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Postcards from the Canyon – Lisa Gitlin (Bywater Books)

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Back in August of 2010, I reviewed Lisa Gitlin’s debut novel, I Came Out for This?, which I liked a great deal. So, I was at the front of the line when I heard Bywater was about to release her second book, Postcards from the Canyon, and I must say I was not disappointed. Eight years is a long time to wait, but it’s done nothing to dull Gitlin’s talents.

Our protag, Joanna Jacobs, is a writer whose latest novel about 9/11 has been rejected soundly by a number of publishers. As if this wasn’t disappointment enough, she also has to deal with the recent death of her mother. As authors often do, she tries to write through her grief by setting down an account of her childhood in 1960’s Cleveland. Her anxiousness also manifests itself in a threatening call to a conservative Congresswoman on a talk show, causing a visit from the FBI. Not to mention the juvenile delinquents from upstairs who have drilled a hole into her closet and invaded her apartment.

Gitlin’s voice in both the flashback childhood segments as well as the adult present story is every bit as sharp and observant as in her first book. And Joanna is a character with great aplomb. Nothing seems to faze her. Her childhood encounter with a pair of lesbians on her block (The Blobs), her time as a pyromaniac and her resulting stay in a mental institution, her rage-filled father, her brushes with racial prejudice and riots in Hough–all of this is handled with the dispassion and doesn’t-this-happen-to-everyone? attitude I often see in children. Her adult self deals with just as much–career failure, lesbian drama, death, homelessness–but carries over much of that dispassion. That, however, doesn’t mean she can’t be outraged, as when the juvenile delinquents invade her apartment:

Finally, I had the presence of mind to look in the closet and there was a huge hole in the ceiling! Those crazy kids had apparently chainsawed a hole in the floor of the Chinese people’s closet in order to obtain access to my apartment! Jesus Christ, I cannot believe they had the nerve to do this! I just kept standing there like a dope. I heard a guy talking in Chinese through the hole in the closet. I looked over at the boys and saw them all poking on their phones except for the Jewish kid, who was sitting next to the good-looking kid banging his head against the back of the sofa. I realized I had to do something, so I shut the closet door and walked over to the seating area and planted myself in the middle of the rug like an old maid at a beer party. “What are you people doing in here?” I yelled.

But she doesn’t call the cops. She befriends them, looking forward to their daily arrival and becoming somewhat involved in the lives. Like you do with teenagers who invade your living space, right? This does not go unnoticed by her childhood friends, who have remained in touch as they became adults, attempting to steer her on a somewhat more conventional path. It doesn’t work.

If I have a complaint, it’s that the ending feels a bit rushed in comparison to the way she rolls out the rest of the story. Dealing with her mother’s effects and closing up the house is relegated to only one chapter, but all loose ends are tied up with nothing left to question. And that caveat is a minor one you may disagree with.

In short, Gitlin has created a funny, inspiring character who succeeds in spite of herself in a warm, involving book. Postcards from the Canyon is mail you won’t want to miss.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

 

 

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

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We’ve all seen the Craigslist, Grindr, and Scruff  ‘need-not-apply’ lists — fats, fems, non-whites, etc., but queer disabled men are so invisible they rarely even appear in those litanies. However, Raymond Luczak puts them front and center in this great collection of powerful and empowering stories, The Kinda Fella I Am.

The umbrella opened by the word “disability” is large, so this collection has a lot to deal with and it does so admirably–in less than a hundred and fifty pages. Quads, paras, psoriatics, Deaf men, and men whose disabilities are never revealed all have representation here, and that’s a beautiful thing. You’d expect the stories to be either rageful or “samey” after a while, and although that anger-fueled voice does appear from time to time, these tales are anything but alike.

