Tag Archives: queer lit

Lincoln Avenue: Chicago Stories – Gregg Shapiro (Squares & Rebels/Handtype Press)

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Gregg Shapiro is used to quick hits. His poetry is short and to the point, his interview questions are punchy and pithy, and his fiction is equally brief. This brevity, however, does not mean that his stories don’t engage or fulfill the expectations they create. Instead, he makes his statement with quiet effectiveness and moves on. Taken together, the twelve selections that comprise Lincoln Avenue: Chicago Stories accumulate detail with a poet’s eye and spit it back with a serpent’s tongue.

If you don’t know Chicago, you’ll certainly come to terms with its geography, its smells, its peccadilloes, and its citizens. Shapiro has reached deep into his memory banks and come up with vivid images familiar to anyone who’s grown up in a big city in the Midwest–machinery, particularly cars, and fast food. Sleazy motels and desolate vacant lots. Promise and rot. Family and friends and the certain surety that neither will ever be enough.

The challenge with pieces as short as these is finding the ways in which they relate to each other. It’s not enough to pass them off as little slices of life that don’t stay around long enough to fully engage a reader, as at least one critic has suggested. Rather, they work in concert. The narrators of “Your Father’s Car” and “Your Mother’s Car” both use those vehicles to get to bars, but where the first is concerned with the typical dad domain of the car itself (a horrid orange Hornet–remember those?), the second ends with the beginning of a relationship, which is what many mothers are all about.

And family is all over Lincoln Avenue. I particularly liked “Marilyn, My Mother, Myself,” in which Mom uses Marilyn Monroe memorabilia to not only acknowledge being aware of her son’s gayness, but to celebrate that with him. The fact that he doesn’t particularly care for Monroe is secondary. Mom has done her research and knows how much some gay men worship that blonde goddess. She nods sagely and uses her as a tool, a crowbar with which she can open her son’s life and enter as if she belongs there. Knows what he’s about. And Shapiro establishes this relationship, makes his point, and delivers the punchline in under four pages. Yet it feels complete and whole.

The only nail I couldn’t quite hammer down was “Like Family,” the powerful tale of an abused little girl eventually beaten to death. It’s the piece that doesn’t fit the puzzle, but perhaps that was Shapiro’s intention. Nothing else in the collection is like it, in terms of either theme or execution, which makes me think that its very difference is its raison d’etre.

From “Lunch with a Porn Star” to “The Breakdown Lane” to “Swimming Lessons,” Shapiro darts in and out, bobbing and weaving with championship savvy as he lands masterful blows, punching friendship until turns into love, and nowhere is this more evident that the tremendous title piece. On its surface, it’s just an account of an evening cruising the main drag with a best friend, but the narrator and Kenny have a somewhat different relationship. A little time at IHOP, then back in the car for an assignation in the park, a close call with a cop, more fast food, and the radio. Always the radio. But Kenny has another goal in mind. The boys pull into the parking lot of a motel: The bags are in the trunk, Kenny says to the ancient clerk as he is leaving the office, room key in his hand and a liar’s grin on his mouth. He cocks his head to the left, a signal for me to move over. He wants to drive the car across the parking lot to the room. He wants to put on a show. Suddenly I love him more than air for this. For being the man in my life, when we are really only boys. For keeping me guessing, never sure from one day to the next if he will be fire or water. 

If you remember what it was like being one of those boys, this is the book for you. If you don’t remember, this book will bring it all back like the smell of a greasy hamburger wrapper and a smear of Hershey’s chocolate across a freshly-kissed cheek. Highly recommended.

© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Salvation – Jeff Mann (Bear Bones Books/Lethe Press)

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Any regular reader of this blog knows I’m a big fan of Jeff Mann, whose work never fails to inspire me with its depth and profundity. I was mightily disappointed when I did not get a chance to review his previous Civil War novel Purgatory. Another reviewer fell in love with the book and asked if he could take on the task. As I rarely get a chance to read anything that I can’t also feature on the blog (so many books, so little time…you know how it goes), I couldn’t get back to it. When I heard the sequel was being released, I grabbed the chance to read it. And my patience was well-rewarded.

