Monthly Archives: February 2017

Wilde Stories 2016: The Year’s Best Speculative Fiction – Steve Berman, ed. (Lethe Press)

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This annual collection of fantasy and sci-fi stories that probe the otherworldly implications of gay-male life was launched in 2008. Steve Berman, series editor and publisher, knows this territory well. For Berman, adolescence is a magical place where anything can happen. While writers of sexually explicit fiction must beware of describing “underage” sex, the writers gathered in this anthology describe the development of erotic feelings in teenagers in ways both daring and emotionally true. Several of these boys find boyfriends and counterparts who come from another place or era. In some stories, the protagonist finds or creates a doppelganger who may or may not be visible to anyone else.

In “Imaginary Boys” by Paul Magrs, David is followed by his “Novelizor,” an earnest classmate from a planet “about 300 light years from here,” whose purpose is to make sense of David’s life by narrating it. Lawrence, the alien disguised as a handsome earthling, is David’s first boyfriend, and the Boswell to his Johnson as well as the embodiment of his developing adult consciousness.

The intervention of an alien love-interest is repeated in “He Came From a Place of Openness and Truth” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, in which the alien has the familiar task of repopulating his own planet. Needless to say, the alien’s mission must be kept secret on this earth, and the young narrator willingly co-operates. The story title is ironic, of course, and the story explores the various kinds of secrecy that seem necessary to most teenagers who live with their parents. Having a same-sex lover from a different culture adds another wrinkle to the complicated business of growing up.

In “Envious Moons” by Richard Scott Larson, an only son watches from his bedroom window as Callie, a popular girl who played Juliet in a school play, is courted by a swarm of boys. In an apparently unrelated development, a mysterious male stranger appears one night in the narrator’s yard: “that was when I first saw your white chest, your body alight in an almost lunar glow . . . and I saw your face staring up at me. It was like I was seeing my own reflection upon the surface of the lake in front of the house.” The narrator rescues this visitor from the cold, and tells him about “the curves of her [Callie], the way she held womanhood up like a gown, something expensive in a store I wasn’t allowed to enter.” The visitor says: “I know what you want. I know what I can do for you.” When the stranger appears in Callie’s bedroom in her place, the narrator stares until the light goes out, and then, “I saw only my reflection staring back at me across the yard.” By means of the visitor’s intervention, the narrator becomes luminous, a center of attraction in his own right.

Several of these stories deal with the alternative culture created by a small group of outsiders in high school. In “Wallflowers” by Jonathan Harper, a group of bored outsiders in a small town discover a version of the haunted house on the edge of town, but this one is new and never occupied before. The “wallflowers” create their own secret by inventing an imaginary boy who acquires legendary status – and an apparent body. An awakening group consciousness seems to have the power to create something tangible.

Teenagers at the mercy of their parents and other authority figures have reason to fear being pressured to change into more socially acceptable versions of themselves, and drastic makeovers—consensual or not—are a science-fiction trope. In “Edited” by Rich Larson, a privileged young man named Wyatt is given a physical and psychological transformation by his parents as a birthday gift. As Wyatt explains to the narrator, his “bru” from a lower-income neighborhood, the erasure of Wyatt’s feelings for him makes Wyatt’s life “simpler.” In the last scene, the disillusioned narrator watches “the clouds eat the moon, Edit it right out the sky like it was never there, not really.” In this story, as in “Envious Moons,” moonlight is a hypnotic alternative to the sunlight of adult social reality.

In contrast to social conformity through technological intervention, “What Lasts” by Jared W. Cooper is an instruction manual for constructing a mechanical lover from discarded parts in a junkyard which is guarded by a kind of evil witch. The lonely young men in this anthology who need to find companions would surely be tempted to create them, despite the risks.

The need for survival in a hostile environment, and the heroic lengths to which some social outcasts will go to save their fellows, give momentum to a dystopian tale, “To the Knife Cold Stars” by A. Merc Rustad. In this story, the “cityheart” is a massive engine with its own will that feeds on the energy of young strays.

