My heart, my heart: a review with graphics!

Author Julian Winters has written a really lovely review of SWEET, complete with a graphics collection (is there a name for that? what do the kids today call it?) that is making me all kinds of happy.

I say, please go read the review (it’s great), but also go browse his website!

 

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: Sideshow by Amy Stilgenbauer

Sideshow by Amy Stilgebauer (August 25, 2016); 192 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Abby Amaro does what everyone threatens to do at some point in life: she runs away with the circus. But unlike most of us (okay, well, at least unlike me), she doesn’t have many other options. She’s stuck with Frank, an emotionally-abusive and violent jerk who proposes marriage and doesn’t take it very well when she refuses. She’s a woman, an opera singer, in the 1950s. So she must leave her family behind, and her brother helps her abscond with a travelling circus.

She falls in with the sideshow carnies, and eventually meets the strong woman Suprema, and the two strike up a tentative, quiet romance. There are, of course, hurdles: she can’t quite connect up with her family from the road until it’s too late, she’s stuck rooming with a hostile burlesque performer, and even Frank rears his ugly head at one point. Troubles notwithstanding, Abby finds her sea legs (her trailer legs, anyway) and finds new connections and a new home.

On some level, this is about being Good by the standards of the moment. Good isn’t the same as good-to-yourself: Good for women at the time is forgetting your career, marrying the appropriate person and washing his socks without complaint for the rest of your life. Abby isn’t, apparently, such a good girl. I mean, she’s good, she’s just not Marry-a-Man-Even-though-He-Cheats-and-Have-No-Life-of-Your-Own-Because-Men-Are-Hard-to-Get-and-More-Valuable-than-You Good.

The characters here are well drawn—sympathetic or hateful (or sometimes a combination of both) without being too simple. The situation is the same—the novel takes the old “running away with the circus” trope and gives it real life. There’s lots to like here—not the least of which is a compelling situation and engaging plot.

This is a seamless story: believable, well-paced and involving. It’s about Abby finding a way to be happy, to do what she loves, even if it’s singing from the bally box instead of La Scala, or falling in love with a muscled woman instead of a philandering man. It’s about being strong and creative enough to do that.

REVIEW: Certainly, Possibly You by Lissa Reed

Certainly, Possibly You by Lissa Reed (September 22, 2016); 324 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Certainly, Possibly You is the second book in Lissa Reed’s Sucre Coeur series, which revolves around the lives of the folks who work at the Sucre Coeur bakery. While Definitely, Maybe Yours focused on the get-together of bakery manager and debonair British feller Craig Oliver with photographer Alex Scheff (a friend of-friend-of- guy), Certainly tells the story of bakery assistant Sarita (who’s friends with Craig) and ballroom dancer Maritza (who’s friends with Alex).

Maritza’s on her way up the dancy-pants ladder; she and her partner Nicky have made a name for themselves on the dancy-pants circuit. Sarita is an Amy Winehouse-haired graduate student trying to get somewhere, too. Both women are working in the service industry (Sarita at the bakery, Maritza as a waitress at a meatball-and-sauce joint) in Seattle when they’re introduced to each other at Alex’s studio party. The novel begins when Sarita wakes up hung over and surprised to find Maritza wearing Sarita’s T-shirt and little else. Though they have a bit of a rocky start, they do wind up starting something real with each other and it’s lovely.

Trouble is, of course, right there waiting. While Sarita’s brother Devesh and his husband Sunil are supportive, Sarita’s sister Anjali is a homophobic jerk, and her parents announce that they’re leaving the country (but not because of Anjali—I realize how that sounded). Maritza, for her part, must struggle with her nasty (and rather homophobic) dance partner/ex-lover Nicky, who turns out to be a vain, moustache-twirling villain who tries to wreck everything that’s blooming. (Which makes me giggle, thinking of him in shiny spandex dance pants and an unbuttoned satin shirt, machinating.) There’s missed connections, attempted blackmail, chiffon and muffins, all leading up to the moment when a huge opportunity for Maritza also brings the threat of distance to the new relationship between Maritza and Sarita.

There’s lots to like here: the characters are all believable and complex, just stubborn enough to be interesting but still real. There are enough missed connections and difficult communications to lay a great backdrop of dramatic tension. There are likeable characters for whom you want to root and there’s dancing and food. And there are (at least in mention) teacup Dobermans. (Dobermen?)

