Monthly Archives: March 2012

Caregiver – Rick R. Reed (Dreamspinner Press)

Buy it now from Dreamspinner Press

Rick R. Reed is a writing machine—and I mean that in the nicest way. His work is anything but robotic. He hops from genre to genre with ease and aplomb, and even goes out on a very thin limb on occasion (Dignity Takes a Holiday). But whether he fails or succeeds, he never disappoints. His latest romance, Caregiver, is no exception.

It’s 1991 and Dan Calzolaio and his cocaine-loving husband Mark, have moved to Tampa for a new beginning. Dan volunteers for the Tampa AIDS Alliance and becomes buddies with patient Adam Schmidt as Mark quickly sinks back into his old habits. Adam’s resilience amazes Dan, but a bad patch that lands Adam in jail finally claims his life. But Dan finds himself attracted to Adam’s partner, Sullivan—especially after he tosses Mark out for one too many binges. Can Sullivan and Dan make a go of it? Or does each of them carry too much baggage?

Caregiver is a fine, heartfelt romance full of Reed’s customarily well-crafted characters and he does well with this deceptively simple plot, finding the heart of Dan Calzolaio with ease. But it’s clear his sympathies lie with the charming originality of Adam Schmidt. The first time Dan meets Adam, Adam wears a nice black dress and pumps, greeting him with a pitcher of Mai Tais. He doesn’t really do drag, but he likes to see how people react. Adam is clearly a complex character.

And that’s where my main complaint lies with Caregiver. It’s way too short, clocking in at under 200 pages. Don’t misunderstand me—what there is of it is very good, which only points up the fact that there should be more. We barely get to meet Adam before he’s whisked offstage again. I would like to have seen more of Adam’s background, more dialogue with Dan, more revelations about who Adam really was before he gets killed off.

Similarly, when Dan throws Mark out on his ear (deservedly) and turns to Sullivan for comfort and—eventually—a new relationship, this also appears to move very quickly. And when a rehabbed Mark reappears, Dan must make a choice. He does so, again, far too quickly for my taste. The situations and the characters are all too complicated to deserve such slight treatment.

But it’s hard not to like a book that begins with Dan, an author, trying to sell the Caregiver manuscript to an agent who thinks it’s “just not the right time” for memoirs, and ends with him firing her ass because she doesn’t understand how artists feel about their “product.” It’s also hard not to like a book that has such clear, concise prose and interesting plot twists. And I did like it. Very much. I just wish there had been about a hundred more pages of it.

However, it’s a worthwhile addition to Reed’s catalog and will certainly be welcome on my shelf.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

 

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Rainbow Book Fair 2012 Wrap-up

It’s Sunday, and I’m sitting in my room at the Carlton Arms
(an art boutique hotel in NYC—for those of you who haven’t mastered
realtorspeak, “boutique” means cramped, kitschy, kinda shabby but in this case
very affordable for Manhattan), sipping coffee from the bagel joint across the
street and recovering from yesterday’s terrific Rainbow Book Fair.

I got in town on Friday, just in time for a nosh and then
over to The CUNY Graduate Studies Center for the gay poetry reading hosted by
Bryan Borland’s Sibling Rivalry Press and Assaracus. The packed room heard a
good two hours of incredible, revelatory poetry by stalwarts like Manny Xavier
(who turned in a bravura performance of “Americanos”) and the legendary Ian
Young as well as brilliant newcomers like Eric Norris, Stephen C. Mills, Evan
Peterson and many, many others. Thanks to Bryan and these terrific poets, it
was truly a thought-provoking program filled with wonder, laughter and delight
at the power of words.

