Monthly Archives: October 2010

Bob the Book – David Pratt (Chelsea Station Editions)

Buy it now at or at our store – Bob the Book

Anthropomorphism works well in children’s books because a child’s concept of reality hasn’t been totally codified yet. The maturation process takes all the fun out of it and adults tend to put those works of art which practice it in the realm of “cute ‘n’ clever.” But David Pratt turns that around with his brilliant novel, Bob the Book.

Bob is, of course, a book—Private Pleasures: Myth and Representation in Male Photo Sets and Pornography from the Pre-Stonewall Era to1979 to be exact. No wonder he goes by Bob. He falls in love with his shelf-mate Moishe (Beneath the Tallis: The Hidden Lives of Gay and Bisexual Orthodox Jewish Men), but their affair is short-lived. They are bought by different customers and separated, beginning odysseys that circle used charity book bins, backpacks and academics until they come full circle. In between, Bob meets a wondrous array of fellow books, thoughtful (and thoughtless) owners and even reconciles himself to his author’s sequel, Luke (A Mirror Crack’d:Affirmation and Denial in Gay Male Pornography from 1980 to the Present).

As charming a concept as this may be, concepts are nothing without proper execution and Pratt delivers with flawless voice, three-dimensional characterization and genuine pathos. Take, for example, the story of Jerry (Christianity and Homosexuality: A New Perspective), a volume that forever carries the smell of smoke from the book burning he manages to survive. His re-telling of that incident is as chilling and involving as any human drama.

And there is much human drama here as well. Will roommates Alfred and Duane ever realize they love each other? Will the lonely Owen ever find love? These and other human relationships mirror and illuminate the bonds forged between their books. Pratt has crafted a wonder of a book that presents the reader with unique and telling twists on nearly every page. And just as soon as he has you smiling, he has you crying again—crying for the lost books consigned to bargain basement bins, saddled with humiliatingly low prices and forever doomed to be without owners.

Bob the Book is a novel for those of us who love books—their heft and feel and smell. Kindle editions and e-books are cold and ephemeral, existing only by virtue of battery power and charged readers. They may be the wave of the disposable future, but a real book will be solid and readable long after the Kindle runs down. Pratt never mentions these e-creations, but I can’t help thinking that this sly, knowing book was partially written in reaction to them.

In short, Bob the Book may just be the best thing I’ve read all year. Buy a copy and, after you’ve finished it, put in on your shelf next to a book you already love and see what happens.

You could be responsible for a beautiful relationship.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler 

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My Name is Rand – Wayne Courtois (Lethe Press)

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This little piggy went to market, This little piggy stayed at home, This little piggy had roast beef, This little piggy had none. And this little piggy went “Wee wee wee” all the way home…

I read this reissue of Courtois’ 2004, My Name Is Rand, with the sensibility of gay man who has never, ever considered the practice of tickling within the BDSM milieu. Yes, for all these years I’ve been a rather meat and potatoes, vanilla, missionary position, sexual traditionalist who never understood nor had any inclination toward any aspect of BDSM. My loss, some would say. I tend to view my spiritual – if you will – dedication to the performance of the fuck as something enriching in and of itself; an act of love that doesn’t require a whole lot of imagination, invention, or carousing within or even on the fringe of kinky. I know. Yes, I know. Kinky is a relative term. To each his own, and all that.

Enter Courtois, who, oh my goodness, provided me with a door, a window into this BDSM tickling business (especially the toes, the feet); a journey not only of enlightenment, but  also – yes, I will admit! – a smidgeon of arousal just imagining tickling so many of those boys with beautiful eyes that have passed through my life…vanillaly.

Our narrator, Rand, begins his journey hooking-up with Granger, an “ex-Navy man,” who Rand concludes, “Being with Granger was all about fear, because I was so scared of being tickled to death and he was so ready to make it happen.”

The prospect of being tickled to death is a recurrent theme in Rand’s meanderings through ever-increasing enforced spasms of tickling nirvana/torture, that inevitably leads to the release of mountains, streams, volcanoes of cum from both the tickled and the tickler; for me a rather haughty endorsement of the curious practice, but, nevertheless, an incentive to, um, well, give it a go, maybe. Just maybe.