The title story, first in the collection, tells you right up front what you’re in for:

When I show up at the Eagle, I scare the shit out of strangers. There’s the mud-splattered spokes of my wheels, the beat-up edges of my seat, the crud-smoothed-over bike bar handles behind my shoulders. You could say this older chair’s my Harley-Davidson. I got on my t-shirt and leather vest, and my jeans folded underneath my stumps…But tonight is different. I’ve caught you standing by the wall with your buddies, drinking and talking…You’re in your thirties. Cute smile. Sharp flattop. Nice ass…Oh yeah. I’m gonna snooker you before the night’s over. You just don’t know it yet. 

The bravado of this voice is not a defense, an act, or a persona. The character reveals it as a well-honed honesty pared to a sharp edge by years of disappointment and anger intermingled with flashes of kindness and humanity from others. It is challenging and meant to be so.

Picking favorites here is tough because each of these pieces has something to recommend it. However, some of them have stuck with me in the days that followed after I finished this. “Cartography,” about a man with psoriasis who prowls the bathhouses wearing a t-shirt to hide his lesions, was a hopeful lesson in connection, as was “A Crip Fairy Tale.” I also liked “This” a great deal, an involving story dealing with two Deaf dancers, one of whom always provides money, home, and a safe haven for the other, despite the way his friend takes advantage of him time and time again.

I also liked “September Song,” a very engaging tale about an able guy working at a carnival. This kid is terrified of his homosexuality and afraid to come out until he meets a straight paraplegic he helps onto the ferris wheel he’s tending. After he puts the guy back into his wheelchair, the para outs him:

“You’re a homo…It’s okay if you are. Fellas like you were always nice to me after I got my legs chopped off, so I don’t care if you’re that way. Doesn’t matter none to me…You looked at me. Everybody pretends I’m not there, and if they see me, all they want to do is to thank me for serving in Germany. Or they act like I’m a freak show. Dames think that if you got your legs chopped off, you got your dick chopped off too. Damn, I can’t find me a girl. But you–you’re different. You didn’t get flustered or tell that I can’t go up or it’s unsafe for me to get on the ride. That’s all I want from anyone.”

That lesson in involvement, in engagement, in inclusivity, gives the kid the courage to think about quitting his dead-end carny life and moving to Greenwich Village so he can be truer to himself.

And that, ultimately, seems to be the goal of The Kinda Fella I Am–to provide lessons on how to be true to yourself despite those around you who encourage you to do otherwise. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Channeling Morgan – Lewis DeSimone (Beautiful Dreamer Press)

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If you’ve ever attended a writing class (or possibly a literature class) you’ve no doubt heard of, or discussed, “voice”—that unique quality that sets a writer apart: all writers are suppose to cultivate their own distinctive voice. Unfortunately, Derick Sweetwater, the protagonist of Louis DeSimone’s Channeling Morgan, has spent his writing career disguising his: as a freelancer (read: ghostwriter) he has penned many a memoir for someone else. So when he spends a week in Provincetown at a workshop to work on his novel, he ironically lands his biggest potential client to date: Clive Morgan, a hunky (and closeted) movie star who hires him to write his autobiography, with promises to “tell all.” Surprisingly, the perennially single Derick also meets a new boyfriend (Jared) while at Provincetown. Once he returns to Manhattan, Derick’s progress on his novel takes a step backward, but all other aspects of his life begin spinning out of control.

(And if I may indulge in an aside of my own: DeSimone’s voice is full of wry asides, irony, and captures perfectly the banter of long-time friends and the absurd paradoxes of modern life.)

A novel whose protagonist is a writer, and who attends a writing workshop for the first half of the narrative, might lead one to expect that it is primarily about how to write. And it is true that many of DeSimone’s zingers in the first part of the novel are launched at the world of publishing, literary workshops, and the people who travel this world. Nevertheless, the primary theme of this novel is truth.

