Monthly Archives: October 2013

A Conversation with LA Fields

SweptLA Fields has many voices, among them the second Mrs. Watson of her Sherlock Holmes pastiche, “My Dear Watson,” and two teenage boys, Jesse and Marley, of “Maladaptation” and “Dysfunction,” two novels (so far) comprising the Disorder series. She also has the voice she answers interview questions in, which may or may not be the closest to her own. She took time out from her busy writing and grad school schedule to talk to Out in Print.

Out in Print: The voice you have for the Disorder series is powerful and has a great deal of veracity—is that because it’s actually your voice or a compilation of people you know? Do you hear it when you to go the place in your head where these characters come from?

LA Fields: It’s mostly the voice I got from learning how to talk in the 1990s. I still use the word “like” excessively, though now I do it with a deep understanding of the difference between metaphor and simile, and yes—so far every time I go home to those characters, I can still access how they talk and think. They used to be older than I was, and that writing felt prophetic on a personal level. Now that they’re a couple of years behind me, a playlist of the songs I loved at whatever age I need access to can tap me right back in. That voice and process is still there, it just takes a little more work to be true to it.

OiP: What was the genesis of the Disorder series?

LAF: Maladaptation started just before the end of my senior year. I had quit fanfiction in my junior year and wanted to get serious about original fiction. I wrote a few short stories that blew like the fucking wind, and I decided to try to and write something without any gay in it, to write something outside of my comfort zone. Enter: “Cowboy Dan” by Modest Mouse. I tried to write a story from that song about a hundred times, first as a ghost story in which Dan tries to escape town, dies in a car crash, and then haunts a bridge, killing those who try to escape the town. At one point he had two sons (Billy, the oldest, and a younger Jesse, after Billy the Kid and Jesse James) and at another he had no family, and the story kept sucking just like all the others. At some point, the murder of his wife became the new story, and that made me think of what it would be like for the son who was orphaned like that, but the story stalled again.

Meanwhile, in another part of the movie, I had a friend who sat in front of me in English class named Marley. Not only was her name the coolest thing I had heard all year, but I had a total friend-crush on her, and so came up with my Marley. This was just after my mom died and I was transplanted to a new school, so I gave Marley my old life. He lived in my old house, went to my old school, and had all of my books. We were reading Heart of Darkness around this time, and another friend who sat in front of me in Drama class had the name Kurtz, so that became his surname. Another friend-crush from Drama also shows up as a name for Marley’s sister, Lindsay. I had a lot of girl-crushes in high school. And now.

But then that halted too. I had Marley all ready, but nothing interesting to put him through. I went back to Cowboy Dan: Billy became Jesse because I liked the name better, and he became gay because I couldn’t help myself, but then the story just petered off into nowhere again. And Marley was sitting in Estero, FL (later to become East Arrow—I was eighteen, so don’t judge) with his thumb in his ass. And then one day I finally put my hands together. Voila.

Marley’s affair with an older man grew out of the fact that I had recently read Lolita and needed a reason for his parents to send him away. The program in Loweville was a imgreshideously contrived way to get them together. Loweville is based on Loveland, CO but fictionalized so that my lack of research isn’t me being wrong, it’s artistic license. Also I like the pun on the word ‘low,’ and I hope I didn’t beat it to death.

Missy came out of me trying to combat my literary misogynism (which I think I’ve pretty much overcome at this point). It wasn’t until I gave the manuscript to my best friend and frontline editor that we both realized how similar Missy’s brash and bubbly personality was to her, and the fact that Missy and Marley are best friends is only art imitating life.

Aaron and Genny were needed to fill in the group, and they developed from there. Genny will make a cameo in the sixth book, and Aaron will stick with Missy until the day he dies. Tulsa began as a generic bully and bloomed into so much more. I stole his name from Diana Wieler’s Bad Boy and I think I loved the name too much to waste it on a 1-D meany, and I needed an extra 10,000 words after my first little 60K draft, so he got his perspective added in. It turns out that he is my favorite character to write, because he’s the most messed up and poetic of them all. Tulsa even gets his own book down the line, if I ever make it that far, because I love him that much.

I had just started listening to emo music (girl Marley liked Panic At The Disco, which meant it was okay to like that sort of music, which I secretly did the whole time) and I burned a CD that was half From Under the Cork Tree and half Hot Fuss and brought it with me to my dad’s cabin in Georgia for one week of the summer. That week was the point of no return. I discovered Missy’s voice, hit the 1/3 mark, and finally wrote the “Cowboy Dan” prologue in one shot, after all that trouble, on a janky old laptop from the early nineties. It was a third hand hand-me-down with no Ethernet jack, it was so old, and I had to save my novel on a floppy disk and squeeze the screen to get it to stop blotting out half the time. Super fun.

