Monthly Archives: January 2021

The Big Tow: An Unlikely Romance – Ann McMan (Bywater Books)

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Bywater Books

Nothing cements the bonds of a new relationship like a criminal endeavor, not that I have any personal experience with that particular dating strategy. It does, however, seem to work for the protagonists of Ann McMan’s latest romantic comedy adventure, The Big Tow. Being a fan of the masterfully titled Beowulf for Cretins, I was looking forward to this read, and I wasn’t disappointed.

As a low level attorney in a high-powered firm, Vera “Nick” Nicholson has many onerous duties for clients, including being asked to find a luxury car belonging to one of their clients without benefit of law enforcement. She finds Fast Eddie and The National Recovery Bureau and, with their assistance, recovers the car. She also finds she has a taste for repo work. When the law firm fires her, she goes to work for Fast Eddie, who pairs her with Frances “Frankie” Stohler, a third grade teacher supplementing her income. Their capers soon turn into much more, and Nick and Frankie find themselves in love. And in lots of trouble—because the cars they thought they were repossessing, they were stealing.

Much of my reading lately has been Important Books for an LGBTQ award I’m judging. Much serious. Many trauma. Heartbreak and irony abounding. So, when the McMan title came up in the TBR-for-the-blog pile, my mood immediately rose. I devoured it in two or three sittings, I think. I smiled, I laughed, I drooled over the food descriptions, then I let out a deeply satisfied sigh before plunging back into strife and agony. It rarely works out that way, but who’s to say a romantic comedy shouldn’t have the same weight as Important Books? Oh sure, they do to you and me, but they don’t win awards, and that’s criminal. Is a good laugh less cathartic than a good cry? Who makes that determination using what criteria?

It certainly couldn’t be writing, because McMan has that base covered. She uses all her mad skills to summon seedy Southern strip-mall gothic at its best. The atmosphere she creates is perfect for the off-kilter action that follows. It couldn’t be character, because freewheeling Frankie is a perfect foil for the more conservative Nick. They’re both fully developed and rounded characters—can’t scrimp there. Character is the soul of comedy. And speaking of characters, the National Recovery Bureau’s office manager, Antigone Reece, is a hoot. Part schoolmarm, part Christian shyster, she’s just the thing to keep Fast Eddie tethered to the business.

It couldn’t be the plot, either. McMan has constructed a sturdy framework of fast-paced capers and outrageous steals that border on impossible but somehow manage to get accomplished. Nothing is out of frame or drags, and the explanations all fit. Everything is tied up nicely by the end, the HEA takes place, and all’s right with the world.

Except why this isn’t an Important Book. Probably for the same reasons that Young Frankenstein didn’t win an Academy Award for Best Picture. We always seem to overlook what we need most—a good laugh. So forget the Important Books for a while and get back to the essentials with Ann McMan and The Big Tow. You could use a laugh right now, huh?

JW

© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Break Me Down: A Gay Erotic Novella – Travis Beaudoin (Kindle Unlimited)

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Erotica author Travis Beaudoin’s latest novella is a steamy tale of infidelity, brotherly betrayal, and the liberation of taboo desires. The sex scenes have plenty of visceral thrills, though it’s far more than a one-handed read. Break Me Down is a story that bares all with regard to the secrets we keep in relationships and in the bedroom.

Erik is a small-town transplant to New York City and an aspiring Broadway actor in his early twenties. As the narrator of his story, he’s a straight-forward, somewhat jaded guy who makes clear from page one he’s got one foot out the door in his relationship with Chad. Chad is a successful businessman a few years Erik’s senior. Since they met through a hook-up app, Erik hasn’t been honest with Chad that he’s just not that into him. Instead, he drifts along on a path of least resistance while Chad takes steps to develop their relationship as a couple.

It’s not the most likeable portrayal of a young gay man. Privately, Erik bemoans how mediocre Chad is in every way, but he’s expert at acting the part of the loving boyfriend. Like the story’s darker, transgressive themes, Erik’s callousness and sense of superiority is hard to read at times. But Beaudoin takes the reader on a boldly honest journey, which keeps one rapt on how things will unfold. Though Chad’s perspective doesn’t figure in, one wonders how much he knows about Erik’s ambivalence and if he’s pretending in equal measure to Erik. As a study of what’s unspoken in gay relationships, the story is reminiscent of a Peter Cameron domestic drama (The Weekend): real, uncomfortable and human.

