Anais Nin at the Grand Guignol – Robert Levy (Lethe Press)

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Anais Nin (1903-1977) was a woman writer ahead of her time. Born to Cuban parents in France, she was trilingual in her lifetime. She lived in Paris with her banker/filmmaker husband from 1924 to 1939, when she wisely escaped to New York in time to avoid the German occupation of France. She became known for her apparently tell-all journals, published in edited form while she was alive, which revealed her emotional sensitivity, her bohemian lifestyle, and her affairs with several famous men. She was persuaded to publish her erotic short stories, originally written for a mysterious private patron. Anais Nin has been a role model for erotic writers ever since.

After Nin’s death, the 1990 film Henry and June popularized one phase of her life in Paris, when she was in an erotic triangle with American writer Henry Miller and his wife June. In 1992, her diary from 1932-34 was republished with all the censored information restored, including her affair with her own father, a musician and composer.

Was Anais Nin drawn to Le Theatre Grand Guignol? This doesn’t seem clear from the existing records, but Robert Levy’s fictional version of one of Nin’s diaries from 1933 is uncannily plausible.

The “Grand Guignol” was a small theater in a former church in Paris where the gothic architecture perfectly suited the gruesome subject-matter of the plays performed there. Established in the fin-de-siecle (1897), it attracted a cult following into the 1930s, but attendance declined after the real-life atrocities of the Occupation and the Holocaust. The theater closed in 1962.

In Levy’s version, Anais Nin goes to the theater with her husband, Hugo, and both are aroused by a scene in which a doctor mutilates a female patient. Anais responds to her husband’s “squirming:”

“I bring his hand to my lips and kiss his knuckles, the room electrified with murmurs and movement as the patrons resettle in their seats. Like me, they are unsure how to feel, how best to absorb and respond to what has just taken place before them. Did they see their own objects of desire and longing in the patient, the way that I saw June? Did it make them feel the same exquisite satisfaction, the first twinge of a new and awakening pleasure inside?”

Between trysts with her lover, Henry Miller (after June’s departure from them both), writing sessions, and appointments with her real-life psychoanalyst, Dr. Allendy, Anais returns to the “Grand Guignol.” There she meets real-life lead actress Paula Maxa, an opium-addicted creature of the night who tries to protect Anais from her master, pimp, or stalker, Monsieur Guillard. “Maxa” apparently doesn’t know that Anais has already had a disturbing vision, or encounter, with Monsieur in Dr. Allendy’s office, in the dark box called an “isolation accumulator,” in which a patient is supposed to focus on dispersing negative emotions such as guilt and shame, and eventually feel herself “awash in positive light.”

Alone in the dark, Anais imagines herself on a beach when she sees a being with “silver-yellow eyes” emerging from the water. The being is strong and male, and Anais feels him dragging her by the ankles into the sea to drown.  At this point, the threatening male figure doesn’t introduce himself.

Soon afterward, however, the man with the penetrating gaze shows up everywhere in her life: at Paula Maxa’s door while Anais is visiting, and at a masquerade party that Anais attends with Hugo, where Monsieur Guillard accuses Anais of summoning him to find her. He echoes what Paula Maxa has already told her: once Monsieur claims you, there is no escape.

Is Monsieur a seductive, sadistic father-figure conjured from the depths of Anais’ masochistic hero-worship of powerful men? Is he a supernatural being? Is he the resident spirit of Le Theatre Grand Guignol?

“Maxa” suggests to Anais that Monsieur has given her the magical power to enact the fears and secret desires of every member of the audience, and that this power must be paid for. She lets Anais know that she can’t protect “Maxa” or any other woman but herself from Monsieur, and that this can only be done by staying away from him.

So far, this slim novel looks like a mildly erotic study in traditional feminine masochism and psychological horror.

However, Levy’s version of Anais is resourceful as well as curious. She comes to the profound realization that although a supernatural being or an archetype can never be killed, human flesh is mortal. The requirement of human flesh for lust to operate on not only makes Anais and other female victims vulnerable to physical violence, it also makes Monsieur vulnerable when he appears in human form. The Man is not all-powerful after all.