After the encounter with Granger, Rand climbs in his car intent on returning to his partner, David, whose commitment to their relationship is quite insipid, or, more precisely, ambivalent…thus Rand’s infidelity with Granger. Continuing his journey home, Rand finds himself on an interstate with, of course, a pullover to a rest stop where the convenient coincidence of meeting-up with another devotee of tickling, Michael — who has quite a story of his own with regard to his initiation into tickling and being tickled — and who eventually, literally bags Rand and carries him off to the next stop in this curious adventure.

The adventure? Firstly, Michael has his way with Rand (primarily the feet, the ribs) to the point Rand is, “…reduced…to a drooling idiot, trembling and twitching, panting and whimpering, unable to keep [his] tongue inside [his] mouth. …a broken wreck who was now good for only one thing, to be tickled and tickled until the tormentor himself was nearly dead from exhaustion.”

Then there is The Compound where the ticklers – children, teenagers, adults – have their way with the captured, bound ticklees; a kind of gruesome succession of tactile stimulation from wee little digits to the morepracticed fingers, tongues, dicks of the older boys and men. Rand is moved through The Compound by men in gray uniforms who are trustees: Those who themselves have undergone the regimen of torture, and are now trusted enough to get the ticklees to the next location where the ticklers can have their way with them.

Rand eventually becomes a trustee, an ardent tickler, and then finds himself within the dark bowels of The Compound as a rebel or sorts; one amongst several intent on escaping the onerous – or is it? – single-minded communal intent of those above. I will not expose the culmination of this tale, this adventure, this carousing within a mindset that Rand articulates at one point as: “‘Oh please please please,’” I was saying, “‘please please please.’” They knew, they must have known, that I was both begging them to tickle me and begging them not to.”

“…I was both begging them to tickle me and begging them not to.” Ah, the essence, I suppose, of BDSM.

Courtois took me into this mysterious (for me) place where the infliction of pain, the spiritual connection between the givers and the takers of that pain – even a supernatural encounter with the dreaded Dread Junior – did provide me with, if not proverbial food for thought, an engaging narrative with, at least, a penumbra of understanding about this business, this inclination of some to approach dangerous physical and emotional boundaries that most never dare breach. Besides that, the storytelling, the prose is superb.

My Name Is Rand is essentially about self-discovery. I do find myself, however, asking the inevitable question: Why did I stop with vanilla? Why did Courtois go a wee, wee bit farther?

“It is always by way of pain one
arrives at pleasure.” — Marquis de Sade

Reviewed by George Seaton

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If The Spirit Moves You: Ghostly Gay Erotica – Dale Chase (Lethe Press)

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There’s something about this time of year that always gets me reading more—if that’s humanly possible. I love being curled up in front of the fire with a glass of wine, a dog at my feet and a book in my hand. Ghostly tales make that fire especially cozy, and Dale Chase’s collection, If The Spirit Moves You, will warm you up for other reasons as well.

One might expect a collection of ghost-themed erotica to get a bit samey after a while, but Chase’s imagination is as active as her spirits and not one story here sounds like another. The book kicks off with “Secondary Spirits,” the tale of Victor and Alan and the ghost of Victor’s voyeuristic Aunt Pearl. Not content to let sleeping queers lie alone, Pearl brings along her Cousin Elmo for a little ghostly action, nearly breaking the couple up.

Next up is the library-haunting George Selvin of “Stacks,” who enters into a torridly literary affair with Ethan, a writer and fellowdevotee of Henry James. Chase continues her winning streak with the housebound spirits Edgar and Martin of “Homeowners’ Nightmare,” who dish—and scare the bejesus out of—the people who inhabit the 1924 bungalow they can’t seem to leave, even in death. But Edgar and Martin find their own relationship threatened when the charming gay couple Bill and Mike move in.

But as inventive and entertaining as these stories are, they don’t quite prepare you for “The Object of My Affection,” which finds antique-hunter Cliff sexually obsessed by … well, a piece of furniture. A haunted, green Biedemeier fainting couch, to be specific. How does one have it off with a fainting couch, you may ask? Well …

 Reaching out to finger the topmost scroll, I received a jolt that ran from finger to shoulder to midsection to crotch and I stood prodding mahogany that now seemed hot to the touch as I worked my swollen prick. Much as the night before, pleasure coursed through the whole of me to such an extent I thought my legs might buckle, so I sank onto the worn green cushion which set up a tingling in my butt cheeks and then the sensation of something prodding between them.