Saturday was a cool, crisp NYC day, just right for a brisk
walk over to the Manhattan Gay and Lesbian Center for the book fair. I sat at
the Lethe Press table signing copies of my books—last year’s Tented as
well as my short fiction collection, Strawberries and Other Erotic Fruits—along
with Joseph DeMarco, who was busily signing copes of his Marco Fontana novels,
including his latest, Crimes on Latimer. Nick Rossano, the model for my
cover, was also there being his lithe, handsome self. He certainly dressed up
the table. Lethe Press’s Steve Berman, as usual, worked the room, schmoozed and
did his publisher thing, in constant communication with his cat, Daulton—who
controlled the whole affair from Maple Shade, NJ between bites of rotisserie
chicken.

And there were many old friends to see, like the wonderfully
warped Tom Cardamone (thanks for the drink and the advice, Tom…), Jameson
Currier, David Pratt and Michael Graves representing Chelsea Station Editions,
Scott Cranin of TLA, Charlie Vasquez, Elisa (of Elisa Reviews), erotica editor
extraordinaire D.L. King, Don Wiese of Magnus Books, and Charles Rice-Gonzales.
At 2 p.m., I read from Strawberries along with Charles Rice-Gonzalez, Scott Alexander Hess, Larry Closs (Beatitude), and Amy Lane. And I met many new poets and authors,
all of whom have works I’ll be sharing and reviewing in upcoming weeks.

It was a long, exhausting day of signing and selling—thanks
to all those who bought copies of my books (please write reviews on Amazon, the
author begs), thanks to Steve Berman for inviting me, and many many thanks to
Perry Brass (who I saw twice but never met), Sarah Chinn, the Manhattan GLBT
Center and the many others who worked tirelessly to put this whole thing
together. I enjoyed myself tremendously and would come back any time.

And a special thanks to Daniel for Friday night.

Now, back to the reviews …

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Murder in the Irish Channel – Greg Herren (Bold Strokes Books)

Buy it now from Bold Strokes Books

Greg Herren’s mysteries, whether he’s writing Scotty Bradley
or Chanse MacLeod, are always entertaining, fast-paced, and exuberant.
Moreover, when you purchase one, you know exactly what you’re getting—a twisty
plot you can still follow, reliable characters, and a taste of New Orleans. Murder
in the Irish Channel
is a perfect example.

Jonny O’Neill is a rising young MMA fighter with a new bride
and a baby on the way—not to mention a mother who’s gone missing. Mona O’Neill
was a widowed church activist fighting to keep her local parish open. So why
does she have a check for 50 grand from a local developer in her desk drawer?
And who killed her other son, Robby? These are only a few of the questions
Chanse, along with his stripper/secretary Abby, has to find the answers to
before he can find Mona.

The Scotty Bradley mysteries have a much larger cast to keep
track of, so the simplicity and narrowing of the number of characters here is a
good change of pace and allows for a deepening of Chanse as he solves the
mystery. We get a glimpse of his trailer trash roots, which also shows in his
veiled contempt for Jonny, who hasn’t strayed far from the same path despite
the money his mother got in the settlement from her late husband’s employer.
His wife, Heather, is also an interesting exercise in redneck living—a foul
mouthed brat as canny as she is cranky.

But this wouldn’t be a Greg Herren book without some local
flavor, and Herren gets it right, from the weather to the food to the locales.
I count myself lucky to be a frequent visitor to New Orleans and have some
knowledge of its geography, so I can account for its veracity. Katrina, as
usual, hovers like a spectre over the plot, providing opportunities for some
characters and sealing the fates of others well in advance of Mona’s
disappearance.

Herren hits the ground running plotwise, pausing only for
breath and recaps before plunging ahead into the next piece of the puzzle. His
writing is economical, retaining a fine sense of detail that lingers long
enough to register but never calls attention to itself. Wisely, he’s learned
that the best way to tell a story is to get everyone on stage and let them take
over. You never once see the author’s hand, even when it’s placed in the small
of your back, diverting your attention from the only possible solution.

Murder in the Irish Channel is a most worthwhile
entry into the Chanse MacLeod catalog. But, be warned, these mysteries are most
addictive.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Hellebore and Rue: Tales of Queer Women and Magic – Joselle Vanderhooft and Catherine Lundoff, eds. – Lethe Press

Buy it now at Lethe Press.

