Out in Print will be taking a break for the holidays. I will be attending cocktail parties, going to holiday mixers, hosting Christmas champagne brunches, hoisting a celebratory glass or two with friends, and researching rehab facilities. And cooking. And eating. We will return the first full week of January (Monday, Jan. 6th)–bleary eyed and a few pounds heavier–with reviews of J.M. Redmann’s The Shoals of Time, Fay Jacobs’s Time Fries, and other surprises. Until then, stay warm, be well and have a wonderful holiday.
Monthly Archives: December 2013
I came across some absolutely amazing books in 2013; volumes that uplifted me as a reader as well as encouraging me to grow as a writer if for no other reason than to produce work as funny or bittersweet or beautiful or just plain damn good as the books listed below. Well done, everyone. This list is in no particular order, but they are all excellent. If you haven’t purchased them yet, you really need to. So without further adieu, here are Out in Print’s Best Reads of 2013:
Bitter Orange – Marshall Moore (Signal 8 Press) Buy from Amazon
Moore’s story of an individual rendered literally invisible is both stunning and satisfying, being at once a cautionary tale as well as a comment on our technological civilization (if those two words aren’t contradictory). But Bitter Orange is also possessed of a paralyzing wit that seeps through the dialogue and drips onto the prose itself. Moore is at his funniest when he’s making a point, and these points are so sharp, they hurt. In a good way.
A Romantic Mann – Jeff Mann (Lethe Press) Buy from Lethe Press
Mann’s fiction and essays are well-represented in many Best Of lists, but I found this volume of poetry to be as deep and poignant as any of his prose. Perhaps more so. Be it his romanticism, his BDSM predilections, his love of food, or his love of men, all are on display here in a celebration of language, lust, and lore. Even if you don’t normally enjoy poetry, you might find this a winning entry point. I urge you not to pass this by, for without it, you do not have a complete understanding of this multi-faceted author.
Light – ‘Nathan Burgoine (Bold Strokes Books) Buy from BSB
I loved this remarkable debut novel, from its romantic underpinnings to its superhero flair to its slightly politicized action scenes. It has winning characters, a juicy plot, a neat twist, and a real love of language and storytelling at its core. And a dog. Can’t forget the dog. I have been proud to be associated with Burgoine at nearly the inception of his career, and it continues to be my pleasure to cheer him on.
Fortune’s Bastard (or Love’s Pains Recounted) – Gil Cole (Chelsea Station Editions) Buy from TLA Gay
This marvelous Shakespearian mashup (of “Twelfth Night” and “Merchant of Venice” among others) is a delight in more ways than one. It inhabits the Shakespeare idiom perfectly in terms of language as well as character and plot. It’s so damn assured that I was in awe of how totally it achieves what it sets out to do. More than a pastiche, it’s perfection.
Art on Fire – Hilary Sloin (Bywater Books) Buy from Bywater Books
This fictional biography of painter Francesca deSilva is memorable not only for the story it tells, but for the essays on deSilva’s work sandwiched between chapters of her story. Those essays are as brilliantly satirical of art criticism as deSilva’s story is involving and engaging. Her art informs her life as much as her life informs her art. But even if you’re not an art critic, this wonderful book is a portrait of a fascinating life. And an untimely death.
The Dirty Trilogy – Ashley Bartlett (Bold Strokes Books) Buy from BSB
I don’t think this is a cheat since two of the three books came out in 2013 – Dirty Sex, Dirty Money, and Dirty Power are really all of a piece. Bartlett’s POV character, Vivian Cooper (Coop, please) is a marvel–a romantic, streetwise, smart-assed heroine who will leave you laughing tears. The plot is long and convoluted, involving love, the Mob, a fortune in gold, besties, fake parents, and real heartbreak. Start with the first one and hang on, baby.
Conjure: A Book of Spells – Peter Dube (Rebel Satori Press) Buy from RSP
A grimoire, no less. Elegant, understated prose poems promising “To Strike Obstacles from Your Path and Unlock Doors” or “To Undo an Error Past” but are mystically metaphoric. In terms of difficulty, this is the most challenging book I’ve read all year. Once its secrets were unlocked, however, I found it fascinating, enthralling reading — all the more interesting for the amount of work I put in. It’s not for everyone, but those who get it will be truly affected.
