Monthly Archives: July 2012

Green Thumb – Tom Cardamone (BrazenHead)

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Tom Cardamone’s life must be an ordinary one indeed—otherwise, how could he conjure such exceptionally unique worlds? From Werewolves of Central Park to his short story collection, Pumpkin Teeth, Cardamone’s imagination has provided some of the weirdest scenarios I’ve ever encountered. His latest novella Green Thumb, the second publication from the speculative fiction press, BrazenHead, happily continues that streak.

Green Thumb is about a plant-like boy named Leaf (…well, duh…) and his friends Scallop and Skate. Scallop is a scaly fisherman’s son and Skate is a manta ray with human eyes. The reason for these genetic aberrations? End times. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic Florida Keys, the backdrop for the boys as they journey to Canal City (a ruined Miami) to find Scallop’s father, who has been taken into slavery by the ruling King of Pelicans (yes, birds).

If all this strains credulity for even spec-fic buffs, let me assure you Cardamone’s skills are such that he not only makes it work, he makes it sing. Cardamone’s prose is absolutely lyrical, and his descriptions of Leaf’s surroundings—in both paradise and squalor—are powerful and rooting, establishing such a firm sense of place, you’d swear you could smell whatever environment he’s in.

But the most accurate and sense-appropriate descriptions would be nothing without character and plot to back them up, and Cardamone comes up aces here as well. Both Leaf and Scallop are wonderfully complex and fully three-dimensional, made so by Cardamone’s morphing biological facts and imperatives into character traits.

By the second chapter, your emotional investment in the innocent, eternally curious Leaf will be so great you’ll follow him anywhere—even into the devastation of Canal City. If  Leaf is Cardamone’s most wholesome construct, Canal City is the polar opposite. It’s no surprise that the city is dangerous to Leaf and Scallop, but it damages them in totally different ways. I can’t say more without spoiling things.

My only complaint is that Green Thumb is a novella instead of a full-blown novel. That’s not to say it feels truncated. The story arcs beautifully, and the ending is an entirely appropriate, satisfying, and moving coda. I can’t think of what he could have added that wouldn’t have been gilding the Leaf (sorry…), but—selfish reader that I am—I simply wanted to spend more time in his world.

Green Thumb, then, is a wonder of a read—a unique, emotional, and somehow cautionary tale that deserves your attention. Highly, highly recommended.

© 2012, Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Torn – Lee Thomas (Cemetery Dance Publication)

Buy it now direct from Cemetery Dance Publications

I’ve been a fan of Lee Thomas’s work now for some time.  His collection of horror stories, In the Closet, Under the Bed, kept me up
into the wee hours of the morning. His Lammy-winning novel, The German was a
masterpiece of suspense and writing. I was thrilled with Jerry sent me his
latest work, a novella simply entitled, Torn.

Bill Cranston is the sheriff of a small town called Luther’s
Bend. When Maggie Mayflower an eleven-year old girl is abducted and taken into
the woods, Bill leads a desperate search to find her. What the people of Luther’s
Bend don’t know is that Maggie is only the bait for a much bigger and
terrifying plan. Her abductor, an insane man named Douglas Sykes is not
entirely human and what he has planned for the town of Luther’s Bend will
destroy everyone’s life.

Lee Thomas has once again written a wonderfully woven tale
that will keep his readers gripped from the moment they read the opening line.

How
do you go on when something like that happens to your child?”

Thomas has a way
of creating characters that immediately become your own family and closest
friends. Their pain, their fears, and in the case of Torn, their secrets, soon become yours and you find yourself right
there on the page with them, fighting for your life. His character Douglas
Sykes is one of the creepiest characters I have read in a long time. His
rhyming words and riddles, sent shivers down my spine every time he spoke.

Torn is yet
another story that proves that Lee Thomas is the master of his craft. The
novella packs a hell of a punch in the short 130 pages. If you have liked Lee’s
other works, you will love this one, and if this is your first time, well hold
on to the edge of your seat, you are in for a wild time.
 

