Monthly Archives: April 2011

Sleeping Angel – Greg Herren (Bold Strokes Books)

Buy it from Bold Strokes Books or from our Amazon.com store – Sleeping Angel
 

Labels depress me. I understand them for marketing purposes,
but labeling books puts them on a shelf where they may or may not reach the
audience they deserve. Greg Herren’s latest mystery, Sleeping Angel, is
a perfect example. It will probably be put on the young adult (YA) shelf, but
the fact is that it’s a cracking good mystery that general readers will enjoy
as well. It just happens to be about teens.

Eric Matthews wakes up in the hospital but, due to amnesia,
has no idea how he’s gotten there. Nor does he know who murdered Sean, the dead
boy found in his car. He can’t remember his parents, his friends, his teachers
or his life—which comes back to him in annoyingly vague flashes. Despite this,
he must find Sean’s killer in order to clear his own name. Unless, of course,
he did it. 

Greg Herren has breathed new life into what could have been
a tired, run-of-the-mill YA mystery by approaching the whole “bullied gay
teens” cliché-to-be in an entirely new direction—that of the bully. Eric’s
guilt and determination to make up for his past deeds are a big part of his
motivation for solving why his former friend’s body is in his car. Although
he’s desperately afraid of how he might have had a hand in it, he drives
himself to explore not only the situation but his own mind as well.

Herren’s muscular prose—flowing but never flashy—sets the
stage, brings the characters on and lets them tell their stories without
standing in the way. His eye for detail is unerring and even though there’s a
very moralistic point of view, the tone is never preachy or pompous. And if, at
times, his teens sound more like thirty-year olds that has less to do with
Herren’s writing ability than a desire to have them actually say something
intelligent. I mean, have you talked to one lately? Like, you have to
have something to work with, dude. Y’know?

A unique viewpoint, a solid mystery and good
characterization all conspire to make Sleeping Angel a welcome addition
to any shelf, no matter where the bookstores stock it.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Mere Mortals: A Novel – Erastes (Lethe Press)

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“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”

“Hamlet” – William Shakespeare

Erastes first places us in a carriage with Thorne, the narrator, a young man who has no immediate family, and has been banished from his school for the sin of inversion.” Thorne is travelling to Bittern’s Reach, in the Norfolk Broads of England, where Philip Smallwood, his benefactor, his guardian—whom he has never met—will no doubt bestow upon him the niceties of his wealth, his standing amongst the English gentry.

One of the passengers in the coach is a Doctor Baynes, whomErastes through Thorne describes in words, images—a wink of the eye included—reminiscent of Dickens: “The old gentleman had almost exactly the same expression as my headmaster’s wife’s terrier. I found myself on the verge of laughing as I noticed the comparison and had to bite the inside of my cheek to prevent myself from so doing. It should be a grammar exercise, I thought, still trying not to grin. The dog of the wife of my headmaster has a face like the man sitting opposite to me.”

The timeframe here is, I suspect, the mid-nineteenth century, as there is talk amongst two of the three passengers in the carriage about locomotives coming to the area, as well as bridges.

Okay. Firstly, the Norfolk Broads is an area in eastern England where rivers and lakes dominate the geography, with Bittern’s Reach  being an island of sorts within the Broads. That locomotives and bridges were even a remote possibility in such a landscape was surely a topic of argument in the mid-Nineteenth century. Apparently, railroads and bridges did eventually come to the Broads in or about 1879.

Erastes is a stickler for an accurate depiction of historical fact as background for her enchanting ability to bring the reader into the moment. And being brought into the moment, I experienced the particular warmth of such tales that are best read before a fire, perhaps with a cognac or a fine wine in the mix.

Thorne soon learns that he is not the only ward taken on by the benevolent Philip Smallwood. No, there is Jude and Myles, young men who also have come to Bittern’s Reach after banishment from their schooling for the same crime as Thorne’s: inversion. I do not believe it necessary to explain “inversion” except, suffice it to say, these boys were caught at their respective schools savoring the flesh of other boys. Their banishment from their schools, their adoption by Philip Smallwood serves as only a segue to the conflict, the crux of Erastes’ storytelling.

Doctor Baynes, a passenger in the coach within which Thorne travels to the protection of his benefactor, knows intimately the history of Philip Smallwood’s passions. And it is in those passions—later revealed in toto—where the storytelling eventually comes to a head, where truths are revealed that explain the largesse of Philip Smallwood. (A note: Smallwood” has meaning here, across the pond. Did Erastes intentionally name this man thusly? I suppose it really doesn’t matter. Just curious.)