In “Lockbox” by E. Catherine Tobler, the young male narrator is lured by his boyfriend to explore Exham Priory, a sunken structure that “had housed the worst of the worst,” including a legendary murderess. It seems as if the bond between the two young men protects them from harm. The narrator, a university student, writes his story as a class assignment, bristling with footnotes.

“Utrechtenaar” by Paul Evanby is set in 1729 in Utrecht, a righteously Protestant city in the Netherlands, where the Night Watch patrols the local cruising spot, and God help any young man caught out after dark. The narrator is a terrified university student who learns that the city is haunted by a sentry from centuries before who seems to be caught in a time warp. As alien as the Latin-speaking sentry is, he seems determined to protect the young man from the forces of repression.

A surprisingly small number of these stories deal with traditional relationships between young male ingénues and their older mentors. In “The Duchess and the Ghost” by Richard Bowes, an eighteen-year-old flees to New York City in 1961 because he knows he is “different,” and hopes to find his tribe. His mentor is a magnificent, fading queen who introduces the young man to the “Doorman,” a supernatural being who literally provides him with a new identity and who determines the length of his life. Although AIDS is unheard-of so far, no gay man of the time can assume he will survive long or well.

“To Die Dancing” by Sam J. Miller is also set in New York, but in a dystopian future, in which all “decadence” has been “cleaned up” by the governing Christian Right. A generation of young, queer New Yorkers who have never known freedom have one night in which to experience joy, inspired by legendary rebels.

In the majority of these stories, however, the young protagonists learn that older men (especially those with political or supernatural power) are not to be trusted, and the best allies are close to one’s own age. In two stories, ancient gods from specific other cultures claim human sacrifices, although homophobia does not seem to be a motive. In “The Ticket Taker of Cenote Zaci” by Benjamin Parzybok, a young Mexican man is a gatekeeper for a tourist attraction which was important to the ancient Mayans, who would surely disapprove of the commercialization of their sacred sites. It seems that they take revenge.

In “The Language of Knives” by Haralambi Markov, a man is officially designated as the one who must prepare his husband’s body for the gods who are meant to consume it, and the man’s apprentice is the couple’s “daughter,” who may or may not inherit her father’s role in due course. The grisly operation is described, step by step, as a last expression of love.

In “Camp” by David Nickle, a pair of upper-middle-class male newlyweds plan to spend their honeymoon in the scenic Canadian wilderness. They seem as innocent as a young heterosexual couple in a more traditional story; they don’t expect to encounter any discrimination on the road, and they explain themselves to everyone they meet. The older husband and wife who invite the newlyweds to an isolated camp seem overly friendly, but the young men see no reason to refuse the invitation, and they ignore the warning signs that something is amiss. The climax suggests a mythical transformation, but the role of the strange couple (deities in disguise?) and the power of the natural world are unclear.

The book concludes with “The Astrakhan, the Homburg, and the Red, Red Coals,” written by Chaz Brenchley. This witty story is about Oscar Wilde, using his actual assumed name (“Mr. Holland”) while in exile on Mars, which itself is a popular destination for space-travelers in nineteenth-century science fiction. True to the gay culture of their era, a group of middle-aged fellow-exiles gather on the colonized planet to share sexual access to a young man who works in a shabbily-genteel hotel. This carnal sharing enables them to communicate at an extrasensory level with each other and with non-human, shapeshifting beings. The men’s attempt to form a collective consciousness through sex resembles the tribal bonding of teenagers in other stories in this collection. In this case, however, the young man is a pawn or a toy for his elders.

Although today’s queer young adults come out into a more accepting society than that of the past, these stories show that youth is still a life-phase full of danger as well as transformation. Parents and teachers still discourage same-gender closeness, and the religious and political repression of the past could always return.  Just as the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Ugly Duckling” speaks to most young readers who feel as if they were raised in the wrong family or species and want to find their soul-mates, the stories in this anthology remind adult readers of how that felt.