Many years before the advent of Second-Wave Feminism, Anais discovers the wisdom and strength in a group of women focused on a common purpose.

Not all the mysteries are resolved by the end of this book, and that is part of its charm. Levy persuasively imitates Anais Nin’s writing style, and his imagery fits the subject-matter. In the last scene, Anais writes: “I turn, and I face him [Dr. Allendy.] I face them all.” Fear, desire, surrender and resistance are shown to be inseparably connected.

Reviewed by Jean Roberta

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Duncan’s Fall Poetry Roundup

When Duncan isn’t playing with his bone, he reads poetry. You can probably tell that by his soulful, sensitive eyes. Oh, that’s not all he reads. He loves a good mystery now and then. Some Buddhist philosophy. Reprints of old Erma Bombeck columns. But he has five new selections for your autumnal enjoyment he’s been working on all summer. It’s not that he reads slow; he has trouble swiping on the Kindle.

Have You Seen This Man?: The Castro Poems of Karl Tierney – Jim Cory, ed.

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The idea of the unheralded and tragically short-lived artist is hardly a new one, but it seems particularly poignant in the case of Karl Tierney, a poet working in San Francisco in the 1980s. The 50 poems he left show a poet almost fully-formed, time being the only ingredient necessary to improve the depth and maturity of his work. Sadly, he did not have that luxury. Nor did we. What we do have, however, is by turns emotional, dispassionate, sad, and hilarious–all with a craftsman’s eye for detail. One of my favorite pieces, “Caligula or Nixon Leaving” is as applicable today as it was then:

…and as the helicopter lifts from the Rose Garden lawn/from someplace like Istria or Capri and a fat bank branch/three guards roll up the red carpet/as if we’d never invited him into the palace/in the first place.

Informed by everything from sleazy sex to Billy Idol, these poems are far more entertaining than a legacy should be, and that makes their scarcity all the more lamentable.

Genre Fluid – Dan Webber (Big White Shed) 

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Dan Webber bills himself as a reluctant bear and an attempted vegan who has performed in many spoken word shows only to be told he’s a comic at poetry nights and a poet at comedy nights. When faced with material as witty, earnest, and well-observed as this, the last thing that should concern us is which box it goes in. “Homo on the Rocks,” “Anonymous at 6 am,” and “Some People Never Learn” are among my favorites in this slim but fully packed volume. The ending of “Child of the 90s” in particular resonated with this child of the 70s.

On New Year’s Eve 2016/I told my oldest friend I preferred men to women/And he was livid/Not because I liked guys/Because I had lied to him for all these years/I’d never told him when I was most happy.

Webber shifts effortlessly from comic to serious, changing the layout up with different typefaces and pictures and little bits. His predicament about being pigeonholed highlights what I’ve always wondered about the line between poetry and standup comedy since I first heard Lenny Bruce and Allen Ginsberg. Webber’s insights are very interesting indeed.

Spring Sonnets – Don Yorty (Indolent Books) 

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Where Webber is non-traditional, New York City poet Don Yorty provides a more formalistic approach with sonnets to spring written during a six year stretch from 2003 to 2009. Those fourteen lines of iambic pentameter are to poetry what the five-paragraph essay is to composition, and you can be just as creative within that structure as you want to be. Yorty’s eye turns to everything around him, tying it all back to spring with the mention of a flower, a scent, a food, or a memory. And his subjects are myriad. But writers never stray far from their own heads, so we get sonnets featuring pencils, smudges, and of course, writing itself:

Writing’s a thing of opposites, putting/on clothes, taking them off, whispering shouts/starting a fire and then putting it out./You don’t want to burn the pages

This is clearly a lot of poetry, but this collection is definitely worth your while. Savor it slowly–one or two at a time–and make your spring last until the snow flies.

