Tag Archives: gay romance

Eros and Dust: Stories – Trebor Healey (Lethe Press)

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I picture three Trebor Healeys.

The dense forest hides many more, but three in particular creep out from the between the trees most often: one poetic, one crazed with lust, and one shaggy with heat and dust. A fourth one, regretful and elegiac, can also be relied upon for regular appearances. When all of them work in concert as they did in 2012 for A Horse Named Sorrow or Faun, their combined power is formidable. But the shorter pieces such as those found in his recent Lethe release, Eros and Dust: Stories, reveal the strength of those beasts on a more individual level.

That boy-crazed one may be the most prevalent, reigning supreme in “Los Angeles,” about a Chaturbate addict and a plan gone horribly wrong, the psuedo-pedophiliac “Lolito,” and the definitely pedophiliac “The Pancake Circus.” The latter is particularly disturbing, not for how off-track the narrator’s dick drives him, but for the way his Clown Daddy normalizes an abhorrent act. The metaphor is strong any time but becomes nearly prescient when seen in light of the current political situation.

Actually, this musk pervades all Healey’s stories as flawed characters use faulty reasoning to make bad choices. We’ve all been there, right? One of the differences between Healey’s longer fiction and his short stories is that very often the protagonists of the latter don’t get a chance at the redemption the heroes of his novels do–an odd omission due to the Catholicism exuded by these tales. It’s not that redemption isn’t possible (and I’m thinking for the narrators of “Los Angeles” and “Lolito” in particular); it’s just not presented as an option.

The horny Healey is usually flanked by the shaggy one, the hot grit he exudes providing a dusty, transient backdrop that serves the author well. Whether the setting is parched Los Angeles, the Oaxacan desert, or a PV resort, the Santa Ana winds blow hot on the heels of his characters. Going to the heat, getting out of the heat, dealing with the heat–all motivations that make these characters as restless as their lust.

The poetic one pokes his delicate nose in all stories as well, but makes memorable appearances in the character sketch “El Santo” and the transient restlessness of “Pilgrim Soul,” but again, this one’s influence is everywhere–especially on the too-short “Puppets”:

I started seeing his puppets all over the place…he made puppets who took pills and were cathetered; he made demon and angel puppets; puppets of crack whores and drag queens, muscle boys and campesinos; puppets in gabardine suits and puppets in silk kimonos. He made puppets of political personalities–Jesse Helms, Reagan and Bush, the Pope–and he made monstrous puppets named HIV and PCP, KS and CMV–big ogreish things with arms to their ankles and enormous malformed dicks. With big sad eyes. They looked back at me hungrily out of lit-up windows in darkened, empty shops on Guerrero or Valencia Street long after midnight, the fog sifting down, enveloping everything–all the streetlights like dandelion seeds.

And there’s that pesky, elegiac Healey, bringing forth his solemn reflections in the middle of the bawdiest episode to remind you that life reveals its most serious sides in quirky ways. Thus, the aforementioned “The Pancake Circus” becomes more an elegy to lost innocence than what its surface indicates. That’s the way the fourth dude works. Sometimes you don’t notice his effects until a couple of stories pass or until the whole thing plays out (“Imp”) and then his part in the liturgy becomes apparent.

Each voice is as distinctive in solo as it is an essential component of the blend. Truly a marvelous trick to pull off, and Trebor Healey does so. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2017 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Best Gay Romance 2014 – Timothy J. Lambert and R.D. Cochrane, eds. (Cleis Press)

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I tend to shy from universal absolutes like “every fan of gay romance will love this anthology,” but hold on a moment while I ponder that.…Still thinking…Right. I’ve got nothing. Ergo, yes, I think every gay romance fan will want to add this to his or her TBR list.

I discovered some new favorite authors and found new facets to authors whose work I’ve enjoyed before. One complaint often lodged against romance anthologies is how each piece resembles the last. Not here, and that nice bonus is accentuated by skilled editorial flow.

The opening story is charming and light. “Strange Propositions” by Eric Gober lives up to its name. With relationship scenarios such as “May I invite you to a movie that I won’t be going to myself?” and “Would you like to go to a protest dressed as a chicken?” Gober has created a tale that will make readers smile while showing the importance of stepping out of one’s comfort zone.

Speaking of leaving behind what’s comfortable, sometimes the way to risk the utmost vulnerability is to offer a long overdue, heartfelt apology followed by a stammered appeal for a second chance. The job Rob Byrnes does showing the complexity of regret, apprehension, and longing in “Carver Comes Home” is remarkably moving and vivid to the point of being cinematic.

Description is again an incredible strength in “Sight” by Jordan Taylor. Here, the immense, hollow loss that is almost certainly experienced by anyone who has gone blind is tempered by a loving partner’s exceptional ability to verbally paint a picture.

Jameson Currier’s “My Adventures with Tom Sawyer” was another story written so beautifully, I kept thinking “I hope someone sends this to the O’Henry Prize anthology.” The intricate details were phenomenal and the overarching theme—allowing yourself the bliss of the present instead of clouding the moment with the disappointment that it won’t last forever—felt both touching and significant.

Thanks to the story “Hello Aloha” in Foolish Hearts and “Dandelions” in this volume, I’m now a fan of Tony Calvert. If ever a fictional character needed a reality show, it is the busybody mother of Calvert’s main character, Jim. The combination of quirky humor, homespun “wisdom,” and the protagonist’s introspection make this story a joy.

With “True in my Fashion” by Paul Brownsey, I’ve discovered another new favorite writer. Brownsey masterfully shows his character meticulously building and trapping himself in his own web of adorable neurosis. We learn here that sometimes a person’s flaws are what make him most endearing. That and how the main character tries to cover up those flaws are what make “True in My Fashion” one of the most charming stories I’ve read.

Each story deserves its own paragraph, but the equivalent of the Academy Award Orchestra is telling me to wrap it up.  However, I need to mention the smile-inducing characters and adorable dogs from Shawn Anniston and Alex Jeffers, the distilled essence of companionship from Kevin Langson and Georgina Li, new definitions of family and acceptance from Felice Picano and Lewis DeSimone, delightful moments captured in vignettes by James Booth and N.S. Benarek, and the beauty of seeing a long time love with brand new adoration from David Puterbaugh.

The editors, in their commentary, bring up concepts that can make romance work. First, likable protagonists who go out on a limb, taking risks that could leave them crushed. Second, likable “contagonists” or objects of affection readers will know are worthy of that risk. Third, devotion, understanding, or longing that makes the reader understand, on a gut level, that this is right—these guys want more than anything to spend their lifetimes making each other smile. Will you find those elements here in spades? Yes, yes, and yes.

Reviewed by Gavin Atlas

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Down in Cuba – Vincent Meis (Fallen Bros Press)

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When Down in Cuba begins, it’s been three years since Martin and Leo have seen each other. We know right away it’s over between them. Leo’s little girl Anabela remembers tío Martin from the photos that Leo has kept. She’s wearing clothes that Martin has sent as a present.

When the chronological story begins, Martin Vandenberg is a 46-year-old tenured professor at a small school in southern California. His academic specialty is Martí, Cuban intellectual, poet and hero of the Cuban War of Independence. Vandenberg has been married for over twenty years. He has a daughter he adores. Apparently he’s never questioned his relationship with his wife or his sexuality. In fact, he’s been running pretty much on autopilot for a long time.

When he receives a year’s sabbatical to write a book on Martí, he goes to Cuba to begin his research. On one of his first nights in Havana, he meets Leo, a handsome Cuban half his age. Leo blows the doors off the closet that Martin Vandenberg didn’t know he lived in.

In a declaration of passionate denial that many of us who married women will recognize, he declares, “You hear people talk about, you know, being in a closet. What does that mean? I never felt like I was in a closet. Leo is an attractive guy. I was drunk. I swear to God, this is not going to change my life.”

