Monthly Archives: December 2019

This Town Sleeps – Dennis E. Staples (Counterpoint Press)

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Part ghost story, part multi-generational family saga, Dennis E. Staples’ This Town Sleeps is an impressive debut that explores the human struggle between hope and despair in a modern indigenous community.

Marion Lafournier is a young bookkeeper of Ojibwe descent who lives alone in northeastern Minnesota. Cynical and alienated, he’s the product of an isolated, economically depressed “rez” town Geshig and one of very few openly gay men in a lonely, rural landscape. While searching for a path to companionship that might extend beyond roadside, middle-of-the-night sexual affairs with closeted married men, Marion becomes entangled in two intrigues.

The first is personal. A Grindr “date” turns out to be a former high school classmate Shannon, who vehemently denies his gayness but displays chinks of affection during a late-night rendezvous. The second is more expansive. At a school playground, Marion discovers a dog of childhood legend that leads him to the gravesite of a promising high school basketball player Kayden Kelliher who was stabbed to death by a gang member. Marion was too young to know much about Kayden and his murderer Jared, but Kayden’s name triggers memories of rumors and a restless schoolmate Amos whose brother was in the older boys’ social circle.

From there, the story becomes a history of the men and women who survived the community trauma, alternating with Marion’s journey. Jared, Kayden and the mothers of all three boys enter the narrative to tell their stories leading up to Kayden’s death. But the exact circumstances of the murder are left ambiguous, too awful to speak of, suggesting hidden truths buried beneath a collective shame.

Secrets within Marion’s family also unravel when Marion seeks guidance about the revenant dog from his mother Hazel and her new husband Anni. That spiritual encounter may be linked to a supposed family curse originating from the murder of a white man by Marion’s great-grandmother. A “forest woman” called Bullhead, his great-grandmother is an emblem of the family’s Native identity and the fierce nature of their women. After killing a man who tried to force her into marriage, she allegedly carved out his jaw and preserved it for some mysterious purpose.

Staples brings the reader into a world of rich spiritual beliefs and practices while his storytelling also contextualizes Ojibwe identity. Marion’s stepfather Anni is a traditionalist who keeps a sweat lodge, brews elixirs, and takes Marion’s otherworldly encounter at face value. For young men of Marion’s generation, acculturation to the white, non-rez community has imparted a sense of skepticism about things like ghosts and visions. Returning to the rez and eating the traditional foods of his childhood conjures a mixture of feelings. The rez represents poverty, broken homes, boys recruited into violent gangs, and children already addicted to pot and alcohol. People joke about Geshig as a place no one ever escapes. It’s the reason Marion lives miles away and hooks up primarily with white guys like Shannon.

Honest storytelling makes for high impact reading, and with This Town Sleeps, Staples bares body and soul in sharing Ojibwe realities. One cannot help feeling the pain and sadness of everyone concerned with the central tragedy of Kayden Kelliher. They are all caught up in a cycle of desperation, violence and grief. Kayden was one of many Ojibwe boys pulled under an insuperable tide of poverty and corruption. Still, without spoiling any revelations, Staples offers readers another essential truth: loss can lead to redemption and renewal when examined bravely.

Staples is experimental with narrative structure, breaking up scenes from Marion’s perspective with frequent change-ups of point-of-view, even introducing first-person passages toward the end. It’s a helpful way to bring in information about Kayden that Marion wouldn’t know. Moreover, it gives voice to varied members of the small town Ojibwe community and broadens that world.

A minor discontent is the scene shifts feel scattered at times and break connection to Marion’s experience. It’s a tough balance, and the shifts will work fine for some readers while occasionally frustrating others.