In Purgatory, Yankee soldier Drew Conrad is captured and tortured by the Rebel soldiers, but war makes for strange bedfellows, and he falls in love with Rebel Ian Campbell, with whom he escapes. As Salvation begins, they are on the run in Rebel territory, trying to find a safe place to wait out the war so they can begin their lives together. They encounter a variety of Southerners in their travels–men, women, opportunists, sadists, and just plain folks–having to keep their love secret with all but one. Can they survive until war’s end and make new lives for themselves in the post-war South?

Perhaps Mann’s largest gift is his ability to take the political and social implications of the war and humanize them to such a degree that all that remains is the human face of conflict. And there are human faces aplenty, here. Not surprisingly, most of them belong to strong, nurturing women. That does not mean, however, that danger is far removed. Pursued by a band of Rebels who have splintered from their respective units and have banded together in a loose conglomeration of death and destruction, Drew and Ian are hardly safe. When their paths do cross, the carnage is as bloody as Mann can make it. But again, politics (other than the broadest kind) are secondary to human retribution.

Along the way, Mann makes the obligatory stops for his recurring peccadilloes of bondage and food. Both are explored in detail. I’ve said it before, but I’ll reiterate here that Jeff Mann is the only author I’ve ever read who can make bondage and sweat-soaked gags sound intriguing and erotic to me. It’s nothing I’d ever indulge in anywhere except the printed page, but…lordy, it makes me want to fan mahsaylf. But his descriptions of Southern cooking are even better–biscuits, gravy, ham, chicken and dumplings, beef stew, sweet potato pudding, creasy greens, barbecue, slaw, custard pie…well, the list goes on. One of the blurbs for this book should read, “A pound on every page.” Clearly, Mann relishes (I couldn’t resist typing that) writing about both bondage and food with equal gusto.

But as interesting and as well-written as those particular quirks are, Mann shines most brightly when creating characters. Drew and Ian spring ready-made from the last book, deepening and strengthening their relationship, so Mann must start from scratch with such wonderful minor characters as Irene Stephens, one of their female saviors. Christian but not puritanical, she’s tired of being bled dry of supplies by the local reverend, so she extracts a terrific retribution  on him and his church. But even she’s small potatoes (oh, dammit–more food) next to the former slave, Tessa, who shelters and feeds them. But the color of her skin is not all that separates her from the others in this book. She’s also a lesbian with a gal masquerading as a soldier in the Confederate ranks. That alone would make her special, but Mann endows her with an insatiable curiosity about the ways of “mens like you.” This character is a total delight that you’ll be thinking about long after her time on the page is finished.

Salvation, then, is an incredible read that teaches about the Civil War as well as it entertains. Full of richly nuanced people and heart-stopping situations of desperation and pursuit, it’s a worthy successor to Purgatory. And I can only hope for a third book that explores how Reconstructionism treats Drew and Ian. Highly, highly recommended.

© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Finding the Grain – Wynn Malone (Bywater Books)

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Have you ever not trusted the ending of a book? Not to say that it wasn’t credible or not in keeping with the characters as drawn, but rather the opposite. You feel you know the characters so well that as the happy ending washes over you, it’s all you can do not to scream at the half-page that ends the book, No! Don’t do it! She’ll fuck you over again!!!” That’s what I experienced with Wynn Malone’s richly detailed and absolutely sumptuous debut novel, Finding the Grain.

Orphaned by a tornado a month before her high school graduation, Augusta “Blue” Riley graduates from high school and plans for college with the help of her aunt. But while at university, Blue meets and falls in love with sorority girl Grace Lancaster. Parental pressures, however, puts the screws to their relationship and Grace bails, leaving Blue adrift. Twenty years on, after hopping from town to town, job to job, and bed to bed, Blue finally rediscovers herself and finds a career that makes her happy–building furniture. She settles down and opens up a shop, not quite over Grace but determined to put the past behind her. Until Grace shows up again. Will they fulfill their destinies? You have to wait to the last page to find out.

Well, this is a romance after all, and one of the unbreakable laws of the genre is the Happy Ever After ending. The joy is in the journey, and there’s much joy to be found here. Malone’s greatest strength is her characters. Both Blue and Grace are wonderfully drawn, absolutely believable, and frustratingly lifelike. I say frustrating because they do exactly what real people do instead of characters in books. And just when you think you have their relationship figured out, Malone throws you another curve. But such curves she throws–soft, low, and deadly.

