Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Unwanted – Jeffrey Ricker (Bold Strokes Books)

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Part of the fun of reading YA novels these days is seeing the breadth of choices available for young people. When I was that age, we were rather limited as to what could be fit on a stone tablet. Today, however, the options for young adults seem to be infinite. As such, distinguishing yourself as an author becomes harder and harder. But Jeffrey Ricker has a chance to do just that should he continue in this genre, and his most recent book, The Unwanted is a fine start.

Jamie Thomas is not having a good day. He’s been beaten up by his nemesis, Billy Stratton, rescued by his best friend Sarah, his car’s in the stop, and his mother is an Amazon. Not that she’s been around much. She abandoned him shortly after birth, leaving him in the care of his father, so why is she–and her horse–in their backyard? Well, she needs his help. Seems Jamie is the object of a prophecy indicating he alone can save the Amazonian race from destruction by Ares and his undead hoardes. Together with Sarah, his bully Billy (whose mother is also an Amazon), and his father, they attempt to fulfill the prophecy.

Ricker’s first novel, Detours, although well-written and interesting, was less focused than it might have been, but he’s definitely learned his lesson here. The Unwanted is as sharp and laser-tuned as you could ask for. Steeped as he is in Wonder Woman lore and mythology, Ricker creates an extremely credible fascimile of the home of the Amazons, but all the mythos never gets in the way of the characters.

Jamie is an interesting hero, as uncertain and flawed as he is innately brave. He understands the risks as well as what’s at stake, and his nascent love affair with Billy is both tender and believable. Jamie’s mother, Maia, is also well-drawn, always conscious of protecting her offspring at the same time she protects her race. The Unwanted even has visits from goddesses such as Athena and Artemis, who are sufficiently portentious and obscure.

The ending, however, is where Ricker really shines. Giving such an epically heroic story its due HEA would be both rote and expected, but Ricker goes one up and delivers a HEA that’s not really a HEA. Or is it? That depends on which side of the story you look. Are the villains defeated? Well, er…yes. But beyond that, you shouldn’t stop reading and assume you know how things turn out. You’d be wrong.

In short, Ricker has crafted a wonderfully satisfying story that not only does his love of Wonder Woman justice, but brings the Amazon myth alive for an entirely new audience. He draws back the bow. He shoots. And he scores.

©  2014  Jerry L. Wheeler

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A Conversation with Steve Berman by Gavin Atlas

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Steve Berman describes himself as “mostly a writer of queer speculative fiction”. He is the author of the recently released collection, Red Caps: New Stories for Out of the Ordinary Readers. In addition, he is the author of the novel, Vintage: A Ghost Story and the short story collections, Trysts and Second Thoughts. He is also the publisher of Lethe Press and the most prolific editor of queer speculative fiction working today. Steve has been a finalist for many awards, including the Andre Norton, the Gaylactic Spectrum, the Golden Crown Literary, and the Lambda Literary Awards. He resides in southern New Jersey.

Gavin Atlas: Hi Steve! Thanks for doing an interview with Out in Print. To start, you’ve written in a number of genres. When choosing what to spend your time writing, what makes young adult fiction often have the strongest draw on you? Also, could you tell us about some of your favorite YA novels or short stories?

Steve Berman: Hello and thank you for all your interest in my writing. I think the reason why I often drift towards young adult fiction is because it is “fiction of firsts”—think of how many new experiences happen to us between the ages of fourteen and eighteen years old. First jobs, first real kisses, first heartaches, etc. (btw, I wish I could say that this notion is original to me, but my friend Holly Black coined it years ago). Writing about first time experiences is a powerful thing; it’s a greater impetus on the author than mere nostalgia. I’m actually more likely to have favorite authors than individual books or short stories—I would imagine other folk have similar experiences. I admire David Levithan for his wit and all he has accomplished. Holly Black would rank among my favorites even if we were not friends.

GA: My favorite character in Red Caps is your slightly sinister French tooth fairy. Is there a way I can be friends with Mr. Souris or hire him as a therapist without paying him in teeth? How did you conjure him up? What would you think of him if he somehow became a part of your life?

SB: Ah, Mr. Souris…he’s my trickster figure. I wanted to create someone with a great deal of flair that could be intimidating and yet comforting in turn. As a supernatural entity, he has abilities that make him inhuman, and yet he is not at all omniscient—the truth is, he’s as flawed as any adult. I don’t know if he would accept any remuneration except for teeth since so much of his identity involves his occupation, his purpose. If he visited me, I think we would have a very long discussion about what he does with all the teeth he takes. I fear the answer.

GA: From the Pine Barrens Devil to Shuka, Guardian of the Jungle, and Amelia Earhart sojourning through swamps, you make New Jersey feel full of magic. How would you describe your feelings toward New Jersey overall?

SB: Every elementary school student in southern New Jersey learns about the Jersey Devil by 6th grade. It’s almost part of the curriculum. Yet, New Jersey seems to be the butt of so many jokes that my instinct is to show readers a side of the state that invokes wonder rather than scorn.