I finished the novel Wednesday, September 13th, 2006 at 6:16 PM in Sarasota, in my dorm room, Pei 128. This book transitioned me through one of the most significant summers of my life, and I think that’s reflected in the plot. I was neck deep in Poppy Z. Brite books and Modest Mouse CDs, and I’ve gained a boner for pictures of desert highways that may never go down. It’s the first book I ever finished, and the first one I ever seriously started, and it’s got my fingerprints all over it. Writing a book is better than burying a time capsule; so long as this is around, I’ll never forget who I was when I wrote it.

OiP: Do you identify personally with any of the Disorder characters? Which one is most like you?

LAF: I love this question, I ask it myself when people I know read Maladaptation. I’m curious about how my friends see themselves, so if they like Jesse better than Marley, or love Missy more than any of them, then that tells me who they want to be; it’s like an inkblot test. As for me, Marley is really rooted in who I was at 15 years old. dys. coverWe have the same anxiety problems, and books, and mild OCD habit of never bending their spines, we both still bite our fingernails and chew our lips and twist our hair sometimes, so even though he annoys me a lot now that I’m square in the middle of my twenties, I’m still the most like him. Tulsa was the most fun to write, because he was so complicated and lonely (and he’s coming back in future books). Jesse I envy, that’s why he’s the love interest. It’d be nice to be that minimalist in emotion, but I can answer this question much like Oscar Wilde did: Marley is who I think I am, Missy is who the world thinks me, and Jesse is who I’d like to be, in other ages perhaps.

OiP: The voices of the Disorder boys and the voice used in both My Dear Watson and “The House of the Resonate Heart” in Where Thy Dark Eye Glances are wonderfully different. Do you prefer one over the other?

LAF: The voice in The Disorder Series is easier, because it’s closer to my own (that’s my voice if I thought carefully about what I wanted to say and the best way to do it before I let it all come flying out of my mouth). The imitation stuff is just that—it’s me exploiting a talent I have for being a mockingbird writer. Lots of writers can do this. It’s not unique to me, but it is helpful when you want to sound like someone else. It happens a lot by accident in my academic papers—I’ve been told I’ve taken on the style of writers as unlikely as Nathaniel Mackey and William Faulkner. I write better papers when I let myself get hypnotized by someone else’s text-flow, and assuming I intend to copy another author’s story-telling voice, I write better fiction like that too. There might be an element of gender in that divide too: the Disorder boys (plus Missy and Lindsay, who are both a bit rough-and-tumble) versus a softer, more lady-like Victorian tone.

OiP: How did My Dear Watson come about?

LAF: I got an English degree in a little bubble of a school called the New College of Florida. It’s the only public honors college in the state; there are no fraternities or sororities, there are no official sport teams, there are no business classes, it has narrative evaluations instead of grades, the student government’s charter quotes Star Trek as the school’s motto, and even the admissions office gives out ironic footballs saying that our team is still undefeated (can’t lose if you don’t play, can you?). There I wrote a thesis dominated by Oscar Wilde quotes called “The Life One Does Not Lead: Double Life Narratives and Queer Criminal Codes,” the third chapter of which compared the homoeroticism between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty to the same dynamic between Superheroes (Batman, Spiderman, and Superman) and their main villains. I was writing about adversarial relationships and couldn’t talk about all the tenderness I noticed going on between Holmes and Watson, so I went looking for a book that put them together with as much accuracy as the academic paper I was producing. I couldn’t find it, I couldn’t find anything even remotely close to what I was looking for, so I wrote it myself. Mrs. Watson got incorporated because I’d just gone through a few genders studies classes and I wasn’t about to ignore all the wives and women in that story, no matter how much Holmes and Watson couldn’t take their eyes off one another.

OiP: My Dear Watson really, according to the Amazon reviews, seems to have upset some people as it paints a less than flattering picture of Sherlock Holmes. Was that intentional? Having done it, do you regret it? Is there something you would have done differently with that book?

LAF: Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t get his panties in such a wad over being “misinterpreted” by a woman, so I don’t know why everyone else feels the need to stick up for him. But no: I wouldn’t do it differently because I don’t think I got him wrong. I love Sherlock Holmes, I love him like I love Heathcliff, and Stephen Dedalus, and Professor Snape—while writing I was worried people would read the novel as me (the author lady) protesting too much. Some of the reviews seem to have a problem with how Mrs. Watson sees Holmes, and some have a problem with her point of view being taken in the first place, which is fair enough on their end, but… once I chose her, the debate for me was over.

