Monthly Archives: June 2011

Sarah, Son of God – Justine Saracen (Bold Strokes Books)

Buy it direct from Bold Strokes Books or from our Amazon.com store – Sarah, Son of God
 

The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous
palaces,


The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. 

Shakespeare:
The Tempest

The word “Apocrypha,” has meaning
here: Ancient writings from men disposed to provide their testament, their take, if you will, on Jesus Christ and
his teachings. The interpretation by, the writings of these ragtag mendicants
and eccentrics about the Man and His lessons—not fitting nicely into what the
honchos of the Christian movement at the time believed to be in their best
interests—were thus not included in the New Testament and are what comprise  “Apocrypha.”

Beginning in Venice, circa 1560, we
find the Inquisition in full bloom presided over by Dominicans who certainly
believed in the worth of unconscionable torture to extract truths and repentance from perceived enemies of The Faith. In this
case, the enemies of The Faith have knowledge or possession of a diary of sorts
that provides evidence that one of the Great Mysteries of the Roman Church was,
um, contrived. (To go any further with this component of Saracen’s storytelling
would be unfair, an egregious give-away of the plot’s conclusion.)

The storytelling moves to circa
1970, where Tadzio, later changed to Sara, is a transgender who is fired from
her job for transitioning from male clothing to female, and becomes the main
protagonist within the storytelling. Sara finds a new job with Joanna, an
academic, who needs an assistant who is fluent in Italian and can accompany her
to Venice where the object of her research is believed to reside. Sara and
Joanna hit it off, and the storytelling begins in earnest.

Let’s pause here for a moment.
Tadzio/Sara, through the administration of those drugs that provide the
requisite effects for the transitioning from male to female, have given her
perky little breasts, a smooth face and an all-in-all satisfying female mien.
She is quite ambivalent about her penis, and—in my reading—has no intense
interest in undergoing the ultimate “cut.” Joanna, on the other hand, is
vaguely lesbian and finds Tadzio (as she interviews him to fill a translator
position on what is called the “Venice Project”) quite alluring, in spite
of—or, perhaps, because of—the fact he unabashedly admits he is a
“…transvestite.” Joanna hires Tadzio who soon becomes Sara…quite striking as a
woman.  

The storytelling proceeds with the
premise that an ancient diary—actually published in renaissance Italy
(Venice)—tells a tale that rebuts (the Apocrypha) one of the most valued
Mysteries of The Church. The essence of the Saracen’s storytelling revolves
around, in, through the efforts of these two ladies, Sara and Joanna, to seek
the truth contained in the long-lost
diary of another lady, who, at the time of Jesus’ travails, apparently had the
inside scoop on what really occurred in the last days of The Savior’s
life/death on this earth.

Saracen’s storytelling reveals a
depth of knowledge, experience with the delights of Venice. It also reveals the
perspicacity of Sara, a transgender, in applying her sublime intellect in
assisting Joanna to solve the mysteries of the lost diary that may, or may not
(I wont, I swear I wont reveal the upshot of Saracen’s storytelling!) call into
question age-old perceptions, beliefs with regard to the Roman Church.

I must admit if I’d know the
subject matter of this book I’d probably not have spent much time sifting
through it. But such is the fate of a reviewer who is given books to read, for
better or for worst, with the expectation that he, the reviewer, will bite the
bullet, read on, and report on his/her conclusions.

My conclusions: This is a charming
venture into the world of, not only the transgendered, but the charisma of
Venice itself. The storytelling is ultimately a “…riddle, wrapped in a mystery,
inside an enigma…” (Thank you, Winston!)

And, yes, once you’ve read this
book your conclusion may be that,  And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
the Mysteries of the Church fade likewise…empty fables, empty promises. 

Reviewed by George Seaton

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A Hundred Little Lies – Jon Wilson (Cheyenne Publishing))

Buy it direct from Cheyenne Publishing or from our Amazon.com store – A Hundred Little Lies
 

Maybe it’s just my exposure to the genre, but whenever I
think “western,” I automatically assume a gunfighter or two will show up along
with some heathen Native Americans and, of course, some campfire homosex. But I
love having my expectations confounded so the small, yet complex, story in Jon
Wilson’s A Hundred Little Lies truly engaged me.