GA: Your story “Three on a Match” brings up the nature of lies, and maybe even the necessity of them. There would be no fiction without lies, and lies can help create mystery or humor. Can you discuss some of the most fascinating lies you’ve been told or, if it won’t get you in trouble, that you’ve told yourself?

SB: Hmmm. I’ve been “catfished” twice by people pretending to be someone they were clearly not back in the early days of the Internet. Both times the lies they told to shield their real identity (and, in one case, feminine gender) became more outlandish until they collapsed like the square-cube law that prevents giant monsters from existing. When I eventually figured out what they did—never why—it was intensely painful because I thought I had found someone who really showed an interest in me. Lying might be fascinating but it can be truly hurtful. Being in the closet was my most successful lie. A lie so easy, that I slipped into it again during graduate school and managed to get a girlfriend without realizing how or what would happen next (the answer: a disaster).

GA: Here are two word associations.  Can you tell us what each means to you, in terms of yourself and your fiction? Your first word is: October.

SB: My first two “professional” sales were to two role-playing game magazines and released in October. So, for a while, my friends nicknamed me Mr. October. October also has my favorite holiday: Halloween.

GA: From your story “Bittersweet” your word is: Sugar.

SB: Sugar = Death for some. That comes to mind. White, granular or powder, could look like a drug, is seen by a drug by many. Sweetness = lies. All sorts of things come to mind. We both want sugar and hate ourselves for wanting it.

GA: Now, back to you. What makes you laugh the most?

SB: If I say Schadenfreude, does that make me the villain? I will say my favorite sort of movie is black comedy, such as Black Sheep, I Sell the Dead, and Reanimator.

GB: Imagine you’ve been given a life-size set of Kaiju monsters where “life-size” means big enough to destroy Tokyo. What would they look like? Since you control them, what would you have them do?

SB: I used to love Kaiju as a kid. But the whole square-cube law just echoes through my cranium every time I watch a giant monster movie: they cannot be, the laws of physics say they cannot be. Perhaps if they were so alien as to shock my brain, cause me to roll a d100 in SAN loss, I could go mad and turn them loose. But not in New Jersey.

GA: And last, what goals are you looking forward to accomplishing? And we’ll throw in a genie for you. What experiences would you most wish to have?

SB: I’ve yet to win any award for my own writing. Even though such things rarely translate into sales, they are a visual reminder that someone, perhaps an entire jury, thought highly of my storytelling. I’d like to fall in love. I’ve never been in a relationship. Never had a guy lie next to me in bed and say he loved me. I wonder how that must feel. I have seen it done in films, read about it in books, but the entire notion of romance seems like fiction, a lie, to me. It’s a plotline I doubt I ever will follow in real life, which leaves me devastated some days, some nights. I’d also like to own a secret volcano base.

GA: Thanks, Steve!

SB: You’re welcome.

Keep up with Steve Berman on Facebook or at steveberman.com.

©  2014  Gavin Atlas

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The Second Ring – Anthony Kobal (CreateSpace)

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“Axel, I said to myself, you are drawn too easily down the wrong path.”

 Axel, the protagonist in poet Anthony Kobal’s debut novel The Second Ring is a satisfyingly conflicted character. He comes from a family with a distinguished military tradition. Like all of Germany they were caught in the economic nightmare that existed between the World Wars, when the value of a carrot could change several times a day and currency had to be bundled into basic units of exchange.

As a cadet at Heidelberg Axel is already aware that he is Uranier and attracted to other men. He is recruited by Baron von Halbsmann, a relic of Junker aristocracy, to play naked doggy sex games, which pay Axel’s way through the academy. Shame and need reshape his sexual self as he becomes a soldier and officer.

Axel is a courageous enough soldier: he becomes a paratroop officer, and saves the life of one of his men during a jump. He takes his leadership very seriously, often even pompously, with the untroubled presumption of superiority characteristic of most who occupy a position of power within an exceptionalist, elitist culture.

Although indifferent to his country’s politics, even at war, Axel’s certainty that Germany will win the war gives him all the compass he needs to fulfill his role in the conflict. He and his troops are stationed in Norway, where he becomes obsessed with a Norwegian collaborator, Klaus, who is the Aryan physical ideal personified.

The relationship between Axel and Klaus forms the core of the story, and provides the common ground for the clever dual meaning of the novel’s title — the second ring is both the second sphincter in a man’s ass, and one of the components in the Enigma machine used by the Nazis to encrypt messages.

Kobal’s writing is colorful, creating an episodic wartime montage of the mystical and the mundane. Soldiers burn a brand on their hips with the troop insignia in a declaration of brotherhood. Axel loses a boot pushing against a truck stuck in mud. In one utterly compelling scene, a propaganda film team from Berlin comes to shoot footage showing the noble unity of Norwegian and German soldiers, and Klaus becomes the star of the project.

The war itself, while always present as the context of the story, is not a dominant presence. There are few military skirmishes. Instead, the bureaucracy, the routines, and the petty intrigues of status and privilege occupy the characters’ lives.

