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Out in Print’s Best of 2018

Duncan has been hard at work, taking time away from his busy bone-gnawing schedule to study all the Out in Print posts for the past year to come up with a list of books sure to please anyone on your gift list. Because books are the perfect gift. Except maybe a rawhide bone. Or a squeaky dragon. A Cheese-of-the-Month club subscription? In chronological order by post month, then, here is our Best of 2018:

The Kinda Fella I Am – Raymond Luczak (Reclamation Press) 

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Raymond Luczak puts on his writer’s cap to bring us a variety of short stories about an amazing number of men and their disabilities. Quads, paras, psoriatics, Deaf men, and men whose disabilities are never revealed all have representation here, and if you think that leads to a “samey,” rage-fueled voice, it doesn’t. Some stories do lean that way, but they are balanced by stories of quiet introspection, of love, of obsession, of emotions that are as varied as the humans who experience them. My favorites? “Cartography,” about a psoriatic cruising the bathhouses, “A Crip Fairy Tale,” and “September Song,” about a gay para at the carnival and the straight carny worker who does him a simple favor, but really everything here has something to recommend it.

Sin Against the Race – Gar McVey-Russell (Gamr Books)

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McVey-Russell’s first novel does have some flaws–primarily the plethora of character introductions that slows down the first quarter. Once the plot gets rolling and McVey-Russell hits his stride, however this emotional story chugs along well enough to pack quite a punch at the end. Sin Against the Race is Alfonso Berry’s coming out story, but it’s Alfonso’s relationship with his father that’s central to the book, and McVey-Russell shines here. He also does an excellent job of juggling the minor characters, particularly as Sammy, the former jazzbo-turned-store owner, who is the neighborhood’s emotional center. Messy but rewarding, Sin Against the Race is a very worthwhile read.

Pennsylvania Station – Patrick E. Horrigan (Lethe Press) 

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More than a Death in Venice update, this utterly believable story of Frederick, a staid architect, and his volatile younger “boyfriend” (and I can’t think of a relationship that deserves scare quotes more than this one), Curt, delights as much for its homage as for its originality. Mann didn’t think to include the tension inherent when a sex-positive young man attaches himself to a self-hating older one, and this friction provides the most affecting moments of Pennsylvania Station. Moreover, both participants recognize this is a doomed relationship from the start. Yet, as damaged as they are, that’s all they’ll allow themselves. Literate and compelling, this novel sinks its claws in deeply.

Read by Strangers – Philip Dean Walker (Lethe Press) 

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In his second collection of short fiction, Philip Dean Walker regularly blurs the line between reality and fantasy, serving up unsettling tales about both gay and straight relationships. Favorites? “Why Burden A Baby With A Body?” where Hiromi and her husband Takahito, denizens of a virtual reality game community prefer their fictional baby to the real one, “Three-Sink Sink,” about hustling, and “Hester Prynne Got an A,” about a mother who sleeps with her daughter’s English teacher. Walker has a feel for characters in the process of disconnecting, and even the shorter, one-page stories which didn’t quite work for me, are well-written. This collection deserves a place in your Christmas stocking.

Inhospitable – Marshall Moore (Camphor Press)

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Unlike any haunted house story you’ll read, Moore’s tale of North Carolinians relocating to Hong Kong to refurbish a haunted hotel is no squeaky-door-scare. It’s an all-encompassing creep, where the surroundings and the disconnects build slowly to an inescapable (in more ways than one) conclusion. As I said in my original review, no one does angst and urban anomie better than Moore, and Inhospitable is proof positive. His characters are jerky and nervous, rarely settling down even if they find what they’re looking for. And Lena Haze, the American wife overseeing the hotel project embodies this. Inhospitable may be a slow burn, but trust me when I say it’ll leave a scar.

Thirty Years a Dresser – Dennis Milam Bensie (Coffeetown Press)

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I usually don’t enjoy memoir all that much due to its obviously necessary self-serving nature. That said, a well-written memoir can string along anecdotes and actually spin a life with them. Dennis Milam Bensie has a gift for that, seen in some of his other work. In Thirty Years a Dresser, however, Bensie gives his backstage profession both barrels. The stories fly fast and furious, dish about unknowns and never-heard-ofs cheek to jowl with dirt on some of the biggest names in the business all from an insider who’s seen much behind those scenes. Sometimes events turn outrageous, sometimes poignant, but Bensie captures both with equal aplomb.

