Duncan has been hard at work, taking time away from his busy bone-gnawing schedule to study all the Out in Print posts for the past year to come up with a list of books sure to please anyone on your gift list. Because books are the perfect gift. Except maybe a rawhide bone. Or a squeaky dragon. A Cheese-of-the-Month club subscription? In chronological order by post month, then, here is our Best of 2018:
Raymond Luczak puts on his writer’s cap to bring us a variety of short stories about an amazing number of men and their disabilities. Quads, paras, psoriatics, Deaf men, and men whose disabilities are never revealed all have representation here, and if you think that leads to a “samey,” rage-fueled voice, it doesn’t. Some stories do lean that way, but they are balanced by stories of quiet introspection, of love, of obsession, of emotions that are as varied as the humans who experience them. My favorites? “Cartography,” about a psoriatic cruising the bathhouses, “A Crip Fairy Tale,” and “September Song,” about a gay para at the carnival and the straight carny worker who does him a simple favor, but really everything here has something to recommend it.
McVey-Russell’s first novel does have some flaws–primarily the plethora of character introductions that slows down the first quarter. Once the plot gets rolling and McVey-Russell hits his stride, however this emotional story chugs along well enough to pack quite a punch at the end. Sin Against the Race is Alfonso Berry’s coming out story, but it’s Alfonso’s relationship with his father that’s central to the book, and McVey-Russell shines here. He also does an excellent job of juggling the minor characters, particularly as Sammy, the former jazzbo-turned-store owner, who is the neighborhood’s emotional center. Messy but rewarding, Sin Against the Race is a very worthwhile read.
More than a Death in Venice update, this utterly believable story of Frederick, a staid architect, and his volatile younger “boyfriend” (and I can’t think of a relationship that deserves scare quotes more than this one), Curt, delights as much for its homage as for its originality. Mann didn’t think to include the tension inherent when a sex-positive young man attaches himself to a self-hating older one, and this friction provides the most affecting moments of Pennsylvania Station. Moreover, both participants recognize this is a doomed relationship from the start. Yet, as damaged as they are, that’s all they’ll allow themselves. Literate and compelling, this novel sinks its claws in deeply.
In his second collection of short fiction, Philip Dean Walker regularly blurs the line between reality and fantasy, serving up unsettling tales about both gay and straight relationships. Favorites? “Why Burden A Baby With A Body?” where Hiromi and her husband Takahito, denizens of a virtual reality game community prefer their fictional baby to the real one, “Three-Sink Sink,” about hustling, and “Hester Prynne Got an A,” about a mother who sleeps with her daughter’s English teacher. Walker has a feel for characters in the process of disconnecting, and even the shorter, one-page stories which didn’t quite work for me, are well-written. This collection deserves a place in your Christmas stocking.
Unlike any haunted house story you’ll read, Moore’s tale of North Carolinians relocating to Hong Kong to refurbish a haunted hotel is no squeaky-door-scare. It’s an all-encompassing creep, where the surroundings and the disconnects build slowly to an inescapable (in more ways than one) conclusion. As I said in my original review, no one does angst and urban anomie better than Moore, and Inhospitable is proof positive. His characters are jerky and nervous, rarely settling down even if they find what they’re looking for. And Lena Haze, the American wife overseeing the hotel project embodies this. Inhospitable may be a slow burn, but trust me when I say it’ll leave a scar.
I usually don’t enjoy memoir all that much due to its obviously necessary self-serving nature. That said, a well-written memoir can string along anecdotes and actually spin a life with them. Dennis Milam Bensie has a gift for that, seen in some of his other work. In Thirty Years a Dresser, however, Bensie gives his backstage profession both barrels. The stories fly fast and furious, dish about unknowns and never-heard-ofs cheek to jowl with dirt on some of the biggest names in the business all from an insider who’s seen much behind those scenes. Sometimes events turn outrageous, sometimes poignant, but Bensie captures both with equal aplomb.
I’m a huge fan of Hunter’s “Dark Peak” series, so this release was a natural for me. My expectations were high, but she came through with a fast-paced story of a car crash that leaves the passenger dead and the driver with amnesia, unable to remember why she’s there. All she has is a bus pass with an unfamiliar picture and a name she doesn’t recognize. Is it hers? Or is it someone she’s supposed to be? Rhetorical review questions aside, Hunter truly has a gift for action and chase scenes. She doesn’t frontload the book with them, though. Her sense of timing and balance really plays with the tension, and you will be exhausted by the time the end is in sight. Can’t wait for the next one.
Lammy award-winning author Jim Provenzano dives deep into the rock group Queen’s catalog for the soundtrack to this involving and surprising book that explores the relationship between two small-town Ohio boys in the mid-70s. Provenzano confounds your expectations, especially if you’re used to reading standard m/m romances. This moves in some unexpected directions and does not have a HEA, but the story is so complete and fully realized that I didn’t mind its absence. His characters are all organic, built and embroidered upon with well-chosen details, never feeling contrived or false. You’ll love this from first cut to last.
Farcical romance or romantic farce? Either way, there’s romance aplenty in this story about a chance sexual encounter that turns awkward once both parties resume their normal lives. Once’s a university professor, you see. And the other’s now president of the same university. That takes care of the romance. The farce enters by way of a midnight grapevine climb up to Juliet’s balcony and other situations usually found in “I Love Lucy.” But McMan handles the proceedings like a pro, never losing sight of character, which means the farce sounds organic. A thoroughly wonderful romance.
Sadly, the last of Berman’s Wilde Stories series, but this collection ends on a high note with some brilliantly offbeat stuff, including Matthew Bright’s “The Library of Lost Things,” Christopher Caldwell’s “Serving Fish,” Richard Bowes’s “Some Kind of Wonderland,” and other Wilde Stories stalwarts. And, of course the whole thing ends with Sean Eads and an admirable tale called “A Bouquet of Marvel and Wonder” which finds Oscar Wilde himself fighting kobolds during his American tour of 1882. If you were looking for an ending, Squire Berman, you could not have chosen better.
And there you have Out in Print’s Best of 2018. Buy them all and make up a gift set for Christmas – but only for someone you really like.
© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler