Monthly Archives: April 2017

Heartsnare – Steven B. Williams (Lethe Press)

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A year ago, Eric Mayfair was in the hospital, with only his mum Jhardine and best friend Tim to keep him company as he slowly, painfully, succumbed to a terminal heart condition.  Except that when it finally came time for him to die, neither one had the emotional strength to remain with Eric.  As a result, neither witnessed his unexpected, miraculous rebirth—not that Eric’s life improves any afterwards.  Because a year later, Eric still has no explanation for the uncanny occurrence, and it’s scarcely a blessing to either him or his mum:  Jhardine supports both of them by working a job she hates, because Eric can’t find, much less hold a job.  Neither has any sort of love life, and Jhardine soon discovers that she now has health problems of her own.  All Eric knows is that he now feels a new heart beating inside his chest, a black, dark thing that seems responsible for his heightened senses, and other…things.  And when Tim is brutally murdered, monsters and evil powers begin to appear in Willingsley, and things go to Hell—fast.

So begins Heartsnare, book one of The Umbraverse by Steven B. Williams.  As Eric investigates the mystery surrounding Tim’s death, he meets and befriends Alistair, a fellow “shadow former,” and finally learns the cause and reason for his own rebirth, and that there are other worlds besides his own.  He learns too that he is now caught in a war, a battle between shadow formers and “umbra”—living shadows that kill and then possess people—a fate that has befallen Tim, and soon others in Willingsley.

Heartsnare reads as compulsively as a Stephen King novel:  Williams’ characters are all ordinary Yorkshire working-class folk, going about their mundane lives, trying to make ends meet, navigating complicated love lives and all the rest of life’s daily nonsense.  It is they who bear the brunt of the fallout resulting from the war between light and darkness that has fallen upon Willingsley.  But for all the darkness in this novel (and it is plenty dark), there is also humor to offset it—although sometimes the banter between Eric and Jhardine seems more appropriate between a gay man and his straight gal pal, rather than a son and his mum.  (Note to American readers:  Mind you, the dialogue is written in a true-to-life Yorkshire dialect, and there’s nowt you can do about it love, just keep eating your crisps while you read, there’s a good lad.)

Heartsnare owes as much to A Wizard of Earthsea as to Stephen King.  The idea of living shadows created by immortal wizards, who then must defeat their shadow-selves, is not new to fantasy fiction, whether literally or metaphorically.  And when their magic is powered by shades to begin with, then it becomes even more difficult (if not impossible) to sort out the angels from the devils.  And without giving away too much of the climax, Eric can only defeat the Tim umbra when he realizes who he is truly fighting.

Heartsnare is completely self-contained as a story, but there are plenty of questions to explore in further books.  The shadow formers’ system of magic will surely be fleshed out (so to speak) in further volumes, and an equal number of mysteries surround Jhardine as her son.  So just as A Wizard of Earthsea begins a series of acclaimed fantasy novels, this book is only the beginning of Eric’s quest—for mastery of his powers, finding answers to the questions of his life, and possibly even love.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

© 2017, Keith John Glaeske

 

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Fried & Convicted: Rehoboth Beach Uncorked – Fay Jacobs (Bywater Books)

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Fish gotta swim and Fay Jacobs gotta fry.

As relentless as her beloved Rehoboth Beach tide, Fay Jacobs rolls in with Fried & Convicted: Rehoboth Beach Uncorked, another compendium of columns from Letters from CAMP Rehoboth and Delaware Beach Life. Now allied with the fine folks at Bywater Books, Jacobs will most assuredly keep the commentary ebbing and flowing for as long as the sea repeats itself in shells. And in these days of uncertainty and upheaval, having something to depend on is important.

Jacobs’s topics are neither unique nor incendiary. They’re mundane episodes of the suburban life most of us live, no different than the domestic humor of Jean Kerr and Erma Bombeck–two columnists I’ve mentioned in the same breath with Jacobs in other reviews of her work. And just like those two writers, she’s developed her own unique brand of quiet, gentle humor. Note, however, that doesn’t mean it’s slight or even the slightest bit “less than.” Taken in sequence with her other books, her latest is an addition to the chronicles of one queer life Jacobs has been building since she came out, telling her individual story while reflecting many of our own. In that sense, she is more of an iconoclast than the quaint, elderly(ish) Jewish matron she appears to be.

That she has, once again, reinvented herself–this time as a stand-up comedian–comes as no surprise to anyone who has read her work. The laughs, the point of view, and her uncanny sense of timing are all present in the text. Her droll delivery in person only amplifies them. I’ve gotten a chance to hear Fay read a number of times, and she’s always a delight–but her performance never distracts from the material, making it all the stronger.

But beyond that, I’m always impressed by the openness and sincerity in Jacobs’s work. Whether she’s drinking martinis or ziplining (or both simultaneously), her exuberance and zest for new experiences comes through. As her work is rooted in popular culture, a certain number of columns dealing with passing fads are less successful than the others, but even those provide a bit of nostalgia for days when we had things to think about other than Donald T—p, economic disaster, and the re-marginalization of queerdom. Indeed, Jacobs’ last few columns are about T—p’s installation.

