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Insatiable – Jeff Mann (Unzipped/Lethe Press)

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I have a special relationship with Jeff Mann’s Scots vampire, Derek Maclaine, as I took a story Derek appeared in for my Bears of Winter anthology (plug, plug), “Snow on Scrabble Creek.” His origin story appears in Mann’s Desire and Devourwhich is entirely devoted to this multi-faceted character. However, I’ve been one of the fans telling Jeff his wampyr deserves a longer, more complete narrative, and that’s exactly what he delivers in Insatiable.

Derek’s latest haunt is the hills of West Virginia, where he lives with his mortal mountain cub, Matt Taylor. Matt’s brother, a staunch opponent of Alpha Coal, a ruthless mining operation, is found dead of a suspicious heart attack, and Matt goes on in his stead. Derek and his coterie of delicious cubs come along for the ride, taking on the Man with the help of Derek’s oldest and dearest friends. They encounter a strong foe in Alpha Coal, made even stronger by their employment of a demonic presence, a “Lovecraftian blob.”

If you’ve read Jeff Mann’s work before, this hits all the required notes: food, sex, magic, and love of nature. He has carved out a comfortable corner of the gay literary world, and his fireside tales–for I can’t imagine them being told any other way than by a hearth with the hearty scent of beef stew and biscuits on the air–never fail to entertain.

In Peter Jackson’s “Fellowship of the Ring,” Samwise Gamgee has a marvelous speech in which he talks about the “great stories, the ones that really mattered.” Mann writes those sort of stories: elemental, full of lust and evil and good and wonder. Big emotions writ even larger. And it’s a marvelous feeling to throw yourself at stories like that, smiling with the impact as you crash against those big feelings. But for all that immensity, the characters retain their humanity (well, they’re vampires and werewolves and witches, but you know what I mean) and have the good of their fellow man at heart as they pursue their goals. And in these dark days when our rights and regulations are in danger of being rolled back by a government no longer in control of itself, we need stories of success in which we can take comfort so we can get up and fight again tomorrow.

I can’t think of a more perfect way to enjoy Halloween than with a cup of steaming pumpkin spice something-or-other, a dog at my feet, and this tale of bravery and heroics in my hand. Well met, sir. Well met indeed.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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London Skin & Bones: The Finsbury Park Stories – Ian Young (Squares & Rebels)

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The cover stood out for me, an homage to The Clash’s “London Calling” album cover (itself an homage to the cover of Elvis Presley’s first album). But where the Clash cover pictured bass player Joe Simonon smashing his instrument against the stage, Ian Young’s London Skin and Bones: The Finsbury Park Stories shows one of the lads smoking a cigarette on a metal stair. The Clash was all action and fury, Skin and Bones has little action and not much in the way of plot. However, both works drop you into a totally different world and do so in totally different ways. Despite its lack of plot momentum, London Skin and Bones is an engaging, entertaining portrait of a colorful group of friends.

Margaret Thatcher’s London was, for most, pretty grim, but those sentiments rarely touch Young’s Finsbury Park. It seems insulated from Thatcherism even as it’s steeped in it. But when I was that age, I remember the people and the surroundings far better than the politics surrounding the time. And although one of the blurbs calls Young the “Boz of Finsbury Park,” it’s this lack of politics which separates it from Dickens. Additionally, Dickens was fond of foreshadowing and intricate plotting, but you’ll not find that here.

What you will find is thirteen short stories portraying a gritty world centered around the goings-on at Boris Mostoyenko’s stamp shop:

Boris’s shop was a hodge-podge of three or four different shops in one. Signs taped to the front window announced “BOOKS, STAMPS, STATIONERY,” and “APPLIANCE REPAIR.” One side of the shop was piled with broken toasters, used record players, old electric typewriters, antique radios, and parts of unidentifiable machines. The other side was fitted out with brown-painted bookshelves. Some of these held envelopes, staplers, notebooks, packets of colored writing paper, and rolls of stout brown parcel wrapping. The rest were crammed with secondhand books, mostly of prewar vintage.

It’s Young’s unerring eye for details and poet’s love of language that keeps your interest in this portraiture, but his characters are also wonderful cameos–Boris himself, Seamus Moore, The Triplets, Old Sarge. The stories are about bars, boys, pranks, characters, love, sex, and coin collecting and bear great titles like “The Buggery Club,” “Mrs. Singh’s Tandoori Popcorn,” “The Boy in the Blue Boxing Gloves,” and “Sexual Alternatives for Men.” But these pieces work as a whole. As expected, such a rich feast is best eaten in small bites, so one or two at a time work better than a whole fistful.

