REVIEW: Lunch with the Do-Nothings at the Tammy Dinette by Killian B. Brewer

Lunch with the Do Nothings at the Tammy Dinette by Killian B. Brewer (January 12, 2017); 232 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Somehow, this book slipped past me when it was released back in January, and I only came to it in the past few weeks. It was a sort of late blooming, I suppose.
Lunch… is the story of Marcus, who travels to a little (some would say “Podunk”) town when his grandmother—a grandmother he has never met, due in large part to a rootless mother who kept his life moving from town to town when he was a child—dies and leaves him her house. He comes to town, then, with the intention of quickly tying up any death-related loose ends, selling her property and getting the heck out of Dodge and back to Atlanta, where he’s got a life. (Of course, he’s leaving that life, too—his partner, Robert, is a controlling, manipulative jerk who hit Marcus hard enough to blacken his eye, so Marcus has left him behind in Atlanta and is trying to think himself into a new life.) While in town trying to settle his business, Marcus meets a gaggle of his grandmother’s friends (I think “gaggle” might not be the term for groups of people, but I’m not sure “group” really conveys the real Bodysnatchers-like conspiratory power of this bunch), who call themselves The Do-Nothings and hold regular meetings at a local diner, and who decide to sneak together to get him fixed up with a “good man” and make him stay in town. Despite their misguided efforts, Marcus finds Hank, who is, by all accounts, a “good man.” As a consequence of finding what he wants in a place he doesn’t want, Marcus is faced with questions about what to do with his life: where he will live, what he will do for a living (oh, yes, I forgot to mention the career crisis for Marcus that’s throwing a wrench in the works here), how he will be happy. (It’s another sort of late blooming, I suppose.)

There’s the kind of Southern Charm here about which all of us Northerners seem to fantasize—tough, stubborn, a bit weirdly-executed and don’t-mess-with-us-dangerous, but loving, protective and well-meaning—that reminds one a bit of those great woman-focused south-set stories like Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias, but without that icky schlock stories like that seem intent on doling out. (It feels like the author is not a Northern Fantasizer, but Real Life Southerner.) One is in no danger of choking on pink chintz or juleps or too much saccharine, Poor-Fragile-Diabetic-Shelby-Who-Dies-So-We-Learn-a-Lesson oversentiment (I may have an extra bug up my butt about Steel Magnolias, since I am a juvenile diabetic like Shelby, but I think my point still stands). There’s a light-touch comedy, too, that comes from taking delight in irony: tough-as-nails, ostensibly past-prime Southern belles protecting a young gay man by the means with which they’re familiar (socials, gossip, rifle-wielding).

This novel strikes the right balance between danger and quirk, serious and funny, moving speedily through the plot when it needs to, slowing down when there’s a rose to smell or a point to develop. The characters are lovable and relatable, even to a somewhat cynical Northerner like me. The humor is gentle but easy and fun; the comedy comes from strong character development and not situation (which, in my book, is the best kind of humor).

The romance that Marcus finds is, yes, with a charming and attractive man, but this is not the only romance offered—there’s also the romance of Marcus with his past, with the feeling of family and fitting in and care that the Do-Nothings offer, with the open possibilities of his future, his love of cooking (he discovers this here), even the town’s easy charm. Taken together, all these love stories add up to a person figuring out what (and whom) he loves, how he wants to live, who he is at heart. It’s actually a kind of second chance at this since, though Marcus is quite young, he’s already settled into a life in Atlanta, one which is uprooted and shaken about when he meets the Do-Nothings.

I guess you could call it a kind of late blooming.