Reviewed by
William Holden  

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The Dust of Wonderland – Lee Thomas (Lethe Press)

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Unfortunately, I didn’t get to read Lee Thomas’ Lammy-winning The German. Another reviewer handled that one, and my reading and writing schedule doesn’t allow me much time for catching up. Maybe when my novel’s finished… Anyway, when Lethe Press sent me a reprint of one of Thomas’ earlier books, The Dust of Wonderland, I grabbed it before anyone else had a chance. And it was pretty damned impressive.

Ken Nicholson is summoned back to New Orleans by his ex-wife as their son has been attacked and left for dead. Keeping vigil at the hospital, Ken has visions of his unsavory teenage years in the Quarter when he was the kept boy of Travis Brugier. Brugier’s stable of teenage boys pleasured the rich and powerful, until four of the boys were found dead, Brugier’s body hanging from the rafters of his beloved Wonderland. But are they just visions, or was his son attacked by someone from Ken’s past? Can he and his former lover David find out who is threatening his family? Or will they be too late?

Thomas’ skill at handling horror tropes is such that you don’t notice they’re tropes at all. His touch is both deep and deft, and hebalances out Ken’s horrific visions with some wonderful characterization of both Ken and his ex-wife Paula, not to mention his ex-lover David. Still, there are shocking moments—two of which you won’t expect. It’s Thomas’ ability to change this up that keeps Wonderland fresh and exciting.

But any horror novel is hollow without a foul beast of a villain, and Thomas has a winner in Travis Brugier. Part Truman Capote and part Beelzebub, Brugier—in whatever incarnation—is deliciously loathsome and oddly sympathetic. This delicate balance is what makes Thomas’ writing and plotting so compelling. Thomas begins the book with a chase sequence that ends with a shudder, and he rarely lets up on the suspense, working your nerves on a couple of different fronts simultaneously so that when one is resolved, you’re still jangled. Then he subtly introduces another to keep you turning pages.

And turn pages I did. Some books take a bit of work to get back into once you put them down, but not this one. The story grabbed me and never let go. In fact, I read it in three sittings. I should have been writing. Or sleeping. Or eating. But The Dust of Wonderland kept me reading. So, thanks for the sleepless nights, Lee.

And I mean that.

© 2012, Jerry L. Wheeler

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Love, Christopher Street – Thomas Keith, ed. (Vantage Point Books)

buy it now from Left Bank Books, or TLA

Everyone who’s been there has a New York City story. It’s a
city of extremes that inspires either love or hate—sometimes both. Neutrality
is not an option, and the twenty-six authors who have contributed to Thomas
Keith’s superb, all-encompassing anthology, Love, Christopher Street are
anything but neutral on the topic.

The queer community has produced some marvelous voices and
many of them are represented here. By turns funny, outrageous, poignant,
bittersweet, uplifting, incendiary, wistful—you name it, it’s here. The scope
is sweeping, but editor Thomas Keith has done a brilliant job of ordering the
pieces so that the emotions are nicely mixed and the commonality is the subject
rather any one type of reminiscence.

But it’s wonderful to see so many great authors doing what
they do best—Fay Jacobs was never funnier than her recollection of NYC Pride
2005 in “As I Stood Frying…,” Mark Ameen is at his most poetic in “Irrespective
of the Storm,” and Felice Picano is a virtual catalog of landmarks and famous
names (not to mention sexual pecadilloes) in “Bad Boy.”

Washing up from foreign shores, we have the marvelous Val
McDermid (“A Bite of the Big Apple”) from Scotland, South African Shaun Levin
(“The Myths of This Place”) and Canadian Shawn Syms (“Borders, Rivers and Time:
Gay Gotham Revisited”). But New York City draws people from domestic locations
as well. Love brought Aaron Hamburger, as he explains in his heartfelt “My Gay
New York: A Symphony in Four Acts,” while sex lured G. Winston James to “The
Place I Parked My Car.” It’s simply not possible to review all twenty-six
essays here, and while all of them engaged or informed me in some way, three
more are worth noting and then I’ll shut up and let you buy your own copy.

