Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Survivors – Sean Eads (Lethe Press)

Coming in October from Lethe Press

I admire writers who sucker me in, leading me down one path
then distracting me while they change direction. That’s especially tricky with
science fiction,which has narrow and clearly defined pathways to follow. However,
Sean Eads proves to be a master of misdirection with The Survivors.

Just like the rest of the Earth, freelance journalist Craig
Mencken (a nod to H.L. Mencken, perhaps?) has been invaded by aliens. But these
aliens are not ray-gun toting, laser-beam shooting critters. Nor is their
invasion violent. It’s more passive-aggressive than anything, with the aliens
simply using their bulk to crowd into homes, offices, grocery stores and
people’s apartments despite owners’ attempts to dislodge them. Of course, a
Resistance springs up, headed by Mencken’s ex-boyfriend, Scott, determined to
eradicate the aliens by violent means. But then come machines bent on
demolishing our infrastructure, and the Earth is in serious trouble.

Eads begins this story with a lighthearted tone:

            “The
aliens had sex again in my bed last night, making a mess on the walls

              and ceiling. If I was just renting maybe I’d
leave it alone, but goddamnit, I

              own this place. I also own the food
they’ve been eating. A steady stream of

              televised scientists keeps insisting it’s
unlikely they can digest our food, but

              I’ve looked in my refrigerator and can tell
you the aliens handle cold pizza

              and Coors just fine.”

Fine. I settle back for a giggle amidst the invasion
thinking how great this story is going to taste with its tongue in its
cheek—and the first quarter or so is pretty damn funny. But the humor is
eventually enveloped by a far darker mood. About the time Scott and The Company
begin night-time raids shooting, hanging and beating aliens to death with
baseball bats, recruiting Mencken in a scary initiation ritual, it’s clear Eads
has more in store for the reader than a romp through the galaxy.

And what delicious changes he takes us through. Mencken and
his ex-boyfriend morph from cute guys to desperate freedom fighters to resigned
invadees as the aliens continue their Ghandi-like takeover. And the aliens,
even though they’re the enemy, gain a stoic nobility as they roll over us with
bulk and numbers. I can’t tell anything else about the plot for fear of giving
things away, but you won’t be disappointed.

Eads’ characters, especially Mencken and the female alien
who communicates with him, are deep and fully formed, and his prose can make
you chuckle as well as inspire awe and fear. His style is so accomplished, it’s
hard to believe this is his debut novel. The concept is unique and his
follow-through is nothing less than grand—making trenchant points about the
needs of the many versus the needs of the individual, our capacity for
violence, and what, exactly, survival entails. And you won’t soon forget the
ending.

The Survivors is good fun that winds up being a great
read. 

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©, 2012, Jerry Wheeler

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Always Forever – Ansh Das (Amazon Digital Services)

Buy it now on Amazon.com

Grief is messy and won’t be contained. You can try
compartmentalizing it, but it will slop over the edges and splash on every
surface until your life is soaked through. That’s what happens in Ansh Das’ memoir
Always Forever, but Das also shows how things dry out and you learn to
live with what you cannot control.

Hong Kong resident A.D. meets Filipino native Mikee while
covering the Mr. Gay World competition in Manila. He’s charmed by Mikee’s
heart, good looks and amazing angel tattoo, and they fall deeply in love. Mikee
visits A.D. but unwisely so. Mikee is suffering from an illness and less than
three months after they meet, Mikee is dead. A.D. must cope by gleaning what
comfort he can from Mikee’s friends and family in order to find the courage to
start again.

So, Always Forever is less a love story than a
depiction of what happens in the aftermath of love—loss, longing, emptiness—yet
all three of those are other parts of love. In Always Forever, A.D.
searches for the very heart of meaning by exploring Mikee’s old life in an
attempt to find solace. While this could be depressing, A.D. brings a stoic
beauty to his grief.

Is this a perfect book? No. Being memoir, it sticks to the
facts and events as they happen rather than establishing a narrative structure
and fleshing it out with the truth. Distancing itself from the actual
progression of events would have made it a better narrative, but that distance
would also have detracted from the emotional core of the book.

