Tag Archives: short stories

The Dahlia Field – Henry Alley (Chelsea Station Editions)

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

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

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

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

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

JW

© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler

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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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Disturbing the Peace – Dale Chase (Bold Strokes Books)

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It’s no big secret that I’m a fan of Dale Chase’s work. Whether it’s her Victorian erotica, ghost stories, or modern erotica, it’s always impeccably researched, flawlessly written, and lovingly rendered. But her Westerns are absolute delights, and you can tell it’s a period she loves to be in. Nowhere is this more in evidence than her latest e-book release for Bold Strokes, Disturbing the Peace, containing four of her very best lawman-themed cowpoke tales so dusty you’ll have to wipe the Kindle off to see the screen.

The first story, “Solace,” finds Marshal Frank Sutcher accidentally shooting and killing Ted Mickle during a gunfight in Contention, Arizona. Mickle, an innocent bystander, was the marshal’s bedmate as well as his best friend. He cannot find an antidote to his sorrow, but he can find some sexual solace with his deputy as temporary relief. One of the things I find so enjoyable about Chase’s work is that her Western characters are iconically laconic. Their emotions are not stuffed away but neither do they appear on the surface, and so it is with Sutcher’s grief.

“Up For It,” the second piece, centers on a robber who contrives to escape from jail by seducing Deputy Dean. The robber’s actions are at once bold and brilliant as he struts his stuff with the deputy, even working a rifle barrel into the act before he finally catches the law with its pants down around its ankles.

Next up is “Shotgun,” which sees maybe the most direct opening line Chase has ever written: “I am looking to become a deputy in Tombstone, and to that end I suck the marshal’s dick.” Now, there’s a man who knows what he wants and how to get it. And get it he does. After orally embarking on his career path, he further ingratiates himself by foiling a robbery. He later hooks up with one of the robbers who gets away, only doesn’t realize it until after they’re finished.

The final, and longest, story, “Disturbing the Peace,” takes Chase into some territory whose borders she usually doesn’t broach, but neither does it stray too far from the archetypical Western themes of revenge and justice. Jack Timm is marshal of Globe, Arizona and works hard to keep the peace. He also plays hard with Pat, one of the local bartenders, but he’s always on top. Never bottoms. Never will. And he’s got a mean temper and a handy fist to keep his bottoms in place. One of those boys is Drew Culver, who Timm knew when they both drove cattle before Timm became marshal. Culver had been in love with Timm, but all Timm cared for was the sex. Spurned and forgotten, Culver robs the express office in Globe, luring Timm into a trap. He gets the drop on the marshal, ties him up, and gives him some of his own heavy-handed medicine, prompting swift and sure revenge from Timm.

Chase’s Westerns are classics of male erotica. The sex is incredibly hot, but that’s not the only reason to read her. I’ve said it before and I don’t mind saying again that everything about her cowboy stories rings true. From the dialogue to the sex to the attitude, there’s a level of truthfulness and veracity not many authors hit in period pieces, no matter what period. All I can do is read in awe.

And look forward to the next one.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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Who the Hell is Rachel Wells? – J.R. Greenwell (Chelsea Station Editions)

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From the blurb on the back of J.R. Greenwell’s Who the Hell is Rachel Wells?, you might assume the eleven short stories inside consist of a bunch of Southern stereotypes thrown together for largely comic effect, overdrawn and overbroad. Though there is some of that, the wonderful cover is more of an indication of the subtlety inside. With its muted tones and mysterious figure in the process of either donning or removing his drag gear, it speaks to the beautiful contradiction of Southern life.

The oversize caricatures definitely make their appearance in the title story, which leads off the book. We never get to find out exactly who Rachel Wells is, but we see the strife her makeup and wig case causes as it’s picked up by a suburban mom and her little gay son, who hand it off to a straight trucker and his wife who, in turn, throw it out of the window after using part of the drag to hold up a convenience store, where it’s caught by two gay boys just learning the art of drag. Winning, witty, and wise, it’s a great start.

Drag is, of course, a feature in many of these stories, but nowhere is it funnier and more up front than “Silver Pumps and a Loose Nut,” which sees Daphne opening for her hero and mentor Stella during a run in Daytona. Daphne desperately wants to mimic Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in a string bikini as in “Dr. No,” a goal she actually achieves despite several episodes of mistaken identity, one aborted date with a closet case named Chuck, and the theft of Stella’s prosthetic leg. You ‘ll have to read it to believe it.

And that goes for the two straight suburban couples Greg and Erica and Dave and Joan in “Out of the Closet,” starring Paul Lynde’s chair. Really. It’s a red velvet chair given to Erica by an uncle who swore it was once owned by Paul Lynde. What happens when you sit in it? Well, let’s just say that watching the football game is a very different experience when Dave tries it. And when Joan does, she finds herself wearing the pants in the family as opposed to the apron.

“The Scent of Honeysuckle,” “A Colony of Barbies,” and “Spaghetti Kisses” don’t bear the same stamp of humor, but they’re just as deft in handling character as the other stories, as is “Learning to Sashay Like Rupaul,” and my particular favorite, “Watch Me Walk,” about Hal and Robert, two older men who find each other and the courage to express themselves at the assisted living facility they’re in.

Greenwell has a talent for creating immediately recognizable yet slightly weird around the edges characters, and he puts them through some wonderfully silly paces as well as some heartbreaking ones. His prose is admirably restrained, conveying a great deal yet never sounding overwritten. But it’s his characters that shine and sparkle like sequins in the spotlight. If you’re looking for a light read that has some substance behind its humor, you’ll hardly go wrong with this collection.

Dolly Parton wig optional.

©  2013  Jerry L. Wheeler

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