But as true to life and Blue and Grace are, Malone shows her facility with character in other ways. Preacher, the man who mentors Blue in the art of wood carving, is a patient, wise, and talented older black man who could have easily tipped over into an offensive (or worse yet, bland) caricature. Morgan Freeman’s entire career rests on parts like this. We know just how he’ll react to her being a lesbian, how he encourages her talent, how he waits for her to prove herself, and how he comes to love Blue in his own gruff way. However, Malone injects so much detail and so much humanity into Preacher, he transcends the limitations of that stock character and lifts right off the page. Morgan Freeman should be so lucky.

But we are lucky indeed to have the fruits of Wynn Malone’s labors available. Finding the Grain is a terrific read that’s as warm, comforting, and sturdy as a well-carved piece of wood. And I’ll bet you scream at the last half-page too.

© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler

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A Conversation with LA Fields

SweptLA Fields has many voices, among them the second Mrs. Watson of her Sherlock Holmes pastiche, “My Dear Watson,” and two teenage boys, Jesse and Marley, of “Maladaptation” and “Dysfunction,” two novels (so far) comprising the Disorder series. She also has the voice she answers interview questions in, which may or may not be the closest to her own. She took time out from her busy writing and grad school schedule to talk to Out in Print.

Out in Print: The voice you have for the Disorder series is powerful and has a great deal of veracity—is that because it’s actually your voice or a compilation of people you know? Do you hear it when you to go the place in your head where these characters come from?

LA Fields: It’s mostly the voice I got from learning how to talk in the 1990s. I still use the word “like” excessively, though now I do it with a deep understanding of the difference between metaphor and simile, and yes—so far every time I go home to those characters, I can still access how they talk and think. They used to be older than I was, and that writing felt prophetic on a personal level. Now that they’re a couple of years behind me, a playlist of the songs I loved at whatever age I need access to can tap me right back in. That voice and process is still there, it just takes a little more work to be true to it.

OiP: What was the genesis of the Disorder series?

LAF: Maladaptation started just before the end of my senior year. I had quit fanfiction in my junior year and wanted to get serious about original fiction. I wrote a few short stories that blew like the fucking wind, and I decided to try to and write something without any gay in it, to write something outside of my comfort zone. Enter: “Cowboy Dan” by Modest Mouse. I tried to write a story from that song about a hundred times, first as a ghost story in which Dan tries to escape town, dies in a car crash, and then haunts a bridge, killing those who try to escape the town. At one point he had two sons (Billy, the oldest, and a younger Jesse, after Billy the Kid and Jesse James) and at another he had no family, and the story kept sucking just like all the others. At some point, the murder of his wife became the new story, and that made me think of what it would be like for the son who was orphaned like that, but the story stalled again.

Meanwhile, in another part of the movie, I had a friend who sat in front of me in English class named Marley. Not only was her name the coolest thing I had heard all year, but I had a total friend-crush on her, and so came up with my Marley. This was just after my mom died and I was transplanted to a new school, so I gave Marley my old life. He lived in my old house, went to my old school, and had all of my books. We were reading Heart of Darkness around this time, and another friend who sat in front of me in Drama class had the name Kurtz, so that became his surname. Another friend-crush from Drama also shows up as a name for Marley’s sister, Lindsay. I had a lot of girl-crushes in high school. And now.

But then that halted too. I had Marley all ready, but nothing interesting to put him through. I went back to Cowboy Dan: Billy became Jesse because I liked the name better, and he became gay because I couldn’t help myself, but then the story just petered off into nowhere again. And Marley was sitting in Estero, FL (later to become East Arrow—I was eighteen, so don’t judge) with his thumb in his ass. And then one day I finally put my hands together. Voila.

Marley’s affair with an older man grew out of the fact that I had recently read Lolita and needed a reason for his parents to send him away. The program in Loweville was a imgreshideously contrived way to get them together. Loweville is based on Loveland, CO but fictionalized so that my lack of research isn’t me being wrong, it’s artistic license. Also I like the pun on the word ‘low,’ and I hope I didn’t beat it to death.

Missy came out of me trying to combat my literary misogynism (which I think I’ve pretty much overcome at this point). It wasn’t until I gave the manuscript to my best friend and frontline editor that we both realized how similar Missy’s brash and bubbly personality was to her, and the fact that Missy and Marley are best friends is only art imitating life.

