‘Nathan’s Audio Corner: Trigger – Jessica Webb (Bold Strokes Books/Audible – narrated by Ruby Rivers)

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I’ve been a fan of audiobooks since I was first transferred to a bookstore that was over an hour’s commute by bus from where I was living. At first, I tried reading anyway, but in no time I was reminded of a childhood problem: reading while a bus is in motion makes me feel ill, fast. With a commute that was about to become sometimes as much as three hours out of my day, I bought myself a small Walkman, and started ordering bestselling books on cassette.

Let’s pause a moment to pay respects to any illusions you may have had of my youth.

As the years have passed, the audiobook has shifted in both availability and price. Digital distribution has made shorter novels accessible for the market despite costs, and with apps like Audible, my phone is all I need to carry dozens of audiobooks at the same time. Truly, the audiobook future is here, and I am happy to live in it.

Even better? Queer books are available now. At Audible, asking for the LGBT books in the Fiction category gives you over two thousand hits, and nearly a thousand also show up under the LGBT subcategory of Romance. So, with three thousand audiobooks to choose from, where do you start?

I hope to help out with that. Over the years, I’ve listened to some great audiobooks, and Out in Print has been kind enough to let me drop by now and then with reviews in the past, and I’ll be popping in a bit more often—with queer audiobook reviews.

Let’s talk Trigger.

Jessica Webb’s debut novel Trigger takes the medical thriller narrative and gives it an ever-so-slight sci-fi twist. We meet our heroine, Dr. Kate Morrison, in a Vancouver ER, where fate puts her in the right place at the wrong time: a man stumbles in off the street and collapses, and while Kate tries to save him, police arrive and demand she not touch him at all. When she does—and when nothing bad happens and she manages to save the man’s life—instead of praise, Kate finds herself in the harsh criticism of RCMP officer Sergeant Andy Wyles, the woman who ordered Kate to keep her hands off the patient.

Confused, and despite Sergeant Wyles’s desire to keep Kate out of it, the doctor is soon caught up in something far darker than she could have imagined. Someone has turned human beings into bombs. Triggered by touch, people like this man have been exploding, and Kate is the first human being who seems somehow immune to triggering the effect. Suddenly very important to both the investigators who want to uncover who is behind this potential act of terrorism and also a danger to those who have created these human weapons, Sergeant Wyles has little choice but to draw Kate further into the investigation, working with her joint task force that crosses the Canadian-American border.

Kate’s initial mistrust of the RCMP officer, and Wyles’s frustration with the doctor who never seems to take her orders make for a great initial friction. That the two develop stronger feelings for each other born from this sense of protectiveness and desire to help plays out organically and is in fact one of the central strengths of this book. While there’s an instant spark, it’s just that: a spark, and it takes Kate—who has never had a relationship or strong feelings for a woman before—a great deal of the book to come to grips with what she is feeling. It’s rare I’ve seen bisexuality handled in a romantic sub-plot anywhere near as well as this, and I should point out that I’ve also listened to the second book in the series, Pathogen, and the further exploration of Kate’s awareness of just what it means to be in a relationship with a woman never loses this clear and sharp portrayal. Kate’s internal journey of her heart and mind is just as engrossing as the greater narratives of the books.

As Kate tries to work out just how these people have been turned into explosive weapons and more importantly why she is immune as a trigger, as well as whether or not there is a way to disarm them, Webb jacks up the tension notch by notch, throwing twists at the listener that genuinely stymied my ability to guess what was next.

Action mixes with medical intrigue, well-written emotional tension, and a romantic simmer that builds to a boil without forsaking the main narrative. The end result is a story that will please fans of thrillers, romances, and contemporary sci-fi alike.

The audiobook is performed by Ruby Rivers, who was a new-to-me performer, but who I’ll be adding to my list of performers to watch out for. She affects solid voices for Kate and Andy, immediately identifiable and filled with characterization, and while she doesn’t quite have as equal a range for the supporting cast of characters—most of the men in the book sound the same, with the exception of Andy’s tech-focused partner Jack—it’s not a distraction. With Webb’s writing being clean and clear, I was never lost for this lack of nuance in the performer. Rivers has the right level of emotion and pacing, and in a thriller that can really make or break the experience.

