Monthly Archives: October 2019

How to Be Remy Cameron – Julian Winters (Interlude Press)

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The modern-day struggles of black, gay adolescence and cross-cultural adoption are the focal points of Julian Winters’ sweet, gawky high school drama How to Be Remy Cameron.

Seventeen-year-old Remy is not the kind of hero typically seen in contemporary YA. He’s an un-hung-up, popular kid entering his junior year at a public high school in suburban Atlanta, and he happens to have been adopted by a white couple, and he’s black and openly gay.

Unlike gay YA of the past, he’s not up against an unsympathetic world. Unlike most gay YA of the present, he’s not embattled by a search for his first true love, at least not as a primary theme. I wouldn’t categorize Winters’ novel as a “post-gay” or “post-racial” story. It’s a reflection of how identity and diversity have changed for the younger generation.

That’s a standard treatment for modern high school dramas, but what makes Remy’s story different is the narrative approach. There’s no mysterious stranger sending him notes or e-mails who might be Remy’s true love. There’s no surprise gay reveal of a friend or enemy Remy didn’t realize was waiting for him all along. Almost all the drama and conflict occurs between Remy’s ears. An AP English assignment to write an essay that answers the question: who am I? sends him into an identity crisis tailspin, and simultaneously, he must decide whether or not to meet his half-sister Free who reached out to him on Facebook.

Quintessentially adolescent, Remy becomes obsessed by that question of what defines him, and his essay hangs over him as an inscrutable cloud. Is he fated to forever be the guy who got dumped by his first boyfriend because he was too clingy? Does being the president of the school’s GSA make him too gay? Growing up looking different from his parents and younger sister, and as one of five black students at his school, he’s inevitably hyper aware of his blackness, but relating to his black classmates is also a complicated task. Then there’s the big question of whether it was the black birth family who gave him up who made him who he is or was it his white adoptive family?

Throughout Remy’s angsty ruminations, he’s surrounded by a supportive and diverse circle of friends. Winters adds nice touches to Remy’s high school world. The popular couple is the star quarterback and a cheerleader, but the quarterback is the school’s first girl on the team, and she’s Muslim and wears a hijab. The cheerleader is a boy who’s openly bisexual. The cool kids, including Remy, want to be popular but they bemoan corny school traditions and teenage clichés, demanding individuality. The portrayal is solid with some surprises for older readers. High school life has evolved considerably with respect to gender, sexuality and cultural diversity.

A well-handled example of the social challenges that remain is an incident at a party where Remy is propositioned by a white boy who thinks it’s a winning turn-on to gush about how he’s always wanted to be with someone black. Taken from Remy’s perspective, the creepiness and indignity of the encounter comes off with skin-crawling emotion.

Remy’s story is thin on plot, but his journey of self-discovery gains pace and tension when he decides to meet the half-sister he never knew he had. It’s so important to see cross-culturally adopted teens represented in YA, and Winters’ choice to stay in Remy’s head most of the time allows the identity formation challenges therein to be explored rather than glossed over as just another example of the changing modern family.

Would Remy have felt more comfortable in his own skin if he had been raised by his black family? Is he a ‘sell-out’ because he had the advantages of a white, middle class upbringing? Winters wades into those fraught issues fairly deep, though one wishes Remy’s white parents’ “we love you just the way you are” platitudes would have been unpacked a little more. As happens in a lot of YA, taken from a teen’s perspective, the parents lack a bit of dimension. Remy’s adoptive mom and dad are hopelessly uncool and slavishly emotionally available, but we don’t see whether or not they’ve put in the work to raise a child who is culturally different from every member of the family. Given the subject, it feels like an important matter to consider.

On other key issues, Winters’ is meticulous in considering how teenagers can navigate adult situations while minimizing emotional harm. Remy and his emerging love interest ask for consent to hold hands and kiss. He and his friends are exceptionally enlightened regarding gender expression and sexual diversity. Teachers swoop in to correct the few homophobic students in the classroom. It’s a nice reflection of the new world for kids growing up LGBTQ+ in the suburbs.

Remy’s first person, pop culture reference-dropping, excitable and snarky POV will delight hardcore YA fans while eliciting sighs and eyerolls at times from other readers. Nonetheless, his kind, painfully self-conscious personality is irresistibly charming.

A sure winner for fans of Becky Albertalli and David Levithan, and a great book for readers looking for black gay characters in YA.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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Stories to Sing in the Dark – Matthew Bright (Lethe Press)

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How do you write a cohesive review about a collection of short fiction which includes steampunk space-tombs and the concubines sealed inside waiting to die, a gothic novella, a story with a self-aware film character fighting his way out of a Hays Code era required death, and a noir thriller retelling of The Wind and the Willows?

I’m not sure it’s possible, and I honestly can’t remember the last time I read a collection that cast so wide a net, but here’s the most important thing said first: not only does Stories to Sing in the Dark succeed, it’s my favourite collection of the year, and I can’t imagine there’s a chance of it being deposed before 2019 comes to an end.