Aaron and Genny were needed to fill in the group, and they developed from there. Genny will make a cameo in the sixth book, and Aaron will stick with Missy until the day he dies. Tulsa began as a generic bully and bloomed into so much more. I stole his name from Diana Wieler’s Bad Boy and I think I loved the name too much to waste it on a 1-D meany, and I needed an extra 10,000 words after my first little 60K draft, so he got his perspective added in. It turns out that he is my favorite character to write, because he’s the most messed up and poetic of them all. Tulsa even gets his own book down the line, if I ever make it that far, because I love him that much.

I had just started listening to emo music (girl Marley liked Panic At The Disco, which meant it was okay to like that sort of music, which I secretly did the whole time) and I burned a CD that was half From Under the Cork Tree and half Hot Fuss and brought it with me to my dad’s cabin in Georgia for one week of the summer. That week was the point of no return. I discovered Missy’s voice, hit the 1/3 mark, and finally wrote the “Cowboy Dan” prologue in one shot, after all that trouble, on a janky old laptop from the early nineties. It was a third hand hand-me-down with no Ethernet jack, it was so old, and I had to save my novel on a floppy disk and squeeze the screen to get it to stop blotting out half the time. Super fun.

I finished the novel Wednesday, September 13th, 2006 at 6:16 PM in Sarasota, in my dorm room, Pei 128. This book transitioned me through one of the most significant summers of my life, and I think that’s reflected in the plot. I was neck deep in Poppy Z. Brite books and Modest Mouse CDs, and I’ve gained a boner for pictures of desert highways that may never go down. It’s the first book I ever finished, and the first one I ever seriously started, and it’s got my fingerprints all over it. Writing a book is better than burying a time capsule; so long as this is around, I’ll never forget who I was when I wrote it.

OiP: Do you identify personally with any of the Disorder characters? Which one is most like you?

LAF: I love this question, I ask it myself when people I know read Maladaptation. I’m curious about how my friends see themselves, so if they like Jesse better than Marley, or love Missy more than any of them, then that tells me who they want to be; it’s like an inkblot test. As for me, Marley is really rooted in who I was at 15 years old. dys. coverWe have the same anxiety problems, and books, and mild OCD habit of never bending their spines, we both still bite our fingernails and chew our lips and twist our hair sometimes, so even though he annoys me a lot now that I’m square in the middle of my twenties, I’m still the most like him. Tulsa was the most fun to write, because he was so complicated and lonely (and he’s coming back in future books). Jesse I envy, that’s why he’s the love interest. It’d be nice to be that minimalist in emotion, but I can answer this question much like Oscar Wilde did: Marley is who I think I am, Missy is who the world thinks me, and Jesse is who I’d like to be, in other ages perhaps.

OiP: The voices of the Disorder boys and the voice used in both My Dear Watson and “The House of the Resonate Heart” in Where Thy Dark Eye Glances are wonderfully different. Do you prefer one over the other?

LAF: The voice in The Disorder Series is easier, because it’s closer to my own (that’s my voice if I thought carefully about what I wanted to say and the best way to do it before I let it all come flying out of my mouth). The imitation stuff is just that—it’s me exploiting a talent I have for being a mockingbird writer. Lots of writers can do this. It’s not unique to me, but it is helpful when you want to sound like someone else. It happens a lot by accident in my academic papers—I’ve been told I’ve taken on the style of writers as unlikely as Nathaniel Mackey and William Faulkner. I write better papers when I let myself get hypnotized by someone else’s text-flow, and assuming I intend to copy another author’s story-telling voice, I write better fiction like that too. There might be an element of gender in that divide too: the Disorder boys (plus Missy and Lindsay, who are both a bit rough-and-tumble) versus a softer, more lady-like Victorian tone.

OiP: How did My Dear Watson come about?

LAF: I got an English degree in a little bubble of a school called the New College of Florida. It’s the only public honors college in the state; there are no fraternities or sororities, there are no official sport teams, there are no business classes, it has narrative evaluations instead of grades, the student government’s charter quotes Star Trek as the school’s motto, and even the admissions office gives out ironic footballs saying that our team is still undefeated (can’t lose if you don’t play, can you?). There I wrote a thesis dominated by Oscar Wilde quotes called “The Life One Does Not Lead: Double Life Narratives and Queer Criminal Codes,” the third chapter of which compared the homoeroticism between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty to the same dynamic between Superheroes (Batman, Spiderman, and Superman) and their main villains. I was writing about adversarial relationships and couldn’t talk about all the tenderness I noticed going on between Holmes and Watson, so I went looking for a book that put them together with as much accuracy as the academic paper I was producing. I couldn’t find it, I couldn’t find anything even remotely close to what I was looking for, so I wrote it myself. Mrs. Watson got incorporated because I’d just gone through a few genders studies classes and I wasn’t about to ignore all the wives and women in that story, no matter how much Holmes and Watson couldn’t take their eyes off one another.

