” who dances away to another, younger man.

                                                                      I know that hurricane. It starts as breath

                                                                      one grows aware of breathing, then it blows

                                                                      one all over the landscape till one pierces

                                                                      something that holds, a tree, say, while it blows

                                                                      itself out. Blown like that, I hung to you

                                                                      too long, mistaking loneliness for love.

We’ve all been caught up in that wind once or twice, haven’t we? Koh displays a sure hand with these situations, from the surrealist danger of “Glass Orgasm” to the playful “If the Fire is in Your Apartment” to the casually horny sex poetry of “Blowjob” and “Chapter Six: Anal Sex.” Nowhere are his metaphors too obscure or his similes stretched too far to be recognizable.

All of which brings me back to my original thought. Koh’s work is based on a solid foundation; underpinned by a love of language and an uncluttered vision. Truly earthy, even when it’s dirty. And in the world of poetic ephemera, that’s quite refreshing. 

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Life on the List: Assorted Sordid Tales and Unsavory Revelations – Jeffrey Essmann (Fanny Press)

Buy it Now at Amazon through The Dreamwalker Group.

What do Jeffrey Essmann and Tennessee Williams have in common? Not much, frankly. But while reading this short book of Essmann’s erotic Craigslist encounters, I kept thinking of Blanche DuBois and her affinity for disguising the harsh light bulbs in her room with those magical paper lanterns.

I tend to shy away from books which purport to be based in reality. Fiction is much more interesting to me as a reader and challenging to me as a writer. Can I make up interesting people who have depth and can move other readers? What can I do with these people? How can I use them to put the reader where I want him? That’s where the fun of writing lies – it’s the fun of writing lies. 

In Life on the List, Essmann has saddled himself with the truth, detailing his accounts of various sexual escapades he has with men who answer his Craigslist ads. These episodes are short on character and long on porn – not that that’s bad. I just think sex writing is more involving when you know the parties. We never learn much about the tricks and even less about Essmann. That may be his way of distancing himself from the material, as is the fact that his eye is always on the humorous spin: 

I feel as if I should be more into the whole smooth-Asian thing, but I’m not. Maybe just the whole smooth thing in general, I guess. Ithink I o.d.’d on that guy who was totally smooth. Like: not a hair. Anywhere. He looked like a slave race from Star Trek.

Okay, that’s a pretty funny line. If there had been more lines like this, other problems with the book wouldn’t have bothered me as much. However, even the funny lines are fraught with “thing” and “like” and “totally” – verbalisms which just irritate the hell out of me. It’s speaking, not writing. Writing flows. This sputters.

That said, Jeffrey Essmann is a comedian and a performance artist, which leads me to believe this material is all he claims it to be on the back cover when it’s performed and he can gesture and mug and use his voice to point to the gags. On the page, however, when it’s just him and me, the words often fall flat or fall over themselves in a breathless rush to display their cleverness. They don’t have the pacing or cadence of delivery that an actual performance would provide.

There are spots, however, when Essmann gets it just right.The four pages spent on BklynBody (most of his tricks are referred to by their internet handles) comprise a nice character sketch with blowjob and the whole chapter devoted to a trick named Lou (“The Kiss”) is both sweet and hot, proving my point that the more attention paid to the characters the better thesex is.

Life on the List is only the beginning for Essmann, and I think once he learns to temper the harsh glare of reality with some shading and color, he’ll be a writer to be reckoned with indeed. 

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Best Gay Stories 2009 – Ed. by Steve Berman (Lethe Press)

 

