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The Grand Sex Tour Murders – Daniel M. Jaffe (Rattling Good Yarns Press)

I’m a big fan of Jaffe’s work. From the serious grief of The Limits of Pleasure to a young Jewish boy’s sexual awakening in Yeled Tov to his last collection of short stories, Foreign Affairs, you never know quite what you’re going to get, and I love that. I’m not keen on authors who write the same book over and over but with different characters, and although Jaffe has themes to which he returns–primarily the intersection of gay and Jewish identities, the depth and breadth of his stories are admirable. And he’s pulled out all the stops for the hysterical and heartfelt The Grand Sex Tour Murders.

Paulie Hahnemann has a plan that will set him and his partner up for life. A sex tour of bathhouses in European capitals complete with eight hot contestants in a sort of gambler’s reality TV show livestreamed from the bathhouses. Men can bet on their favorite studs while said studs plow their way through the population of Europe, racking up the sex points with $250,000 on the line. The only catch is the serial killer that’s taking the boys out capital by capital. But Paulie even has a plan to make that work to his advantage. Until it doesn’t anymore.

Jaffe is clearly having a ball here. He’s coming at it from a number of viewpoints: organizer Paulie, the serial killer, hidden camera transcripts from the boys in their hotel rooms–and as he’s a master at voice, you don’t need a chapter marker to tell you whose head you’re in. Paulie is sort of a schlub, but great at the planning thing, the serial killer is an effete snob, and the boys are…well, naive. Jaffe pokes fun at reality TV at the same time he’s paying homage to the now-dying bathhouse (there were three in Denver before COVID–now, there are none), and the result is a lovely wake. It’s witty and worldly; domestic, yet oh so continental.

But of all the voices here, I can just about guarantee the serial killer’s will stick with you the most. He’s pompous and arrogant, yet always brought down to the lowest common denominator by his lust for blood. He’s chillingly matter-of-fact, which is what makes him so wonderfully evil and gives the book those moments where the tongue-in-cheek aspects fall away and give us a bald, brave look at psychosis in action. The murders themselves aren’t as lurid as they are diabolically purposeful. And the contrast between that and the comic elements are what gives this book layers.

And, of course, such an intelligent, fascinating book must be banned. So, as the publisher informs us, Facebook has banned its sale on their Facebook page, and it’s also been banned by a service that buys books for libraries. My fear is that this is only the beginning rather than an isolated incident. In either case, it’s a good idea to buy directly from the publisher’s link above.

Jaffe has come up with yet another winner, leaving you wondering what genre he’s going to write in next. No matter what it is, I’m in. Banned or not. Highly recommended!

JW

© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler

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The End of Her: Racing Against Alzheimer’s to Solve a Murder – Wayne Hoffman (Heliotrope Books)

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I’ve been lucky–if one could call it luck–with the demise of my loved ones. My late partner had a mercifully short four month battle with lung cancer before he succumbed, and my mother’s struggle with breast cancer and lymphoma only took a year and a half, but watching their declines was heartbreaking. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to watch the years of deterioriation Wayne Hoffman experienced with the death of his mother, Susan. Being a writer, however, he has forged that pain into art and shared it with us all. That’s just what we do. And the end product is a truly moving story accompanied by an engaging mystery.

In many ways, Susan reminds me of my own mother–a larger-than-life storyteller who drew all the attention and focus whenever she walked into a room. Weight problem? Check (inherited by me–also check). Strong sense of fair play and social justice? Check. Never afraid to speak her mind? Check and double check. The difference is that my mother’s mind was pretty much intact right up until the end, with the addition of a gallows humor she’d never shown before. I didn’t have to watch her lose parts of herself or become unsure and anxious for no good reason. She always remembered who I was, and she was able to pass on the family stories to me in excruciating detail.

Before Susan began to experience her losses, she was also the repository of family lore and legends, one of which being that her grandmother–Hoffman’s great-grandmother–was shot and killed one winter on the front porch of her home by a sniper while she was nursing a newborn. After some years of hearing this story, Hoffman has some serious questions–like why was she nursing a newborn on the front porch in the winter? The story began to fall apart after some thought, so Hoffman decided to track down the truth.