REVIEW: Ghosts and Ashes by F. T. Lukens

REVIEW: Ghosts and Ashes by F. T. Lukens (March 9, 2017); 258 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Ghosts and Ashes is the second book in the Broken Moon series, and continues the story of Ren and Asher from the first book (The Star Host). Quick rundown: Ren is a “star host”, which essentially means he’s got powers beyond normal, but he’s sometimes at the behest of the star that occupies him and gives him those powers. (There are many different kinds of powers that people can have this way, but Ren has the ability to control and manipulate any kind of computer-based technology; he can make taser guns fall apart in the hands of their users, for instance.) Asher is a member of the Phoenix corps, a military organization which seems to be an arm of the repressive regime currently sweeping the universe. (They seem, also, to have implanted the current US with a very orange representative, too, somehow.)
In The Star Host, Ren and Asher had fallen in love, but now, in Ghosts and Ashes, they’ve fallen apart and there’s a chilly-but-desire-laden, mournful, tenuous relationship left in shreds. Ren and Asher, along with a crew of rebels aboard the Star Stream space ship, try to unravel the despotism and help Ren flee the Phoenix corps that wants to snag him for his powers.
The plot weaves nicely between the tense interpersonal relationships and the grander universal problems, between character-driven moments and action, in good balance. This isn’t speculative fiction that relies on gadgets and strangeness for its effects—certainly the gadgets and strangeness are there (I think particularly of a visit to an Earth-like overpopulated, stinking world in which everyone must live ass-to-elbow underground to avoid pollution), but they aren’t the point, and the story achieves its magnetism through good character development and plot-plotting, not through strangeness.
Readers who liked the first book will be happy to get more; those who are new to the Broken Moon series can start here without having read the first book (it does stand alone), but will enjoy it a lot more by reading The Star Host first. There’s a third and final book coming in this series, but it looks like we’ll have to wait for that one, since books don’t just pop up into existence at our demand (gosh, I wish they did).

Rainbow. Book. Fair Enough.

Come by the Rainbow Book Fair at John Jay in NYC tomorrow (Saturday) to check out all the LGBTQ books (including mine)! I’ll be there 12-6 at the Interlude Press table, and will be giving a sneak peek of OLYMPIA KNIFE (coming in November 2017) at a reading at 1 PM!

There will also be swag.

Swag plus sneak peek plus… me. What more could anyone want?

REVIEW: Beneath the Stars by Lynn Charles

Beneath the Stars by Lynn Charles (February 16, 2017); 300 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

 

Beneath the Stars by Lynn Charles tells the romance of Sid, a clothing designer and C-DRT volunteer (those are the folks who support the firefighters and other rescue workers on the scene of a disaster) and Eddie, a firefighter (who is also the fire chief). Playing large parts in this romance are the struggles each character faces with family and loss: Sid’s mother died when he was younger, and his father is in the throes of dementia when the novel begins; Eddie had a baby with his friend Maggie, who died of cancer not many years after, leaving Eddie to raise their now-5-year-old child, Adrian. The two men meet on the scene of a fire and strike up a relationship, but they must figure out how to accommodate their responsibilities to take care of other people and things (Eddie, the fire victims and his son Adrian; Sid, aside from his work as firefighter support, has his suffering father and his fledgling clothing-design business, Bastra).

There is neat symmetry here: though the characters are dealing with very different forms of loss and caretaking, they both do. Negotiating their new relationship together is, in part, about negotiating the difficulties of those pulls in other directions (other people, other cities). Along the way, each becomes imbricated in the other’s concerns (Sid, for instance, becomes attached to Adrian; Eddie… well, I don’t want to give away the ending of the book, but Eddie gets attached, too).

This is a mature romance, in other words. Or, it’s a romance about mature people with mature-people problems: kids, illness, jobs, attachments, and very fully-realized lives outside each other. This is the kind of love story that’s hard to find: one in which the world doesn’t stop and end at the romance. I remember when I was young and fell in love—everything else fell away and was secondary; my life (my desires, my time, my location, everything) fit around my love. When I got older, though, falling in love meant having to figure out how to fit my love around my life instead. When two fully-realized lives come together, there’s fitting to be done, compromising and rethinking, falling in love with (or at least learning to tolerate) everything your lover cares for (family, friends, houses, etc.), figuring out how to share with someone else what’s always been yours alone. Very often, younger love gets to be more selfish; mature love has to learn to compromise.

(Don’t misunderstand: these guys are still pretty young, by my standards, but they’re established in their lives. They’re not Romeo-and-Juliet-aged teens. They’ve got roots and responsibilities. Maturity is about that, not the number of candles you put on your cake.

