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Read By Strangers – Philip Dean Walker (Lethe Press)

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Although I didn’t review Walker’s first collection, At Danceteria and Other Stories, I was mightily impressed with Keith John Glaeske’s thoughts and vowed to put aside my TBR pile long enough to check it out. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. So, when Lethe Press came out with his second volume of short fiction, it went to the top of my review stack. This time, it did happen, and I must say the read was quite rewarding.

More and more these days, the short story collections I see by gay men seem to have straight characters as well. I don’t know what to think about this in terms of society and inclusion, but the justification, I think, is in the stories themselves. And in that, Walker hits the mark mostly every time. His portraits of straight relationships are as telling and poignant as those of his gay men and women, so while they may not all be our stories, they are stories for all of us.

One of the themes running through both the gay and straight stories deals with the line between reality and artifice. One of the most brilliant examples of this is “Why Burden a Baby With a Body?” which deals with Hiromi and her husband Takahito, who have real lives but spend most of their time inhabiting a virtual reality video game realm, where Hiromi has “won” a baby so much easier to deal with than the flesh and blood baby she’s just given birth to:

Something clenched the pit of her stomach at the thought of touching the thing, Kimi, this whining sack of flesh, who, if she thought long and hard enough about, neither looked nor sounded like her. Kimi smelled foul even though Hiromi was sure Takahiko must’ve changed her before he’d headed back to the cafe. Anima wasn’t like that; she didn’t need to be fed and changed on a constant schedule.

You just know such loathing for her own child can’t end up well. It doesn’t. But Walker’s gay men also practice the art of deception, particularly in the short yet punchy story about hustling, “Three-Sink Sink”:

First, pick a fake name. Something totally different from your own, but one you’ll remember to answer to. Nothing too porn-like. Buck, Ryder, Storm, Dick, Apollo: These are names to stay away from. Choose something single and boyish. Like Jake or Chip or Hunter. Dylan is popular. The fake name will come in handy later on when you want to pretend it’s not you who’s doing this.

Dysfunctional families are also staples of Walker’s work, including the long-lost sister who turns up in “Revolution” and the mother who sleeps with her daughter’s English teacher in “Hester Prynne Got an A,” but from the one-story-writer in “Verisimilitude” to the corporate ex-pat living in Singapore in “A Cup of Fur,” Walker’s characters are adept at snatching failure from the jaws of success. The one-page stories are less focused and don’t really work for me, but that said, the final story in the book is one of the shortest and one of the most powerful. “Caravan” is a simple little tale of a bunch of gay men headed back home after a drunken night on the town, but the ending belies its simplicity and evokes a dreadful sense of danger. It accomplishes a great deal in a few words.

Although any collection of short fiction will be hit or miss, Walker’s finely drawn characters and unusual insights make him a short fiction writer worth watching for. I may even have to go back and read Danceteria! Highly recommended.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Badge of Loyalty – Jude Tresswell (Rowanvale Books, Ltd)

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The protagonist of Jude Tresswell’s Badge of Loyalty is Mike Angells, a Gay CID (Criminal Investigation Department) inspector, (in America a plainclothes detective), based in northeast England. Mike’s life is rather ordinary (if you can call police work that): investigating Part I crimes; dealing with homophobic and/or just plain clueless straights in his department; and all the extra challenges of loving three different men simultaneously instead of just one. Although openly gay, he is not as open about the three men involved in his life: Ross Whitburn-Howe, gallery owner; Phil Roberts, doctor; and Raith Balan, artist. As indicated by the title, Mike’s byword is loyalty, and he is as loyal to his co-workers as he is to each of his lovers (including his first one, now deceased). And the red heart with a blue lemniscate tattooed on all four men’s arms is as important to Mike as his police badge.

Most of the time Mike can keep his life neatly compartmentalized, but all of that changes while investigating the suspicious death of a footballer in a gay club: the father of the primary suspect threatens blackmail, by exposing a years-old crime committed by Ross, unless Mike withholds incriminating evidence against his son. Mike’s vows of loyalty are suddenly in conflict, and his decision ultimately leads to a lot of soul-searching and a serious life change, but also to a brutal conclusion when two men (an ex-con and Raith’s former lover Peri), each bearing different grudges against Mike, team up to exact revenge.

