Monthly Archives: October 2012

Sara – Greg Herren (Bold Strokes Books)

Buy it direct from Bold Strokes Books

I’m not much one for YA fiction, but I read a certain amount
for the blog and what always amazes me about YA by Greg Herren, David-Matthew
Barnes and Steve Berman is how different it is from the stuff being fed to adolescents
when I was one. These fine authors, as well as others, concentrate on the A
rather than the Y. And like Herren’s Sleeping Angel earlier this year, Sara
is no exception.

Tony Martin’s senior year is an eventful one, but not the
way he had in mind. First, his best friend, Glenn Lockhart, comes out, causing
him some anxiety and guilt over being anxious. They’re still friends, but
Tony’s one of the few guys sticking with Glenn. And after someone decorates
Glenn’s locker with the word “faggot,” people start choosing up sides. Enter
the new student, Sara Sterling, a beautiful girl who is soon always at Glenn’s
side. And oddly enough, his enemies start dying. 

The deft plotting that serve both his Scotty Bradley and
Chanse MacLeod mystery series’ is in full swing here, and Herren never misses
an opportunity to either deepen his characters or move the action along. His
writing is always economical and serves to do one or the other. He never wastes
a word. The Bradley and MacLeod mysteries do have a great deal of local NOLA
color, but Sara could be set in any town. I miss his Big Easy locale,
but making the setting more universal also renders the plot scarier. After all,
one expects supernatural happenings in New Orleans.

More importantly for this genre, Herren never writes down to
his audience. Nor is his YA ever voiced by anything other than an
age-appropriate narrator. And speaking of that narrator, Tony Martin is an
interesting character. Not quite comfortable with his best friend’s sexuality,
he does not hide that discomfort from the reader. He admits it and tries to
learn from it—an admirable quality and a lesson that young adults should be
taking away from whatever they read on the subject.

Herren is to be lauded, not just for his contributions to
the mystery genre, but for his prolific nature and the genuinely high quality
of his output. It seems no matter what he tries, he finds success.

Try Sara and see if you don’t agree. 

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©, 2012, Jerry Wheeler

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Out of Step – J. Lee Watton (A&M Books)

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Buy it direct from A&M Books

The official end of
the U.S. Armed Forces “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” stopgap ruling recently is one
of the last scenes of this book. The author, briefly a Navy ensign in the
1960’s, is back in contact with most of the women she served with four and a
half decades earlier, and they celebrate the end of this farcical ruling with
celebratory “it’s about time” phone calls across the country.

Most of them had
been involved in a 1965 lesbian scandal at the Bainbridge, Maryland Navy base,
where all of them had hoped for some kind of military career.

In that era, not
unlike today, the military was one clear cut area where non-exceptional women
without college educations could serve their country and at the same time earn
a real living, which if perhaps not equal to that of a man, came closer than
most jobs. The loss of their positions therefore meant a significant economic
step back for all of these young women. Most of them, like the author, came
from working class backgrounds, often from troubled families, and from military
lineages—Watton’s father was a Navy man and her son later joined up. And Lee
actually was exceptional: in later life she became a singer-entertainer, and
then a successful journalist

Out of Step is the story of that single forced mass
resignation, as well as the story of what led up to it, and what happened to
the women after it all came down. The book concentrates, of course, upon the
life and varied careers of the author, whose autobiography it mostly is, but we
catch up with some if not all of the others too and so we can see the ripple
effect upon those pushed out as well as other who remained in the military for
more years.

Their ouster is a
dark and shameful episode for the country—although as we now know it is by now
no means unique. Back in the 1970’s, my friend, Paul Popham, first President of
The Gay Men’s Health Crisis, told me that he remained in the military
specifically so he could be a defending attorney for gay male cases of this
sort. It’s shameful   because it shows so
clearly why all of this intolerance had to end, and why the military in this
country finally had to open up to Gays and Lesbians in the Service of which
they form so large a portion.

