Monthly Archives: March 2019

A Congress of Ships (The Maverick Heart Cycle, Book 3) – Stephen Graham King (Renaissance)

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Between my gay men’s book group and this blog, I’ve been reading a lot of “alternative structure” books. Just the luck of the draw. Some were good, some not. But after four or five, I started longing for a fully plotted story with characters who interacted with each other instead of the furniture. I was excited, then, to start Stephen Graham King’s A Congress of Ships. Full disclosure: I edited the first two books of this series and was unable to review them, so I’m well acquainted with King and The Maverick Heart Cycle. This one, however, is fair game. And it’s an exciting, interesting read that stretches King’s universe both literally and metaphorically.

Sentient spaceship Maverick Heart, or Vrick, as his human occupants, Keene, Ember, and Lexa-Blue call him, is one of several self-aware craft haunting the Galactacum. One of the others finds a rend in the fabric of space and as the rest of them gather to study it, a colony ship from another dimension falls through–pursued by the aliens who destroyed their galaxy. Vrick and his crew, aided by his fellow ships and some folk from the other two books, must figure out a way to seal the rift and deal with both sets of intruders.

One of the key components of world-building is knowing when to stop piling on the bricks, and King is superb at giving you just enough to understand why something’s happening or a character is performing an action and stopping. He never goes for the esoteric factoid or sneaks in something that doesn’t belong, and his writing is all the clearer for it. And when backstory is necessary, he never overworks it or drags it out into filler. He drops in what needs to be there and moves on.

The characters who populate this world are also top-notch. Since this is space opera, there’s a lot of buddy banter between the humans and Vrick, and it’s all delightfully done, but it’s all the more serviceable due to the deep feelings the characters have for each other. Keene and Lexa-Blue were together in the first book, joined by Keene’s new lover Ember in the second. The politician Daevin is also along for the ride, having had “history” as it were with Keene as well. And the characters, both major and minor, are representative of many spots along the genderqueer spectrum.

But when the chips are down, they perform admirably in the action scenes. And King shines here, too. His battle scenes are breathless, and he knows just when to up the ante and when to back off. The climactic chases and narrow escapes abound, but they’re all believable and perfectly plotted. King’s writing is elastic, with honed short sentences and terse dialogue for the battle sequences and some lovely languid descriptions of both alien vessels during downtime.

A Congress of Ships is a worthy entry in The Maverick Heart Cycle. Even though each book works quite well as a standalone, you might as well just order all three of them at the same time. I’ll guarantee you’ll enjoy the other two just as much as this one. Long may the cycle continue!

JW

© 2019 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

 

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Oranges – Gary Eldon Peter (New Rivers Press)

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Any regular reader of this blog knows I am a huge fan of short fiction, so any new author collection usually rises to the top of my TBR pile pretty fast. Some of them are hit and miss, but this short, competition-winning volume of linked stories by Gary Eldon Peter is a solid bet for fellow lovers of short stories.

Many of the pieces follow a man named Kevin through the death of his mother, as well as interludes from his childhood and a strong story about Kevin’s relationship with his father after his mother’s demise. Other entries follow a character named Michael, who also intersects with Kevin. But each of these tales stands alone perfectly.

Very early on, “The Bachelor” sees childhood friends Michael and Sam spying on a neighbor they’ve nicknamed ‘The Bachelor’. The caper was initially Sam’s idea, but Michael continues peeping while Sam is away, not only seeing the neighbor naked but kissing another man in his backyard. This coming-out-to-myself story is a little gem, with beautifully awkward realizations we all remember from those days of first times and ‘aha’ moments both good and bad.

I also enjoyed the double whammy of the title story and its follow-up, “Sun Country.” “Oranges” is a lovely piece about Kevin and his relationship with his terminally ill mother. I loved its quiet determination and understated elegance as Kevin’s mother displays her acceptance of her son in the only way she can. But Kevin’s story with his father, “Sun Country,” adds some tension to the mix as both of them deal with how to be with each other during a visit minus his recently deceased mother as a buffer. By turns poignant and angry, this story turns out to be the sharpest, most clearly realized of the lot, capturing a very tentative yet loving bond at its most precarious.

The powerful “Itching” has Michael exploring the possibilities of his burgeoning relationship with Stephen in light of Michael’s recent STD diagnosis. This story also features Kevin as Michael’s late boyfriend. As with nearly all the other stories, this is sharply observed and well-rendered. Peter’s prose is vivid but not flashy, free of clutter, with just enough detail to set the scene. He leaves plenty of room for the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps.

Gary Eldon Peter’s Oranges is a strong set of stories, perfect for rainy Spring afternoons that look forward to sunny mornings.

JW

© 2019 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Late Fees: A Pinx Video Mystery (#3) – Marshall Thornton (Independently Published)

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Accomplished mystery author Marshall Thornton (the Boystown series) takes readers on a trip back to early 90s Los Angeles in his recent release, Late Fees: a Pinx Video whodunnit. Against a backdrop of nascent antiretroviral HIV treatment, VHS rentals, beepers, phone books, and West Hollywood muscle queens, it’s a well-crafted murder mystery that makes for a fun, nostalgic ride.

The series’ sleuth is Noah Valentine, a regular gay in his early thirties, recently diagnosed with HIV, who owns the sort of no-frills, independent video rental store that was a staple of urban Main Streets across the country before the digital age. Noah’s investigative prowess comes from a combination of TV detective fandom, a coterie of friends who love a salacious scandal, and a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the right place at the right time might be more apt.