Most of the narrative centers on Mike, and is delivered by an omniscient narrator, in the third person voice; but interspersed throughout are first-person asides by Ross, Phil, and Raith. These asides are just as interesting (perhaps more so) as the main action, for they flesh out the main story by explaining such things as each man’s individual back story, and the genesis of their relationships with Mike; for this reason, Raith, the last man to join their quad, has the fewest asides (although his are the longest). They also discuss each character’s perception of the nature of their relationships with Mike and each other; Ross, for example, considers himself monogamous since he has sex only with Mike, and never with the other two. Ross’s comment underscores a most interesting observation: everything is not perfectly equal between all four men, all the time; their relationship is a constantly shifting polygon, not a perfect square—or perhaps tetrahedron would be a more apt metaphor for an outsider’s expectation. In any event, this novel provides an example of polyamory and how it does and doesn’t work—at least for the four men involved (in this, as in most things, your mileage may vary).

Too erotic to be a pure police procedural, and too brutal for most erotica, this novel, like its protagonist, defies easy categorization; but readers who enjoy fast-paced stories will also enjoy this multi-faceted story, and the four men at the heart of it.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Death’s Echoes – Penny Mickelbury (Bywater Books)

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Being the chronologically-obsessed, anally-retentive kinda guy I am, I hate exploring a new series from the middle. I’d rather work from the beginning out, but sometimes that isn’t possible and I have to start with the volume at hand. So, I’m new to Penny Mickelbury’s Gianna Maglione/Mimi Patterson mystery series, but if this entry is representative, it’s definitely worth exploring.

Five Muslim women are gunned down as they are heading to worship at a Washington D.C. mosque, one of them being a D.C. cop. This horrible incident brings in Gianna Maglione, head of the Hate Crimes Unit and a friend to the slain cop. Along for the bumpy ride is Maglione’s partner, Mimi Patterson, lead investigative reporter for one of D.C.’s top newspapers. Together, they face not only the aftermath of their friend’s death but a sex-trafficking case as well as the possibility of dirty cops infiltrating and terrorizing an apartment complex full of vulnerable women.

This is a lot of plot, but Mickelbury starts the book off with some strong action as we see the Muslim women murdered by a bunch of Trump supporters (more on that later) and a lot of shock and grief from the dead cop’s friends and allies. The apprehension of the murderers left me wondering where things were going, but as soon as she solves that case, Mickelbury smoothly lays the groundwork for the two unrelated cases that form the meat of the book. Considering Maglione and her Hate Crimes Unit are working on two cases simultaneously, and Patterson has her own set of problems, you’d think there are a lot of loose ends that need to be tied up in the space of less than 250 pages. You’d be right. But Mickelbury manages to do so, plus nearly getting Maglione killed right after the cases are (mostly) solved. That, in particular, was a nice touch. Just when you think the action is over–BAM. We have yet another hospital vigil to sit.

Although the plot flowed well and everything unfolded nicely, I felt confused by some of the choices both Maglione and Patterson made, but I suspect that’s the fault of my coming into the middle of the series. Yes, this book can stand alone plot-wise, but as the author, you can only set up so much before you have to expect the reader to bring in something from the previous books. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that information. However, I was able to glean most of it from context.

Death’s Echoes, then, is a rip-snorter of a procedural that hits the ground running and doesn’t let up. It’s a finely-wrought package sure to please current fans of the series and bring new ones into the fold.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Pennsylvania Station – Patrick E. Horrigan (Lethe Press)

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I like nothing better than when an author puts a different spin or finds a new wrinkle in an old story. It always puts a smile on my face when I close the book and think about how the character or the plot has unfolded and how involved I’ve become in the ending. In his new novel, Pennsylvania Station, an homage of sorts to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Patrick E. Horrigan does just that.

Staid, middle-aged architect Frederick Bailey isn’t really crazy about New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, at least architecturally, but it represents an urban continuity of the mid-1960s Manhattan he’d rather maintain for a number of reasons. When he goes to the theatre to see My Fair Lady, he meets Curt, a cute blonde boy with few inhibitions and fewer options. Frederick is unwillingly drawn to Curt but helpless to disregard his feelings for the flighty young upstart. Curt gives Frederick a badly-needed sense of play, and Frederick gives Curt stability–or at least as much stability as the boy will tolerate. Their relationship sputters along but lasts. Until Venice, of course.

As with most, if not all, modern re-tellings of Mann’s classic story, Curt/Tadzio is fleshed out and we get some relief from Frederick/Aschenbach’s point of view. Horrigan takes us inside Curt’s head so that we have a better understanding of his motivations and what drives him both to and away from Frederick. Thus, the focus is different from the original. It becomes less a study in worship and more an examination of a relationship. Whether this is to the work’s detriment or not, I’ll leave up to the reader. I suppose it depends on how attached you are to the original. While I enjoy the portrayal of obsession inherent in Mann’s story, I have to say I prefer the two points of view of the modern versions. And Horrigan’s novel is no exception to this.

