Monthly Archives: July 2013
Fact? Fiction? Memoir? Ghost story? Well, Richard Bowes’ latest release Dust Devil on a Quiet Street is some of all of these. Rather than the mess that has the potential to be, Bowes pulls the hybrid off effortlessly, coming up with a moving, elegiac melange that’s as much a love letter to Manhattan as it is an excursion through dusty diaries.
Taking the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse on 9/11 as his starting point, Bowes uses the hole in the ground left by the tragedy to dredge up his old ghosts. Runaways, snitches, minor celebrities, relatives, and lovers all coalesce and move through his life in a non-linear path that always circles back to the clearing in the present.
Bowes’s best friends Mags and Geoff figure prominently in parts of this book. Geoff, who committed suicide earlier is solidly in the ghost column, but Mags may or may not be an apparition the first time we see her. Part of the fun with this narrative is not knowing whether or not the person he’s interacting with is real or ghostly.
The threads of many stories are started and interwoven with each other, but Bowes’s characters are so distinctive and his ability to place them so precise that you never lose track of the individual stitches and can even see the whole cloth they form. His story of runaways Judy Finch and Ray Light and BD, the undercover operative hired to track them as well as other fugitive teens is one of the longest and most intricate in the book, sinking and resurfacing a couple of times before it’s finally completed.
My other favorite story lines here—and though most of them have appeared as short stories, they have been woven into an inviolable whole—concern the death of Bowes’s brother, Gerry, an incident regarding two student suicides at the university library Bowes works for, and the circumstances surround his retirement from that job. The chapters in which he discusses various celebrities he knows are less successful for me, but even those are well-written.
Bowes writes clean prose that’s descriptive without being showy and carries just enough emotion to propel the reader forward but doesn’t bog down or wallow. His ear for dialogue is good, but he doesn’t dramatize as much as he narrates. This gives some needed distance to some rather sentimental material.
But be warned, this is not a book of short stories you can simply plop down anywhere in and find yourself entertained. Dust Devil on a Quiet Street should be read front to back—no, not read. Savored. Its accumulation of detail and narrative momentum is both compelling and entertaining. And even if you’ve never met the seedy New York City before its Disneyfication, you’ll be old friends with it by the end.
©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler
I didn’t mean for this to be the week for historical fiction, but the coincidence—and the news—is happy indeed. Elana Dykewomon’s 1998 Lambda Literary Award winner Beyond the Pale is finally back in print and available for the first time in a number of years. How wonderful it is to have this powerful, moving chronicle of Jewish life in imperialist Russia and America once again accessible.
Gutke Gurvich is a midwife in the Pale of Settlement in Russia, delivering one Chava Mayer. Both find their way to America, Gurvich along with her wife Dovid (always attired in men’s clothing) and Mayer after her mother is raped and killed during a pogrom. Their paths cross again, Gurvich and her wife mentoring Mayer in her coming out process in New York City’s Lower East Side against the backdrop of women’s suffrage and labor union movements, culminating in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire.
This book, however, is so much more than its plot. Dykewomon’s characters are amazing; mothers, daughters, friends, lovers, and enemies all intertwine to become part of one fascinating world whether here or in Russia. One doesn’t get much of a sense of place from either the scenes in Russia or in Manhattan, but I think that’s purposeful and serves to put the emphasis on life’s events rather than where they take place, drawing attention to their universality.
And these rich, textured, layered, finely nuanced characters speak some marvelous truths about being lesbian, being women, being Jewish or just being, as in the following passage:
When we consider our youth, we see only ourselves and the way the world unfolds in front of us. We are full figures walking among cutouts of buildings and people, never knowing exactly what’s behind them—and we don’t care. But gradually we grow smaller and smaller, until we are part of the landscape in which we move, and then we find others all around us, moving, becoming part of time.
However, she doesn’t leave the more mundane aspects of life unobserved:
Men must have a factory where they make disagreements. Ordinary ones sold for a couple of kopecks, big ones for a ruble. My family kept this factory in business, the men especially men. Women worked so men could argue.
Dykewomon’s prose is magnificent and her choices impeccable, but what really makes this work is her uncanny ear for dialogue and her readiness to expose the reader to love. Yes, her characters love themselves and others, but above that, they love life. They have passion, they have commitment, and they have a realistic sense of their places and priorities in the world.
But the real experience of this book must be in the reading. It’s warm, thought-provoking, emotional, resonating, and it crackles with the kind of vitality that comes with eternal and honest truths. If you haven’t read it before, you need to. If you have, you need to re-experience it.
©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler
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I love the immersion necessary for historical and speculative fiction. Nothing quite allows me to sink into the narrative as deeply as these two fields because they offer me worlds that are not, distractingly, just outside my window. And Jess Wells (The Mandrake Broom) has mastered the art of the immersive historical, exemplified by her latest release from Fireship Press, A Slender Tether.
A Slender Tether consists of three linked (some by a rather slender tether) novellas, all of which take place in France during the reign of the mad king, Charles VI. The first and longest, “The Raptor Among Bluebirds,” details the struggles of Christine de Pizan, the first female author in France, as she begins her career against many odds. De Pizan, a real historical figure, is a powerful character, as aimless at first as she is driven. Despite the attitudes and prejudices of both her family and society, she reads and writes. At first, she helps out her husband, Etienne, by scribing for him on the sly ,but her ambition soon leads her to original projects.
