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Falling – Trebor Healey (University of Wisconsin Press)

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A lot has happened between Trebor Healey’s fantastic, dark and trippy short story collection Eros and Dust (Lethe Press, 2016) and his latest, the beguiling literary feat that is Falling (University of Wisconsin Press, 2019). The worst of America has bubbled to the surface like an effervescent tar, staining the globe and leaving multitudes gasping in despair. The activism that Healey dove headfirst into as these endless political calamities erupted, working with refugees seeking asylum and reporting on their plight, has deepened his art. Rather than retreat inward, pulling down a smoky curtain of opium and waiting until reality improves, his stories rush to the “other” and contain not only a smoldering political urgency, but one grounded in the profundity of how the most valuable of literature has always grappled with such concerns.

The reader knows from the immaculate first story, The Fallen Man, that they are in the hands of a master craftsman as the main character struggles with amnesia in a country not his own, wrapped in fluttering prose reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. That this story offers no redemption but rather beautiful, painful knowledge is an indicator of all to come. Healey is a traveler, not a tourist. There are no white saviors here. As these stories, for the most part, unwind across Central and South America, their linkage becomes clear: we are all adrift in the world and the fractured relationships we forge might not lead to the outcomes we imagine or desire. In the first-person story, Ghost, the unnamed protagonist has the kind of raw relationship with a heroin-using male prostitute that moves beyond sex and into the seamless obsessions that fester to the surface when we find ourselves alone in other countries, those countries often being books, not places. The road-ready jazz of Kerouac pervades, ambling alongside the more visionary reach of Chilean novelist Roberto Bolańo and the English writer Jeanette Winterson, whose work is quoted throughout Ghost. There is no time to be coy in this age of information -no, make that this age of anxiety; our influences are best placed front and center, or, in the words of Winterson, “(t)true stories are the ones that lie open at the border.”

Jorge Luis Borges gets namechecked in a story or two, and the imprint of his labyrinthine imagination is a well-felt influence throughout the collection; as the complexities of cities and cultures unwind, as artists struggle with love and personal loss, and wanderers fail to find themselves but do find others. One short story in particular, Spirited Away, is a verdant meditation on loss and relationship:

Vic never went back to the village, and after that, he painted Henry, and he painted hongos, and he painted a woman and the road and the waterfall that he had never actually seen and didn’t care to. He considered it Henry’s private place. As was his tendency, he painted figuratively until the figures turned into forms and then to abstractions so that you would never be  able to tell that the vortexes he was fashioning were made of plants and a waterfall and Henry -and the square and its chairs and old men, and even the colonial buildings of Oaxaca and the ruined temples of the Mixtec and the Zapotec.

The closing novella, The Orchid, is a deep dive into Argentinian political machinations and personal manipulations reminiscent of Yukio Mishima’s plotting from his exquisite middle period. The overlay of heterosexual politics and gay lives as homosexuality gains as a commodity in the world is something of a new topic to be tackled by literature, and is done so here deftly and the reach of the story and multitude of characters, some sketched deeply with only minor appearances, hints that this was intended as a longer work but found authorial satisfaction in its current shape and form.

Trebor Healey’s short story collection, Falling, is recommended primarily as a work that far exceeds the reflexively introspective grasp that is current gay literature. Following the immortal urging of E. M. Forester that we “only connect,” Healey’s stories do so and with great daring, political acuity, and a genuine interest to see and hear and feel other cultures as they are, not as how they exist in relation to the fetid living corpse that is the dis-United States.

Reviewed by Tom Cardamone

More on Trebor Healey’s activism: https://www.newsweek.com/inside-migrant-caravan-we-have-room-these-amazing-people-opinion-1211851

Tom Cardamone is the editor of Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White by the Book, and is 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 The Lavender Menace: Tales of Queer Villainy! You can read more about him and his writings at www.pumpkinteeth.net.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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The Black Marble Pool – Stan Leventhal (ReQueered Tales)

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

 

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‘Nathan Burgoine’s 2019 Audiobook Review

(‘Nathan not pictured. This is Max.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine

 

 

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Reverie – Ryan La Sala (Sourcebooks Fire)

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

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

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

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

It’s off to a damn fun start.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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Tinsel – Kris Bryant (Bold Strokes Books)

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I’m a slowly recovering, though still unapologetic, Grinch when it comes to the holidays. The relentlessness of “Family is Everything!” isn’t always the most realistic message for queer people, and after multiple decades working retail and withstanding both holiday customers and holiday music, my joy for the season is, at best, muted.

Also, there’s that magic trick that happens as a queer person when you put on pretty much any holiday movie and see people like yourself magically vanish (unless in a more recent movie, where the heroine might have an queer-coded friend there to toss a finger-snap or two when she needs, I don’t know, a makeover or a shoulder to cry on about the chisel-chinned Christmas tree farmer who’ll be out of work if she follows her boss-slash-fiancé’s plans to level the town for a mall or whatever).