Alias – Cari Hunter (Bold Strokes Books)

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I’m a huge fan of Hunter’s “Dark Peak” series, so this release was a natural for me. My expectations were high, but she came through with a fast-paced story of a car crash that leaves the passenger dead and the driver with amnesia, unable to remember why she’s there. All she has is a bus pass with an unfamiliar picture and a name she doesn’t recognize. Is it hers? Or is it someone she’s supposed to be? Rhetorical review questions aside, Hunter truly has a gift for action and chase scenes. She doesn’t frontload the book with them, though. Her sense of timing and balance really plays with the tension, and you will be exhausted by the time the end is in sight. Can’t wait for the next one.

Now I’m Here – Jim Provenzano (Beautiful Dreamer Press)

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Lammy award-winning author Jim Provenzano dives deep into the rock group Queen’s catalog for the soundtrack to this involving and surprising book that explores the relationship between two small-town Ohio boys in the mid-70s. Provenzano confounds your expectations, especially if you’re used to reading standard m/m romances. This moves in some unexpected directions and does not have a HEA, but the story is so complete and fully realized that I didn’t mind its absence. His characters are all organic, built and embroidered upon with well-chosen details, never feeling contrived or false. You’ll love this from first cut to last.

Beowulf for Cretins – Ann McMan (Bywater Books)

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Farcical romance or romantic farce? Either way, there’s romance aplenty in this story about a chance sexual encounter that turns awkward once both parties resume their normal lives. Once’s a university professor, you see. And the other’s now president of the same university. That takes care of the romance. The farce enters by way of a midnight grapevine climb up to Juliet’s balcony and other situations usually found in “I Love Lucy.” But McMan handles the proceedings like a pro, never losing sight of character, which means the farce sounds organic. A thoroughly wonderful romance.

Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Speculative Gay Fiction – Steve Berman, ed. (Lethe Press)

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Sadly, the last of Berman’s Wilde Stories series, but this collection ends on a high note with some brilliantly offbeat stuff, including Matthew Bright’s “The Library of Lost Things,” Christopher Caldwell’s “Serving Fish,” Richard Bowes’s “Some Kind of Wonderland,” and other Wilde Stories stalwarts. And, of course the whole thing ends with Sean Eads and an admirable tale called “A Bouquet of Marvel and Wonder” which finds Oscar Wilde himself fighting kobolds during his American tour of 1882. If you were looking for an ending, Squire Berman, you could not have chosen better.

And there you have Out in Print’s Best of 2018. Buy them all and make up a gift set for Christmas – but only for someone you really like.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Wilde Stories 2018: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction – Steve Berman, ed. (Lethe Press)

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Whenever I think of Steve Berman as editor of either this fine series or the late Icarus magazine, I always envision a curator. You know, someone House of Wax Vincent Price-ish, though not as tall, taking his patrons on a tour of his favorite tableaux as he delights in their squeamishness or incredulity. Rattan-backed wheelchair optional. But the physical description doesn’t matter. It’s the joy, the enthusiasm, the delight in presenting some choice morsel you’ve grown to love that shines through and creates a successful anthology. And the ever-reliable Wilde Stories is that, right down to this, its last volume.

Joseph Keckler kicks off the proceedings with a short short called “Ghost Sex,” whose first line is a fine start to the book: I am not saying I believe in ghosts at all, but I did have sex with one. This quick slap slides easily into Christopher Caldwell’s “Serving Fish,” a dandy sideways rewrite of Grimm’s “The Fisherman and His Wife” that turns on a motive other than greed. Richard Bowes, always a safe bet, turns in a great performance with “Some Kind of Wonderland,” a gritty story about a lost surrealist film take on Alice in Wonderland.

I also quite enjoyed Matthew Bright’s quirky “The Library of Lost Things,” featuring a library of works left uncompleted by the deaths of their authors. Oh, and a rat with a penchant for antiquated words. And Martin Cahill captured my attention with his amphibian spaghetti Western, “Salamander Six-Guns” as did Devon Wade who, in a neat corollary to the Bowes story, turns in “Love Pressed in Vinyl,” about a lost, and supposedly magical, album.

Appropriately enough, the final story, “A Bouquet of Wonder and Marvel,” sees Oscar Wilde fighting kobolds during his 1882 American tour, as if the press wasn’t challenging enough. Sean Eads, who has a knack for this historical mash-up, does a great job winding up this volume and this series on a number of different levels.

