Scarborough – Catherine Hernandez (Arsenal Pulp Press)

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As we all know, working in the arts pays less than nothing most of the time. Most writers (and editors) have to have supplemental income, and with this aim in mind, I began substitute teaching last year. My school district is huge, encompassing white as well as “urban” neighborhoods, much like the landscape of Catherine Hernandez’s deeply-felt novel, Scarborough. I see the disenfranchised and immigrant children she describes daily. I feed the littler ones breakfast, like Ms Hina does. And I wonder if they can survive what’s been done to the country in which they landed.

Ms Hina is a recent university graduate whose first job is as a facilitator for a literacy program in a Toronto primary school, but any position involving children proves to be far more than its description. Among her charges are Laura, Bing, and Bing’s best friend, Sylvie. Laura has been neglected by her mother and obtained by her father, Cory, who knows even less about raising a child. Bing is a gay Filipino boy living with both parents, but his father is mentally ill. Sylvie is a Native girl whose family is struggling to find a place to live. Ms Hina slowly works past the prejudice of parents, careless bureaucrats, and the diversity of her children to forge a welcoming atmosphere for all.

However, any description of this novel will fall short. Just like the job it tracks, it’s more than the sum of its parts. A skilled writer, Hernandez uses all the emotion at her disposal to create deft, indelible portraits of these children and their parents. Once she has them onstage, she lets them interact with each other and shades those relationships as they develop organically. Nothing about Scarborough feels contrived or manipulative despite its range of emotions, and I never once heard the author instead of the characters.

Although all of Hernandez’s people are real and interesting, Laura’s father and Bing were particularly noteworthy. Cory aches to do right by his little girl and knows how she’s suffered from her mother’s inattention, but he simply doesn’t have the skills. And he’s too afraid to ask, automatically discounting Ms Hina because she wears a hijab. Bing is a fearless little boy who came out at an early age with the full support of his mother and extended family. But even with that love behind him, nothing can compare to the freedom he feels when he takes a Whitney Houston tape to karaoke and makes his statement to the world:

Just as the chorus began again, I jumped to my feet, ripped off my button up shirt and revealed my pink-sequined halter top. Everyone cheered. Under the auditorium lights, I felt the sweat on my arms both cooling and accumulating. Riding the wave of a sustained note, I felt my insides shine like a light beaming from my throat and through every finger. Truth. Truth. It felt like confetti. It felt like running. It felt like screaming. Me. Truth. Truth.

The details of Bing’s story are unimportant. We have all been Bing. We still are, really. It’s the screaming of that truth that’s important, now more than ever.

From Ms Hina’s epistolary battle with her supervisor to the tragedy of an apartment fire, Scarborough is an engrossing read that’s a lot like its cover. Hernandez sets us running down that subway corridor, anxious for what comes around the next corner. Heartbreak, to be sure. But also unexpected joys and big lessons. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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The Girl on the Edge of Summer – J.M. Redmann (Bold Strokes Books)

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Just as reliable as Fay Jacobs, although in a totally different genre, J.M. Redmann has long been a favorite of mine. Her Micky Knight series is one of the finest I’ve read, both in terms of the mysteries themselves and the characters. Micky’s breakup with long-time lover Cordelia was traumatic to some of Redmann’s fans, but those downvotes are only proof positive how close Redmann’s readers feel with Micky. Her latest, The Girl on the Edge of Summer, is a solid addition to the post-Cordelia series and one that might finally see Micky Knight ready to move on with her life.

In this pair of cases, Knight attempts to find information for a mother to ease her distress over the death of her young daughter, who killed herself because an older boy she had sexted with was threatening to make those pictures public if she didn’t have sex with him. Eddie isn’t hard to find, but he also turns up dead after a violent confrontation with Knight at the mother’s house. Even worse, Knight is suspected of the murder. Her other case involves archival work to solve the hundred-year-old murder of a member of one of New Orleans’s wealthiest families.

At their hearts, both cases are about vengeance as closure, maybe serving as examples to Knight that vengeance rarely closes anything and only leaves everyone open to more damage. Knight is on a different emotional edge this time, since she finds out Cordelia is now back in New Orleans. They haven’t yet run into each other, and I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to tell you they don’t meet here, either. But for an absent character, Cordelia is all over this book. That’s okay. Nine books in, Redmann knows the secret to a successful series is to make it dynamic, changing it up so it doesn’t get stale for anyone–especially the writer. Part of the enjoyment of this bunch of books for me is Micky’s slow climb back to something approaching normalcy after she and Cordelia call it quits. Is their story over? Doubtful. Am I waiting to find out? Desperately.