Then Chad’s older brother Miles enters the story to overturn the couple’s wobbly applecart with finality. Miles is gorgeous, adventurous, and far more exciting than Chad. He’s also well-aware of his attractiveness, and no sooner than Chad leaves the room, he’s all over Erik. Erik says he hates Miles, and to his credit, he resists Miles’ advances out of respect to Chad. But the writing is on the wall. Erik is unmistakably attracted to Miles’ sexual aggressiveness while unmistakably dissatisfied with Chad’s conventional style of romance.

As the paradoxical literary adage goes, a good ending should be both inevitable and unexpected. Without giving any specifics away, Erik and Miles’ sexual collision is surprising, disturbing, and heartbreaking. The open ending leaves many questions. Was it all just one night’s bad decision? Is there a future for Erik and Miles? Or, perhaps if one squints hard, will the unlocking of Erik’s sexual need to be dominated create a new fulfilling start for him in relationships?

The signals point to a more pessimistic outcome, and the reader may leave the story detesting all three men, but it’s unlikely they’ll leave without recognizing an aspect of themselves in one of the characters.

Little descriptive touches enrich both character and setting. Erik’s fragile self-esteem is evident in his petty rivalry with another actor in an off-off-Broadway show (and what young gay man doesn’t suffer from fragile self-esteem?). Said show Cinderfella, a gay retelling of the classic story with lots of skin, is perfect for the standard fare off-Broadway. Scenes take place at rooftop bars, tiny Greenwich Village theaters, and crowded, boozy piano bars where theatre queens make out and grope each other in dark corners. It’s spot-on scenery for gay life in 2020 (minus Covid). An excellent title for fans of dark literary erotica (sub/dom play included) and gay fiction generally, comparable to David Leavitt and Peter Cameron.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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Polar Vortex – Shani Mootoo (Akashic Books)

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Akashic Books

Character-driven novels are sometimes murky creatures, sluggish and slow to respond. Their pacing is off, perhaps because they need a plot and maybe shouldn’t have been character-driven in the first place. And then there are those that simply take off and engage you so thoroughly you don’t miss the convolutions of an overdeveloped plot. Shani Mootoo’s Polar Vortex is one of the latter.

Priya and Alex are a lesbian couple who live in a rural setting far from where they met in the city, leaving their pasts behind. But part of Priya’s past is a man named Prakesh. Their history is complicated, but she’s never told Alex about him. So, when Prakesh finds Priya on social media and contacts her, why does she invite him to visit? As his arrival approaches, the cracks in Priya’s relationship with Alex start to show, forcing them all to make decisions they’d rather not.

From Priya’s initial disturbing dream to the final jaw-dropping revelation, Polar Vortex is the epitome of a slow burn. If Priya’s voice was in the least hypocritical or deceitful, this novel would never have worked. It’s honesty and realism that propels her character, which makes the ending even more delicious, but I can’t spoil that. You’ll have to get there on your own.

The tension, fed by odd scraps of Priya’s prior encounters with Prakesh and the dark cloud that seems to surround him when they knew each other in college, builds slowly, compounded by the problems between Priya and Alex as Alex pushes to know why Prakesh is coming and what he really means to her. Mootoo uses all the levers at her disposal to ratchet up the tension throughout the book, and it gets even worse when Prakesh arrives. His motives are unclear and his manner is bizarre.

Mootoo does an incredible job with all three of the major characters, but Priya’s observations and insights about not only the others but herself as well are sharp and undeniable. And her voice is so immediate, I was sucked in right from the beginning and hooked before I knew it. And Mootoo’s writing is a marvel, spinning from action to internal monologue to fondly remembered anecdote without dropping a semicolon.  

Polar Vortex is a compelling story of the dissolution of more than one relationship, told in a wonderfully unique voice. It’s well worth your time.

JW

© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

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