While this truth isn’t stranger than Susan’s fiction, it’s certainly different. In fact, it made headlines in newspapers all over Canada in 1913. Hoffman’s great-grandmother was indeed shot and killed, but not on the front porch. Rather, it was at point blank range in her bedroom as she slept, one of her children sleeping with her (her husband was on a business trip). What follows is an interesting whodunit that takes Hoffman from one end of Canada to the other in his search to discover his great-grandmother’s killer.

Hoffman’s mother’s decline and his investigation of the shooting are two of three threads which form Hoffman’s narrative. The last is an examination of the Jewish diaspora in Canada during the early part of the twentieth century, including migration patterns. Far from being a dry, numbers-ridden history, Hoffman brings it to life as he travels from place to place, finding extended family in almost every city. He deftly balances all three of these elements, never losing his momentum. The result is a fascinating mix.

But no matter what stage his investigation is at or where his digressions about migration take him, he’s never far from his mother’s decline. As you’d expect, it pervades his life and that of his local and extended family. It’s not a story for the faint of heart, but it’s certainly relatable to anyone who’s gone through it. And even if you haven’t, you’ll understand how he feels.

JW

© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Missing From the Village: The Story of Serial Killer Bruce McArthur, the Search for Justice, and the System That Failed Toronto’s Queer Community – Justin Ling (Penguin Canada)

Missing From the Village is our history told through the lens of true crime. Regardless where this book gets shelved, it’s importance cannot be overstated: finally, our story is told by one of our own, journalist Justin Ling (VICE, The Guardian).  The arrest of serial killer Bruce McArthur in 2018 captivated the world, his next potential victim drugged and bound in the bedroom when police arrived. Such murderers are the stuff of the 70s and 80s—a nearly extinct breed now mythologized in a variety of Netflix docuseries. It seemed unfathomable to many that a predator could still hunt undetected in such a sizable, sophisticated city. Unfathomable to everyone except the queer residents of Toronto’s gay village, who had spent years desperately trying to draw attention to the men who had gone missing, men who bore striking resemblances to one another.

Missing From the Village is the story of community response in the face of indifference from the police, one borne of historic contempt for its gay citizens. Significantly, it is the story of the victims, many of them marginalized, all of them complex individuals with families and friends and lovers, nearly all men of color from semi-closeted backgrounds that often led to their absence going unnoticed, though brave allies and advocates kept the fire burning, striving for answers, rallying the community. What this book is not about is Bruce McArthur. While much is revealed about his background and murderous methodologies (that more than one victim was his fuck buddy for years before succumbing to McArthur’s deadly instincts is beyond chilling), he remains an enigma, an unknowable voracious force. A heterosexual author would likely have magnified such an enigma in ways salacious and grotesque. However, Ling’s work here is one of advocacy: by holding the police and press responsible he documents decades-long institutional discrimination. Friends and family are interviewed, humanizing victims that are often relegated to statistical body counts in lesser books. The decision to forego the lurid photos so typical of the genre is not only commendable, but Lochlan Donald’s lovingly rendered black and while illustrations of these men act as fitting tributes, and proof that this book serves a higher purpose.

Friends, we’re getting there. More and more, we tell our own stories, from David McConnell’s American Honor Killings; Desire and Rage Among Men to James Polchin’s Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall, we are recording our histories and, by naming the dark forces that put many of us at risk, Ling helps move the needle in the right direction. Speaking of names:

Abdulbasir Faizi

Skandaraj Navaratnam

Majeed Kayhan

Soroush Mahmudi

Dean Lisowick

Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam

Selim Esen

Andrew Kinsman    

These men were all killed between 2010 and 2017. Yet Bruce McArthur was born in 1951 and though married, lived near the gay village in the 70s. There’s speculation that he was active much earlier, when the fight for equality was nascent and our lives much less valuable and visible. Missing In the Village is a searing blueprint of accountability; hopefully lists like the above will be a thing of the past.    

Reviewed by Tom Cardamone, editor of Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White by the Book, and the author of the Lambda Literary Award-winning speculative novella Green Thumb as well as the erotic fantasy The Lurid Sea and other works of fiction, including two short story collections. Additionally, he has edited The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered and co-edited Fever Spores: The Queer Reclamation of William S. Burroughs.