I will be sad to see Wilde Stories go. I reviewed a few of them but read all of them. However, the curator’s mind is a curious place. and the closing of one venue does not forbid the opening of another. That urge to say, “C’mon, lemme show you this…” is strong, and we’ll see how long the hiatus lasts. We can only hope.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

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A Conversation with Brynn Tannehill for the last day of Trans Awareness Week

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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Trans (But Were Afraid to Ask) walks the reader through transgender issues, starting with “What does transgender mean?” before moving on to more complex topics including growing up trans, dating and sex, medical and mental health, and debates around gender and feminism. Brynn also challenges deliberately deceptive information about transgender people being put out into the public sphere. Transphobic myths are debunked and biased research, bad statistics and bad science are carefully and clearly refuted.

My book enables any reader to become informed the most critical public conversations around transgender people and become a better ally as a result.

I really have to credit my readers and followers on social media for giving me the idea. I never started out to write a book when I began writing; I did it because so much of what you could read about transgender people on the internet was biased, wrong, or just deliberately hateful. You also see very few transgender people given the opportunity to write about transgender issues on a big stage

When I started writing for print and online publications, I had no idea where it would lead. I certainly didn’t imagine I would be good at it or enjoy it enough to do it on a regular basis. Four years and over 250 articles later, people started telling me, “You should write a book!”

The problem was, I had no idea what the book should be about. My articles tackled a multitude of different topics; despite having written hundreds of thousands of words, there wasn’t enough material on any one topic to write a full-sized book. The articles themselves tended to be about issues that were either hot topics in popular culture about transgender people, or issues that I thought needed greater exposure and education.  Other articles were dedicated to busting the myths about transgender people that I saw cropping up repeatedly.

In the summer of 2016, it finally dawned on me that there was a unifying thread between most of what I had written: almost all of it represented things people should know about the transgender community. Some of them were things people should know because the public was asking about it. Sometimes the material was stuff people needed to know because of deliberately deceptive information about transgender people being put out there. Sometimes the articles covered things the public really should know, but that no one was talking about.

Thus, when I looked at what I had written over the past five years, there were articles that covered Trans 101 and Trans 201 topics, as well as articles covering the relationship between transgender people and politics, law, medicine, mental health, religion, feminism, gender studies, sex, sexuality, and even the military.

In short, what my articles had in common is that they provided what people need to know about almost all of the most important issues facing the transgender community today, and that I had more than enough material available to accomplish this.

Brynn Tannehill is a leading trans activist and essayist, and has written for The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Bilerico, Slate, Salon, USA Today, The Advocate, LGBTQ Nation, The New Civil Rights Movement, as a blogger and featured columnist.

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Gents: Steamy Stories from the Age of Steam – Matthew Bright, ed. (Lethe Press)

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You may suffer from the modern notion that “Victorian” is synonymous with “repressed” or “puritanical” and therefore view a volume of M/M erotica set during the Victorian age as purely fantastical. Matthew Bright in the introduction to his Gents: Steamy Stories from the Age of Steam alludes to this perception by citing the frequently retold (but apparently incorrect) idea that the hyper-prudish Victorians went so far as to cover up their naked piano legs. The truth, as he rightly notes, is both less and more than is generally supposed (I mean Queen Victoria herself had nine children). While perhaps not publicly sex-positive, privately the Queen’s loyal subjects were much more adventurous; and this holds true for same-sex relations—the same era that witnessed Oscar Wilde’s trial and imprisonment also saw back-alley mollyhouses.

Thus the stories in Gents are heavy on the (sexual) fantasy, but less so on the fantastical: only a few have any overt fantastical elements, the most obvious being Jeff Mann’s “London, 1888,” which stars his vampiric alter ego Derrick Maclaine, and Bright’s own contribution, “All My Oceans of Blood and Ink,” narrated by Bram Stoker. In others the fantastical is only implied: for example, “Mr. Okada and his Calotype Camera” by Claudia Quint may or may not feature a Japanese yokai. Also, any reader expecting an anthology purely of steampunk erotica, based on the subtitle, will be disappointed. (A natural assumption, given that Bright has edited a volume of steampunk stories already: Clockwork Cairo: Steampunk Stories of Egypt.) In addition to the aforementioned “Mr. Okada,” with its interest in the emerging film technology, three stories may be classified as steampunk: the aptly named “The Blacksmith’s Son” by Katie Lewis, Charles Payseur’s “Luc Orphelin and the Hodag of Rhinelander,” and “Steam in Antarctica” by Matthias Klein.