Love and Detours – David-Matthew Barnes (Blue Dasher Press)

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This is also a large collection, but many of these poems have appeared elsewhere and it’s wonderful to have them neatly compiled in one place. A writer of many guises and genres, Barnes’s poetry is very dynamic. It’s always on the move. Someone’s running or walking or searching. These are pieces of escape, of rebellion, of restless adolescence. Love and Detours is all about destinations and shifting places, imbued with Eighties pop culture. One of my favorites, “Walking to K-Mart to Buy a Dolly Parton Album,” is also an award-winner:

Someone protects me when I’m ten: a boy/ in my class. He’s stronger than the others./He waits for me each day, walks me home./He’s convinced I’ll be the next/Nancy Drew and encourages me to open up/my own detective agency. He colors the green/construction paper signs we tape in store windows.

From the geographic name-checking in “Looking for Homer” to the freestyle images of “Subway Stations, Atlanta,” Barnes’s poems are all conscious of the fact that they are memories–that is to say, they have a self-realization that these events are in the past, observed from a safe platform of better-if-not-well-adjusted adulthood. I can guarantee you’ll relate.

Infinity Standing Up – Drew Pisarra (Capturing Fire Press)

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Sonnets, yes. But unlike the above-reviewed Yorty, Pisarra’s sonnets are more directly Shakesperean in nature. And lustier. Not only that, but Pisarra has a wicked sense of humor that makes this one of my favorite volumes. “Sonnet 45” is about a vinyl single, “Sonnet 11 PM” about bedtime, “Sonnet 666” about Satan, “Sonnet 69” about…well, you get the idea. I love Pisarra’s warped viewpoint and willingness to take on any subject, such as the penis in “Sonnet 6″‘:

Hey shlong, listen up. Hey penis, pay attention./Pecker! Turn your unblinking eye over here./Oh, thick-headed prick, oh tool of no pretension,/ oh wood that could, and dick shaped like a can of beer/I have ogled and gagged. I have ridden such cock.

But the effect is not all fun and games. “Sonnet -1” is about a particularly tough break-up, and “Sonnet 12.11.15” is a portrait of the beginning of a relationship which may or may not still be extant. Pisarra is as confident and sure on the serious side as he is with wit and a well-turned phrase. As with the Yorty, I’d do one a day just to keep your spirits up.

And there you have Duncan’s Fall Poetry Review. He’s looking for something to read for Winter, so if you’ve a mind, drop a line.

JW

© 2019 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Endangered Species: A Surly Bear in the Bible Belt – Jeff Mann (Lethe Press)

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Be warned: Endangered Species: A Surly Bear in the Bible Belt by Jeff Mann is aptly named—there is plenty of righteous indignation here. He suffers no fools gladly, and aims his wrath at homophobes and hypocrites of all kinds—regardless of their religious or political affiliation—and takes no prisoners.

Of course, that is not all that this volume of essays is: it also contain wry humor, nostalgia, regret, and even some acceptance and detachment. Mann wrote the twenty-two essays contained herein (of which thirteen have previously been published in print anthologies or online) over the past ten years, between 2009 and 2017. (Reader warning: Mann explains in his introductory Author’s Note that these essays were not initially intended to be collected together, so there’s a fair amount of overlap in autobiographical details. Mann eliminated some of this repetition when reprinting these essays, but kept some in order to preserve the integrity of individual essays.) That being said, they run the gamut: to borrow a culinary metaphor, this volume is a smorgasbord of writings, everything from short, lyrical elegies (“David”) to serious, substantive pieces about teaching Appalachian writers in college curricula (“The Feast Hall, the rsenal, and the Mirror”) and his literary influences (“Romantic”).

Most of Mann’s essays reflect on the various intersections in his life: being Gay; living in Appalachia; being a leatherbear; being a Gay leatherbear in a non-urban part of Appalachia. Mann recognizes that he is cast very much as a niche writer; nevertheless, most Gay readers will be able to connect with him to some extent when he writes about such universal topics as family, both by blood (“Amy”) and by spirit (“Big Queer Convocations”), and home. Additionally, older readers will empathize with Mann’s looking back as he nears middle age, and grows more contemplative. (Oh, the aging leatherbear is still surly; but now he has learned to choose which battles he will fight.) And Mann simply could not write a book of this length without also discussing food (“Scrapple,” “Muslim Food”).