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The Language of Light – Kathleen Brady (Bywater Books)

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One of the reasons I’ve always been a reader is that I’ve always been interested in how people other than myself live, and books are the most convenient way to learn that. But it’s not just the people, it’s the culture, and in addition to being a crackerjack romance, Kathleen Brady’s The Language of Light gives some excellent insights into both.

Lu McLean leaves her native Los Angeles to study Mandarin Chinese at the Beijing Language Institute, her eye on a United Nations translating job. That, however, is before she runs into Ming Cao Wei, a Chinese teacher at the institute. As Lu has just left a ten year relationship, she has absolutely no intention of becoming involved with anyone, including Ming–which is, of course, exactly what happens. But Ming is bound by custom, tradition, and family. She can’t leave, and due to the increasingly iffy political scene, Lu can’t stay. But neither can she bear to part with Ming.

Brady does an admirable job of portraying the culturally stifling attitude and making sure her readers understand the regimentation of a process-oriented life where tickets and permissions are required for the most innocuous of pastimes and to even be seen in the presence of anti-authoritarian activities is cause for being detained by the police. Brady suffuses this love story with a dark overlay of fear and dread for what might happen if someone finds out.

Missteps are bound to occur in an atmosphere this charged with danger, and Lu often finds herself stepping over lines she’s not even aware exist. Ming, for her part, also finds coping with Lu’s American “full speed ahead” attitude difficult and also makes mistakes. This friction provides a terrific element of combustibility in their relationship and adds to the tension already inherent in the situation. Their time together is both precious and prickly, an interesting combination that makes their scenes pop.

The oasis here is Lu’s Australian co-worker, Elizabeth, who provides some counterpoint to Ming. She and Lu have some very important scenes together that provide relief not only from the cultural situation but from Lu’s at times perilous relationship with Ming. We breathe easier when Elizabeth is in the picture, but she’s by no means a minor character. She’s as fully integrated into the plot as Lu and Ming.

The Language of Light is a solid, enjoyable romance that doubles as an excellent portrait of the repressive and sometimes oppressive Chinese culture in the 1980s. Its characters are rich and well-drawn. Luckily (as you’ll see in the back of the book), the story continues in the forthcoming Light Is To Darkness.

JW

© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Book of Casey Adair – Ken Harvey (University of Wisconsin Press)

The Book of Casey Adair follows a young man’s passionate journey into the unknown where art, politics, life, and sexuality converge. Written in letters and journal entries against the backdrop of political turmoil at home and abroad, Violet Quill award-winning author Ken Harvey explores the emotional barriers within Casey’s orbit following the anniversary of his father’s death. The symbolism of longing for liberation from the tyranny of dictatorship and homophobia anchors the work. Rarely does an epistolary novel of such magnitude and grace delve so deeply into the conundrum of relationships and parallel the alienation and desperation to counter threats to democracy and end discrimination. All of which makes this work so topical today.

The novel spans the first half of the 80s from Vermont to Madrid, Boston to New York and Toronto. Rendezvous with activists, actors and artists, correspondence with alumni, troubled relations with his best friend Poppy and candid journal entries speak to the political and social upheaval of the times. Casey arrives in Madrid to study theater arts on a foundation grant. His humble digs in a boarding house lead to encounters with pro-democracy activist and doctoral candidate Gustavo. Colorful characters, including an accordion playing, Franco sympathizer who comes to his defense when civil guards detain him in a park and escort him home, populate the boarding house. Imbued with a rich cultural heritage, Madrid is a character, too.

He joins his first protest that turns violent, falls for a hustler named Octavio, is outed and confronted by his roommate, parties at a prominent expat’s and connects with a theater director who invites him to try out for a major play. As his faith in religion wanes, despite his upbringing, he feels untethered and Poppy arrives to commiserate. In equal measure, their disillusionment unites them in an unexpected and troubling way as an attempted fascist coup takes place. What transpires next completely jeopardizes the relationship and demands of him a seemingly insurmountable obstacle that alters his life irrevocably.

