Monthly Archives: August 2010

Poisoned Ivy – Scot D. Ryersson (Bristlecone Pine Press)

Buy it now at our store – Poisoned Ivy (Vintage)
One of the joys of this book review business is coming across an interesting, well-executed concept worthy of attention. Bristlecone Pine’s e-book Vintage series is one of these. These short, romantic m/m novels are inspired by antique images—paintings or photographs—of men. Their first installment, Poisoned Ivy, comes from Scot D. Ryersson’s take on a 1916 painting by J.C. Leyendecker called “Football Hero.”
And what a hero he is. In Ryersson’s story, this blonde-haired, blue-eyed hunk of desheveled glory is personified by Clay Marrok, a bona-fide football hero of the 1916 class at Yale. Marrok is pursued and painted by an aspiring artist named Wynter who is, in turn, pursued by Crale—the son of a senator and Wynter’s sponsor into one of the Yalie secret societies. Crale considers Wynter be his alone, but Wynter wants to be a free-agent so he can win Marrok. As Marrok poses for an alumni magazine cover painted by Wynter (Leyendecker’s “Football Hero”), however, the artist finds something not quite right about Marrok. Something wolfish. 
The story is less than a hundred pages but it packs an interesting punch despite its brevity. It’s romantic but doesn’t veer into explicitly erotic territory, challenging your expectations. To be entirely truthful, I expected a quasi-romantic slice of e-book pulp, fraught with the moony, frustrated longings of Ivy League closet cases. However, what I got was a cracking good, albeit short, read whose suspense held my interest and whose characters intrigued me. 
Ryersson’s writing is evocative of the era, and his characters well-fleshed out. Crale’s ambition and possessiveness of Wynter is overpowering enough to motivate Wynter’s irritation at the shackles and drive him towards Marrok and the fate that awaits all three of them. Wynter’s initiation into Crale’s Pate and Longbones society is one of the more interesting scenes in the book, contrasting sophomoric rituals designed to inspire feigned terror with the real terror embodied by Marrok. Very classy. 
The ending is also intriguing, following through on the supernatural element while bringing the story around to the thematic concept of the entire series in a very satisfying manner. I’ll be awaiting other entries in the Vintage line. So if you’re looking for something different to take to the pool on your Kindle, give Poisoned Ivy a try. But be sure not to read it too long after the sun goes down. 
You can never tell what you’ll turn into. 
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Seven Sweet Things – A Novella with Recipes – Shaun Levin (Lethe Press)

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Seven Sweet Things – A Novella with Recipes – Shaun Levin (Lethe Press)
Oh, what an effort it is
to love you as I do!

For love of you, the air,
my heart
and my hat hurt me.

Who will buy of me
 this ribbon I have
and this grief of white
linen to make handkerchiefs?

Oh, what an effort it is
to love you as I do!

“It Is True” Federico Garcia Lorca
As linens spun from gathered Hyacinth or, yes, as cookies, cakes, fudge conjured by the cook’s alchemy, Shaun Levin gives us morsels, crumbs, swatches, scraps of delicately woven, gut-churning lyric—songs, really—that feed, clothe, nourish, warm any writer’s muse or reader’s want for fulfilling sustenance.
An aging romantic, a writer, a baker—gray hairs upon his chest—suffers the impermanence, the fragility of an affair, a love for a younger man—black hair brushing his cheek, freckles upon his shoulders, who moves through the narrative as Sandburg’s Fog on “…little cat feet…”—who is encumbered by a woman, a wife, and perhaps other men. Or, more precisely, it is the older man, Shaun, who is burdened by his love’s real and suspected infidelities.
The cakes and cookies (recipes included) are not so much—a component, yes, but not so much—the older man’s means to lure or delight his quarry. No, the food, the baked lusciousness is just there, to be enjoyed, juxtaposed against the satisfaction of the fuck; yes, the inimitable lusciousness of the fuck. 
But the words, ah, just taste these words: 
On the day we met we’d made love for six hours. I thought: So this is what a muse looks like. This is what Picasso relied on to keep painting. This is what Gertrude saw in Alice, what Lewis Carroll saw in his colleague’s little daughter. I rely on every type of beauty to keep writing: the beauty of trees and rocks, mud and long walks through forests, kneeling by a stream to wash my face in icy water. I need to get close to creation to create. My love is creation; he is the chaos made perfect.
…There’s no point in talking about love to a lover.

And his cum falls like holy water, like kind words and promises.