Obsession and addiction to the spirit world become an underlying theme tying all these stories together into one, grand whole. The stories are separate, yet all of a piece. Each of them has something unique, however—a classy turn of thought or a skewing of your typical ghost yarn. From the love affair interrupted by death then resumed in “Jack-In-The-Mist” to the book’s closer, “The Muse,” in which a writer has a sexual and creative affair with a ghost masquerading as his muse, these tales are creative, haunting and hot. It’s the perfect companion on a chilly autumn night.

Unless you can find a Biedemeier of your own, that is.

© 2010, Jerry L. Wheeler

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A Conversation with David McConnell by Gavin Atlas

Could you give us some background info?  Where are you from?  What first triggered your interest in
writing fiction?

I grew up in pretty typical suburban
surroundings outside of Cleveland, Ohio, but my family always had a secret
vanity about their many genealogical connections to the history of the United
States. They had a sort of grandiose modesty about their important Puritan
forebears. That really marked me, because it was so schizophrenic. Were we important
or average? I wanted to be important, and I was dazzled by the “Great Men” of
art and literature as a kid. They seemed lucid, explicit, powerful, while my
family was mum, repressed, withholding. Writing and the related but quite
different longing to be a great writer were both the strategies of a lonely kid
who wanted to be powerful.

What is your favorite aspect of writing?

It’s the only time mood completely vanishes from
my life. I feel just slightly other than human, and for some reason this is fantastically
satisfying to me. Of course, the moods associated with what I’ve written and
getting stuff published are pretty intense and varied. But that just drives me
back to the stillness of making sentences.

Were there any specific events in your life
that helped you formulate the ideas behind The Silver Hearted?

Oddly enough, and I don’t think it’s apparent in
the novel at all, it was the death of a friend. Beneath all the color and
drama, the novel’s central and simple question is, what do we owe the people
who are close to us? For a long time I was haunted by guilt that I’d let a
dying friend down. I don’t actually think that’s true now, but the mind can be
a pretty cruel instrument, all blade no handle.

There was a moment in the Silver Hearted where
a man is very briefly strung up on a sort-of an “accidental” cross, and there’s
a ritual killing later in the book.
Was there anything you were saying about religion?  

I don’t think so. But what authors say is never
the last word on their work. I think I was trying to bring the aesthetic and
the horrific as close together as possible to create a humanely upsetting
effect, a sense of outrage. But now that I think of it, the Christian
Communion, the stations of the cross, aren’t all that different. I myself don’t
really think about God at all. I’m not religious. I love the mysteriousness of
reality and nature and I guess that’s a kind of home brew religion. Socially
and historically, I do think religions and their rituals are immensely

It’s been speculated that your unnamed
country, with its pirates, its insurrections, and the remnants of European
colonialism, is loosely based on Somalia.
Is that at all correct?

I like the Somalia comparison, because I think
it’s the closest real world analogue to my made-up world, but I wasn’t thinking
about it when I wrote the book. I think I started out thinking mostly of the
Boxer Rebellion in China, but then I did everything I could to make my world as
non-specific as a dream.

I have an interpretation of the title, The
Silver Hearted, but could you say what it means to you?

Well, there’s a notable lack of warm-heartedness
throughout the book. Silver seems a cool metal. And the narrator is obsessed
with money, so you might say nothing is so close to his heart. Those are both
valid interpretations. However, the real source of the title is much more
obscure and has to do with a view of the novel as a fever dream, or a product
of the narrator’s solitude and fanatical delusions. The Poet James Merrill famously
held séances many of which formed the structure for his masterpiece, The
Changing Light at Sandover. In the first section of the poem he describes how
when arranging a séance he would often set up a mirror on a chair at the table.
He called the mirror, “Our silver-hearted friend.” I liked that a lot.

What was your favorite comment or feedback
about The Silver Hearted?  Or any
of your writing? 

People seem pretty sharply divided about the
book. They either get it or they don’t. What I love is that the reviewers and
readers who do get the book seem to feel passionate about it. They say it’s
unlike anything else. As if it feeds a previously unknown appetite. I like that
idea and it makes me immensely proud.