OiP: My Dear Watson really, according to the Amazon reviews, seems to have upset some people as it paints a less than flattering picture of Sherlock Holmes. Was that intentional? Having done it, do you regret it? Is there something you would have done differently with that book?

LAF: Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t get his panties in such a wad over being “misinterpreted” by a woman, so I don’t know why everyone else feels the need to stick up for him. But no: I wouldn’t do it differently because I don’t think I got him wrong. I love Sherlock Holmes, I love him like I love Heathcliff, and Stephen Dedalus, and Professor Snape—while writing I was worried people would read the novel as me (the author lady) protesting too much. Some of the reviews seem to have a problem with how Mrs. Watson sees Holmes, and some have a problem with her point of view being taken in the first place, which is fair enough on their end, but… once I chose her, the debate for me was over.

Mrs. Watson can’t like Holmes as much as I do; he’s the love of her husband’s life. He’s smarter than her, more important, more famous, more rare, irreplaceable to everyone including Watson and the country, and yet… Watson lives with her and not with Holmes. She must have something Holmes lacks, and so the book is an exploration of what Watson wants/needs from someone he admires/loves, and it’s also about Mrs. Watson trying not to feel like a consolation prize. She’s got some winning qualities too, and in fact a lot of what Watson loves about her he loves about Holmes too, but Mrs. Watson is more accommodating, less tortured by her potential/responsibility, and so more capable of doling out love and support. It took me nearly all of college to realize I’m bisexual—so as much as I’m a ball-buster like Mrs. Watson, and as much as I get Holmes’s artistic and nearly self-destructive zeal for what he does, I’m fascinated by the calm, patient, non-jealous love that Watson has for both of them.

I managed to get into a very minor passive-aggressive internet exchange with one reviewer, but I was only trying to figure out what people think they want, and what they71S3tsHI4HL__SL1280_ think I’ve done, and why those two things are different. It comes off as bitchiness (in me and Mrs. Watson alike) because it comes from a place of defensive insecurity.

However, in choosing nameless second Mrs. Watson as a narrator I was trying to do something more than just retell the stories from the POV of someone who wasn’t there for them; the dips into the literature and politics and scandals of the time underline the fact that the second Mrs. Watson was always there (she was “around”), just nobody was really listening to her.  This concept came out of me being a literature major, sure, yes, obviously, but it also came from a passion for gender studies, which includes thinking about both femininity and masculinity, and about how people incorporate gender tropes from both “sides” into their self-expression. That, as well as thinking about what it is to be gay/straight/bisexual and how each could have been dealt with in a specific historical time and place, by a specific woman who no one else had spoken for.

Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has some beautifully effeminate qualities: he’s slim and so crosses his legs knee over knee; he’s neat and catlike in his personal dress and hygiene (a dandy); he blushes when he’s given a heart-felt compliment. But then he’s also a slob around the house, and he’s got the upper-body strength to bend a fire poker, and like my own father he doesn’t often laugh out loud, but instead represses his laughter into near-violent tummy spasms. I wanted to make the ignored woman as present and assertive as I wanted to show Holmes’ (text-based, canonical) flaws. They’re both human, they both exist in those books, and I wanted to draw them even.

OiP: I’m always interested in writers’ creative processes. Are you a plotter or a pantser (flying by the seat of your pants without a plan)? Quick first drafts with lots of revisions or painstaking first drafts with little revision? How do you work?

LAF: A plotter. I’m an outliner and a time-liner. I’ve had the same big notebook since I was sixteen, and it’s full of nothing but Table of Contents-looking outlines for the chapter structure of each book. The paper notes I’m left with after I finish any book amount to between 10-20 one-sided notebook pages, I keep most of it in my head.

I’m in grad school right now at Columbia College Chicago, and I’m meeting all kinds of adorable freaks who write, and then rewrite, and do weird shit like cut up their stories and hang them all over a room, and feel like a story is never really finished… that sounds exhausting. I think out the whole arc of a book first—chapters, sections, scenes, themes, word count, and I tweak a little as I go along, but the overall structure doesn’t vary after I’m a third of the way into a manuscript. That’s my point of no return.