Mrs. Watson can’t like Holmes as much as I do; he’s the love of her husband’s life. He’s smarter than her, more important, more famous, more rare, irreplaceable to everyone including Watson and the country, and yet… Watson lives with her and not with Holmes. She must have something Holmes lacks, and so the book is an exploration of what Watson wants/needs from someone he admires/loves, and it’s also about Mrs. Watson trying not to feel like a consolation prize. She’s got some winning qualities too, and in fact a lot of what Watson loves about her he loves about Holmes too, but Mrs. Watson is more accommodating, less tortured by her potential/responsibility, and so more capable of doling out love and support. It took me nearly all of college to realize I’m bisexual—so as much as I’m a ball-buster like Mrs. Watson, and as much as I get Holmes’s artistic and nearly self-destructive zeal for what he does, I’m fascinated by the calm, patient, non-jealous love that Watson has for both of them.

I managed to get into a very minor passive-aggressive internet exchange with one reviewer, but I was only trying to figure out what people think they want, and what they71S3tsHI4HL__SL1280_ think I’ve done, and why those two things are different. It comes off as bitchiness (in me and Mrs. Watson alike) because it comes from a place of defensive insecurity.

However, in choosing nameless second Mrs. Watson as a narrator I was trying to do something more than just retell the stories from the POV of someone who wasn’t there for them; the dips into the literature and politics and scandals of the time underline the fact that the second Mrs. Watson was always there (she was “around”), just nobody was really listening to her.  This concept came out of me being a literature major, sure, yes, obviously, but it also came from a passion for gender studies, which includes thinking about both femininity and masculinity, and about how people incorporate gender tropes from both “sides” into their self-expression. That, as well as thinking about what it is to be gay/straight/bisexual and how each could have been dealt with in a specific historical time and place, by a specific woman who no one else had spoken for.

Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has some beautifully effeminate qualities: he’s slim and so crosses his legs knee over knee; he’s neat and catlike in his personal dress and hygiene (a dandy); he blushes when he’s given a heart-felt compliment. But then he’s also a slob around the house, and he’s got the upper-body strength to bend a fire poker, and like my own father he doesn’t often laugh out loud, but instead represses his laughter into near-violent tummy spasms. I wanted to make the ignored woman as present and assertive as I wanted to show Holmes’ (text-based, canonical) flaws. They’re both human, they both exist in those books, and I wanted to draw them even.

OiP: I’m always interested in writers’ creative processes. Are you a plotter or a pantser (flying by the seat of your pants without a plan)? Quick first drafts with lots of revisions or painstaking first drafts with little revision? How do you work?

LAF: A plotter. I’m an outliner and a time-liner. I’ve had the same big notebook since I was sixteen, and it’s full of nothing but Table of Contents-looking outlines for the chapter structure of each book. The paper notes I’m left with after I finish any book amount to between 10-20 one-sided notebook pages, I keep most of it in my head.

I’m in grad school right now at Columbia College Chicago, and I’m meeting all kinds of adorable freaks who write, and then rewrite, and do weird shit like cut up their stories and hang them all over a room, and feel like a story is never really finished… that sounds exhausting. I think out the whole arc of a book first—chapters, sections, scenes, themes, word count, and I tweak a little as I go along, but the overall structure doesn’t vary after I’m a third of the way into a manuscript. That’s my point of no return.

I had one free summer between high school and college for Maladaptation, so it got done in one summer, and it’s the same with all the others. I give myself hard deadlines, mentally prep in advance, and lay it out right the first time. Some writers can’t hold a whole book’s concept in their head on a first draft, but I can if I’m not being lazy, and I’m so glad about that. The few times I’ve been forced to rewrite due to computer error have been agony.

OiP: You write in a variety of genres—do you feel a special affinity for one?

LAF: I have favorite categories that make even the most foreign genre feel comfortable to me. Young adults and teens are a category that can cross all genres, and so are queer characters. For example, My Dear Watson, though mostly about adults, includes snapshots of teenaged Holmes that I treasure, and even when I try to write a clean, plain heterosexual romance, I can’t—somebody’s queer somewhere in this story and I’ll roust ’em out eventually! I have a completed manuscript called Loopholes that is my attempt to be age-appropriate to teens (talk around the swears, go to prom, care about outfits, etc.) but even then the intriguing new boy in town is bisexual, and the parents are an adoptive gay couple. I got way too bored with nothing but straight people.