Do you have a favorite character you’ve created?  What about him (or her) do you like?

I guess “Topher,” because he’s young, beautiful
(to me), and tries to do the right thing.

I know some authors, when creating
characters, ask themselves questions like “what’s in this character’s
wallet?  What’s in his
refrigerator?”  Are there any
typical questions you ask yourself when creating characters? 

I do live with them for quite a long time, but
they keep a sense of partial-ness or mystery that real people, even my closest
friends, have. I mean I wouldn’t necessarily know what’s in a friend’s
refrigerator. It might be quite unexpected. Couldn’t it be counterproductive to
make all your characters fill out a questionnaire? I’m not sure if that would
make them more real. My characters probably don’t WANT me to know about them.
Finding out is fun and a touch antagonistic.

What aspects do you feel are essential for a
good story to have?

I used to be, and I guess I still am, primarily
a writer of sentences. I just love language. But as I get older and, by default,
more familiar with time, I’ve come to really appreciate the importance of plot
and drama—things that occur over time. Elizabeth Bowen, a writer I revere,
called plot “the pre-essential.” But I like all kinds of books (I’m reading a
great plotless one right now) and I can’t think of a single thing that’s

What are some of your favorite books and who
are some of your favorite authors?

W.G. Sebald, J.R. Ackerly, Rudyard Kipling,
Pierre Loti, I.B. Singer, Jean Rhys, Ronald Firbank, Christopher Isherwood,
Jean-Henri Fabre, Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand, Gustave Flaubert, “Homer,”
Sir Thomas Browne, Boris Pasternak, Henry Green, Frederick Goddard Tuckerman,
Knut Hamsun, Sei Shonagon, Raymond Roussel. That’s just a partial list, but
each is very special to me in a particular way.

A silly question for you:  A genie appears and grants you one
wish.  What would you choose?

Eternal life WITHOUT turning into a shriveled
cricket in a jar like Tithonus. Or else a turn in outer space or on an alien planet.
No, I think my wanting too much would paralyze my tongue.

If there’s a question you’ve always wanted to
be asked in an interview, could you tell us about it and, of course, answer

No one’s ever asked about music. I love it (the
grand tradition, that is). I’m not a voracious listener. In fact, I listen less
than most people because it takes up all my attention. I’m an amateur pianist,
a pretty good one, and I play every day. Nothing “popular” though, unless you
count some Chopin.


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The Glass Minstrel – Hayden Thorne (Bristlecone Pine Press)

Buy it now at our store – The Glass Minstrel

Jim: …What kind of glass is it?

Laura: Little articles of it, they’re ornaments mostly!…the tiniest little animals in the world. Mother calls them a glass menagerie! Oh, be careful—if you breathe, it breaks!

Jim: I’d better not take it. I’m pretty clumsy with things.

Laura: Go on, I trust you with him! …Hold him over the light, he loves the light! You see how the light shines through him?

Tennessee Williams, “The Glass Menagerie”

Thorne gently spins this tale amidst the backdrop of a small village nestled in the Bavarian Alps during a time when much of Europe is embroiled in an uprising of the masses against the age-old tyranny of monarchs.The backdrop—circa 1850—is significant: Thorne provides another, quietly intimate uprising against a wholly different form of tyranny.

Each chapter of this 197 page precious read begins with a journal entry from Heinrich, a young man sent off to school, who shares his life and gives his love to another boy, another student, Stefan, from the same village. The journal, however, serves to remind Heinrich’s aristocratic  father, that his son and Stefan—through an unnatural relationship described in the journal—have brought some little shame to the family name, and certainly also to Stefan’s father, a craftsman, who owns a shop where he makes toys and glass figurines. The journal also serves as a reminder that these two boys have suffered horrible, untimely deaths. The fates of the boys—both prior to their deaths,and after—are irreconcilable tragedies, both publicly and personally, for the still grieving fathers.

Herr Bauer, Stefan’s father, copes with the loss of his son by fashioning a glass figurine, a minstrel that is starkly reminiscent of his son’s visage and, indeed, reflective of his son’s musical talent. He also creates a shepherd and a prince; two additional glass representations of boys that find their way to those who see in the exquisitely crafted figures much more than a shepherd and a prince.

