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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The Sniper’s Kiss – Justine Saracen (Bold Strokes Books)

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Regular readers will note that some of my favorite books are historicals, and Justine Saracen has been one of my favorite authors since Sarah, Son of God, so I have been looking forward to The Sniper’s Kiss. I was not disappointed, finding her latest to be on an equal footing with The Witch of Stalingrad. Although The Sniper’s Kiss is similar to Stalingrad, some very important differences can be discerned. The commonality, of course, is that they’re both richly textured historical romances.

Russian immigrant Mia finds a new life in America, culminating in her working as a translator in FDR’s wartime White House, an intimate of the likes of Harry Hopkins, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, and Franklin Roosevelt himself. On an official function, she is taken by Alexia, a young blonde woman guarding Stalin. Soon, a quick, tipsy kiss bonds them so tightly, Mia’s kidnapping by a Russian official, Alexia’s sniper duties, imprisonment, starvation, privation, mistaken identity, blackmail, and betrayal can’t break them apart.

If you’ve read Saracen before, she’s at her finest here. Her action sequences pop, her plots are twisty, and she loves to put her heroines in the most dire of circumstances and extract them slowly. The biggest difference here is that there seems to be more historical incidents here than in other of her books. I may be wrong in the comparison, but it also seems as if her Roosevelt is more avuncular than other renderings I’ve read. Nevertheless, her treatment of Eleanor and Lorena is sensitive and nuanced.

The only minor quibble I’d have is the inclusion of a somewhat stilted blackmail plot involving Mia’s father that begins the book. It’s of minor importance even later and could have been dispensed with. While it doesn’t detract from the whole, neither does it add much to it. By the time the major action got underway, that small subplot got lost in the larger shuffle.

Be that as it may, The Sniper’s Kiss is prime Saracen–detailed and meticulously researched, yet never feels anything other than contemporary. A great follow-up, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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Sacred Band – Joseph D. Carriker, Jr. (Lethe Press)

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It’s possible anyone who’s met me for more than, say, a few hours will hear me wax poetic about the X-Men of my youth. When I was a kid, they were a much needed allegory to my own existence. Think about it: the mutants were people born different, but to normal families, and hated and feared for their difference by the world around them.

This isn’t hard to translate for a queer kid, especially one who knows things weren’t going to go well if anyone found out.

The difference, of course, is that the X-Men also had fantastic powers, which they used to try and prove to the world they weren’t a threat, and smacked down villainy wherever they found it—especially among their own kind.

So, years later, when here and there the various comic books did finally deliver a few queer characters, I was so on board. Finally, there wasn’t just an allegory, there were actual queer superheroes for me to enjoy.

Well, now and then.

Okay, maybe, like, two or three?

Sometimes, they even lived.

Yeah, mostly it was a frustrating wait with very little payoff. When I found Hero, by Perry Moore, I was over the moon. A superhero story with a main, queer, protagonist? Yes. Sign me up. From there? Steven Bereznai’s Queeroes was waiting for me.

Both were like reading back-in-time, where my young queer self could enjoy young adults who were not just queer, but powerful in a literal sense. I loved it.

Sacred Band does on a grand scale what books like Hero and Queeroes began. For one thing, the characters are older, and the ensemble cast lives in a world affected by superpowers, rather than more singular, smaller groups or locations. The sense of the contemporary world—with all it’s ugly politics—is much more centre-stage, and it brings with it conflicts unique to Sacred Band that I quite enjoyed: when the heroes attempt to find some missing gay men in the Ukraine, it becomes an international incident between varying government agencies involved in the tracking and policing of individuals with powers.

That sense of “big picture” comes pretty early on in the book, as the reader is nudged from place to place through the eyes of a few characters. At first, I found myself making a couple of notes to myself for the purpose of this review. The difference between, for example, an Original vs. an Echo vs. an Empowered (all of whom have powers) was a lot of information thrust into the hands of the reader to begin with, and if I do have one criticism—and it’s a very light one and by no means derailed my enjoyment of this book—it was that it could have been left for later. By the time you meet an Empowered and an Original, you’ve already been with two Echoes, and the story has naturally explained them. That first initial info dump wasn’t needed, and served only to make me wonder if I’d need to keep track right away, which wasn’t the case.

Beyond that, however? Everything about Sacred Band was a wonderful ride. There are so many parallels to the silver and bronze ages of comics that I found myself smiling on more than one occasion. The golden era of the Originals is gone, and the heroes that have come since have seen that first wave of powerful heroes falter in different ways, leaving the American youth of today in the position of having to ally with an organization that seems more intent on keeping them from being particularly special—or at the very least, controlled and useful.