But it does. As it must.

Told in Martin’s nervous POV, Down in Cuba is a romantic tragedy in which flawed characters fail to get what they believe they want. Martin and Leo struggle within their cultural imperatives and mores, each wanting somehow to bridge the gulf between them. The silver lining to the tragedy is that they both find a truer life than they had when they met.

The book is structured in time-blocks arranged out of sequence, opening almost at the end. The intervening time-blocks are not flashbacks, but current-time episodes that will eventually give meaning to the beginning as well as the end.

While I’m not a fan of stories with reshuffled timelines, I appreciate that Meis chose this technique in support of the story. It creates a diffused ebb and flow in the relationship between Martin and Leo, keeping its fate ambiguous until all ambiguity is dispelled.

Martin is concerned that Leo is interested in him only for money or to escape Cuba. Ultimately, Leo proves the stronger, more honest and self-aware of the two. As capricious and self-centered as Martin believes Leo to be, Leo forces Martin into authenticity that he couldn’t have achieved without him. He forces Martin to come out—a gift far greater than anything Martin gives Leo.

Through Leo, Martin learns what week-to-week survival in Cuba requires: selling soap on the black market or raising roosters for fighting, befriending foreigners, easing frustration with rum and cigarettes.

Leo may be a good-hearted opportunist, but he is also an artist whose dark paintings reveal a haunted place in his soul. He is uncompromising and honest in his self-interest. He is scarred and tattooed. He is a wild being, full of passion.

One day in Old Havana, Martin and Leo make love standing at a window while a political rally fills the streets below them:

“Tell me what you hear, coño.” He sounded angry. I laughed. “Come on. You’re making me crazy. Stand up by the window. Look out. Look at the people. Look at the funny people on the street.” […]

“Look at the people. Look at my country,” he whispered, his mouth on my ear, the hot wisps of air tickling deep nerves. “All right,” he said. “Now. Do you feel it? Do you feel it? Look at the people. Can you see them? Come on. Look. Look. Look.”

Like a catalyst in a chemical reaction, Leo forces Martin to break open, but remains unchanged himself. He wields a frightening kind of integrity.

Down in Cuba is a gripping, thought-provoking, emotionally satisfying book. The characters are strong and fresh. The writing is immediate and unadorned, yet it creates a subtle, mercurial, even elusive, Cuba. It draws the reader into a collision of cultures that sheds a stern light on unexamined expectations of fairness, and attitudes that Americans like Martin might carry, such as presumption of a moral high ground that may not be warranted.

I urge you to read this book.

Reviewed by Lloyd A. Meeker

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Mind Fields – Dylan Madrid (Bold Strokes Books)

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Love can cure just about anything that’s wrong with your life, which is a lesson the most jaded among us should remember from time to time. That’s what keeps the whole genre of romance novels afloat. Sometimes those books are believable and sometimes not, but when the buy-in is there, the piece can pack a dangerous punch. And Dylan Madrid slugs it out with the best of them in Mind Fields.

Broke college student Adam Parsh is just beginning to realize what his best friend Victor Maldonado, who has been crushing on him for some time, means to him when he’s offered a tutoring position in the home of the ultra-rich, mega-sexy creep Dario Vassalo, a married Greek tycoon. But Parsh is not the first boytoy tutor he’s hired for his daughter Anastasia. Will Adam forsake paying the rent and follow his heart instead? Or will the temptation into riches become too great?

The answer isn’t as easy as you might think. Madrid is a savvy writer who throws a number of stumbling blocks in the way as Parsh makes his decision. Vassalo’s money has also enabled Parsh’s mother to get a promotion at the financial institution she works at because he throws a substantial financing project their way. Parsh’s maddeningly tentative relationship with Victor is another obstacle, as is his fondness for his charge Anastasia. In fact, all of the characters from Parsh’s mother right down to Vassalo’s wife, Evangelina, are so well-written and compelling they lift the somewhat standard plot high and force us to re-examine it in a new light. Victor’s vulnerability, in particular, is heartbreaking. Even Myrtle, the salty cabdriver who runs Parsh back and forth from his apartment to the mansion, gets a turn in the spotlight.