I had one free summer between high school and college for Maladaptation, so it got done in one summer, and it’s the same with all the others. I give myself hard deadlines, mentally prep in advance, and lay it out right the first time. Some writers can’t hold a whole book’s concept in their head on a first draft, but I can if I’m not being lazy, and I’m so glad about that. The few times I’ve been forced to rewrite due to computer error have been agony.

OiP: You write in a variety of genres—do you feel a special affinity for one?

LAF: I have favorite categories that make even the most foreign genre feel comfortable to me. Young adults and teens are a category that can cross all genres, and so are queer characters. For example, My Dear Watson, though mostly about adults, includes snapshots of teenaged Holmes that I treasure, and even when I try to write a clean, plain heterosexual romance, I can’t—somebody’s queer somewhere in this story and I’ll roust ’em out eventually! I have a completed manuscript called Loopholes that is my attempt to be age-appropriate to teens (talk around the swears, go to prom, care about outfits, etc.) but even then the intriguing new boy in town is bisexual, and the parents are an adoptive gay couple. I got way too bored with nothing but straight people.

OiP: What are you working on now?

LAF: I’m about 6,000 words into what might be a very MFA-ish Leopold/Loeb inspired novel, but I’m also worried if I don’t finish the Disorder Series before I’m thirty I’ll forget what it’s like to be young and ruin it. Those are my priorities right now.

OiP: What do you want your readers to take away from your work?

LAF: I hope that readers take away from me the same things I take away from the books and shows and songs I love: you’re not alone. It’s naïve (it’s nearly insulting) to think you’re the only one who’s sad or witty or in love or bored, how dare you? When so many people have come before you making all this art, and for what? Money? Fame? Was everything you love made by someone rich and famous? I bet it wasn’t. The ones before me made it for their sake and mine, I make it for my sake and yours, and I would hope my readers feel that as deeply as I do in my best moments, when I’m overcome by a private, Zen-like, connected peace. Of course, underneath all that shallow shit it’s mostly about: like me and pay me and pay attention to me and agree with me that I’m smart. Obviously.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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Sensual Travels – Michael Luongo, ed. (Bruno Gmunder)

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For me, one of the most basic enjoyments of the travel experience is the sampling of the sexual landscape. It ranks right up there with food, architecture, and natural wonders. At times, it’s all three rolled into one. And like good sex (or sex of any kind, really), travel is ephemeral. It’s only alive for the moment you’re there. Once you’re gone, it’s gone; the pictures and journals can only bring back an echo of the experience. But thankfully, Michael Luongo has brought together some of the finest gay and bi writers to echo their journeys for you in Sensual Travels.

As Luongo states in his introduction, the sex in this book is almost “Clintonian,” not as much about the old in and out as it is ancillary acts–nuance and possibility–which is only fitting given the sexually repressive atmospheres some of these stories take place in. But no matter the quotient of sexual heat, these tales manage to convey the excitement and sense of discovery that accompanies playing away from home.

That quotient is high in Lawrence Schimel’s “Water Taxi,” which sees a voyeuristic Spanish encounter taking place on the a dock in front of a gaggle of men gathered for Gay Pride and also pretty hot in Jeff Mann’s “Bondage Tape in Budapest,” which has appeared in another collection of Mann’s essays. These two stories are also related by the fact that the protagonists’ partners are also along for the ride. Schimel’s experience is more positive, but Mann’s carries a hint of problem, thereby increasing the danger and, perhaps, the allure of his interlude with Tibor. Simon Sheppard’s Ecuadorian romp, “The Last Bus to Riobamba” also features his long term partner, but this sex is all fantasy and no reality. Still, Sheppard both educates and titillates while retaining that air of mystery.

The aforementioned danger is not far behind in many other entries here. Trebor Healey’s brilliant “The Cervantino Baby,” featuring an affair with a Mexican boy that gets Healey tossed out of the household he’s staying at to improve his Spanish. His frankness about desire, reprisal, and consequence is personal and universal, and his musings are wholly in line with the expectations raised by Healey’s other work. This was one of my favorite pieces here, as was Felice Picano’s “A Gaijin in Gay Japan,” where Picano and his traveling companion, Dr. Charles Silverstein, undertake a publicity tour of Japan. Insightful in terms of Japanese culture as well as its sexual mores, this is Picano at his finest.