As this is Christmastime, Bauer’s creations are prized by the villagers, whether wealthy or poor, aristocratic or common. And it is inthe fascination, the deeper meaning some see in the glass statuettes of boys,that tie characters together in a kind of desperate yearn for what could have been; for what has been lost; for what may yet be possible within aggrieved families, within the tightly knit village where not many secrets survive untold. 

Jakob Diederich, a fifteen-year-old commoner, captures the essence of this storytelling: fragile, charming, hopeful—oh, ever hopeful.Jakob knows the shame engendered by the hushed histories of Stefan and Heinrich. Jakob suffers the knowledge that he will be seen in the same disgraceful light as Stefan and Heinrich once his nature is known. But he persists in savoring the dreams,the longings of a young boy’s imagination wrapped in the promise of a future where his nature is not a hindrance, but the fulfillment of…life, simply life, lived gently, lovingly.

Thorne weaves this entrancing story through trails of despair, hope, unfulfilling meanderings of the flesh, the pain of loss, the grasp for soulful reconciliations; all within 197 pages; all within the quite believable environment of a 19th century Alpine village where Christmastime is joyful in its simplicity; a time and place where it is not so difficult to see, to eventually really…see how the light shines through…when hearts and minds find their better angels.         

Reviewed by George Seaton

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A Conversation with Shane Allison by Gavin Atlas

Shane Allison is a poet, fiction writer and anthology editor.  His most recent erotica anthologies include College Boys and Hard Working Men, both from Cleis Press.  His new collection of poetry is titled Slut Machine and is available from Queer Mojo Press.    

What is your favorite thing about being a writer?

My favorite thing is coming up with a really great idea for a poem or story. I like the feeling of that in my head.

Is there an overarching theme to your poetry?  Or your stories?Or an overarching message to your readers?

Well, sex of course, but there’s greater things than that going on in the writing. I don’t want people to think that I am just out here to shock. That’s not my intention at all. I don’t think about that sort of thing when writing. I like to try new things and experiment a lot.

Is there a character from any of your stories you’d most like to trade places with? 

No, but I like to inject myself in other people’s stories.

How do you feel about the concept of“love at first sight?”

It depends on what it is at first sight that you love. I don’t really believe in that. That kind of stuff only happens in movies.

What is your favorite poem by someone other than yourself and why? Also, what is your favorite poem by you and why?

That’s a big one. There is a poem by Ginsberg called Please Master that I love. I like his sexual poems more than the political work, but his stuff is great. One of my favorite poems is a piece I wrote called “Kin Folks,” which was something I wrote after a conversation with my alcoholic uncle about people on my dad’s side of the family knowing about me.

I think you once said that the gay community needs to protest more and be more politically rebellious to achieve its goals. Is there anything political about your writing?

I’m black and gay. LOL Can’t get any more political than that. I should have my own flag.

What do you find is the most difficult aspect of writing? 

I never feel that the dialogue is just right. Getting the dialogue stuff down is like trying to make a cake. You have to make sure you have all of the right ingredients. Prior to 2001, I had not written fiction in eight years. I was afraid to approach fiction. I used to get very frustrated about writing it.One time I literally cried because I felt I was doing something wrong.

How much does reader response to your writing mean to you?

I read a review in which the reviewer said my stories are always mean. It didn’t bother me. I grinned at it a little.Sometimes I feel like being wicked and sinister. I don’t like being called inappropriate. Next to the word ‘catheter’, ‘inappropriate’ is my least favorite word, but it is what it is. People’s responses to my work matters.Whether they dig my work or not. No such thing as bad publicity.

If there was a biography about you,what would the title be?

People Are Starting to Talk about You.

Awesome. What goals do you have? For your writing and for other aspects of life?

My biggest goal is to do something in film. My dream is to make a short film. I would like to move back to New York. I have this fantasy of having a nice apartment in Brooklyn overlooking a busy street. I’m dressed in all white, sitting in front of my typewriter. My goal has always been to take my writing to the next level.