I see my beloved in the body of Christ. I catch the blood that drips from his open palm. I lick the flesh from around the stakes in his feet. I adore his arms stretched out like wings, the swept wisps of hair in each armpit, like one ostrich feather. And all in the perfect Florentine landscape. Wherever I look as I wander through The National Gallery, my love is there; every immaculate body his: seduced by Caravaggio to pose naked with grapes, watched over in his sleep by Botticelli to be transformed into Mars. He is sleek, muscular, baby-faced perfection; with his body close to mine, I rejoice in myself.
Finally (I would, if could, give you all Levin’s words), Today I wake up wanting only essence. Gold and coal and pearls. Hard-earned essence with a history. I drink tea and sit in my armchair by the window. I am sick of autobiography. I am a hamster on a wheel in a cage. You have to fly to write fiction; the ones with clipped wings and wounds keep repeating their stories over and over again. A baby bird doesn’t know it will fall flat on it face if it tries to leave the nest. The only story it knows is flight.
The older man, the younger man (Ah, Hyacinth, would that I had been Apollo!) travel through Levin’s narrative with the tenuous flow of lopsided desire from the elder, seeming ambivalence from the younger. And with the storytelling comes a writer’s adoration of words, the meaning, the effect of words, the images, the haunting images of a literarily inclined yearn to project the essential worth of putting one word after another in such a way that the inevitability of the procession is enrichment, wonder, delight.
Dare I gush with the worth I perceive in this, Levin’s little gem of 125 pages? Dare I want for more of this valued stuff, both as a reader and a writer? Yes, of course I do. 
Ah, I fear I’ve left Levin to really speak for himself here. What matter. I could never best Levin.  Res ipsa loquitur: the thing speaks for itself.
This reissue from 2003 of  “Seven Sweet Things,” surely speaks to what some of us have experienced in our own lives. Yes, Lorca’s conclusion works here: Oh, what an effort it is to love you as I do!
Reviewed by George Seaton  

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A Demon Inside – Rick R. Reed (MLR Press)

Buy it now at MLR Press or from our store – A Demon Inside
With over a dozen novels to his credit, Rick R. Reed is on his way to becoming a name-brand. I’d be jealous if his stuff wasn’t so damn solid, but it is. The last book of his I read was Bashed: A Love Story, which both I and the hard-to-please members of The Denver Gay Men’s Book Club loved, and I’m pleased to report that Reed hasn’t lost his touch. His haunted house story, A Demon Inside, thrills, delights and entertains just as his fans have come to expect. 
After the loss of his beloved grandmother, Hunter Beaumont becomes the last living member of his rich Chicago family. That legacy includes witnessing the murder of his parents, but along with those nightmare-inducing memories comes riches galore and Beaumont House, a spooky old Wisconsin mansion. Hunter ignores his grandmother’s dying wish to tear the mansion down. After a disastrous love affair with a man who steals a good deal of his inheritance, he decides to use the rest to renovate the house and retreat there to lick his wounds. 
Bad idea. 
One of Reed’s greatest strengths is his ability to create wonderful characters that follow genre conventions but also defy them in some basic respects, and Hunter Beaumont is no exception. Sheltered and gullible, he’s also itching to try out his new freedom. But even though his initial experience with love is shattering and embittering, he’s persuaded to try again with his second love interest, a handsome young man named Michael who lives on the property next door. Will that affair succeed? Of course it will. And will pluckiness and sheer nerve be enough to rid Beaumont House of the demon inside? Ah, that you’ll have to read to find out.  
The only minor complaint I have is the fortune-hunting doctor we meet early on. He is such a presence early in the book that I kept looking over my shoulder, anticipating his return in the last half and wondering what role he’d play in the denouement. I kept looking for some connection between him and Michael, but that never materialized. The fact that he never showed up again was somewhat disappointing, but that’s picking nits.
A Demon Inside is a rip-snorter of a read with enough spooky scenes, chilling night-time visitations and cackling, otherworldly laughter to put a few shadows into even the warmest, safest summer night. You don’t have to wait for Halloween to get your chills – start the scaring season early with the ever-dependable Rick R. Reed.
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Wilde Stories 2010 – Steve Berman, ed. (Lethe Press)

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Steve Berman’s introduction to this collection of twelve speculative shorts emphasizes what he believes to be the misplaced priorities of the Lambda Literary Foundation’s emphasis on recognizing the worth of storytelling only from GLBT writers. Berman notes that the content of Wilde Stories 2010 – The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction, encompasses work from whom “…a quarter…are women. I neither know nor care what their orientations might be.” Berman, then, is eminently more concerned with content rather than labels.