Matthew Bright has a genuine talent for fresh angles. He crafts on the frameworks of ideas that could have gone a dozen different usual ways, and then veers away. Take “The Library of Lost Things” (a reprint from Tor). A library of books that no one has ever seen made up of stories that fell through the cracks? Yes, okay, but wait, why is the librarian of the place hiring someone without any inclination to read at all?

And did the rats just talk?

It’s these little zigs when the reader expects a zag that Bright does so well.

In “The Concubine’s Heart,” we meet Qiaolian, who has been sealed in a space-borne steampunk tomb of the Empress with the other concubines, and the set-up is more than a little bleak. With no food or water, they are expected to pay at the side of their lost mistress until the ship flies into a star, or, more likely, they die of starvation or thirst. What could have been a completely grim and dark tale is instead given just a sliver of hope (without shying away from the realities the woman faces), and Qiaolian, who has lived her life feeling like a failure due a defect of her heart, instead finds strength and opportunity.

The other steampunk tale hands a completely different tone to the reader. “Antonia and Cleopatra” are a mother and daughter team unlike any I’ve ever read (and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible), where a series of caper-like complications creates a tongue-firmly-in-cheek adventure with borderline slapstick moments mixed with seriously great wordplay, language that’s pitch-perfect for humour, and even a bit of mayhem and ancient evil curses and perhaps a lost soul or two.

Stories to Sing in the Dark also includes a trio of retellings, a queerly reframed “A Christmas Carol,” where the ghosts are sassy gay icons and the truth of Scrooge’s pain has a different source (and a different target). The truly chilling “Golden Hair, Red Lips” brings Dorian Grey to the Castro at the height of AIDS and through his eyes the story manages to deliver something both horrifying and defiantly triumphant. And I don’t even know how to begin with “Croak Toad,” the noir crime thriller retelling of The Wind in the Willows, other than to say by the time I was done this story, I wished I could hate Bright for coming up with the idea, but the story is just too enjoyably twisted and he’s just too nice. Maybe next time.

The queerness in Stories to Sing in the Dark remains a strong presence throughout, and beyond the stories mentioned above, we get to see a drag performance in a nebulous, future Manchester in “The Last Drag Show on Earth,” and the “ghosts” in the audience (somewhat left up to interpretation of the reader here) add a trace of melancholy and shiver to what isn’t perhaps as quite a sad story as one might think. There’s ambiguity here, and in such a perfectly queer way.

Similarly, “In Search of Stars” brings us a man not-quite-brave-enough to try a door that might lead to somewhere he could find… something, and instead settling for one-night stands that end with a vaguely sinister (but also dreamy) fate for those he brings home, though the aid of some alchemical paint. The stay-or-go of the story doesn’t lend itself to happiness, but it still manages something akin to an aching sort of triumph.

And “Director’s Cut”—a story that had me wound tight and hoping-against-hope—tells the tale of a character in a movie with the dawning realization as things repeat over and over that his role is written to be a tragic one, and his battle against all too real foes for a chance at something other than the demanded fate. I loved this story, both in and of itself and as a queer reader and writer. A narrative “fuck you!” to the Hays Code, I frankly wanted to stand and applaud when I finished “Director’s Cut.”

At the end of the collection is the novella-length “No Sleep in Bethlehem,” a story that could cheerfully (well, perhaps grimly) hold hands with a Shirley Jackson tale, and leaves one wondering if there’s any hope for the two men, or if this will be a sole-survivor (or worse) right to the last decaying moments. The revelations of the darkness in the tale, grounded so firmly in a contemporary evil transplanted to the time and place of the story, are profoundly disturbing (and so specifically queer) and the result is sublime, even as it horrifies.

Stories to Sing in the Dark covers so much ground, so much time, and so many different worlds, and yet as a whole it does exactly what it says on the tin: it sings. There’s a chorus here of very different tales, yes, but the theme and the whole has a cadence to it that’s thoroughly satisfying, and a tempo inclusive of just enough hope and humour amongst the grim for those of us who most often shy away from the dark, the disturbing, or the horrifying.

Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine

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Breathe – Cari Hunter (Bold Strokes Books)

41G3SDpH4aLBuy from Bold Strokes Books

Cari Hunter is one of my favorite action/adventure/romance authors. I thought her Dark Peak Series was terrific, and I’ve also enjoyed each of the one-offs I’ve read. If you sense a “but” coming up here, you’d be wrong. Breathe is easily their equal, a snappy combo of police procedural and romantic beginnings.

Jemima Pardon (Jem) has a reputation for bad luck on her paramedic assignments (breech births, impossible rescues, etc.), but it’s no worse than Police Constable Rosie Jones, who finds herself working on the same victims. Of course, they keep meeting accidentally until the spark is struck, then they’re off investigating the death of a teenage boy with the back of his head caved in, leading to an all-out search for a mysterious girl named Talia.