Despite the magnitude of our recent political upheaval, it’s a comfort that queer writers like Fay Jacobs will continue to find humor amidst the horrible. If you’ve never read her before, this is a perfect place to start. If you’re already a fan, you don’t need me to convince you.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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Skyscraper – Scott Alexander Hess (Unzipped/Lethe Press)

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From its brevity to its cover, which I like to think depicts the view from the  floor of the book’s prominently-featured puppy cage, Scott Alexander Hess’s short erotic novel about BDSM, architecture, and rebirth revels in its own apparent simplicity. It’s less than a hundred and thirty pages. The cover is light and spare, the buildings surrounding the title transformed into wire and white space. One word title. Author name. Barely anchored into place. This is not a book that encourages frivolity or anything less than essential. It’s a potent distillation and a great read.

Atticus is a Manhattan architect badly in need of a creative renaissance. He won his current job with his first few successes in the industry but has been coasting for a while. Atticus meets Tad, a dom top with a Fight Club jones, at a leather bar. In between bouts, Tad leads Atticus deeper into the BDSM world. In this sexual awakening, Atticus finds his skills returning and soon wins an important new design project at work. Working closely with his client, Victor, Atticus discovers some disquieting rumors about a past relationship Victor had with Tad and has to find out whether or not they’re true.

Skyscraper could have been a torturously complicated book, brimming with metaphor and pretentious literary devices, with much room for rumination and a sub-plot or three. But part of its charm is that it simplifies the whole subject of midlife–or at least midcareer–crisis to a bare bones, nearly transparent narrative everyone can identify with as it hints at the individual complexities beneath.

The prose isn’t flat, but by the same token, it doesn’t go out of its way to set a scene. Similarly, the tone is dispassionate and reserved, Atticus telling us about his white hot passion instead of letting us get too close to it. That would normally come across as passive, but Hess’s choice of detail and constant ear on his voice prevent the character from slipping in that direction.

Being fond of and accustomed to the work of Jeff Mann, I thought the BDSM was a bit mild. That puzzled me at first. Hot, yes, but I expected more explicit sex and longer passages (yes, that was intended). However, the more I considered the author’s choice, the more sense it made. It’s certainly in keeping with the dispassionate tone, and the domestic breeziness of leaving casual notes for Atticus as to what kinky position Tad should find him in when he got home rather than addressing him directly adds yet another layer of removal. With all its inherent dispassion, however, it’s not a distant read. Atticus has a distinctive voice, and his willingness to plum the depths of whatever relationship he can have with Tad is well told.

Skyscraper is a little wonder of a book that packs a great deal into a small package, and it will leave you thinking about the relationship between success and failure.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Dahlia Field – Henry Alley (Chelsea Station Editions)

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As any regular reader of this blog knows, I’m a huge fan of short fiction and will always dive headfirst into an anthology or a single author collection. I won’t like everything in a volume, but if the author/s and I connect ten times out of twelve or thirteen, that’s pretty successful. I know relationships based on more tenuous bonds. But what happens when the connection rate is less than optimal? Is it a bad book? Bad author? Bad reader? Those are a few of the questions I ask myself as I write this and stare at the cover of Henry Alley’s collection, The Dahlia Field.

I’d started this eagerly, having read the blurb and peeked at the titles in the Table of Contents. The author and I have some commonalities. We’re about the same age and, thus, have had a lot of shared experiences.  Logically, we should have connected more often than the few stories that worked for me, but art is hardly logical, is it?

It’s not like we didn’t understand each other, either. It’s hard to miss the disconnection and longing inherent in “Ashland,” for example, which sees a man named Earl attending the performance of a play parodying King Lear, written by his gay son. It isn’t until he attends the AIDS fundraiser afterward that he learns his son is positive, a fact he confirms by telephone the next morning. Similarly, “To Come Home To” looks at boredom and new beginnings as house painter Garrett leaves his previously depressed fledgling stage star boyfriend Ethan. Both these should have struck sparks, but neither was particularly engaging to me. Unfortunately, that was true for most of the other stories here.

That said, Alley and I did connect on the last two stories: “My March on Washington,” a wonderfully bittersweet romance that takes place during the 1963 civil rights march, and “Would You Mind Holding Down My Body?,” a well-observed story of how a straight/gay friendship does or doesn’t weather one of the two guys coming out. The latter story has two of the most interesting and complex characters in the book and seemed to have a different set of nuances and a completeness the others lacked to some degree or other.

Aha, I thought. We just needed some time to connect. So, I re-read the first story, “Border Guards,” in hopes of being able kindle some interest, but a glass wall seemed to go up once again. Nevertheless, if you’re a lover of short fiction, this might just be your cuppa as Alley is a writer worth reading. We may not have hit it out of the park, but that doesn’t mean you won’t discover a new voice or find something here I couldn’t. And, as I said, the last two stories really were marvelous.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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