It’s that core that drives Always Forever along with
A.D.’s determination to understand not only Mikee and their love, but his role
in Mikee’s life. Surely they did not meet and fall in love only to be separated
after such a short time. There must be a reason for the brevity of their
relationship, and it’s A.D.’s restless search for this cause that spurs the
reader to turn the next page. It’s a wonderous yet difficult journey that is
personal and philosophical at the same time.

After the last page was turned, I found myself saying “Thank
you, A.D., for sharing such a difficult time in your life. I was moved, and I
learned something about both you and myself.” 

And that’s more important than narrative structure any day.

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©, 2012,
Jerry Wheeler

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Fontana – Joshua Martino (Bold Strokes Books)

Buy it direct from Bold Strokes Books

Every time an athlete comes out, he’s usually retired or
never had that large a career to begin with. It’s a step forward, to be sure,
but a somewhat disappointing one. Not one currently-rostered major player has
ever stepped forward regardless of the rumors dogging him (yes, I’m looking at
you, Mike Piazza and Troy Aikman). But things are different in Joshua Martino’s
engrossing baseball novel, Fontana.

Ricky Fontana is not only a New York Mets major leaguer, but
he’s also spoiling to break Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Enter one of
his biggest fans, sportswriter Jeremy Rusch, an uncharming alcoholic whose
marriage is on the rocks. Still charmed by the magic of the game, Rusch cheers
Fontana on from his column—but unexpectedly gets the biggest sports story of
the year when he stumbles on Fontana kissing his boyfriend right on the street.
Drunkenly, Rusch runs with it and must cope with his guilt as Fontana suffers
the consequences of being dragged out of the closet.
Fontana is an engrossing read that captures not only the Boys of Summer vibe of the game but
also does a wonderful job in depicting what might happen should a major leaguer
ever come out. From the marketing (pink Mets t-shirts that sell like hotcakes)
to the nasty jeers from the crowd to All-Star Game dustups, Martino doesn’t
miss a trick. Crisply written and well-paced, Fontana has a reckless,
threatening atmosphere as if the whole thing might explode at any minute. 

The character of
Ricky Fontana may slide toward the immensely talented superhero athlete
stereotype, but Martino picks that grounder up by giving him a genuinely naïve
side when it comes to love and his relationship with boyfriend Peter. In fact,
if Fontana has a fault, it’s that this isn’t explored in as much detail as
Rusch’s marriage troubles—which seem far less interesting in comparison. That
minor complaint aside, Martino drives this story with relentless determination,
pushing Fontana and his accomplishments past the petty politicking of the
clubhouse, the mean-spirited team pranks, the hurtful fans and the outright
dangers of the diamond and lets us see how Ricky Fontana is an inspiration to
gay men and women everywhere even though that may not mean much to the guy
who’s the butt of all the jokes.

Martino almost let me down at the end, which leads you to
assume Fontana has become a casualty of his fame, but I should have had more
faith. He pulls it out in the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, three balls
and two strikes.

And the slow jog towards home plate was never sweeter.

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©, 2012,
Jerry Wheeler

 

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Captain Harding and His Men – Elliott Mackle (Lethe Press)

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Buy it now direct from Lethe Press

Ambassadors, lock up your sons, because Captain Joe Harding
is back. He may still be stuck in the abyss of Libya, but he gets into more
danger and stickier situations than men half his rank. Last time it was Captain
Harding’s Six-Day War
, and Elliott Mackle isn’t yet ready for a cease fire,
coming on strong with its sequel Captain Harding and His Men.

This second book of Harding’s exploits finds him still at
Wheelus AFB with the redoubtable “top cop” Captain Jeff Masters and Colonel
Opstein as his friend and superior, respectively. It also finds him still in
love with the American ambassador’s son, Cotton. This time, however, they’re
dealing with mysterious cargo shipments that involve munitions. Someone, of
course, ends up dead—which spirals into more death and destruction and uncovers
a plot that threatens American interests in the entire region.