OiP: What are you working on now?

LAF: I’m about 6,000 words into what might be a very MFA-ish Leopold/Loeb inspired novel, but I’m also worried if I don’t finish the Disorder Series before I’m thirty I’ll forget what it’s like to be young and ruin it. Those are my priorities right now.

OiP: What do you want your readers to take away from your work?

LAF: I hope that readers take away from me the same things I take away from the books and shows and songs I love: you’re not alone. It’s naïve (it’s nearly insulting) to think you’re the only one who’s sad or witty or in love or bored, how dare you? When so many people have come before you making all this art, and for what? Money? Fame? Was everything you love made by someone rich and famous? I bet it wasn’t. The ones before me made it for their sake and mine, I make it for my sake and yours, and I would hope my readers feel that as deeply as I do in my best moments, when I’m overcome by a private, Zen-like, connected peace. Of course, underneath all that shallow shit it’s mostly about: like me and pay me and pay attention to me and agree with me that I’m smart. Obviously.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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Dysfunction – LA Fields (Queer Mojo)

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Sequels are interesting animals. They need to be aware enough to borrow from their predecessors and different enough to stand alone, yet some authors seem to lose track of the voice–the most essential ingredient in transferring the reader from one book to the next. Not so with LA Fields, who brings back troubled Marley and his equally troubled boyfriend Jesse in Dysfunction, her sequel to Maladaptation and doesn’t miss a beat with either the voice or the characters.

Having escaped from Loweville, Colorado where they were both exiled, eighteen-year-old Jesse and sixteen-year-old Marley decide to go to Marley’s home town in Florida. They are taken in by Kenny, an auto mechanic who lets them live at an apartment in the garage, and his wife Marianne. Jesse takes a job with Kenny, and Marley finds employment at a bookstore. The temptation to see his family is too great for Marley to resist, and he eventually finds himself again entwined with his abusive father, his distant mother and his sisters. After yet another familial battle, his sister Lindsay leaves. Marianne, the eternal mother, insists Lindsay and Marley move back home. When they do, the titular dysfunction really starts to show, leading to ugly decisions and bad choices for everyone.

As with Maladaptation, these characters–especially Jesse and Marley–have an astonishing verisimilitude. This is definitely Fields’s world, and she makes the most of her observations, capturing the broader picture of how these boys feel as well as their angst-ridden nuances. Their relationship is quirky and maybe even a little abusive, but she spares the reader no part of it. Still, at the core, you know Jesse really loves Marley. As much as he can, at least.

But Fields has equal facility with adults. Her portrayal of Marley’s abusive father, Jacob, is nearly as deft as those of the boys. She successfully points the way to the pressures and internal conflicts that fuel Jacob’s rage. His mother is less interesting, but she holds the house together as best she can. Every pistol needs a holster as well as a target. Although not comic relief, garage owner Kenny is a pleasantly welcome diversion from everyone else’s drama. The scenes Kenny commands really provide a respite and a place to breathe. Not so his wife, however, whose meddling precipitates some very real consequences.

Due to the age of the main characters, Dysfunction will probably find a home on the YA shelves, which is a disservice to the book in a way. Fields’s adults are every bit as complex and interesting as Jesse and Marley, which is something you rarely see in that genre. It’s a wonderful, deeply moving novel for any age, and I fervently hope it’s successful enough to warrant a third book in what Fields calls the “Disorder series.”

And don’t forget to catch us on Thursday of this week when I will be posting an interview with LA Fields about not only the Disorder series, but her marvelous Sherlock Holmes pastiche, My Dear Watson.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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Running for Trap Doors – Joanna Hoffman (Sibling Rivalry Press)

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The best authors writing from New York City have an underlying feel for the pulse and beat of that city. They know its quirks, its frailties (yes, it has them), and its avenues as well as its alleys. The very best of these authors can translate that into a universality people of all urban areas can feel and know. Joanna Hoffman’s recent release, Running for Trap Doors, has that universality while still retaining the peculiar tang of the Big Apple. 

Hoffman’s work has a weary, resigned pride in its middle-class excesses or lack of them. Its pride also evidences itself in the way she portrays her family, but its tempered with either anger or a detached, observational quality all the more powerful for its absence of emotion, as in her father’s reaction to her birthday lunch at a Chinese restaurant in “1989, Age Seven,” her characterization of her grandmother as crazy old lady in “Godface,” or her mother in “Golden”:

My mother told us/we had to fast on Yom Kippur/to cleanse our sins,/then ate a package of saltines/right in front of us/I’m sick, she snapped. It doesn’t count.