Of course, DeSimone does this in the devious way that all novelists do: he invents a completely false set of characters and circumstances—in other words, he crafts a deliberate set of lies. Oh, the characters and circumstances may be based on people DeSimone knows (maybe even DeSimone himself) and actual events that he has heard about or even experienced, but after all this is fiction. And the purpose of fiction is to tell the truth—by telling a story. Derick is admonished constantly (in mutually exclusive ways) to write more “honestly” to tell his (own) story: the workshop leader strikes out all the adjectives and adverbs in Derick’s novel excerpt, as a way to strip his story down to its essence; however, when they meet up in a bar at the conclusion of the workshop, he then suggests that Derick ought to emulate his hero E. M. Forester by writing about straights, to use people completely unlike him, in order to tell his story.

Armed with the ambiguous advice gained at the writing workshop, Derick must use it to navigate a life full of contradictions and paradoxes when he returns to Manhattan. Because writing more honestly is really a metaphor for him to live more authentically: Clive Morgan provides an anti-example—even when he isn’t playing a role, he is still acting the part of a straight Hollywood heartthrob. On the other hand, Jared notes that he feels more honest, and does less actual acting while in drag, than at his daily temp assignments; is it any wonder that Derick feels conflicted and confused? Only an opportune intervention finally succeeds in setting Derick straight, so to speak. (And forgive the spoiler, but in one final bit of irony, Derick leaves ghostwriting behind only after meeting an actual ghost.)

Truthfully, as a send-up of publishing, literary workshops, Hollywood hypocrisy, and Manhattan A-list Gays, Channeling Morgan makes compulsive reading—come for the story, but stay for the truth.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

 

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Femme Confidential – Nairne Holtz (Insomniac Press)

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Being a lesbian seems…complicated. I thought gay men were preoccupied with roles and structure, and we are, but we have nothing on the ladies–especially the ones portrayed in Nairne Holtz’s latest book, Femme Confidential.  But Holtz invests those labels with enough heart and character so that they’re people instead of concepts, creating a work as interesting as it is instructive.

Bad girl Veronika, along with Liberty, the daughter of left-leaning Quaker hippies and trans woman Dana and a host of tangential players (Beth, Diamond, Holly, and others) come together and fly apart again in what, at times, is a dizzying whirl of one-night stands and two-week relationships as they all try to find their places in both the lesbian community and their own lives. But most of all, these are people who are trying to find a way to be comfortable in their own skins and have room left over for love.

Make no mistake, the cast of characters is a large one considering the people who flit in and out of the clubs, the discos, and the sex establishments, but Holtz manages to keep everyone straight (pun fully intended) while smearing the rather strict role structure that pervades the community. All three of the main characters, however, have a divide they try to bridge or negotiate in some way. Liberty is trying to find a way to be all things. As she says while getting ready for a night at the club:

My black velvet bra was accompanied by an onyx pendant, and my red silk boxer shorts that were a size too small and more like hot pants were paired with army boots. Some people might have called my look “genderfuck,” except it wasn’t really. Masculinity or even androgyny just wasn’t me. I wanted butch and femme to be like shoes, something you could slip on or unlace, but it wasn’t that simple.

But as a trans woman, Dana has the most difficult path to walk because she’s seeing the divide from a totally different perspective:

It was sort of depressing the way masculinity, something Dana wanted to eradicate from her being, was so embraced, so desirable in this community she was supposedly part of. She had thought Liberty didn’t want to be with her because her body could never be female enough, but it was more complicated than that. Dana not being butch was also a problem…Did every femme want a butch and every butch want a femme? It had seemed that way to her until the night she discovered that some of her butch teammates wanted each other.

Her story was the most engaging to me, especially after she has her bottom surgery and becomes involved with Holly after seeing her at a BBW (Big Beautiful Woman) event. But, really, all the characters here are interesting and leave the reader with something to think about as far as roles, gender fluidity, and expectations go. Highly recommended, and a great way to start 2018.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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On Christmas Break

Out in Print is taking a break for the holidays. We wish you and yours a peaceful time regardless of what you celebrate or how. Next year, we will be in for the fight of our lives trying to regain control of a country in free-fall. Make no mistake about it, folks. They are coming for us. Aiming at us. Chipping away at our hard fought and newly won freedoms. We need to shout loud and often, so rest up.