A remarkable achievement, Ian Young’s London Skin and Bones is well worth your time.

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall – James Magruder (Chelsea Station Editions)

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Completed in 1958, Helen Hadley Hall at Yale University opened that fall as a residence for female graduate students (female undergraduates were not admitted until 1970).  Who exactly was Helen Hadley?  Of this benefactress, almost nothing is known:  her life story seems forever lost, and no amount of Googling could reveal it.  But if James Magruder is to be believed, she was born in 1895, died in 1951, and her ectoplasmic emanation still resides in the residence hall named after her, where she takes a continued interest in the women (and eventually, men) who reside with her, especially in their love lives.

Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall by James Magruder chronicles Helen Hadley’s favorite time, the nine months of the 1983-84 academic year, and retells the erotic misadventures of Silas Huth, Becky Engelking, Nixie Bolger, Carolann Chudek, and Randall Flinn (among many others; many others).   Silas, smitten by Scott Jencks (a fellow French grad student), loses his chance to date him by a single day to Peter Faccianfinta, so he pursues Luca Lucchese (a townie), but eventually pairs up with the monkish Randall.  Nixie pursues fellow graduate student Walt Stehlik, who has hooked up with Peter (and others in Helen Hadley Hall; many others), while Carolann becomes enamored with Professor Nathaniel Gates….Honestly, do these students ever study?  I mean, for their classes.  (And who will Becky end up with?)

Love Slaves brings to mind an updated A Small World by David Lodge:  however, the latter concerns itself with full-fledged academics, intent on traveling to conferences, securing tenure, and trying to survive inter-departmental politics; the former focuses almost entirely on the bed-hopping among all these randy grad students at the beginning of their academic careers.  The constantly shifting relationships, the who-is-currently-sleeping-with-this-one-but-really-wants-to-sleep-with-that-one, and the keeping track of who has slept with whom, while entertaining (and often inventive—I’ll never think of college library study carrels the same way again) can overwhelm the reader at times.

Nevertheless, there is much to delight the reader.  It is amusing to see all these students carry on their frantic love lives without hook-up apps, e-mail, or constant texting.  (In the 1980s—which weren’t that long ago!—telephones did not fit in pockets, and were used only for talking to other people who were not in the same room with you.)  And, as befits grad students in the humanities, the characters have a great love of language that is difficult to resist, and even Helen Hadley’s ghost is not immune.  (Where else will you find a spirit fluent in the classical Greek callipygous and its modern slang equivalent “bootylicious?”)  Magruder captures perfectly the milieu of the early 80s, including the onset of a new “gay cancer” and the ensuing misinformation about it.  For despite the light-hearted tone of much of this novel, the serious specter of AIDS hovers over it, the full impact of which is only revealed in the dénouement.

A discreet Google search revealed that Helen Hadley Hall still stands, contradicting the cover copy that it was to be demolished.  (It had, however, been fully renovated during the years 2010-13.)  For a mere $6400 to $8500 per academic year, you too may be one of 178 graduate students to rent a cubicle at 420 Temple Street, New Haven, CT while attending Yale.  However, there are no promises that you will become the love slave of the ghost of Helen Hadley, willing or otherwise.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Gay Zoo Day: Tales of Seeking and Discovery – Mike McClelland (Beautiful Dreamer Press)

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Stasis rarely finds a good home in fiction. Good characters have to be restless, plots have to be set in motion. Fiction is, by and large, movement. And no motion is more personal than seeking and discovery. Thus, the subtitle here is almost a given. I can’t really think of any stories I’ve enjoyed where the characters weren’t doing either or both. So the eight stories that comprise author Mike McClelland’s debut collection, Gay Zoo Day, are most enjoyable indeed since they have the same restless sense of wonder.

The opener, “Sheffield Beach,” sets the tone. A dark jewel which sees the narrator visiting friends in South Africa for the New Year’s holiday, discovering the true nature and direction of danger in a racially charged atmosphere. The climax, for some reason, reminded me of  the ending of “Suddenly, Last Summer.”

With his traveler’s background, it’s no surprise McClelland takes us to some exotic locales. But whether it’s “Mombasa Vengeance,” a keen little Gothic-feeling revenge story, the International Space Station romance of “Yev,” or the Panama City of “La Castana,” feelings and flirtations are part of that universal language of connection. Especially in those last two stories, which may be the most romantic in the book. The innocence of the blonde Russian, Yev, who falls in love with an American spaceman is no match, however, for the 1930’s flyboy smartass Guy Harris, who opens up his story with the plain truth:

Depending on who was asking, Guy Harris called himself an aviator, a pilot, or a soldier of fortune. He used aviator when he was looking for work. Pilot he’d say if he didn’t care much about the conversation. If he ran into a man like himself, a man who was “that way,” that’s when Guy was a soldier of fortune.