Five women on the
base had formed a group that they and others referred to as The Family. Most of
them, including Watton, had no sexual experiences of any sort by that time. And
of course it was those excluded from the group who turned on the women, with
such vituperation that ONI, the Office of Naval Intelligence (i.e. Intolerance)
was called in to “investigate.” 

That investigation
was a black farce equal in cold-bloodedness to any scene from Orwell’s 1984 or Koestler’s Darkness At Noon: in other words American Military Fascism at its
most trenchantly effective. At all times, the Navy’s assumption was that
everyone being “looked into” was a priori
guilty, either by deed or association, i.e. exactly the opposite of the
assumptions of the U.S. Judicial system, not to mention the guarantees of the
U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. The women were never once legally
represented, and in effect they were badgered, and lied to. Attempts were made
to have them turn on each other and when that failed, they were then railroaded
into resignations. In all this horror, they were unsupported by any officers,
including women who probably were themselves gay and who were better able to
hide the fact, or better protected by their position.

No wonder our
narrator admits that for years she still harbored rancor toward the military —
and this from a young woman all but dying to serve. It’s ironic that the very
qualities that would have made her an excellent navy woman were turned against
her by her superiors. Based on that, this book, like Margarethe Cammermeyer’s Serving in Silence, remains absolutely
required reading for anyone GLB or T who is considering going into the
military. It’s this reviewer’s own opinion that ruling change or not, it’s
going to be a long time before the culture which fostered this despicable type
of action can change for the better.

As a book, rather
than as a guide and warning, Out of Step
is also okay. Watton eventually went to work for a second city paper and her
style is clear, neat, colorful, and emotional when need be. Her women characters
are nicely drawn and individualized; the mysterious figure of Kate Harrison,
the author’s first real love, remains mysterious and desirable right up to the
end: not an easy trick. The others are more simply limned. But their
connection, their camaraderie and the idea of them rapidly forming that rare
group that would last throughout their lives is one I bought completely.

Watton has enough
style and verve to keep one interested, although I was put off by her very
short and succinct, Attention-Deficit manner chapters, all too typical alas of
much current non-fiction. Her use of nicknames, pop culture references and at
all times her Naval language and usage is mostly cute and winning. The early
chapters overly articulated attitude of “Gee-I-like-her- but- I-
can’t-possibly- be- a- dyke” is a little overdone; as is the forward-shadowing.
But none of that is deleterious.

Just to clarify,
this reviewer is himself the same age as Watton,  and during the 1960’s he would have eaten
ground glass on toast points  before ever
signing up for the military or allowing himself to be conscripted. How gay men
connected up, including into long term relationships, in that era was markedly
different than how the women did, if this book is any guide. The reviewer also
remains baffled how it is that some women like Watton could go from intense
passionate lesbian relationships to less passionate straight ones, including
marriage with a child. At the same time that the reviewer admits that many
women born in the 1940’s and 1950’s did exactly that — and not a few men too!

© 2012, Felice Picano  

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Fall Poetry Roundup 2

Skin Job – Evan J. Peterson (Minor Arcana Press)

4 Poems – Walter Beck (Citizens for Decent Literature Press)

Some Assembly Required – Walter Beck (Writing Knights Press)

As the Cannons and Muskets Roar – Walter Beck (Writing
Knights Press)

Among the Leaves – Raymond Luczak, ed. (Squares &
Rebels)

When We Become Weavers – Kate Lynn Hibbard, ed. (Squares
& Rebels)

The first time I met Evan Peterson was, naturally, at a
poetry reading, his face and forehead full of bloody mock stitches—a shocking
look in a group of fashionably deshabille poets—which, of course was his
intention. Peterson loves his monsters, and this is apparent from the very
first of Skin Job. Some of his creations were inspired by movies
(“Creature of the Night came from Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Box Office
Poison” from Mommie Dearest and “Dyscephalus” from The Elephant Man,
for example), but many scenes shambling around in his brain have no expression
on film, such as the lovely filth of “The Piss Test Cathedral” or the
disgusting shapes in “The Froo Froo Mutant.” Despite his penchant for dripping,
bloody, wriggling, altered corpses, however, Peterson retains a love of the
absurd and a sense of humor, as in the piece that ends the book, “Acceptance
Speech for a Posthumous Oscar”:

                        For
my true friends: champagne/

                        For
my sham friends: true pain./

                        Thanks
for my own murderers attending my funeral./

                        Thank
you for teaching me the value of suffering for art./

                        This
is indeed my finest hour.

