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.

 

 

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.

REVIEW: In the Present Tense by Carrie Pack

In the Present Tense by Carrie Pack (May 19, 2016)l; 336 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

I’m going to come out of the closet here as someone who loves grammar. (Sorry to disappoint, but I long ago came out of the sexuality closet.) I’m coming out as a grammar nerd (okay, a queer grammar nerd) to say how much I love the title of this book.  First, the double meaning of “tense”—this refers both to a time-bound verb form (is it past? Is it now?) and to the feeling of tightness (in the situation/plot, in the emotional line, in the urgency of the characters’ needs, all of that). Second, that multiple meaning of “present”: when we refer to the “present tense,” we generally refer to verbs capturing the now, the immediate action; when we say “presently,” however, we mean “soon” (not “now,” as many people assume).  Both those words are full of multiple meanings and the insecurity of meaning itself.

In other words, this title perfectly captures the quite successful intellectual juggling act of the novel—it tosses all those balls in the air and manages to keep them flying, and beautifully-so.

Miles Lawson is caught between: either he can time-travel, or he’s mentally ill; he unpredictably shuttles between his struggle in the current moment (in which he’s committed to a shady mental health facility) and the past (in which he and his then-love Adam struggle); he is still in love with Adam while being married to Ana; he both loves his wife and doesn’t trust her.  There’s more, but I don’t want to give too much away—suffice it to say, Miles Lawson is fraught.

When I read this novel, at several points, I actually said out loud, “yeah, but what’s real?” I think that’s very much the point, for me—the reader is strung as precariously as is Miles himself (and as, probably, all the characters are). There are no truly evil characters here (not even the seemingly-evil Dr. Brannigan—it’s possible to understand him as a moustache-twirler, but also possible to humanize your view of him in this novel, see him as a character with dire motivations, too).

What I loved here was having to relinquish myself entirely to the novel, not to be sure at any moment in the plot, never to fully understand what the novel “was” until it was over. Giving over control of oneself, especially one’s mind, like that is rather scary, even in this small way.

Oh, hey, look at that! Did you catch it? The novel doesn’t just tell the story of Miles’ difficulty, nor vividly show me that circumstance; it puts the reader herself into a similar difficulty, lets her really feel it. Neither showing, nor telling, but being is its mode.

It strikes me now, as I write, that this novel is about—in so many ways—empathy (I distinguish this deliberately from sympathy, a form of pity). To fully empathize, I have to feel the feelings of and understand the experience of both myself and another person at once (to sympathize, I need never truly feel the other person’s world, and need never truly relinquish my own ideas).

But all this intellectualizing is how I, generally, enjoy books.  I recognize that this isn’t everyone’s cup of chamomile (see? I’m being empathetic). For those of you impatient with such a view, I can also say: In the Present Tense is a hand-wringing, exciting novel you’ll love to read for both the thrill and the romance it offers.

 

 

 

 

Review: The Better to Kiss You With by Michelle Osgood

The Better to Kiss You With by Michelle Osgood (April 21, 2016); 182 pages.  Available from Interlude Press here.

This is the story of Deanna, who works for a company that runs a werewolf role-playing game called “Wolf’s Run,” and who falls for her very sexy neighbor called Jamie, who turns out—in a weird coincidence–to be an actual werewolf.

Things get intense when Deanna gets stalked by a person on the Wolf’s Run message boards who claims to be an actual werewolf (they are EVRYWHERE!) angry about the portrayal of werewolves by the game. Deanna appeals for support to her best friend Nathan and—eventually—to Jamie, since the stalking becomes terrifying because, well, it’s STALKING.  Things escalate—there’s frighteningly bloody stalker photographs, and actual blood, and creepy leering orange eyes—and everything comes to a head at the annual role-playing competition hosted by Wolf’s Run.  It’s night, and there are hundreds of fans crowded into a small area, many of whom will be running around in the dark woods howling like wolves and trying to win a prize.  Crywolf, Deanna’s stalker, appears to be there, but slips into the crowd before Deanna can do anything about it and, well, you probably see a confrontation coming, and you’re probably on the right track (yes, that’s a wolf-on-a-scent-trail-joke… it’s probably lame because I don’t get many opportunities to make those).

This is a tense story—not only does it have the will-they-won’t-they-budding-romance appeal of a good love story, but it has this jarringly-thrilling other plotline about the wolf-guy stalking the girl-girl, like Gamergate, but with fangs. I read this in a couple large gulps, because I needed to know what was going to happen in both plotlines, and because it was just that kind of shivery fun.

It’s probably no secret by now that I balk at supernatural stuff; I may be the only 45-year-old American lesbian who wasn’t into Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  But this novel works so well for me, despite my anti-supernatural prejudice—mostly because the plot, the characters, the ideas, they all have lives outside of the supernatural thing.  (When I was an undergrad creative writing major at a…ahem… snobby private university with a kilt-wrapped theme and a Scottish founder… no names mentioned here, but the initials were CMU… we writing students were taught that “genre” stories were bad because they usually eschewed the fundamentals of good storytelling… not so this one, folks, so CMU can go fly a kite, which is more awful a wish than it sounds, because of the kilts and the wind.)  The world of this story is incredibly believable. The characters are people in whom you want to invest your faith and love (boy, did I love Nathan, the BBF (I don’t mean BFF, nor do I mean your clichéd Will & Grace GBF, but a BBF, a bi best friend with his own real life and personality)).  In fact, Nathan is a great example of why this novel works so well: werewolves, bi best friends, lesbian love interests… it all has the potential to become cliché, too easily dealt with, usable for the story’s purposes, but it just doesn’t.  This story doesn’t use its characters, but lets them be who they are, do what they will, even if it means that they grow fangs and fur.

The supernatural part is present, but it’s not the only important thing, and doesn’t dictate how you can read this story—you can read it because of the werewolves, the lesbians, the were-lesbians, or just the dang good storytelling.

Two-Fisting Lit

Currently, I’m two-fisting my novels.  (Ok, well, actually three-fisting, but that sounds wrong.)

Right now I’m reading THE BETTER TO KISS YOU WITH by Michelle Osgood (released TODAY!!), BLACK DUST by Lynn Charles and LOVE STARVED by Kate Fierro, all from Interlude Press.  I wish I had the time to slowly savor each one (summer’s coming, so I SHALL return…) but right now, it’s book bingeing for me.  I will be posting some book reviews soon, but in the meantime…

I’d tell you to go get your own copies and race me, but I also am reading a crap-ton of stuff for teaching, plus am inclined to linger rather than to be speedy with books I love (I really HATED the speed reading techniques I used to teach because I ENJOY reading with sweet slowness), so it wouldn’t be much of a contest for you.

Better yet, run to the Interlude Press online store, grab copies of these great books for yourself, read, and then tell me what YOU think! I may not be speedy, gur, but I can DISCUSS books with great pleasure!