One of the reasons I read is for immersion, and Hunter accomplishes this on a couple of fronts. First, the Brit slang. I love it. Whenever I encounter a culture different from my own, I always gravitate toward either its food or its music (or both). Here, Hunter makes British junk food into idiomatic delicacies I had to Google some recipes for. And if the references are occasionally obscure to American ears, context usually wins the day.

Hunter also immerses the reader in water. No major exterior scene here is complete without a downpour. It’s either misting, raining lightly, or pissing down. The British have as many terms for rain as the Eskimos do snow, and I think they’re all collected here. The book has so much water I wondered if the title wasn’t intentionally ironic. Not that it’s a bad thing. It’s certainly an element to contend with and use to ramp up tension during those action scenes Hunter does so well.

But it’s not just the action scenes that pop. The burgeoning relationship between Jem and Rosie is both sweet and unsentimental, and it unfolds as naturally as does the plot. At no time does it feel rushed or simply one of the elements that needs to be balanced. They have charming chemistry, and I hope to see it continue.

Cari Hunter’s Breathe is a worthwhile, solid entry in her catalog, sure to please old and new fans. But don’t forget your rubbers and your mac. It’s pissing outside.


© 2019 Jerry L. Wheeler





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Choirmaster: A Mister Puss Mystery – Michael Craft (Questover Press)

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Lammy award-winning mystery author Michael Craft’s latest novel is a cozy, small town whodunnit with a compelling cast of characters, including a talking cat.

Fictional amateur sleuths tend to be “detective-adjacent” such as criminal defense lawyers (Michael Nava’s Henry Rios series), investigative reporters (R.D. Zimmerman’s Todd Mills series), or at least TV crime noir fanatics (Marshall Thornton’s Noah Valentine from the Boystown series). It’s a helpful convention to provide the hero with the access and the know-how to solve the crime.

Craft takes a different approach with his leading man Brody Norris. Brody is an architect of all things. But as the junior partner in his husband’s illustrious firm and a fellow of society in a tony Wisconsin hamlet, Brody’s social connections make him something of a secret weapon for the local sheriff when he’s sorting out foul play. Brody also may be getting help from his eccentric friend’s possibly telepathic Abyssinian Mister Puss, though Craft plays it coy with that bit of esoterica. It could just be Brody and his friend Mary Questman are projecting their subconscious thoughts onto the beloved feline as pet owners are known to do.

Brody’s investigative quest begins when the young, handsome and gay choirmaster of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church is found dead at the organ while the church is nearly engulfed in flames. A quick study of the circumstances reveals a host of intrigues. The deceased had a well-known allergy to nuts and had a plate of cookies on the organ console, baked for him by the middle-aged church secretary who was harboring a hopeless crush on the young man. The parish had just been given notice the ancient church will be condemned unless costly repairs are made to bring it up to code. Alternatively, some in the church leadership are campaigning to demolish the old church and construct a new one, which could involve lucrative self-dealing.

In the middle of that debate is Joyce Hibbard, the ambitious new rector of the parish who happens to be in Brody’s social orbit. Joyce is the wife of his husband Marson’s old college buddy Curtis Hibbard. Having had a successful career as a lawyer and never before been religiously-inclined, Joyce’s call to faith late in life is curious.

Furthermore, her marriage to Curtis is mainly for appearances. Curtis needed a beard to fit in with the high-powered New York City lawyer set, and similarly, Joyce needed a husband at a time when being a career-driven woman required softening one’s image. Though the fact that Curtis was trying to get into her choirmaster’s pants makes Brody wonder whether Joyce had resolved the issue of jealousy in their marriage.

Then there’s the choirmaster’s ne’er-do-well younger brother who’s been after his brother for money and stands to inherit a fortune as the sole heir to their parents’ estate. Curtis and his good friend and ex Yevgeny, a former world-renowned ballet dancer, are also possible suspects as they had been competing for the handsome choirmaster’s affections. And reports of anti-gay violence in nearby Green Bay suggest homophobia could have been a motive.

Craft knows mystery writing. As Brody gets deeper into sleuthing, the reader is breathless from possibilities and flipping pages briskly to find out what’s really going on. Craft doesn’t break any boundaries with the story. It’s cozy mystery through and through (did I mention there’s a talking cat?). But for readers who like their whodunnits Miss Marple-style, with terror afoot in quaint places and not much blood and gore, Choirmaster is vacation-reading gold.

In fact, there is something unexpectedly transgressive about the story. Gay genre fiction tends to demand the hero finds some romance along the way and favors characters in the prime of gayhood. Craft’s Brody Norris is a happily married fellow in his late thirties with a husband twenty years his senior. Their challenges of gay living concern domestic themes like choosing the right menu for a dinner party while many of their gay and lesbian friends and neighbors struggle with “to be or not to be” and navigate double lives. The story focuses on gay men of a certain age and a certain income bracket, and the portrayal rings true.

A lovely murder mystery that will charm the author’s loyal following as well as fans of Richard Stevenson, R.D. Zimmerman, and Mark Richard Zubro.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters


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