And content he gives us.

Laird Barron, in the first of the shorts, “Strappado,” (a particularly gruesome rite of torture), tells of a chance meeting between two professionals in a bathhouse in an “Indian tourist town,” not far from Mumbai. The two join a gaggle of Europeans who find themselves slumming in a dingy discothèque, then on to what they believe to be an outlaw exhibit of macabre art. The plot twist engages, and Barron’s writing is superb: “Kenshi wore a black suit; sleek and polished as a seal or an banker. He swept his single lock of gelled hair to the left, like a gothic teardrop.”

Ben Francisco’s voice is so strong in “Tio Gilberto and the Twenty-Seven Ghosts,” that I was not so much charmed as intrigued. Fleeing New York for his uncle’s haunted house in San Francisco, Daniel, a part-time stand-up comic, suffers well—and, at times, not so well—the presence of spirits who infest his uncle’s home: “The ghosts have a party at least twice a week. They gather around the piano and sing Broadway show tunes. …I don’t like Broadway show tunes, and I don’t like old movies, and I don’t like audiences I can’t see or hear.” This is a delightful story.

Richard Bowes short, “I Needs Must Part, the Policeman Said,” shows us a sixty-something-year-old whose hospital stay is experienced as through a search engine embedded in the narrator’s mind. He sees himself as the subject of a blog, encompassing his present state as well as that of an earlier hospital encounter as a young man. The hospital writhes with spirits: “A lot of being sick is like one long nightmare. In my Capricorn everything was terror and magic. At night, patients in a children’s cancer ward could be seen floating amid the trees of a scared grove.” Good stuff, here.

A train ride through snow and the palpable presence of wolves is what Tanith Lee, writing as Judas Garbah, gives us in “Ne Que Von Desir.” in a dining car lorded over by the Spirit of Eating, the narrator meets a mysterious stranger who ravages him; “He’d wounded me in a dozen places, grazed, blackened and drawn blood. I had done as much for him.” But he’s not the only one the stranger has ravaged – he’s gone through the whole train, male and female, in a scant few days of travel. This short is so full of literary gems that it is impossible to celebrate them all.

Simon Sheppard gives us, “Barbaric Splendor,” in which a Nordic crew, in the year 1640, finds itself shipwrecked upon the shores of Xanadu, where the Great Khan keeps his palace. This story is told in the form of a ship’s log, the narrator being a corncob-up-the-ass kind of Christian fellow: “…the Sodomitical vices of Xanadu are unimaginably foul, and to that I shall never be reconciled.” Well, reconciled he soon becomes. Sheppard is a masterful writer, and this short is no exception.

“Like They Always Been Free,” by Georgina Li, is a short-short that takes us “underground” where the business of  “…minin’ some shit-torn planet…” (the syntax throughout reminiscent of Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury”). Our protagonist, Kinger, is in a dismal, literally dog-eat-dog environment, his only comfort Boy: “Boy kisses Kinger’s fingers, his wrists, his throat, sucks hard where Kinger’s blood beats strongest, blue like Boy’s own skin, makes Kinger ache…”

Joel Lane’s, “Some of Them Fell,” tell of four young friends finishing up their English schooling with a trek to the forest—a celebration of their release from the school and city—with hash, wine, cigarettes and their disparate psyches. One of the boys, Adrian, and the narrator find themselves together, fumbling through their first sexual encounter. A gruesome finding of three bodies in the woods, ends their revelry. Their lives go on, with the narrator discovering the extent of the darkness that haunts Adrian’s soul.

“Where the Sun Doesn’t Shine,” is a naughty, hilarious, pun-intended story from Rhys Hughes. Lisping vampires have harnessed sunbeams for their benefit, and the best and the brightest of “Scrofula Yard,” are on the case. A favorite exchange: “…The vampires have turned into farmers and the keepers of orchards.” “Where do they get their sperm food from?” “Two sources. They plant spunktrees and harvest the nuts. Creamy goodness! They also entice human settlers with the promise of fertile fields and virgin forests. Then they suck off those poor saps until they’re drained.”

Jameson Currier’s “Death In Amsterdam,” is the least speculative—if at all—of these stories. And perhaps it was Berman’s intent to include this work in the anthology simply to communicate the extent of Muslim violence against gay men in Amsterdam. This is a disturbing account of the underbelly of what one naturally assumes to be a wonderful vacation spot for gay/lesbian tourists.