In fact, the moment I finished Trigger, I went back to Audible and picked up Pathogen, the second Dr. Kate Morrison Mystery. I was listening to it the following morning, and happy to be back with Andy and Kate.

I should mention that while it doesn’t come up in Trigger, there is one small foible of the performer that does come into play in the sequel, Pathogen: Ruby Rivers’s lack of Canadian French. Where Trigger takes place mostly in the US, Pathogen stays in British Columbia, and a few Canadian French words take a bit of a beating in Rivers’s mouth. Levesque is read as “Luh-vess-cue,” and Calliope as “cally-ope.” I imagine that wouldn’t pull non-French speaking listeners out of the narrative, but for those of you who do have an ear for la belle langue it might be a bit jarring.

That one small caveat notwithstanding, I’ll be heading back to Audible now and refreshing the page and waiting for Troop 18—the third book—to show up as available.

Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine

© 2017, ‘Nathan Burgoine

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Wilde Stories 2016: The Year’s Best Speculative Fiction – Steve Berman, ed. (Lethe Press)

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This annual collection of fantasy and sci-fi stories that probe the otherworldly implications of gay-male life was launched in 2008. Steve Berman, series editor and publisher, knows this territory well. For Berman, adolescence is a magical place where anything can happen. While writers of sexually explicit fiction must beware of describing “underage” sex, the writers gathered in this anthology describe the development of erotic feelings in teenagers in ways both daring and emotionally true. Several of these boys find boyfriends and counterparts who come from another place or era. In some stories, the protagonist finds or creates a doppelganger who may or may not be visible to anyone else.

In “Imaginary Boys” by Paul Magrs, David is followed by his “Novelizor,” an earnest classmate from a planet “about 300 light years from here,” whose purpose is to make sense of David’s life by narrating it. Lawrence, the alien disguised as a handsome earthling, is David’s first boyfriend, and the Boswell to his Johnson as well as the embodiment of his developing adult consciousness.

The intervention of an alien love-interest is repeated in “He Came From a Place of Openness and Truth” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, in which the alien has the familiar task of repopulating his own planet. Needless to say, the alien’s mission must be kept secret on this earth, and the young narrator willingly co-operates. The story title is ironic, of course, and the story explores the various kinds of secrecy that seem necessary to most teenagers who live with their parents. Having a same-sex lover from a different culture adds another wrinkle to the complicated business of growing up.

In “Envious Moons” by Richard Scott Larson, an only son watches from his bedroom window as Callie, a popular girl who played Juliet in a school play, is courted by a swarm of boys. In an apparently unrelated development, a mysterious male stranger appears one night in the narrator’s yard: “that was when I first saw your white chest, your body alight in an almost lunar glow . . . and I saw your face staring up at me. It was like I was seeing my own reflection upon the surface of the lake in front of the house.” The narrator rescues this visitor from the cold, and tells him about “the curves of her [Callie], the way she held womanhood up like a gown, something expensive in a store I wasn’t allowed to enter.” The visitor says: “I know what you want. I know what I can do for you.” When the stranger appears in Callie’s bedroom in her place, the narrator stares until the light goes out, and then, “I saw only my reflection staring back at me across the yard.” By means of the visitor’s intervention, the narrator becomes luminous, a center of attraction in his own right.

Several of these stories deal with the alternative culture created by a small group of outsiders in high school. In “Wallflowers” by Jonathan Harper, a group of bored outsiders in a small town discover a version of the haunted house on the edge of town, but this one is new and never occupied before. The “wallflowers” create their own secret by inventing an imaginary boy who acquires legendary status – and an apparent body. An awakening group consciousness seems to have the power to create something tangible.