Hoffman’s narrators simply don’t fit in with either their own conception of themselves or society at large. They are uncomfortable in social situations (“Rush Hour Mob,” “Touch”), afraid of expressing their emotions (“What I’ve Been Scared to Tell You,” “Emoticon/English Dictionary”), and consumed by the consumer society as in “Why I Had to Leave the Party Early”:

I don’t fit in here. These girls can smell the TV dinner/on me, the metro card/and the borrowed shoes. These girls smile/like checks ripped from the book…I have Target breath. I bought my fingers/at McDonalds. I sold my sex drive/for pot. I sold my cocaine/for laundry detergent./ You’re a poet? Do you get health insurance?/Last night, I ate a bowl/of late fees. They tasted like home.

I love those last few lines because they are not only about consumption as in eating, but also as consumer of goods, and it all relates back to how the narrator feels about her family. It encapsulates the majority of Hoffman’s work brilliantly. It’s one of the strongest pieces here as is the Dylanesque repetition of “Drunk Girl,” the surrender of “The Gift,” the adolescent angst of “High School Electives,” and the defiant “Pride”:

This is for every wedding I watched from/the sidelines; every fairy tale with stipulations;/every it’s a choice, it’s a phase, you’re disgusting;/every swollen choke of shame I learned to/coat my throat with; every gay kid who/believed nothing would ever make this better/because home meant break the parts of you that/don’t fit into the plaster of who you’re supposed to be./We already are exactly who/we are supposed to be.

But these are only a few facets of an extremely varied voice that resounds across many subjects and areas. Hoffman’s work is powerful and filled with meaning. Highly recommended.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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Mind Fields – Dylan Madrid (Bold Strokes Books)

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Love can cure just about anything that’s wrong with your life, which is a lesson the most jaded among us should remember from time to time. That’s what keeps the whole genre of romance novels afloat. Sometimes those books are believable and sometimes not, but when the buy-in is there, the piece can pack a dangerous punch. And Dylan Madrid slugs it out with the best of them in Mind Fields.

Broke college student Adam Parsh is just beginning to realize what his best friend Victor Maldonado, who has been crushing on him for some time, means to him when he’s offered a tutoring position in the home of the ultra-rich, mega-sexy creep Dario Vassalo, a married Greek tycoon. But Parsh is not the first boytoy tutor he’s hired for his daughter Anastasia. Will Adam forsake paying the rent and follow his heart instead? Or will the temptation into riches become too great?

The answer isn’t as easy as you might think. Madrid is a savvy writer who throws a number of stumbling blocks in the way as Parsh makes his decision. Vassalo’s money has also enabled Parsh’s mother to get a promotion at the financial institution she works at because he throws a substantial financing project their way. Parsh’s maddeningly tentative relationship with Victor is another obstacle, as is his fondness for his charge Anastasia. In fact, all of the characters from Parsh’s mother right down to Vassalo’s wife, Evangelina, are so well-written and compelling they lift the somewhat standard plot high and force us to re-examine it in a new light. Victor’s vulnerability, in particular, is heartbreaking. Even Myrtle, the salty cabdriver who runs Parsh back and forth from his apartment to the mansion, gets a turn in the spotlight.

Parsh, however, is the star of the show and gets to expose all facets of his personality: his brash outer confidence as well as his soft, malleable center. He is, however, less flexible than anyone else here, serving to anchor the plot and be the shore the other characters crash against. Everyone else has a quirk. Parsh does not, and for this reason, he seems less interesting than the others on the surface. His shrewd observations, however, drive the plot and illuminate the personalities surrounding him. Vassalo is an able, perhaps even affable, villain. However, he turns effectively dark and threatening when menace is needed. The only ball which seems to have gotten dropped is Parsh’s roommate Stacey, a budding alcoholic who early on seemed to be adding to Parsh’s daily drama in a very real way but disappears almost entirely in the last third of the book.

But Mind Fields, thanks to Dylan Madrid’s skill, is more than the sum of its parts. He combines these discrete pieces into an extremely readable and altogether believable whole as energetic as it is entertaining.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Cruel Ever After – Ellen Hart (Bywater Books)

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One of the most wonderful parts of doing a blog like this is finding out about books you never knew existed. I’ve known of Ellen Hart for a long time now and met her more than a few times, but until Bywater Books recently re-released two of her Jane Lawless mysteries, I’d never read her. After diving into The Cruel Ever After, however, I’ve become a fan who can’t wait for the next one.