On his circuitous route to self-discovery, he navigates virulent discrimination prior to and during the terrifying AIDS crisis.  Back in Toronto, cops are busting the baths and brutally arresting gay men. President Reagan is elected in the U.S. and dismisses the crisis which claims thousands of lives, impacting Casey personally. As he begins to fully engage in gay life, alternating between the desire to be free and the obligation to accept new roles, he takes a job at a Boston boarding school, rife with a homophobic headmaster, joins a protest in New York and stages his own theatrical coup that exacts a price he’s willing to pay. He meets and struggles to embrace a relationship with a British library researcher. Meanwhile the clarion call for familial responsibility, roiling beneath the surface, emerges and he’s confronted by the need to balance life between career ambitions, family, love and the fight for gay rights.

 What’s striking is how the work goes beyond the pursuit of love and identity into the intricacies of learning how to love. Emotions begin to clarify as expectations disappear, revealing the known as well as the unknown. As Casey observes a partially chiseled 25 B.C. sculpture of a satyr on a second visit to Madrid, Harvey writes, “the contours of who we are…started to become clear but it’ll take a while before the details emerge.” By staging emotional fidelity against the mise en scene of anarchy, the novel resonates on multiple levels. One informs the other, strengthens and reinforces the fact that the personal is indeed political. While the work captures the zeitgeist of the times, it echoes far and wide in today’s tempestuous global society.

Reviewed by Melanie Mitzner

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Ghost Light Burn (The Maverick Heart Cycle, Book 4) – Stephen Graham King (Renaissance Press)

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I really love the Maverick Heart cycle. It’s everything I look for in speculative fiction: different worlds, camaraderie, action scenes, banter, action scenes, deep characters, action scenes, and interesting situations. Did I mention action scenes? Because there are a lot of them here–chases, tight squeezes, and impossible feats of derring-do–but King draws it all together into a fast-paced whole and makes it real.

Ghost Light Burn picks up where the last book, A Congress of Ships, left off. Spacer Keene’s life partner, Ember, has healed nicely from the injuries he incurred, leaving him with lots of technologically advanced prosthetics, and his work partner, dazzling Lexa-Blue, is also along for the ride as they travel the Galactum with Vrick, both a ship and a sentient life form. Ember gets a distress call from his old partner-in-crime, Malika, who has retired from their scams and gone back to her previous profession–acting. Now a member of a traveling theatre group, Malika has been alerted by her girlfriend to a problem on the mining planet of Fury, where said girlfriend works. Fury is being broken apart and mined for resources, but someone on its smaller administrative planet, Sound, is siphoning off the miners’ bonuses. Malika’s girlfriend’s efforts to investigate have been futile, but Malika knows her friends Keene, Ember, Lexa-Blue, and Vrick can find out who’s behind it and put a stop to the theft.

If this sounds complicated, it’s not. Just start at the beginning as King gets you on the coaster and it pulls out of the station. What follows is a wild ride filled with indelible supporting characters, inventive-as-hell technology, and a heartfelt depiction of the symbiosis between man and machine. And it’s tough to tell where one of those leaves off and another begins. King invests the spaceship Vrick with more personality than some writers give their human characters.

Although King shines in both building character and creating exciting action scenes, his melding of the two is pure magic. And just when a tech explanation starts to get too detailed, he reins it in by either having Vrick come up with an easily understood metaphor or by dropping in some fast characterization like the banter between Keene and Lexa-Blue. In this respect, his pacing is masterful.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of my favorite scenes, which has Ember in front of the mirror ruminating over not only his state of the art prosthetic devices but freely admitting the PTSD they’ve brought about. His vulnerability here is a marked contrast to the face he shows not only Keene but the rest of the world. It’s a singular, deeply moving scene that brings Ember alive and puts his humorous asides and exchanges with his comrades in a totally different light.

Although Ghost Light Burn (a ghost light, for those not familiar with the theatre, is the safety light that shines on stage when everyone is gone) is the latest in the Maverick Heart series, it definitely works as a standalone. However, you’ll be doing yourself a favor buying all of them at some point. Yes, they’re that good. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Sashay to the Centre of the Earth – Chris McCrudden (Farrago Books)

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Upon reading the title of Chris Crudden’s latest sci fi book, one might expect a story about drag queens in a Jules Verne-style adventure. It’s comedy of the campy variety for sure, but in lieu of drag queens, Crudden envisions a future inhabited by sassy sentient machines and beleaguered humans, both trying to head off a war for control of the universe. Something like Terminator meets the BBC’s Are You Being Served? if it was written by Douglas Adams. Sorry. That’s the best I can do.