Thoreau in Love – John Schuyler Bishop (CreateSpace) Buy from Amazon
An entirely successful vision of what some missing pages of Henry Thoreau’s journal might have revealed, this marvelous piece of historical fiction is told with verve and enthusiasm. It takes chances with character, liberties with history, and its readers for a lusty, dizzying ride. Bishop’s research is impeccable but barely shows, Thoreau at last coming through as a person instead of a historical figure. It captures the heart as well as the head.
Giraffe People – Jill Malone (Bywater Books) Buy from Bywater Books
Much more than a young adult novel, Jill Malone’s Giraffe People is a wonderfully voiced and nuanced look at fifteen years old. The perspective is as adult yet as childish as you remember your own life at that time. If you have forgotten what fifteen was like, you need to read this. If you remember, you’ll be as involved in Cole Peters’ life as she is. And Malone maintains this voice with remarkable consistency, never putting a foot wrong.
Where Thy Dark Eye Glances – Steve Berman, ed. (Lethe Press) Buy from Lethe Press
If any author’s work needed queering, it would be Edgar Allan Poe, and Steve Berman has collected a wonderful batch of take-offs, pastiches, and imitators–except none of those categories approaches the sheer originality of the stories, essays, and poems here. And the book looks as good as it reads. Lovingly produced and sumptuously written, Where Thy Dark Eye Glances is a class act that deserves your attention.
A Horse Named Sorrow – Trebor Healey (University of Wisconsin Press) Buy from Amazon
Trebor Healey breaks his long silence and absence from fiction with a beautiful, elegiac road trip as Seamus Blake carries his boyfriend’s ashes back to Buffalo as he’d promised him he would. But as road trips go, he finds the journey to be more important than its end. Lyrical and sad, Healey’s prose uplifts rather than depresses. If you have ever had grief in your life, this will speak to you.
Who the Hell is Rachel Wells? – J.R. Greenwell (Chelsea Station Editions) Buy from Giovanni’s Room
Eleven short stories collecting the best and worst of Southern manners and mannerisms, this collection is by turns heartbreaking and hilarious, sometimes in the same paragraph. Caricature? Well, yes. But there are characters here as well. Both subtly shaded and as outrageous as the best/worst drag ever, this batch of stories never relents in its celebration of Southern culture. Which is no contradiction in terms.
Dickinstein: Emily Dickinson, Mad Scientist – Shannon Yarbrough (Rocking Horse Publishing) Buy from Rocking Horse Publishing
An inspired mashup of Frankenstein and Emily Dickinson, the execution is as accomplished as the concept. By combining these two apparently disparate elements, Yarbrough illuminates both halves of the equation. Emily Dickinson wasn’t a mad scientist, of course, but Dickinstein certainly gives us the freedom to reimagine her.
And there you have them–a baker’s dozen of the most wonderful treats 2103 had to offer. Now, we begin expanding our critical waistline for 2014. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it….
© 2013 Jerry L. Wheeler
Please note: The books included may not have necessarily been published in 2013, but read and reviewed here at Out in Print in 2013.
I am not a fan of Christmas and haven’t been for a number of years, so feel free to call me a Scrooge. Many have. Despite that, I try as hard as I can to join in with my friends–sort of a “grin and bear it” attitude–because my mama raised me not to rain on the parades of others. Well, she hated Funny Girl, but you know what I mean. Singing carols, however, or listening to Christmas music on the radio, or decorating my car, or dressing up the dogs? Um. No. Just…no. And Christmas-themed books? Nope. Not going there, either. But I loved Kergan Edwards-Stout’s Songs for the New Depression so much that when he sent me this volume, I gritted my teeth and dove in, finding some pleasant surprises.
Not all the stories are Christmas related. They also revolve around Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, and even Mardi Gras. And, as with most short story collections or anthologies, some entries are more successful than others. A few of these tales find themselves burdened with a sentimentality that doesn’t serve Edwards-Stout well. He’s at his best when he’s sharp and cutting, riding the edge to undercut the sweetness or the sadness, depending on how its played. That’s a combination that really works for him, and he manages to hit it more often than not.