Overall, the stories remain true to the historical era: “The Whipping Master” by Dale Cameron Lowry, set in a British boarding school, is a typical example. As might be expected, stories of (depraved) noblemen and their servants/low-born trade may be found: “Hiraeth” by Rhidian Brenig Jones and “The Romp” by Dale Chase, both fine examples, open the anthology. But subsequent writers in Bright’s anthology explore other aspects of the Victorian world: British colonialism provides the setting for two stories (“Mombasa Vengeance” by Mike McClelland and Kolo’s “On a Passage to the Queen’s Jubilee”), and even the nineteenth-century fascination with spiritualism provides the impetus for “Progress be Damned” by Rob Rosen.

Interspersed among these seventeen modern tales, Bright incorporates extracts from three Victorian pornographic works: Sins of the Cities of the Plain by Jack Saul, as well as the better known Teleny and My Secret Life, both by Anonymous. The first purports to be a true account of a “mary-ann”—a Victorian hustler—the second has been ascribed variously to Oscar Wilde and his circle, and the third only to a `Walter.’ As an added bonus, Bright includes 22 period photographs as illustrations, a further enhancement; certainly these extras should put to rest the modern notion of Victorian repression. Bright’s aim “to curate a collection that was both arousing but also grounded in the real history of a time that holds a deep fascination” for him succeeds: the stories are well written, at turns entertaining, even thought-provoking; and the sex is varied, steamy, and thoroughly enjoyable. This volume satisfies on numerous levels.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Forget the Sleepless Shores – Sonya Taaffe (Lethe Press)

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Sonya Taaffe is a classical scholar and a poet as well as a writer of literary fiction, and her signature style is both poetic and cosmopolitan. The stories in this collection make it clear that she prefers to “show, not tell.” Her depictions of her native New England include so much imagery of rain and ocean waves that a reader can almost taste the drops. While the physical settings of her stories are precisely-described, her characters don’t adhere to clear gender or sexual norms.

Here is the opening scene of “Chez Vous Soon,” the story of a doomed relationship:

The rain was full of leaves, like hands on her hair as she hurried home. Grey as a whale’s back, the last cold light before evening: the clouds as heavy as handsful of slate, pebble-dash and mortar; the pavement under Vetiver’s feet where blown leaves stuck in scraps to her sneakers, brown as old paper, tissue-torn.

The somewhat pretentiously-named Vetiver (who prefers her middle name to her first name, Julia) is going to visit her artist lover in the run-down apartment where he is obsessively trying to capture the look, sound, smell and feel of Autumn on canvas.  The word-pictures in the story illustrate his efforts to express what seems inexpressible, at least to him. Asked if he has taken his medication for mental illness, he responds that he doesn’t want to blunt the power of his mind when he is working.  The distance between the lovers seems unbridgeable, and the tragic outcome seems inevitable.

Most of the stories in this collection were previously-published in various anthologies and journals of speculative fiction, and therefore they are inconsistent in length, theme, and impact. The “sleepless shores” of the title are not clearly identified, although the spirit world is plausibly described in several stories. In the most unnerving, the dead literally walk among the living.

“The Creeping Influences” is set in Ireland, and features an ancient body uncovered by peat-cutters:

She came out of the peat like a sixpence in a barmbrack, her face shining like wet iron between the spade-edge and the turf, the bright rusty plait of her hair broken like a birth-cord around her neck.

The preserved body raises questions about her status in the distant past: was she sacrificed to the gods? Was she executed for a sexual transgression? The narrator is haunted by the peat-bog woman, and the eroticism of the narrator’s dreams is mixed with the violence of Irish history.

Space does not allow me to do justice to all 22 stories in this collection, but they are all worth reading. They defy simple classifications, and they are likely to leave a reader sleepless.

Reviewed by Jean Roberta

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Compass Rose – Anna Burke (Bywater Books)

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My favorite books take me places, and no travel is more convenient than the trip taken right from my comfy chair with a beverage at my side and a dog at my feet. When October’s weather turns spooky and inclement, what better time than to go swashbuckling with some pirates in a dystopian Earth circa 2513? Put some candy outside for the little ghouls and climb aboard Miranda’s Man O’War with debut novelist Anna Burke and navigator Compass Rose. You guys have a coastline to map.

Compass Rose was born “facing due north,” giving her a supernatural sense of direction. This asset proves invaluable to Admiral Comita of the Archipelago Fleet, who appropriates her and sends her on a secret spy mission to infiltrate the pirate Miranda’s ship because…well, intrigue and reasons and stuff. No one, of course, foresees Rose falling in love with Miranda, let alone her dalliance with Miranda’s first mate (except maybe Gentle Reader). This has enormous impact on Rose’s mission–if only she could decide whose side she’s on.