Curt interests me because even though he is (as the book’s blurb says) mercurial, he has an innate sense of justice and fairness about being queer. He’s an activist who seeks out the Mattachine Society as he rejects their suit-wearing normalization. He sees nothing wrong with himself and has a positivity about his sexuality that most boys his age simply did not have then. Nor did most men Frederick’s age. This schism is the biggest difference between them, one that can’t be bridged by either sex or love. Or both. No matter how freely Frederick loves/is obsessed with Curt, he feels it’s fundamentally wrong and is, beneath it all, ashamed of it.

Not that this causes Frederick much grief. He’s happy hating himself. He’s come to that decision long ago and simply no longer has to think about it. No matter how much Curt tries to argue or persuade him otherwise, he won’t be moved. Is it any wonder this relationship is headed for disaster from the very beginning?

Horrigan throws these two polar opposites together but somehow makes them work and, especially when Frederick brings Curt along to Frederick’s father’s funeral, thrive. His family is mystified (well, not really, but no one talks about it). Curt actually seems happy playing the spousal role, even though he insists he won’t be monogamous or tied down.

Pennsylvania Station, then, is a detailed and totally believable examination of a mid-Sixties gay relationship. Its characters are real and its attitudes are wholly in line with the sentiments of the time. Well-written and accessible, it’s a classic in the making. It may only be March, but I know this one will show up on my ten best list in December. Count on it.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Spring Poetry Roundup

The Winter Poetry Roundup was late, and the Spring Poetry Roundup is early. One of these roundups, I’ll actually be on time. But any time is right to explore the words of the finest poets of our community, so I don’t feel too badly about letting you know about them in advance. Today, I have six great poets for you to explore if you haven’t already, so let’s get right to it.

 

Tourist – Bryan Borland (Sibling Rivalry Press) 

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Poet and publisher Bryan Borland draws his inspiration from a variety of sources, as we all do. This chapbook came out of a book tour, consequently reflecting the geographic as well as social diversity of our country. It’s no surprise, then, that some of the poems are named after cities: “Chicago,” “Washington,” “Santa Clara”–but these poems are less about the locales than Borland’s relationship to them. Sharply observed and brilliantly rendered, the pieces in Tourist work in concert to create a portrait of a country with a number of divides, some dormant and others active. And it can all be summed up by two lines from the title poem: In California you’re entertainment/In Mississippi you’re education. Of course, those are not Borland’s only concerns. “Buying Groceries With Money From Poems” is a beautiful expression of what making a living from art is like, and “A Single Photograph” puts relationships into perspective. Political, social, and personal, Tourist is a great achievement from one of our finest voices.

 

The Bones of This Land – Kat Heatherington (Swimming With Elephants Press) 

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Divided into two sections, “Everyone’s Father Dies of Something” and “Desert Solitaire,” the intent of this chapbook is clear from the outset. This will be about death, grief, and the aftermath of both. “This Aching Echo” lays out the specifics: you were fifteen when the doctors/cracked your father open like a broken heart,/declared him inoperable,/gave him six months, and stopped caring. The language is plain and all the more meaningful for it. What struck me more, however, were the life lessons learned in the reminiscences, the childhood scenes of “Reading Together,” for example–a beautiful piece that parallels the act of reading with her father as a child and then again at his deathbed–or “Unless You Mean to Fire,” about a shooting lesson. The second section, naturally, is more concerned with her and her father’s relationship to his environment (largely a cabin in the desert), but the relationship between the family members is still very much in the work, as in “An Edge Made for Embracing,” “When You Speak” and the title poem. The Bones of This Land is a remarkable tribute, filled with longing, regret, and elegiacal beauty.

 

Revisions – Eric Tran (Sibling Rivalry Press)

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Eric Tran’s experience as a medical student (with an MFA, no less–my doctor should be so well-rounded) are front and center in this wide-ranging chapbook. “Forensics Lecture After the Shooting of Michael Brown,” “My Dearest Resident Brian,” and”The First X-Ray” delight in mixing medicine, or at least education in that field, with current events and personal revelations. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Anatomy & Phys”:

Only after his suicide did we learn/Dr. Garza raped his students. I never knew/much beyond the shirtsleeves stretched/and swollen on his TAs’ arms–imagine/Garza and I were similar that way.