Jane’s life as restauranteur and occasional detective is disrupted by her long-gone ex-husband Chester (Chess) who shows up in town “between fortunes.” But Chess and his somewhat unhinged girlfriend Irina have a get-rich-quick scheme involving antiquities looted from the Baghdad Museum. When antiquities dealers and buyers start showing up dead, Chess becomes the prime suspect.

Even though it’s part of a series, it’s definitely a standalone book. Some initial confusion regarding the ancillary characters is quickly resolved with a bit of explanation, then it’s on to the action. And action abounds here. The body count isn’t obscenely high, but the revelations and twists come thick and fast. However, nothing will prepare you for the rather shocking scene featuring Irina near the end. The blurb on the back of the book indicates it’s an Alfred Hitchcock moment, and that’s a very apt characterization. I can almost see Hitch’s camera dollying back as we see who (or what) is in the…ah, never mind. I couldn’t possibly spoil such a wonderful frisson of discovery.

Instead, I’ll talk about the characters. Jane and her friend Cordelia are absolutely marvelous–fully-developed and three-dimensional. However, Hart seems to be most interested in the quirky flaws of Chess and Irina, who threaten to steal the book away from Jane.  Hart is clearly having fun with Chess as she creates a delightful rogue with a twisted sense of priorities and an inexhaustible supply of falsehoods and half-truths. Obsessive Irina is also well-drawn and attracts your full attention when she’s on stage. You never know what she’ll do next.

As this is the first and, so far, only Hart book I’ve read, I don’t know whether or not this is a common occurance, but she keeps the tension ratcheted up until the very last page. Most mysteries will resolve themselves, then have a bit of a rest where people go back to a somewhat normal existence and mull over what they’ve learned or gotten from the case, but not this one. A central plot point isn’t resolved until the second to last page. And I loved that. No boring last chapter, no words of wisdom from the detective…just delicious tension and an unrelenting urge to read the next one. Right now.

But until it comes out, I have some catching up to do.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Soundtrack of My Life – Clive Davis with Anthony DeCurtis (Simon & Schuster)

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Last night I finished music mogul Clive Davis’s long, delightful memoir, The Soundtrack of My Life. As someone who has as an amateur played popular music throughout his life (I still own, and occasionally play, a guitar and harmonium, and love to sing), I found that this autobiography, written with Anthony DeCurtis, an amazing chronicle of popular music over the past half-century or so. From several early reviews, I knew that at some point he wrote about his bisexuality in the book, but it is such a compelling read I wasn’t particularly tempted to skip ahead.

Over the course of his long career in the music recording business, Mr Davis discovered and worked with many of the greatest contemporary musicians in our lifetime. A glimpse at the top three rows of photos on the back cover of the dust jacket reveals only a few of the musicians he worked with: Janis Joplin, Barry Manilow, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Dionne Warwick, Grateful Dead, Carlos Santana, Whitney Houston, and Aretha Franklin.

Davis opens the tragic chapter on Whitney admitting, “Without question this is the most difficult chapter for me to write.” And it is gut-wrenching to learn the details of her immense talent, rise to fame, and demise. Despite the Whitney tragedy, which is somewhat central to the book, there are so many more triumphant breakthrough moments prior and following to this episode in his stellar career that it doesn’t overshadow the book.

In the final chapter, after having told us so much about his truly amazing professional life, his discussion turns personal. He speaks lovingly of his close relationship with family, kids, and grandkids. Eventually, in 1990, after his second divorce, while having satisfying ongoing relationships with women, he enters his first sexual relationship with a male friend. He describes the fallout from disclosing to others about his newfound attraction to both men and women:

I was working through the complexity of my personal life. Everything stayed outside the public glare as I tried to figure out my new bisexuality. To my intense disappointment when I did try to probe all this in conversation with others, it turned out nobody believed in bisexuality.

As a man who also came to terms with his bisexuality relatively late in life, I can relate to his struggle to articulate his bisexuality in a way that does not provoke scorn from either straight or gay folks.

Heterosexuals and homosexuals alike didn’t credit one word alike of any explanation I offered. In their eyes it was as simple as could be: If, at any time, for any reason, you had sex with a man, you were gay. That’s all there was to it. As has been said: “You’re either gay, straight, or lying.” Well, I knew that to be a lie. I knew what was true for me, and I knew what was true for many others I’d come to observe over the years. …

Clive considers the relative merits of coming out publicly as bi and his reasons for not doing so until now.