My two favorites, however, have no connection to romance. “The Christmas Card” is a non-holiday tale about a woman named Picca who competes with her sister every year for the most memorable Christmas card. Picca’s idea is to use an automatic camera to take pictures of the family all in slumber in the same bed and choose the choicest shot. Only all the pictures of her have a blur superimposed on them. Combined with some Shaker mysticism, this is a lovely story about rebirth and redemption. I was also quite engaged by the story of “Olive Urchin,” which features a young Hong Kong nanny outfoxing her racist employer.

Although there are only eight pieces here–some short stories, some novellas–the book never feels rushed or out of balance. And McClelland is a wonderful writer, able to evoke emotions with locales as well as characters. Gay Zoo Day is a solid collection, and yet another winner from Beautiful Dreamer Press.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Mother I Imagined, The Mom I Knew: A Hybrid Memoir – Paul Alan Fahey (Mindprints Literary Press)

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Among gay men of a certain age, Patrick Dennis’s Auntie Mame and the film of the same name with Rosalind Russell is a real touchstone, so Paul Alan Fahey and I aren’t alone. In my house, everything stopped when the movie came on TV. My mother, though, was the one rapt. I enjoyed it too, but the look of wonder in her eye once the camera swept around that first Beekman Place party was magical. She wanted to be Auntie Mame, and I wanted to be Patrick. Of course, I’d be a better actor–talk about a low bar. But Fahey was the lucky one. He lived the childhood I wanted.

Fahey calls his collection of fiction bridged with autobiography a hybrid memoir, and that’s as good a term as any. What this is, though, is a character study–every bit the Reader’s Digest Unforgettable Character piece Patrick Dennis references. The blend of fiction and memoir is seamless even though he labels each clearly. It all works together in one wonderful gestalt.

Mary Eileen Smith is, to put it mildly, a free spirit. Her situations are precarious, her jobs are temporary, and her quirks are innumerable. That she appears in Fahey’s fiction would be inevitable. Parts of her are probably in every female character he’s written, and by the time this memoir is finished, you’ll know her well enough to spot her in Fahey’s other work, no matter where she is. The blend of fiction and memoir works well because Fahey is able to write from her point of view. From “Wheel of Fortune,” a short story:

Roger shakes his head and walks on. He complains of the cold, and Felicia tries to ignore him. She wonders again about other moms, imagines them lining kitchen cupboards with yellow oilcloth, alphabetizing spice racks. She could be home now working on the bright, blue material with the sailboats and kites. She’d started cutting the pattern for his shirt last March. Roger was so excited then. Felicia thinks by the time she’s finished, he will have outgrown it.

Later, we find Fahey sorting through his mother’s belongings after her death and finding said pattern, of course unfinished.

The larger problem with character study is one of momentum, but Fahey provides us with a logically sequenced trajectory of their lives both together and apart. Though it doesn’t have a plot, it moves with grace and assurance. What is fiction and what is memoir? Fahey signals which is which with clinical fairness, but I suspect the lines are even more blurred than he realizes. No matter. The result is a terrific piece of writing, by turns poignant, funny, and altogether absorbing. And it’s a lovely tribute to Mary Eileen Smith.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Oscar’s Ghost: The Battle for Oscar Wilde’s Legacy – Laura Lee (Amberley Publishing)

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This is a story about stories. On its most basic level, Oscar’s Ghost is about Oscar Wilde’s life and how its telling affected the lives of two people whom fate had cast as characters in it. But it is also about other stories: the stories told in courtrooms masquerading as the `whole truth’; the stories we tell ourselves to create an identity; stories we tell others to carve out a place in the community; stories that marginalized groups tell themselves to make sense of their difference; and the stories society relies upon to explain a moment in history. Oscar’s Ghost explores how all these stories interact and what happens when contradictory narratives collide.

So begins Oscar’s Ghost by Laura Lee. Ostensibly, Lee’s book is about how Oscar Wilde came to write De Profundis, and the subsequent feud between Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross. While in prison, after being convicted of `gross indecency’, Wilde attempted to rehabilitate his tarnished reputation and legacy by writing De Profundis, a long essay (50,000 words) in the form of a letter to Douglas, his former lover, who he repudiates in this letter. Wilde entrusted the manuscript to Ross, another former lover (of both Wilde and Douglas), who did not allow its intended recipient to read the manuscript; indeed, Douglas first learned of its existence in 1913, when it was used as evidence against him during a libel trial that he had instigated against Arthur Ransome. By this time, Wilde had been dead for a decade, Douglas had undergone a religious conversion to Roman Catholicism, and Ross, formerly Douglas’ bestie, now despised him.