It is difficult to expose much of the plot of this intriguing novel without giving away a very revealing hint at what the eventual outcome brings. I can tell you that Thorne and Jude have a go at it; Thorne and Myles eventually give-in to desire. But the endgame is an engaging traipse—oh, so enhanced by that cognac, that fine wine before a warming fire—that, again, is reminiscent of Dickens, but in this case, Erastes’ ability to delve deeply into the day-to-day machinations of mid-nineteenth century gentry life while, at the same time, moving the storyline forward. The barest hint of eventualities: Is the benefactor more likely the malefactor? What demons infest the soul of Philip Smallwood?

Erastes provides a cozy, intriguing, historically relevant jaunt into a time and place that, for me, is so engaging, so interesting, so feral really, that I cannot help but suggest the read is well worth the effort. This is a mystery, within an enigma, that cannot help but engross the reader as something worthy of their time, their money well spent on storytelling that is not only fascinating, but so cleanly put together that any writer will, perhaps, be envious.

Reviewed by George Seaton

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True Stories – Felice Picano (Chelsea Station Editions)

Buy it now from Giovanni’s Room or from our Amazon.com store – True Stories
 

Felice Picano is a bona fide legend who has not only
been around the block, he’s paved a few as well, so you’d expect a memoir of
his to be name-droppingly dishy. And you’d be partially correct. But True
Stories
works best when it’s telling Picano’s stories, not those of Diana
Vreeland, W. H. Auden or Tennessee Williams.

Don’t get me wrong—the chapters on the above celebrities are
definitely worth reading and Picano surely has volumes more of them. But a life
is not merely comprised of the famous people one encounters. Picano has
included some of them—after all, it’s what readers expect in a memoir of a gay
literary icon—but he uses them to augment some wonderful chapters starring
not-so-well-known luminaries as well as a few childhood memories that will
stick in your head longer than any of the profiles.

We meet fellow Violet Quill members Robert Ferro and Michael
Grumley (and the ghost in their home) in a particularly engaging episode that
details the couple’s lives and deaths as well as illustrates the somewhat
prickly relationship Ferro and Picano had—or rather that Ferro had with
everyone. He also introduces us to surrealist poet Charles Henri Ford and the
difficulties Picano had with reprinting Ford’s 1933 novel The Young and Evil.

As interesting as meeting these people is, however, the most
involving portraits in the book come from Picano’s childhood. “The Bike Race,”
a reminiscence about Picano’s friend (and rival) Ricky Hersch and their bicycle
race beneath an unfinished mall, menaced by the dark unknown and a security
guard, is golden—the stuff that made Jean Shepard and Garrison Keillor
famous—and Picano’s telling is vivid and exciting.

In “Secret Ceremony,” Picano relates a midnight escapade in
which he and his grandfather and several other neighbors do battle with a pack
of wild dogs that have been terrorizing the neighborhood. You can feel the
dread and smell the cordite in the air, espeically after the men have stopped
the pack and are forced to pick off the squirming and wounded animals. In a
different vein, his crush on “The Taystee Bread Man” is charming and sweet
without being sticky. 

With True Stories, Felice Picano enhances his status
as one of the great literary figures in recent gay history and does so with
wit, verve and as much panache as we’ve come to expect.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Dutch’s Boy – Xavier Axelson (Seventh Window Publications)

Buy it now direct from Seventh Window or from our Amazon.com store – Dutch’s Boy
 

People who know me well, know that I’m not a big fan of
cowboys, or Westerns.  Call me silly, but
the whole cowboy fetish thing just never worked for me. Perhaps it was the
Westerns I grew up with that tainted my taste. John Wayne was over-the-top and
arrogant. Everything about his various characters just seemed fake and
exaggerated to me. Dutch’s Boy the latest short story by Xavier Axelson may
just change my mind about these men.

Dutch Reynolds is a famous rodeo rider who doesn’t want his
son, Harry to leave the ranch to follow his own dreams of being in the rodeo.
Harry has finally had enough and leaves home unexpectedly while his father is
away. Through chance encounters, the support of his lifelong friend Reb, and a
few unexpected twists, Harry learns what following your dream really means.