Jack Tulle, general store owner and respected city council
member of Bodey, Colorado has a wonderful relationship with his eight year old
daughter, Abigail, and friends all over town. But when a poker tournament comes
to Bodey, with it comes Tom Jude—Jack’s ex-lover—to threaten Tulle’s way of
life.

Most impressive about this book is its portrayal of relationships.
Rich with detail and expression, Jack’s relationship with Abigail—a willful
girl savvy beyond her years—is beautifully done. Her grunts, squeals, evil-eye
squints and moods are immediately understood but never belabored, and their
give-and-take dialogue is anything but stickily sentimental. It has an edge as
well as an underlying respect on both their parts.

Jack’s relationship with Tom Jude, however, has a different
cast. It’s all smoke, veils and onion layers where what’s said isn’t
necessarily what’s meant. If not for Abigail’s mother, Fiona, Jack and Tom
would never have parted company. That doesn’t mean Tom wants to start up a new
life with Jack—or does he? A dalliance with a past lover or the beginning of a
new chapter? Tom’s intent isn’t clear until the final chapter. And even then, a
sequel is possible.

However interesting, the plot takes a backseat to the finely
drawn characters. Jack Tulle is complicated and three-dimensional. A man of
some education with a rough and tumble past behind him, as is his former career
as a circus performer, he now lives and works in a small town, satisfied to
raise his daughter. Full of common sense, homespun wisdom and a (mostly)
even-temperment, Jack is the perfect prairie papa.

But even Wilson’s minor characters have complexities—notably
Tom Jude, who may or may not be a rouge, shifty bank president Emmerson Knowles
and town marshall Ethan Evans, Tulle’s best friend. And Wilson’s characters are
as well-drawn as his portrait of small town Colorado life during that time
period. The sense of place and time here is dead on. You can almost smell the
dusty cowshit—and that’s not a bad thing.

Jon Wilson’s A Hundred Little Lies is a multi-faceted
gem of a read, with plenty of depth as well as sparkle. 

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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My Hero – Tristam Burden (Rebel Satori Press, 2007)

Buy it direct from Rebel Satori Press

Tristram Burden’s My
Hero
is an improbably successful and captivating debut novel. 

Telling the story of Joshua My Hero, the novel partakes in
the generic tropes of science fiction and pornography, is structured as both a
gay coming-of-age tale and a spiritual quest narrative; it reads like a mystery
and a mythological epic in turn.  The
world it conjures is populated with wizards, cyborgs, giants, aliens and
shape-shifters.  Its post-apocalyptic
setting allows for critique of contemporary religious, political, cultural,
economic and environmental norms.  In the
hands of a lesser author, this jumble would spell disaster, but Burden keeps a
firm hand on the narrative rudder and sketches fully rendered, believable,
intriguing, sympathetic characters. 
While the jacket invokes Burroughs and Lovecraft, I heard Georges
Bataille and Pierre Klossowski in the wings. 
(Although Burden’s work is certainly a watered down version of their
scandalous tales.)

Joshua My Hero, the improbably surnamed protagonist, is a
teenage parricide fleeing a Christian fundamentalist trailer park.  At the novel’s beginning, he contemplates
becoming a prostitute to survive, but eventually realizes that he has a grand destiny—a
destiny involving ancient divinities (who speak through his cock), bound up
with his visionary power (that comes to fore during his orgasms) that may
result in Earth’s post-nuclear-holocaust renewal.

Burden is a masterful storyteller.  The multivocality of the novel’s first few
pages demands that the reader sort past from present, narration from internal
monologue.  The mystery continues for the
remainder of the tale:  it unfolds and
expands at just the right pace.  Burden
uses third-person objective narration deftly: 
there is no rapid oscillation between characters, but just enough shifts
away from Joshua that the reader questions the motives of other
characters.  (Burden offers a single
instance of direct address to the reader. 
Because it happens only once, and late, I found it jarring, rather than
formally interesting.)  His sex scenes
are raw, hot and creative.  And even
though Joshua insists that he doesn’t like girls, the novel’s eroticism is not confined
to male homoerotic encounters.  But as
importantly, Burden effectively evokes desire between characters who never
engage in sex.  He is so adept at
maintaining erotic tension, in fact, I expected certain characters to
consummate their relation by story’s end. 
I was pleasantly surprised when they didn’t, and enjoyed the
expectational frisson.   