In the meantime, we get to enjoy some well-plotted mysteries, some life-and-death rescues, and some despicably seedy characters. Redmann works through her action scenes with precision and balance, never letting them drag or sputter. The YA characters here are also well-drawn. They sound like teenagers, not forty-year-olds, and they act age appropriately as well. But at the heart of it all is Mickey–mostly smart (but sometimes stupid), looking forward without forgetting her past, and trying to reassemble her life with some bent and abraded puzzle pieces.

I’ll certainly be reading the next installment. For maximum pleasure, you should start at the beginning of the series. But this also works well as a standalone, so you can read this one and pick up the others later.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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Heartsnare – Steven B. Williams (Lethe Press)

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A year ago, Eric Mayfair was in the hospital, with only his mum Jhardine and best friend Tim to keep him company as he slowly, painfully, succumbed to a terminal heart condition.  Except that when it finally came time for him to die, neither one had the emotional strength to remain with Eric.  As a result, neither witnessed his unexpected, miraculous rebirth—not that Eric’s life improves any afterwards.  Because a year later, Eric still has no explanation for the uncanny occurrence, and it’s scarcely a blessing to either him or his mum:  Jhardine supports both of them by working a job she hates, because Eric can’t find, much less hold a job.  Neither has any sort of love life, and Jhardine soon discovers that she now has health problems of her own.  All Eric knows is that he now feels a new heart beating inside his chest, a black, dark thing that seems responsible for his heightened senses, and other…things.  And when Tim is brutally murdered, monsters and evil powers begin to appear in Willingsley, and things go to Hell—fast.

So begins Heartsnare, book one of The Umbraverse by Steven B. Williams.  As Eric investigates the mystery surrounding Tim’s death, he meets and befriends Alistair, a fellow “shadow former,” and finally learns the cause and reason for his own rebirth, and that there are other worlds besides his own.  He learns too that he is now caught in a war, a battle between shadow formers and “umbra”—living shadows that kill and then possess people—a fate that has befallen Tim, and soon others in Willingsley.

Heartsnare reads as compulsively as a Stephen King novel:  Williams’ characters are all ordinary Yorkshire working-class folk, going about their mundane lives, trying to make ends meet, navigating complicated love lives and all the rest of life’s daily nonsense.  It is they who bear the brunt of the fallout resulting from the war between light and darkness that has fallen upon Willingsley.  But for all the darkness in this novel (and it is plenty dark), there is also humor to offset it—although sometimes the banter between Eric and Jhardine seems more appropriate between a gay man and his straight gal pal, rather than a son and his mum.  (Note to American readers:  Mind you, the dialogue is written in a true-to-life Yorkshire dialect, and there’s nowt you can do about it love, just keep eating your crisps while you read, there’s a good lad.)

Heartsnare owes as much to A Wizard of Earthsea as to Stephen King.  The idea of living shadows created by immortal wizards, who then must defeat their shadow-selves, is not new to fantasy fiction, whether literally or metaphorically.  And when their magic is powered by shades to begin with, then it becomes even more difficult (if not impossible) to sort out the angels from the devils.  And without giving away too much of the climax, Eric can only defeat the Tim umbra when he realizes who he is truly fighting.

Heartsnare is completely self-contained as a story, but there are plenty of questions to explore in further books.  The shadow formers’ system of magic will surely be fleshed out (so to speak) in further volumes, and an equal number of mysteries surround Jhardine as her son.  So just as A Wizard of Earthsea begins a series of acclaimed fantasy novels, this book is only the beginning of Eric’s quest—for mastery of his powers, finding answers to the questions of his life, and possibly even love.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

© 2017, Keith John Glaeske

 

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Fried & Convicted: Rehoboth Beach Uncorked – Fay Jacobs (Bywater Books)

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Fish gotta swim and Fay Jacobs gotta fry.

As relentless as her beloved Rehoboth Beach tide, Fay Jacobs rolls in with Fried & Convicted: Rehoboth Beach Uncorked, another compendium of columns from Letters from CAMP Rehoboth and Delaware Beach Life. Now allied with the fine folks at Bywater Books, Jacobs will most assuredly keep the commentary ebbing and flowing for as long as the sea repeats itself in shells. And in these days of uncertainty and upheaval, having something to depend on is important.

Jacobs’s topics are neither unique nor incendiary. They’re mundane episodes of the suburban life most of us live, no different than the domestic humor of Jean Kerr and Erma Bombeck–two columnists I’ve mentioned in the same breath with Jacobs in other reviews of her work. And just like those two writers, she’s developed her own unique brand of quiet, gentle humor. Note, however, that doesn’t mean it’s slight or even the slightest bit “less than.” Taken in sequence with her other books, her latest is an addition to the chronicles of one queer life Jacobs has been building since she came out, telling her individual story while reflecting many of our own. In that sense, she is more of an iconoclast than the quaint, elderly(ish) Jewish matron she appears to be.

