Monthly Archives: June 2013

A Romantic Mann – Jeff Mann (Lethe Press)

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Buy it direct from Lethe Press

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m one of Jeff
Mann’s biggest fans and have been since his Lambda award winning collection of
short fiction, A History of Barbed Wire. But beyond his BDSM leanings,
his tales of rough sex with country boys, his scholarly yet confessional
essays, and his Civil War fiction, his poetry absolutely staggers me. A
Romantic Mann
is a terrific collection that gathers some of his best work
in one slim, yet powerful volume.

No less than Trebor Healey, a marvelous poet in his own
right, calls Mann “the gay epic poet of our age” in a blurb on the back of the
back. While some of this can naturally be attributed to creeping blurb
hyperbole, there is a great deal of truth in Healey’s assessment. I can think
of many gay poets today, but none has mastered the epic sweep and the grandeur
of Jeff Mann.

A Romantic Mann is split into four parts: the first
dealing with romanticism (though this pops up other places as well), the second
has a musical theme, the third has a homespun Appalachian bent along with some
poems reacting to the student massacre at Virginia Tech where Mann teachers,
and the fourth features poems with European locales.

It has been said if you scratch a cynic, you’ll find a
disappointed romantic. Mann’s cynicism is evident, but he fully admits his
marred romanticism, especially in a thoughtful trilogy: “The Failed Romantic
Contemplates Suicide,” “The Failed Romantic Discovers Amy’s Hot Pepper Relish,”
and “The Failed Romantic Seduces a Blueberry Bar.” But no matter how Mann
contemplates, he always retains a sense of humor. From the first poem of the
trilogy comes this brilliant bit:

                                    He
would leap now, but who would/

                                    write
his elegy better than he?

                                    He
plucks at his collar and wonders/

                                    how
did Heathcliff avoid lint?

Food is also never far from Mann’s mind. The aforementioned
hot pepper relish and blueberry bars aside, Mann is both a gourmet and a
gourmand. The detailing of a sumptuous feast at “Galatoire’s” followed by “The
Men of Taco Bell,” which has another of my favorite few lines:

                                    We
eat slowly to put off heading home/

                                    We
plan how to fill our evenings./

                                    We
undress burrito supremes and fajita wraps/

                                    from
their coy paper clothing./

                                    The
tortillas resist our teeth, then yield like skin.

But whether Mann is name-checking his favorite foods
(“Sunday Morning Biscuits,” “Feasting in the Aftermath”) or his musical idols
(Joni Mitchell in “Ionian” and Simon and Garfunkle in “Dorian”), his agenda is
always epic, and he always keeps his poetic eye on how the detail fits in with
the larger picture as in another of my favorites here, “Homomonument,
Amsterdam.” 

                                    …we
sit together, knee to knee/

                                    in
the Dutch sun’s imprimatur,/

                                    dipping
frites into mayonnaise,/

                                    feeding
each another./

                                    Perfect
photo opportunity for those/

                                    in
tour boats who float by. They listen to/

                                    the
story of the Homomonument, point us out—/

living
examples!—aim their cameras. Smile.

Mann’s poetry is nothing short of spectacular, and it’s a
treat to have all these pieces from various magazines and anthologies bound in
one adroitly organized anthology. If you’ve never read Mann’s verse before, you
really should. It’s epic in a way you’ll never forget.       

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©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler

                  

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Thoreau in Love – John Schuyler Bishop (CreateSpace)

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Buy it now from Amazon.com

I read the transcendentalists in college, finding Emerson
tedious. Henry Thoreau’s On Walden Pond was required reading, of course,
but it never grabbed me the way Nathaniel Hawthorne did. So when I received a
copy of John Schuyler Bishop’s Thoreau in Love, which fictionalizes a
missing part of Thoreau’s diary to include a couple of affairs with other men,
I eagerly awaited a chance to dive in. And the water was wonderful.

The period involved is 1843, when Thoreau left Concord for
New Jersey to tutor the children of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s brother, William.
William’s rather morose wife, Susan, fetches him, paying his passage on a
schooner. On that journey, Thoreau meets and falls in love with a sailor named
Ben Wickham. Their affair is torrid and brief, but its ramifications are
immense. Ben haunts Thoreau’s every moment. For his part, Ben eventually jumps
ship to be with Henry. Will they find happiness? Well, it is 1843.