I could certainly see the benefits to others from David Geffen and other prominent people revealing their homosexuality, but to me, admitting you’re bisexual is to invite derision with no one ultimately benefiting. I’d privately experienced that to a great extent, and the notion of facing it in the public sphere seemed both daunting and pointless.” Maybe that’s an excuse for not being more courageous, but that’s what I genuinely felt.

Although I personally understand his impulse here to avoid inviting derision — probably the reason he doesn’t disclose his bisexuality until page 546 — I believe that the same reasons for coming out as bi exist as what he suggests is the rationale for gay men like Geffen to come out and be out. There is indeed benefit to other bisexual-identified folks when a prominent celebrity comes out as bi, as exemplified in the final pages of his book.

It is gratifying to know that readers of The Soundtrack of My Life will come away from it knowing that a man who has so candidly and movingly written about his long and illustrious career at the top of the music biz has finally made public his sexuality and affirmed that bisexuality is real.

Bravo to Clive Davis for his courage to come out, at long last. If bisexuality activists had such a thing, I would suggest here that the gentleman deserves a Bi Visibility Award. But suffice it to say that his book puts a face on bisexuality in a way that’s difficult to imagine for anyone — straight, gay, bi, trans, or otherwise — to deny.

Reviewed by Ron J. Suresha

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Disturbing the Peace – Dale Chase (Bold Strokes Books)

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It’s no big secret that I’m a fan of Dale Chase’s work. Whether it’s her Victorian erotica, ghost stories, or modern erotica, it’s always impeccably researched, flawlessly written, and lovingly rendered. But her Westerns are absolute delights, and you can tell it’s a period she loves to be in. Nowhere is this more in evidence than her latest e-book release for Bold Strokes, Disturbing the Peace, containing four of her very best lawman-themed cowpoke tales so dusty you’ll have to wipe the Kindle off to see the screen.

The first story, “Solace,” finds Marshal Frank Sutcher accidentally shooting and killing Ted Mickle during a gunfight in Contention, Arizona. Mickle, an innocent bystander, was the marshal’s bedmate as well as his best friend. He cannot find an antidote to his sorrow, but he can find some sexual solace with his deputy as temporary relief. One of the things I find so enjoyable about Chase’s work is that her Western characters are iconically laconic. Their emotions are not stuffed away but neither do they appear on the surface, and so it is with Sutcher’s grief.

“Up For It,” the second piece, centers on a robber who contrives to escape from jail by seducing Deputy Dean. The robber’s actions are at once bold and brilliant as he struts his stuff with the deputy, even working a rifle barrel into the act before he finally catches the law with its pants down around its ankles.

Next up is “Shotgun,” which sees maybe the most direct opening line Chase has ever written: “I am looking to become a deputy in Tombstone, and to that end I suck the marshal’s dick.” Now, there’s a man who knows what he wants and how to get it. And get it he does. After orally embarking on his career path, he further ingratiates himself by foiling a robbery. He later hooks up with one of the robbers who gets away, only doesn’t realize it until after they’re finished.

The final, and longest, story, “Disturbing the Peace,” takes Chase into some territory whose borders she usually doesn’t broach, but neither does it stray too far from the archetypical Western themes of revenge and justice. Jack Timm is marshal of Globe, Arizona and works hard to keep the peace. He also plays hard with Pat, one of the local bartenders, but he’s always on top. Never bottoms. Never will. And he’s got a mean temper and a handy fist to keep his bottoms in place. One of those boys is Drew Culver, who Timm knew when they both drove cattle before Timm became marshal. Culver had been in love with Timm, but all Timm cared for was the sex. Spurned and forgotten, Culver robs the express office in Globe, luring Timm into a trap. He gets the drop on the marshal, ties him up, and gives him some of his own heavy-handed medicine, prompting swift and sure revenge from Timm.

Chase’s Westerns are classics of male erotica. The sex is incredibly hot, but that’s not the only reason to read her. I’ve said it before and I don’t mind saying again that everything about her cowboy stories rings true. From the dialogue to the sex to the attitude, there’s a level of truthfulness and veracity not many authors hit in period pieces, no matter what period. All I can do is read in awe.