This is the third story I’ve read by Xavier, and I have to
say he isn’t letting up. Dutch’s Boy is a powerful and sexy story about a young
man searching for a way to live his dream, a dream his father doesn’t think
he’s ready for. The emotions Xavier puts onto the pages are heartfelt, intense,
and familiar. Anyone who has ever had a dream that they struggled obtaining due
to family pressure will immediately relate to Harry’s story. 

The sex in Dutch’s Boy lives up to what we’ve come to expect
from Xavier’s writing. It’s hot, raw, and most of all – believable. Dutch’s Boy
is only eight-eight pages, but it’s packed full of tight writing, and stronger
characters.

Now if I could have had a cowboy like Harry when I was
growing up, things would have been quite different for me.

Reviewed by William Holden

 

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Hot Lava – Rob Rosen (Torquere Press)

Buy it direct from  Torquere Books 

Many beach reads take place in the city but sometimes you
just need to set one on a beach, and Rob Rosen has done just that in his latest
for Torquere Press, Hot Lava. This particular beach is in Hawaii, but
his characters are not just sunbathing twits. They also drink and have hot
restroom sex and—oh yes—solve mysteries. Rather complex mysteries, too.

Heading to start their vacation, BFFs Brandon and Chase
don’t even get off the plane before they run into Detective Will Stevenson,
escorting a prisoner named Lenny back to Waikiki. And Stevenson barely gets his
charge to the station before he runs into Chase again in the men’s room. But
before love can blossom (though sex does bud), Lenny escapes from his
destination. Then washes up dead on the beach. Helping Will find Lenny’s killer
takes all of Brandon and Chase’s wits—and wardrobe.

Rosen has crafted a skillful, complicated mystery with
quirky characters, including a Hawaiian street kid/hooker named Koni and Brandon’s
sister, Briana—a take-charge sort of gal who helps the boys sort out the
details. There’s a love story, some drag and lots of danger as our heroes
mai-tai their way through every bar and clue in Waikiki. And just when you
think you have things figured out, you find you’ve been misled and the ending
you were looking for is not the one you get.

Rosen’s prose is breezy and bright, peppered with some
clever dialogue tags and his characters do not, as in some beach reads, blend
together into one brash stereotype. His dialogue is also snappy and
to-the-point, coming from character rather than relying on stale, warmed-over
booze and boy jokes. And at a hair over 200 pages, it hits the ground running
and never stops. 

So let your first beach read this summer be a true beach
read. Grab an umbrella drink, settle back in your sandy chaise lounge and snack
on this pineapple-ringed whodunit while you watch your toes turn tan.

After all, you’ll have to go back to work soon enough.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler 

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Banalities – Brane Mozetic/Handmade Love – Julie Enszler/Mute – Raymond Luczak (A Midsummer Night’s Press)

Buy all three of these titles at A Midsummer Night’s Press

Continuing our celebration of National Poetry Month, we take
up three slim, pocket-sized volumes sent by Lawrence Schimel of A Midsummer
Night’s Press—part of the Body Language Series. The books may be small, but
their words paint large, memorable portraits.

First up is the ironically titled Banalities, by
Slovenian poet Brane Mozetic. These 50 untitled pieces of Mozetic’s mind are
anything but banal, using pain and violence to unsettling effect, creating a
tense world of furtive harm and senseless assault, some on the narrator and
some inflicted by the narrator.

It’s
a good thing I kept my cool and didn’t kill you.

It
would make all the papers and perhaps my book

sales would
increase. In them, I killed you slowly,

piece by piece,
and others, the countless victims of 
the serial
killer within me.

Chillingly effective, Mozetic eases up this tension
periodically just to ratchet it up twice as far when you least expect it. These
poems skitter around your consciousness, running their sharp edges into the
most sensitive areas—prickly, but never pretentiously so. Their points have a
point.

Julie Enszler has points as well in her volume of Handmade
Love
, but they are more erotic and definitely more feminist. She stakes her
claim to this territory in her opener—the moving, reflective “When We Were
Feminists” where she contrasts the early days of feminism to today’s brand and
finds the modern version sorely lacking.

When
we were feminists, feminism was like cooking the

first meal
after grocery shopping. You know,

when all of the
vegetables have the patina of freshness.

When the fruit
feels firm, even weighty in your hand,

When the knife slides through perfectly from the right 




combination of resistance and
forgiveness.
 



When you cook
with the leisure of a weekend.
 