Taken as a whole, This Town Sleeps is an important work of literature that will surely please readers who enjoy #OwnVoices titles, Native stories, and dark mysteries in the vein of Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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The Black Marble Pool – Stan Leventhal (ReQueered Tales)

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Imagine that you are “vacationing” in Key West. Normally a music reviewer, you have agreed to write a travel article about Key West for the New York-based newspaper that you work for. You dutifully fly down to Key West, check into an exquisite B&B, and after you wake up your first morning there (before your morning coffee even!), you discover a dead man in the empty black marble swimming pool. What do you do?

Well, if you are the unnamed first person narrator of The Black Marble Pool by Stan Leventhal, you completely place your journalistic responsibilities—and your plans to get laid in one of the few gay Meccas of the 1990s—on hold, and become an amateur sleuth. Although you have no experience solving murders (maybe it was an accident? or possibly a suicide?) you do have an insatiable curiosity, and you know how to ask questions; the other characters trust you, since you have no obvious connection to the victim. However, what starts as a diversion during your working vacation quickly turns into more than you bargained for.

Although this particular murder mystery is short, the pace is brisk: the plot keeps twisting, as no one is at all who they seem. Everyone (the victim, the other guests of the B&B, the B&B owner and pool boy, the closeted police officer assigned to the case) has a secret, and either is living some kind of lie, or lies to the narrator; even the narrator is not above lying to his lover back in New York, or inventing stories about the celebrities he’s “met” as a music critic and sharing them with the other characters. The story (and the narrator) may not be very deep or intense, but it’s all in good fun, like a mini vacation from one’s job (which is exactly how the narrator treats his entire stay in Key West: a break from his job, his relationship, in short, his entire life). Part of the fun is getting a glimpse of Gay life during the early 1990s, after the scourge of the 1980s, and before all of the technological advances that are now ubiquitous and completely taken for granted (never mind wi-fi or smartphones; there isn’t even any mention of the World Wide Web or cell phones).

ReQueered Tales is committed to bringing back into print the “treasure trove of fantastic fiction…notably gay and lesbian mystery, detective and suspense fiction”–especially written during the period of the 1960s through the 90s.  To that end, they have begun reprinting series of gay mysteries and thrillers (another Leventhal title is due out in 2020), from forgotten writers as well as lesser-known titles by such names as Felice Pacino and Lev Raphael. So if you find The Black Marble Pool to your liking, they have more titles for you to (re)discover.

So, do you manage to solve the mystery? Do you manage to score with any of the other guests—if so, which ones? Will you meet a cute trick at Woody’s or Streets—or do you make it with the cute police officer? Will you ever write this travel article? And what are you going to tell your lover when you return to New York?

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske


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‘Nathan Burgoine’s 2019 Audiobook Review

(‘Nathan not pictured. This is Max.)

Ever since Max entered our lives, I’ve been listening to even more audiobooks than normal. A young husky demands far, far more walks than an adult husky does, and so we’re often out and about, tromping through all sorts of weather. Luckily, my phone and some earbuds turn this into valuable listening time (and it turns out I routinely break 50 kilometres a week doing so—that’s thirty-odd miles for the imperials among us).

This year, Max’s walks treated me to some great audiobook experiences. Not always new (but new to me), here are a few of the real queer highlights of 2019, and some brief words about each.

Beautiful Dreamer, by Melissa Brayden (performed by Melissa Sternenberg) — Brayden accomplishes something I honestly thought impossible with Beautiful Dreamer: she gave me a familial reconciliation plot that I not only enjoyed, but rooted for. Elizabeth Draper is a little ball of sunshine in a small town running her own helping-hand/Jane-of-all-Trades business, and Devyn Winters is a high-powered real estate broker from the big city. Devyn’s brought back to Dreamer’s Bay after a family crisis, and Elizabeth helps her pick up the pieces. Beyond the family reconciliation plot, Brayden also does a brilliant job of depicting a small town without over-sugaring the realities, she continues to evoke wonderful, supportive friendships as equal to families, and I am here for all of that.

(Melissa Sternenberg is, as always, brilliant in her performance, and has done many of Brayden’s audiobooks, including the Seven Shores quartet.)