Teenagers at the mercy of their parents and other authority figures have reason to fear being pressured to change into more socially acceptable versions of themselves, and drastic makeovers—consensual or not—are a science-fiction trope. In “Edited” by Rich Larson, a privileged young man named Wyatt is given a physical and psychological transformation by his parents as a birthday gift. As Wyatt explains to the narrator, his “bru” from a lower-income neighborhood, the erasure of Wyatt’s feelings for him makes Wyatt’s life “simpler.” In the last scene, the disillusioned narrator watches “the clouds eat the moon, Edit it right out the sky like it was never there, not really.” In this story, as in “Envious Moons,” moonlight is a hypnotic alternative to the sunlight of adult social reality.

In contrast to social conformity through technological intervention, “What Lasts” by Jared W. Cooper is an instruction manual for constructing a mechanical lover from discarded parts in a junkyard which is guarded by a kind of evil witch. The lonely young men in this anthology who need to find companions would surely be tempted to create them, despite the risks.

The need for survival in a hostile environment, and the heroic lengths to which some social outcasts will go to save their fellows, give momentum to a dystopian tale, “To the Knife Cold Stars” by A. Merc Rustad. In this story, the “cityheart” is a massive engine with its own will that feeds on the energy of young strays.

In “Lockbox” by E. Catherine Tobler, the young male narrator is lured by his boyfriend to explore Exham Priory, a sunken structure that “had housed the worst of the worst,” including a legendary murderess. It seems as if the bond between the two young men protects them from harm. The narrator, a university student, writes his story as a class assignment, bristling with footnotes.

“Utrechtenaar” by Paul Evanby is set in 1729 in Utrecht, a righteously Protestant city in the Netherlands, where the Night Watch patrols the local cruising spot, and God help any young man caught out after dark. The narrator is a terrified university student who learns that the city is haunted by a sentry from centuries before who seems to be caught in a time warp. As alien as the Latin-speaking sentry is, he seems determined to protect the young man from the forces of repression.

A surprisingly small number of these stories deal with traditional relationships between young male ingénues and their older mentors. In “The Duchess and the Ghost” by Richard Bowes, an eighteen-year-old flees to New York City in 1961 because he knows he is “different,” and hopes to find his tribe. His mentor is a magnificent, fading queen who introduces the young man to the “Doorman,” a supernatural being who literally provides him with a new identity and who determines the length of his life. Although AIDS is unheard-of so far, no gay man of the time can assume he will survive long or well.

“To Die Dancing” by Sam J. Miller is also set in New York, but in a dystopian future, in which all “decadence” has been “cleaned up” by the governing Christian Right. A generation of young, queer New Yorkers who have never known freedom have one night in which to experience joy, inspired by legendary rebels.

In the majority of these stories, however, the young protagonists learn that older men (especially those with political or supernatural power) are not to be trusted, and the best allies are close to one’s own age. In two stories, ancient gods from specific other cultures claim human sacrifices, although homophobia does not seem to be a motive. In “The Ticket Taker of Cenote Zaci” by Benjamin Parzybok, a young Mexican man is a gatekeeper for a tourist attraction which was important to the ancient Mayans, who would surely disapprove of the commercialization of their sacred sites. It seems that they take revenge.

In “The Language of Knives” by Haralambi Markov, a man is officially designated as the one who must prepare his husband’s body for the gods who are meant to consume it, and the man’s apprentice is the couple’s “daughter,” who may or may not inherit her father’s role in due course. The grisly operation is described, step by step, as a last expression of love.

In “Camp” by David Nickle, a pair of upper-middle-class male newlyweds plan to spend their honeymoon in the scenic Canadian wilderness. They seem as innocent as a young heterosexual couple in a more traditional story; they don’t expect to encounter any discrimination on the road, and they explain themselves to everyone they meet. The older husband and wife who invite the newlyweds to an isolated camp seem overly friendly, but the young men see no reason to refuse the invitation, and they ignore the warning signs that something is amiss. The climax suggests a mythical transformation, but the role of the strange couple (deities in disguise?) and the power of the natural world are unclear.