While these essays are without doubt entertaining, the real value for the reader is that Mann writes unapologetically and with unflinching honesty about topics that most writers shy away from: the kind of sex that turns him on (passim), the memory of a long-ago affair (“Thomas”), hiring a hustler (“Whoremonger”), the envy he feels towards writers better known and more successful than he (e.g., his own father!), and his feelings towards the Civil War (“Confederate”) and about gun ownership (“Watch Out! That Queer’s got a Gun!”). These last two essays in particular demonstrate that Mann, rugged individualist that he is, is not afraid to hold an opinion at odds with “orthodox” liberal Gay thought. It is the rare reader that will agree entirely with Mann.

So, to those readers new to Mann and his oeuvre, this volume will be full of surprises; even long-time followers of Mann will find something new to chew upon. And as I noted above, this book is not entirely surliness: Mann writes about all the things that make life worth living—food, sex, nature, poetry, and beautiful men. And whether you gorge yourself on this feast entirely in one sitting or savor it course by course, you will find something to your taste, be it an exotic new perspective or the equivalent of literary comfort food.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White By the Book – Tom Cardamone, ed. (ITNA Press)

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Tom Cardamone has made a mission of rescuing Gay writers and their writings from the dustbin of history. His The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered (2010) lists twenty-eight Gay literary forefathers, as remembered by current Gay writers. In his latest anthology, Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White by the Book, he focuses on a single writer, and his mission is somewhat different: celebrating a giant of Gay letters who has little chance of being forgotten.

(Full disclosure: it shames me to admit that I have arrived so very late to this party. Of White’s body of work, I have read only his most recent The Unpunished Vice, and, well, The Joy of Gay Sex–not that one exactly reads the latter, at least not from cover to cover. I read the former as an advance reader’s copy, but I encountered the latter as a closeted teen in a Waldenbooks at a mall in a nearby city.)

In any event, I have been given an excellent road map to rectify this lack. Crashing Cathedrals is a hefty book: clocking in at 443 pages (plus author bios), it contains 33 essays written by a veritable Who’s Who of Gay literati, discussing 30 different titles authored by White. The heft is not surprising, given that White’s oeuvre is scarcely insignificant: he has written both fiction and non-fiction—novels, biography, memoir, essays, and reviews—during a career that spans decades, from just after Stonewall, during the ravages of the AIDS epidemic, White’s “exile” in Paris, into the twenty-first century. Most of these tributes were written specifically for this volume, but it also incorporates nine reprints, including the introduction to the Modern Library edition of A Boy’s Own Story by Allan Gurganus, as well as contributions originally published online in such venues as the Lambda Literary Revue and Chelsea Station. (Again, not surprisingly, the title with multiple essays is the classic A Boy’s Own Story, with essays not only by Gurganus and Robert Glück, but also Brian Alessandro, who worked with White’s own husband Michael Carroll on a graphic novel and screenplay of this seminal title.)

The volume is organized chronologically, beginning with White’s first novel Forgetting Elena (1977) and closing with his most recent memoir The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading (2018). Although one may read the essays in any order, I suggest reading them consecutively: as one reads the essays sequentially, one not only learns about White’s development as a writer, but also learns about the arc of his own life story. Thus Cardamone’s volume not only serves as a bibliography of White’s oeuvre, but also functions as a biography of sorts for him.

Lest one think that this volume is purely a pedantic series of obtuse critiques of White’s writings—with copious footnotes—most of the essays contained herein offer not only discussions about the specific work by White in question, but also personal reminiscences about “Ed”–where and when the essayist first encountered the work under discussion, and sometimes even how and when the essayist met him in person. And since most of the contributors are likewise writers, it is just as relevant knowing how White the writer influenced their work, as knowing how Ed personally mentored and inspired them. By reading this book, one not only gets a sense of Edmund White the writer, but also of Edmund White the person, and this festschrift is as much a tribute to the latter as to the former.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Justify My Sins – Felice Picano (Beautiful Dreamer Press)

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Felice Picano returns to the genre he founded—the great American gay epic, in a decades-spanning, dishy, Hollywood-focused story that brings to life both the thrill of sexual freedom and the trauma of AIDS in the Post-Stonewall era.

