Inhospitable – Marshall Moore (Camphor Press)

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I’m a huge fan of Marshall Moore’s work. When I heard he had a new novel called Inhospitable coming out soon, I had to get the ARC. I had no idea what it was about, and I don’t even think it had a cover then, but it went on my Kindle the second I got it. As the “A” in ARC stands for “advance,” I knew it would be a bit before it released, so I reluctantly put it aside, met some deadlines and read a few pressing books I’d promised reviews of, but this was always at the back of my mind. As serendipity would have it, I picked it up and finished it the very day it was available. And I was not disappointed.

Lena Haze and her Eurasian husband, Marcus, are expats newly arrived in Hong Kong from North Carolina. Marcus has inherited a property in the heart of the city but the can’t sell it due to the terms of the inheritance. He stays behind to pack up their American life and sends Lena to Hong Kong to oversee the renovation and turn it into a boutique hotel. She begins the project with the help of Isaac, the gay son of a local couple who are investing in the hotel. Her organizational skills, however, are nothing compared for her talent for sensing and seeing ghosts. As Isaac tells her, all buildings in Hong Kong are haunted, and she finds this true. However, her building has a more malignant, dangerous spirit than most. Moreover, there’s a reason for that. And she has to find out what it is to protect not only their investment, but their lives.

No one, and I mean no one, does disconnect and urban anomie better than Moore. He’s proven this both in short stories and his novels, Bitter Orange and An Ideal for Living, but the malevolence he conjures up in Inhospitable is at the forefront rather being a general feeling appended to his well-constructed plots. From her search for contractors to her preparations to meet her investors, Lena cannot be more lost. Yet, as untethered from her U.S. moorings as she is, she manages. She copes, and Moore does an admirable job of portraying her external successes as well as her internal failures. This is even reflected in the title. Her haunted hotel may be inhospitable, but no more so than her surroundings. Or her head.

Her sidekick throughout most of this is the son of her investors, Isaac, a Hong Kong resident on leave from a British university. His relationship with his parents is a difficult one, and not just because of his homosexuality. It’s also the subject of the novel’s most interesting twist. Her actual partner, Marcus, is only seen in the last third or so of the novel and although he may provide Lena some emotional support, he’s not much good with the spirits. In fact, it’s his surname that’s causing the haunting, but to say more would be getting into spoiler territory.

So, what we have with Inhospitable is a smart, neatly-plotted, and absolutely absorbing haunted house story the likes of which you probably haven’t read before. Non-traditional and quite satisfying, it’s the creepiest book you’ll read this year–but I mean that in the best way possible.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Orchids, Rosebuds, and Sweet Flags: Reflections on Gay Poetry – Drewey Wayne Gunn (Lethe Press)

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Drewey Wayne Gunn, professor emeritus of Texas A & M University-Kingsville, made a career of cataloging and examining Gay mysteries, pulps, and drama that were in danger of being forgotten.  Before he died, he wrote Orchids, Rosebuds, and Sweet Flags:  Reflections on Gay Poetry, doing the same thing for poetry, leaving us with a compendium of poetry that we can refer to as Gay, even if it had been written before Gay (as we understand it in the modern sense) became a thing.

So what kind of compendium has Gunn left us?  At its most basic, his book is a list; and lists are always idiosyncratic, revealing more about the list-maker than anything else, as Gunn acknowledges: “I remind myself that my taste is based on my experiences.  They have predisposed me to like certain poems and to dislike others.”  Gunn’s taste was, put simply, eclectic:  some Great Names from the Canon of Dead White Males appear, but lesser known names, both past and present, can also be found.  Of the 83 poets included, 46 wrote originally in English; the rest wrote in Akkadian, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Japanese, Russian, and Slovene.  And unlike most academics, Gunn did not disdain writings that were widely known and enjoyed by many people, equating “popular” with “pedestrian” or “lowbrow.”  Nor is any topic off limits:  subject matter ranges from the downright obscene to the romantic and elegiac.