He hits it hard in the opener, “The Nutcracker,” a biting piece about corporate ball-buster Sheila, whose mask of invulnerability drops when she receives the titular souvenir as a gag gift at the office Christmas party. The story is witty, observant, and altogether successful in its portrayal of office manners as well as career goals, and even though Sheila is easy to hate, she becomes a sympathetic figure by the end. This is the kind of story Edwards-Stout tells very, very well.
Going somewhere totally different, “Festive Beaver” is the lovely little tale about a young gayling and his fixation with his school’s Mardi Gras celebration. And again, the ending is particularly poignant and a wonderful lesson for any boy who has keenly felt the difference between himself and the rest of his friends. “The Stepping Stone” is an odd yet compelling Easter parable which finds shopping mall Easter Bunny Gerald taking a chance on winning his lady love Amy by defying his controlling mother. Edwards-Stout’s detailing of the Machiavellian control Lolly has over her son is exquisite and makes her comeuppance at the end (because you knew it was going to happen) even sweeter.
The family dynamic runs very close to the surface in all of these stories because holidays are so family-centered, something Edwards-Stout takes great advantage of in pieces like “Glenbourne, IL,” which features a mother-in-law finally giving her son’s patient and ever-attentive wife the respect she deserves after a number of years. This story takes a potentially maudlin situation but does not exploit that possibility. Instead, he concentrates on the relationship between the son and his wife and allows the reader to come to his own conclusions rather than forcing an obvious emotional choice. The ending, therefore, was to me even more heartwarming than I would have found it if I was told what to feel.
When Edwards-Stout takes this route, the results are stunning–as in “The Old Rugged Cross,” in which a woman is cut adrift from her life and her passion by the death of her only son, and the title story, which features a nicely-done twist. Not all of these stories are about gay men or women, but don’t let that stop you from picking up this fine volume of well-written pieces, most of which are powerful and emotional without the taint of cheap sentimentality that the holidays usually induce.
© 2013 Jerry L. Wheeler
When Down in Cuba begins, it’s been three years since Martin and Leo have seen each other. We know right away it’s over between them. Leo’s little girl Anabela remembers tío Martin from the photos that Leo has kept. She’s wearing clothes that Martin has sent as a present.
When the chronological story begins, Martin Vandenberg is a 46-year-old tenured professor at a small school in southern California. His academic specialty is Martí, Cuban intellectual, poet and hero of the Cuban War of Independence. Vandenberg has been married for over twenty years. He has a daughter he adores. Apparently he’s never questioned his relationship with his wife or his sexuality. In fact, he’s been running pretty much on autopilot for a long time.
When he receives a year’s sabbatical to write a book on Martí, he goes to Cuba to begin his research. On one of his first nights in Havana, he meets Leo, a handsome Cuban half his age. Leo blows the doors off the closet that Martin Vandenberg didn’t know he lived in.
In a declaration of passionate denial that many of us who married women will recognize, he declares, “You hear people talk about, you know, being in a closet. What does that mean? I never felt like I was in a closet. Leo is an attractive guy. I was drunk. I swear to God, this is not going to change my life.”
But it does. As it must.
Told in Martin’s nervous POV, Down in Cuba is a romantic tragedy in which flawed characters fail to get what they believe they want. Martin and Leo struggle within their cultural imperatives and mores, each wanting somehow to bridge the gulf between them. The silver lining to the tragedy is that they both find a truer life than they had when they met.
The book is structured in time-blocks arranged out of sequence, opening almost at the end. The intervening time-blocks are not flashbacks, but current-time episodes that will eventually give meaning to the beginning as well as the end.
While I’m not a fan of stories with reshuffled timelines, I appreciate that Meis chose this technique in support of the story. It creates a diffused ebb and flow in the relationship between Martin and Leo, keeping its fate ambiguous until all ambiguity is dispelled.