For Thanksgiving, his mother Angie has flown out from Michigan, and arriving late to the airport to pick her up, Noah finds her with a newfound, boozy friend named Joanne. They met in a bar during a layover in Chicago, Angie explains, and they struck up a camaraderie when they discovered they were both traveling to LA to visit their gay sons.

Noah becomes chaperone to both older ladies as Joanne’s gay son Rod never showed up to pick her up and isn’t answering his phone. Joanne confides that Rod is something of a partyer, and she’s not alarmed when he won’t buzz them in at his apartment. Noah is too nice of a guy to leave her to wait outside with her luggage, so Joanne ends up joining him and his mother for a Friendsgiving dinner hosted by his neighbors, a gay couple Mark and Louis.

Then Joanne receives a phone call from the LAPD. Rod was found dead in his apartment, an apparent drug overdose. But naturally, not everything is as it seems, and after carting Joanne back to Rod’s apartment and overhearing a conversation between the neighbors, Noah begins to piece together an intrigue involving sex, drugs, and life insurance funny-business.

Thornton writes the gay son and mother relationship with authority and endearment. They become unlikely conspirators in snooping, which offers many comic moments as well as a focus for the two who would otherwise be awkward in one another’s company. Noah has barely come to terms with his serostatus himself, and though he’s told Angie, he’s hardly eager to delve into that topic with his mother. Angie is just getting used to being around her son as a single woman; Noah’s father died eighteen months back. They edge around those tough issues in the familiar manner of adult children and their parents, and the two getting re-acquainted as adults is a nice side story.

Beyond Noah’s adventure uncovering what happened to Rod, which is suspenseful fun best left for readers to discover on their own, Noah’s reckoning of how to live as an HIV positive gay man provides another compelling story line. He avoids the attentions of  handsome detective Javier O’Shea, defensively asserting to himself sex and love are off the table due to his serostatus. He faces treatment choices, dietary considerations, and AZT side effects, all while being gravely uncertain about his long-term prognosis. His decision about what to do with those challenges is another journey within Thornton’s otherwise light and fast-paced novel, beginning with the question of whether or not to deal with them at all.

Thornton uses pacing, dialogue, and camp to masterful effect, a solid artist of genre fiction who knows how to keep the reader burning through the pages. A slight qualm is the resolution of the murder mystery. Thornton’s clever cues and miscues build high expectations, though there’s plenty to delight mystery readers along the way.

Late Fees is a nifty amateur detective story that stands up to the work of R.D. Zimmerman, Lev Raphael, and Greg Herren, with special appeal for folks who remember fondly gay life before cell phones and Grindr.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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A Tale of Two Books, Or, One Reviewer’s Lament

My ideal book for Out in Print is three hundred pages or less–a number which allows me to get it read in about a week, think about it, and write the review. This is not a hard and fast rule, but when you’re writing your own novel, running an editing business, and riding herd over various elementary school classes to keep the dogs in jerky treats, the shorter the book, the better. Sometimes if I’m ahead or a guest reviewer has kicked in with a piece, I can do the occasional four hundred page book. But, in general, shorter books will rise to the top of the TBR pile.

So, when I received a package from a publisher with two books of less than two hundred pages each, I was ecstatic. This meant if I hustled, I could get two read in one week, write the reviews in one sitting, and actually come out a week ahead so I could start one of the longer TBR books. Great. Love having a plan. But like most plans…

Here’s where the post gets tricky. I really don’t want to call anyone out, so I have to keep the details vague while trying to explain my point. The first book? Essentially, this straight author/protagonist (for I believed them to be the same and the author bio seemed purposely vague) makes the gay man the villain. Not only that, but the gay guy deliberately breaks up the straight guy’s marriage because he lusts after him, explained in a pretty turgid “you don’t want her, you want me” scene.

Certainly scenarios like this have happened in real life. Not all gay men are nice. Some are, indeed, villains – but straight people don’t get to write them.  That boat has sailed long ago on a sea of misrepresentation, coding, erasure, censure, and any other means of denial and exclusion you care to name. To do so is not daring or retro-edgy, regardless of whether or not the author is gay. It’s been done so often it’s ham-handed. It’s picking low-hanging fruit. It’s fucking lazy. And to see this coming from a gay publisher leaves me absolutely gobsmacked. As I’m not a fan of negative reviews, I can’t really review the book. I’ve now wasted half the week plus a day or two being pissed off.

My mood soured, I begin the second book hoping to salvage some of my time. This book ends with the gay man trying to kill the “man who done him wrong” and then turning the gun on himself. I throw this one across the room because I just can’t even anymore. Why do we always have to die in the end? Again, it’s not a case of it shouldn’t be discussed or written about because it never happens. We all know what the queer suicide rate is like. But let’s talk about it responsibly and in some detail, not reduce it to a plot device implemented because you needed an ending. Because that’s what it was. It was not set up in the character, nor was it consistent with his actions up until that point. It was an out. And a cheap one. And as a reader, regardless of who the author sleeps with, I resent his use of it. So, I can’t review this book, either.

However, I can write this post and get something out of two weeks of reading, thinking, cursing, and hyperventilating. My final word to authors and publishers of every stripe everywhere? Stop blaming us and stop killing us. Because if it’s ever going to happen in real life, it needs to happen in your stories first.

JW

© 2019 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

 

 

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