Gunn begins his list ca. 1300-1100 BCE with the Epic of Gilgamesh by Sin-lēqi-unninni, briefly stopping in the Hebrew Bible (the Lament for Saul and Jonathan by David; 2 Samuel 1:19-27), wending through Homer’s Iliad, traveling through the Latin poets of Antiquity (Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Martial, Juvenal), before visiting the Near East (Rumi and Sa`di) and the Middle Ages (Dante and Hafiz of Shiraz).  So roughly 2500 years of human history, and literature, occupy the first forty pages.  The Renaissance and the Early Modern periods (Michelangelo, Spenser, Drayton, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Barnfield, John Wilmot) occupy the next twenty; and so, on page 60, we are already at the nineteenth century with Lord Byron, von Platen, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Whitman, and Verlaine and Rimbaud.  The rest of the book (well over half) deals with the entire twentieth century, plus the beginnings of the twenty-first, ranging from T. S. Eliot, Roger Casement, Tennessee Williams, James Broughton, Essex Hemphill, to Hal Duncan, Brane Mozetič, Slava Mogutin, and Stephen S. Mills.

I should stress that this slender volume is not an anthology of Gay poetry:  Gunn occasionally quotes brief excerpts from the poetry he discusses, but rather each entry (as the subtitle notes) is a personal reflection about the context for each poet in his Gay canon, explaining what we know of each poet’s Gay life, and which poems have implicit or explicit Gay readings.  Gunn provides editions and/or English translations for the poems he examines; if multiple versions exist, he discusses their merits and then proposes his favorite.  When available and appropriate, he also provides supplementary materials such as recent biographies and/or critical works for each poet.  Closing the book is a short essay on the vagaries of translation (especially in regards to poetry), a full bibliography of all cited works and editions, and an index.

Lest you think that this volume is simply a catalogue of essays with pedantic, dry-as-dust commentary on the symbolism of rosebuds, I note that Gunn is not above dishing a little bit, for example remarking that when Lord Byron’s body was exhumed in 1938 it “was still in an excellent state of preservation” which provoked the discovery that “his sexual organ showed `quite abnormal development’” whereas Verlaine’s member was “short and not very voluminous” according to court records of the time.  Moreover, Gunn is not shy about sharing personal details, such as his regret at not hooking up with Allen Ginsburg when they met at the 1980 MLA Convention.

Literature is a conversation.  Every poet writes in response to whoever has written before him; when readers read their poetry, they in turn continue the dialogue.  Gunn engaged with each of the poets in his final work, at turns agreeing, disputing, approving or not of their poems; by so doing he encourages us to do the same.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Thirty Years A Dresser – Dennis Milam Bensie (Coffeetown Press)

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I thought I wanted to be in show business when I was in high school, but then I became involved in the Senior Play (“Mame” that year–something Bensie and I have in common). Too shy to try out for an acting role, though dying to, I worked backstage as prop guy and general go-fer. It was far too much work for the very fleeting reward of the cast party, so my stage career was derailed. However, Dennis Milam Bensie’s memoir of life in the wings, Thirty Years a Dresser makes it all sound so damn fun I almost got the bug once again. Almost.

Bensie’s anecdotes are wild and woolly shaggy dog stories he freely admits he’s exaggerated, though not by much. And they are hilarious. Thirty Years a Dresser provides plenty of laughs from the spurting blood vest in “Agnes of God” to the two hundred costumes required for “The Grapes of Wrath,” and Bensie writes about it all with equal parts love and loathing.

Most memoirs I’ve read are at least partially self-serving, but Bensie’s stands out as self-deprecating instead (as did his previous One Gay American). He never takes himself too seriously–his craft and his subject, yes, but never himself. Moreover, although his role in the proceedings is central, he never focuses on himself, preferring to keep the spotlight on his subjects.