Out in Print will resume shouting January 1st, 2018.

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Out in Print’s Best of 2017

After taking a short hiatus, I brought Out in Print: Queer Book Reviews back in reaction to the installation of the Tr–p Reich by Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Boris Badenov, doing my best to amplify as many queer voices as I can in my little corner of the blogosphere. And 2017 has provided many fine voices to share with you. Hopefully, we can drown the bastards out in 2018. We’ll see. Before the year ends, however, it’s time to take a second look at some of those voices, so here is OiP’s ten best list in no particular order:

 

The Liberators of Willow Run – Marianne K. Martin

Buy from Bywater Books  (Review here)

In this absorbing WWII homefront story, one of my favorite authors tells the story of these queer and disenfranchised women with such attention to detail and care for her characters that their struggle becomes real. The war effort becomes secondary to their goals, but more than one battle is being fought here. Timeless and beautiful, this book (especially the nursing home scene) sticks with me nearly a year later.

If You Can Hear This: Poems in Protest of an American Inauguration – Bryan Borland, ed.

Buy from Sibling Rivalry Press (Review here)

Art reacts to life, and political strife provides the perfect catalyst, especially the shocks we’ve experienced since the Russians forced their puppet into our Punch and Judy show. Those were but a glimmer on the horizon when this volume came out. Borland and the voices he brings us may be preaching to the choir, but let’s hope someone else is listening as well.

The Great Man – Dale Chase

Buy from Lethe Press (Review here)

Every m/m author working today should take a lesson from Chase on how to do gay male romance with verisimilitude. Her characters are anti-heteronormative, healthy, well-adjusted (in terms of their sexuality) gay men who have a lot of sex. And aren’t ashamed of it. Or anything else, truth be told. Billed as erotica, it’s more romantic than anything you’ll read from anyone else on the subject. Period.

Eros and Dust: Stories – Trebor Healey

Buy from Lethe Press (Review here)

Two-time Ferro-Grumley Award winner Trebor Healey shows what he can do with short fiction in this diverse collection. His stories are less romantic than they realistic and gritty. Suffused with heat and horniness, this collection provides some terrific twists and turns as Healey takes us on a tour through his head as well as his heart. And…uh…other regions.

Scarborough – Catherine Hernandez

Buy from Arsenal Pulp (Review here)

From the little gay boy, Bing, to the battles Ms Hina must fight daily with her administration, this portrait of a teacher and her students in an “urban” environment is heartfelt and sincere. It never sounds false or preaches, yet its lessons are legion. Hernandez has a marvelous eye for detail and an even better sense of the absurd, both requirements for success in the profession of education. This is a stunning book, well worth your time.

The Girl on the Edge of Summer – J.M. Redmann

Buy from Bold Strokes (Review here)

Redmann’s Micky Knight series is one of my favorites, and this entry is absolutely top-notch. The mystery is tight and well-plotted, and Micky continues to founder in her post-Cordelia state, but she is starting to feel her way back to what passes for normal. This is one of the few detective series I’ve read whose sleuth is as interesting as her cases. Maybe even more.

His Seed: An Arboretum of Erotica – Steve Berman, ed.

Buy from Lethe Press (Review here)

This compendium of man/plant erotica apparently grew out of a bet as to whether or not Berman could make the concept work. He succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, perhaps even his own. Featuring some of Lethe’s stalwart writers as well as some newcomers, this volume is creepy and weirdly hot. Just start reading, and, trust me, it will grow on you (see what I did there?).

A Pornographer: A Memoir – Arch Brown

Buy from Chelsea Station (Review here)

Arch Brown’s film work of the 1970’s may not have been shown in mainstream theatres, but it was as influential as Spielberg or Friedkin or Kubrick – just not in the same arenas. Brown’s memoir also leaves little to the imagination as we meet his players and stars. It’s a fascinating book that puts both the films and their time into an artful context.