Part of the trick of historical fiction is making a world
complete enough to draw the reader away from the present, and Bishop does so
with style and finesse. His characters are never anachronistic, and his
settings are brilliant. From cinder-clogged steamship trips to muddy, unpaved
Manhattan (complete with Broadway spelled Broad Way) as well as the rural
splendor of New Jersey, Bishop’s setting is one in which you can totally
immerse yourself.

But scenery is only a pretty picture without characters to
inhabit it, and Bishop satisfies on this score as well. Stern William Emerson
and his emotionally unstable wife are perfect foils for Thoreau’s nascent
distrust of authority and propriety. All are well-drawn and fully lifelike.
Ben, in particular, is a marvelous combination of liar and lover, and when he
and Thoreau are together, the plot fairly pops.

Even the minor characters are interesting: Ralph, the mock
minister every bit as gay as Thoreau despite his wife, Thoreau’s childhood
friend Stearns, as well as famous personages such as Henry James and James
Harper (the victim of a brilliant tirade from Thoreau when Harper rejects one
of his stories in favor of a new Dickens installment from London) all have
memorable parts to play.

Incredibly, even though we all know from history that Thoreau
did not end up the boyfriend of a sailor, Bishop manages to make the reader (or
this one, anyway) forget the fact and wonder up until the very last whether or
not he would take Ben up on his offer to run away on the Oregon Trail and live
together as pioneers.

I thoroughly enjoyed Thoreau in Love and would
recommend it to any fan of historical fiction, writers, or simply anyone who
enjoys a good love story. Because it’s about all of that and so much more. 

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©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler

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Crack Shot: Western Erotica – Dale Chase (Bold Strokes Books)

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Buy it direct from Bold Strokes Books

Whenever I encounter an anthology Dale Chase appears in, I
always skip right to her entry because I know I’ll be rewarded with a terrific
tale. Whether it’s one of her tasty ghost stories, a stately Victorian piece,
or one of her westerns, I’m sure to find an interesting, erotic read. And
thankfully, she’s so prolific that I don’t have to wait long for another
morsel. Her latest e-book for Bold Strokes, Crack Shot: Western Erotica,
is no exception to the rule.

There are five exceptionally delicious Old West yarns here
and all are top-notch. The collection starts off strong with “Brazen,” perhaps
the thinnest of the lot in terms of plot but with a twisty ending that Chase
doesn’t do very often. Cal Huntley is pleasuring himself by the campfire when a
handsome stranger, Wade Lasko, drops by for a casual encounter. Although the
plot may be sparse, the sex—one of Chase’s strongest points—is hot, indeed. I
think of all the erotica writers I know, Chase has the firmest grip (pun fully
intended) on male-male scenes.

“Thyself a Man” is a nicely-turned tale that concerns Rev.
Alden Finch, a preacher from Springfield trying to bring the word of God to a
gold mining camp, and the saloon proprietor that he can’t stay away from.
Again, the sex is hot, but the main feature here is watching the right reverend
slide from propriety into obsession. My mind kept wandering to the Reverend
Dimmesdale in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

“Gandy Dancer,” a tale written, but not sent to me, for my Riding
the Rails
anthology sees young Billy Quinn and new worker Devlin Roarke
working on track for the Transcontinental Railroad. The title story, “Crack
Shot” has a ne’er-do-well, Roy Burkhart, becoming the jailhouse boy-toy of
Marshall Ramsey. Ramsey stands up against the judge to get Burkhart released,
but what happens when the criminal commits another offense? Chase keeps you in
suspense up until the last.

But my favorite piece is “Picture Show,” a multi-leveled
story-within-a-story that examines that transitional period between the end of
the Old West and the beginning of the next age. Heartfelt and wistful, it takes
place in 1924 as former sheriff Wade Langer is shooting a movie about his
encounter with the outlaw Frank Parrish. Trouble is, the director is
perpetuating the many fictions that have sprung up around this legendary
battle. To complicate matters further, the actor playing his deputy suffers an
accident and Langer’s real deputy, Arlen Kight, is called in to play the role.
Langer and Kight were a hot item back in the day, and they re-kindle this flame
during the shoot. Not only do we get a fascinating look at the conflict between
film and fact, we also get a sweet love story as a bonus. This is Chase at her
best.

But there’s much to like in Crack Shot. And at the
price of an e-book, it’s not worth even thinking about it before you buy. Just
do it. You can thank me later. 