I cut my reading teeth on horror, fantasy, sci-fi, and
speculative work—but as I moved into my early twenties, I turned my back on
those genres, thinking there were more important books in the world. And
indeed, there were. But as I get older, I realize there’s room on the shelf for
everything. Or at least on the Kindle. So every time I review a book of fantasy
or magic, a little bit of my childhood comes back to me. So, thank you Joselle
Vanderhooft and Cathering Lundoff, for filling me with Hellebore and Rue.

When I was a kid, however, tales of strong women weren’t
readily accessible. No matter. I can now thrill to a wonderful story of rescue
and redemption like “Counterbalance,” the leadoff story by Ruth Sorrell. Or
savor the foreboding and danger of the arrival of an ancient magician in C.B.
Casling’s deliciously dark Cajun tale “Trouble Arrived.” At that age, I
wouldn’t have appreciated the masterful weaving of demon-hunting and
relationship problems between an exorcist and her girlfriend in Jean Marie
Ward’s “Personal Demons.” But I can now.

But those aren’t the only treats in store here. One of my
favorites is the nicely veiled eco-theme of Connie Wilkins’ “The Windskimmer,”
which sees a practitioner of plant-based magic teaming up with an old airborne
friend to right a wrong done not only to them, but to the land. This story,
brilliant in its simplicity as well as its metaphor, is a lovely yet cautionary
tale. And what fan of swords and sorcery could resist the tale of a young woman
heroically challenging a wyvern on its own turf in Kelly A. Harmon’s “Sky Lit
Bargains”?

Steve Berman, author of the teen ghost story Vintage
and so many more interesting stories also turns in a bravura performance with
his Ray Bradbury-esque “D is for Delicious,” a delightful tale of a retiring
school nurse who must face the fact that she is actually a child-eating witch.
Not only is the concept wonderful, but Berman’s Mrs. Grackle is a marvelous
character both repulsed and intrigued by the idea of needing her beloved
kindergarteners for support as well as sustenance. Lisa Nohealani Morton’s
surrealistically beautiful story of a clandestine affair between a witch and an
angel, “And Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness” is another winner, keeping
you guessing until the last minute whether or not these natural enemies would
be forced to destroy each other or encouraged to love each other.

But perhaps my favorite is the tale which ends the book,
Rachel Green’s stunning “A State of Panic,” an irresistible blend of fantasy
and detective story that has newly-arrived Sergeant Anna Wilde using her dark
gifts to not only best her chauvinistic co-workers but to solve the mystery
behind a series of suicides. Wilde is both new school and old world, and Green
works the combo for all she’s worth, coming up aces with a character she could
easily build a longer work around.

So if you’re looking for a read to take you out of yourself
and away from a world where you have to make your own tea, give Hellebore and
Rue
a whirl. The problem is you might never want to come back.

Review by Jerry Wheeler

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Purgatory: A Novel of the Civil War — Jeff Mann (Bear Bones Books)

51XP8tNNTTL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Buy From Lethe Press

For many Southerners, especially those of us descended from generation upon generation of British, Irish, Scots and French forebears, the Civil War (A.K.A. The War between the States, The War of Northern Aggression, The Late Unpleasantness) is never far from our thoughts. Like a movie within a movie, a looped tape, or parallel reality, the war—its causes and outsize characters, its victories and defeats, the awful aftermath of Reconstruction and segregation—are endlessly replayed, debated, mourned, celebrated and reenacted. It’s almost as if, by turning up new bits of information or reimagining the details of crucial events, we might alter the outcome for the better.

Even today, some of us retain memories of the war. My maternal great grandmother was born in slavery times in Tennessee. Her father, a Confederate officer, was part of the Army of Tennessee that withdrew south prior to the battles of Kennesaw Mountain and Atlanta, and she remembered and later wrote about being a child of the war. When she died in Nashville in 1950, I was in the house, a ten-year-old doorkeeper attending to worried callers. In her last delirium, I was told later, she mourned not two dead husbands, not parents and friends, but the five Confederate generals who died during the Battle of Franklin in 1864. I remember that.