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Krakow Melt – Daniel Allen Cox (Arsenal Pulp Press)

Buy it now direct from Arsenal Pulp Press or from our store – Krakow Melt

Finally, a book for the pyromaniac in all of us. Who else
but Daniel Allen Cox could combine a bisexual Polish activist, popsicle-stick
replicas of 1871 Chicago and 1906 San Francisco ripe for conflagration, the
dying Pope John Paul II and Pink Floyd and come up with a compelling, essential
read? Um—no one, that’s who.

Radek is a bisexual artist who believes fire is the great
equalizer, making his living by igniting his intricately detailed recreations of
great city blazes for university classes and other fans of performance art. He
meets Dorota, a literature student and fellow pyromaniac, and together they
buck the system, the church, the establishment and their enemies to find each
other and sexual freedom.

Cox’s greatest strength is his narrative style: avant-garde
descriptive with enough grounding in realism to scare the hell out of you. His
2006 Poland is gritty, grimy and dangerous to queers, yet they emerge from dank
apartments smelling of cabbage to join in a prideful March of Tolerance that
degenerates into a shit-throwing spectacle.


gathered every slimy piece of feces she could find—wiping it

marchers, herself—and slung it wildly at the crowd. She even

over heads to aim curveballs at the neo-Nazis on the fringe…

sirens, and the beautiful sounds of police beating their riot shields

batons. Rescue. Only they came right at us, hitting and kicking

and dykes and gender-nonconformists and the bisexual threat,

us into pockets of solidarity and then breaking us up until we

alone and defenceless, pulling our hair and dragging us down the


Amazing stuff, this. But no more amazing than the sly,
threatening surgical notes on Pope John Paul II’s tracheotomy, the blaze from
Chicago 1871 or the witty musings and critical asides on Pink Floyd (“…if you
think ‘Comfortably Numb’ is Pink Floyd’s best song, then you’re a
lightweight”). Even more amazing is how Cox pulls these disparate elements together
into a fascinating narrative as foreboding as it is forward-thinking. 

If I have a criticism, it’s that the damn thing is too
short—but I get that too. The most interesting fires are quick and intense,
leaving ashen memories, and that’s the way Krakow Melt burns. That’s also mirrored in the relationship
between Radek and Dorota, and you just know Radek has to flame out in the end.
Has to. But it’s a surprise even when it happens.

Cox’s first novel, Shuck,
set him up as a writer to be reckoned with and he suffers no sophomore slump
here. His voice grows stronger and more assured with each effort. So drop what
you’re reading right now, turn your face towards the white hot
and let Cox crackle your flesh.

It’s just the bonfire to start your Fall reading season. 

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Match Maker – Alan Chin (Dreamspinner Press)

Buy it now from TLA  or from our store – Match Maker

Sports bore me. Football leaves me cold, baseball (when I’m not playing it) is just a day out with beer and hot dogs. And golf? Well, golf is like watching car bumpers rust. My heart sank when I got my copy of Alan Chin’s latest book and saw the tennis ball and racket on the cover. However, Chin’s storytelling ability saves the day and makes Match Maker a top-seeded read.

Daniel Bottega and his partner in tennis and life, Jared Stoderling, have been forced off the pro circuit for being gay. Bottega has retired to teach tennis at a country club and Stoderling is sinking into alcoholism, but they are both rescued by a prodigy named Connor Lin. With Bottega as his coach and Stoderling as his doubles partner, they return as out gay men to professional tennis with the attendant media hoopla and its inherent dangers. And some of those dangers become realities.

Chin’s talent lies in creating likeable, three-dimensional characters and then getting the hell out of the way so that they can drive theplot. His style is more invisible than intrusive. Not once did I feel as if the author was consciously writing this book—it all flowed very organically from the point of view character as if he was telling the story over dinner. In particular, I liked the characterization of straight boy Connor Lin, who is talented and explosive and Chin takes full advantage of his dramatic potential.

In addition to knowing his characters, Chin also knows his tennis. He never dumbs it down and I was able to catch the meaning of most of the technical terms from context, or at least enough to understand his running commentary on the matches 

But for a sports moron (a smoron?), the on-court triumphs are less interesting than what goes on behind the scenes—the subplot that has Connor conflicted about honoring his grandfather’s wishes to go to medical school, the merchandising deals made by the somewhat shady agent, the constant career and alcoholic tension between Bottega and his partner, Connor’s sexual relationship with his female trainer and an overwhelming sense of danger, where nutjobs with guns peek around every corner of the stadium.