The book concludes with “The Astrakhan, the Homburg, and the Red, Red Coals,” written by Chaz Brenchley. This witty story is about Oscar Wilde, using his actual assumed name (“Mr. Holland”) while in exile on Mars, which itself is a popular destination for space-travelers in nineteenth-century science fiction. True to the gay culture of their era, a group of middle-aged fellow-exiles gather on the colonized planet to share sexual access to a young man who works in a shabbily-genteel hotel. This carnal sharing enables them to communicate at an extrasensory level with each other and with non-human, shapeshifting beings. The men’s attempt to form a collective consciousness through sex resembles the tribal bonding of teenagers in other stories in this collection. In this case, however, the young man is a pawn or a toy for his elders.

Although today’s queer young adults come out into a more accepting society than that of the past, these stories show that youth is still a life-phase full of danger as well as transformation. Parents and teachers still discourage same-gender closeness, and the religious and political repression of the past could always return.  Just as the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Ugly Duckling” speaks to most young readers who feel as if they were raised in the wrong family or species and want to find their soul-mates, the stories in this anthology remind adult readers of how that felt.

Reviewed by Jean Roberta

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Out of This World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories – Catherine Lundoff (Queen of Swords Press)

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Catherine Lundoff’s latest collection is indeed Out of This World:  containing eleven stories of the queer fantastic, it includes several previously uncollected tales of fantasy, horror, and science fiction, with healthy dollops of romance and humor thrown in.  Just as these stories span the entire speculative fiction spectrum, with nerdy bookstore clerks, Norns, steampunk technology, ghosts, and the Queen of Faerie, they likewise feature characters that span the LGBTQ spectrum, from Kit Marlowe to lesbian witches and gay vampires.

Now I realize as I type that last sentence, just how trite these type of characters have become; but I assure you that in Lundoff’s capable hands, these characters are anything but stereotypical tropes. The all-too-human protagonist of “Candle, Spell and Book” has to deal with a dead (but still restless) ancestor when a love spell meant to ensnare her ex-lover goes awry.  (Does she learn her lesson afterward?  Only time will tell.)  In “Beauty” the protagonist gradually falls in love with a vampire, but rather than being a vampire-who-turns-his-mortal-lover-into-one-of-the-undead story, it becomes instead a romance entwined with the narrative of an unloved and unwanted prince leaving an unlivable domestic situation and challenging an oppressive regime and claiming a kingdom.  This story is one of the longest in the collection, and will resonate with queer readers on a number of levels.

Lundoff subverts genre expectations throughout, as in “A Day at the Inn, A Night at the Palace” where she depicts typical fantasy mercenaries who come into town, go to the local tavern, spend the night drinking and whoring, but then one of them wakes up the next morning in a new gender, as the result of some magical body switching.  Or in “A Scent of Roses” where she explores the realm of “happily ever after” when the wife of Tam Lin falls out of love with the husband she rescued from the Queen of Faerie, and then falls for the Queen instead.

Among my favorites in this collection are the Gaylactic Spectrum Award finalist “At the Roots of the World Tree,” about an inept, socially awkward clerk of a living bookstore who is forced to forestall Ragnorök, and the collection opener, “Great Reckonings, Little Rooms.” Riffing on Virginia Woolf’s famous quote about “Shakespeare’s sister” Judith, this story reads like one of Shakespeare’s own plays with intrigue, crossdressing “identical” fraternal twins, and swordplay; best of all, it finally answers the question as to who actually wrote Shakespeare’s works.  (Ha!  Take that, adherents of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford!)  Another strong piece, “Vadija,” closes the collection:  beautifully written, it is a story about the power of stories, both to their tellers and their listeners.