When Etienne dies, Christine finds herself the sole support of her family, including her previously wary mother-in-law Tessa. The conflict between these two is brilliant, and Wells wrings every bit of drama as well as pathos from their arguments and the sad situation they ultimately find themselves in. Wells’s command of detail and nuance is so expert, and the world she creates so wholly credible that the reader easily shares Christine’s sense of frustration as well as her elation at her ultimate success.
“The Gong Farmer’s Tale” is the shortest of the lot and concerns a failed physician who punishes himself for his hubris by becoming a collector and farmer of human excrement for fertilizer. Parable-like in tone, this story has a twisty ending that forbids much exposition about it. He has a brief encounter with the de Pizan family, providing the slender tether connecting it to the previous story.
“The Vat-Man’s Promise” also features a strong female character, Monique, who chafes against the usual options available to women of that era—marriage or the cloister. Monique, however, doesn’t see the clear path to that freedom that Christine does. Hers is accidental as she attempts to buy paper from a mill whose owner has suddenly gone blind. Due to a contractual oversight, the mill falls to her and she becomes an apprentice in her own business. The slender tether here is that this mill makes the paper used by Etienne de Pizan and his father-in-law Tomasso in Charles’ court library.
As in the first story, all are brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed. Is this a queer book? No, not specifically. However, these strong women POV characters as well as their outsider status drive the very queer themes of rejection by family and society for a desire to live one’s life the way one sees fit. These women are rebels, fighting against an oppressively patriarchal system and succeeding just fine, thank you very much.
A Slender Tether is an engaging, rewarding read. Highly recommended.
©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler
If you ever found Sherlock Holmes stories engaging, you’ll love Death by Silver. It’s wonderfully written, fresh, intelligent and highly entertaining.
In a Victorian London where magic (metaphysics, to use the professional term) is seamlessly integrated into society, quirky story possibilities are legion. Scott and Griswold create a fascinating world and a rich setting for magic and murder, where the stylistic characteristics of metaphysicians trained at Oxford are distinct from those of a Cambridge man. (And yes, women are capable of metaphysics, but the serious professional training is reserved for men, just as in banking or law.)
Ned Mathey is a young metaphysician just up from Oxford and labors to establish his practice. His old schoolmate Julian Lynes has become a private investigator of sorts. Together they form a duo more complex and nuanced than the famous Baker Street men.
Lynes is the more Saturnine of the two, and in a lovely echo of Holmes’ fondness for the needle he is inclined to use enchantments as recreational drugs as often as not. Mathey is far from just a Watsonian, more physical, foil. He’s a smart, skilled, multi-dimensional principal in his own right.
These two originally forged their friendship at Saints Thomas, a venerable public school with elaborate traditions of humiliation and cruelty for new boys. The flashbacks to those soul-crushing horrors were entirely plausible to this reader, and horrifying.
Mathey is hired by Edgar Nevett—whose son Victor was Mathey’s special tormentor during his years at Sts Thomas—to remove curses from the family silver. Days later, Edgar Nevett is killed by a heavy candlestick enchanted to fall on his head as soon as he sat at his desk.
Mathey and Lynes team up to investigate and in the process renew their awkward sexual relationship from school days. Given all that they’d already been through, the angst surrounding their “wants me/wants me not” wore a bit thin for me, but in the context of Victorian mores it was perfectly understandable. Social ruin and worse awaited any who caused a scandal—the love that dare not speak its name was tolerated as long as the name remained unspoken and its presence remained veiled in decorum.
It appears someone in the Nevett family committed the crime, but when Victor Nevett confesses it’s a shock. As reluctant as he is to admit it, Mathey concludes his boyhood torturer is innocent of this crime, and with his companion’s help sets out to find the real killer. Who is Nevett protecting with his false confession?
The investigation on which Mathey and Lynes embark is dangerous and intricate—people connected to the case die or disappear, rapport with Scotland Yard blossoms and erodes.
As they proceed, the hard realities of class in Victorian life become part of the story: hopeless children are brought to a mission to be trained as domestics, then placed in privileged homes as servants, the best life they could imagine. What servant in that situation would dare contradict a statement or instruction from one of the household?
The story’s pace is that uniquely delicious mix of haste and slow time that a Victorian setting provides: a break-neck cab ride, messages by return post and telegrams interspersed with messenger boys fetching ale and pies, dinners at gentlemen’s clubs and appointments set for Tuesday next.
This is a beautifully crafted story, full of wit, style, and originality. There are spells with temporal components and conditional triggers, such as spells with delayed release of poison. There’s Urtica Mordax, a big-personality carnivorous vine that Lynes keeps in his chambers and nourishes with tidbits of ham. There are mechanical automata depicting alarming impropriety, from Zeus taking Ganymede to a male clerk fitting a lady’s shoe and seeing far too much leg. This story is a smorgasbord of invention.
