Monthly Archives: July 2017

Consent – Jeff Mann (Unzipped Books)

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Really, there is only one thing you need to know about Jeff Mann’s erotica.

It is hot.

(And coming from someone who admits to no interest in bondage, now or ever, that’s saying something.)

This is, of course, testament to Mann’s ability as a writer.  Mann clearly writes what he knows; but it is a rare writer who can write about sex with such poignancy and humor (yes, humor!) and with such honesty and authenticity.

Consent, recently published by Unzipped Books (the erotica imprint of Lethe Press) collects ten stories by Mann, each previously published in other erotica anthologies, and all with a focus on bondage.  A variety of scenarios set up the sex, but each one of his stories is a fully crafted narrative; although what constitutes a happy ending may be somewhat ambiguous in a story centered on BDSM.  (In any event, this is an erotica collection, not a romance collection, so happy endings are not guaranteed.)

There is just one recommendation I would make concerning this collection, and it is this:  Consent is not a book for reading entirely at one sitting (especially if one may be unfamiliar with bondage as part of sexplay).  Doing so will cause the stories to blend one into the other:  most are set in Appalachia, with one of the protagonists (the dom, usually) as a thinly-veiled stand-in for Mann.  (Indeed, “Inescapable” and “Demon Seed” strike one as autobiographical recollections, despite the fantastical elements in the first story.)  Best to savor each of these stories individually, like the bourbon that Mann obviously favors.

This volume also includes three original pieces.  The opening nonfiction essay, “A Defense of Erotica,” in the vein of a classical apologia, reminds one of a similar essay written by the late John Preston about being a pornographer.  “Erotica is about passion, and passion is about life, and life is most especially to be celebrated and affirmed in dark times such as these.” Mann, as a member of a life-affirming religion (neo-Paganism) makes a strong case for the religious aspects of his writing, and religious metaphors can be found throughout his stories, most notably in “Highland Sleeper” and “In the Shadow of Devil’s Backbone.”  Mann’s passion for and about eros is a direct reaction to the shame he has been made to feel about his erotic leanings, a shame experienced by several of his characters.

The remaining two original pieces close the collection.  “Triptych” is a retelling of the photo shoot (in which Mann himself participated) that produced the cover and interior photographs, entwined with an idealized, erotic reworking of that weekend as reimagined by Mann.  “Triptych” is the most humorous piece in the collection, from Mann’s wry observations of the shoot, becoming laugh-out-loud funny when his fantasy really takes flight near the end. “Carpetbagger,” which closes the volume, is the longest piece, a short novella.  Here Mann gives full rein to his erotic impulse, and even though this story too is set in Appalachia, with a Jeff Mann-like character, it is unlike the other stories in the collection, mostly due to several plot twists within the story that I will not disclose here.  (An homage to Lee Thomas, it almost could be a Thomas story, with break-neck pacing and a captivating narrative that demands a reader’s attention.)

Appropriately, Mann’s sensual writing is accompanied by erotic illustrations, an additional appeal to the senses.  Besides photos from the above-mentioned photo shoot, the introduction is illustrated with black and white drawings; unfortunately my advance reader’s copy does not credit the artist.  Obviously this book will appeal to fans of Jeff Mann; however, collectors of well-written erotica will enjoy these bedtime stories too.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

© 2017, Keith John Glaeske

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Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction – Steve Berman, ed. (Lethe Press)

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Lethe Press’s Wilde Stories has always reminded me of the Pan horror series from Britain I loved as an early teen. This review occasioned me to Google the very first Pan volume, coming across names and stories I hadn’t thought of in years, including George Fielding Eliot’s “The Copper Bowl,” a delicious torture tale about a copper bowl with spiced meat, restraints, and a hungry rat who eats his way through a traitor’s lover. That one alone provided me with some nasty dreams for weeks. The stories in the latest Wilde Stories volume are just as interesting and far-reaching as the Pan classics, and even though the tales are short on rats, they’ll still lead you to some fascinating places.

The first stop is Steve Carr’s “The Tale of the Costume Maker,” a glittery little story that demonstrates the value of keeping some treasures to yourself. This leads into “Das Steingeschopf,” G.V. Anderson’s well-built tale of a carver and restorer of living sculpture and the ancient creation he encounters. Matthew Cheney then parts from conventional narrative with “Where’s the Rest of Me?”, his alternate-world tale of Ronald Reagan and his lover, Alejandro, each short chapter titled by a Reagan film. And, yes, Nancy’s there too.

But Ronnie’s not the only celebrity here. Historical figures play central parts in many of these stories, from Alan Turing obsessing over an automaton of three Oscar Wildes (Eric Schaller’s “Turing Test”) to the delightful Americana-gone-weird Johnny Appleseed/Paul Bunyan mash-up, “The Death of Paul Bunyan.” As if those mythical figures weren’t enough, ‘Nathan Burgoine’s “Frost” provides a lovely, fairytale origin story for Jack Frost.

Sam J. Miller, however, corners the mythical figure market with “Angel, Monster, Man,” his brilliantly conceived and well-executed story of Tom Minniq, the pseudonym of three men living through the AIDS epidemic who have inherited a wealth of unpublished and unseen art from their dead and dying friends–those lost voices of a generation we often lament. Minniq becomes the voice of those men until one of the three actually meets him in the flesh. From there on, we join in a different reality that becomes a little more different every day of the T—p era. The barbs in this story are sharp, and you won’t know you’ve bled out until the last word.

Of all the places Wilde Stories took me, though, none affected me more than the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska, where Mathew Scaletta spins “The Sound a Raven Makes,” a bleakly romantic story about Ash and JB, two men who make their living butchering the sasquatch hunted by the tourist trade. This story is rooted in all things Alaskan, especially hidden dangers. The images of the illegally taken baby sasquatch as well piles of squatch arms and legs will stay with me long after I finish writing this. But mostly, this story reflects the environmental and societal changes the region faces as well as providing one shining silver bullet of hope. Or is it despair?