Parsh, however, is the star of the show and gets to expose all facets of his personality: his brash outer confidence as well as his soft, malleable center. He is, however, less flexible than anyone else here, serving to anchor the plot and be the shore the other characters crash against. Everyone else has a quirk. Parsh does not, and for this reason, he seems less interesting than the others on the surface. His shrewd observations, however, drive the plot and illuminate the personalities surrounding him. Vassalo is an able, perhaps even affable, villain. However, he turns effectively dark and threatening when menace is needed. The only ball which seems to have gotten dropped is Parsh’s roommate Stacey, a budding alcoholic who early on seemed to be adding to Parsh’s daily drama in a very real way but disappears almost entirely in the last third of the book.

But Mind Fields, thanks to Dylan Madrid’s skill, is more than the sum of its parts. He combines these discrete pieces into an extremely readable and altogether believable whole as energetic as it is entertaining.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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Light – ‘Nathan Burgoine (Bold Strokes Books)

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Wheeler’s Law of Reasonable Expectations dictates that if an author is well-known for his bittersweet romantic stories, his novels will follow along the same lines. ‘Nathan Burgoine’s Light, however, obliterates that law. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, there is little, if anything, bad about this stunning debut, which makes my job as a reviewer both easier and more difficult at the same time.

Kieran Quinn is a gay massage therapist, but that’s where the stereotype ends. He also has telekinetic powers, which is good for our side. Bad for our side is that the enemy, embodied by Stigmatic Jack (leader of the Church of the Testifying Prophet) also has a telekinetic it can use for its nefarious purposes. During one eventful Pride week, Kieran and Jack square off for some monumental battles. Who wins? And what of Kieran’s lust for a hot leatherman named Sebastien? How about Kieran’s brother’s lust for Karen, his boss at the spa? And who is the Miracle Woman?

Burgoine answers these questions and more in a stylistic tour de force that is as much superhero story as it is a light romance (which, at its core, Light is–complete with HEA). What’s stunning about this debut is its assurance. In terms of character, plot, voice, and narrative skill, Burgoine knocks it out of the park as if this was his tenth book instead of his first. He, along with Tom Cardamone, has the considerable gift of being able to ground the extraordinary in the ordinary so that it becomes just an extension of everyday life.  Kieran Quinn is, indeed, a superhero (despite the fact that he hates the names the public gives him–Rainbow Man, Light, Disco?), but he’s a superhero who loves his cat, who blithers in the presence of handsome men, and who goes on failed blind dates.

Knowing Burgoine’s short fiction as well as I do, I was floored to discover his facility with action sequences. There are four encounters with the villain, each increasing in complexity and scope to the climactic final one, and all four were totally engaging and had me on the edge of my figurative seat. I was more confident in predicting the romance, which is written in a clever, light ‘n’ breezy manner with an undercurrent of danger. Burgoine’s dialogue , especially between Kieran and Sebastien, shines. It’s banter-ish without sounding forced–the kind of dialogue I always imagined happened in Jean Kerr’s house. Or maybe even Erma Bombeck’s. And Kieran’s voice is totally entertaining–that of a genuinely nice guy with just enough smart ass to give his observations some punch.

Burgoine’s prose is clean and focused, his characters are sharply defined, and his plot runs a fairly straight line–with one neat little twist–to its conclusion, which is immensely satisfying. What more could you ask from a debut? This is the difficult part of my job, where I’m supposed to come up with a negative or two to counter all the strokes. And I really can’t think of anything worth mentioning. Perhaps four or five books in, when he starts taking chances that don’t work , there’ll be something to point at…wait, maybe I found one: He could have written it so that it was easier to put down.

As far as negatives, that’ll have to do.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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