While some of these stories venture into the genre of romance, none of them veer into full-blown erotica (“Beauty” comes closest); however, a little investigating around the Queen of Swords Press Facebook page indicates that future volumes will boldly go into the realm of lesbian erotica, featuring pirates, aliens, and really hot meter maids.  So, if after reading this eclectic mix of stories you think that you might enjoy further “swashbuckling tales of derring-do and bold new adventures in time and space”—especially with a kinky twist or two—keep an eye peeled for upcoming volumes from Queen of Swords Press.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

© 2017, Keith John Glaeske

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Down On Your Knees – Lee Thomas (Lethe Press)

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I kept thinking of boxing while reading this book. Sometimes you want a lengthy match, featuring the strategic spectacle of one opponent slowly wearing down the other, but sometimes you prefer a fight without subtlety that delivers one or two knockout blows and then is over, leaving one man standing and the other flat on the canvas. It all depends on the amount of blood lust you have that day. Whereas Lee Thomas’s Butcher’s Road, for example, is one of the former, his latest, Down On Your Knees, is a rabbit punch to the kidneys and a less-than-two-hundred-page knockout.

Just out of prison, Denny “The Bull” Doyle faces the challenge of taking his organization back from low-level gangster Malcom Lynch, who has gained control in Doyle’s absence. The Bull’s former henchmen are being murdered one by one, and the only chance Doyle has of regaining his position lies with Brendan Newton, a gang wanna-be who’s logged far more time fantasizing about crime than practicing it. Lynch may have sorcerer’s magic on his side, but let’s just say Doyle has his own supernatural resources as well.

Thomas’s fiction always amazes me both in terms of his inventiveness and his prose. Here, his words are punchy and action-oriented when they aren’t vulgar (a quality I love, by the way). This is not a book of rumination. It’s a novel of quick thinking, reactions, punch-ups, and beat-downs. Lots of blood, gore, mayhem, and–especially in the last few chapters–magic. And that’s where his inventiveness takes over. The traps are many, the subterfuges are clever, and the predicaments have interesting complications.

A longer book? Well, a more detailed approach would include additional information on how Doyle acquired his powers, though the hints we get of the ritual in Milo’s jail cell are powerful and certainly turn the plot as well as needed. A slower book would also contain some background and more insight on Doyle’s relationship with his doctor/former lover Zack. Maybe even a kidnapping, putting Zack in some direct danger. However, the latter is what the reader expects. I know I expected it the second he introduced the character, and I kept looking for it to happen all through the action sequences. That it does not, however, is no disappointment, and I suspect that’s what Thomas intended. Well played, sir. Well played.

Down On Your Knees, then, really strips the horror/crime genre down to its bare essentials and gives its readers the down and dirty details. And, make no mistake, the final few chapters will leave you breathless in your ringside seats, still clutching your half-eaten popcorn as the house lights come up and you think, “What the hell?” Yes. It’s that good.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

 

 

 

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A Quiet Death – Cari Hunter (Bold Strokes Books)

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You may well ask what I’ve been reading since the blog’s been on hiatus, and I can tell you it’s been mostly non-fiction. I have read little LGBT fiction other than what I’ve edited. Thus, I’ve fallen behind on some of my favorite authors–including Cari Hunter, whose Desolation Point and Tumbledown I thoroughly enjoyed. So, when I saw her latest release, A Quiet Death, coincided with the reopening of the blog, I was (as they say) “chuffed” and immediately put it on my TBR pile. And it should be on yours as well.

Lifelong pals Detective Sanne Jensen and Dr. Meg Fielding, are now officially dating, but that’s the least of their worries. Meg is mystified by what appears to be a case of domestic abuse while Sanne is investigating the death of a Pakistani girl on the moors. As the two mysteries move inexorably toward each other, Sanne also deals with the hospitalization of her father and uncovers a slave trade ring in the Pakistani community.

Post-CSI and its various anacronym-ridden spinoffs, police procedurals can  be a bit of a slog–almost as routine as their real-life counterparts–but Hunter is savvy enough to use that as a springboard on which she can launch some wonderful characters. Sanne is spunky but vulnerable, and Meg is professional yet not. Together, their banter is witty and believable. Sanne’s relationship with her work partner, Nelson, is also interesting to watch play out.