And what subjects they are–from Rosie O’Donnell stories to less famous actors and even ones you even have to guess (but “played John Travolta’s younger brother in a blockbuster movie” is hardly tough to figure out), the backstage details come fast and furious. To take the smell out of costumes? Vodka and box fans. Who knew? Such are the tricks of Bensie’s trade, and he spills them all.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and if you have even a passing interest in the theatre, either on or off stage, you owe it to yourself to pick this up and devour it in one or two sittings, as I did. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Minnesota Boy: A Memoir – Mark Abramson (CreateSpace)

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2017 was another great year for gay male memoirs and journals, some by well-known writers like Daniel Mendelssohn, David Sedaris, and Armistead Maupin. Other, even better, books by unexpected writers like poet Kenny Fries memoir, In the Province of the Gods, and octogenarian British dramatist Alan Bennett (of The History Boys fame). First books by Chike Frankie Edozien, Parvez Sharma, Jose Antonio Rodriguez, Victor Corona, and Peter Gadjics show that gay writing is now global and historically significant in its concerns and also in its reach. In such a year, quieter books tend to get lost but that must not happen to Mark Abramson’s third memoir, Minnesota Boy.

I first heard of Abramson through San Francisco pals who were enchanted by his series of “Beach Reading” books, light, sexy novels.  With his memoir Sex, Drugs and Disco, and especially with For My Brothers, Abramson took on more authorial and historic weight, writing with what one reader called a “you-were-there” quality, about one young gay man’s coming of age in San Francisco in the 1970s, documenting his life and experiences through the subsequent decades. These books were fascinating because handsome young Abramson found himself at the center of Baghdad By the Bay’s night life scene, first as a bartender and then as producer of fund raisers for AIDS and other causes. I spent enough time there then to know that his details are correct, his judgements balanced, and his take on people and events really quite measured.

This is crucial in memoirs if they are to have any use beyond the author’s ego-gratification. Abramson was able to do it because he had been a fresh-faced kid from the sticks, and pretty much everyone he encountered in that city was going out of their way to be extraordinary in a time and place when that required serious effort. His take on it all was to be appreciative rather than critical and so we got a pretty accurate picture of those heady days of the 1970’s of which many people believe, “if you can remember anything, you weren’t really there.” That wasn’t so for me and it’s not true for Abramson. We enjoyed and we remembered.

What sets Abramson apart from even my memoirs of the period is that he is utterly comfortable with being ordinary and with having fairly ordinary experiences — some of which do go haywire and unexpectedly stymie but ultimately delight him and his reader. This is more difficult to pull off than writing about the terrific and weird and wondrous. We come to trust Abramson’s voice and his instincts and his factual information in a way that I found difficult with some of the more literary writers mentioned in this review.

Minnesota Boy grew out of a request by his fatally ill mother, who said, “I think you should write a book about that trip you took to Europe when you were right out of high school, playing your saxophone with that band, you know?” Abramson adds, “It started out with that phone call from my mother on her death bed, or so she thought. It turned into a longer story about college, being different, trying to fit in, and slowly coming out, in more ways than one. Then it turned into a story about love and longing and finally leaving Minnesota for San Francisco.” He also admits, “This didn’t exactly turn out to be the book my mother wanted me to write. If she were here to read it, she would say she was embarrassed because it was so dirty. I would tell her she was not the target audience and we would both have a laugh.”

This is exactly what I would expect from a farm boy, who is a good student, and who is comfortable with his life, but who knows he has to expand it, first by going to Washington, D.C. and then to Europe. Surprise, surprise, he doesn’t fit in. But he doesn’t kvetch, he doesn’t kvell, and especially he doesn’t exaggerate. He intuits that experience is useful and his phone calls home to his parents confirm that. Meanwhile we get fascinating, yet trustworthy portraits of a world that is changing almost too quickly. This important because it is our history and although gay millennials seem as dim about the past as their straight coevals, it’s important that it be on record. It helps a lot that Abramson is always entertaining: I mean when is the last time you read about someone in a marching brass band?

Reviewed by Felice Picano

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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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