Jeff Mann’s spectacular adventure-romance, Purgatory, creates war-related images and incidents I’d never imagined; characters who may have existed but who, until Dr. Mann conjured them out of history books, fevered dreams, blood-lusty desire and poetical sensibility, never appeared on any printed page, at least that I’m aware of.

The time and place: March 2, 1865, the Battle of Waynesboro, Virginia, and skirmishes thereafter, which will culminate at Appomattox the following month. The result: Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s forces are destroyed, with many killed and 1,500 captured, by the superior forces, masterful maneuvering and plain good luck of Union Major General Philip Sheridan’s gunners and cavalry divisions. General Early and his staff manage to escape, as do Mann’s fictional, untidy band of about two dozen half-starved volunteers from the Greenbrier country in West Virginia.  Among them soon arrives a lone Yankee prisoner, Drew Conrad, 20, a giant of a man, a Pennsylvania farm boy captured in the ensuing melee by the squad’s cruel, prudish, unbending leader, “Sarge” Erastus Campbell, who happens to be the uncle of the narrator, a bookish, bespectacled and diminutive private named Ian Campbell.

The man’s big and blond. His hands are tied in front of him and tethered to Sarge’s saddle horn. He’s bare-headed, cap lost in some scuffle, I guess, dressed in Union blue and muddy boots, and he’s gasping and stumbling, trying to keep up with the horse’s pace.

Oh, God, not again. A man that young and brawny, that’s the kind of prisoner Sarge tends to keep. I know what’s coming next, and it makes my belly hurt. Sarge has done this before, despite the proper rules of combat. No one in the company’s got the guts to object. Guess they’re afraid if they do, they might end up suffering like the Yankees. Besides, most of them enjoy the spectacle and convenience of a helpless foe to focus their rage on. The war’s been going on for years; despair and exhaustion make men mean.

“‘Ian! Get over here!’ Sarge yells. I lope over just as the Yankee slips in the mud, falls onto one knee, then hits the ground face first.”

Sarge, it seems, has a taste for torturing prisoners, a kink his nephew soon discovers in himself. In rapid succession, Ian becomes his brother warrior’s keeper; briefly and only partially unwillingly, his tormentor, and finally his lover.

The love scenes early in the novel are just that: tender explorations of feelings, touch, breath and warmth:

“I slide against him, tugging my blanket off the cot to supplement his; I pull the doubled wool over us, tucking it around his bare shoulders. Then I do what I’ve ached to do for days: I slide one arm beneath his neck, wrap the other around his bare torso as best I can, considering my significantly smaller frame, and hold him close, his broad back pressed against my uniform jacket. Surely he can feel the physical evidence of my excitement against him, hard inside my wool pants, but, if so, he makes no objections, and besides, it’s my heart and not my groin that rules tonight. As much as I want to make love to him, it’s comforting, not fucking, he’s asked for, and that’s what he’ll receive. I may be an accomplice to torture but I still have some honor left.”

The narrative line is a tale of retreat, survival, hardship and last-minute escapes punctuated by scrapes, repeated torture of the unfortunate Yankee, and stealing, begging and bargaining for food. One of the most memorable images is that of an attractive young female trader who transports hams, coffee, fried pies, beef jerky and other comestibles under her voluminous skirts.

Food plays a big part in the novel. For men living out in the open, a hoecake or biscuit and a slice of warm bacon might be the difference between starvation and carrying on another day. When supplies run low, the soldiers are forced to consume such dainties as roasted rat with peanut sauce and weevil-infested hardtack. Mann’s well-known interest in traditional Appalachian fare gives the novel a kind of edible sub-plot. Among the sources listed in the bibliography, cookbooks and culinary histories far outnumber the works devoted to sex and everyday military life. Not surprisingly, the only other sympathetic male characters in the novel, besides Ian and Drew, are Rufus, the cook, and Jeremiah, a soldier whose brother left home after being caught kissing another man. Against the orders of Sarge, they conspire with Ian to share enough food and drink to keep the prisoner alive.