The best world builders know not to overwhelm the reader–start with broad strokes and fill in where necessary as befits either plot or character development. Burke has internalized that rule well, giving us just enough detail to understand the intrigue and plot turns without burdening our comprehension. That the world is Earth helps, but I have a feeling Burke would be equally at home in more unfamiliar terrain.

But even the most solidly constructed world is just setting without some good, meaty characters to populate it, and Burke comes up winners here as well. Compass Rose is a well-drawn, complex character often torn between oath and desire. Her navigational skills enable her to clearly see the route others should take, but she often misses her own emotional path and has to retrace her steps. Being in love with a mercurial pirate doesn’t help. Miranda is also a strong character, full of bluster and decision and command, but vulnerable only to Rose. And a certain fellow sea-captain.

Compass Rose is a great seafaring saga full of rich characters, with an engaging plot that will leave you ready for the sequel. And that’s no bilge water.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

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A Change of Worlds (A Killian Kendall Mystery, Book 5) – Josh Aterovis (MLR Press)

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Gay mystery finds an earnest YA voice in Josh Aterovis’s enjoyably homocentric detective novel A Change of Worlds. It’s his fifth and latest book in the Killian Kendall series, which was recently re-released by MLR Press. I hadn’t read the early installments and found the story newcomer-friendly.

Eighteen-year-old Killian is the book’s teen sleuth and forthright storyteller. He’s a likeable young man who just finished his freshman year of college and is working for a private detective in a small town in coastal Maryland. He’s something of a crime-solving prodigy, having saved the day on a local murder case, which is hinted at though not necessary to fully understand in order to follow along.

As such, the story has a Hardy Boys feel and a requisite suspension of disbelief at times. Taken as a salute to that genre, reclaimed for fans of gay YA, A Change of Worlds provides a comfy ride through mystery intrigue and the contemporary trials and triumphs of young gay men.

Those issues of young adulthood share the stage at least equally with the detective work at hand. Killian’s painful backstory and unique living situation is presented early on. He was thrown out of his home by his homophobic father and happily taken in by a gay couple who own a bed-and-breakfast. They’re named Adam and Steve, with full intentionality I suspect, and they’ve become caretakers and ombudsmen to gay teens rejected by their families.

The theme of found families/chosen families permeates Killian’s world. One of his tasks is to help a formerly homeless boy Tad adjust to living under Adam and Steve’s guardianship, to do his part around the house, and stay on the path of recovery from his traumatic past. Killian’s client Fletcher is a gay Native man who raised his gay niece and grandson due to the lack of acceptance of their families.

The mystery concerns an archeological dig on Fletcher’s wooded property to discover and preserve Native artifacts. When Fletcher is called out of bed by the voices of his ancestors to check on the site, he is assaulted by an assailant he never sees. Killian gets retained to find Fletcher’s attacker, who also may be looting the dig overnight. He has a cast of suspects among the archeological team, local artifact collectors, and members of the Native tribe who have mixed views about the goals of the non-Native academics leading the project.

There’s quite a lot to unpack with the premise, and Aterovis takes a thoughtful approach by considering issues of positionality and intersectionality. The tribe’s elder council is rightfully wary of the exploitation of their cultural history while some members of the archeological crew are tone deaf to that concern, adamant about the virtue of accumulating knowledge even when their dig reveals they have uncovered a sacred burial site. Meanwhile, differences in sexuality within the tribe create distrust and tension as well as pure blood versus mixed race characters. Killian stands aside as an observer while these conflicts play out not merely to be objective but to learn.

Woven through the mystery storyline, Killian must decide whether to take the big step of moving in with his boyfriend Micah or to let the relationship go so Micah can pursue a job in New York City. The appearance of Killian’s ex Asher complicates that decision, and without giving too much away, Aterovis depicts that young adult drama with restraint and a circumspect resolution.

Killian undertakes a variety of interviews and surveys of the archeological site to try to figure out who’s stealing artifacts, and then key figures are murdered, amping up the stakes of his investigation. As a detective procedural, the story is a slow burn, with lots of dead ends and detours while Killian wrestles with his romantic life and acts the part of older brother to Adam and Steve’s two younger boys. And there’s a paranormal awakening storyline. I found each of those threads to be well-crafted, but it may be quite a lot for readers looking for a fast-paced crime thriller. The book clocks in at 140,000 words.

Still, a charming teen detective novel with a refreshing focus on gay situations and Native communities.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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