The three voices that carry you through most of the tale are distinct and enjoyable. Gauss, a young architecture student with a gift of magnetism and a past with more than a few judgement call mistakes, is a great lens through which to learn about most of the world. He’s young enough to know what freedoms he has (and doesn’t quite have) in the US, and seeing atrocities go unpunished in the Ukraine would likely have him upset enough even without it involving an internet friend.

Then there’s Deosil, a trans woman with an almost pagan gift with the natural elements, who speaks at pagan retreats and considers her gifts something akin to magic, who is far more street-smart and aware than Gauss, and a good friend of his who knows far more of his motivations than he himself seems to be aware. She and Gauss are of an age, and have similar status as individuals who were just average folk before they were accidentally given abilities by the random echoing event that forms superpowered beings around the world. I really enjoyed her character, and in as much as I can be a judge, I think her representation was solid.

The third main voice of the book was Sentinel, one of the Originals who was the first couple of dozen people to gain powers in the original event that ever spawned abilities. Formerly closeted back in the day, he’s in his sixties (but through having Originals power, he ages very slowly, has a perfect bod, and is basically a wall of attractiveness and muscle). Super-strong through the use of a kind of short-range Telekinesis, he can fly, and previous to the events in the book had all but removed himself from society after the very public response to the death of his fellow Superhero partner, which also outed him to the world and ended the first (and only) team-up of superheroes to this day.

Brought out of retirement by Gauss, Sentinel has to face his own past, as well as coming to grips with many of the realities he’s chosen to simply avoid.

And when one of those realities involves a group of super-powered beings who seem perfectly content to “vanish” young queer kids in the Ukraine?

That’s where things take off.

In case I haven’t made it clear: I completely enjoyed Sacred Band. The level of queer on the page was on par with the superheroics, the powers at play were intriguing, and the world-stage upon which everything was set just added to the high stakes. It was gritty enough to make me worry for the characters, and a tangled enough knot of a mystery at its core to make me enjoy watching the heroes unravel the mess.

Frankly, I’d love to read Sacred Band again, in graphic novel form.

Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine

 

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Consent – Jeff Mann (Unzipped Books)

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Really, there is only one thing you need to know about Jeff Mann’s erotica.

It is hot.

(And coming from someone who admits to no interest in bondage, now or ever, that’s saying something.)

This is, of course, testament to Mann’s ability as a writer.  Mann clearly writes what he knows; but it is a rare writer who can write about sex with such poignancy and humor (yes, humor!) and with such honesty and authenticity.

Consent, recently published by Unzipped Books (the erotica imprint of Lethe Press) collects ten stories by Mann, each previously published in other erotica anthologies, and all with a focus on bondage.  A variety of scenarios set up the sex, but each one of his stories is a fully crafted narrative; although what constitutes a happy ending may be somewhat ambiguous in a story centered on BDSM.  (In any event, this is an erotica collection, not a romance collection, so happy endings are not guaranteed.)

There is just one recommendation I would make concerning this collection, and it is this:  Consent is not a book for reading entirely at one sitting (especially if one may be unfamiliar with bondage as part of sexplay).  Doing so will cause the stories to blend one into the other:  most are set in Appalachia, with one of the protagonists (the dom, usually) as a thinly-veiled stand-in for Mann.  (Indeed, “Inescapable” and “Demon Seed” strike one as autobiographical recollections, despite the fantastical elements in the first story.)  Best to savor each of these stories individually, like the bourbon that Mann obviously favors.

This volume also includes three original pieces.  The opening nonfiction essay, “A Defense of Erotica,” in the vein of a classical apologia, reminds one of a similar essay written by the late John Preston about being a pornographer.  “Erotica is about passion, and passion is about life, and life is most especially to be celebrated and affirmed in dark times such as these.” Mann, as a member of a life-affirming religion (neo-Paganism) makes a strong case for the religious aspects of his writing, and religious metaphors can be found throughout his stories, most notably in “Highland Sleeper” and “In the Shadow of Devil’s Backbone.”  Mann’s passion for and about eros is a direct reaction to the shame he has been made to feel about his erotic leanings, a shame experienced by several of his characters.