Sarge, whose wife was shot and killed by a Yankee soldier, seems to believe this loss gives him a pass to massacre the Union Army—one captive at a time. Drew, Ian explains to his prisoner, is one of a succession.

Sarge has his fun for two or three weeks, till the prisoner dies on him after such steady abuse, or till Sarge gets bored and murders him. I’m in charge of them while they last. I keep them tied, I feed them, I mend them as best I can for Sarge to beat on and break down again. And eventually, I bury them.

Sarge, in other words is a coward and petty tyrant with no further interest in facing the enemy. On several occasions he and his men hide behind trees and rocks, silent and still, as figures such as George Custer and Philip Sheridan ride by. Might a few choice shots, even then, have changed the course of the war? Probably not, but Sarge is unwilling to risk his own skin even on that faint chance. His excuse? That he’s shepherding his ragtag band toward Petersburg, there to join forces with the larger army for the ultimate battle that may turn the tide of history.

That he spends considerably less time traveling than attending church, drinking whiskey and torturing Drew gives lie to his stated intention.

The varieties of torture are manifold. Drew is whipped with Ian’s leather belt and Sarge’s bullwhip. Variously he is strung from a branch, tied to a tree or “bucked”—bent over a sawhorse and tied to it. He is kicked, punched, slapped, pissed on, spat on and insulted verbally and physically.

On at least three occasions, Weasel-Tooth George, the most repellant of Sarge’s men, proposes to “poke” the gagged prisoner’s naked, bleeding ass as further proof of Confederate scorn. Here Sarge draws the line. Ian, a bit later, does indeed poke his by-then willing lover, albeit under very different circumstances. There are no complaints.

Drew is presented as herculean, a giant rippling with muscles, an Achilles. And yet he has a softer side: “I didn’t take it. I cried when your uncle whipped me and I cried when I was bucked. I break easy, Ian.” Drew’s voice is low, shaky. “I may look strong, but I’ve got this scared little boy inside me. His tears shame me again and again.”

From what I know of  Mann, both as an admirer of his work and as a fellow laborer in the garden of Southern fiction, it’s clear that Drew is here speaking in the author’s voice. Purgatory is a celebration of much that not only fascinates but drives the author: bondage and submission, the eroticization of pain, mountain men living the outdoor life, traditional food well prepared and enjoyed, the love of one man for another, and the quest for the precisely right word or phrase.

Full disclosure: bondage and pain hold little interest for me. Culinary matters, military adventure, manly love and good writing, on the other hand, define much of my own life and work. Were Purgatory merely a succession of torture scenes interposed with stealthy hand-feedings of the captive, I wouldn’t bother with it.

Mann, however, has more in mind than mere flesh, blood and spit-roasted rabbit. Drew is presented early and often as a Christ figure. Toward the end, he is forced to march carrying a thick branch tied across his shoulders and outstretched arms:

Drew’s brow furrows. He grunts, tries to rise, sags beneath the wood’s weight, then, heaving himself to his feet, straightens up, white teeth gnashing the rag and grim determination stiffening his features.

 With this image of the suffering innocent stumbling toward Golgotha (Purgatory the place is in reality Purgatory Mountain, Virginia), the reference is clear enough, as it is in soaring earlier images such as this:

If Drew’s torment reminded me of Christ’s before, it does even more so today. During his week of captivity, his beard has filled out and his hair has grown shaggier. He’s like a German-blond version of Jesus. This morning he’s white, bruise-violet, and gold, a cuffed, rag-gagged, black-eyed savior wrist-tethered to my cart, trudging beside me along the road to Purgatory. He’s naked, save for slave-collar, layered bandages—those with which I’ve plastered his lash-maimed back, those which I’ve knotted into a makeshift loincloth around his hips—and a spare undershirt I’ve torn into pieces and bound about his feet. All that are missing are the crown of thorns and the Cross. Or rather, those take another form, the racked and bruised body he carries stiffly down the road.