As a result of all the different kinds of attachment, this is a story of different kinds of love. I may be Greek, but I’ve done my best to forget everything I had to learn in Greek School as a kid (yes, non-Greeks, that’s a thing), so I don’t remember the different kinds of love the Greeks named, but I’m pretty sure they’re all here. There’s romantic love, of course, on center stage, but there’s also the love of children, fathers and mothers, friends… and beyond that, there’s the love that is passion for hobbies or work. All those kinds of love figure prominently here.

The title comes from the story’s theme of stars and constellations, a passion that Sid’s father Lou shares with his son. This connection to something more permanent and bigger-than-people fits, for me, with the story’s concern for maturity: love isn’t fleeting, and it’s not limited to your tiny sphere of concern, burning bright and hot, but igniting and burning out fast (like I remember it did when I was 16); mature love is something larger that shifts the world and gives gravity to all bodies,  a force by which to guide ships (was that Aphrodite?), to mark the seasons and the hours, and one that will outlast any single tiny life.

REVIEW: Storm Season by Pene Henson

REVIEW: Storm Season by Pene Henson (February 2. 2017); 226 pages. Available from Interlude Press here

 

OK, so first off I want to state that if I could have figured out how to print this review upside down, I would have done it, since the narrative in Storm Season takes place in Australia, and I am just that corny.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I can get on with the real business of telling you about this book. Storm Season tells the story of a woman (Lien) who lives in Sidney but goes camping in the relative wilds with her small cadre of friends, gets distracted while taking photographs, and falls down a hole. Or ravine. Chasm. Some nature-y pit. That’s not the point, and neither is my absolute ignorance of outdoorsy stuff. In this way, actually, I am very like Lien—she’s a city girl to her core, and part of the reason she falls is her insistence on wearing inappropriate-but-fashionable shoes. (She’s a journalist who covers fashion and music. In this way, I am nothing like Lien, because nobody should ever read what I have to say about what to wear. It would be wrong.)

The point is she bangs her ankle bad enough that she can’t get out of the pit or move around much, and she’s rescued by a park ranger (Claudie), who—due to flooding—can’t get her back to her campsite and takes her, instead, to stay with her at her own cabin until the roads and driveable again.

So the two women are forced by circumstance to spend a handful of days together, alone with each other, in a cabin in the wilderness, while kookaburras…make whatever noise they usually do… outside the windows. A few things happen here: first, Lien discovers that Claudie is that Claudie, an ex-indie rock darling, and she’s fascinated. (Why did Claudie quit the band and stop performing to hide in a cabin and be a park ranger? Lien’s Spidey—no, Clark Kent—senses are tingling for the story.) Second, Lien discovers that Claudie, while her polar opposite in most ways (Claudie’s fashion sense seems to be about the practical and bush-ready), is fascinating. And attractive. And, well, stuff happens, and it’s everything you’d hope from a trapped-in-a-cabin-with-a-love-interest narrative.

Eventually, as all storms seem to do, the storm passes, the roads clear, and Claudie can take Lien back to her campsite and her friends. But since Claudie lives in the bush and Lien lives in Sidney, taking her back means letting her go, and paradise is, indeed, Mr. Milton, apparently lost. Of course, that can’t be how it ends, can it? (Hint: it can’t.)

Storm Season is a romance and, like a good real romance, it’s part mystery and part adventure, but with a good soundtrack (if you could hear Claudie’s music, at least). It’s got the inward spiraling focus of strangers-to-friends-to-lovers intensity, without ever feeling claustrophobic. Both characters have connections outside their world together, and there are narratives outside their love story which come to matter (intrigue among Lien’s friends, the story of why Claudie quit making music).

It strikes me that this is a novel about trying to get away but then trying to find your way back. Lien absconds to the bush for a vacay, but hurts herself and can’t get home again. Claudie leaves music, leaves hope, leaves love, but Lien shows her she must figure out a way back into those things. I don’t want to give away more of the novel, but much of its plot and character development are about this going-away-and-returning.