A wonderful short, “The Sphinx Next Door,” by Tom Cardamone tells of misdirected mail, a seeping box, meant for, yes, the sphinx next door. The narrator’s conundrum is how/when to deliver the box to the sphinx. A bit of trepidation here: “I think most of the sphinxes in New York are Egyptian, aloof, noble guardians. They tend to work in banks or human resources, if they work at all.” A charming read.

“The Far Shore,” by Elizabeth Hand, sees the ruin of a ballet dancer who agrees to inhabit the secluded Maine habitat of an old friend who is off to Florida. There, alone against a treacherous Maine storm, the Finnish myth of Tuonela, the land of the dead, is played out with the protagonist taking on the role of  the curious mortal lured to discover the secrets of the dead by the ferryman, in this case, a fallen swan. The tempter, the swan, embraces the protagonist “…neither falling nor flying, but somehow held aloft. As when he had been airborne above the stage, muscles straining as he traces a grand jete en avant, a leap into the darkness he had never completed in waking life…”

I enjoyed this collection, and look forward to Steve Berman’s next.

Reviewed by George Seaton

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XOXO Hayden – Chris Corkum (PD Publishing)

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I had it set in my mind before I even opened the cover that I wasn’t going to like this book. All I could think about was here we go again, another coming-of-age story about some young boy trying to fit in, blah, blah, blah.  We’ve all been there and done that a dozen or more times.  Chris Corkum however, changed my mind within a few pages of his novel.  I couldn’t put the book down, and now weeks later the characters are still vivid in my mind.  

Steven Carlisle is a suburban teenager growing up in Orange County in the 80’s, struggling to understand his identity and sexuality.  Hayden Whitfield is a British pop star trying to find himself and acceptance through his music.  When Steven wins backstage passes to meet Hayden, both of their lives will change forever. 

The novel follows both of these men’s lives over a period of eighteen years, and the growing connection that the two of them have for one another, but don’t quite understand.  XOXO Hayden is a touching, well-written story of desire, love and passion.  As each chapter ends, the story of these two men become richer and more complex. The characters are so vivid and so real, you feel as if you are a part of their eighteen-year story.

One of the aspects of this book that I found so refreshing is that it’s not your ordinary, coming-of-age story.  Without giving away any secrets to the plot or ending, there are many touching, intimate moments between Steven and Hayden but as in real life, not everything goes smoothly and not everything ends the way you expect it or want it to.The process the characters go through are real, the emotions of love, fear and pain are also real.That’s what stands this book out from the others. I felt for the characters and also found pieces of me within their story.

Pick up a copy of XOXO Hayden.  It’s a great weekend read.

Reviewed by William Holden

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I Came Out for This? – Lisa Gitlin (Bywater Books)

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I always enjoy first person books. They’re immediate and personal, and you really get to know the POV character in ways other points of view don’t allow you to experience. That character also has to be strong enough to support the book, and Lisa Gitlin has a winner in Joanna Kane, the main character in I Came Out for This?

Joanna is newly-out at the age of 45 and if that wasn’t tough enough, she fell in hard in love and was dumped. But she hasn’t figured that out. In fact, she moves from her Cleveland home all the way to Washington DC in order to be with her ex, Terri, a woman who barely knows she’s alive. But that’s not really true. Joanna is alive enough for Terri to tease and taunt with possibilities, none of which will ever come to pass. Can Joanna move along and find true happiness in her seedy DC apartment populated by sketchy, transient boarders? Can she and Terri peacefully coexist in the DC lesbian dating scene? Will she survive psychotherapy? Will she get out of jail?

I’d rather let Joanna tell you in her own hilarious words. Lisa Gitlin has a wonderfully realized character in Joanna Kane; one with wit and wonder but more importantly, one with whom it’s easy to identify. We’ve all been out on the fringes at one time or another, living lives our families and friends couldn’t understand. Kane’s journey out there and back is one we know well, and she deals with the roadblocks she encounters with sass and verve.

The voice? Well, it’s soft and hard, soothing and haranguing, full of hope and despair—sometimes in the same sentence—but Joanna is never, ever boring. She is occasionally frustrating in her worship of a woman who clearly cares nothing for her, but in time that becomes part of her charm. Just like a good friend, you want to cheer for her when she does something brilliant and slap her when she’s stupid. And Joanna’s insights into the somewhat incestuous lesbian dating world are hysterical and, I believe, totally accurate.