That she has, once again, reinvented herself–this time as a stand-up comedian–comes as no surprise to anyone who has read her work. The laughs, the point of view, and her uncanny sense of timing are all present in the text. Her droll delivery in person only amplifies them. I’ve gotten a chance to hear Fay read a number of times, and she’s always a delight–but her performance never distracts from the material, making it all the stronger.

But beyond that, I’m always impressed by the openness and sincerity in Jacobs’s work. Whether she’s drinking martinis or ziplining (or both simultaneously), her exuberance and zest for new experiences comes through. As her work is rooted in popular culture, a certain number of columns dealing with passing fads are less successful than the others, but even those provide a bit of nostalgia for days when we had things to think about other than Donald T—p, economic disaster, and the re-marginalization of queerdom. Indeed, Jacobs’ last few columns are about T—p’s installation.

Despite the magnitude of our recent political upheaval, it’s a comfort that queer writers like Fay Jacobs will continue to find humor amidst the horrible. If you’ve never read her before, this is a perfect place to start. If you’re already a fan, you don’t need me to convince you.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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Skyscraper – Scott Alexander Hess (Unzipped/Lethe Press)

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From its brevity to its cover, which I like to think depicts the view from the  floor of the book’s prominently-featured puppy cage, Scott Alexander Hess’s short erotic novel about BDSM, architecture, and rebirth revels in its own apparent simplicity. It’s less than a hundred and thirty pages. The cover is light and spare, the buildings surrounding the title transformed into wire and white space. One word title. Author name. Barely anchored into place. This is not a book that encourages frivolity or anything less than essential. It’s a potent distillation and a great read.

Atticus is a Manhattan architect badly in need of a creative renaissance. He won his current job with his first few successes in the industry but has been coasting for a while. Atticus meets Tad, a dom top with a Fight Club jones, at a leather bar. In between bouts, Tad leads Atticus deeper into the BDSM world. In this sexual awakening, Atticus finds his skills returning and soon wins an important new design project at work. Working closely with his client, Victor, Atticus discovers some disquieting rumors about a past relationship Victor had with Tad and has to find out whether or not they’re true.

Skyscraper could have been a torturously complicated book, brimming with metaphor and pretentious literary devices, with much room for rumination and a sub-plot or three. But part of its charm is that it simplifies the whole subject of midlife–or at least midcareer–crisis to a bare bones, nearly transparent narrative everyone can identify with as it hints at the individual complexities beneath.

The prose isn’t flat, but by the same token, it doesn’t go out of its way to set a scene. Similarly, the tone is dispassionate and reserved, Atticus telling us about his white hot passion instead of letting us get too close to it. That would normally come across as passive, but Hess’s choice of detail and constant ear on his voice prevent the character from slipping in that direction.

Being fond of and accustomed to the work of Jeff Mann, I thought the BDSM was a bit mild. That puzzled me at first. Hot, yes, but I expected more explicit sex and longer passages (yes, that was intended). However, the more I considered the author’s choice, the more sense it made. It’s certainly in keeping with the dispassionate tone, and the domestic breeziness of leaving casual notes for Atticus as to what kinky position Tad should find him in when he got home rather than addressing him directly adds yet another layer of removal. With all its inherent dispassion, however, it’s not a distant read. Atticus has a distinctive voice, and his willingness to plum the depths of whatever relationship he can have with Tad is well told.

Skyscraper is a little wonder of a book that packs a great deal into a small package, and it will leave you thinking about the relationship between success and failure.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Dahlia Field – Henry Alley (Chelsea Station Editions)

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As any regular reader of this blog knows, I’m a huge fan of short fiction and will always dive headfirst into an anthology or a single author collection. I won’t like everything in a volume, but if the author/s and I connect ten times out of twelve or thirteen, that’s pretty successful. I know relationships based on more tenuous bonds. But what happens when the connection rate is less than optimal? Is it a bad book? Bad author? Bad reader? Those are a few of the questions I ask myself as I write this and stare at the cover of Henry Alley’s collection, The Dahlia Field.

I’d started this eagerly, having read the blurb and peeked at the titles in the Table of Contents. The author and I have some commonalities. We’re about the same age and, thus, have had a lot of shared experiences.  Logically, we should have connected more often than the few stories that worked for me, but art is hardly logical, is it?

It’s not like we didn’t understand each other, either. It’s hard to miss the disconnection and longing inherent in “Ashland,” for example, which sees a man named Earl attending the performance of a play parodying King Lear, written by his gay son. It isn’t until he attends the AIDS fundraiser afterward that he learns his son is positive, a fact he confirms by telephone the next morning. Similarly, “To Come Home To” looks at boredom and new beginnings as house painter Garrett leaves his previously depressed fledgling stage star boyfriend Ethan. Both these should have struck sparks, but neither was particularly engaging to me. Unfortunately, that was true for most of the other stories here.

