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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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The Annotated Joseph and His Friend – Bayard Taylor (annotated by L. A. Fields) (Lethe Press)

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Joseph and His Friend, originally published in 1870 by Bayard Taylor, tells the story of the handsome, twenty-two-year-old country farmer Joseph Asten, set in 1867-8 Pennsylvania. The title character, like many a man before him (or since), feels himself to be “different;” he broods because love must be “hidden as if it were a reproach; friendship watched; lest it express its warmth too frankly…” with only one road available to him “—that leading to the love of woman.” Succumbing to societal pressure, he marries the thirty-year-old Julia Blessing, a manipulative, worldly woman from the city. While on the train back from the city after meeting his prospective in-laws, Joseph makes the acquaintance of Philip Held, a twenty-eight-year-old with “all the charm of early manhood:” golden hair, gray eyes, and moustache over a full mouth. As Joseph gazes at Philip’s beauty, Philip gazes back, with a look that responds, “We are men, let us know each other!”  (Taylor notes that this sort of look “is alas! too rare in this world.”) A train wreck lands Joseph in Philip’s arms (literally) and the two men discover that they are to be neighbors. The night before his wedding, Joseph stays with Philip, who declares to him that “a man’s perfect friendship is rarer than a woman’s love,” and that moreover he can be “nearer than a brother. I know that I am in your heart as you are in mine.” Joseph’s marriage to Julia quickly deteriorates, as her duplicity becomes apparent; Joseph finds himself drawn more and more to Philip, but even after his marriage ends, his love for Philip is never depicted physically, but rather remains brotherly. The novel ends on a jarring note, implying that Joseph has begun courting Philip’s sister Madeline, and may eventually marry her.

Fields begins her magisterial tome with a short discussion as to whether Joseph and His Friend is truly the earliest American Gay novel; she then alternates each chapter of Taylor’s original novel with supplementary material about such topics as the author himself, the man who inspired the novel (Fitz-Greene Halleck), their connections to the better-known literary figures of Walt Whitman, Bram Stoker, and Oscar Wilde, as well as discussions about historical influences, e.g., the American Civil War, the Lincoln presidency, arsenic as a cosmetic, etc. Some readers may be put off by this format; I recommend focusing on reading the text of the novel first, then returning to the background material, as I did. Additionally, Fields includes over a hundred pages of accompanying primary sources as appendices: poems by Taylor, Halleck, and Whitman (including a huge extract of Leaves of Grass); reviews; letters by Whitman, Stoker, Wilde, and others; even a poem by Abraham Lincoln extolling same-sex marriage. (Full disclosure: as a former academic, I am a sucker for any kind of scholarly apparatus, but even I did not read through all of the appendices, except for Lincoln’s poem.)

So how does Joseph and His Friend hold up after all this time? I wondered as I began reading, and I found the plot compelling enough to finish the novel in a couple of sittings. I found the elevated tone of the dialogue entertaining in its own right (while simultaneously doubting that nineteenth-century Americans really spoke in such a manner, even the educated class). Probably the greatest obstacle to a modern reader is the opaque nature of the novel: as risqué as the quotes above may have seemed to the nineteenth-century reader, most twenty-first century readers might question whether Joseph and Philip are anything more than friends, especially if they are aware of the nature of friendship among men in earlier historical eras. (They embrace on page 218, and kiss on page 221 of Fields’ edition, but otherwise do not consummate their passion for one another.) Still, whether or not Joseph and His Friend is the first American Gay novel (it was published a year after the first appearance of the word homosexual in print by Karl-Maria Kertbeny), it is an important artifact in Gay literary history, and Fields is to be commended for retrieving it from obscurity and providing us the tools to enjoy it in its proper context.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Fabulous! An Opera Buffa – Laury A. Egan (Tiny Fox Press)

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The heart of farce is the fear of discovery, so the bigger the secret, the bigger the laugh. And the secrets in Laury A. Egan’s latest novel, Fabulous! An Opera Buffa produce some pretty large fun. Drag, artifice, chicanery, revenge, betrayal and well-intentioned motives collide on multiple stages in various parts of town. It’s not quite the novel equivalent of Noises Off! but it has the same spirit, energy, and pace.

Opera singer Gilbert Eugene Rose desperately wants to be a famous diva, and to that end pursues and wins a tenor role as the Duke in Rigoletto as well as the soprano role of Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. At a different theatre. Across town. You’d think Gil would be pretty busy with dual rehearsals and the occasional gig as Kiri De Uwana at the Purple Plum for a few bucks, but circumstances also force him into a job singing Handel for a distaff mobster who is sworn enemies with the producer of one of Gil’s two operas. But with her, each performance is by command. And dangerous to miss. In fact, she insists he ruin the Rigoletto to settle that old score of hers. Can Gil survive his own career, not to mention a gender-bending twist during Rigoletto? You won’t know until the finale.