But Peterson has many fine hours to come. His horrorshow
poetry is simultaneously disturbing and liberating—a truly unique combination
that is as repellent as it is savory.

Also savory is the salty fire of Indiana’s incendiary poet,
Walter Beck—gay Boy Scout, lover of cheap hangover wine and baiter of street
preachers. Beck’s two recent chapbooks, Some Assembly Required and 4
Poems
are short bursts of Beck’s pissed-off prowess that hit his usual
well-deserved target of hypocritical poseurs. As the Cannons and
Muskets Roar
, however, is a well-timed departure from his vitriol. This
collection of twenty-six poems about Civil War re-enactment (Union side)
reveals a far more tender and lyrical side of Beck while retaining his Beat
sensibilities as well as his some of his other cultural touchstones (including
quotes from Ministry, the Beatles, the Doors, and Pink Floyd). From the opener,
“The Re-Enactor” to the closing “The Night Prayer,” Beck captures the
experience in sweat, smoke, hardtack and salt pork with shadings of honor, glory
and beauty as in “A Muse of Wood and Steel”:

                                    I
dreamed of her last night/

                                    As
she spoke in smoke and fire./

                                    I
felt her strength in my hands;/

                                    Feeling
like Homer must have felt/

                                    As
Calliope hotly whispered the Iliad/

                                    In
his ear.

Beck is a young poet, one whose rage usually fuels his
material, and the difference in his work when he’s writing from a place of love
and affection is startling. The change is as refreshing as the pieces
themselves, and readers can only hope this isn’t the last time we see this side
of him.

Some of Walter Beck’s work is also in a marvelous volume
edited by Raymond Luczak, Among the Leaves: Queer Male Poets on the
Midwestern Experience
. Luczak has cherry picked the work of eighteen poets,
giving each four or five pieces to create their impressions of the Midwestern
life. The concept is brilliant and the execution nothing less than
breathtaking, as is its distaff companion edited by Kate Lynn Hibbard, When
We Become Weavers: Queer Female Poets on the Midwestern Experience
. For a
Midwestern boy like myself, both volumes take me back to wintry days, fall
colors, the snap of fresh apples and the smell of the woods across the road.
But as these are gay men and women, they also recall shame, fury, illicit
thrills and the anxiety of knowing you’re different than the other kids
ice-skating with their friends. Among the Leaves features some of my
favorite poets, including Luczak himself (“Lakewood Cemetary”), Gregg Shapiro
(“Winter Work”), Stephen S. Mills (“Trying to Convince My Aunt to Vote
Democrat, 2008”), Jack Fritscher (“Clark Station: Kalamazoon, 1969”), Scott
Wiggerman (“Plays Like a Girl”), Timothy Murphy (“Winter Camp: The Eagle
Trail”) and James Schwartz—who captured my heart with the simple yet moving
“Disco Rumspringa”:

                                    From
sequestered settlements of Amish land,/

                                    My
sequined
rumspringa is at hand/.

                                    Away
in the night I make my flight/

                                    To
a world unknown lit by street light.