Reviewed by Jean Roberta

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Out of This World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories – Catherine Lundoff (Queen of Swords Press)

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Catherine Lundoff’s latest collection is indeed Out of This World:  containing eleven stories of the queer fantastic, it includes several previously uncollected tales of fantasy, horror, and science fiction, with healthy dollops of romance and humor thrown in.  Just as these stories span the entire speculative fiction spectrum, with nerdy bookstore clerks, Norns, steampunk technology, ghosts, and the Queen of Faerie, they likewise feature characters that span the LGBTQ spectrum, from Kit Marlowe to lesbian witches and gay vampires.

Now I realize as I type that last sentence, just how trite these type of characters have become; but I assure you that in Lundoff’s capable hands, these characters are anything but stereotypical tropes. The all-too-human protagonist of “Candle, Spell and Book” has to deal with a dead (but still restless) ancestor when a love spell meant to ensnare her ex-lover goes awry.  (Does she learn her lesson afterward?  Only time will tell.)  In “Beauty” the protagonist gradually falls in love with a vampire, but rather than being a vampire-who-turns-his-mortal-lover-into-one-of-the-undead story, it becomes instead a romance entwined with the narrative of an unloved and unwanted prince leaving an unlivable domestic situation and challenging an oppressive regime and claiming a kingdom.  This story is one of the longest in the collection, and will resonate with queer readers on a number of levels.

Lundoff subverts genre expectations throughout, as in “A Day at the Inn, A Night at the Palace” where she depicts typical fantasy mercenaries who come into town, go to the local tavern, spend the night drinking and whoring, but then one of them wakes up the next morning in a new gender, as the result of some magical body switching.  Or in “A Scent of Roses” where she explores the realm of “happily ever after” when the wife of Tam Lin falls out of love with the husband she rescued from the Queen of Faerie, and then falls for the Queen instead.

Among my favorites in this collection are the Gaylactic Spectrum Award finalist “At the Roots of the World Tree,” about an inept, socially awkward clerk of a living bookstore who is forced to forestall Ragnorök, and the collection opener, “Great Reckonings, Little Rooms.” Riffing on Virginia Woolf’s famous quote about “Shakespeare’s sister” Judith, this story reads like one of Shakespeare’s own plays with intrigue, crossdressing “identical” fraternal twins, and swordplay; best of all, it finally answers the question as to who actually wrote Shakespeare’s works.  (Ha!  Take that, adherents of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford!)  Another strong piece, “Vadija,” closes the collection:  beautifully written, it is a story about the power of stories, both to their tellers and their listeners.

While some of these stories venture into the genre of romance, none of them veer into full-blown erotica (“Beauty” comes closest); however, a little investigating around the Queen of Swords Press Facebook page indicates that future volumes will boldly go into the realm of lesbian erotica, featuring pirates, aliens, and really hot meter maids.  So, if after reading this eclectic mix of stories you think that you might enjoy further “swashbuckling tales of derring-do and bold new adventures in time and space”—especially with a kinky twist or two—keep an eye peeled for upcoming volumes from Queen of Swords Press.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

© 2017, Keith John Glaeske

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Down On Your Knees – Lee Thomas (Lethe Press)

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I kept thinking of boxing while reading this book. Sometimes you want a lengthy match, featuring the strategic spectacle of one opponent slowly wearing down the other, but sometimes you prefer a fight without subtlety that delivers one or two knockout blows and then is over, leaving one man standing and the other flat on the canvas. It all depends on the amount of blood lust you have that day. Whereas Lee Thomas’s Butcher’s Road, for example, is one of the former, his latest, Down On Your Knees, is a rabbit punch to the kidneys and a less-than-two-hundred-page knockout.