Martin is concerned that Leo is interested in him only for money or to escape Cuba. Ultimately, Leo proves the stronger, more honest and self-aware of the two. As capricious and self-centered as Martin believes Leo to be, Leo forces Martin into authenticity that he couldn’t have achieved without him. He forces Martin to come out—a gift far greater than anything Martin gives Leo.
Through Leo, Martin learns what week-to-week survival in Cuba requires: selling soap on the black market or raising roosters for fighting, befriending foreigners, easing frustration with rum and cigarettes.
Leo may be a good-hearted opportunist, but he is also an artist whose dark paintings reveal a haunted place in his soul. He is uncompromising and honest in his self-interest. He is scarred and tattooed. He is a wild being, full of passion.
One day in Old Havana, Martin and Leo make love standing at a window while a political rally fills the streets below them:
“Tell me what you hear, coño.” He sounded angry. I laughed. “Come on. You’re making me crazy. Stand up by the window. Look out. Look at the people. Look at the funny people on the street.” […]
“Look at the people. Look at my country,” he whispered, his mouth on my ear, the hot wisps of air tickling deep nerves. “All right,” he said. “Now. Do you feel it? Do you feel it? Look at the people. Can you see them? Come on. Look. Look. Look.”
Like a catalyst in a chemical reaction, Leo forces Martin to break open, but remains unchanged himself. He wields a frightening kind of integrity.
Down in Cuba is a gripping, thought-provoking, emotionally satisfying book. The characters are strong and fresh. The writing is immediate and unadorned, yet it creates a subtle, mercurial, even elusive, Cuba. It draws the reader into a collision of cultures that sheds a stern light on unexamined expectations of fairness, and attitudes that Americans like Martin might carry, such as presumption of a moral high ground that may not be warranted.
I urge you to read this book.
© 2013 Lloyd A. Meeker
Hot on the heels of Berman’s Where Thy Dark Eye Glances, a queering of Edgar Allan Poe, and Joseph DeMarco’s A Study in Lavender, which gave the same treatment to Sherlock Holmes, comes Suffered from the Night, which takes on the Dracula mythos. With these three volumes, Lethe Press is quickly becoming the go-to publisher for the re-imagining of icons. And that’s a mighty sweet place to be. Even sweeter is the fact that the stories get better and better.
As with the other two books, the authors represented in Suffered from the Night draw their inspirations from major and minor characters in the text–some even unnamed–as well as those who present us their takes on the vampire myth in general. The kickoff story, Lee Thomas’s chilling “The Tattered Boy” is among those. This tale of a vampire boy and the college professor he terrorizes puts the reader in the appropriate time frame and mood. When beginning a vampire book, you can hardly go wrong with a Lee Thomas story. Just as literary, but more Stoker-based is Livia Llewellyn’s “Yours is the Right to Begin,” which plumbs the origins and attitudes of Dracula’s three “weird sisters,” as Jonathan Harker calls them, and does so with such sumptuous language as to take your breath away. Ed Madden‘s poem, “Self Portrait as Jonathan Harker,” continues the text-based entries.
Damon Shaw’s magnificently engaging “Seven Lovers and the Sea” explores from the sailor’s point of view what happened aboard the Demeter on that fateful voyage departing from Varna Quay, and Jason Andrew’s stately, moody “The Calm of Despair” tells the immediate aftermath of the Demeter’s landing through the eyes of one of Count Dracula’s solicitors. Elka Cloke’s epistolary and wholly successful “Bloofer Ladies” explores the relationship (which always had a lesbian subtext to me) between Mina Harker and Lucy Westerna complete with a darkly disturbing ending that sees Harker and Westerna reuniting in a ruined abbey several years hence.
Back to the epistolary form (an unsurprising choice, considering the source material) for William P. Coleman’s “The Powers of Evil,” which retells the last chapter of the story and includes Arthur Holmwood’s unrequited love for not only Jonathan Harker but an old lust for Jack Seward as well. Holmwood and Westerna also play key roles in Traci Castleberry’s “My Arms Are Hungry,” told from the point of view of one of the “bloofer lady” children. One of the most creative entries, Jeff Mann’s “Protect the King,” takes the unnamed gypsy driving the cart containing Dracula’s body, and invents a wonderful servant named Boldo for the vampire lord. As usual, Mann’s research into the Romany culture is thorough and totally entwined in the story.