Victor Regina is the fictionalized hero who is partially based on Picano’s experience in TV and film per his author’s note. It’s 1977, and Victor’s just been launched into celebrity through the success of his straight romance novel that’s flying off the bookstore shelves. Now a film company wants to buy the rights and hire him to adapt the story for a TV movie of the week. It’s the ’70s, so of course they’re offering to fly him out to Los Angeles from New York City and set him up at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Thus begins Victor’s love affair with “El Lay.” He’s dazzled by the lifestyle of chauffeured sedans, rubbing elbows with movie stars, exclusive restaurants, and the risqué bars and bathhouses filled with gorgeous, horny men. Victor is a guy in his late twenties who has already cultivated a strong sense of self-importance, so he’s well-assured this is the world where he belongs. From the jump, he’s outsmarting the production team, impressing bigger fish in the Hollywood pond over comp’d dinners, and earning propositions from all the hottest men wherever he goes.

Victor is well-drawn as a queer man of a certain era who peppers conversation with witty French expressions and sexual innuendo aplenty while gabbing with his gay male friends. One isn’t especially enchanted to root for him at the outset when everything comes so easy to him. But what moves the dialogue-heavy story along is Picano’s breezy, clever writing and eventually some humanizing events in Victor’s life.

The book is subtitled A Hollywood Novel in Three Acts, and structured around Victor’s three attempts to bring one of his bestsellers to the big screen across three decades. It’s an enjoyably complex mammoth of a story that achieves quite a lot, from commentary on the deep-rooted obstacles to creative freedom in the film industry to an honest portrayal of gay life for the privileged set both pre-AIDS and at the height of the epidemic.

While the title relates to the title of Victor’s unproduceable romance novel, Justify My Sins, doesn’t quite gel or perhaps gets lost a bit in long passages of voyeuristic Hollywood anecdotes. While Victor’s smarminess annoys, there’s nothing sinful about his life choices nor is it a story of a torturous journey to self-acceptance. Victor’s unrepentant attitude toward his sexual escapades is one of his better qualities, and though he’s hardly a warm and fuzzy guy, he shows himself as a caring partner to his one true love who dies from AIDS, and later, most movingly, as a sturdy pal to a lifelong friend whose partner is dying. If his high opinion of himself counts as a fault, Victor redeems himself through loyalty and writing stories that are true to who he is when his platform allows him to do so. Given what’s at stake for him to live his life openly gay, one can’t find any sins to justify.

It’s difficult to not draw comparisons between Justify My Sins and the author’s celebrated Like People in History. Both works are sprawling epics that move from New York City, Los Angeles, and Fire Island with AIDS figuring in as a turning point.

Readers who enjoyed Like People in History are likely to adore Picano’s latest book, which approaches gay life in the 70s, 80s, and 90s with honesty and heart. It doesn’t hit the same emotional high notes, dragged down a bit to a lower register in favor of sexual exploits and celebrity exposé. But it still stands as good reading from a trusty historian of bicoastal gay life.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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In Search of Stonewall – Richard Schneider, Jr., ed. (G&LR Books)

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Just in time for Pride (though the review is a bit late), this collection of essays originally published in The Gay & Lesbian Review looks back at Stonewall through a variety of prisms at the fiftieth anniversary of the riots there. Attempting to place the events of that weekend in context, the pieces here seek to answer some basic questions such as who actually started it and why, of all places, a seedy, Mafia-run clip joint should have struck such a chord when we had fought back–even harder–in other cities. I’m not so sure either of those questions have a definitive answer, but maybe the point is in the discussion.

The first section of the book, “Flashpoint: New York City, June 1969” takes on the iconographic history of Stonewall, focusing on personal accounts of that evening from a number of gay authors such as Edmund White, Felice Picano, Rita Mae Brown, and others who were there at the time. The most interesting commonality most of these reminiscences has is the fact that no one was really aware of how important their brush with this part of history was.