I Came Out For This? is a great summer read. Its intriguing voice draws you back for more like a cool, refreshing dip in the pool, and its warm sense of wonder and discovery will keep you comfortable even after the sun goes down. 

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Subtle Bodies – Peter Dube (Lethe Press)

When I was younger and my eyes were better, I loved long novels. I used to scorn anything less than 500 pages. Now, however, I appreciate the artistry and philosophy of the “less-is-more”school and am truly amazed when a novel less than 100 pages leaves me as sated as those epic journeys used to. Such is the case with Peter Dube’s latest book, Subtle Bodies.

Subtitled A Fantasia on Voice, History and Rene Crevel, this slim volume begins with the suicide of Surrealist poet Rene Crevel and looks back on his involvement with the French Surrealist movement in flashback. Ambitious, yes – but highly readable. This is no dry art school thesis. Dube finds the heart and soul of this historical figure and lays both bare, painting a marvelously detailed portrait of a man intoxicated by ideas and the myth that springs up around their proponents.

Indeed, the subtitle here might also be A Study in Inclusion and Exclusion, because Dube’s Crevel is inordinately preoccupied with both. One of the means Crevel uses to gain entrance into the group of writers and artists who would form the Surrealist movement is faking trances during séances, which were all the rage at the time. Pretending to fall into a state of unconsciousness, he spouts nonsense his audience considers brilliance from beyond. He lies for acceptance—and who has not, at one time or another? Having found inclusion, he is loathe to offend any of the movement’s luminaries for fear of finding himself on the outside of that circle.  Dube handles this universal theme with deft shadings of right and wrong.

Dube’s prose is lush but not overwritten, evoking a time when ideas and their expression were more important than life itself. He reels from passionate fever dreams to stark confessional passages with the bold surety of an expert craftsman, hurtling us towards Crevel’s death but never letting go of our hand.

The skin around my eyes felt tight. I felt hot. What if I did not fall into a trance tonight? All of these people were here to hear me utter oracles. I had no idea if I could do so. I might fail. I might shatter this renewed friendship with Andre. I sweat. My breath grew ragged. Friendships evaporating. The chances of publication, of the solace of other writers with whom to linger over cups of coffee and plot the future of our collective dreams dwindled and grew transparent. I saw a great, dark gulf underneath the table we were seated at.

Despite the weight of its ideas, Subtle Bodies is a breathlessly quick read that will linger in your head and resonate in your heart long after its voice has faded. In fact, it just may be the best 90-page book you’ll ever read.


© 2010, Jerry L. Wheeler

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Muscle Men: Rock Hard Gay Erotica – Richard Labonte, ed. (Cleis Press)

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I’ve never understood the muscle thing.

Most of my friends drool over those firefighter calendars with the ripped abs of August and the defined delts of December, but that body type has never done it for me. And the few muscle guys I have chatted up have had personalities varying from bland to loathsome. I would have passed this antho up had it not been for Richard Labonte’s track record, and I’m happy to say he’s mostly packed the gym with winners. 
My usual disclaimer about there always being a couple of stories in an anthology that don’t do it for me applies here, but Labonte’s average is always high. He has a strong starter in Joe Marohl’s “The Lair of Carlo de la Paz,” which features a mysterious old guy who likes to watch two muscle boys spar in a ring he has set up in his mansion. Steve Bereznai takes us inside a bodybuilder competition for “Mr. Muscle Pump,” but the contest isn’t where the action is. Cage Thunder also has a winning entry with “Thunder and Lightning,” but it’s with Jamie Freeman’s “The Ambivalent Gardener and the State of Grace” where the book really takes off for me. 
This marvelous story is a muscle-sex romp as well as a touching coming out story with some interesting girl-girl dialogue between the main character’s wife and her best friend. It not only titillates, but it has great characters and an interesting scenario. And speaking of interesting scenarios, Thomas Fuchs’ “Bobby Lo and the Evil Sakata” combines muscle worship and cum-vampirism in a quasi-supernatural tale that will leave you wondering about what will happen at the end of your next blowjob. 
Rob Wolfsham’s “Nephilim Lover” is another great story from this young writer who has a gift for erotica and a talent for creating terrific characters with which he populates his bedrooms—or in this case, dorm rooms. Labonte even goes as far as ending with an essay by Larry Duplechan, “Bigchest: Confessions of a Tit Man,” which details his obsession with big chests and how to get them. So, even if muscles aren’t your thing, the writing here packs more punch than a protein shake. 
And if you open this the next time you’re on the elliptical, who can tell what will happen in the steam room?
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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