In fact, this kind of form—a run away from the norm, and then a return, slightly different, but still familiar—has a long history in art. In music, it might be the fugue (a form whose name translates as “flight”). In psychology, too, it’s a “fugue state.” In nature, it’s the echo. In literature, I can’t help but think of Boccaccio’s Decameron (great for those who want dirty short stories), in which the unifying tale is one of a handful of friends who escape to the country to avoid the ravages of the Plague, and pass the time telling stories. It’s also the history of the topsy-turvey festival (most notably nowadays, Carnavale in Rio or Mardi Gras in New Orleans) in which revelers turn every societal norm on its head (traditionally paupers dress like kings, men dress as women, fish fly, etc., but nowadays it translates into breaking from “good” behavior and getting drunk and running around half-naked while you’re having sex and cussing a lot, I imagine), but for only a limited amount of time to let off the pressure of being normal, like a steam valve that lets the pot go on cooking.

Storm Season is in this tradition, albeit with a lot less naked running around and more intelligence and feeling. What’s interesting is that it not only revels in the topsey-turvey love-affair-in-a-remote-cabin narrative, but also explores the flip side, what happens when Carnavale is over and somebody has to sweep the streets, when Lien must go back to Sydney and Claudie must stay in her remote cabin and paradise goes slipping away, or falls, maybe, into one of those chasms.

REVIEW: The King and the Criminal by Charlotte Ashe

The King and Criminal by Charlotte Ashe (December 8. 2016); 325 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

The King and the Criminal is the second book in the Heart of All Worlds series by Charlotte Ashe, and features much the same cast of characters as appeared in the first book, The Sidhe, with some focus shifts. Central are still Sehrys, who is a Sidhe of royal birth, and his betrothed, Brieden, who is a human. Along with them are royal humans Brissa Keshell and her sister Cliope; the Sidhe Tash, a former Sidhe slave trader-turned-good guy; and Firae, another Sidhe royal and the one to whom Sehrys had once been engaged.  There’s a breach of the protective border around the lands of Khryslee (which could only have been brought about deliberately, probably by a Sidhe), a war-mongering rival kingdom and several folks to be rescued from their clutches. I’m making it sound much more complicated than it really is: a cast of humans and Sidhe must band together despite their differences (some royal, some not, some actual convicted criminals) to stop the evil attempts of an evil opposing government. Unfortunately, for an American, this is starting to sound all too real.

There is, to be sure, some political intrigue here, and there’s some fantasy-magic mythology of which one must keep track (there’s a helpful summary of past politics, map and glossary of terms that makes this easier), but this is not the focus of the book. This is, I think, part picaresque and part western.

A picaresque is a serial adventure focusing (by some accounts) on an unlikely hero (usually a rogue or a criminal) or (by other accounts) on a young hero who matures through the adventure. This is true of different characters in this novel—the first describes Tash, the criminal-turned-ally, and the second describes either Brissa (the young human queen learning to be a queen) or Brieden (the human fumbling his way into love and adulthood) or even Sehrys (the young-ish Sidhe learning how to balance his personal and political responsibilities and allegiances). A western, lots of people will tell you, is set in the American west, but having taught film genres, I’d disagree. (Many people, for instance, consider Star Wars a “space western.”) By my lights, and very basically speaking, a western is a kind of romance in which good guys oppose bad guys against a backdrop of nearly boundless territory in contest. So The Heart of All Worlds series might be a fantasy western picaresque.

All that is to say (in far too fancy a way) that there is adventure, political conflict and romance centering around territory and white hat-black hat rivalries.

As with the first novel in this series, the plot is woven so well and the characters so nicely drawn that readers will be sucked in quickly and held until the end, then wait impatiently for the next book in the series to resolve what this one leaves in the air. Also as with the first novel, The King/Criminal is set in very unfamiliar worlds and thus contains a large new mythology of beings, territory, politics, religion and powers, but requires little of the reader to understand it and be swallowed by it. I think that’s the mark of really well-written sci-fi and fantasy: one gets so pulled in, and is so seduced by the world created there, that what often seems like bells and whistles in lesser books just seems a natural, real part of the world of the novel. The point is, I think, whether or not the details of the world are in service of the plot and characters, or are superfluous embroidery upon their surface. In a good fantasy or sci-fi novel like this one, the details aren’t the point, they just help you see the point.