But leaving home means occasional regret, and the more one
reads the poems in each of these books, small emotional details stick in your
head like wet leaves on the bottom of your shoe, giving you the impression of a
nurturing yet unforgiving region that can be as harsh as it comforting. When
We Become Weavers
is, for me, even more enlightening than Among the
Leaves
because, never having had girl experiences growing up, I had more to
learn. Among the terrific poets here, I especially enjoyed the work of Carla
Christopher (“Always a Survivor in the Room”), Morgan Grayce Willow (“H-O-R-S-E”),
Jes Braun (“Family Tree”), Sheila Packa (“Fox, No Longer Hidden”), Natalie J.
Byers (“Rumors”), Laura Madeline Wiseman (“The Matriarch”), and the wondrous
Crystal Boson, whose “God responds to rick perry and his national day of prayer
in a language he can understand” just made me laugh:

                                    I
had scheduled up rain/

                                    now
I’m spending my day/

                                    scrubbin’
your voice from my ear/

                                    and
clenchin up the assholes of clouds.

Either one of these books will charm, enchant, mystify and
astound you—but they speak loudest to those people from the center of the
country, where love and hatred grow as spiky high as the corn. Please, however,
get them both to get the fullest picture of what coming of age in the Midwest
is like.

And that’s the Fall Poetry Roundup. Now excuse me, I need to
start collecting the books for Winter. 

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©, 2012, Jerry Wheeler

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Fall Poetry Roundup: Part 1

Butcher’s Sugar – Brad Richard (Sibling Rivalry Press)

To the One Who Raped Me – Dustin Brookshire (Sibling Rivalry
Press)

For the Comfort of Automatic Phrases – Jane Cassady (Sibling
Rivalry Press)

 

Any season is great for reading poetry, but autumn for me is
a particularly brilliant time. It’s always been, for me at least, a time of
change, of reflection, of celebrating the simplest of pleasures. Like words.
But the simple words of poets convey some mightily complex ideas, and these
fine volumes are but a few of the voices out there.

Many of those voices are being introduced to the world by
Bryan Borland through the very fine Sibling Rivalry Press, quickly becoming the
benchmark for quality poetry. Brad Richard’s Butcher’s Sugar is among
the best of that benchmark. Richard, like many gay poets, concerns himself with
sexuality and secrets, but his work is of a more sensual nature—not erotic, but
more of the senses. His subjects smell, taste, see, and feel, so his poems are
very visceral in nature but suffused with dread, as in “The Child and His
Monsters,” or “Dead Tongues,” or “The Men in the Dark.” He outdoes himself,
however, in his chilling account of the murder of Nicholas West, “Eye-Fucking.”

                        The
gun came out, easy in my hand/

                        and
I walked up smiling, like he and I/

                        were
just two old buddies, took the safety off/

                        and
eye-fucked him, passing the barrel

                        real
slow from eye to eye. He was about to pass out/

                        but
don’t you know he couldn’t help but watch.

This horrific incident is told from the point of view of one
of the murderers, and it is absolutely harrowing. It is so powerful, in fact,
that it took some work to come down for it for the next piece.

But Richard does not have the market cornered on harrowing
or powerful. Dustin Brookshire gives him some competition with his relatively
short but emotion-packed To the One Who Raped Me. Many of these poems
are short as well, but their brevity belies their punch. Many quote from
popular culture to underscore their horror. From “I Don’t Like to Say the Word
Rape” to “Law & Order: SUV,” these pieces flow together to tell the
story of the act, its aftermath and its lingering effects. One of the simplest
yet most emotional poems is “No Comedy from Tragedy.” 

                                    Popcorn
between my legs,/

left arm rests
on Paul’s right/

                                    We
watch
The Hills Have Eyes 2./

                                    I
twist. Heart races. Mouth goes dry/

                                    when
the guy cuts her pants./

                                    People
laugh as he bends her over a table./

                                    I
turn to see their faces.

This is strong stuff, no doubt. It would have been stronger
without the rape statistics quoted between the pieces. The reality of the stats
doesn’t match the reality of the situation or the raw veracity of the pieces
themselves, but that doesn’t mar the work itself, which is extraordinary.