I may do even worse trying to summarize the plot, and none of this is a bad thing by the way. At least for those of us who enjoy well-played adolescent humor. It’s Year 10,000 and something. Machines, from toasters to nanobots, have evolved into artificially intelligent beings, and the universe teeters on a tenuous peace accord that liberated humans from indentured servitude. Earth has been ‘remodeled’ for android habitation. Oceans have been paved over with concrete since metal doesn’t mix well with saltwater. A human cast of characters lives on the Battlestar Suburbia, which is something of a wasteland of its own. Algae is the only food source, and try as they might to process it into familiar things like hot dogs and champagne, it still tastes like algae.

Prime Minister Fuji Itsu, a printer, is determined to maintain the detente she brokered, but there’s mutiny brewing among machine-kind. Her greedy political rival Carin Parkeon, a parking meter, would like to exploit the machines’ distrust of humans and catapult Fuji from power. Meanwhile, on the Battlestar Suburbia, the grand opening of a mega supermarket, appropriately named ALGI, turns out to be a Trojan horse with potentially genocidal consequences for humans. Their leader Janice, a former low-budget hairstylist, and her partner Rita must figure out agriculture in outer space, and more immediately, how to defuse a hostile, laser-powered grocery store.

Additional rotating characters include a secret agent automaton, Pamasonic, who would prefer her former life as a simple breadmaker with dreams of settling down with a special somebody and wiring together some little ones. Her partner in crime, Hugh, is an excitable smartphone, still stinging from an affair gone wrong with Carin’s henchman Alexy, a home speaker. Then there’s the gals and guys of Battlestar Suburbia’s Kurl Up and Dye salon. They’ve been smuggling in soil to grow fruits and vegetables and become enlisted in Janice’s mission to create a palatable, organic food source for her people and end dependence on the machines.

The “science” of Crudden’s sci fi epic is hard to follow, but one grows to appreciate that’s besides the point. Sentient machines have consciousness that they can transfer to

multiple inert hosts, and they’re as fallible and paradoxical as humans. Beyond their tendency to fall back on keystroke emojis, one has a hard time telling machine characters from human ones. The machines certainly display a full range of emotions and sensibilities, from smugness, cowardice, irony, to ethical obligation.

Crudden’s humorously absurd world helps with letting go of how any of this is possible, and he makes clever reference to modern problems like social media obsession and climate crisis. His rotating ensemble of misfits encounter mischievous LOLCats, somehow gone from meme to real world entities. They discover non-biodegradable plastic rendered sentient from the toxic, primordial goop that is now Earth’s polluted oceans. Despite the ridiculousness of walking, talking electric mixers and petulant cellular phones, one never feels too far aloft from the world we know.

Crudden has also crafted a story that is unmistakably queer without depicting queerness directly, for the most part. Janice and Rita’s relationship is acknowledged, but they’re in separate places in the universe throughout the book. Hugh and Alexy have a hammed-up moment of reconciliation, but at the risk of giving away too much, their USB ports never connect. What makes the story queer is the characterization and sensibility. In the midst of a struggle to save the universe, every character, from hard luck human to discarded twentieth century ballpoint pen just wants to be seen. Happily, they each get their moment to shine, however absurdly.

A fun read for fans of sci fi/fantasy humor in the vein of Terry Gilliam, and more recently Rob Rosen and Ryan LaSala.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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That Boy of Yours Wants Looking At – Simon Smalley (Butterworth Books)

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What do you do with a well-written, engaging, enjoyable book whose main character’s life experience runs counter to not only yours but that of nearly every queer person you’ve ever met? That’s my only problem with Simon Smalley’s memoir, That Boy of Yours Wants Looking At.