REVIEW: Idlewild by Jude Sierra

Idlewild by Jude Sierra (December 1, 2016); 250 pages. Available from Interlude Press at http://store.interludepress.com/products/idlewild-print-edition

Idlewild is the story of a Detroit restauranteur/widower who figures out how to rescue himself from isolation and loss after the tragedy of his husband’s death. (If that sounds like a metaphor for Detroit itself, well, maybe it is.) It’s also the story of a young guy trying to find himself, working his butt off to become someone he likes, and figuring out who he is. (If that also sounds like a metaphor for Detroit, so be it.) It’s the story of very different worlds meeting and working together, trying to resolve differences and make something great. And it’s kind of literally the story of Detroit itself, too, at least as a backdrop.

Asher and his partner John had opened Idlewild, a restaurant in the heart of Detroit, as their dream. But when John died suddenly, Asher wound up digging himself into Idlewild and losing almost everything—he’s since become estranged from John’s family and almost never leaves Idlewild (he lives above the restaurant, and when he’s not upstairs, he’s downstairs). He mourns alone, and works alone, even though there are lots of people around; as a result, he loses almost the entire staff who’d worked for him when John was alive, and must start fresh. He hires a new staff, which includes Tyler, a young guy from Detroit who’s trying to figure out his own direction. With Tyler comes renewal in all forms—both the restaurant and Asher are revitalized. Tyler goes through his own sort of revival when his life turns in directions different from what he’d originally planned. Though it only serves as a backdrop, Idlewild itself seems to be the key to all this change: it’s place where things happen, where new beginnings are possible.

What’s lovely in this novel is its care: both Asher and Tyler are drawn so sympathetically (a middle-aged man who’s grown prematurely old from tragically losing a man he loved, Asher struggles between past and future; Tyler is a younger guy trying to figure out where he stands between the privileged-but-sincere Asher and his justifiably-angry-and-less-privileged ex). Such great attention is given to their characters and histories. These guys make sense, and the reader can understand why they think the way they do.

The complexities these characters face are real, and extend beyond the personal. Or, rather, the complexities weave together the personal and the social/political, which is what makes them complexities in the first place. It also makes them good problems for narrative, since they’re not immediately and easily solved.

 

 

 

 

REVIEW: Flying Without a Net by E.M. ben Shaul

Flying Without a Net by E. M. ben Shaul (November 17, 2016); 300 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Two Jews walk into a bar… and one of them says, “Ouch!”

I have always thought that joke was hilarious and, being too young to perform Vaudeville (I was born in 1970, so I missed the boat), I have never before had the opportunity to tell it. But right now, I’m writing a review of Flying Without a Net by E. M. ben Shaul, a novel which tells the love story of Dani (an Israeli who has grown up in a culturally-Jewish-but-secular home in the U.S.) and Avi, who is a practicing Orthodox man. They meet, find attraction, and must struggle with the conflict between their relationship and Avi’s religious devotion.

(Actually, the joke I REALLY want to tell is “Who is Anette, and why is she so important to fly with?” but see how I’ve refrained?)

Avi and Dani don’t exactly walk into a bar, but they do go for coffee at a coffee shop which, at least in New York where I’m from, is kind of like a bar in the daytime. (I used to go to actual bars in the daytime, but that was back in graduate school, and was mostly to play pool. I do not recommend it, unless you are looking to hang out with some very questionable day drinkers. Yes, jokers, I do count me-at-25 among them.) These guys live in Boston, with which I’m not very familiar (except for experiencing some homophobia, bad driving and White Frat Dudes on the Loose while on vacation there many years ago), but I’m going to assume the equivalency holds.