Any sex travel book worth its salt has to feature a trip to Thailand, and Alan Hahn does the honors here in “The Sodom and Gomorrah Show: How Not to be a Sex Tourist in Bangkok,” which is not only witty and engaging, but also deals–however tangentially–with the aftermath of vacation and facing one’s daily routine. Asian culture is also central to David C. Muller’s “You Want, I Come,” which contains a missing ATM card and a very willing guide to the city.

But no matter if it’s the Croatian men in Dominic Ambrose’s “Croatian Heat,” the Aussie beach escapade of Dallas Angguish’s “Sleep,” or Jim Nawrocki’s Parisian escapade in “The City of a Thousand Steeples,” you’ll find something in this collection that will send you scurrying to Travelocity.com to plan your next vacation. Or rescheduling the one currently on the horizon.

Happy traveling!

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Lavender Menace: Tales of Queer Villainy! – Tom Cardamone, ed. (Northwest Press)

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Everyone loves the hero, right? Especially those with superpowers, colorful costumes, sidekicks, and witty banter. Personally, however, I’ve always found those tortured villains more interesting: Lex Luthor or Mr. Myxzptlk over Superman, Doc Ock over Spiderman, the Joker or Penguin over Batman (except you were never sure about Batman–he’s my favorite). That’s why I was so excited when I heard about this book. Then I saw Tom Cardamone was editing, and my expectations tripled. Thankfully, nobody disappoints here, so no one dies at the hands of this arch-villain-critic.

Much has been made of the “outsider” kinship queer men and women share with superheroes, but where many would concentrate on the heroic aspects, most of the heroes in these stories are members of Leagues or Organizations, loosely knit governing bodies that put heroes with heat vision or super strength or flight or any number of super-attributes clearly on the inside. Thus, to get back to the outside, Cardamone has chosen to concentrate on villains.

A look at the cover and a cursory glance at the title would indicate these stories are overdrawn and over the top. While some of them are, a number retain a surprising subtlety.  The telepath in ‘Nathan Burgoine’s brilliant “Lesser Evil,” tips his way into a love affair with Aleph, implanting a suggestion that Aleph loves him. Burgoine’s portrayal of Psilence’s delicious guilt is both heartening and heartbreaking. And just when you think you have the ending figured out, he takes you another way which is simultaneously characteristic, yet uncharacteristic of his lovelorn villain.

Less subtle, but still effective, is the betrayal in Steven Berenzai’s “The Web,” which sees Daytripper falling in love with Arachnid, a fellow possible inductee into yet another Superhero League. At a pivotal moment, however, Arachnid tricks Daytripper and reveals himself as a villain, provoking a wonderful final battle that is satisfying on a number of levels. Jamie Freeman also turns in a wonderful performance with “The Meek Shall Inherit,” a cautionary tale that takes place in the futuristic Christian States of America as the Inheritor incinerates the religious bigots. Although this would seem to put him in the superhero side, revelations at the end put him squarely in the villain camp, no matter how much the reader would wish it otherwise. In doing so, Freeman asks some tough questions about the nature of good and evil as well as the grey area between the two.

But as I said earlier, everyone acquits themselves well in this collection. Marshall Moore goes all high fashion with “After Balenciaga,” which has the evil Couture bringing back designers from the grave, pitting Chanel against Dior to wickedly tongue-in-cheek effect.  Lee Thomas is his usual brilliant self in “The Third Estate,” incorporating some leftist sentiment into the villain Legion, who destroys corporations and executives, much to the dismay and ultimate betrayal of his partner, Curtis. The title character of Cardamone’s own “The Ice King,” first seen in Steve Berman’s criminally underrated queer spec-fic magazine Icarus, takes time out from freezing back-of-the-bar sex tableaux to reunite with an old college roommate he once loved. Also worth mentioning is Jeffrey Ricker’s “Scorned,” featuring Megawatt, a Hannibal Lechter-type desperate to regain his power and escape from his prison cell.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Rod M. Santos takes us clear over the top with “The Knights Nefarious.” This outrageous tale has a henchman named Muse trying to win the love of his master, Dr. Schadenfreude, by scheming to capture the good doctor’s arch-enemy, Captain Strategem, and presenting the hero to him on his birthday. He does so with the help of a rather motley crew of amateur villains: El Fantasma que Sangra (The Ghost Who Bleeds), a robotphobe named Armored Suit Man, a trenchcoat-wearing Flash Forward who opens his coat to expose a hypnotic psychedelic tattoo, Robigus, a Roman god who protects corn from blight, and Chocolate Bunny Boy, who can shoot chocolate rabbits from his palms. In an absolutely inspired moment that had me snorting ginger ale up my nose during the climactic battle, Stratagem puts an arm up to ward off Chocolate Bunny Boy’s attack, exclaiming incredulously, “You’re assaulting me with Easter candy?” Even my dogs were laughing.