But Oscar’s Ghost is much more than just the story about Wilde’s attempt to define his own legacy. The book begins by providing context: Lee introduces each of the main characters, explains how they each met, and examines the many interconnections between them in the wider circle of Wilde’s entourage. She then discusses Wilde’s trial and resulting imprisonment, and finally examines the ramifications of Wilde’s writing of De Profundis. For Wilde was not the only one engaged in active myth-making: Ross, as Wilde’s literary executor, sought to restore Wilde’s literary reputation, and would use De Profundis as part of this larger goal, whereas Douglas spent most of his remaining life responding to the narrative that he had betrayed Wilde, was only interested in Wilde for his money, and was responsible for Wilde’s death.

Most of their attempts to control the narrative of Wilde’s life and death (and thus their own roles in these events) was done in the courts, where Douglas and Ross both tried to present the `true side’ of what happened, in a series of lawsuits. (Not surprisingly, as former lovers, the battle between Ross and Douglas would be especially fierce.) Of course, the media impacted public perception of Wilde’s legacy (and the respective roles Douglas and Ross played), by what journalists would record in the newspapers, either choosing to report the court proceedings or not, their decisions depending upon the salacious nature of the testimony. Lee therefore devotes a substantial portion of her book to these trials, as they are responsible for much of the subsequent perception of Douglas and Ross (and, indirectly, of Wilde).

Meticulously researched and evenly presented, Lee presents the dramatis personae in their full contradictory glory (Douglas especially seems to have inherited a propensity for mental illness from his father). More than a dry retelling of queer history, it is an engaging story in its own right.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

 

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Remains – J. Warren (Lethe Press)

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In case you hadn’t noticed, this is a grisly cover. It is, nevertheless, effective. I received this ARC a couple of months ago, and a morbid fascination with that picture–the same one that leads me to collect celebrity autopsy photos, which is way more than you need to know about me–kept it atop the TBR pile. Even better, the cover is not the best thing about this novel. Remains is a highly intriguing mystery as well as a fascinating look at one family’s dysfunction.

Mike Kendall is summoned back home for Thanksiving by his father, ostensibly because his mother would like to see him. He acquiesces even though Placerville is the destination of media throughout the state due to the discovery of a boy’s remains. Worse, Mike knows the bones are that of long-missing Randy MacPherson, a friend of his. As he waits for confirmation along with the rest of the town, he becomes involved with a former bully. Together, they try to discover the truth about Randy’s death.

Although the book is from Mike’s point of view and we never leave his head, the story doesn’t feels closed off. Instead, the pieces we see of his relationship with his parents and sister are detailed and personal. And, as Carl Rogers said, what is most personal is most universal. We have all had those moments with loved ones–you know, the ones where for a fraction of a second, we don’t love them anymore–but then the bond snaps back. With Mike, however, that bond is stretched tighter and tighter, and you know it will break. It’s just a question of when.

That’s only one of the means Warren has at his disposal to generate tension, and he does so with great efficiency. Not much is wasted here. The scenes are well-trimmed and lean, devoid of much scene setting so you can get to the action or the emotion quickly. The few sentences he uses to conjure up small town California are sufficient. Warren’s prose is what I like to call “iceberg” writing because most of its meaning is below the surface.

For example, Mike is in the garage under the car changing the oil, and his father comes in to ask Mike to get his sister to come to church with them. The dialogue is absolutely non-threatening, but in the middle of it, Warren drops the following:

…and his boots moved a little; the car shifted some. I thought about how in-tune you can get with a machine when you’re underneath and could be crushed at any moment. The oil was already sputtering, coming in two long, thin rivers. It wouldn’t be long now.

Suddenly, the rest of the passage becomes ominous.

Speaking of ominous, the actual solution to the mystery of what happened to Randy is as chilling and unique as it is off-putting. Those clues are planted early and often, and as soon as one of the characters makes the connection, it’s a head-smacking why-didn’t-I-see-that moment well worth your time.

And if the cover puts you off, understand that’s as violent as the book gets. We get no obscenely detailed information about the murder or the body. You may, however, want to slipcover the book before taking it to the gym. Or not. It might keep the treadmill next to you clear.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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