In many ways, the novel is a version of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, recast as a coming-of-age (this can happen at any age, and for Avi, it happens rather late in life) story about a young religious man finding his world rattled when his sexuality (he’s gay) becomes more than theoretical. As with that novel, it’s epistolary: most chapters begin with a letter to God (from Avi). Avi’s trying to find his way into his newly-relevant sexuality (in the same way that Margaret is trying to find her way into her sex/gender). The story even, at one point, makes a direct shout-out to the book.

Avi’s family is large and very welcoming to Dani, and they embrace the budding relationship between the two men immediately, as does everyone in the novel. This is not a book that has dealings with the (very real) struggle against homophobia many of us face, or about the (very real) worries we queers have when coming out in our own communities and families, it’s a fantasy/love story.

While Avi is out to his family, he’s not had a relationship with a man before, and doing so constitutes another coming out, whether the character recognizes it or not… coming out isn’t a one-time deal; most of us queer folk come out over and over and over, in every new situation, every time we meet someone new, every time we figure something out about ourselves that our culture has worked very hard to prevent us from coming to know. That experience  is very particular to being queer and hard for most other folks to recognize. But this novel isn’t about that, or about homophobia, or danger of any kind; it’s about the struggle to reconcile one’s faith with one’s desires, and that struggle is pretty universal, something nearly anyone can recontextualize and understand on their own terms. And that struggle is no joke.

REVIEW: Luchador by Erin Finnegan

REVIEW: Luchador by Erin Finnegan (November 3, 2016); 244 pages. Available from Interlude press here: https://store.interludepress.com/collections/printed-books/products/luchador-print-edition

When I was a kid, my dad spent much of the weekend parked in front of his TV, watching WWF pro wrestling. To this day, the sound of screaming men gives me hives. But the stories the men acted out were compelling, despite the too-long sweaty hair and weird unitards and hoarse shouting. Even I, as a kid, knew it was all show, but there was something that grabbed both me and my dad (and lots of other Americans, too).

Luchador dips into the world of showy wrestling and heightened storytelling, but it’s luchadores in Mexico, not the bastardization that is American pro wrestling. While the novel itself maintains a calm dignity in its storytelling, the stage on which the characters live their lives is bananas. Gabriel, orphaned and raised by his aunt and uncle (I can’t help thinking about Superman here) wanders into the world of professional luchadores and, with the mentorship of a handful of seasoned wrestlers, becomes one himself. The novel follows his rise to stardom as El Angel, a much-admired masked wrestler who plays a be-winged, glittery angel who’s still really tough (kind of like the Biblical archangels, who were depicted as scary-tough-dangerous). The story also traces his search for an apt love—like most of us, he has to comb through some mistakes (too immature, deeply closeted) before he finds the right fit.

The story is, on many levels, about finding this right fit, not only in terms of his suitors, but in terms of his career and his place in the world (a narrative, not uncommon for an orphan in fiction, with a great literary tradition).

Along the way, El Angel must wrestle with how he’s portrayed by the industry, since wrestlers marked as “gay” (which he is) are usually marketed as “Exóticos”, the flamboyant, referee-kissing, feather-boa-wearing stereotypes we gay folk have dealt with for a long time (sexually predatory on innocent str8 folks, showy, too femme or too butch, etc.). As with many gay folk confronted with a culture/industry’s attempts to write the terms of how we’re portrayed and understood, Gabriel/El Angel must determine how he sees himself, and how he will be understood by others.

(I want to be clear that it’s the forcing of a persona upon someone that’s the problem, not the flamboyancy of the persona. It’s just as bad when someone who wants to be feminine is discounted and not taken seriously as it is when someone who doesn’t want to be feminine is forced into it. It’s about self-determination, and all too often that’s a simple right that’s denied those of us who are gay. This novel recognizes that, and focuses on Gabriel’s desire to define himself, rather than on his desire to be defined as macho instead of fey.)

There’s plenty of wrestling action for fans (well-described, with a touch of insider-realism) and plenty of plot action outside the ring to keep anyone not-fan hooked. Luchador is a fast-paced novel that’s interested in both a good plot and well-developed, complex characters.