REVIEW: Daniel and Erik’s Super Fab Ultimate Wedding Checklist by K.E. Belledonne

Daniel and Erik’s Super Fab Ultimate Wedding Checklist by K. E. Belledonne (June 23, 2016); 188 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

So, not to make this book review all about me, but I’m going to talk about me for a moment. I prefer to identify as queer—not lesbian (though I do, when asked, agree), not gay, but queer. It’s a political thing. Part of that political thing is feeling suspicious of marriage, its effects and meanings. (I was one of the queers who opposed American gay marriage in theory but advocated for it in the political short term because it was the quickest, surest way to gain all the rights and privileges legal marriage confers on straight folk in the United States.)

That said, I married my partner when gay marriage became legal in the U.S., despite political misgivings. My resistance was not about my feelings for her, but about the expectations that we queers would conform to the straight values of legitimacy/legality, visibility, monogamy and, well, conformity, by accepting something that was a barely-modified form of a straight social/political institution. No sooner was gay marriage made legal than non-marriage was made socially illegitimate, and resistance was futile.

That said, I sure do like my Married Person tax breaks and extra rights.

I needed to include all these explanations at the start of this review because this book takes as its situation the event of a gay wedding/marriage. To be quite honest, I balked a bit, worried a bit about reading the story (even as I trusted its author) because of my feelings.

But enough about me. What do you think of me? (Just kidding; I don’t care what you think of me.  This review is only a bit about me and my feelings. Instead, I’m going to tell you what I think of this book. Which is both about me and about this book.)

Daniel and Erik’s Super Fab Ultimate Wedding Checklist is fun. It’s funny, smart, sunny, romantic, by turns heartbreaking and sweet. It’s all the good things one expects of a rom-com. The characters are wise and complicated enough to be interesting without being too complex to understand. The situation is probably common enough that anyone who’s tried to throw a traditional wedding (or watched folks do it) will empathize. The writing is smooth and gently wry.

Here’s the deal: Daniel (a glasswork artist) loves Erik (an archeologist), and Erik loves Daniel, but when Daniel starts using a mobile phone app to plan their impending wedding, things spiral down the drain right quick. The app persona (Aurora), who is a minor character throughout the novel, is genial enough, but in the stress of planning every detail of an elaborate, classic wedding, it suddenly dawns on Daniel (get it? Aurora? Dawn? See what I did?) that he’s miserable, and everything breaks down rapidly from there. The two men wind up in different countries, on different paths, in different worlds, but similarly heartbroken.

Daniel seems to be all about form: he gets sucked into the Wedding Industrial Complex and agonizes over the differences between two essentially-identical paper colors for their invitations (this reminds me of that scene with the business cards in the film version of American Psycho), while Erik is over it and unafraid to say that he thinks the whole mess is ridiculous. One of them seems most driven by the glory of the ceremony (the wedding), and one seems more concerned with the glory of the outcome (the marriage). Between them, a vast political chasm. Filled with broken glass. And hungry wolves. With guns.

This story has all the trappings of a good rom-com: a hostile bestie secretly in love with one of the grooms-to-be, a few folk who root for the couple, a seemingly senseless but realistic breaking point, an interloping new love interest, and a dramatic journey to proclaim love and establish renewal. Like Belledonne’s first novel, Right Here Waiting, this story intervenes in a traditionally-straight narrative (in RHW, the war romance; in this case, the wedding-centric rom-com) and inserts gay folks at its center without changing the narrative too drastically. It’s one way of claiming territory to extend the borders of a previously-hetero-only institution to include outsiders while keeping the institution recognizable. (Another way is to change the institution itself, but that’s a subject for a different essay.)

DESFUWC a fun, beachy, lovely read. It’s engrossing (I read it in two large gulps over two evenings, because I didn’t want to stop). It’s sweet, and gently harrowing (in that bad things happen, but somehow you know it will all be okay in the end).

Ask me, because you knew it was coming: “do you take this book?” I totally do.

 

 

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REVIEW: Go Your Own Way by Zane Riley

Go Your Own Way by Zane Riley (May 5, 2015); 326 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

I just flew through Go Your Own Way, and boy, are my arms tired.

JK, you guys, my arms aren’t tired at all. I could easily fly through another book about these characters. This is the first book in a series (…of two? …of more? I don’t know yet!), and when I got to the last page, I was unhappy to read “The End” and then an announcement that the story would continue in the next book. THAT book, which I have been calling Go Your Own Way 2 in my head but is really called With or Without You, will be released on July 21, 2016. Even though that’s less than a month away, I’m feeling anxious to get my hands on it so the story can continue.

Go Your Own Way is two stories, intertwined. The chapters oscillate between points of view: there is Will Osborne, a “good kid” struggling to drag his too-obviously-gay self through a hoary and hostile public school, when in comes the “hood” (do the kids today still say that?) Lennox McAvoy fresh from reform school, a sort-of classic Bad Boy with whom Will is assigned to work on a year-long literature project. Soon, Lennox has him in his Sex Crosshairs and sets up a relentless effort at seduction. It’s all very effective, except that he’s crude, situationally tone deaf, and sometimes mean as a wet cat caught in a corner. OK, well, it’s still pretty effective. Will soon discovers that Lennox is more than just a jerk: parents dead, he’s been dumped by a cold grandfather in an unlockable motel room where he bars the door with a steamer trunk and scrounges an existence from pilfered fruit and well-read books, while in the parking lot outside, racist (you’ll see) homophobes throw glass bottles at his door and threaten him with violence.