This is powerful stuff, make no mistake, lightened somewhat by pieces like “Regrets, in the Style of Clue” or “10 Responses to a Clickbait Headline,” but even these are more thoughtful than humorous. Revisions, then, is a dark trip, yet its intriguing viewpoint and distinctive voice makes it interesting and emotional reading.

 

The Sexy Storm – Edward Van De Vendel (A Midsummer Night’s Press) 

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Van De Vendel’s work is as detailed and casually sensual as the covers between which it is presented. From the initial poem, “Morning,” to the joyful “Hallelujah,” Van De Vendel has an affinity for capturing moments and placing you inside them. “This Body Next to Mine,” the title piece, “Clothes,” and “At the Bus Stop” are great examples, but his talent for rendering meaningful sense memories is especially delicious in “Toothbrush”:

You had/to borrow a toothbrush/and I had a spare/And this is it./Every night I raise it to my mouth,/a tiny harmonica I purse/my lips around. I play you/and though it doesn’t make a sound,/I hear just how you taste.

But Van De Vendel is more than playful sensuality. His darker side shows in “The Fire,” “The Worst,” and, most especially in “Black With Ants.” Originally in Dutch and translated by David Colmer, Van De Vendel’s poetry is confident and assured. I always wonder, however, when I read work of any kind that’s translated, how much of the original remains once it’s filtered through the sensibilities of another person and configured in (in some cases) an entirely different linguistic structure. Nevertheless, The Sexy Storm is perfect reading for Spring–by turns sunny and…well…sexy.

 

Touched – Luther Hughes (Sibling Rivalry Press)

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If the Van De Vendel above is casually sensual, Luther Hughes’s Touched is obsessively so. Beginning with a quote from Nina Simone, one of the most visceral and daring performers I can think of, this collection pops with fevered imagery (“Bird with Two Backs”) rage, (“Boy”), and even some quiet introspection (“Hominal”). At less than forty pages, its brevity is only natural. This much stimulus couldn’t sustain many more pages without diluting itself. Some pieces are connected by an incident with the poet’s brother which, in turn, is connected with crows. From “Tenderness”:

When the festival was over, I watched the crows/pluck the earth until sour. I wavered, nestled/the scene inside the contour of my eyes. I wasn’t/a violent person. Had I’d been. Had my feet desired the reverb of the fowl’s hollow,/I would have fled. Instead, I write/of my brother’s forced sex.

And, of course, there’s the first line of “Self-Portrait as Crow”: I’ve always been a sucker for being eaten alive. But these poems are to be internalized via small bites. Too much will desensitize you to the rest, and these poems deserve a much different fate than that.

 

Same-Sexy Marriage: A Novella in Poems – Julie Marie Wade (A Midsummer Night’s Press) 

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Whatever roundup it appeared in, Wade’s When I Was Straight really grabbed my attention, but I read Same-Sexy Marriage straight through without interruption, marveling at not only the conception but the execution. The concept is the poet’s mother’s absolute unwillingness to accept her daughter’s lesbian relationship and the story mom concocts for not only herself but for everyone else. The first poem, “The Surgeon in New England” sets it up:

In the end, I bet she settled for my brother’s name/the one meant to balance our childhoods so I/wouldn’t have to turn part-boy….If I married him, Reader–this surgeon/this Jeffrey Hamilton–I must have loved him./And my mother says, to anyone who will listen,/that I married him.

Mom selects not only the husband, but his occupation, and where they live (Burlington, VT) and children?:

I’m relieved to learn we don’t have children,/but not to worry. Though my eggs are/approaching their best if used by date,/Jeff has friends in the fertility biz, friends/who promise forty is the new thirty if you have the money to spend.

As audacious and funny as it is shocking and heartbreaking, Wade’s novella in poems both entertains and inspires. I can’t say one “chapter” is better than the other because they’re all moving and powerful, from “Mary Cheney, You Know What They Say About Women Like Us,” to “When My Parents Join a Senior Center in _____, Oregon” to “Shooting Pool with Anne Heche the Day After Ellen and Portia’s Wedding,” these are all terrific. Highly recommended

 

And there you have the Spring Poetry Roundup. Surely something will strike you and provide you with enough inspiration to get you through the season. Happy reading.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Finding Your Own True Myth: What I Learned from Joseph Campbell – Toby Johnson (CreateSpace)

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Unlike some other atheists, I certainly have nothing against spirituality. Anything that helps you examine your own life and your relationship to those around you and the world in general is a positive thing. Self-reflection is a wonderful tool and one that is in all too rare use these days. In his time as seminarian, monk, author, lecturer, psychotherapist, Toby Johnson’s experiences and insights rival those of his mentor, Joseph Campbell, and many of them are laid out in this third edition of what may become Johnson’s Leaves of Grass, The Myth of the Great Secret.