I’ve never reviewed a collection of short stories before, and from reading reviews on Amazon, it seems like the domain of intellectual analysis and exact prose.  Thus, I feel intimidated.  Is it the job of the reviewer to comment on the quality of each individual story or also on the compiling skills of the editor in choosing pieces that work in concert?
When you look at all the grumbling about Between Men 2 (Alyson Books, 2009), another anthology of “original fiction by today’s best gay writers,” the primary complaint against it seemed to be that the selected voices often spoke of conflicts and grievances that were allegedly more relevant ten, twenty or thirty years ago.  Furthermore, some selections were apparently portions of larger works and were not, in the reviewers’ opinions, readable pieces on their own.  When reading the barbs foisted upon Best American Short Stories 2009 (Houghton Mifflin), I found gripes about “feminist editorial bias” and writing for “style instead of content.”  Now I have not read most of the stories in Between Men 2 nor Best American Short Stories 2009, but what I gather from their low ratings is that it’s close to impossible to select fifteen to twenty stories and have an overwhelming majority of readers love all of them.
If it helps to know the “editorial bias,” then I can tell you that Steve Berman is known for an interest in slipstream-slash-paranormal fiction as well as YA.  There are some wonderful stories with spec fic elements in this anthology such as “Haunting Your House” by Sam J. Miller and Steve Berman’s own “Kinder” about the curator of a hat museum vexed by German spirits.  As for young protagonists, the first third of the book seems to be devoted to teen characters.  As the battle for gay rights and the tribulations of the coming out process are now often played out in high school, perhaps this is what can be considered our current area of conflict or at least one of the most evident.   Jeff Solomon’s “Best Friend” and Richard Zimler’s “A Dry Past” were powerful and heartbreaking stories of troubled youth.  Craig Laurence Gidney’s imagining of a young, penniless Arthur Rimbaud traveling to Paris is rewarding for its lush prose and vivid detail.  The merciless, edgy quality to Jeff Leavell’s “Beautiful” is an example of a contemporary movement towards fascinating, dark cruelties in gay fiction, exemplified in publications such as Velvet Mafia. At the other end of the spectrum was David Levithan’s “Starbuck’s Boy,” which, while farfetched, was a charming and enjoyable romance.
Berman’s choices do range much further than YA or spec fic.  Examples of other pieces I loved include Trebor Healey’s superb road story “St. Andy,” Jameson Currier’s evocative and poignant “Chelsea Rose,” and J.M. Snyder’s lovely ode to romance in the twilight years, “Henry and Jim.”  That last story had me in tears.  (On the other hand, Welsh absurdist author Rhys Hughes had me chuckling at his bewildering imagination.)  There is a bit of non-fiction (I think) as well, including a remarkable treatise on erotic bondage and the eternal sacrifice of the divine from Jeff Mann and a humorous remembrance of high school theater from Aaron Shurin.
There are a few more pieces such as those from John Morgan Wilson, John Stahle, and Raphael Kadushin that I enjoyed, and, of course, a couple that didn’t quite do it for me that I won’t name.  However, I did come to one conclusion.  Within the small word of gay fiction and the short span of one year, there isn’t an unlimited quantity of fantastic short stories from which to choose.  Furthermore, Berman qualified in his introduction that each story should leave the reader impassioned or enlightened.  The fact that such a strong collection is possible in an era when the short story is considered “dead” is both extraordinary and reassuring.  Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Gavin Atlas

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The Lonely War – Alan Chin (Zumaya Boundless)

Buy it Now at Amazon through The Dreamwalker Group.

Alan Chin is making me fat.

First it’s his native Hawaiian boy, Songaree, cooking up a storm in Island Song, and now it’s Asian-American    Seaman Andrew Waters performing culinary miracles for the crew of his ship, the Pilgrim as well as for a POW camp commander in Chin’s WWII “don’t ask, don’t tell” book, The Lonely War.

Consider Waters’ first menu for his shipmates:

A silver platter of appetizers – shrimp dumplings with a soy based dipping sauce and steamed pork buns – and a frosty pitcher of unsweetened tea sat in the center of the tableGrady hurried through the hatchway balancing a tray crammed with bowls, a soup tureen and a breadbasket. The fragrance of turtle soup suffused the cabinThick and meaty, the soup’s richness permeated his mouth and warmed his stomach. The baguettes were crusty on the outside and soft and fragrant on the insideTen minutes later, Grady served the main course of roast duck in a red curry sauce resting beside sautéed vegetables,with a side dish of stir-fried noodles topped with chunks of fresh lobster,cooked sweet and gingery.

Now is that fair to my waistline, Alan?

But The Lonely War has far more going for it than great descriptions of meals. Seaman Waters deals with his share of prejudice, both as an Asian-American serving his country post-Pearl Harbor and as a man in love with his superior officer, Nathan Mitchell. His Buddhist leanings are further tested when the Pilgrim is sunk in battle and the survivors are forced ashore to the evil Commandant Hiraku Tottori’s POW camp. 

Chin manages the plot twists and turns deftly, rarely succumbing to the tried-and-true war story stereotypes we’ve come to know. Some, like the greasy ship’s cook, Cocoa, slip through, but in turn we’re rewarded with a rich, full character like Tottori, who has a private vulnerability and nobility Chin allows us – and Waters – to experience. And Waters himself is an interesting contradiction with a number of faults and failings that humanize an otherwise frustratingly self-actualized character, especially near the end of the book. 

I’m not sure I buy the acceptance Waters and Mitchell get from the majority of the crew as gay men in the Navy, especially canoodling between an enlisted man and a superior officer. Captains have spies everywhere, and it’d be difficult to hide even the most sub rosa affair, but not having ever been aboard anything other than a gay cruise ship where such affairs begin and end in the fitness center steam room. I may be totally wrong.