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©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler

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Giraffe People – Jill Malone (Bywater Books)

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Buy it direct from Bywater Books

I envy writers who are able to create a large cast of
characters and manage to juggle them all, giving them all their own plot
episodes yet keeping them in the reader’s mind when they’re not on stage.
Lambda Literary Award winning Jill Malone does this effortlessly in her latest
release, Giraffe People, all these bodies in a relatively fixed orbit
around her central character, Cole Peters.

Fifteen-year-old Nicole “Cole” Peters seems to have
everything: a talent for sports, musical gifts, and a hot (if a bit drab)
boyfriend. If that wasn’t enough for this daughter of an Army Chaplain, she
also has Meghan, who is eighteen and sponsored for West Point by Cole’s
parents. Cole’s friend as well as her tutor, Meghan has some secrets of her own
she betrays one night, confusing herself as well as Cole.

Cole is a marvelous character. By turns contemplative and
frenetic, she hurtles through her life in a whirlwind series of school
projects, functions, practices, and rehearsals as if she’s too afraid to stop.
When she does stop, she wonders why her boyfriend, Jeremy, won’t sleep with her
but her mentor, Meghan, will. She’s always with the guys in her band, or the
girls on the team, or her family (thus the rather large cast). Malone is
totally in her fifteen-year-old glory with Cole, whose actions, decisions, and
speech are never anything less than age appropriate.

My second favorite character, Bangs, also has an important
role. He’s a moneyed skater dude with, like many of the kids in this book,
talent to burn. A lover of old movies, punk, religious philosophy, and
alterna-culture, he challenges Cole in ways that Meghan cannot.

Malone’s first-person prose captures the tumult of fifteen
with a precise clarity that puts us right inside Cole’s heart. Careening
whipcrack from triumph to disaster and back again, this is action-filled
writing that pauses briefly to consider and then is off on the next adventure
or the new experience—dangerous stories told with lethal accuracy. Setting is
irrelevant. It’s as breathless as you remember adolescence being.

And speaking of how you remember adolescence, stick around
for the final three paragraphs in which Malone manage to recast everything you
just read. It’s an unexpected finish; one might even call it a fearless move,
but Malone is obviously a writer who loves to take changes.

I can hardly wait to see where she goes next.

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©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler

 

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Desolation Point – Cari Hunter (Bold Strokes Books)

Buy it direct from Bold Strokes Books

I see absolutely nothing wrong with genre plots. They’re familiar enough so that you don’t have to be concerned with what happens in the long run because you know where things will wind up, and you can concentrate on the thrills inherent in the ride itself. And Cari Hunter provides thrills galore in her adventure/romance Desolation Point.

Los Angeles cop Alex Pascal is viciously injured at a crime scene, the word “bitch” carved in her back, and halfway across the world, Sarah Kent is the sole survivor of a horrible car accident. Recovered from their individual injuries, they find themselves independently hiking a trail leading to Washington’s Desolation Point. But they’re not alone. Also hiking the North Cascades is a white supremacist broken out of jail by the organization he works for. What happens when they all meet? Love, violence, and adventure.

In the hands of a lesser writer and scenarist, this could be pretty rote and by-the-book, but Cari Hunter breathes a great deal of life into the characters and the situation. Her descriptions of the scenery are sumptuous, and she has a keen sense of pacing. The action sequences never drag, and she takes full advantage of the valleys between the peaks by deepening her characters, working their relationship, and setting up the next hurdle.

The result is a fully engaging and absorbing read that will keep you up at night in order to finish it. I found myself saying, “Just one more chapter, and then I’ll go to bed” until I finally turned the last page. I particularly liked the way the balance of power and responsibility shifted between Alex and Sarah and back again, both of them alternately courageous and vulnerable. Their dialogue is also well-turned, sounding spoken rather than written.

Also intriguing is the parallel development of the characters in the beginning as we see the tragedies that befall both of them and leave them walking wounded. And the irony that they are both using this North Cascades adventure as part of their healing from those experiences is not lost.

Formulaic? Well, yes. But wonderfully so. Hunter works within the form and elevates the well-worn structure into something much more compelling and addictive. Don’t read it too close to bedtime, or you just might find yourself late for work in the morning.

©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler

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The Other Man – Paul Alan Fahey, ed. (JMS Books)

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Buy it from JMS Books

One of the most interesting facets of gay life is how we
handle the relationship, especially when cheating is involved. Some couples
split, others continue, and still others find the parameters permanently altered.
This isn’t to say that the same doesn’t happen to straight couples. I just
happen to think our drama is more entertaining. And you’ll find a lot of
entertainment in the many emotions of Paul Alan Fahey’s extraordinary
anthology, The Other Man.