The post-apocalyptic cultural critique is a strong presence
in the book.  It is most successful when
it is implicit in events.  When Burden
relies on dialogue to express this critique more directly, it gets clumsy,
heavy-handed and trite pretty quickly. 
(This is surprising given Burden’s gift for dialogue—and the stammering
of speech—more generally.)  The
connection between Joshua’s sexuality and his spiritual destiny provides the
novel’s most powerful critique of contemporary cultural politics.  Again, when the marriage of the erotic and
the Divine is presented in Joshua’s sexual adventures or his orgasmic visions,
it works incredibly well.  When Joshua
compares his rebellious spirit to that of Eve, or his mentor explains how “the
Fall” was not about sin but knowledge, things feel a little shopworn.  Burden’s use of the Tao Te Ching is also odd. 
Joshua has a tattered copy of the text and flips through it to gain
insight:  this is, of course, exactly how
Christian fundamentalists treat the Bible. 
It also veers close to an exoticizing Orientalism.  Joshua also has a vivid erotic fantasy
involving Jesus’ crucified body, and the penetrability of its wounds:  a more interesting religious critique might
have been possible if Burden had moved around in the Christian imaginary rather
than casting it solely as villainous presence.

My Hero has a lot
to offer and will undoubtedly please a wide range of readers.  Like any good hero tale, Burden draws his
story to a close in a fashion that leaves open the possibility of Joshua’s
adventures.  I would certainly follow
where Burden and Joshua lead.

Reviewed by Kent Brintnall

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My West – Patricia Nell Warren (Wildcat Press)

Buy it now direct from Wildcat Press or from our Amazon.com store – My West: Personal Writings on the American West — Past, Present and Future
 

Patricia Nell Warren is known to
most readers as the author of The Front
Runner
and Harlan’s Race books about gays in athletics. But to those
of us privileged to have met her, she is almost instantly perceived and
understood as a Westerner. I didn’t meet her until I’d moved to California, but
I’ve conversed with her about purely Western concerns: places in Utah and
Arizona to visit, how to raise a natural-dry versus a wet garden, and even how
we each discovered our own particular “totem animals.” So I looked forward to
reading My West and having done so I
found myself at times surprised, edified, moved, and admiring. Like this now
iconic woman herself, the book is complicated, at times unexpected, well
written if usually plain-spoken, and surprisingly interesting.

I don’t mean the last to sound
patronizing. But the truth is I’d never expected to read about hay-making
techniques and machinery in Montana, or about small wildcats, or about the
specifics of gate-making, or even about some of the details of rodeo life –and
I’ll bet neither did you.

Because, as Warren makes clear
early in her preface, this book is about her
West, and not the West of movies and cliche best sellers. If she has any peers
in what she knows and writes of, it would be Larry McMurtry, Annie Proulx and
perhaps also Louise Erdich. Like them, in her novels, and now in this
compendium, she extends our own knowledge deep into this least truly understood
part of America.

Warren’s West begins with family,
and in a way, this book is an extended love-letter to her ancestors and her
precursors. These include Quarra Grant the First Nation woman who built and
decorated the Montana ranch home Warren grew up in; Conrad Kohrs, one of the
two European immigrant settler-partners who bought the extensive ranch land and
became a cattle herder; his wife Augusta (Grandma or Oma), and Warren’s father
and brother. These were all people who lived on the land, by the land, and
taught young Patricia much of what she knew and much of what she values today
and they come through as wise and strong.

Warren has divided her large book
into sections—Agriculture, Animals,. Arts, Cities, Politics, Sexuality,
Sprituality, Women and Zest. She has been writing these articles for many
years, for many differing types of publications and on-line sites, and
sometimes the topic is extremely specific (my favorites) such as wild grasses
of the West; and as often the topics are more broadly observed and commented
upon. There’s a lot of overlap, and some repetition here, but just enough to
make you feel comfortable.

I’m guessing that my favorite
pieces are studded throughout, but that the section “Women” was the most
generally intriguing to me for facts and new information. Here, Warren writes
of some of her heroines: Calamity Jane – “that awful girl”, whom she typifies
as the anti-Victorian woman. Also Janet Thompson, the first woman thoroughbred
horse trainer, and Alice Greenough, who returned women to rodeo via
“barrell-racing.” Pat Quillen, who is trying to conserve and save endangered
world species of smaller wildcats, is one of Warren’s heroines, as is Earth
Thunder, a powerful Medicine Woman who sums up much of what has been lost to
us.