Mann’s writing combines elegance and earthiness in realistic passages that move the action along swiftly and dramatically. A professor at Virginia Tech, Mann has taught such courses as Appalachian folk culture, gay and lesbian literature and creative writing. His familiarity with Southern history and American lit color and enrich the narrative. Whether intended or not, the cast of characters recalls that of Melville’s Billy Budd, with Drew the Billy-Christ martyr figure, George the repressed Claggart and Sarge an unreflecting Captain Vere. The novel’s last page, in which the lovers try to imagine the future, calls to mind nothing less than Prior Walter’s blessing in the final scene of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.

Still, Mann didn’t quite convince me to suspend my disbelief in the possibility that even a strong young man could be kept on the edge of starvation, forced to sleep naked in the snow, marched mile after mile tied to a cart and whipped into bloody insensibility on an almost daily basis—and walk away from it so easily. Occasionally, the succession of BDSM incidents reminded me of the kind of porn in which each of the partners enjoys five or six explosive orgasms and then, after a few hours’ sleep, repeat the exercise. Could happen; feels improbable to me.

As does some of the language. Despite his book-learning, it seems doubtful that Ian would know and correctly use the word “trauma.” It’s just possible he might be on familiar terms with Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

No matter. For lovers of gay historical fiction, fans of BDSM action and open-minded students of the Civil War, Purgatory is required reading.

Reviewed by Elliott Mackle

About Elliott Mackle

Elliott Mackle has published three novels. Captain Harding’s Six-Day War (Lethe Press) was named best gay historical novel of 2011 by the UK book-review blog, Speak Its Name. Hot off the Presses (Lethe, 2010), is based on Mackle’s adventures as a lead reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution during the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. It Takes Two (Alyson Books, 2003), his first, was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. He has written for Travel & Leisure, Food & Wine, the Los Angeles Times, Florida Historical Quarterly and Atlanta and Charleston magazines, and for public television. A longtime columnist at Creative Loafing, the South’s leading alternative newsweekly, Mackle earned a PhD in American Studies at Emory University and taught critical and editorial writing at Georgia State University. He maintains two websites, www.elliottmackle.com and www.elliottmacklebooks.com. Contact him there.

 

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The Infernal Republic – Marshall Moore (Signal 8 Press)

To purchase go to Signal 8 Press

I’ve always admired short story writers who color outside
the lines. It’s also admirable in novelists but more difficult to pull off as
the length of a novel dictates firmer grounding. Short stories, however, can be
bite-sized bits of bizarre you can re-read if you find them particularly
toothsome or move on to the next morsel. That’s what makes Marshall Moore’s
latest smorgasbord, The Infernal Republic, so damn tasty.

From the two young women anxiously awaiting the suicide of a
jumper (“Urban Reef, or It’s Hard to Find a Friend in the City”) to the
motivational speaker held accountable for her crimes (“In Springtime, You Can
Hear the Swallows Screaming”) to the pull-apart boy who can’t stop trying to
kill himself (“Flesh, Blood, and Some of the Parts”) most of Moore’s characters
have suffered some societal disconnect that has alienated them from their host
communities, setting them apart and enabling them to see themselves and others
more clearly. Their outsider status is as enviable as it is refreshing in its
clarity.

One of Moore’s recent Facebook posts indicates an unnamed
reviewer returned The Infernal Republic, claiming it wasn’t “gay enough”
to warrant a review. While its true that some of Moore’s stories are about
straight women, some about straight men and others examine the world of
relationships between the two, others are about houses of indeterminate gender
and, yes, even gay couples. Their aforementioned outsider status trumps sexual
orientation in terms of what the story says rather than who populates
it. Just read the news if you don’t think we’re still considered outsiders. In
that respect, there’s not a story here that’s not gayer than “Glee.”

