Monthly Archives: November 2019

Tinsel – Kris Bryant (Bold Strokes Books)

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I’m a slowly recovering, though still unapologetic, Grinch when it comes to the holidays. The relentlessness of “Family is Everything!” isn’t always the most realistic message for queer people, and after multiple decades working retail and withstanding both holiday customers and holiday music, my joy for the season is, at best, muted.

Also, there’s that magic trick that happens as a queer person when you put on pretty much any holiday movie and see people like yourself magically vanish (unless in a more recent movie, where the heroine might have an queer-coded friend there to toss a finger-snap or two when she needs, I don’t know, a makeover or a shoulder to cry on about the chisel-chinned Christmas tree farmer who’ll be out of work if she follows her boss-slash-fiancé’s plans to level the town for a mall or whatever).

So, when I seek out some queerness for the holidays, I almost always head right on over to queer holiday romances, where the happy-ever-afters (or -for-nows) are all about us.

This was how I found myself with Tinsel, Kris Bryant’s most recent holiday romance novella, and found myself almost immediately smitten with the main character, Jessica, because Jessica, to put it mildly, is not in the spirit.

She’s recently dumped, albeit out of a relationship she knew had no real foundation to speak of, but worse, she’s been dumped because her former girlfriend has found someone else—and that someone else is one of Jessica’s co-workers, which is just awkward and awful on so many levels.

Added to that, someone she’d normally find attractive just spilled coffee all over her because they weren’t paying attention to where they were going.

So Jessica is already understandably grumpy, and that’s before she catches someone swatting a stray kitten out of his way on the street, and ends up with said silver kitten tucked in her coat, and heading to the closet vet to find out if the kitty is chipped or not.

Whereupon the beautiful woman who dumped coffee on her turns out to be the vet.

As meet-cutes (meet-spills?) go, this is not an auspicious start for Jessica and Taylor, and I was wholeheartedly buckled in for the ride. Because Jessica in a foul mood is self-aware enough to know she’s in a foul mood, but doesn’t quite have the impulse control to stop herself from snapping at, well, everyone, she never quite pushes the line into completely unredeemable jerk. But I did mention I’m a Grinch myself, so I personally was raising my metaphorical glass to Jessica at nearly every grumpy turn.

The good news, for those of a less Grinchy persuasion, is that Jessica does manage to gather her frayed reserves of patience and kindness, and it’s mostly to do with the aforementioned kitten and the beautiful veterinarian. With a little tiny fluffball of purring, huggy love in her life, Jessica’s course is nudged onto a more pleasant holiday path, and the end result is a worthwhile journey.

For a novella-length work, Bryant does a nice job of showing us Jessica’s life as it interacts with her family, her best friend, and her work in such a way as to paint a wider picture of Jessica (and also help to explain her foibles and general grumpiness in her current situation). More, the kitten’s antics walk the line between cute and saccharine well, including a small crisis and some great moments as Jessica relies on the caregiving advice of her best friend, given she has zero experience in the realm herself.

Tinsel is a zippy, well-paced narrative, and by the time Tinsel draws to a close, even the Grinchiest of readers should be drawn in, happy with the journey, and rewarded with some sizzle. And for those who maybe don’t like a Grinch as much as I do, not to worry: the kitten makes it perfectly clear that Jessica’s heart is already the right size, despite her denials that she couldn’t possibly keep a cat. Jessica just needs a bit of time to get there, and to recognize what might be with Taylor.

Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine

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River Runs Red – Scott Alexander Hess (Lethe Press)

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Calhoun McBride: sixteen, a runaway from an orphan train, works night shifts at Snopes Brewery; hustles on the banks of the Mississippi River, trying to save money for a train ticket out West to Wyoming. Clement Cartwright: son of Irish and German immigrants, his father worked too at Snopes Brewery; left St. Louis to become an architect. Belasco Snopes: current owner of his family’s brewery, and heir to their fortune; twisted, cruel, addicted to cocaine, possibly mad. Dolores Brattridge: a sheltered member of St. Louis society; blessed, or cursed, with visions that may or may not result from the laudanum she sometimes adds to her morning coffee.

These four characters alternately narrate successive chapters of River Runs Red by Scott Alexander Hess, set during the hot and humid summer of 1891 in St. Louis, where their lives come together, explosively. Clement has returned from Chicago, commissioned to construct the Landsworth building, the first skyscraper in St. Louis (and second in the world); one stormy night he finds himself by the banks of the Mississippi River, where he meets Calhoun. After their midnight swim they begin an ongoing association that eventually Snopes uncovers and exploits, determined to discredit Clement. Dolores, propelled by dark premonitions of death and doom, tries to thwart them, only to exacerbate them further until they escalate climatically at Calhoun’s trial.

Hess has written another gritty, steamy (in all senses of the word), and atmospheric historical novel. He travels effortlessly from high society parlors to the shacks of the river drabs, easily capturing the cadences of cultured classes, and those lower down the social ladder. River Runs Red is aptly named: at times brutal, even in civilized arenas an undercurrent of violence flows throughout, be it from Man or Nature, and given to erupting unexpectedly.

One might not associate fin de siècle St. Louis, the “Gateway to the West,” with such southern noir; but River Runs Red combines the sultry decadence associated with the Mississippi Delta, with a veneer of eastern gentility, and spices it up with otherwordly elements, both European and non-European. It may be a short novel, but it packs a punch, like a river rat boxer. And like the Mississippi, the short chapters of River Runs Red lap at your ankles, but before you know it, the riptide of the story has drawn you in, and then there’s no way to resist the current of this narrative.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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