That said, Alley and I did connect on the last two stories: “My March on Washington,” a wonderfully bittersweet romance that takes place during the 1963 civil rights march, and “Would You Mind Holding Down My Body?,” a well-observed story of how a straight/gay friendship does or doesn’t weather one of the two guys coming out. The latter story has two of the most interesting and complex characters in the book and seemed to have a different set of nuances and a completeness the others lacked to some degree or other.

Aha, I thought. We just needed some time to connect. So, I re-read the first story, “Border Guards,” in hopes of being able kindle some interest, but a glass wall seemed to go up once again. Nevertheless, if you’re a lover of short fiction, this might just be your cuppa as Alley is a writer worth reading. We may not have hit it out of the park, but that doesn’t mean you won’t discover a new voice or find something here I couldn’t. And, as I said, the last two stories really were marvelous.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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‘Nathan’s Audio Corner: An Asian Minor: The True Story of Ganymede – Felice Picano (Lethe Press/Audible – performed by Jason Frazier)

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 When you listen to audiobooks on a regular basis, as a listener you start to find performers you love. Before you know it, when you’re looking at the lists of audiobooks, you’re searching the listings not by title or author, but by who performs the audiobook, and then reading the blurbs of the books they’ve done. Finding a new and awesome performer is like finding a new author, and in fact absolutely leads to just that: finding new authors through the performer.

I have a trio of performers like that. Barbara Rosenblatt, Jane Entwhistle, and Jason Frazier. Every time I go looking for a new audiobook, I quickly search the three out to see if they’ve got anything new, and when they do, it jumps to the top of the list for consideration.

So, you can imagine my joy at finding a new Jason Frazier. In and of itself, that was a fine, fine thing. He doesn’t narrate, he acts. His voice acting is so great I’ve twice now purchased audiobooks for which I have already read the books physically, and listened to them as a second read-through. To be clear: I nearly never re-read. But Jason Frazier doing Steve Berman’s Vintage? And Gavin Atlas’s The Full Ride?  There was no resisting, and it was a joy to revisit.

Now, add to that the realization that this new book narrated by one of my favorites is a novella from Felice Picano, and all hesitation was gone. I’d clicked before I’d even read the description. I had it queued up for the next dog walk, and in the space of two days I was done.

An Asian Minor: The True Story of Ganymede is a very small class of narratives: mythology retold with a clever and consistent voice. Quite a few times while I was listening to the story, I caught myself thinking of Mark Merlis’s An Arrow’s Flight, but where Merlis crafted a unique contemporary hybrid of the myth and a modern world, Picano instead does stick to the time period in question as Ganymede tells his story, but it is told now, by the immortal in the present day, with all the colloquialisms and long-view wisdom the eternal and immortal young man has gathered since.

That conversational voice, written so cleverly by Picano and given such charm and insouciance through Frazier’s performance, is magic in a bottle. Or, well, an earbud.

As Ganymede sets us straight on what really went down from the time he was born, receiving a troublesome destiny, this breezy tone delights with amusing asides and clarifications of many a mistake in the retelling of the modern myth: most centrally, Ganymede insists, the notion he was somehow some innocent doe-eyed youth with no idea of the powers at play around him. Picano’s Ganymede is nobody’s fool, and indeed knows that when one has a destiny writ large, the best way to play it is to try to turn large into huge.

It’s also telling that in Picano’s prose, and with Frazier’s voice, this story puts Ganymede on an even playing field with the gods who would tempt and curry favor of him. Yes, he’s a youth, but he’s no fool. And these are, after all, the Greek gods who are by no means infallible themselves. As everyone around Ganymede starts to see perfection in the beauty of his form, Ganymede refuses to give up trying to keep what control he might have. This is a Ganymede in search of as grand a destiny as he can cram into one vague prophecy. He’s smart, and wily, and willing to go toe to toe with multiple gods as he entertains offers, and then risks and gambles for the next—hopefully better—thing to come along. Matching wits with multiple gods, the story of how Ganymede came to be the chosen of Zeus is told with a delightful twist or three along the way.

An Asian Minor: The True Story of Ganymede isn’t a long audiobook, but the energy and talent packed into the piece grabs attention. The recollections of his smart and sexy immortal had me laughing multiple times, and in Frazier’s capable hands the words simply sprang to life.

If you’re looking for a short, engrossing, and not-just-a-little-bit sexy audiobook about the foundation of the ultimate Sugar Daddy relationship, look no further. Ganymede awaits.

Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine

© 2017, ‘Nathan Burgoine

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