Even though this is a sports book, Chin brings his “A” gameto the page, making Match Maker a totally enjoyable read.

And that’s no double fault. 

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Queer Hauntings: True Tales of Gay and Lesbian Ghosts – Ken Summers (Lethe Press)

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What really draws gay men and women to Halloween? Surface commentary tends toward “dressing up and acting out” and comes mostly from ourselves, but Mardi Gras hasn’t been co-opted to the same extent. Celebrating “otherness” and embracing the ironic liberation of wearing masks by a community that has worked all too hard to strip themselves of such psychologically weary
accoutrements bears study, but I think the reason is simple and raw: some of us are drawn back into the darkness. The
closet is a box of shadows as well as our childhood playground. After all, we grew up in there alone, among a field of tombstones engraved with the names of unrequited crushes or worse. So maybe we’ve a predilection to return to haunted spaces not for titillation but from a sense of familiarity: this is ournight-time language; we were fluent in fear well before we found any sense of “pride.”    

Ken Summers Queer Hauntings: True Tales of Gay and Lesbian Ghosts is written with all the aplomb of genuine research and reporting, with prose injected with just enough gothic poesy for it to hold its own on your typical spider web-strewn bookshelf stuffed with other such dark materials. If you haven’t read a nonfiction collection of ghost stories before, be forewarned: this is true to the genre, meaning you are getting a). historical background and b). the occurrence of said haunting with a pinch of irony thrown in, or not. There’s no typical story arc and tidy resolution. Much small town lore resides in such writing, and  Summers is an adroit craftsman on both fronts: the reportage is delivered in calm and meaningful dollops while the spectral experiences are compellingly conveyed.

Early kudos to the author by starting with Lizzie Borden –I didn’t know Lizzie was a lesbian; not giving proper mention to Lizzie’s long suspected half-brother seemed a slight oversight, though the focus on her lonely life after the murder of her parents and her sister’s total rejection of her once her homosexual affair became obvious illustrates the intense ostracism toward gays in the 19th Century. That the second chapter moved to storied Province Town and the early days of the AIDS epidemic warmed me to what was meant to be an autumnal read. Summers isn’t just ghost hunting here, episodes and elements of early, nearly forgotten gay culture are revealed in Queer Hauntings as well as brutal acts of prejudice. Readers with an interest in true crime will be particularly chilled.

The book is divided neatly into regions, ending with ghost stories from around the world with a (super)natural emphasis on the United Kingdom, home to so many crumbling manors and haunted halls that the author cannot be faulted for being a bit Anglo-centric when after all, London invented fog (and to think Oscar blamed the Impressionists, and before you ask, yes, he makes a spectral appearance in a capable but oddly quote-free chapter –why pass on repeating some Wilde witticisms?). Still, the author’s own lively queer sensibility make these tales of the deceased pop –titling a chapter about a Philadelphia gay bar with a haunted basement linked to the Underground Railroad “Slave to the Rhythm” might make some readers groan and others grin. Either way it keeps the pages turning. I was thrilled that there were more stories from New Jersey than New York, proof that the author dug deep, and the chapters dealing with the South were particularly interesting. The horror of the fire at the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans should be acknowledged and memorialized far and wide within the gay and lesbian community, while more individual but nonetheless tragic fates like the one that befell Bill Neville at the Royalty Theatre in Florida often fade from memory much too quickly.

There’s some great old Hollywood history in the Western States chapters, though the vague innuendo of “Who Haunts the ‘Houdini Mansion?’” is the only piece in the book that feels like its reaching. Liberace’s story made me want to revisit Las Vegas and dine in his restaurant, Tivoli Gardens, still open and quite haunted, apparently his glittery ghost is a rather needy queen –and Summers provides the address and available contact information for the locations covered in his book, making it a viable travel guide as well.

Queer Hauntings is a glowing success. It confirms that we must tell all of our stories, even the scary ones, for our history to survive. This book is the perfect tome for a cozy New England bed and breakfast read. And late at night, when the floorboards creak and you pull the covers up to your chin, there’s no guarantee that whatever is coming bears you malice –really, it’s what might still be knocking around in your own closet that’s cause for corporeal concern. 

Reviewed by Tom Cardamone

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