So, when I seek out some queerness for the holidays, I almost always head right on over to queer holiday romances, where the happy-ever-afters (or -for-nows) are all about us.

This was how I found myself with Tinsel, Kris Bryant’s most recent holiday romance novella, and found myself almost immediately smitten with the main character, Jessica, because Jessica, to put it mildly, is not in the spirit.

She’s recently dumped, albeit out of a relationship she knew had no real foundation to speak of, but worse, she’s been dumped because her former girlfriend has found someone else—and that someone else is one of Jessica’s co-workers, which is just awkward and awful on so many levels.

Added to that, someone she’d normally find attractive just spilled coffee all over her because they weren’t paying attention to where they were going.

So Jessica is already understandably grumpy, and that’s before she catches someone swatting a stray kitten out of his way on the street, and ends up with said silver kitten tucked in her coat, and heading to the closet vet to find out if the kitty is chipped or not.

Whereupon the beautiful woman who dumped coffee on her turns out to be the vet.

As meet-cutes (meet-spills?) go, this is not an auspicious start for Jessica and Taylor, and I was wholeheartedly buckled in for the ride. Because Jessica in a foul mood is self-aware enough to know she’s in a foul mood, but doesn’t quite have the impulse control to stop herself from snapping at, well, everyone, she never quite pushes the line into completely unredeemable jerk. But I did mention I’m a Grinch myself, so I personally was raising my metaphorical glass to Jessica at nearly every grumpy turn.

The good news, for those of a less Grinchy persuasion, is that Jessica does manage to gather her frayed reserves of patience and kindness, and it’s mostly to do with the aforementioned kitten and the beautiful veterinarian. With a little tiny fluffball of purring, huggy love in her life, Jessica’s course is nudged onto a more pleasant holiday path, and the end result is a worthwhile journey.

For a novella-length work, Bryant does a nice job of showing us Jessica’s life as it interacts with her family, her best friend, and her work in such a way as to paint a wider picture of Jessica (and also help to explain her foibles and general grumpiness in her current situation). More, the kitten’s antics walk the line between cute and saccharine well, including a small crisis and some great moments as Jessica relies on the caregiving advice of her best friend, given she has zero experience in the realm herself.

Tinsel is a zippy, well-paced narrative, and by the time Tinsel draws to a close, even the Grinchiest of readers should be drawn in, happy with the journey, and rewarded with some sizzle. And for those who maybe don’t like a Grinch as much as I do, not to worry: the kitten makes it perfectly clear that Jessica’s heart is already the right size, despite her denials that she couldn’t possibly keep a cat. Jessica just needs a bit of time to get there, and to recognize what might be with Taylor.

Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine

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River Runs Red – Scott Alexander Hess (Lethe Press)

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Calhoun McBride: sixteen, a runaway from an orphan train, works night shifts at Snopes Brewery; hustles on the banks of the Mississippi River, trying to save money for a train ticket out West to Wyoming. Clement Cartwright: son of Irish and German immigrants, his father worked too at Snopes Brewery; left St. Louis to become an architect. Belasco Snopes: current owner of his family’s brewery, and heir to their fortune; twisted, cruel, addicted to cocaine, possibly mad. Dolores Brattridge: a sheltered member of St. Louis society; blessed, or cursed, with visions that may or may not result from the laudanum she sometimes adds to her morning coffee.

These four characters alternately narrate successive chapters of River Runs Red by Scott Alexander Hess, set during the hot and humid summer of 1891 in St. Louis, where their lives come together, explosively. Clement has returned from Chicago, commissioned to construct the Landsworth building, the first skyscraper in St. Louis (and second in the world); one stormy night he finds himself by the banks of the Mississippi River, where he meets Calhoun. After their midnight swim they begin an ongoing association that eventually Snopes uncovers and exploits, determined to discredit Clement. Dolores, propelled by dark premonitions of death and doom, tries to thwart them, only to exacerbate them further until they escalate climatically at Calhoun’s trial.

Hess has written another gritty, steamy (in all senses of the word), and atmospheric historical novel. He travels effortlessly from high society parlors to the shacks of the river drabs, easily capturing the cadences of cultured classes, and those lower down the social ladder. River Runs Red is aptly named: at times brutal, even in civilized arenas an undercurrent of violence flows throughout, be it from Man or Nature, and given to erupting unexpectedly.

One might not associate fin de siècle St. Louis, the “Gateway to the West,” with such southern noir; but River Runs Red combines the sultry decadence associated with the Mississippi Delta, with a veneer of eastern gentility, and spices it up with otherwordly elements, both European and non-European. It may be a short novel, but it packs a punch, like a river rat boxer. And like the Mississippi, the short chapters of River Runs Red lap at your ankles, but before you know it, the riptide of the story has drawn you in, and then there’s no way to resist the current of this narrative.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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