But all this is beside the point. Hunter moves these people through the plot with a confident joy that really comes through on the page. She revels in the details, works in the peaks and valleys, and maintains the balance between explanation and action like a true pro. And those action scenes are incomparable. They move so well, so effortlessly that it’s past your bedtime before you know it, and you’ll still want another chapter. She also has a way with a twist, keeping you off balance until she reveals the true connection between Sanne and the case at hand.

But this cracking good mystery also has a thorough respect for the various ethnic subcultures it explores. I learned things, which is never bad for a reader. Moreover, it has a distinctly British flavour, not pandering to American tastes. Personally, I love British slang, and the more the better for me. Of course, I watch Scottish dramas without the subtitle function. Still, any reader worth his salt can comprehend the context clues.

Of the three of Hunter’s books I’ve read and reviewed for this blog, this has got to be my favorite. Interesting plot, great characters, muscular prose–I’m more than chuffed. I’m potty about it.

And that’s no bollocks.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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Country – Jeff Mann (Lethe Press)

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Country music isn’t a place I ever expected myself to venture as a fiction reader. Music in general isn’t something I find easily translated to text, and yet two recent books I’ve read have had music intrinsic to their core narratives, and have done so deftly.

But country music? I can’t imagine a genre of popular music less open to a gay experience than country music. Don’t get me wrong, some of the country music stars themselves are definitely fetching (their names I sometimes vaguely know thanks to magazine covers from my bookstore days), but the industry itself—and the fan base—have never struck me as remotely friendly.

Obviously, I know that’s a sweeping generalization, and even this Canuck has heard of Steve Grand, but beyond a few recent blips, my experiences in the rural Canada of my youth has left me with a less than welcoming sense of the country music community, even up here.

All that to say when I was handed Country, Jeff Mann’s novel, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.  From the blurb alone, I knew Country featured a bunch of things I didn’t necessarily connect with: country music, rural culture, and living a closeted life.

I shouldn’t have worried.

Mann brings us Brice Brown, a big name Country star, and introduces us to him at his peak, moments before the tipping point that sets the novel in motion. Brice is overdue for a new record, deeply closeted, and finding company to rent online, and about to be outed by a former lover.

It is that last that sends Brown crashing down from the top, of course, and it’s important to note that the novel is set in the late 90’s. Though in today’s world it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine as hard a fall as Brice Brown takes, setting the novel in the recent past served a double purpose to me: the exploration of the homophobia in play was bang-on perfect, and the impotent rage Brown often feels is mirrored in the reader’s experience. So recent as a few decades ago, it would be unheard of for a public “Good old boy” to be outed. Today might hold a different story—might—but in placing the narrative firmly in a time and place where support would be small and unheard, Mann gives us a reminder of both progress and of the hateful frustrations.

I often speak of how queerfolk have to struggle to pass their narratives onward, as we don’t inherit them like other cultures. Fiction can often pass these narratives on just as well, and there’s no doubt that the fictional Southern and country culture at play in Country is a narrative Mann is passing on. The viciousness of the assault on Brice Brown’s name, music, image, and career is borderline relentless, and as the man watches all things crumble, the pain is present—and realistic—to behold.

That Brice Brown himself is by no means a perfect man—he’s as much a product of his culture as those who throw hate at him from within it— works well to ground the story further into that reality. Brice is just as likely to prejudge others as he himself is judged, and watching his journey unfold was a satisfyingly refreshing take for this kind of story. More, Brice’s struggles with depression and his often self-destructive and self-loathing attempts to tame his “black moods” garner empathy without pity, a balance I’ve rarely found achieved so well.

Lest you think the whole novel is a dark and dismal ride, let me be clear: it is not. As much as Brice’s decent is powerfully written, so is the path forward. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Jeff Mann novel if there weren’t rough-and-tumble country man around to capture Brice Brown’s heart, in this case in the form of a delectable delinquent, Lucas. Fans of Mann are no doubt aware already of his adept erotic prose, and they will not be let down.