Also extraordinary, but for entirely different reasons, is
Jane Cassady’s For the Comfort of Automatic Phrases. Her humor is warm,
genuine and poignant in such titles as “For Those About to Plan Weddings, We
Salute You” but she has a marvelous eye for finding poetic in the most prosaic,
as in “History of the Moon Pie, Memphis TN,” “Dear Ladies of the Plano, Texas,
Zumba Class,” and “Contents of a Chick-Lit Heroine’s Yard Sale.”

The latter is one of my favorites here:

         Clothes
that used to fit.

                                    Rainbow
tube top, belonging to carefree younger sister.

                                    High
school year book, his.

                                    Lingerie,
La Perla, purple, still in box.

                                    Snow
globe from the tree lighting.

                                    Ice
skates.

                                    Cell
phone bedazzling kit, slightly used.

                                    Underwear,
days of the week, missing Wednesday.

Cassady’s literary mash-ups are even more interesting, such
as “Beyonce is Better at Having Feelings Than I Am” and “Letter from the Divine
Whatever to the Newly Out,” with lyrics from Beyonce’s “Halo” and Lady Gaga’s
“Born This Way,” respectively, cut and pasted with a pointed sense of irony. 

But Sibling Rivalry isn’t the only press putting out
wonderful words to enrich my autumn. There’s more to come in the second part of
my Fall Poetry Roundup. 

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Cowboys, Armageddon, and The Truth – Scott Terry (Lethe Press)

Buy it now direct from Lethe Press

I am very thankful that I was not raised with any sort of
religious convictions. No matter what else I’ve had to struggle with, this
particular demon never had to be factored in. If you find yourself at odds with
it, as many gay men and women do, it can leave ugly scars. That’s what makes
Scott Terry’s autobiographical Cowboys, Armageddon, and The Truth so
poignant.

Scott Terry is an ordinary Joe—or, rather, an ordinary
former Jehovah’s Witness—with a particularly difficult upbringing. His life was
complicated not only by the conflict between his homosexuality and his
religion, but also by an emotionally and physically abusive stepmother with the
rather contradictory nickname of Fluffy. The happy ending is that Terry emerges
from this vile atmosphere with his integrity, his perspective, and his sense of
self-worth intact.

Former Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the emotionally
strongest people I know. They have to be to break away from the cult,
withstanding the loss of their families and the only circle of friends they’re
allowed to know as they’re permanently shunned once they leave. Terry’s
strength in the face of his deprived and desolate childhood is evident in every
chapter of this book.

His prose is very simple and spare, letting the horror (and
the occasional joy) of the situation convey itself to the reader without
pointing to it and shouting. He also relates these anecdotes with an unsparing
eye for his own culpability, which is often not the case with autobiography.
But Terry’s eye is always on the lookout for a way out, which he eventually
finds. And when he starts to come into his own and begins living his life, I
almost stood up and cheered.

This is where the book finds its own gentle poignancy—in
Terry’s first fumbling, naïve encounters. He could have been swallowed whole,
but his mentors made his transition as easy as possible for someone struggling
to overcome his background to discover his true self. My only complaint is one
typical of a fiction writer looking for a just ending, and that is he never
gets (or if it happened, shares it with us) a chance to call Fluffy out on her
abuse and take her to task for it. But sometimes life doesn’t provide those
opportunities.

Cowboys, Armageddon, and The Truth is a
wonderful, engaging book that will leave you with the satisfaction that one
man, at least, was saved. And not by
religion.  

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©, 2012, Jerry Wheeler

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MIS_ING – Drake Braxton (Seventh Window Publications)

Buy it direct from Seventh Window Publications

I have said before that some of the best books I’ve read
lead you down one path then change direction and turn into something else.
There is, however, a caveat in that such a switch must be foreshadowed,
however subtly. If not, the reader feels misled. If I can go back, reread and
be able to smack my forehead and say, “How come I didn’t see that coming?” I’ll
be satisfied. That’s one of the problems with Drake Braxton’s MIS_ING.