 

A Quiet Death – Cari Hunter

Buy from Bold Strokes (Review here)

And speaking of series, Cari Hunter comes up aces with this entry in the Dark Peak saga. Well-plotted and perfectly executed, this look into the Pakistani neighborhood and culture is both informative and harrowing. Hunter hits the ground running and never stops. You’ll not be able to put it down.

 

Insatiable – Jeff Mann

Buy from Lethe Press (Review here)

Jeff Mann’s Scottish wampyr Derek MacLaine finally gets a full-length book all his own, and what a delight it is. He and his coterie take on the mining industry in a novel as environmentally friendly as it is erotic. Mann is clearly comfortable slipping into his well-worn MacLaine leathers, and we’re all the better for it. Sexually charged and anti-establishment, this is Mann at his best.

 

So, there we have it. Hopefully, we’re in time for you to peruse the list and pick some stocking stuffers. Books make wonderful gifts for readers and great rewards for authors and publishers and their hard work. And in these desperate political times when most everything this audience holds dear is threatened, we need to shout and spread the word as loudly as we can. And Out in Print will be around to help as long as necessary. Thanks, and have a happy holiday!!

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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Unspeakable Horror 2: Abominations of Desire – Vince A. Liaguno, ed (Evil Jester Press)

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When I was a young queerling reading any and all science fiction and/or horror tales voraciously, I always looked for any collection with “omnibus” in the title because I knew I’d get an immense volume stuffed with all kinds of goodies. Vince Liaguno’s Unspeakable Horror 2 reminded me very much of those books. At twenty stories, you can sink your teeth into this book and either gnash your way through like a starving man at a banquet or savor each one. And there’s much to savor here.

Liaguno’s introduction is well-written and concise, giving a nod to the first volume while putting this one into context. He also gives some history of the project, a move I never really understood until I edited a few anthologies of my own (it’s such a wonderful yet frustrating process, someone ought to hear about the struggle) and follows that up with some interesting information about each story.

I was most happy to see some reliable tale-tellers in the Table of Contents such as Marshall Moore, whose “Underground” brings the minotaur to life again. Stalwart Lee Thomas also makes an appearance with “The Grief Season,” an exquisitely wrought story about a foreboding physical manifestation of that emotion. And I don’t think any modern queer horror anthology would be complete without a selection from Tom Cardamone, who I’ve had the pleasure of working with a number of times. His NYC-centric “Bent on Midnight Frolic” takes us deep into Central Park’s Ramble to follow the exploits of one Golden Boy, a trick who’s not exactly a treat. Historical and romantic fiction author Erastes is also on hand to delight us with the short but punchy “Fugitive Colors,” and Evan J. Peterson takes us inside the business world to find out who’s really underneath those suits and ties in “Investment Opportunity.”

As my duties at Out in Print send me far and wide over more than a few genres, I haven’t had the time or resources to delve as far into queer horror fiction as the little queerling referenced above would like, so I have missed or am just reading for the first time some authors Liaguno has had some experience with. So Lisa Morton’s chilling “Ofrenda,” about a meth addict in a graveyard on Dia de los Muertos, Michael Hacker’s twisty-ending “Clearing Clutter,” and R.B. Payne’s atmospheric “The Sisterhood” were total surprises, as was Gemma Files’s shiver-inducing “Lagan.”

But one of the most powerful stories here is Stephen Graham Jones’s “Kissyface,” an absolutely kick-ass story about a high-school mass murderer and the prank which warped him. I read this in school as I supervised a student teacher (I was subbing that day), and every time I glanced up, all I could wonder was which of the students were enduring similar trauma and might be just as badly  warped. Jones’s descriptions were horrific–in a good way–and what I loved most was the way he restored some humanity to the titular murderer. Worth the price of admission alone.

A very large thanks goes out to Vince Liaguno for his patience and persistence in collecting these stories. I can hardly wait for number three.

JW

© 2017 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

 

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