The jerks here (especially Anjali) have real motivation and aren’t just cardboard cutout antagonists and senseless homphobes. The good folks aren’t be-haloed innocents, either. Everybody gets a story and a complex inner life.  There’s even a recipe for baked goods at the back of the book.

I do have one very strong criticism and word of warning to readers: my copy did not come with a cookie, and I feel that a book series which revolves around the lives of people who work in a bakery should most definitely include a cookie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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: HELLO CRUEL WORLD by Kate Boernstein

Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws by Kate Bernstein.  From Seven Stories Press (July 2006), available here.

I bought this book for my wife as a gift, but read it before she got her hands on it. It’s a vital book, especially at this moment, when news of “bathroom bills” and the resulting legalized harassment and abuse of trans folk who dare to… exist… in public seems to be mounting by the day.

This book is going to save lives. Maybe it will prevent some suicides from happening–one hopes–but even if that’s not the case, it’s going to change the lives of those who read it for the better by helping readers wade through the mire of things-we-know about gender. It’s going to make us all rethink, or think better… and by that, love each other better.

Boernstein writes in a clear, relatable way, about gender. I’ve been teaching versions of “gender studies” at the college level for decades now, and I’m going to sit with this book over the summer to relearn how to talk about this stuff. Boernstein makes it very clear that you can talk about very complex ideas in understandable ways without dumbing down.

Another lesson I’ll take: I cried, like, really a lot reading this. I also snickered, and downright laughed; sometimes I did all three at once. All of this is good stuff, productive for thinking; in other words, the tone of this book isn’t just an extension of Boernstein’s writer persona in the world, and isn’t just about “relating” to teens–it’s a carefully-chosen stance with respect to the material and the thinking. “Real” thought (the kind academia finds valuable) isn’t necessarily best when it’s detached, stoic, and without investment. “Real” thought belongs to all of us who are invested. This book proves that.

 

Review: LOVE STARVED by Kate Fierro

Love Starved by Kate Fierro (April 21, 2015); 304 pages.  Available from Interlude Press here .

I’m coming a little late to the reviewing party, since this book came out almost exactly a year ago, but perhaps it’s good timing, to be writing about this story when the initial flurry of reviews has quieted a bit.

It’s hard to say to which main character in this book the title refers—they both seem a bit “love starved.” Micah is a busy, successful writer and “information security” guy who’s alone because he’s sworn himself into it after a too-long bad relationship and subsequent breakup with a Class A controlling jerk.  He’s given the card of an escort called Angel, whose performance involves romance and attentiveness and things that feel like real dates (and, oh, by the way, really expert sex); in loneliness, Micah calls Angel. The two have some “dates,” or “encounters,” or whatever scare-quoted euphemisms might convey that they go out and they stay in and do kissing things together during which Micah’s head almost twists itself off from how lovely it is to be treated with such kind and caring attention.

But Angel keeps mysteriously cancelling on him, or running out at the smallest chirp of a text message, and everything festers awful when Angel can’t keep up the glossy veneer anymore and his body—quite literally—breaks down in front of Micah.

Angel needs rescuing, and Micah wants to rescue. But things can’t rest easy like that—the days of princesses in towers are over (if they ever were even under), and chivalry didn’t die so much as it got rejected for being rather imbalanced, power-wise. The story would be pretty damn disappointing if Micah were welcomed to swoop in, fix everything, and carry Angel off on his shoulder.

Instead, what happens is a more careful attempt at recognizing someone’s humanity, a negotiation in which both players have a say: not a rescue, but an offered hand-up and the choice to take it or not.  And afterward, there’s a rather messy mess to sort through. This is the loveliness of this story: it seems fully conscious of the path we expect it to take (because all love stories take that path, depending on a rescue and chivalry and the rejection of one form of prostitution for what usually resembles another… and if you can stand the gagging and irritation, you can re-watch Pretty Woman for evidence) and does not take that path.

I’m trying not to say too much about the plot here—except that it’s compelling, a path down which one races to discover what’s at its end.  The reader wants to do this, in part, because, in the best of ways, the story doesn’t fulfill expectations—it takes on the “hooker with a heart of gold” trope, but doesn’t become its servant. What I really want to talk about is how this all ends up, but I’m in a quandary, because doing so requires either that I give away the plot or do some fancy footwork to avoid that and still say what I mean to say.