Blain Harrington takes his partner Manny back to Alabama to
attend Blain’s 20th high school reunion. But when Manny turns up
missing, Blain panics, suspecting one of his old friends has murdered his
partner. Will the police find him? The private detective his best friend Michael
hires? Is he dead? Hurt? Or just took the opportunity to get out of the
relationship?

I thought long and hard about how to write this review
because I always hate to reveal too much in case someone wants to read the
book. However, in this case there is no choice but to include a spoiler.
Manny’s disappearance, you see, is all in Blain’s head. Manny is dead, no
mistake, but due to a car accident that may or may not have been Blain’s fault.
But this is thrown at us with absolutely no preparation or foreshadowing.

That might be survivable, giving us a picture of a man so
tortured by grief that he invents various fantasy scenarios to avoid the
reality. In fact, despite the lack of foreshadowing, that could have worked if
the remainder of the book was about conquering that aspect of his grief and
returning to normality. Unfortunately, Braxton drops this interesting trait
immediately after introducing it.

What replaces this fascinating, if slightly flawed, story? A
tepid romantic storyline that threatens to sink into a disappointingly
hackneyed addiction/recovery plot before it recovers its footing and crosses
the finish line with a flat, though happy, ending. And the more I thought about
the potential here—the originality of the first third gone wrong—the more I
wept. I was really rooting for Braxton to pull this one out of the fire, but it
simply didn’t happen.

Part of the problem is mine. I don’t care for the romance
genre, so perhaps a fan would find the last half of this book more intriguing
than I did. If you’re into that sort of thing, I’d encourage you to pick this
up and decide for yourself.  

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©, 2012, Jerry Wheeler

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The Raven’s Heart – Jesse Blackadder (Bywater Books)

Buy it direct from Bywater Books

One of the joys in life is a big, juicy book; a long story
that maintains its characters as well as its sweep and scope as it works its
way through a complex but not complicated plot. Bonus points if it deals with
royalty, court intrigue, castles, honor, and alternate sexualities. Jesse
Blackadder’s The Raven’s Heart has all this and much, much more.

In Mary Queen of Scots’ absence, Blackadder Castle has been
given to the evil Lord Hume and the entire Blackadder family thrown out.
Descendent Alison Blackadder, who has been dressed as a boy her whole life to
protect her from the Humes, becomes one of Mary’s ladies in waiting upon the
royal’s return. She falls in love with her queen at the same time she instructs
her in the art of male subterfuge, becoming Mary’s most trusted adviser. Can
Alison win her castle back and reclaim her soul from Mary?

Jesse Blackadder is a descendent of the family mentioned in
the book, and her research is impeccable, as is her sense of place. I could
almost feel the chill of coastal Scotland. But research would just be useless
facts if she didn’t have the ability to meld the history with some amazing
characters. Mary is both childlike and icily royal, her personality revealed and
deepened as she grows into her queenly role.

The Raven’s Heart, however, belongs to Alison
Blackadder. A wonder of a character, she begins as a wide-eyed innocent with a
goal and becomes a wise and savvy woman who hates her queen as much as she
loves her. Alison’s transformation is remarkable and wholly believable as she
wins and loses both men and women, learning something about life and
perseverance with each loss. But the supporting cast is equally stellar. Lord
Darnley, Mary’s husband and not-quite-king, is syphilitic and malevolent. Lord
Bothwell, at first Alison’s protector, becomes a land-grabbing seeker of power
and wealth.

Blackadder’s prose is sumptuous and expressive; perfectly
pitched in terms of time and never anachronistic. As stated before, her sense
of place is marvelous—her descriptions are powerful but never overwhelm the
action. And her pacing is a perfect blend of action and exposition that never
drags or lags. Historically accurate and meticulously researched, Blackadder’s
facts are a jumping off point for her fiction and never jar the reader or seem
out of place.

Altogether an engrossing read, The Raven’s Heart is
sure to please both history buff and fiction lover.

 ©, 2012, Jerry Wheeler

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