The remaining two original pieces close the collection.  “Triptych” is a retelling of the photo shoot (in which Mann himself participated) that produced the cover and interior photographs, entwined with an idealized, erotic reworking of that weekend as reimagined by Mann.  “Triptych” is the most humorous piece in the collection, from Mann’s wry observations of the shoot, becoming laugh-out-loud funny when his fantasy really takes flight near the end. “Carpetbagger,” which closes the volume, is the longest piece, a short novella.  Here Mann gives full rein to his erotic impulse, and even though this story too is set in Appalachia, with a Jeff Mann-like character, it is unlike the other stories in the collection, mostly due to several plot twists within the story that I will not disclose here.  (An homage to Lee Thomas, it almost could be a Thomas story, with break-neck pacing and a captivating narrative that demands a reader’s attention.)

Appropriately, Mann’s sensual writing is accompanied by erotic illustrations, an additional appeal to the senses.  Besides photos from the above-mentioned photo shoot, the introduction is illustrated with black and white drawings; unfortunately my advance reader’s copy does not credit the artist.  Obviously this book will appeal to fans of Jeff Mann; however, collectors of well-written erotica will enjoy these bedtime stories too.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

 

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Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction – Steve Berman, ed. (Lethe Press)

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Lethe Press’s Wilde Stories has always reminded me of the Pan horror series from Britain I loved as an early teen. This review occasioned me to Google the very first Pan volume, coming across names and stories I hadn’t thought of in years, including George Fielding Eliot’s “The Copper Bowl,” a delicious torture tale about a copper bowl with spiced meat, restraints, and a hungry rat who eats his way through a traitor’s lover. That one alone provided me with some nasty dreams for weeks. The stories in the latest Wilde Stories volume are just as interesting and far-reaching as the Pan classics, and even though the tales are short on rats, they’ll still lead you to some fascinating places.

The first stop is Steve Carr’s “The Tale of the Costume Maker,” a glittery little story that demonstrates the value of keeping some treasures to yourself. This leads into “Das Steingeschopf,” G.V. Anderson’s well-built tale of a carver and restorer of living sculpture and the ancient creation he encounters. Matthew Cheney then parts from conventional narrative with “Where’s the Rest of Me?”, his alternate-world tale of Ronald Reagan and his lover, Alejandro, each short chapter titled by a Reagan film. And, yes, Nancy’s there too.

But Ronnie’s not the only celebrity here. Historical figures play central parts in many of these stories, from Alan Turing obsessing over an automaton of three Oscar Wildes (Eric Schaller’s “Turing Test”) to the delightful Americana-gone-weird Johnny Appleseed/Paul Bunyan mash-up, “The Death of Paul Bunyan.” As if those mythical figures weren’t enough, ‘Nathan Burgoine’s “Frost” provides a lovely, fairytale origin story for Jack Frost.

Sam J. Miller, however, corners the mythical figure market with “Angel, Monster, Man,” his brilliantly conceived and well-executed story of Tom Minniq, the pseudonym of three men living through the AIDS epidemic who have inherited a wealth of unpublished and unseen art from their dead and dying friends–those lost voices of a generation we often lament. Minniq becomes the voice of those men until one of the three actually meets him in the flesh. From there on, we join in a different reality that becomes a little more different every day of the T—p era. The barbs in this story are sharp, and you won’t know you’ve bled out until the last word.

Of all the places Wilde Stories took me, though, none affected me more than the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska, where Mathew Scaletta spins “The Sound a Raven Makes,” a bleakly romantic story about Ash and JB, two men who make their living butchering the sasquatch hunted by the tourist trade. This story is rooted in all things Alaskan, especially hidden dangers. The images of the illegally taken baby sasquatch as well piles of squatch arms and legs will stay with me long after I finish writing this. But mostly, this story reflects the environmental and societal changes the region faces as well as providing one shining silver bullet of hope. Or is it despair?

Wilde Stories 2017, then, keeps up the Pan tradition as well as its own by being our yearly touchstone with the fantastical and the horrific. Truly the year’s best and highly recommended.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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At Danceteria and Other Stories – Philip Dean Walker (Squares & Rebels)

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Ask any Gay Man of a Certain Age, and he will tell you about the horrors that were the 1980s in America:  a backlash decade after the revolutionary 1960s and hedonistic 1970s, a decade defined by the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, when Gay men could be discharged from the military with impunity, before any notion of marriage equality, and that above all saw the onset of AIDS.

And yet….

The 1980s too had an over-the-top element to them, as exemplified by the emergence of the materialistic “yuppie.”  They were also the decade of the glamorous Diana, Princess of Wales, the gender-bending Boy George and Annie Lennox in popular music—not to mention the ground-breaking Madonna!—and the outrageous resistance of ACT-UP.

(Full disclosure:  Because the 1980s were the time of my youth—I attended college from 1984-89—I am prone to romanticize this decade, and especially susceptible to 80s nostalgia.)