And look forward to the next one.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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Boystown 5: Murder Book – Marshall Thornton (CreateSpace)

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Despite having read and enjoyed Thornton’s Perils of Praline, I didn’t pick up on this series until the fourth volume, but I was mightily impressed. I enjoyed the grittiness and local Chicago flavor, which was never overdone, the meticulous depiction of the early Eighties, and Private Detective Nick Nowak himself–a well-rounded character as faithful to his own principles as he is flawed in his actions. Thankfully, none of those reasons for liking the Boystown series has disappeared in the fifth installment, Murder Book

What has disappeared is Nowak’s lover, Harker, who is found dead. As the fourth book indicated, Harker was diagnosed with AIDS (it’s the early Eighties, remember, so it’s not HIV) so his death was not unexpected. In a marvelous opening twist, however, we find Harker has become the latest victim of the notorious Bughouse Slasher referenced in earlier books. Nowak figures Harker had finally gotten too close to the truth and, through his grief, he launches his own investigation to rid Chicago of the serial killer once and for all.

Nowak’s grief provides some of the most poignant moments in the book as he tries everything to work through it including work itself, grief sex, and a visit to the hypnotist downstairs from his office. Thornton’s depiction of this is dead-on as he allows Nowak’s desperation and loneliness subside just long enough to be more powerful when it returns. Speaking of returning, Harker’s old-school Czech mother also returns for a brief yet pivotal appearance, as does Christian, the reporter wanna-be Harker was close to.

Thornton’s prose is wonderfully spare, making it as quick and certain as the storyline. There’s not much window dressing here, and that’s not what I read this kind of book for anyway. That said, even though the book is plot-driven, we’re given enough access to Nowak’s head so that we can empathize with him and understand why he sometimes does the things he does, and Thornton is excellent at delineating those positive and, at times, self-destructive thoughts.

Thornton’s excellent writing, credible plot, and well-drawn and involving characters add up to an engaging and interesting entry for this series. So many avenues are closed at this juncture, however, that one wonders what Nowak will do next. Whatever it is, I’ll certainly check it out. And so should you.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler


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Light – ‘Nathan Burgoine (Bold Strokes Books)

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Wheeler’s Law of Reasonable Expectations dictates that if an author is well-known for his bittersweet romantic stories, his novels will follow along the same lines. ‘Nathan Burgoine’s Light, however, obliterates that law. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, there is little, if anything, bad about this stunning debut, which makes my job as a reviewer both easier and more difficult at the same time.

Kieran Quinn is a gay massage therapist, but that’s where the stereotype ends. He also has telekinetic powers, which is good for our side. Bad for our side is that the enemy, embodied by Stigmatic Jack (leader of the Church of the Testifying Prophet) also has a telekinetic it can use for its nefarious purposes. During one eventful Pride week, Kieran and Jack square off for some monumental battles. Who wins? And what of Kieran’s lust for a hot leatherman named Sebastien? How about Kieran’s brother’s lust for Karen, his boss at the spa? And who is the Miracle Woman?

Burgoine answers these questions and more in a stylistic tour de force that is as much superhero story as it is a light romance (which, at its core, Light is–complete with HEA). What’s stunning about this debut is its assurance. In terms of character, plot, voice, and narrative skill, Burgoine knocks it out of the park as if this was his tenth book instead of his first. He, along with Tom Cardamone, has the considerable gift of being able to ground the extraordinary in the ordinary so that it becomes just an extension of everyday life.  Kieran Quinn is, indeed, a superhero (despite the fact that he hates the names the public gives him–Rainbow Man, Light, Disco?), but he’s a superhero who loves his cat, who blithers in the presence of handsome men, and who goes on failed blind dates.

Knowing Burgoine’s short fiction as well as I do, I was floored to discover his facility with action sequences. There are four encounters with the villain, each increasing in complexity and scope to the climactic final one, and all four were totally engaging and had me on the edge of my figurative seat. I was more confident in predicting the romance, which is written in a clever, light ‘n’ breezy manner with an undercurrent of danger. Burgoine’s dialogue , especially between Kieran and Sebastien, shines. It’s banter-ish without sounding forced–the kind of dialogue I always imagined happened in Jean Kerr’s house. Or maybe even Erma Bombeck’s. And Kieran’s voice is totally entertaining–that of a genuinely nice guy with just enough smart ass to give his observations some punch.

Burgoine’s prose is clean and focused, his characters are sharply defined, and his plot runs a fairly straight line–with one neat little twist–to its conclusion, which is immensely satisfying. What more could you ask from a debut? This is the difficult part of my job, where I’m supposed to come up with a negative or two to counter all the strokes. And I really can’t think of anything worth mentioning. Perhaps four or five books in, when he starts taking chances that don’t work , there’ll be something to point at…wait, maybe I found one: He could have written it so that it was easier to put down.

As far as negatives, that’ll have to do.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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