Not Dead Yet, by Jenn Burke (performed by Greg Boudreaux) — I love a fun paranormal, and Jenn Burke delivers a fresh take on the genre here, and Greg Boudreaux’s performance is top-notch. We meet not-quite-dead (but, not-quite-alive, either) “not-ghost” retriever of lost things, Wes Cooper, when he’s really not having a good day. He’s been hired to reclaim a stolen object, and stumbles into a murder mystery. Worse, despite him being invisible and ghostly at the time, the murderer seemed to be able to see him. When one of the only guys he’s ever loved becomes the lead investigator, things get all the more complicated, and the banter, snark, and mystery all balance out into a great story. It begins a series with the fellas, too, so there’s more where that came from.

Four Novellas, by Alyssa Cole (performed by Karen Chilton) — These four historical novellas, “Be Not Afraid,” “That Could Be Enough,” “Let Us Dream,” and “Let It Shine,” cross different time periods in US history and are all fantastic, but to keep it queer, “That Could Be Enough,” where quiet, staid, done-with-love Mercy Halston (maid to Eliza Hamilton) and a vivacious, flirtatious and gregarious dressmaker Andromeda Steil end up in each other’s orbits was flipping brilliant. I love stories that place queerness in history with equal parts hope and passion, and all the more so when done with Cole’s eye for detail and history. Every time someone says it’s impossible to tell uplifting stories about the marginalized in history without doing some sort of disservice, I bring up this quartet. And as if that weren’t enough, Chilton brings such an incredible performance to each of these stories she immediately hopped onto my “check out anything and everything she performs” list for future audiobooks, which was also how I found the contemporary Once Ghosted, Twice Shy, also by Cole.

Never the Bride, by Paul Magrs (performed by Joanna Tope) — This was the Bride-of-Frankenstein-settles-in-Whitby-to-run-a-B&B novel I never knew I needed, but desperately did. Older women buddy heroines fighting off the various (and delightfully sci-fi pulp) villains coming their way was a sheer joy to listen to, and Joanna Tope blows every moment out of the water with her performance. The structure of Never the Bride is all the more wonderful to listen to in pieces, as each chapter is quite self-contained, almost like a series of linked short stories, while building to a single climax. This is definitely one in the “not new, but new to me” pile, and I wish I’d bumped into it years and years ago, and while the main characters aren’t specifically queer, the story as a whole is so incredibly so, and supporting cast pop in and out.

Queers Destroy Science Fiction, edited by Seanan McGuire — There are some truly fantastic stories in this collection, and ditto the variety of performers. There were a couple of mis-matches of the two, but overall this collection was fantastic. If you’re looking for an upbeat whole, be forewarned that QDSF definitely comes down on the darker side of the scale, with a few stories peppered throughout to offer lighter, more optimistic takes, but the quality is worth the ride. Maybe just listen when the sun is out, and there’s a happy husky playing at your feet. J.Y. Yang, John Chu, Charles Payseur, and Jessica Yang penned four of the major standouts for me, and led me down rabbit-holes to find more of their work.

The Inn at Netherfield Green, by Aurora Rey (performed by Kiera Grace) — Aurora Rey audiobooks are the audiobook equivalent of putting on a warm sweater and finally sipping a hot tea on a chilly rainy day. The Inn at Netherfield Green made me break my usual pattern of only listening to books while walking the dog, and I listened to it throughout the day, indoors and out, from beginning to end. Rey spins a wonderful story using both opposites-attract and city-mouse/country-mouse tropes, giving us Lauren, a big-city New York advertising executive and Cam, a small-town English gin-maker. Rey creates realistic obstacles (not the least of which is the thousands of miles between their lives) when Lauren inherits the small-town pub and inn. Family, friendships, and chemistry round this out into the feel-good it becomes, investing the listener from step one.