Mackle’s characters are well-rounded, with enough quirks to
make them interesting. No one, however, is more interesting than Joe Harding.
Like Henry Thompson in Mackle’s Hot Off the Presses (Lethe Press, 2010),
Harding clearly knows what’s best for him in any given situation. He sometimes
has trouble following that route, however, and takes the path of most
resistance. Also like Thompson, Harding has a healthy disregard for the
structure (and strictures) that provide him with a paycheck. Both characters
turn on their self-destructive streak, if doing what is right instead of best
is self-destructive.

The strongest, most interesting character outside of Harding
is American ambassador Elizabeth Boardman, Cotton’s mother. Somewhat of a
cipher in Six-Day War, Mackle deepens her considerably here, finding her
will, her determination and even, at times, her softer side. Also noteworthy is
Hardings fuck buddy, Major Hal Denham—a scrappy minor character who plays a
major role in the denouement

And what a denouement it is—solidly written and
grippingly plotted, outfitted with sex, violence and death. Mackle tells this
bit like a master, effortlessly finding the emotional center of the conflict
and working that last nerve until it frazzles. If the military jargon mystifies
you (as it did someone I know), suck it up, call it atmosphere and read for
context. You won’t be disappointed with where Mackle takes you.

In short, Captain Harding and His Men is an
absolutely top-notch sequel to Captain Harding’s Six-Day War—and one
that will stand admirably on its own merits. 

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©, 2012,
Jerry Wheeler

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The Sand Bar – Owen Keehnen (Lethe Press)

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Buy it direct from Lethe Press.

I always feel as if I’m confessing a sin when I begin one of my reviews and here I go again in confessing that I didn’t know much about Owen Keehnen’s other
work before reading “The Sand Bar.” Sure, I knew his name as a writer and
historian and I remember reading an article some time ago about his induction into
the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. I also would like to thank him for
sending me, “The Sand Bar”. If he hadn’t I would be missing out on one hell of
a writer.

The Sand Bar centers around a small gay bar set in a lower
working class Southern city known as Bayetteville. It’s not the bar that is the
star of this novel though Keehnen does a wonderful job of given the bar a life
and feel of its own, but the star or stars of this novel is the odd mix of characters
that patronize, The Sand Bar.

Keehnen has knitted together an amazing ensemble of richly
drawn characters that are so familiar and yet so unexpected you find yourself
completely at their mercy. You will love some of them, you will laugh with
other, and at times you may hate a few of them, but you will not be able to help
yourself in liking each of them.

Keehnen’s writing is tight, lyrical, and brilliant. His
attention to detail, even the smallest fragment is remarkable as each little
word, or description becomes an integral piece of the story.

If you want a solid, well-written, character driven novel
than “The Sand Bar” is a must for you late summer or early fall reading list.
Now, you’ll have to excuse me as I need to order his other books and get them
added to my reading pile.

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©, 2012,
William Holden

 

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Chicago Whispers – St. Sukie de la Croix (University of Wisconsin Press)

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Buy it direct from University of Wisconsin Press

My friend and fellow author, George Seaton (Big Diehl,
MLR Press), and I have talked a couple of times about doing a Denver GLBT
history, but the task seems so daunting that I think we’d rather dwell in our
fictional realms. And being a Midwestern boy, myself, a portrait of queer life
in Chicago should have proven inspirational. Instead, the project seems ten
times tougher now that St. Sukie de la Croix has given us a rather high standard
to surpass in Chicago Whispers.

Subtitled A History of LGBT Chicago Before Stonewall,
the book lives up to that, going all the way back—briefly—to Chicago’s Native
American roots. But de la Croix doesn’t linger there. He takes us to the
turn-of-the-century (19th) medical community’s reaction to
homosexuality, introduces us to Henry Gerber, founder of the first gay rights
organization in America, the Society for Human Rights (ca. 1924) as well as
Margaret Anderson, editor of The Little Review and tours through
Towertown, a gay artists’ colony.