Warren correctly sees that Native
American Reservations were “prison camps” and that white misunderstanding, fear
and prejudice held back First Nation peoples and all but destroyed them.  Her essay on Two-Spirit People (what we often
think of as Berdache) should be required reading for any anthropologist,
historian, sociologist or GLBT person.

            Warren
could just as easily have titled this volume, “My Life,” or “My Essays,” or
even “What I Know,”– it’s that personal, and it’s that variegated, and it’s
that diversely interesting. Like the woman herself.

Anyway, any book that gives me new
words –“Metis” for mixed blood, as well as “passamanterie” – any book that
recalls a fact I’d long forgotten –i.e. that early women’s jeans had zippers on the side, from the waist down! – and
any book that gives me new factual information – just too much to point out —
is in Patricia Nell Warren’s own plain spoken writing, a worthwhile book.
Warren’s My West is much more than
worthwhile.

 ©2011, Felice Picano

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The Company He Keeps: Victorian Gentlemen’s Erotica – Dale Chase (Bold Strokes Books)

Buy it now direct from Bold Strokes Books or at our Amazon.com store – The Company He Keeps: Victorian Gentlemen’s Erotica
 

I’ll admit to being a sucker for Victorian literature.
There’s something wonderfully adult (and I don’t mean in an XXX way) about the
language and sentence structure. It’s all about saying exactly what it means in
the most expressive manner possible, no matter how many words it takes. The
concept of Victorian erotica, then, is enough to make me reel with delight—and
Dale Chase’s most recent collection, The Company He Keeps, surpasses all
my expectations.

It makes perfect sense that the most sexually repressive
period in history would have produced some of the randiest literature, and
Chase evokes that epoch with absolutely delightful abandon. Her characters are
university students, professors, writers, businessmen, artists, lawyers or
simply well-to-do ne’er-do-wells with but one thought in mind—men coupling with
men.

As with Chase’s last collection, If the Spirit Moves You:
Ghostly Gay Erotica
, the vastly differing plotlines keep the stories from
sounding too “samey,” but even so you’ll not want to read more than one or two
at a sitting. They’re far too rich, heady and pornographically sumptuous to be
consumed in one evening’s go. These delicacies are meant to last longer than a
one night stand.

My favorites? “The Uninitiated Eye,” which explores the
carnal relationship between a groundskeeper and his employer’s son, the
perverse artistic delights of “A Genius for Sitting,” the reluctant (at first)
three-way of “Old Friends,” the kinky initiation into “The Westbrook Club,” the
seduction of a bridegroom-to-be in “Magnificent Surrender,”and the purposefully
wicked university professor in “A Fine Corruption.”

None of these, however, will prepare you for the delicious
“The Late Manner,” in which writer Malcom Arnold—well into his career—takes on
a typist named Elgin Ford, who brings a totally different type of novel out of
Arnold. This brilliant story is not only wonderfully dirty, but it bears a
philosophical stamp as well as illuminating the inner workings of one writer’s
mind. This one has a delightful twist that gives you food for thought as well
as a rise to your lap.

So brush up on your Henry James, stoke the fire, pour
yourself a nice brandy and settle in for a few long, wondrous evening with some
erotica that unfolds with grace, dignity and sheer love of language.

And keep a towel nearby too. 

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Hidden – Tomas Mournian (Kensington Books)

Buy it now direct from Kensington or from our Amazon.com store – hidden

No matter how many chances you give them or how much you
want to like them, some books straddle that subjective line between good and
not-so-good with wobbly steps, falling into both territories at random. Tomas
Mournian’s Hidden walks that chalk line and stumbles as often as it
glides.

Ahmed, a young gay boy, brings up the possibility of his
queerness in his journal, which falls into the hands of his parents. They send
him to a rehab facility called Serenity Ridge, from which he escapes. He lands
in a safe house in San Francisco—basically a small, run-down apartment shared
by several fellow teen runaways. There, Ahmed (now renamed Ben) finds love,
conflict and heartbreak as well as several near misses with the agents send to
re-capture him.