This was just the most recent of a long string of audiobook successes I’ve had from Aurora Rey, including her Cape End Romance series, and her farm-to-table romance, Recipe for Love.

Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine



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Reverie – Ryan La Sala (Sourcebooks Fire)

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A team of super-powered gay/straight high schoolers must save the world by traveling through perilous dreamscapes in Ryan La Sala’s enjoyably splashy debut novel Reverie.

The back cover hook: “Inception meets The Magicians” is a good way to approach describing the high concept fantasy storyline. Though it begins more like the film Memento, or, for a gay YA reference point Greg Herren’s Sleeping Angel.

Kane Montgomery is home from the hospital after being in a car accident he doesn’t remember. He’s lost memory of any events leading up to the crash, and the circumstances were pretty disturbing. The police found him on the bank of a river after he apparently stole his parents’ car and drove it into an historic mill where the car ignited. The specter of criminality or attempted suicide follows him around though he doesn’t feel like the kind of person who would do something so reckless. He’s also confounded by the fact the only damage he suffered was short-term amnesia and an odd pattern of burns around his head.

When he visits the scene of his accident, hoping to regain memories, the supernatural enters the story in the form of a giant, shadowy Lovecraftian creature that chases Kane from the burnt mill. At an appointment for a court-ordered psychological evaluation, he’s introduced to Mr. Poesy, an effete bald gentleman who wears make-up and nail polish and seems a lot more interested in finding out what Kane forgot rather than evaluating his mental status. Upon Kane’s return to school, things get even weirder as a group of students he only vaguely recalls are watching him like a hawk and possibly conspiring against him.

It’s off to a damn fun start.

Gradually, Kane comes to understand he’s part of the “Others,” a band of four teens who realized their magical abilities when people in their sleepy town of East Amity, Connecticut started having dangerous dreams from which they might not wake up without the Others’ intervention. After school, Kane gets sucked into one that involves a classmate’s daydream of a barbaric fantasy world where teenage virgins are being sacrificed to a giant spider. There, he discovers he can fire rainbow energy bolts from his hands. His lesbian teammate Ursula has super strength. Elliot creates illusions, and Adeline can penetrate people’s minds.

Kane also meets a mysterious fifth magical character Dean. Dean may or may not have been Kane’s secret boyfriend prior to the accident, which was actually a far bigger parapsychological catastrophe.

The turf for Kane’s adventure is inventive, and La Sala creates intriguing dream worlds that draw upon the curious workings of the subconscious mind. Everyday folks take on unexpected roles from futuristic storm troopers to Victorian ladies of high society, and the settings are grand and vivid with inspiration points from the sleeper’s waking day. La Sala’s writing is crisp and vibrant, and particularly in the book’s second half when the action ramps up, it makes you want to speed-read to the end.

The only problem is the workings of Reverie’s dream world get so knotty and elusive, the reader struggles to wrap their brain around how dreams spun out of control in the first place and what’s really at stake. Similarly, Kane’s magical ability: figuring out the plotline of dreams, never really shows up as an element of much consequence. Magic pops and flashes from the pages, but through the end one wonders what rules enable the characters to get from A to Z.

Still, there’s much to recommend La Sala’s début novel. It’s an unapologetic queer fantasy extravaganza, complete with a drag queen sorceress pulling the strings. For sure, the story has its campy moments, but another nice achievement is it never runs aground as parody. It’s YA urban fantasy from a gay male gaze meant to stand up to the work of Cassandra Clare and Rick Riordan. Notwithstanding some worldbuilding holes, La Sala largely succeeds in that endeavor.

Another nice facet is that Kane’s gayness isn’t a source of angst or external conflict. Though through visiting the inner worlds of older LGBT characters, La Sala pays tribute to the courageous shoulders on which young LGBTs like Kane stand.

An excellent pick for YA fantasy readers and especially fans of C.B. Lee, Rainbow Rowell, and ‘Nathan Burgoine.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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