The Other Man is comprised of memoir—personal essays
from some of our best and brightest writers—regarding what happened to their
relationships when they faced challenges from the other man. And, as expected,
the pieces run the gamut from hilarious to heartbreaking.

The humor base is covered by the opening and closing essays:
Jeffrey Ricker’s “What If?” and Rob Byrnes’ “A Brief History of the Divorce
Party.” Ricker’s piece details his summer of sluttiness with many men, some
involved in relationships, while Byrnes’ breakup with his former partner just
as they’re about to throw a party provides the laughs (though I’m sure some
time and perspective helped).

In between, we find a staggering array of voices. Among my
favorites were R.W. Clinger’s shattering and faintly creepy “In the Brokenness
of Summertime,” Tom Mendicino’s detailing of the adult bookstore experience
that led to his first novel, “Any Resemblance to Actual Persons, Living or
Dead, is Entirely Coincidental,” and Austin Bunn’s confessional “Husbands” (a
weakness we shared at one point).

But there is much more to love here. David Pratt’s “Way Off”
is a beautiful piece about a Broadway career being the other man that breaks up
his relationship with an actor. Lewis DeSimone turns wistful and aching as he
willfully seduces the already-attached Nathan in “Last Tango in Cambridge,” and
Jeff Mann has an unfortunate reunion with an old love in “Thomas.”

Of the twenty-one contributors to this anthology, each
illuminates just one facet of the complex subject of infidelity, and although I
liked some more than others, there’s not a duff piece in the lot. But the only
way to find your favorites are to buy it and read. I guarantee you’ll find
someone you’ll recognize. Maybe even yourself. 

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©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler

 

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Like Light for Flies – Lee Thomas (Lethe Press)

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Buy it direct from Lethe Press

I don’t know of a recent horror writer who gets more mileage
out of old tropes than Lee Thomas does. This was true in his Lammy
award-winning The German as well as The Dust of Wonderland, which
elevated the haunted house/possession thing into something rare and wonderously
creepy. I expected a lot from his short story collection, Like Light for
Flies
, and he exceeded those expectations with room to spare.

In her knowledgeable and interesting introduction, Sarah
Langan says that Thomas’ characters aren’t “refreshingly happy gay man.” And to
that, I’d add that their horrific issues have less to do with being gay than
being in the wrong place in the wrong time, which is equally as refreshing. In
fact, not all of his characters are gay.

Fittingly, the first story is about a straight woman named
Sylvia, her deceased sugar daddy, one of daddy’s lackeys, and a set of statues
that enables some very strange goings-on as Sylvia tries to get “Comfortable in
Her Skin.” This story, for some odd reason, was much like a Tarentino film to
me—over-the-top violence that actually justifies its own excesses. This is also
the only story in which greed is a primary motivator, making this the most
conventional entry here.

The other end of the spectrum, “Butcher’s Block,” sees a
middle-aged man at a local cruising area wondering why twinks are inviting
other, older man to some big party and leaving him out in the cold. Except
these aren’t your average twinks, and the old men aren’t likely to get much
older. “Testify” is an epistolary story about a Christian minister forced from
his position, “The Dodd Contrivance” sheer Lovecraftian splendor that examines
the world in a raindrop, and “Flicker” a fresh take on snuff films that would make
the aforementioned Tarentino cream his khakis.

For the poetic zombification of “Inside Where It’s Warm,”
the true poetry of “Nothing Forgiven” and the odd, homemade electroshock
therapy of “Fine in the Fire,” nothing exemplifies Thomas’ work like “The House
by the Park.” This malevolent little tale is an absolute gem, being about the
beginning of a relationship between two men paired with the after-effects of a
suicide down the block from where one of the men lives—namely, a black stain
that spreads from the lawn of the suicide’s house. As the men become more and
more involved, the stain spreads closer and closer. Simple horror trope or
anti-assimilationist metaphor? The story is so simple yet so complex.

And that is the case with nearly everything here. Nothing is
as it appears on the surface or should be taken for granted. Thomas constructs
his worlds brick by bloody brick mortared together with enough normalcy to make
his twists and turns seem that much odder. Like Light for Flies is a
collection of nightmares real enough to be dreamt tonight. Damn fine reading
from a most excellent writer.  

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©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler

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