Rajan Khanna’s “Hungers” is a nicely paced, action-packed romp with a nice twist or two that sees the offspring of the major human characters in the original text carrying on their forefathers’ (and foremothers’) work in doing battle with the undead race, this time with the evil Baron Winters. Steve Berman‘s own “The Letter that Doomed Nosferatu” strikes an uneasy balance between comedy and foreboding as it looks at the cinematic premiere of F.W. Murnau‘s Nosferatu as attended by a man and his companion, who might just be the film’s subject. This, however, is a perfect set-up for perhaps the oddest, yet most compelling story here–Laird Barron’s “Ardor,” which combines vampires, snuff films, and an Alaskan aircrash in a totally engaging and perverse read. Sven Davisson updates the undead for the texting Twitter generation in his New Orleans-set “A Closer Walk With Thee,” and Seth Cadin ends the collection with an oddly wistful “Unhallowed Ground.”
Nothing in this collection seems out of place or lacking in any respect. It’s of a piece with the other two anthologies referencing Holmes and Poe, which makes this the last entry in an anthologic trilogy. One can only hope Berman’s visionary stance never shifts and we get something equally as wonderful. Soon.
© 2013 Jerry L. Wheeler
Sometimes the best part of a mystery is not necessarily the mystery. I don’t know whether this is a fault or not. I suppose in a larger sense it is, especially for those readers who look for clues and revelations and love to match wits with fictional detectives. However, I’d make a lousy detective myself. I often get so carried away by the characters that I forget about the clues or don’t pay close attention to them. I’m quite happy letting the story unfold without trying to guess it. And with a book as funny and smart-assed as Cutie Pie Must Die, I was very satisfied to let the author take me where he wanted me to go.
Hair salon accountant and part-time detective Troy Murdock has scored the man of his dreams–All-American quarterback (for the Violators) Ben Pieney. Taking him home to his apartment over the salon, some wild, hunkalicious sex ensues. They part and Murdock drifts off to sleep. He’s awakened the next morning by the high-pitched screams of the salon’s co-owner, Umberto Clemente, who has found Ben at the bottom of Troy’s steps with his throat cut. Detective Zane Ward is assigned to the case, but he has history with Troy, nearly killing him by accident the three times they dated. Nevertheless, Ward blackmails number one suspect Murdock not only into helping him with the case but into bed as well. Then a couple more bodies turn up, including the quarterback’s brother. A serial killer? Only Murdock and Ward can find out for sure.
Even Clinger’s minor characters pop with inventiveness. Umberto Clemente is the strangely hilarious camp reference point, but on a less stereotypical side is Murdock’s ex, Ivan Reed. Reed is still closeted, claiming bisexuality even though he doesn’t really sleep with his erstwhile girlfriend, Luanne, because she’s too busy working at Hooters and harassing Murdock. Reed is as earnest in his affection for Murdock as Luanne is batshit crazy. And Murdock’s prissy, judgmental, racist mother is also a hoot.
At its core, though, is the “c’mere, c’mere–get away, get away” relationship between Murdock and Ward. Ward really wants another shot at Murdock (interpret that however you like), and Murdock is just as determined not to have his life in jeopardy a fourth time. He doesn’t want Ward in his life. Or does he? This sexual tension is the thread that winds through both the plot and mystery. Although some readers might find the constant wavering from yes to no and back again a bit off-putting, Clinger’s sense of the absurd as well as his laugh-out-loud funny dialogue makes it all work.
In fact, I tried to find an exchange or two that exemplify this, but Clinger has interspersed the plot and the humor so solidly that I was unable to break off a chunk that adequately captured the flavor of the book. And it definitely has one–a bitter fluff or an acidic smirk. I don’t think this is a book that will appeal to all mystery readers, but if you like your murders with a tongue firmly planted in one cheek, this is definitely for you.
Which means, of course, I loved it.
© 2013 Jerry L. Wheeler