I’m going to try the footwork, though I’m a pretty terrible dancer and I walk with a cane. Let’s watch me try:

The final chapter of this novel jumps ahead a bit in time, after the plot seems to have resolved itself, and lands in a pretty clichéd place. But then I kept reading, and it turned out not to be the place I thought it was, and I was so relieved, and so happy that it wasn’t that clichéd place the plot hadn’t seemed to earn yet.

(Phoo, getting winded from all this tap-dancing… I’m going to have to sit in a moment.)

What I’m trying to say: there is what seems to be a deliberate disobedience of formula at the end of the story that I just adored. This, from a story that had all the elements to make a Pretty (Wo)Man cliché but chooses, instead, to work at realness (see what I’m getting at here? It’s like the plot itself: fantasy escort dates that become, with effort, real love).  The fantasy of love, as Micah learns, as we learn reading along, is way less satisfying than the flawed, sticky, banged-up and difficult real deal.

The fantasy is tempting, for sure (in this case, it’s promised through a flashy special-effects business card that changes to be what you want as you look at it and comes with a gentlemanly, attractive package wearing a sport coat and carrying roses).  But this story takes, at each turn, the harder path, the more genuine one—it takes off the sport coat, puts down the flowers, and revels in the imperfection of its characters. And that, to bastardize Frost, has made all the difference.

(OK. Now I’m going to fold up my walking cane and take a rest here for a spell, maybe watch some YouTube videos of good dancers.)

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.

REVIEW: Black Dust by Lynn Charles

Black Dust by Lynn Charles (April 7, 2016); 312 pages. Available from Interlude Pres here.

Black Dust by Lynn Charles tells the story of Emmett and Toby, who were high school sweethearts until a car crash left Emmet permanently disabled, their friend Scotty dead, and Toby wracked with guilt (he was driving, and made it out physically pretty ok).  Now, so many years later, Toby and Emmett have gone their separate ways and have made very separate lives, one in Ohio, one in New York. The story begins when they find each other again, and must heal their relationship (there’s still so much love there) and find a way to mourn their friend Scotty’s death.  To do that, they must confront their own culpability in his death, and in the death of their relationship—all of this comes to a head when Toby visits Emmett in Ohio, and must revisit the most painful territory of his entire life.

It’s a novel about chickens coming home to roost.  If I say “literally,” perhaps that isn’t correct—there are no broody barn birds here, even if a lot of the story happens in Ohio.  But Toby’s spent his life terrified to face Emmett (who, with his cane and his limp, is a constant reminder of the crash), the scene of the crash, and all the places Scotty’s ghost still haunts. Toby’s chicken to do so; he chickens out in earlier attempts—perhaps it’s correct to say this is a story about metaphorical chickens literally going home to roost.

But this is also a story of creation, and the labors that takes, the pain and the joy involved in making something.  Toby and Emmett are both musicians, and Toby has been hiding from the composition he began to write for Emmett. In pressing on to finish, to find the ways to determine the direction of the piece and resolve it, Toby’s finding a way to tell the emotional story of his love, the subsequent crash, of everything he lost.  It’s as beautiful a metaphor for healing as I’ve ever seen: healing oneself as a form of creation, as a creative act. I think that’s right.

Here, right here, is why I love this metaphor. Emmett and Toby have just begun to reacquaint and rekindle their once-love, and Toby has just let Emmett hear his still-in-scraps attempts at musically confronting their past.  Emmett says, “You have an outstanding love letter, Toby. The harmonies are rich, the rhythmic patterns you have going on—with just the piano—are amazing. But if you want to tell a love story, you have to include all of it.” What Toby needs to find, Emmett suggests, is the dissonance that will make this piece (and this story) complete, allow it to make sense. By avoiding the discomfort of dissonance, Toby is actually not allowing the piece to find resolution.

It strikes me as very right. What I love about the discomfort of, say, Stravinsky (a favorite composer of mine) is, yes, the boldness of bringing on discomfort, but also the relief of having that discomfort resolved, of this returning to “rightness.” That feeling would never happen without the discomfort first. This novel grabs that small truth and amplifies it, lets it run wild, lets it really be. What results is gut-wrenching discomfort and the relief and rightness of resolution, a beautiful story, and—at least on this reader’s part—quite a few tears and deep-heaved breaths of relief.

 

 

 

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!