Ocean Vuong’s “In the House of Strangers” sees NYC through
the eyes of the derelict and homeless who populate its subway stations after
dark as well as an elderly immigrant woman living (and sharing) her last days,
providing Vuong with a place to live in return for looking after her. Knowing
and poetic, this piece actually brought a tear to my eye.

Christopher Bram’s “Perry Street Redux” takes a different
approach in this essay, in that it focuses on one locale (Bram’s Perry Street
apartment), observing the changes which have taken place around the building as
opposed to how the city has affected those who have hurtled headlong through
it. Its sense of calm stoicism belies the static, frenetic nature of the city,
providing a quiet platform from which to mark the passage of time.

Lastly (and, coincidentally, the last piece in the book) we
have Eddie Sarfaty’s delightful “Next Year at Sonny’s,” which uses Passover at
his mother’s as the means to show how the city has marked not only his
immediate family but also the friends he invites to the Seder. Full of
Sarfaty’s sly wit and warmth, the city becomes a character here, every bit as
irascible and indomitable as his mother. A perfect note on which to end.

No matter what your relationship is with New York City,
you’re bound to find something here to make you smile, laugh or be homesick.
And if you are one of those few people who have no relationship with the Big
Apple, maybe this will spark your desire to establish one. 

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Galley Proof – Eric Arvin (Dreamspinner Press)

Buy it direct from Dreamspinner Press

The reason I don’t usually like romantic comedies is that
they’re rarely a) romantic or b) funny. Either ingredient is lacking and—like a
souffle missing eggs—they fall flat. When they work, however, they’re damn
delicious, and Eric Arvin proves very able in the kitchen (and other rooms) in Galley
Proof
.

Writer Logan Brandish has been given a new editor, Brock
Kimble, by his publishing house in order to boost his flagging sales. Of
course, Brandish is attracted to Kimble, but there are obstacles in the way:
Brandish’s boyfriend (of sorts), Curtis, Kimble’s dissection of Brandish’s
manuscript, and the manuscript itself—a horrendous piece of slave galley
nonsense called The Gods Have Jealous Eyes. Brandish flounders,
necessitating a breakup, a trip to Italy and a very satistying ending.

We know how these books always end—the very nature of the
genre demands the boys get together in the last fifteen or twenty pages (thirty
if the book is pretentious enough to have an epilogue). The proof of these
novels is in the journey. Is it sufficiently interesting? Are there enough
roadblocks thrown in their way? Are the side-trips really fun or just scenic
photo ops? Are the characters people you’d want to take a road trip with?

Happily, Arvin gives us affirmative answers to all these
questions. His characters are quirky without being over-the-top, he puts up
some intriguing obstacles, and the detours are delightful. Take, for example,
his roommate Janey, who declares herself the prize between the Mormons and the
Jehovah’s Witnesses combing the neighborhood for souls. This bit is divinely
inspired, and Arvin works it for all its worth.

Brandish’s book, The Gods Have Jealous Eyes, is also
a great invention. The book morphs from historical romance to slapstick comedy
to simply bizarre, Brandish throwing genres against the wall hoping one will
stick. In fact, the manuscript functions as another character. My only quibble
with Galley Proof  is that Arvin
missed a layer he could have easily added by providing the reader with excerpts
from this marvelous crapfest.