Totally different than Jenny Kidd, Egan’s story of art forgery and murder from 2012, Fabulous! handles not only the change in subject but the change in tone like a champ. You’d think Egan had been writing madcap farce most of her life. One of the drawbacks of this type of comedy is the sheer number of cast members usually required to drive it, but Egan has no problem coming up with those characters and moving them with precision. Among my favorites are LaDonna, the female mobster, and her assistant, Gal. The relationship between the two women is interesting and well-grounded, but when Gil runs afoul of LaDonna, the comedy goes out the window. She turns dark and mean, bringing a different dimension to the last third of the book.

That darkening of the plot and tone is truly admirable, as it elevates this from simple farce into something farcical with interesting textures. This also differs from some farces I’ve seen in that it’s not contrived. The choices driving the action come from characters rather than the author. And Egan’s facility and familiarity with opera is evident. She knows her arias. But she never gets too obscure or explains too much. No matter how much or how little you know about the subject, however, once you start this ride, you’ll be on it until the car stops. Egan hits the ground running and doesn’t waste a moment. In that respect, it’s one of the most economic novels I’ve read in some time. It never lags or sags.

Fabulous! is on the beat and perfectly pitched. I hope you’ll be singing its praises as well.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Point of Sighs – Melissa Scott (Lethe Press)

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Melissa Scott has returned to Astreiant! Scott first invited us to Astreiant in 1995 in Point of Hopes, followed by Point of Dreams (both co-authored with her late partner Lisa A. Barnett), and continued since then by Point of Knives and Fairs’ Point, and now by Point of Sighs. Each of these novels is basically a police procedural, clothed in the garb of fantasy, and set in the quasi-Renaissance city-state of Astreiant. Nicolas Rathe, the protagonist, is an adjunct pointsman, charged with investigating crimes and keeping the peace within the various districts of Astreiant. His leman, Philip Eslingen, is a foreign mercenary hired to be a captain in the newly formed City Guard—who are suppose to police only the city’s nobility and the land outside the city walls. The various points stations, however, fear that the Guard will encroach upon their traditional spheres of authority.

It appears that the points’ fears are justified. As Point of Sighs begins, an unusually rainy autumn has delayed merchants’ ships from abroad; when the murder of a sea captain hired by a tea merchant in Point of Dreams (Nico’s district) occurs in the neighboring Point of Sighs, the merchant family implicated by the murder employs Philip as a neutral party between the rival points stations. The rivalry only escalates when a senior pointsman from Point of Sighs is found murdered, and Nico is tasked with solving the case. Meanwhile, the higher than usual rate of river-drowned (and dogfish-eaten) corpses fuel rumors of the return of the legendary Riverdeme, a hungry spirit that haunted the River Sier but has been bound for centuries, who formerly was appeased by the sacrifice of beautiful young men. It is up to Nico and Philip together to uncover the connection between these distinct happenings, hopefully before the Riverdeme breaks free from her bindings.

More than just the latest in a series of supernatural mystery novels, Scott also continues to chronicle the evolving relationship between Nico and Philip. For not only do they need to navigate the complexities brought about by the potential conflicts between their professional relationships against their personal relationship, their still new relationship is tested by the appearance of Balfort de Vian, an attractive young candidate for the City Guard, who has developed an unrequited love for Philip—and who also has ties to the mercantile family under suspicion of the murder.

Characterization is Scott’s strength: all of her characters, from the two main protagonists to familiar recurring secondary characters to those with “walk-on” roles all appear as fully realized people, set in an equally realized and vivid place. Moreover, in a subtle subversion of gender roles, women—who rule the home, the domestic sphere—therefore hold most of the positions of authority in Astreiant: a Queen rules over the city, and the City Council, and most of the points stations, guilds, etc., are led by women. As a corollary to this, just as many of the characters are involved in same-sex relationships as not, so that Nico and Philip’s relationship is not viewed as unusual in any way, aside from Philip being non-native to Astreiant.

A rich, complex novel, Scott deftly weaves these disparate narrative strands and more together into a satisfying continuation of the stories of Nico and Philip.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Naked Launch, Book Two – Neil J. Weston (Riverdale Avenue Books)

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The gay pulp novel was a significant innovation in the early history of gay literature and publishing. Though underground and only available to readers in the know, gay pulp boldly portrayed sex and relationships in a way mainstream books could only do through coded language and allegory, and even then most often as stories of loneliness and tragedy. Many titles are out of distribution, and happily Riverdale Avenue Books recently took up re-printing some favorites from the 1960s and 1970s as Classic Queer Pulp Fiction editions under their 120 Days imprint. Their most recent release is Neil J. Weston’s Naked Launch 2, the continuation of a very randy pirate saga.