As the story moves from the macro “fall of the Country Music Star” and into the micro of a smaller cast of characters who gather around Brown when he finds a place to go into retreat, it’s these characters that bring forth the queer “chosen family” value to the story, and where the healing—not just Brice’s healing—comes into play. There are laugh-out-loud moments in Country born of these characters, which include a gay rural retreat owner who is so much larger than life (and yet so like so many people I’ve met), and a gun-toting lipstick lesbian who delivers some of my favorite lines of the whole book. And for fans of Mann’s other works (especially Cub), there are a few moments included for the reader that are richly rewarding. These light moments don’t steal from the realism, either, but add to it: there’s a kind of “laughter in the face of the bad” tone that pops up throughout Country, and it is a sense I can certainly understand and empathize with. At some point, I think most queer people have faced those moments.

Beat us down? When we get back up, our laughter will be all the louder for our survival.

With “survival” being the often raw and minimal goal from the moment Country begins, the reader is left with no sense that “happily ever after with rainbows” is on the menu, which raises the tension of the book all the higher. In turn, I was angry, frustrated, empathetic, or sad—often aimed at Brice himself—but at no point was I anything less than invested in seeing where Brice’s journey would end.

In fact, like so much of Mann’s work, the strength is in how incredibly evocative it is: it’s lyrical, erotic of course, and full to the brim with the sights, smells, and sheer weight of the country setting.

Oh, and of course: the food. Some day I will learn not to read a Jeff Mann book while remotely hungry, as the food alone is described so enticingly I find my mouth watering and wishing I had the slightest idea how one made “scrapple.”

Country is a love letter to a lover who refused to return the affection, sent by someone who is learning to find something else—or someone else—as worthy of the love.

Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine

© 2017 ‘Nathan Burgoine

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Beautiful Gravity – Martin Hyatt (Antibookclub)

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As one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Carole King, once wrote: “So far away/Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?” And we don’t. Restless transients that we are, most of us–especially in the queer community–long to escape the places in which we were raised. To start over, to create our own lives even as we carry old traditions into new surroundings. If, for whatever reason, we can’t leave,  we yearn to do so. But those who leave soon find they can never escape, which is the primary lesson in Martin Hyatt’s latest novel, Beautiful Gravity.

Boz Matthews, born and raised in Noxington LA, still works at and lives over his grandfather’s highway diner. Drifting through his days slowly filling salt shakers and waiting on tables when he isn’t beating off to Marcello Mastroianni, he is visited intermittently by his best friend Meg, a seriously manic depressive preacher’s daughter who is as fragile as she is indomitable. When failed country music star Catty Mills and her songwriter/manager, Kyle Thomas, a former Noxington boy himself, come to town, the misfits find themselves in a menage a quatre that results in both birth and death by the end of the book.

The themes in Beautiful Gravity are nothing new, but Hyatt works them as if they are, creating complicated characters whose actions are sometimes as unclear to themselves as they are to us. Catty’s binges, Kyle’s remoteness, Meg’s dependencies, and Boz’s distance are vaguely rooted in their pasts and we get glimpses of those parts of their lives, but they’re less important than how those actions affect the intertwined lives of all four.

For a work so centered on escape and return, the place from which the characters do both is always present, yet rarely described. Hyatt paints the town in broad strokes, providing a few juicy details to hang the image on, then he leaves it brooding in the background, there yet not there. Instead, Boz is the true center of gravity–indeed, the title of the book comes from Kyle referring to Boz’s “beautiful gravity”–but the center around which they all coalesce is dangerously unstable himself. As with the town, Boz is there yet not there. Regardless, he is of a piece with the other three members of the menage. The sum of this relationship is definitely greater than its parts. Yet each part has its function. Kyle provides its masculinity, Meg its fragility (and fecundity), Catty its adventurousness, and Boz its soul.

Hyatt has created a wonderful portrait of four individuals and the relationship they form in combination. Sexually charged and scarred both physically and psychically, their shortcomings and strengths meld into a group dynamic unlike anything most of us will experience. That alone should be reason enough to read this, but then there’s Hyatt’s prose, which is deft and beautiful. It’s stealth prose–you don’t realize how deeply it cuts until it’s too late. Highly readable and highly recommended.

JW

©, 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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