Wilde Stories 2017, then, keeps up the Pan tradition as well as its own by being our yearly touchstone with the fantastical and the horrific. Truly the year’s best and highly recommended.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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At Danceteria and Other Stories – Philip Dean Walker (Squares & Rebels)

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Ask any Gay Man of a Certain Age, and he will tell you about the horrors that were the 1980s in America:  a backlash decade after the revolutionary 1960s and hedonistic 1970s, a decade defined by the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, when Gay men could be discharged from the military with impunity, before any notion of marriage equality, and that above all saw the onset of AIDS.

And yet….

The 1980s too had an over-the-top element to them, as exemplified by the emergence of the materialistic “yuppie.”  They were also the decade of the glamorous Diana, Princess of Wales, the gender-bending Boy George and Annie Lennox in popular music—not to mention the ground-breaking Madonna!—and the outrageous resistance of ACT-UP.

(Full disclosure:  Because the 1980s were the time of my youth—I attended college from 1984-89—I am prone to romanticize this decade, and especially susceptible to 80s nostalgia.)

Philip Dean Walker explores the paradox that was the 1980s throughout his At Danceteria and Other Stories, a slim volume of seven stories (four of which are reprinted from Jonathan: A Queer Fiction Journal).  In six of these stories, the protagonist is some (now dead) icon from the 80s:  Halston, with Liza Minelli and Andy Warhol (“By Halston”); Princess Diana (“Don’t Stop Me Now”); Rock Hudson (“Charlie Movie Star”); Sylvester, with a Bette Midler cameo (“Sequins at Midnight”); Jackie Onassis (“Jackie and Jerry at the Anvil”); Keith Haring (“At Danceteria”).  Several stories are set in iconic bars that likewise are no longer with us:  Studio 54, The Anvil, and Danceteria in New York (all closed 1986); Tracks in Washington, DC (closed 1999); and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London (still going strong).

Walker grounds his bigger-than-life characters by basing his stories upon little-known but historically documented events:  Halston did indeed launch a J. C. Penny line in 1983; Rock Hudson did indeed attend a State Dinner at the Reagan White House in 1984; Jackie O. did indeed go to the notorious hardcore sex club The Anvil with Jerry Torre.  (Walker has noted the intense research he underwent while writing these pieces, with only the occasional artistic license:  for example, Keith Haring’s birthday party actually occurred at Paradise Garage, not Danceteria, so that he could juxtapose Haring and Madonna.  Which raises the question:  Did Princess Di really attend a drag club in male drag with Freddie Mercury?)

The center (literally) of the collection is held by “The Boy Who Lived Next to the Boy Next Door,” the only story without a celebrity, not even a cameo.  Narrated by an anonymous (and presumably average-looking) protagonist, he describes the new gay cancer—or, as he dubs it, “Hot Guy Flu”—since he observes that only the good-looking guys are succumbing to it.  As a result, he unexpectedly finds himself suddenly desirable, even by the attractive who had previously spurned him; until finally even the not-so-attractive start dying.

To survivors of the 1980s, the discovery of AIDS remains a watershed event, a point after which the world irrevocably changed.  Its specter haunts all of Walker’s stories to a lesser or greater degree, but it is not the only truth of the decade.  Walker acknowledges both extremes of the 1980s, the horror and the glamour.  In so doing, he produces something mighty real, which is more than just plain real.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

© 2017, Keith John Glaeske

 

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Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality – Debbie Cenziper & Jim Obergefell (William Morrow)

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We’ll occasionally break from our mission of reviewing independent press releases to cover something queer from a major publisher, so when I received the press release promoting the paperback edition  of Love Wins, I eagerly emailed for a review copy. I don’t get the opportunity to review as much non-fiction as I’d like, so this seemed a natural. And, indeed, the book is a clear, concise, obviously heartfelt account of the Obergefell marriage equality case, certainly worth a read. However, this edition settled on me differently than the hardback release might have.

Cenziper does an admirable job of encapsulating not only the story of Jim Obergefell and John Arthur’s relationship but the background of civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein and what made him so passionate about the case in question. Along the way, Cenziper paints deft little portraits of the minor players as well and has truly taken to heart Gerhardstein’s adage that in order to have a case, you need a story. Plus, this has courtroom drama. How could you not love courtroom drama? Those scenes are among the best in the book.

What the hell is my problem, then?

The question for me is one of timing. Releasing this book in the T—p era shrouds it in a thick cloud of irony, refocusing its look-how-far-we’ve-come to look-how-much-we-have-to-lose, especially with an increasingly conservative Supreme Court itching to overturn the very gain this book is about. The story is compelling enough to survive scrutiny through that different lens, and the telling of the story is flawless, but the end result–the feeling I got as I turned the last page–was one of sad nostalgia rather than hopeful optimism. I laughed. I cried. But not for the reasons or maybe even in the places the author had intended.

Unfortunately, we no longer live in a world where love consistently wins. Perhaps we never did. Love has historically had an uphill struggle, but it used to win more than it seems to now. In the eight years I’ve been writing this blog (one on hiatus), many of the books I’ve reviewed have made me cry, but not with the sense of longing and regret that this one did.

Can I recommend it? Sure. It’s highly readable, and the narrative is well-constructed. The characterizations are well-done, and the prose is clear and explains some complicated legal questions quite well. I can’t, however, guarantee what mood it will leave you in. Maybe you’re farther along in your grief process than I am. Maybe you think we have nothing to grieve for. Maybe you don’t connect the two. But I don’t think I’m alone. If I am, we’re in more trouble than I thought.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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