Despite Lennox’s rough and oversexed nature, Will falls. And then Will’s father lands in the hospital in a coma, so Will is left worrying with his stepmother (who’s kind, who’s a nurse, and who’s hanging onto Will with all her remaining strength) while his father persistently deteriorates.

It’s the story of two boys who have lost parents (both Lennox’s mother and father have died; Will’s mother died when he was younger and his father appears to be about to die). But while Will’s father (before he landed in the coma) and stepmother are both caring and supportive, Lennox’s grandparents take neglect to the edge of hate (it probably doesn’t help that they are white and Lennox’s mother was Black, making him “not quite/not white” (as Homi Bhabha wrote) and the object of the white grandparents’ scorn). So it’s the story of socio-economic privilege learning to trust and care for/about someone without (without home, safety, nutritious food, a caring and present family…), and also the story of someone without learning to trust and care for/about someone so privileged. It’s also the story of the very different ways privilege can affect our experience of difference—being a middle-class, white, gay boy is radically different from being a poor, parent-less, gay boy of color.

But this is me being preachy; the novel doesn’t preach like this. Instead, it tells a really great story, part love story (and that is also the story of how to reach across a flaming divide of privilege and difference) and part tale of danger and rescue (I mean that both ways: how to rescue someone you love and how to rescue yourself—both are dangerous).

As Will falls deeper, it turns out Lennox is also really smart (a math ace), and kind of lovely when you peel off the stinking jerk skin he wears for protection.

Go Your Own Way is suspenseful without literal ghosts (though the memory of dead parents haunts this, and there are ghouls in the motel parking lot who haunt and threaten Lennox); it’s emotionally engrossing without the over-high drama of a pantomime. It exercises every nerve I’ve got, keeps me teetering and balancing on edge, worrying, hoping for some safety and peace. It makes me want the story to continue (and, yay, it’s about to do so!), even though my damn proverbial arms are tired.

The sequel, With or Without You, is available for pre-order from Interlude Press here. It will be released on July 21, 2016.

 

REVIEW: Right Here Waiting by K. E. Belledonne

Right Here Waiting by K. E. Belledonne (February 10, 2015); 220  pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Right Here Waiting tells the story of a man serving in the military as a U.S. pilot during World War II and his lover, who waits for him to return home. It’s got all the trappings of a good war story, but it isn’t an historical novel. The way to read this novel is as a fantasy, a fix on history, a make-it-right. Folks looking for an absolutely accurate account of WWII will be disappointed…but that’s sort of the point.
For those of us gay folk yearning to see ourselves in a romantic, Casablanca-like wartime history (feeling unsatisfied with the winks at queers through the gardenia-scented Peter Lorre), this novel aims to fix our desires, to re-tell the history with us at the center.
Right Here Waiting is a love story between two men (Ben Williams and Peter Montgomery), whose clandestine-ish love affair is interrupted when Pete joins the US armed forces as a pilot and is shipped overseas to join the war. Ben, with his bum leg, is left waiting at home for his return. What follows Pete’s departure is a pastiche of memories, letters, longing, and the tension of war, until Ben and Pete can be safely united again.
Here’s why I call this a fantasy: Ben and Pete are really in love, and many of their close friends and colleagues know it and support it without the slightest bat of an eye.  In fact, there’s no tension or angst around The Gay Thing, other than a bit of covering-up the two do to keep their relationship secret (hint: they kind of do a shitty job and everyone knows anyway, but nobody cares). This is not a novel about the real struggles of being on the down-low (especially in the military), nor the dangers we queers faced (well, face even now, though less so), nor the mitigated support we often receive from straights (who are cool with us as long as we don’t act too queer); it’s a novel about two people in love who are forced into separation by war and violence, who worry and fear for each other, who risk death to find each other. For once, instead of Bogart and Bacall, those two people both get to be men.
This isn’t the story of two men in love. This is the story of two people in love who have a continent and an ocean and bombs and violence keeping them apart, told as if their genders don’t matter. It’s a story about how to hang on, how to find comfort where you can, how to wait for love and safety, but how to grab it, too.
I’m not mentioning the rest of the story: there’s Pete’s wonderful, supportive squadron; there’s Gwen Andrews, the famous singer/temptress who entertains the troops; there’s the best gal-pals who help the boys maintain their connection.
Don’t get me wrong: this is a fantasy, but there’s still death, and near-death, and injury, and danger. There just isn’t homophobia or hate or that kind of fear. It’s kind of nice to read a romance about queers that doesn’t include an obligatory bashing or hate-mongering jerk who dumps a malted on their heads or something.
I’m all for realistic fiction. I’m usually bothered by attempts to paper over queer presence and queer suffering, but that doesn’t seem to be the point here. The point of Right Here Waiting, rather, seems to be to intervene in the war story genre itself, to make a great and brave love story between two men. You can bet those stories happened (and still do), but they probably weren’t this romantic, beautiful, gripping or happy. Then again, straight romances don’t look much like Bogie and Bacall, either.
In the wake of the horrible homophobic events in Orlando and the mainstream media’s  subsequent erasure of queers from the tragedy, I’ll take any day this sweet and charming fantasy that insists on re-inserting us not into history, but into romance.