Just out of prison, Denny “The Bull” Doyle faces the challenge of taking his organization back from low-level gangster Malcom Lynch, who has gained control in Doyle’s absence. The Bull’s former henchmen are being murdered one by one, and the only chance Doyle has of regaining his position lies with Brendan Newton, a gang wanna-be who’s logged far more time fantasizing about crime than practicing it. Lynch may have sorcerer’s magic on his side, but let’s just say Doyle has his own supernatural resources as well.

Thomas’s fiction always amazes me both in terms of his inventiveness and his prose. Here, his words are punchy and action-oriented when they aren’t vulgar (a quality I love, by the way). This is not a book of rumination. It’s a novel of quick thinking, reactions, punch-ups, and beat-downs. Lots of blood, gore, mayhem, and–especially in the last few chapters–magic. And that’s where his inventiveness takes over. The traps are many, the subterfuges are clever, and the predicaments have interesting complications.

A longer book? Well, a more detailed approach would include additional information on how Doyle acquired his powers, though the hints we get of the ritual in Milo’s jail cell are powerful and certainly turn the plot as well as needed. A slower book would also contain some background and more insight on Doyle’s relationship with his doctor/former lover Zack. Maybe even a kidnapping, putting Zack in some direct danger. However, the latter is what the reader expects. I know I expected it the second he introduced the character, and I kept looking for it to happen all through the action sequences. That it does not, however, is no disappointment, and I suspect that’s what Thomas intended. Well played, sir. Well played.

Down On Your Knees, then, really strips the horror/crime genre down to its bare essentials and gives its readers the down and dirty details. And, make no mistake, the final few chapters will leave you breathless in your ringside seats, still clutching your half-eaten popcorn as the house lights come up and you think, “What the hell?” Yes. It’s that good.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

 

 

 

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A Quiet Death – Cari Hunter (Bold Strokes Books)

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You may well ask what I’ve been reading since the blog’s been on hiatus, and I can tell you it’s been mostly non-fiction. I have read little LGBT fiction other than what I’ve edited. Thus, I’ve fallen behind on some of my favorite authors–including Cari Hunter, whose Desolation Point and Tumbledown I thoroughly enjoyed. So, when I saw her latest release, A Quiet Death, coincided with the reopening of the blog, I was (as they say) “chuffed” and immediately put it on my TBR pile. And it should be on yours as well.

Lifelong pals Detective Sanne Jensen and Dr. Meg Fielding, are now officially dating, but that’s the least of their worries. Meg is mystified by what appears to be a case of domestic abuse while Sanne is investigating the death of a Pakistani girl on the moors. As the two mysteries move inexorably toward each other, Sanne also deals with the hospitalization of her father and uncovers a slave trade ring in the Pakistani community.

Post-CSI and its various anacronym-ridden spinoffs, police procedurals can  be a bit of a slog–almost as routine as their real-life counterparts–but Hunter is savvy enough to use that as a springboard on which she can launch some wonderful characters. Sanne is spunky but vulnerable, and Meg is professional yet not. Together, their banter is witty and believable. Sanne’s relationship with her work partner, Nelson, is also interesting to watch play out.

But all this is beside the point. Hunter moves these people through the plot with a confident joy that really comes through on the page. She revels in the details, works in the peaks and valleys, and maintains the balance between explanation and action like a true pro. And those action scenes are incomparable. They move so well, so effortlessly that it’s past your bedtime before you know it, and you’ll still want another chapter. She also has a way with a twist, keeping you off balance until she reveals the true connection between Sanne and the case at hand.

But this cracking good mystery also has a thorough respect for the various ethnic subcultures it explores. I learned things, which is never bad for a reader. Moreover, it has a distinctly British flavour, not pandering to American tastes. Personally, I love British slang, and the more the better for me. Of course, I watch Scottish dramas without the subtitle function. Still, any reader worth his salt can comprehend the context clues.

Of the three of Hunter’s books I’ve read and reviewed for this blog, this has got to be my favorite. Interesting plot, great characters, muscular prose–I’m more than chuffed. I’m potty about it.

And that’s no bollocks.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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