When you are ready to treat yourself to an intelligent, engaging mystery set in a fascinating alternate-but-familiar reality, read this book. You’ll be glad you did.
Reviewed by Lloyd A. Meeker
Queering Edgar Allan Poe is such a wonderful idea I can’t believe no one’s thought of it before, but at least Steve Berman is on the ball. And, as wonderful as the idea itself is, the product is even better. Where Thy Dark Eye Glances is one of the most consistent and consistently imaginative anthologies I’ve read in quite a while.
Before we get to the good stuff, however, comment needs to be made about the entire package. Niki Smith’s cover is stunning, capturing not only the essence of Poe, but a hint of queerness along with themes of masquerade and “otherness” that pervade the stories and poems inside. Even the typeface and the layout are all of a piece with its themes, and for that, kudos must go out to the inimitable Alex Jeffers.
Inside? Oh, what wonders you will find inside. The first section is “Poe the Man,” which has stories and poems featuring Poe himself, including Seth Cadin’s atmospherically erotic “The City and the Stranger” about Poe’s brief yet meaningful stay in New York City after he left West Point, Daniel Nathan Terry’s poem, “Matthew Brady, the Gallery of Illustrious Americans,” about Brady’s daguerreotype of Poe, and Steve Berman’s own pastiche of Poe’s works, “Poetaster.”
The second section, “Poe’s Writings,” comprises the meat of the book and contains some quite marvelous re-imaginings of Poe’s work as well as some straight-ahead queering where the storyline is the same but some genders are changed. One of my favorites in the latter category, Satyrus Phil Bucato’s “The Lord’s Great Jest” recasts Trippetta in perhaps my favorite Poe tale of all time, “Hop-Frog,” to stunning effect. However, it’s difficult to resist Peter Dubé’s surreal (or hyper-real) “Corvidae,” Ray Cluley’s magnificently rendered “The Man Who Was,” Clare London’s marvelous “Telltale,” or Christopher Barzak’s take on William Wilson’s other half, “For the Applause of Shadows.” Shorter, but no less powerful, are Tansy Rayner Roberts’s “The Raven and Her Victory,” which sees a poet nicknamed the Raven enshrining her one lost love over and over in her work, and L.A. Fields’s “The House of the Resonate Heart,” which puts an even creepier layer over the already creepy “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
“Reading Poe,” the last of the three parts, contains stories and poems about Poe’s audience, with pieces both personal (Collin Kelley’s heartfelt “The Demon and the Dove” and “fellow Virginian” Jeff Mann’s poem “The Death of Beautiful Men”). The standouts for me here are Richard Bowes’s “Seven Days of Poe,” which finds a young queer boy working in a library, coming to terms with his sexuality as he reads Eddy, Alex Jeffers’s “A Portrait in India Ink by Harry Clark,” about two boys, an illustrator, a migraine, and a first sexual encounter, and John Mantooth’s outstanding “The Chicken Farmer and His
Boy,” a fascinating between-worlds glimpse of a boy’s coming out to his father.
But these are only my highlights of a volume I’m sure you will enjoy if you have the slightest interest in Poe. Where Thy Dark Eye Glances is a delicious book to be savored and ruminated over, much like the master himself.
©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler
I really love Old West historicals. Dale Chase has gotten me into them with her terrific Western erotica, but other than that I haven’t read too many other entries in the genre. Enter Ed Kurtz, better known for his hardboiled moir stuff, who gives this neat tale of revenge a gender twist and comes up with a gritty winner.
Failing ranch owner Daniel Hays has more to worry about than his meager harvest. His only ranch hand, Steven Houpe, has just been whipped, lynched and mutilated by persons unknown. His crime? Being a sodomite in Civil War-era Texas. Moreover, he was also Hays’s lover, prompting Hays to set off across Texas for vengeance. He finds friends in unexpected places, but can he find the satisfaction he seeks?
Kurtz answers this question with the deliciously laconic, terse dialogue that I always envision cowboys having. In fact, there’s a lot that’s terse here, but Kurtz packs a helluva lot into this novella. It’s 20,000 well-chosen words that, oddly enough, don’t leave you wanting more. The story spirals out and pulls back as neatly and tidily as you could possibly want.
Kurtz displays many talents, including one for characterization. Even minor characters like Mercy, the plains widow who nurses Hays back to health after a mishap, are presented with such choice detail that they lodge themselves in your imagination. Kurtz carves these characters out of the Texas dirt, stands them up against a lawless landscape made even more perilous as conscription has sucked the male population away, and breathes some damn fiery life into them.
He doesn’t skimp on plot, either. He drags Hays across the state and back again, mixing it up with the aforementioned Mercy as well as the local lawman and his brother, and a gang of Texas Rangers. Kurtz hits the ground running with Houpe’s hanging and only pauses the pace long enough to let you breathe before dragging you behind the horses again. But perhaps the most interesting metaphor here is the ghost coyote Hays encounters along the way, as elusive and ephemeral as the revenge Hays seeks.
In short, A Wind of Knives is a whirlwind of a read with great characters, breathless action, and a substance as gritty and blood-soaked as the puddle beneath a hanged man. Scoop some up and enjoy.
©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler