Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Girls Club – Sally Bellerose (Bywater Books)

Buy it now direct from Bywater Books

I’m an only child and have always longed to have
siblings—someone to tell my deepest, darkest secrets to; someone to hang with;
someone who remembers me from way back when. My late partner and others have assured
me that is a romantic and totally misguided notion. No one can fuck you up
worse than your brothers or sisters. Yet, the fantasy persists, brought to the
fore again by Sally Bellerose’s wonderful novel The Girls Club.

Cora Rose LaBarre lives in a working class neighborhood with
her sisters Marie, who likes to sleep around, and Renee, a prim and proper
nursing student. The novel follows their adventures in the 1970s, from births
to marriages to operations to—yes—coming out. Cora Rose is a budding lesbian
who, bored and trapped by a marriage she didn’t want and a child she wasn’t
crazy about having, decides to break out of her life. She goes to nursing
school and hangs out at the local lesbian bar, The Girls Club.

Bellerose is a magnificent writer with a particular talent
for character. You know each and every one of these sisters by the second or
third chapter. Her Cora Rose is an outwardly fragile bundle of insecurities,
caused largely by her ulcerative colitis and then her ostomy, but she has a steely
core that enables her to stand up to her husband as well as defy everyone’s
expectations. Cora Rose is a marvelous character, but Marie and Renee are just
as well-drawn. Marie, the worldly font of relationship and parenting wisdom, is
a short-tempered firecracker with an unexpectedly sweet side. Renee is more
conservative but still has the grace and aplomb to dance with her sister in a
lesbian bar.

Also noteworthy is Cora Rose’s husband, Joe. Many terrific
writers of women’s fiction (if there is such a thing as women’s fiction)
seem to draw blanks when it comes to writing men. Not Bellerose. Her Joe is a
clearly delineated, beautifully detailed 1970s husband, caught between
traditional values and changing times. The struggles between Cora Rose and Joe
are very true to life and sound just like the ones I heard my parents having as
I listened to them through the heating vent when I should have been asleep.

The plot? Nothing more than life itself. There is no mystery
to solve or objective to accomplish other than surviving what is thrown at the
characters, and that’s the marvel of this book. Bellerose moves these wonderous
creations of hers through the ordinary pitfalls of life, showcasing their
heartbreaks, their triumphs and their shame with equal assurance. The Girls
Club
is an incredible book—not just for girls, but for everyone.

Even only children.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler 

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Speaking Out – Steve Berman, ed. (Bold Strokes Books)

Scheduled to release September 12th. Order it today from Bold Strokes Books

Though I don’t write YA or read it much, except for review
purposes, I certainly acknowledge its necessity and its worth as a genre that
can show young gay men and women that it’s not all prejudice and homophobia out
there. At a time of one’s life where there’s more confusion than clarity,
collections such as Steve Berman’s wonderful Speaking Out! can really
light some pathways.

Most of these aren’t your traditional coming out stories. In
fact, many of our protagonists here are already in their first relationships.
For example, Sam Cameron’s “Day Student” features Matthew and Charlie as two
students in an exclusive prep school who face difficulties with their
relationship once Charlie finds the money to live in their dorms rather than
just attend classes daily. What I loved most about this story (and others as
well) is that its voice is that of a teenager and not a thirty-plus writer, as
some YA novels and short stories seem to be.

Another piece whose voice was absolutely true was Danielle
Pignataro’s “Gutter Ball,” a wonderful story about a babydyke bowler and her
teammates who square off against homophobe Donna D’Amico and her cohorts. The
protagonist of Alex Jeffers’ “Captain of the World” and his boyfriend have not
only homophobia to contend with but Muslim hatred as well, all played out
against the backdrop of a soccer game.

But not all of the stories here center around sports or a
“big game.”  L.A. Fields’ does a lovely
job with a lifelong friendship between a gay boy and his best girlfriend in
“The Proximity of Seniors,” Lucas J.W. Johnson uses alcohol abuse to punctuate
the tale of a trans-boy who finds out who his real friends are in “Subtle
Poison” and Dia Pannes hits a home run with “The Spark of Change,” about a
budding lesbian and her volunteer firefighter father who refuses to answer a
call when lesbian couple’s house bursts into flames.

Also notable in this collection are Jeffrey Ricker’s “The
Trouble With Billy,” an engrossing character study that takes us, at times,
into the head of a bully who terrorizes a young gay boy because … well, you
know why, Steve Berman’s “Only Lost Boys Are Found,” which uses descriptions of
various closets to tell a poignant story of a boy who helps a prospective lover
uncloset himself, and Sandra McDonald’s “All Gender U,” which closes the book
on a hopeful note with a boy who wears girl’s clothes and wants to attend
Dartmouth with the help of a conservative alumni aunt.

But really, anywhere you open this book you’ll find a story
that affirms as it informs, good for both teens looking for other teens like
them as well as parents trying to get a handle on their own queer kids.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler 

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She’s My Dad – Iolanthe Woulff (Outskirts Press)

Buy it now direct from Outskirts Press or from our Amazon.com store – She’s My Dad
 

It is a relatively common occurrence for teachers in higher
education to find their way back to their alma mater in pursuit of an
academic career. The years spent at college define us in many ways,
providing a gateway from adolescence to adulthood, a time of profound
transition and transformation.  In Iolanthe Woulff’s She’s My Dad,
tall, striking, red haired Nickie Farrell’s decision to return to the bucolic
Virginia campus where she graduated as Nick Farrington twenty plus years
earlier is not so common an occurrence, and it effectively sets the stage for
an uncommonly dramatic debut novel.

Nickie Farrell’s return to the school she attended
decades prior to her transition as a MTF transsexual might seem a
sufficiently complex premise for any novel, but the complications do not begin
or end there.  Unbeknownst to Ms. Farrell, Nick Farrington’s affair
with the docile and beleaguered, unhappily married Luanne Skinner
while a student at Windfield College, produced a son, Nicholas (“Collie”)
Skinner.  It is a secret that Luanne guards with her life and that
ultimately erupts in a carefully and intricately plotted tangle of intrigue,
homophobia, racism, violence, romance and above all, self affirmation. 

Still dealing with the formidable challenges of adjusting to
life as a trans woman, Nickie Farrell also finds herself at the volatile center
of a community teetering between tolerance and hatred, and of a deadly plot to
purge that community of the perceived threats to ‘traditional’ morals and
values that she conspicuously embodies.  Clearly this story and its
central characters are close to Woulff’s heart and informed by her own journey
as a trans woman.  Her heroine is sensitively and thoughtfully drawn,
alternately and appropriately fierce and fragile, compelling in both her
struggles and her strengths.  Nickie’s tentative and tenuous romance with
male colleague Alex Steward is both bittersweet and revealing.  Woulff
also provides a believable and pivotal developmental trajectory for young
Collie Skinner, the son Nickie never knew she had, as he confronts the truth
about who he is and how to integrate the revelations about his own identity and
roots in the context of a world view severely constricted by his upbringing and
environment.   

It is an ambitious first novel—roughly 400 pages long with a
swirling storyline that, though cleverly managed, still seems at times too much
to fully flesh out even with the daunting length of the book. One
prevailing impression is that there is more than enough story for a fine
sequel or even a series, with more time and space to focus separately on the
abundance of compelling threads woven together here, such as Nickie’s
navigation of the tricky waters of romance with Alex Steward, her coming to
terms with the shock of being a parent to a grown son, and the complicated
elements of intrigue and malicious prejudice that form the
dynamic backdrop of this work. 

Despite some issues for this Virginia-born and raised
reviewer with the premise of a college in the Old Dominion founded on the
principles of sexual tolerance and diversity—and some occasionally stilted,
Harlequinesque romantic vernacular—Woulff succeeds in creating an uncommonly
appealing main character whose story is engaging and illuminating and
ultimately, heartwarming.  Moreover, she succeeds admirably in
accomplishing that most critical task for the first-time novelist:  She
leaves her readers eager for more.

Reviewed by Dan Stone

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Kept Men and Other Erotic Stories by Jonathan Asche (Starbooks Press)

Buy it now from our Amazon.com store – Kept Men and Other Erotic Stories
 

One would think that writing erotica for the past fourteen
years that I would get tired of reading it. I’ll admit that I don’t read as
much of it as I use to, but that’s because I’m too busy writing it. Yet, on occasion I’ll pick up a collection of erotic
stories and just sit back and enjoy it for what it is – pure entertainment.