That minor point aside, there’s much to enjoy in Galley
Proof
. Bite into this savory bit of toothsomeness , and I’ll warrant you
won’t be disappointed in the flavor. We can hardly wait for the next recipe.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

 

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Hope – William Neale (MLR Press)

Buy it now direct from MLR Press

During an interview this past May, Molly
Ringwald, discussing her most well-loved film Pretty in Pink, stated
that Duckie, a character in the film, was gay. 
I smiled when I read this interview.  
As a not-quite-out-of-the-closet-even-to-myself gay man, I adored
Duckie.  I went to see Pretty in Pink several
times in the theatre (this was prior to the ubiquity of VCR’s: yes, I said it,
“VCR’s”).  Twice with my girlfriend.  During the final scenes, I fantasized that
somehow Duckie, after being cast aside by Andy (Ringwald’s character), would
find his misfit self in the hallways of my high school and we could live
happily ever after.  At that time, the
formula of the romantic comedy was not a story about love, it was its transcription—and
for many, many years, I searched in vain for romantic comedies in which gay men
were the protagonists.  A much younger
version of myself felt that once romantic comedies with gay characters
circulated in mainstream media, gay people would have arrived.

With Hope—William Neale’s
posthumously published fourth installment to his Home series—readers
have just such a novel.  Neale has given
us the classic summer book, a perfect beach read.  His characters—from the rich and powerful,
longing-to-be-transformed bad boy Thomas, to the stunningly good-looking,
struggling-novelist Spencer, to the gay dads Rogan and Lucas, to the cellist
with a heart of gold Hunter, to the high-school football star Rogie—all long
for love and happiness; their quests seem familiar and end well.  These characters, while unrealistic in many
respects, seem quite believable:  they
act and talk like us, or like people we know—their desires are our desires,
their struggles our struggles.  The book
presents a number of obstacles to the characters’ happiness, and maintains a
sense of suspense, about both romantic and other matters, but moves along in a
manner that is easy to follow, without becoming boring.  The characters act like gay men from our
neighborhoods and bars, without being stereotypes; they encounter homophobia
and prejudice, without being solely victims of a cruel world; they are
supported and successful, without being poster children for pride.  Some plot points are resolved a bit too
quickly and others are resolved a bit too mawkishly, but the book is, without a
doubt, a page-turner.

At the story opens, Spencer has been
abandoned by his closeted boyfriend. 
(Apparently, as lovely and delightful as Spencer is, the prospect of a
career in the NFL is even more appealing.) 
Spencer starts a new life in Cleveland as an English teacher and
assistant football coach at an elite boys’ prep school.  He stays with two good friends, where he
mentors their teenage son.  He also meets
two men—one, the CEO of a computer firm, who comes on just a bit too strong and
one, the father of a child in need of a heart transplant, who resists Spencer’s
affections because he feels they will distract from his ability to be a good
father.  Like any good romantic comedy,
the formation of happy couples marks the narrative’s end.  I’ll let the reader discover which couples
are formed.
 

Although the fourth installment in a
series, Hope stands alone quite well. 
While I found myself intrigued enough by the characters to consider
reading earlier novels in which they appear, I never found myself unable to
follow the story or connections between characters in this volume.  At the same time, I never found myself
slogging through pages of exposition that summarized prior events in these
characters’ lives.  So, the book’s
pleasures are on offer for both Neale fans and Neale neophytes.

Hope is a romantic novel, not a pornographic
one.  There is definitely tension around
desire, and even a couple of sex scenes, but there is no graphic content.  At the same time, I often found myself turned
on as I read.  Having said this, however,
there is another way in which this novel is not suitable for “children.”

As noted above, Neale’s vision of love and
happiness, his conception of home, his narrative of hope circles around the
couple.  And this couple is emphatically
a monogamous couple.  The villain
of the piece, the one who must explain his actions and prove himself, is the
one who sleeps around.  To be promiscuous
is bad, the root cause of unhappiness, the tragic consequence of childhood
trauma.  And even sluts, in Neale’s
world, would never dream of having sex without a condom and feel quite
comfortable noting their superiority to those who make their living taking
money for providing sex.  In Neale’s
world, teenagers don’t struggle to come out: 
coming out is relatively easy, and it is followed by announcing
life-long fealty to one’s first boyfriend, a pronouncement that is celebrated
as fully authentic rather than looked at wryly by one’s parents.