The second part, “Flashback: Roots of the Riot” is very interesting in terms of history (and herstory), with essays by legends Harry Hay, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, and John Rechy, among others. I particularly enjoyed the essays on the earliest gay organizations, especially Martha E. Stone’s “Unearthing the ‘Knights of the Clock,'” which is a too-short piece about the interracial gay organization Merton Bird founded in 1951 and Eve Goldberg’s coverage of the Black Cat Riots in L.A. I was disappointed, however, to see nothing by or about Ruth Simpson (“Out of the Closets, Into the Courts”) on her involvement with Daughters of Bilitis.

“Flash Forward: Aftermath and Diffusion” deals with both activism and gay cultural life post-Stonewall, including looks at the Radicalesbians, Andrew Holleran’s summation of the Seventies, and an overlook of San Francisco by Jewelle Gomez. The last section, “Stonewall’s Legacy: Whither the Revolution” attempts to place the riots in some context and has some interesting essays by D. Gilson and Larry Kramer. Honestly, having Larry Kramer’s level of anger must be incredibly wearing. Reading him exhausts me.

My favorite piece, though, has little to do with Stonewall other than its title: “The Birds as a Pre-Stonewall Parable” by the late Bob Smith. This gay revisionist look at the Hitchcock classic has its tongue firmly in cheek–or does it?  The brilliance of this piece is not knowing how serious Smith is and how much he’s sending up both gay historians and film scholars, because his interpretation of the film can be read as both. Every time I read him, I regret we lost him so quickly.

But as with any collection of this nature, you’ll find something that piques your curiosity and sends you down one or two rabbit holes. A valuable and worthwhile compendium, this deserves a place on your TBR pile.

JW

© 2019 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Catch Me When I’m Falling – Cheryl A. Head (Bywater Books)

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I always love being in on the ground floor of a great series. I felt that way about Cari Hunter’s Dark Peak books, J.M. Redmann’s Micky Knight series, and Hank Edwards’s Critter Catchers. Cheryl Head’s Charlie Mack Motown Mysteries gives me the same vibe. Whereas Hunter’s strength is her action sequences, Redmann’s her characters, and Edwards’s his plotting, Cheryl Head makes the procedural part of policework her domain. It’s all about the investigation, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the second Charlie Mack volume, Catch Me When I’m Falling.

Charlie Mack thought her toughest assignment was going to be finally moving in with her new girlfriend Mandy or maybe taking care of her mother, starting to show the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. But that’s not quite it. Three homeless people, one of whom was Charlie’s mother’s friend, have been murdered at the hands of a particularly gruesome serial killer who likes to burn his victims to death. As she goes underground, posing as a homeless woman, she also runs into drug trafficking and problems with a rogue cop.

I know I said it in my review of Bury Me When I’m Dead, but I’m an old Detroit boy myself, and it’s always fun to see landmarks and things you grew up with in books. It really gives me a sense of place. But beyond that, Head does a remarkable job of balancing a large cast of characters. There are her two investigators, Don and Gil, as well as her office gal Judy, and Don and Gil are usually assisted by someone from the police force. Plus, this time there are a number of homeless people, including a trans hooker Gil becomes protective of, not to mention the rogue cop and the drug trafficking elements. But somehow, she makes her introductions at the right time and keeps all the principals in motion.

Part of the reason for this is that Head never stops moving. Her books are precision timepieces, always ticking along. You can almost hear her thinking: first a character bit, then some plot, another bit of character, a clue sown, back to the plot, start some tension between Gil and Don here, hook Judy up managing the girlfriend’s moving schedule and then they’re out of the way, then…  I mean, writing these must be exhausting work because she and her editor have made almost every individual word work, applicable to either mood, character, or plot. And each word has to carry its burden to squeeze all that plot into just over two hundred pages without the reader feeling cramped or cheated. But you won’t.

I’m delighted to see that no matter how hard she and her characters work, they’re always happy to tuck in to a meal, however hastily. In that respect, Cheryl Head and Jeff Mann are culinary cousins. Where Mann’s food descriptions run to the Appalachian home-style variety, Head gets misty eyed over White Castles and deli take-out. Having often waxed poetic about pastrami on dark rye myself, I get it.

So, Catch Me When I’m Falling is a tightly spun mystery that will have you guessing right up until nearly the last page. Perfect for summer reading, this one is a worthy entry to the Charlie Mack series.

JW

© 2019 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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