I had some difficulty with the book, too. The book is episodic in nature, and character arc occasionally loses some of its shape because of it. The prologue is not really a prologue, but a key moment from the climax, which irritated me more than it probably should have.

The Second Ring is a strong first novel with an unusual plot, an interesting WWII story centered on a deeply flawed protagonist and his obsessive love for another soldier.

©  2014  Lloyd A. Meeker

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Rush – Carsen Taite (Bold Strokes Books)

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You’d think the concept of building and maintaining tension in a story would be elementary for a writer, but I can’t tell you the number of books I read (both self-published and not) that build tension nicely only to squander it or bury it under a mountain of plot details. Carsen Taite, however, works tension like a boss in all her books, inlcuding her latest, Rush.

Someone is killing alumnae members of the Sigma Nu sorority, and prosecuter Danielle Soto figures to get a career boost by being on the task force to find the murderer. That goal could be hindered, however, by her falling in love with the beautiful Ellen Davenport, head of Sigma Nu’s alumnae association. And Ellen is hiding some personal information that may just help crack the case. Can they resolve their issues long enough to catch a criminal?

Well, the question is rhetorical at best. But before we get to the happy climax, Taite throws some interesting obstacles in her characters’ ways, making the relationship between Danny Soto and Ellen Davenport prickly and tentative enough to throw you off balance. That’s the tension spoken of earlier, and Taite starts laying the foundation for that right from the beginning. She never lets up, giving each positive interaction between the two a negative outcome. Both Danny and Ellen have so many secrets and so many layers that a relationship seems impossible at the outset, and Taite does nothing to alleviate this.

And with mysterious roses being dropped off at Davenport’s doorstep by the killer as well as some other neat twists and turns, the murder mystery is pretty damn effective as well. But just when you think you have that figured out, Taite throws in a last minute quirk that surprises. But the ending is as satisfactory as one could want in a romance thriller. Taite knows her craft well, and her prose is always breezily readable with no slow spots, plot holes, or narrative gaffes. The consummate professional, she entertains both outside and inside the bedroom. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

My only minor point of contention is that she could have made more of the economic disparity between Danny (poor girl who has worked her way through law school) and Ellen (rich sorority girl). Some of those elements do cause strife between them, but it could have been more pronounced. That, however, is just my (poor boy who worked his way through university) personal taste, and I doubt anyone else but me would notice.

Carsen Taite knows her stuff and struts it with grace and assuredness here. If you like romance thrillers, you’ll swallow this one whole.

©  2014  Jerry L. Wheeler

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Naming Ceremony – Chip Livingston (Lethe Press)

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I love stories and authors who walk between worlds, whether those worlds are cultural or split between the boundaries of fantasy and reality. Blurred lines and grays are always more interesting than clear divisions or blacks and whites, and reading fiction that muddies those waters is always time well spent for me. So, it’s no surprise that I very much enjoyed Chip Livingston’s Naming Ceremony, a collection of stories suffused by the Native American culture.

Some, though not all, of the stories are linked by a recurring cast of characters: Peter Strongbow, his HIV positive lover Elan, Peter’s sister Lana, and an assortment of Native American relatives and friends. They first show up in the title piece, “Naming Ceremony,” a subtle take on a ritualistic ceremony where Peter is given his tribal name, and finish up in the final story, “Ghost Dance.” In between, they dance, they love, they celebrate and grieve, their story arc briefly interrupted by Livingston’s other voices.

Those other voices are represented by a smaller story arc about a student traveling to New York City to be the caretaker of an older, established poet as well as some stray stories unrelated to either arc–the cruel reunion of “A Good Game If You Care Who’s Playing,” the brief portrait of NYC street people in “Jo-Jo’s Three Cents,” the cameo of two estranged brothers in “Night Swimming,” and the on-the-road teenage saga “Fire and Rain.”

As interesting as those are, I was more compelled by Peter and Elan’s stories, particularly the road trip in “Owls don’t have to mean death” and the foreboding “One Hundred Kisses” with its sharp imagery and atmosphere of dread. This storyline has a depth and a dimensionality that some other pieces here don’t have and, perhaps, is an indication that this is the world that Livingston himself most clearly identifies with. What really drew me back to the book, however, was a collection of short free-form verse modeled after Edgar Lee Masters’s  Spoon River Anthology called “Anthology of a Spoon River AIDS Walk.” I immediately started this one again after I finished it, and I had to read it a third time before I moved on. These fifty short pieces represent the thoughts and reasons of people participating in an AIDS walk for their friend and/or acquaintance Tim, who has succumbed to the disease. As varied and plainspokenly heartbreaking as these poems are, they really run the gamut of attitudes and experiences and are worth the price of the book alone. Even if you don’t really like poetry, this is worth an attempt.

Livingston is a fine writer with a gift for both narrative structures and non-narrative form, and I would love to see what he does with something longer. But for now, we have some wonderfully worthwhile short fiction while we wait.

©  2014  Jerry L. Wheeler

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