The story here is extremely compelling, and Ahmed/Ben’s
voice is fresh and original—perhaps too fresh and original. The slang and
idiomatic expressions are piled on so thickly as to be almost incomprehensible
at times. Don’t get me wrong; I love slang. It allows our language to breathe
and makes it unique, but at many points, I longed for clarity instead of
character. I kept thinking of a butterfly that refuses to land—you know that
it’s amazing but it needs to sit still occasionally so you can see it clearly.

That said, Hidden never panders to any particular
audience, nor does it compromise for the reader, which a wonderful artistic
choice. It’s exciting, vivid and absolutely dead-on as far as its portrayal of
teen angst goes. There is much to admire in this butterfly. The scenes where
Ben and his friends go out to a Halloween party and end up fighting for their
freedom against the men sent to find them are tense and terrific—real
hold-your-breath writing. 

Ahmed/Ben’s escape from Serenity Ridge, however, really
blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. Ordinarily, that would be fine but
as it’s the section that starts the book, you begin with a feeling of
groundlessness and never get a firm platform on which you can gain traction.
The explanation for this is that he’s coming down from the drugs fed him at the
facility, but there are ways to ground the reader and still get that across.

Nevertheless, Hidden is an interesting, if flawed,
read that will definitely speak to teens in the throes of coming out. It spoke
to me as well.

I’m just not sure what it said sometimes. 

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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The Buoyancy of It All – Robert Walker (Lethe Press)

Buy it now direct from Lethe Press or from our Amazon.com store – The Buoyancy of It All
 

Poetry is so immediate and confessional that the best of it
sounds like an intimate conversation with your best friend. Even if you don’t
know the poet personally, by the time you finish a slim volume of his, you
sometimes feel as if you know him better than you know yourself. Such is the
case with Robert Walker’s debut collection, The Buoyancy of It All.

Walker’s gay-basher, straight-acting, molested, bullied,
boogeyman-nightmared past comes rushing at you in a short 80 pages. But as
serious as that sounds, his wry, knowing voice sugars it enough to make it not
only palatable, but downright addictive. His pop culture references range from
90’s teen heartthrobs to The Wizard of Oz, but they’re never too obscure
or far out. His sense of humor is evident in many of the titles: “Sacred Cows
Make Fine Cheeseburgers,” “Mrs. Potatohead’s Uterus,” “5 Viable Routes of
Explaining Your Role in a Pornographic Film” and “Question # 26 On The Red
Cross Donation Questionnaire” are some of my favorites. But the work that
follows the cute titles is intricate and the kind of funny that makes you
wonder why you laughed in the first place.

Several poems in this collection have multiple parts, each
branching off the other to tell a story too large for one to contain. My
favorite is the “Nightmare” series, especially “Nightmare: The One In Which I
Tell Her I Love Her & She Believes Me.” This nine-part poem tells the story
of a young gay man trying to pass for straight, a beautifully conflicted word
salad that, at times, reads more like prose than poetry:

            “You’re
naked. You’re pulling the covers off. You’re saying
try it, you

            might like
it. I’m cold. I want to stop; to wake up. It tastes plastic like

            boiled
Barbie parts. I think this is what aliens must taste like. I think if

            I wrap
my lips tight enough, if I suck until we’re both chapped, I can

            turn you
inside out—I could find a mouthful of something familiar. But

            your
cunt is stubborn. It stays moist and concave. I am convexed by the

            situation.” 

Walker’s wordplay leaves me breathless and jealous, as does
his honesty and directness in such frank poems as the powerful “The Rapee
Remembers,” the self-loathing of “A Joke I Used to Tell” and the painful regret
of “My History of Violence.” Yet nothing can quite prepare you for “The
Boogeyman and I Seek Couple’s Counseling (A Poem in One Act).” This brief
play/poem—one, again, of a series dealing with the boogeyman—embodies Walker’s
work. It’s simultaneously funny, scary and heartbreaking, cutting close to some
essential relationship truths. Brilliant stuff.

I had the pleasure of meeting Robert Walker and listening to
him read at this years Saints and Sinners gathering, and his delivery is as
impeccable as his words. It’s a shame you can’t hear his performance, but this
is a wonderful collection full of heart and nerve.

The Buoyancy of It All will take you away indeed. 

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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