Romantic comedies are mythological tales
about love.  And, as both Roland Barthes
and Bruce Lincoln have so elegantly argued, mythic models are the vehicle of a
culture’s ideology.  They warp our sensibilities,
often presenting unrealistic ideals about what is possible, while at the same
time making it seem like an utterly unquestionable real.  I don’t critique romantic comedies as a cynic
or from a place of bitterness, even though my perspective on their vision of
personal happiness is informed by feminist and queer commitments.  Most importantly, I am no longer
interpellated by romantic comedies because I have experienced a range of
pleasures that they cannot contemplate. 
Living happily ever after with Duckie was a fantasy, and although
fantasies can provide hope to lonely, closeted gay boys living in small towns,
they can be a source of great pain when reality fails to measure up, and they
can prevent one from experiencing the richness that life beyond the movie
screen has to offer. 

In Hope, Neale gives his reader a
well-wrought, captivating, lively piece of escapist romantic fiction.  But given how such narratives can distort our
sense of what we should want and what we can get, it should definitely be
considered adults-only reading material.
 

Reviewed by Kent Brintnall

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You Will Meet a Stranger Far From Home: Wonder Stories – Alex Jeffers (Lethe Press)

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And what strangers they are—from fallen angels to gender-switching brothers to literal faeries to the last old woman in the world. Alex Jeffers brings them all to life in this strangely exotic collection of short stories that amazes as it entertains.

Whenever I encounter one of Jeffers’ stories in an anthology such as in Touch of the Sea or Boys of Summer, I usually read it first because I know I will be astounded, not only by the depth of his imagination but by his ability to make those imagined worlds become real. I also know that I will be reading a story layered with atmosphere and meaning—dense and delicious as a flourless chocolate cake.

Jeffers’ greatest talent lies in creating worlds similar enough to ours to be recognizable yet singular enough to allow anything to happen. Consider “Liam and the Wild Fairy,” an absolutely delightful tale that begins with a boy’s telephone conversation with his father about missing the school bus (which he’s done on purpose because of the bullies). Typical suburban event, right? Only the boy is a budding fairy—the real kind—as is his father. The boy is coaxed from his path home by a wild fairy he encounters, who beckons him to come to fairyland. Does the boy leave this world of taunts and ostracism to join his fellow sprites? Only a spoilsport would tell.

Another of Jeffers’ favorite devices is gender-bending, a hint of which spices “Firooz and His Brother,” which sees Firooz finding a baby abandoned in the forest. Firooze raises the child as his brother, which is fortunate as he’s unable to conceive with his wife. Once his brother reaches adulthood, however, he offers to bear his brother’s child. And does. But the sex-shifting becomes paramount in the wonderfully complex “Tattooed Love Boys.”

This story finds two teenagers, Emma and Theo, in a foreign city and enamored of the local tattoo shop and the fallen angels who run it. But Emma becomes hairy-chested Emmanuel (and sometimes Manny) and Theo is a female Teddy—when he’s not. And when they mix it up with the angels, it’s difficult to predict who will end up with whom. Even when reassigning genitalia, however, Jeffers manages to keep the plot clear and his characters distinct.

But perhaps my favorite story here is “Jannicke’s Cat,” an intriguing tale of the last old woman on earth and a plushy toy she makes for her grandson, inspired by a cat she used to have as a girl. Women have died out on this planet, and all (male) children are conceived in laboratories, reared by male/male couples—a sly commentary on same-sex parenting. This piece has an air of poignant wistfulness and a longing that breaks your heart at the end. Beautifully wrought and rich with character, I read it three times before I finally let go. These were not the only standouts here.

Everything is worth your while, from the whirling dervish saga “Turning” to the change of scenery in “Then We Went There” to the politically exotic “Arab’s Prayer,” you will be astonished at Jeffers’ scope. Savor his flavors.

© 2012, Jerry L. Wheeler

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