Growing up in Nottingham in the late Sixties/early Seventies was a rough go economically for Smalley’s parents and his five siblings, but his father, Sid, had a decent job as an industrial photographer who did weddings and the like on the side. Smalley’s recollections are quite detailed, almost as if he’d been taking notes on his childhood, but Smalley explains this by way of a short introduction to the book where he states he has hyperthymesia, or an ability to recount his experiences with exhaustive detail. And there’s no question that it’s served him well here. He seems to have no difficulty recalling entire conversations verbatim.

As a boy, Smalley made no attempt to hide or disguise his rejection of traditionally masculine toys such as footballs or soccer paraphernalia or cowboy outfits. Smalley’s preferred Christmas and birthday presents were toy sewing and washing machines, velvet, jewelly baubles, and similar items that would have gotten me and most of the queer men I know thrown out of the house. Smalley’s parents, however, willingly indulged him despite, one assumes from the title, the opinions of others. His siblings may have been confused by him, but they were ultimately supportive.

After his mother, Betty, died, I held my breath, convinced that his father would put a halt to such nonsense and attempt to turn him away from velvet and lace, but I was wrong. He encouraged the boy’s love of androgynous glam rockers like Marc Bolan, David Bowie, and the like. No whim went unsatisfied when it came to haircuts, clothes, or music. Needless to say, coming from a father whose sole advice regarding life and sexuality was: “Never hit a woman in the breasts or the crotch,” I was stunned.

So, what’s wrong with a childhood without relentlessly toxic masculinity? Absolutely nothing. But it’s so far removed from my own experience and that of so many men of my generation, it’s jaw-dropping. And for me, it was narrative-stopping at times. I occasionally had to put the book down and wonder how such treatment would have made my life easier. But your reaction may be different. A good friend of mine also read it, and when I mentioned this issue, he said, “I know, but I decided not to let it bother me.”

The point, however, is a minor one, mostly overridden by Smalley’s excellent writing and ability to keep his readers’ attention. Perhaps it’s even a case of jealousy on my part. Again, you might feel differently. Either way, you’ll find much to like in That Boy of Yours Wants Looking At. It’s witty, wise, and totally affirming. Let his parents serve as an example rather than an exception.

JW

© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Faux Queen: A Life In Drag – Monique Jenkinson (Amble Press)

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Monique Jenkinson, the alter ego of Fauxnique, is an artist, performer, and choreographer whose solo performance works have toured nationally and internationally in such diverse places as nightclubs, theaters, and museums: with her work she examines the performance of femininity as a powerful, vulnerable, and subversive act. She may now add memoirist to her curricula vitae. Faux Queen: A Life in Drag chronicles her life as a drag artist, beginning with her first attempt in the summer of 1998 (dressed as a Mormon missionary lip-syncing “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys) to her triumphant win as Miss Trannyshack 2003 (the first cis-woman ever to win a major drag queen pageant). And just to be clear: Fauxnique is not a drag king, nor is she a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman (à la Victor/Victoria), but a cis-woman performing drag as a woman.

Of course, Fauxnique’s journey into the drag world began long before she ever walked onto the eight-by-ten stage of the Trannyshack, first with her Halloween costumes as a small child, through the brutal world of ballet, her discovery of the gender-bending and -blurring artists of 80s music, until her status of outsider was cemented when her parents moved from California to small-town Colorado. Each of these influences would come into play when, as an adult, she would enter the world of drag. And like all good memoirs, her story freely drops names (okay, Peaches Christ may not be quite the household name that RuPaul is, but Fauxnique does include appearances by a lot of San Francisco drag royalty).

In addition to all the dishy details, Fauxnique exposes one central truth, something that every woman, and every drag performer (regardless of persuasion) knows: Gender is performance. (This tenet is just as true for Monique, a cis-woman, acting as a woman, as it is for any male drag queen, or female drag, or non-binary drag monarch.) Moreover, as a corollary, she demonstrates another truth that should be just as self-evident: Drag is a lot of work. In other words, You have to work at it to werq it. A great deal of thought occurs before a performance, as Fauxnique explains at great length: she includes several examples of her drag numbers, providing comprehensive descriptions of costume, make-up, music, props, as well as all the preparation and rehearsal that happens beforehand. Drag is definitely in the details.