This edition focuses on Johnson’s relationship with and assimilation of the teachings of myth-master Joseph Campbell, providing well-chosen anecdotes as well as teaching stories to illustrate his points. Johnson also includes a great deal of personal history pertinent to his own path, but he never intimates his journey must be your own. One of the points he stresses is that the spiritual search is an extremely individual one, and what works for some may not for others. His example provides both a model and a point of departure for those on their own mythic hunt.

If all of this sounds frightfully boring, it’s not. Johnson uses his novelist’s skills to infuse a bit of life into what could have been a very dry read and also uses his own history as a gay man to make his philosophical points salient to other gay men. This common ground proves indispensable in making the material accessible. And although Johnson always comes back to Joseph Campbell, he uses Campbell’s myth-making to include Eastern religious modalities, occultism, and even parapsychology, ranging far and wide among these subjects to bring us a gestalt of the lessons he has learned.

Finding Your Own True Myth, then, is more of an instruction booklet than dogma, presenting possibilities and potentialities that the reader can choose from. It provides a light by which you can walk your own path, and in these days of homogenized, ready-made belief systems, that’s an invaluable service.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Susurrus on Mars – Hal Duncan (Lethe Press)

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Susurrus on Mars, Hal Duncan’s latest offering from Lethe Press—described by the author as an “Erehwynan Idyll”—takes place on a terraformed Mars, in the town-state of Erehwyna. One day Jaq Cartier of Mars notices Puk Massinger (with his sister Ana), a recent arrival from Earth: love at first sight can still happen, even in the far distant future. And the story is truly idyllic: over the course of several weeks during a Martian summer, Jaq and Puk explore each other’s bodies and minds, while Ana discusses “pataphysics” (a branch of philosophy dedicated to studying what lies beyond the realm of metaphysics) with Guy Renart. Interspersed among the graphic depictions of sex on another world, and erudite discussions of philosophy and art, are digressions concerning the mythological stories, folklore, and botanical qualities of numerous plants: they may be native to Earth, but they still remember their classical origins as nymphs and young lads beloved of the gods, even after being transplanted to Martian soil. And whispering through all of this is the personification of a small breeze, the titular demigod Susurrus, not born of a goddess or begotten by a god onto a woman, but rather the genetically engineered son of the gods Ares and Zephyros: and as the gene-spliced child of Ares, Susurrus may in fact be the most Martian of them all.

This short—but dense!—work combines hard (and I mean that in every sense of the word) science fiction, Greek mythology, botany, philosophy, and erotica into—well, I don’t know what exactly. Susurrus on Mars is not an easy book to describe, nor is it an easy book to read (have a good dictionary handy—you’re going to need it). But Hal Duncan wrote it, so what did you expect? Duncan’s love of language is probably exceeded only by his love of beautiful men. And here he celebrates both: not only does he draw forth from the full bounty of English vocabulary, but he pushes the boundaries of those words, giving one the sense that they are reading a future English, a living language that continues to be slangified by future teenagers.

However, the dislocation in time works mostly backwards: Duncan’s intermingled herbarium evokes the distant, classical past much more than a typical science-fictional future. And his story is not only an homage to classical myths, with their numerous allusions to man/man love, but also to classic SF, and to Renaissance drama—as evidenced by the protagonists’ names: the one clearly evokes Burroughs’ hero of Barsoom, while the other that famous trickster of Shakespeare. Indeed, Duncan spends several pages describing the garb of his protagonists, their doublets, jerkins, breeches, et al: his heroes could easily be seventeenth-century swashbucklers. The nostalgic element, coupled with the sense that one has stepped out of ordinary time (for even a terraformed Mars still has a year twice the length of Earth), adds to the idyllic quality of this work.

Duncan’s novella, therefore, is not science fiction, mythology, erotica, or even narrative in any traditional sense: Publisher’s Weekly blurbs it as “an exquisite mosaic” on the front cover, and that metaphor captures the shiny, multi-faceted nature of this work. Each jewel-like scene is like a marker on a trail through the otherwise unfathomable landscape; and despite the difficulty in navigating the Martian surface, it is a journey worth taking.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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