Originally published as a two-book series in 1968 and 1969, Naked Launch is essentially the story of a love affair between two seafaring Brits in the 17th century. Only the second book was available on NetGalley, but with Maitland McDonagh’s effective introduction and the simple structure of the story, Naked Launch 2 surely works fine as a standalone and a first foray into gay pulp.

Alan and Malcolm found each other as teenagers, two marginal youths seeking adventure and opportunity on the high seas. But they had to get through imprisonment and torture by the Spanish navy to reunite. The second book picks up with their campaign to recruit a crew of like-minded fellows to sail back to the Caribbean and take vengeance on the Spanish. They name their ship Ballocks Delight, enlist an assortment of horny, cock-loving sailors, and embark on a run of raiding and sinking King Charles II’s galleys, along with a ton of below-deck debauchery.

That’s largely the extent of plot for Weston’s tale, which for its purposes favors scenes of sailor-to-sailor fellatio and frottage over exploring the more consequential conflicts that might arise from such a quest. Weston, a penname by the way, achieves a satisfying sense of time and place through nautical terms and dialogue, but this is a story to be enjoyed in context and with a wry shrugging off of disbelief. Alan and Malcolm’s crew are one-and-all easy compatriots to their cause, the freedom to share their bodies sufficient motivation to risk life and limb. A hardened pego – a period term – is never far aloft aboard the ship, and most ridiculously of all, the men are aroused to full mast when they storm the enemy. In Alan’s words, calling his men to arms: “’Twill be a fast battle, with our pegos raised as high as our cutlasses!”

Their pirate flag is, of course, a skull-and-crossbones composed of erect penises. If that sounds to you like the stuff of a middle schooler’s imagination, ‘twould be right. But for readers who can stay with the story’s hypersexualized antics, the book has a surprisingly compelling through-line and uplifting convictions for the wounded queer soul.

Alan and Malcolm are two men in love trying to make what we would now call an open relationship work. While Alan’s zesty sex drive leads him to play around with his shipmates, often in twos and threes and more, above all, he’s emotionally committed to his partner. They are faced with the common reality of having mismatched libidos, and Weston’s handling of that issue is straightforward and dare I say instructive. Malcolm, who may have some manner of erectile dysfunction, tolerates Alan screwing around, though his jealousy comes to the fore in their moments alone. For his part, Alan is frustrated by his inability to get a rise from his partner, questioning his own desirability, which weighs heavy on him since he was rendered completely hairless after recovering from a tropical fever.

Yet rather than leaving their problem to stew and growing distant from one another, they talk it out, naturally over a steamy scene of pirate bondage. This is foremost an erotic escapade after all. Still, their choice to take the issue head-on is nicely portrayed. They arrive at mutual understanding, compromise, and a re-validation that each of them is who the other wants.

Moreover, the story provides a lovely vision of how things could and should be for gay men in the world. Written in the late sixties, one can imagine a bit of the free love movement and gay liberation sloganeering swarming inside the author’s brain. Consider this excerpt from one of Alan’s rousing speeches:

Strip a man of his clothing and let him be proud of his pego and ballocks and he becomes a beautiful creature. Given cause he can fight ferociously, and yet with pego aroused for pleasure he can love tenderly, much preferring loving to fighting.

Once they reach the warm Caribbean, Captain Alan insists that his crew shuck their clothes, and not merely for easy hijinks. They are a company of naked pirates proudly thumbing their noses at convention, and their reputation attracts persecuted gay men eager to find a place where they belong. The couple manage their ship as a kind of utopian commune:

There was to be equality among the men, whether a ranking office or a ship’s youth, with sharing of the same tables and quarters.

We see little of the day-to-day challenges that come along with realizing such an egalitarian fraternity on open water, though again, that’s not Weston’s interest. It’s a story about the possibility of sexual freedom and the triumph of gay love. Besides Alan and Malcolm, many members of their crew find lifelong partnerships through their orgiastic journey. Those storylines are told with great melodrama, but they are heartwarming and truthful about the way gay men discover friendships and loving relationships both historically and today.

The book’s strident idealism is in fact what makes the story so engaging. Alan and Malcolm set sail with the purpose: to free the enslaved, punish the enslavers and find an island paradise where man could love man and always be free.