Kept Men and Other Erotic Stories is a collection that does
just that, and nothing more. The stories are well written. The sex, and there
is a lot of sex is hot, intense, and well does what an erotic story should.

I decided not to do a play by play of the twenty-one single
author stories in this collection, nor will I mention which of them were my
favorites. Usually I’m full of opinions of which one’s worked and which didn’t,
but not so in this collection. They were all good, yet none of them stood out
as exceptional, perhaps that’s because many of these stories were a bit old and
dated.

As the author mentions, many of these stories were
previously published, some reworked for this collection, others I’m assuming
were reprinted as is. There are actually only four stories in this collection
that are new. The other seventeen were published during the 90’s in many of the
now defunct porn magazines.

So if you are looking for good quality vintage porn, than
this collection is for you. Please don’t think I said that out of spite or
distaste. It’s just that gay porn was written differently for the magazines.
There was less space available for fiction, so authors did what they had to do,
sacrifice plot and character development for the “money shot(s).”

In all honestly, Kept Men is a solid, well written
collection. Just don’t expect too much from it. The stories are perfect for a
rainy day or a sunny spot on the beach. Just be careful in your swimsuit, after
reading some of these you may not be able to turn over for a while. 

Reviewed by William Holden

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A Study in Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes – Joseph R.G. DeMarco, ed. (Lethe Press)

Buy from Amazon

Not that Holmes and his ever-present companion, Dr. Watson needed to be queered. From the very first one I picked up—I think it was The Hound of the Baskervilles—I was relatively certain Sherlock and John were Family. This absolutely delightful volume, however, removes all doubt and adds some fascinating mysteries to the canon.

But even before we get to the stories, editor DeMarco’s introduction sheds some interesting light on the issue. I had no idea Holmes was familiar with Victorian cruising areas or that the aforementioned Hound of the Baskervilles’ mention of a ‘telegraph boy’ related to a Cleveland Street male brothel whose workers were recruited from a nearby telegraph office. Marvelous stuff. But there was always something wonderfully gay about the relationship between Holmes and Watson, despite the good doctor’s marriages, and this is where A Study in Lavender struts its stuff.

Stephen Osborne starts the proceedings off with “The Adventure of the Bloody Coins,” which intimates the notorious homosexual in the Holmes is not Sherlock, but his brother Mycroft who uses rooms in the famed Diogenes Club for boy-shagging purposes. The hint of a brotherly dalliance when they were children only tantalizes the reader for more information. In Rajan Khanna’s “The Case of the Wounded Heart,” however, it is Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade who’s gayed up.

Many of the stories feature Holmes and Watson on gay-related cases (gayses?) such as Katie Rayne’s bit of lesbiana, “The Kidnapping of Alice Braddon,” J.R. Campbell’s public-school revenge scenario, “Court of Honor,” or William P. Coleman’s thoughtful tale of love between two male prostitutes, “The Well-Educated Young Man.” There’s even a delicious transgender switch-up in Vincent Kovar’s “The Bride and the Bachelors.”

But the two pieces that really stick in my mind are the last ones: Michael Cornelius’ “The Adventure of the Unidentified Flying Object” and Elka Cloke’s “The Adventure of the Poesy Ring.” The Cornelius story is a favorite of mine not for its gay underpinnings, which are tangential, but for its uniquely Victorian explanation of a UFO seen near Cleveland Street. The Cloke story is, however, a perfect finisher—one that not only has a great
mystery but one that takes us inside the mind of Dr. Watson who wonders about his friend’s tendencies towards sexual inversion as well as his own. And when Watson kisses Holmes…well, you’ll just have to read for yourself.

DeMarco has put together an intriguing, uniformly well-written batch of gay Holmes tales as worthy of Doyle as they are of Oscar Wilde. May we have a second volume?

Please?

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Shaken and Stirred – Joan Opyr (Bywater Books)

Buy it now from Bywater Books or from our Amazon.com store – Shaken and Stirred
 

In the last few years, it seems as if you can’t swing a
literary cat without hitting a dying parent. Be it a mother riddled with
cancer, a father with a heart condition or a grandparent failing from Alzheimer’s,
this frame has been cropping up more and more as an event on which to hang
childhood anecdotes, coming out traumas and a reason to mend fences. It’s
almost a cliché—but Joan Opyr manages to avoid most of them in her moving look
at family and lovers, Shaken and Stirred.