Those, however, are only a few stops on de la Croix’s
itinerary. He also takes fascinating sidetrips into the (surprisingly) many
cross-dressers of vaudeville and burlesque—both male and female impersonators,
gives the lowdown on the queer blues, including such luminaries as Ma Rainey,
Bessie Smith, Lucille Bogan and Alberta Hunter and winds up a discussion of the
pansy craze of the 1920s and early 30s with a nod in the direction of Rudolph
Valentino and the incredible Ray (Rae) Bourbon.

Bourbon’s career was one of the best and brightest in the
history of drag, and many of his recordings (hilarious spoken word routines and
marvelous original songs) can be found free of charge and in the public domain
at the Internet Archive (www.archive.org).
I encourage anyone even mildly interested in our roots to download some of this
material to get a glimpse into a way of life now (for better or worse) gone by
the wayside.

However, de la Croix isn’t just about the arts. He also
explores Chicago’s past gay bars, McCarthyism and the Cold War (I can’t imagine
Adlai Stevenson and Everett Dirksen in gay nightclubs, but there you have it),
physique magazines, raids, legal difficulties and sodomy laws. I find it very
interesting that, just like New York City, the Mafia was heavily involved in
gay bars. I understand, of course, that they extorted money from business
owners who were particularly vulnerable to blackmail, but this is the first I’ve
heard that some mobsters actually attended these clubs in the company of
cross-dressers.

But you can find an interesting fact, unique character,
unknown pioneer or illuminating anecdote in just about any chapter of Chicaco
Whispers
. Moreover, these stories of men and women who have come before
have importance, weight, and a bearing on our future. Richly and respectfully
told, these histories will have you chuckling as often as crying.

George, we have our work cut out for us.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler 

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Boystown 4: A Time for Secrets – Marshall Thornton (MLR Press)

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Buy it direct from MLR Press

I owe Marshall Thornton an apology. You see, he sent me the
first three entries in the Boystown Series (novellas, not full-length works)
some time ago, but I was unable to get to them before they slipped through the
cracks. With approximately three requests a week to review someone’s book,
those cracks get pretty big. So, when Boystown 4: A Time for Secrets
came along, I gave it as much priority as I could. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Gay Chicago PI Nick Nowack is enlisted by the man who saved
him and his partner from a gay basher, now retired and in search of a lost
love. Nowack takes the case out of pity and payback, but soon finds himself
involved in three murders which may or may not have been carried out by a
candidate for mayor. Plus, his partner has just been diagnosed with AIDS, which
is so new it’s still called GRID.

What a delight to find yet another interesting gay detective
series. Greg Herren and Jean Redmann have New Orleans covered, Joseph DeMarco
has the Philadelphia market cornered, Anthony Bidulka gets Canada, and Val
MacDermid is all over the British Isles. Thornton takes 1980s Chicago and makes
it his own with Nick Nowack. All of these series have marvelous color and a
terrific sense of place, and Thornton’s Nowack is no exception.

Nowack is a marvelous character—an irascible yet believable
one who loves his partner but can’t help being promiscuous (more on those sex
scenes later). Despite this predilection, he has a strong sense of loyalty and
ethics and is achingly earnest in dealing with his clients. He is truly
multifacted and a character you’d be willing to follow to the end of any
mystery.

And what a crackerjack mystery this is. Through twists and
turns, tying the murder of his client and the man his client hired him to find
to the killing of a children’s TV show host in the 1950s, Nowack strikes a blow
not only for the individuals but for the gay rights movement at large. His
confrontations with his moneyed, well-connected suspect are immensely
satisfying, and the conclusion is not exactly what you’d expect. Or maybe it’s
exactly what you’d expect, depending on your level of cynicism. 

There are some graphic sex scenes—which makes this mystery
more erotica than some of the aforementioned ones. I must say the first couple
seemed out of place, but the more I thought about it, the more context they
acquired. Gratuitous sex was the norm in the late 1970s and very early 1980s
(before AIDS was found to be sexually transmitted), maybe more out of
desperation and fear than anything else. And having a partner diagnosed with an
unknown disease which is killing their friends, fear and desperation become
understandable indeed.

Boystown 4: A Time for Secrets is a great read and a welcome
addition to anyone’s mystery shelf. In future, I shall be more careful about
what slips through my cracks.

Shut up, Bill.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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