In addition to being a fun read about an interesting life, Fauxnique manages to be both educating and thought-provoking: she certainly taught this cis-male reviewer hitherto unknown aspects of drag, both back- and front-stage. Never condescending of her drag sisters, Fauxnique knows full well that she is a cis-woman in a world that traditionally only included cis-men. She shows how something as illusory as drag can reveal deeper truths, and thereby elevates Drag to the status of Art. Her unique position also give her valuable insights into gender and feminism, which she communicates in an accessible way. A recent season of RuPaul’s Drag Race included two trans people and a straight cis-man as contestants; when the latter entry was criticized, a Drag Race star retorted, “Drag is for everyone.” Fauxnique would agree.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Saints & Sinners: New Fiction from the Festival 2022 – Ed. by Tracy Cunningham and Paul J. Willis (Rebel Satori Press)

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Rebel Satori Press

I was a regular attendee of the marvelous queer lit conference, Saints & Sinners, for a good fifteen years. I took a short break, but then the pandemic came along and my break was far longer than I’d intended it to be. This year, however, marked my return to New Orleans, and it was a delight to see faces old and new and feel the energy once again. And one of the features of S&S is their fiction contest, judged each year by a different queer author. This year it was Martin Hyatt (author of A Scarecrow’s Bible and Beautiful Gravity among others), who chose some magnificent pieces.

Even the best short story anthology, however, won’t connect with every reader all the time, and there are some pieces here which didn’t do anything for me. Other readers might find them brilliant, of course. That’s just the nature of collections, and I’ll say that the stories range all over the place, from heavily plotted to fleshed-out character sketches.

The collection starts off strong with an interesting piece by Colin Lacy, “An Ephemeral Eye,” which has easily the most bizarre premise in the book. A lifelong fan of a rock star named Adam Sterling buys Sterling’s eye, which the rocker has removed and saved for the fan. As the fan consumes the organ, he has flashbacks of Sterling’s life with each piece of the eye he eats. That he does so in front of the retired and now one-eyed singer does not lessen the creepiness, but once you get beyond that, the story turns into a fascinating rumination on celebrity, those who chase it, and those who attain it.

The only difficulty in starting out with a story this oddly powerful is following it. Despite the title of the next story, Kat Lewis’s “Eat You Whole,” it’s positively prosaic alongside its predecessor. The effect of Lacy’s story really doesn’t wear off until J.R. Greenwell’s “Bucktooth Becky,” a charming tale of a girl and her gay best friend and what happens when a Catholic grade school teacher comes to a largely Baptist smalltown.

Once the taste of the eye is out of your mouth, there’s much here to occupy your attention. The winner of the contest, J Duncan Davidson’s “My Elijah” is an atmospheric story set in a logging camp and deals with the accidental death of the lead character’s saw partner, Elijah, who was also his romantic interest. I also liked Gar McVey-Russell’s “The Necklace,” set in 1990s East Oakland, a tale of preacher sin and boyhood redemption as slim, slight protagonist AJ must cope with Pastor Blade’s advances while taking comfort in the memory of his first love and protector, Kenny, killed by gang gunfire. As heartbreaking as it is uplifting, Russell’s story has indelible characters who speak in dialogue that fairly crackles. And William Christy Smith’s “Free Pizza for Life,” the story of a New Orleans drag queen who wins a pizzeria’s promotional contest, has extraordinary heart and wit and maybe my favorite line in the whole damn book: “I don’t know why anyone would ever think twice about Marilyn Monroe as long as Dusty Springfield is around.”

But most on the money for me (your mileage may vary) is Eric Peterson’s “Little Boy Blue,” an emotional story about a man going back to Savannah for the funeral of his aunt, Willa Jean, who took him in when his father threw him out for being gay. As he negotiates the tricky pathways of family and grief, the latter is ameliorated by the overflow crowd at the funeral home, mostly gay men his aunt had also taken in and nurtured when their families abandoned them. Though that’s a bit of a spoiler, I can guarantee a tear will still come to your eye by the end. I actually read this twice (and cried both times).

So, there you have it. As with most anthologies, this has high and low points, but the best stories are memorable indeed. I can hardly wait for the next volume.

JW

© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler

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