With that mission statement, who could resist signing up to join the Ballocks Delight? Not I.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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Beowulf for Cretins – Ann McMan (Bywater Books)

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I’d never read Ann McMan before, but I’ll be certain to cover her in future if her latest, Beowulf for Cretins, is representative. I love watching a pro at work, making the most of the gifts she has. For McMan, it’s farcical romance as smart as it is smartly-written, packed with solid characters and twisted just a tetch.

Grace Warner, unpublished novelist and English professor at a New England college, meets a woman named Abbie on an airplane. By coincidence, they are both friends of the same woman and wind up at the same party. By less of a coincidence, they sleep together. Grace intends for them to go their separate ways but that proves impossible when Abbie is named the first woman president of the institution at which Grace teaches. Toss in a jealous academic rival angling for the only tenured slot in the department, and you have lots of obstacles getting in the way of that happy ending.

McMan takes an improbable coincidence and makes it work smoothly. In fact, so much about this book is smooth. The plot turns are handled with aplomb and grace, the characters are developed with ease, and the dialogue is funny. If, at times, the latter in particular seems a bit too glib, that’s a small price to pay for the smiles induced as McMan delights in dangling Abbie in front of Grace–and vice versa.

If I was to offer any suggestion up at all, it would be that Bryce–Grace’s rival for tenure–doesn’t seem threatening enough for the feat he attempts to pull off to improve his chances over Grace. He has no fangs and doesn’t present the obstacle to their future that he could have if he’d been portrayed a shade more evilly. But Grace and Abbie are dead-on, as are most of the other major and minor characters. I particularly liked CK, a mutual friend of theirs who also teaches at the college. And McMan has a way with sitcom scenes, such as Grace climbing the thorny vines outside Abbie’s bedroom window that make them not only plausible but natural.

Beowulf for Cretins (Grace’s rather dispiriting assessment of the classes she teaches) is a smoothly entertaining romance that will leave you grinning at both the book and the author’s assured style. It’s really a perfect summer read.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

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FlabberGassed – Michael Craft (Questover Press)

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Already the writer of two other well-received mystery series, Michael Craft begins a new series set in the quiet town of Dumont, Wisconsin. Followers of Craft’s oeuvre will immediately recognize the setting from his Mark Manning series, and the characters of Marson Miles and Brody Norris, protagonists of his short story collection Inside Dumont. These short stories chronicled their meeting and courtship, events alluded to in Craft’s current FlabberGassed; now we find out what has happened to these two charming men, who have started their own architecture firm, and to the larger community they call home as well.

Ugly undercurrents brew beneath the idyllic surface of Dumont: current politics have intruded at a small-town level, when Sheriff Thomas Sims is up for re-election, his main opponent being an angry, racist deputy. Meanwhile the appropriately named Glee Savage chronicles all the small town happenings in the local Dumont Daily Register, much to everyone’s chagrin, and wealthy widow Mary Questman has been adopted by an exotic stray Abyssinian she has named Mister Puss—a cat that she insists speaks to her (or at least communicates with her via its purring). Several friends express concern that Mary may finally be losing it, including Brody. Into this mix of unusual personalities we must add the flamboyant Dr. Francis Frumpkin, a dermatologist with a revolutionary new weight-loss program, the eponymous “FlabberGas.” Frumpkin taps Brody to design the prototype of his “FlabberGas” clinics, and solicits Mary for start-up capital; but when a public demonstration of the process results in the death of Frumpkin’s own son-in-law, then all these characters come to a head, and everybody’s a suspect. Sherriff Sims calls on Brody to help him with the investigation, and soon Brody’s involvement leads to an attempt on his own life.

Craft’s return to the genre of gay mysteries, albeit in an entirely new direction (a book-length cat mystery) is handled masterfully. Craft keeps Brody and the reader guessing until almost the very end as to who the killer is, and the reason for the dastardly deed. Several characters have obvious motives against Dr. Frumpkin, and Brody spends most of his time eliminating suspects; interestingly, his interrogation leads him to some insights into his own family’s past. (His investigation also allows him to meet a very attractive suspect—who presents Brody with the following dual ethical conundrum: can Brody resist Dahr’s advances, for the sake of his own relationship with Marson, and remain impartial enough to aid Sheriff Sims?) And regardless of whether the reader is willing to suspend enough disbelief to accept a cat who communicates with humans, Mister Puss helps Brody’s investigation more by leading him to consider options hitherto unexplored, than by actually telling him who he should question. (In fact, it is another character’s interaction with Mister Puss that provides the key clue that helps Brody solve the case.)

At turns humorous, sexy, and even poignant, FlabberGassed is an entertaining read with a likeable protagonist, a tranquil town disrupted by a chilling crime, a colorful cast of characters, and a snarky cat; what’s not to like?

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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