Now feminism is
like the meal you make five days after shopping
 



When you are
exhausted from working all day.
 



When you try to
perk up wilted red and green leaf lettuce
 



in a bath of cold water, 



When you coax
leftovers with salt and spices to make them
  



seem new and somehow fresh. 



When you cook
simply because you have to eat.

But Enszler doesn’t just concern herself with activists who
have sold out. Her erotic poetry (“First Kiss,” “Hibuscus”) is charged with
longing and she draws her inspiration from the damndest places (“Absolutely No
Car Repairs in the Parking Lot,” “I Give You a Diamond Ring at the Airport”).
All these influences work together to mold a multi-faceted yet consistent
poetic identity as political as it is sexual.

Sexual politics also rears its head in Raymond Luczak’s
wonderful “Mute,” exploring themes that elucidate what it’s like to walk
between the hearing and Deaf worlds. As with Enszler, Luczak puts his major
theme right out front in the first poem, “How to Fall for a Deaf Man”:

When
he comes across the floor,       

do
not ask his name with

exaggerated
lip movements.

A
simple “how are you” will do.

Do
not feel lost 
in
his eyes, worn thin by years

of
guessing the lip movements of strangers,  

and
wondering for weeks afterward

exactly
what they had said.     
 

Luczak negotiates this path between spheres with ease, his
language reflecting the pain and experience that purchased his facility
(“Waiting for You to Learn Sign Language,” “One Day When I Lose My Speech”) and
inform those pieces that are not about deafness at all (“Night Stroll in
Washington D.C,” “The Loom”). Luczak is a powerful poet whose work is as
important as it is beautiful.

And these are only three entries in this wonderful series
from A Midsummer’s Night Press—small meals on which you can graze to nourish
your heart and enrich your soul.

Eat one today.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler 

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The Limits of Pleasure – Daniel M. Jaffe (Bear Bones Books)

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All grief is complex, feeding some facets of the grieving individual’s personality while starving others. Get two grief-stricken, survivor-guilt ridden men together, and they can’t help having problems communicating, and Daniel M. Jaffe illustrates this brilliantly in The Limits of Pleasure, recently reprinted by Bare Bones Books.

Dave Miller, a forty-year-old Jewish bear, is on extended holiday in Amsterdam, recovering from the loss of his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who raised him after his parents died in a car accident. He crosses paths with Alexander, a Dutch citizen of Indonesian extraction, who has survived the AIDS death of his partner, Jeroen, and they’re drawn together despite the differences that cause them to repel each other.

A superb writer, Jaffe has a field day with Dave, who has a love/hate relationship with his heritage as well as with his grandmother. Jaffe weaves childhood memories with bathhouse escapades, tawdry alley sex, absurdist rhymes and dirty limericks in a melange of voice, history and philosophy as compelling as it is edifying.

The other narrator, Alexander, is just as interesting if far more distanced and nuanced. Dave is right up in your grill constantly, putting all the gory, vivid details of his sex life and childhood on display but Alexander has a mannered objectivism, all the more intense for its restraint. He never says “I” but uses “One” instead, a wonderful rhetorical device that becomes part of the character the first time Jaffe uses it. Only once does Alexander refer to himself as “I”—one of the most telling moments of the book.

In combination, Dave and Alexander provide some of the most pointed and flat-out sparkling interchanges I’ve read in a while. Dave’s continual sexual innuendo is blunted and effortlessly parried by Alexander’s polite bemusement, yet neither is out-pointed enough to discontinue what seems to be a very barbed friendship on the surface. They get close enough to brush each others’ essential truths before backing off for a breather. The interplay is marvelous. I tried to isolate an example for this review, but the balance is so delicate that nothing I found could typify their exchanges without destroying them.

There are some other sub-plots centered around Dave: his relationship to a boy in the apartment complex where he lives, an encounter with a faux Jew that ends up with Dave undergoing his first HIV test and an extended set piece about an online chat room, and Jaffe uses these to deepen our understanding of Dave as well as to bridge the conversations between Dave and Alexander. It is a testament to Jaffe’s talent that even these sub-plotsnever sag or seem “less than” other parts of the book.

The Limits of Pleasure is a satisfying and thought-provoking read that will echo in your consciousness long after the surprisingly uplifting ending. Jaffe is a major talent, and Bear Bones Books is to be lauded for bringing this wonderful book back into print.

© 2011, Jerry L. Wheeler

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