But if you can ride with this, you’ll be sitting down to a rich, heady feast of a book, full of tension and drama as well as two – count ‘em – two grand love stories. Fill your plates, grab your forks and dig in.

And if Chin ever gives up writing, he can always get a spot on the Food Network.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler 

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Love Hard: Stories 1989-2009 – D. Travers Scott (QueerMojo Press)

Buy it Now from Rebel Satori Press or at Amazon through The Dreamwalker Group.

Ever since One of These Things is Not Like the Other came into my life (and I have read it at least four times), I became a fan of Scott’s. Love Hard is one of the two short story collections I’ve been waiting for this year (the other being Sean Meriwether’s The Silent Hustler), and it did not disappoint.

Scott’s writing is all word-muscle – lean, fluid and kinetic with absolutely no wasted motion whether he’s working in fiction or those terrific little essay-punches he hits you with like “Everclear,” which takes on the band and the beverage with equal ease or “EuroTex,” a sharply observed analysis of his dichomatic relationship with both Texas and Europe. And then he effortlessly blends fiction and journaling in something like “It’s Not You,” a skillful look at the dissolution of a relationship that never really was.

It comes as no surprise to anyone who’s ever read him that Scott’s stock-in-trade is the melding of total opposites, and nearly everything in this collection reinforces that. From the title character of “New Wave Skinhead Flight Attendant” to the collision of past and present in “Little Armenia,” Scott bends, shapes and folds his realities into new oragami relationship configurations.

Among my favorites are “Gas Works Park,” a great story that takes the concept of lovers and their private language to a typically Scott extreme, “Alphonse,” a colorfully short gay bar episode, and the aforementioned “Little Armenia,” which spins you around and around from then to now and then expects you to come out and pin the tail on the donkey. 

But perhaps my favorite – not the least because of a personal connection – is “Get on Your Bikes and Ride!,” which takes on chubby-chasing fetishism with Scott drollery. Its main character is an overweight gym recruiter, a beautiful contradiction in and of itself, and what happens when he is fetishised by one of his clients. The personal connection? Ah yes – this appeared in a collection called Law of Desire: Tales of Gay Male Lust and Obsession, edited by Greg Wharton and Ian Philips, which also contains my first published short story,“Love, Sex and Death on the Daily Commute”.

I couldn’t have asked for better company.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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The Ménage Menagerie by J.L. Dillard (eXcessica Publishing)

Buy it now at eXcessica Publishing.

When I was asked to review J.L. Dillard’s erotic story, TheMenage Menagerie I must admit that I was a bit hesitant.  What could a gay man say about anerotic encounter between a husband, his wife and another women?  After all, I’ve never read anythingremotely lesbian before.  It’s justnot my taste.  Sohow could I know whether or not the sex and story worked?  Trust me when I tell you it did.

Jonathan has a beautiful, devoted and loving wife.  Dana would do anything to please himincluding sleeping with another women. So when Dana decides to surprise her husband one night with a three-way,it just so happens that the other woman is Jonathan lesbian co-worker. How farwill each of them go to satisfy the other’s desires?  You’ll have to read to find out. 

“Danafelt relieved. She had finally said the words out loud. “Now, let me ask you aquestion. Why did you agree to come here tonight? You could have easily changedyour mind or not accepted the offer at all.”

Crystinadecided to give no less than she’d received. “There was no way I was going toturn you down.”

Danachoked and swallowed the rose colored liquid faster than anticipated. “Youreally know how to shock a girl, don’t you? Jonathan was right. You are acharmer.”

“Hesaid that?”

“Yes.”

Crystina blinked, stunned by thecompliment. She and Jonathan had worked togetherfor less than a year and he had known about her sexuality from the start, butthis was different. She was in his home, having a drink with his wife,discussing the possibility of fucking her later for his pleasure.

“How do you think Mr. Rutherford willfeel about this little adventure you’ve cooked up for him? I know he said hewanted a threesome, but I don’t think he’ll be expecting it to happen with acolleague.”

“Tobe honest Crys, I’m not really sure.” Dana admitted. “I know he’ll besurprised.”

“Whatabout you? Are you surprised I agreed?”

“I was hoping you would.” Danawas playing with fire and if Jonathan disapproved, this whole thing could blowup in her face”

J.L. Dillard has produced an amazing erotic rollercoasterride.  For everyone out there whohas ever fanaticized about a three-way with your partner, or spouse you aresure to relate to the doubt, fear and thrill that these three characters feelas they finally get to live out their secret desires in more ways than one.

Pick up a copy today. It’s a quick, easy read that is sure to please.

Reviewed by William Holden

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