You’ll find no better book of queer supervillainy anywhere. I can hardly wait for the next volume. Please, Tom, tell me there’s another in the works!

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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Conjure: A Book of Spells – Peter Dube (Rebel Satori Press)

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Nobody writes grimoires anymore. I guess there’s really no call for them what with technological advances and everything. Google, Microsoft, Apple, and social media have taken all the creativity out of taking revenge, raising spirits, and mastering and summoning. Still, nothing beats the old ways. Call me a purist if you like, but it’s hard to beat a book of spells hand-inscribed on vellum and bound in something exotic, like human skin. Now there’s a book you can sink your teeth into. Failing that, we have Rebel Satori’s resident mad genius, Peter Dube, and his take on grimoires, Conjure: A Book of Spells.

If I’m being honest–and I’m rarely anything but–I was a bit intimidated by forty-plus prose poems with titles like: “To Make Ready a Consecrating Fire,” “To Become Invisible,” and “To Strike Obstacles From Your Path and Unlock Doors.” And to be fair, first starting these was like feeling my way over dark red velvet curtains, unable to find an opening. With “To Undo an Error Past,” however, the curtains parted, and I was able to see the structure they had hidden.  From then on, my experience was nothing but rewarding.

There is, to be sure, a formula for writing these–begin with an action, make certain the ingredients of the spell are symbolic, include numbers and directions, speak in terms of absolutes, and ensure that the psychic bond with the symbolic not be broken. If this sounds deep and obscure…well, it is. It’s supposed to be. Conjurations are not for those disinclined to follow symbolic actions or words. But Dube invests these spells with such beauty and economy of language that once you reach the root of one of the poems, you’re both proud of the attempt and pleased with the result. And the next one becomes easier to fathom, and the next and the next and the next until you’re riding a wave of eloquent metaphor that doesn’t stop until you’re washed back up on the shore of reality, breathless from what you’ve learned.

Don’t want to work that hard? More’s the pity, because you will miss a truly unique poetic experience. A prime example is “To Calm a Storm,” which begins:

“Make a moment. Build a place. Prepare a glass of wine. Still, undisturbed, clean and uncrowded, enjoy it; stop thinking, even briefly. Take a sheet of paper in your hand. Appreciate it; this is key. Here is the place your thought may stop: right angled, resolute, and white; no mark upon it, no stain, no word, no story yet unfolded before crowds…”  The spell requires you take this paper and draw upon it the faces of those seen in dreams. Then, “Take one page corner and fold it in upon the other, bend one edge up and turn the page again. Shape it carefully. At length, complete a tiny, paper ship which you set down; a vessel burdened with your faces, your images, your life. All rich with promised freedom, adrift in the tempestuous world. Let it course upon the tabletop beneath your eye, and drain your cup and fondly, finally, turn your emptied glass upon that vessel and depart. Captured, covered, trapped and sealed from everything, you turn your back and leave the ship of tumult: lovely and becalmed for now.”

Elegant and stately, Dube’s prose poems are truly things of beauty. But are they queer enough for inclusion on this blog? I think they are, perhaps more than Dube believes. Gay men and women have, for centuries, been looked upon as different and otherwordly–especially important to tribal rites because we have the ability to walk between the realms of reality and the spirit worlds. We have been perceived as having access to knowledge arcane enough to be set down in grimoires. Certainly, that knowledge is not ours alone, but our very “otherness” enables us to understand and interpret it. And in order to survive in the real world, we have, in the past, shrouded ourselves in mystery and symbolic ritual. These spells are important to both our history and our world vision, and in some ways carry the very essence of our duality. Queer enough? Yes, I think so. And I hope you do as well.

But talking about these wonderful pieces is no substitute for reading them. Start with a couple and be persistent. Soon, they will reveal themselves to you and their richness will fill your senses with heady magic.

So say I.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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