Poppy Koslowski is recovering from a hysterectomy when she
receives a call that her grandfather, Hunter, is dying. And she’s been given
the responsibility of pulling the plug if need be. She takes her best friend
since childhood, Abby, back home to the bosom of her family to help her deal
with her mother and grandmother as well as an old love she’s never really
gotten over.

So, while the set-up is pretty familiar territory, Opyr does
some very interesting things with it. Hunter’s imminent death is not the focus.
In fact, it’s rarely mentioned until it actually happens. It’s Opyr’s
characters that drive the story, not the plot. First, there’s the wonderful
Abby, who has enough sassy black lesbian chick in her to liven things up but
never becomes a caricature. Their dialogue is sharp and witty without sounding
written. She’s the polar opposite to the moneyed, cultured Susan, Poppy’s first
love—but both characters are equally detailed and finely tuned. And someone
even wins Poppy in the end.

For character, however, it’s tough to beat her dying
grandfather, Hunter, who we see mostly in flashback. He’s a bitter ball of
dysfunction: an alcoholic philanderer with a less-than-PC attitude towards
children but one who took her and her mother in when they split from her
father. Hunter is a piece of work, and Opyr uses her eye for detail and gift
for dialogue to put him together like a ship in a bottle.

If there is a fault to the book it’s that it switches from
past to present with little warning, which can be a bit disconcerting
sometimes. Opyr, however, is a good enough writer to orient the reader quicker
than most and, in the end, it’s less of a distraction that I’ve seen in other
books with fractured timelines.

Shaken and Stirred is a fine, entertaining read,
dealing with family complexity, the longings and ruminations that re-visiting
your childhood home can bring and a very unexpected love story. It’s a
wonderful novel to round out your summer.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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A History of Barbed Wire – Jeff Mann (Bear Bones Books)

51GPD6DmtmLBuy from Lethe Press

I met Jeff Mann in 2006, at Saints and Sinners in New Orleans and the first bearish blip of him on my radar screen was when he read from “The Quality of Mercy,” the novella that ends this book. Much like the antagonist in that story, I was captured. I rushed to the bookseller’s table
and bought a copy of the first Suspect Thoughts printing and read it on the plane on the way home.

Five years later, the groundbreaking Suspect Thoughts Press is no more, I have a book or two of my own under my belt, and Mann is still kicking serious literary ass with both prose and poetry. His recent releases for Bear Bones Books all offer their own bearded BDSM charms, but the point of my reminiscences is that the book that started my painfully shy love affair with Jeff and his kink is finally back into print.

The now-it-can-be-told truth is that when I review reprints of material I’ve read previously, I rarely re-visit them. I might crack open the cover to refresh my memory on character names and salient plot points but that’s as far as it usually goes. That didn’t happen with A History of Barbed Wire. From the first paragraph of “The Quality of Mercy,” (which I’ll get back to in a bit), I was again hooked by Mann’s language, pacing and fevered fetishistic descriptions, and I read the whole thing over again.

I admire Mann’s prose as much for its lyricism as its bite—both proven here in magnificent stories like the foreboding “Raspberry Moonshine,” the idyllic “Snowed in With Sam,” the melancholic “Not for Long” and the three-way earnestness of “Daddy Dave.” But it’s “The Quality of Mercy” I keep coming back to again and again.

In this nearly perfect novella, Sean captures a country singer (based loosely—or wholly—on Tim McGraw) and holds him hostage in a remote Appalachian hideaway, hoping to win the straight boy’s love and affection through bondage, country breakfasts and the simple beauty of a mountain summer. But there is so much more going on here than simply a power struggle. Sean wants Tim to accept an entire ethos, an unrealistic goal which he knows will fail. Still he has to try, even though he knows he will lose in the end. The sex, the bondage, the humiliation, is all non-consensual and, therefore, all the more terrifying. That’s why the resolution (which I can’t give away) is so damn satisfying. And as wonderful as Mann’s work is in general, this, my friends, is fucking brilliant. Please don’t miss out on it.

All this and the original introduction by the one and only Patrick Califia make A History of Barbed Wire one of the best reprints of the year. No wonder it won a Lambda Literary Award. Get a copy, hold your head up high and step into Jeff Mann’s Appalachia.

But don’t forget your cuffs and ball-gag.

© 2011, Jerry L. Wheeler

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