And if that’s your reason for skipping this book, understand
that you are missing a magnificent writer at his darkest and most mordant. Only
an author as warped as Moore would take on a second-tier superhero love affair
(“Filth and Splendor: A Love Story”) between a boy who has the power to make people
leak and a girl who can kill as quickly as she can resurrect. Or tell a haunted
house story from the house’s point of view (“215”). Or enable us to witness the
Savior and Satan betting on whether or not a million monkeys sitting at a
million typewriters would be able to reproduce Shakespeare (“The Infinite
Monkey Theorem”).

Moore’s talent for finding normalcy in the oddest situations
comes to the fore in nearly every entry here. His prose is sharp and his
characters deftly drawn in thought as well as deed, and even his shortest
pieces have unrepentently powerful punchlines. Moore focuses his talent at
well-chosen targets and obliterates the center of each one. Highly recommended.

But be warned, once you read “215,” you’ll think twice about
your next remodeling project.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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History’s Passion: Stories of Sex Before Stonewall – Richard Labonte, ed. (Bold Strokes Books)

Buy it direct from Bold Strokes Books

I am always fascinated in and engaged by stories of queer history. Such tales are important to maintaining a sense of community and ancestry, qualities I find comforting as I turn into an eldergay (well, I’m already there, truth be told). So, when I heard about this anthology of four novellas, I was very excited—even more so when I read who would be editing and who would be participating. And I was not disappointed.

This wonderful collection begins with Jeff Mann’s “Camp Allegheny,” a lusty tale of love between older daddy Shep Sumter and young’un Brendan Botkin, two soldiers during the Civil … um, excuse me, Jeff … the War of Northern Aggression. The two share a cabin during their unit’s entrenchment in the mountains of Virginia. Mann is in his element here—war, sweat, piss, bondage, meals—but his work is particularly muscular here. He seems energized by his research and finds the heart of both these characters easily. The ending is emblematic of war stories and not unexpected, but Mann pulls it off with the assurance and mastery we’ve come to expect. A fine beginning.

Simon Sheppard’s “Heaven on Earth” was surprising to me. Not because I don’t like Sheppard’s work—I’ve very much enjoyed what I’ve read. But stories of queer life on the run during Depression-era America don’t exactly grow on trees, and this one is steeped in the transitory rootlessness of that period. Like Mann, Sheppard has found the very heart of both small-time crook Eli and gas pump jockey Jake and wound them together as they fuck and suck their courage up to commit a robbery of Reverend Cobey’s Traveling Crusade along with henchman Duane. But of course, things don’t go as planned—and that includes the ending.

“Tender Mercies” puts Dale Chase squarely in her comfort zone, spinning the marvelously atmospheric tale of Luke Farrow, the “boy” of the gold mining camp Beeler Gulch, set during California’s Gold Rush days. Luke’s lucrative profession has won him many luxuries but taken a toll on his heart as well as his body. Enter one Cullen Markey, who has promised to make Luke his own, despite some serious claim jumping accusations. Chase turns in bravura work here, taking full advantage of the long form to really deepen her characters, creating interesting cameos of even the minor players.

The only wild card is David Holly’s “The Valley of Salt,” a tale of Biblical buggery that traces young Zedek from sacrifical butt-boy kidnapped in Gomorrah to a trek through the desert to Sodom and back. His notes indicate this is a “work of fiction untainted by historical accuracy,” and its language certainly shows that. A bit off-putting at first, I finally got used to the anachronistic speech and let the tale work its magic—which was considerable. It still jarred me, occasionally. You’ll have to be the judge here.

But these stories are admirably done. Kudos to all, including editor Richard Labonte and Bold Strokes Books for having the foresight to let these four masters of erotica have their head (so to speak) and deliver the goods.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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