Philip Dean Walker explores the paradox that was the 1980s throughout his At Danceteria and Other Stories, a slim volume of seven stories (four of which are reprinted from Jonathan: A Queer Fiction Journal).  In six of these stories, the protagonist is some (now dead) icon from the 80s:  Halston, with Liza Minelli and Andy Warhol (“By Halston”); Princess Diana (“Don’t Stop Me Now”); Rock Hudson (“Charlie Movie Star”); Sylvester, with a Bette Midler cameo (“Sequins at Midnight”); Jackie Onassis (“Jackie and Jerry at the Anvil”); Keith Haring (“At Danceteria”).  Several stories are set in iconic bars that likewise are no longer with us:  Studio 54, The Anvil, and Danceteria in New York (all closed 1986); Tracks in Washington, DC (closed 1999); and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London (still going strong).

Walker grounds his bigger-than-life characters by basing his stories upon little-known but historically documented events:  Halston did indeed launch a J. C. Penny line in 1983; Rock Hudson did indeed attend a State Dinner at the Reagan White House in 1984; Jackie O. did indeed go to the notorious hardcore sex club The Anvil with Jerry Torre.  (Walker has noted the intense research he underwent while writing these pieces, with only the occasional artistic license:  for example, Keith Haring’s birthday party actually occurred at Paradise Garage, not Danceteria, so that he could juxtapose Haring and Madonna.  Which raises the question:  Did Princess Di really attend a drag club in male drag with Freddie Mercury?)

The center (literally) of the collection is held by “The Boy Who Lived Next to the Boy Next Door,” the only story without a celebrity, not even a cameo.  Narrated by an anonymous (and presumably average-looking) protagonist, he describes the new gay cancer—or, as he dubs it, “Hot Guy Flu”—since he observes that only the good-looking guys are succumbing to it.  As a result, he unexpectedly finds himself suddenly desirable, even by the attractive who had previously spurned him; until finally even the not-so-attractive start dying.

To survivors of the 1980s, the discovery of AIDS remains a watershed event, a point after which the world irrevocably changed.  Its specter haunts all of Walker’s stories to a lesser or greater degree, but it is not the only truth of the decade.  Walker acknowledges both extremes of the 1980s, the horror and the glamour.  In so doing, he produces something mighty real, which is more than just plain real.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

 

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Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality – Debbie Cenziper & Jim Obergefell (William Morrow)

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We’ll occasionally break from our mission of reviewing independent press releases to cover something queer from a major publisher, so when I received the press release promoting the paperback edition  of Love Wins, I eagerly emailed for a review copy. I don’t get the opportunity to review as much non-fiction as I’d like, so this seemed a natural. And, indeed, the book is a clear, concise, obviously heartfelt account of the Obergefell marriage equality case, certainly worth a read. However, this edition settled on me differently than the hardback release might have.

Cenziper does an admirable job of encapsulating not only the story of Jim Obergefell and John Arthur’s relationship but the background of civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein and what made him so passionate about the case in question. Along the way, Cenziper paints deft little portraits of the minor players as well and has truly taken to heart Gerhardstein’s adage that in order to have a case, you need a story. Plus, this has courtroom drama. How could you not love courtroom drama? Those scenes are among the best in the book.

What the hell is my problem, then?

The question for me is one of timing. Releasing this book in the T—p era shrouds it in a thick cloud of irony, refocusing its look-how-far-we’ve-come to look-how-much-we-have-to-lose, especially with an increasingly conservative Supreme Court itching to overturn the very gain this book is about. The story is compelling enough to survive scrutiny through that different lens, and the telling of the story is flawless, but the end result–the feeling I got as I turned the last page–was one of sad nostalgia rather than hopeful optimism. I laughed. I cried. But not for the reasons or maybe even in the places the author had intended.

Unfortunately, we no longer live in a world where love consistently wins. Perhaps we never did. Love has historically had an uphill struggle, but it used to win more than it seems to now. In the eight years I’ve been writing this blog (one on hiatus), many of the books I’ve reviewed have made me cry, but not with the sense of longing and regret that this one did.

Can I recommend it? Sure. It’s highly readable, and the narrative is well-constructed. The characterizations are well-done, and the prose is clear and explains some complicated legal questions quite well. I can’t, however, guarantee what mood it will leave you in. Maybe you’re farther along in your grief process than I am. Maybe you think we have nothing to grieve for. Maybe you don’t connect the two. But I don’t think I’m alone. If I am, we’re in more trouble than I thought.

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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