Category Archives: GLBT fiction

“Stella Maris: And Other Key West Stories” by Michael Carroll— In the Conch Republic

Carroll. Michael. “Stella Maris: And Other Key West Stories”, Turtle Point Press, 2019.

In the Conch Republic

Amos Lassen

I love Michael Carroll’s new story collection but I have been hesitant to post my review since it will be out until April. This means that it cannot be read and enjoyed just yet. Nonetheless,  something whispered in my ear today to go ahead and write the review and post it to perhaps build up some enthusiasm for the collection of stories. I have a tendency to gush over books that I really like but I am going to restrain myself this time and be a bit conservative even though I want to yell out that I LOVE THIS BOOK.

I also love Key West but it has been many many years since I have been there and I doubt I will get there again anytime soon. Carroll did make me want to reconsider that thought and who knows what may come my way. I would never have dreamt that I would leave the intoxication and magic of New Orleans to live in staid and intellectual Boston but here I am.

What surprised me the most about “Stella Maris” is that I traditionally do not read or like short stories; I just do not enjoy them and I found myself deeply involved in each of Carroll’s eight stories. We enter a different world in Key West and even today it reminds us of how it was when who-was-who mixed with who-was-there and social class and fame held no importance. Key West has always had that mysterious quality of drawing people to her and not letting them go even when they physically depart. And those who depart do so with some Key West within. It has become of “the” places to go to and has been a beacon that brings people in to its bohemian world that still manages to exist. It is a mecca for the LGBT community and it certainly provided Michael Carroll with a home from where to spin these stories. If you know Key West, you can place the stories in their venue without much thought and if you don’t know Key West you can make up venues—it really doesn’t matter. What you do need is grit to go along with the grittiness of what you read here. I had forgotten (just go along with this lousy sentence structure— I am very aware of it) just how important where you went to college was and what fraternity you were a member of in the lives of Southerners but Carroll quickly reminded me rekindling my memories about the genteelness and class consciousness of Southern queens— especially those from Charleston and Savannah. “My wife was a goddamn alligator. And the weather sucked. I like cute Southern boys, the ones that went to their moron dads’ frats. Kappa Sig and ATO. Hot sexy dopes”.

We have a story about a memorial for a drag queen, Harlan Douglas aka Cherry de Vine (I hadn’t heard the name Harlan since I left college but one of my best friends and fraternity brothers [not Kappa Sig or ATO] was named Harlan). “Key West Funeral” had me flipping pages very quickly. We have a story about two Southern sisters on a cruise ship holiday who have to deal with alcoholism, estrangement, and horrible weather. Then we have a look at two newly divorced gay men who pick themselves up and become part of the evenings at the end of the world. Another story is set at an all-male, clothing-optional resort where guys of all ages literally fall into one another’s paths, enjoy themselves as they please, and  also regale one another on their views and preconceptions. 

Michael Carroll also does not allow us to forget that there was a time that our lives revolved around illness and death. The past may leave us but its mark remains and that mark is often those graves that were left by those who died from AIDS. We became very aware of “our own mortality and the unpredictable nature of life and of survival. It’s about new beginnings and final recognitions.” As you can probably imagine, Carroll is outspoken yet tender, lustful and often enraged, sad and fun at the same time. His writing sparkles and shines as he embraces  the lives of his characters and I am quite sure that he based them on people he knows or had seen in Key West giving these stories a relevance since we all know people like the ones we read about here.

I was not expecting to be emotionally touched by these stories but I am glad I was because it gives me one more thing to give Carroll credit for. The stories are microcosms of our lives and who we are with comedy and tragedy combined. I only met Michael once and that was over a coffee a few years ago and I realized that whatever we talked about that day came back in these stories. They are about our lives and how we see them and it takes a certain kind of writer to be able to relate this—- Michael Carroll surpassed any expectations that I had. He is bold and original and he writes what he wants to write about. Using death as his unifier of his stories, it is our last party on the circuit. I daresay that the sadness we feel in reading some of these stories is replaced by a jubilance  of being alive.

“Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story” by Leslea Newman— Coming to America

Newman, Leslea. “Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story”, illustrated (beautifully) by Amy June Bates, Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2019,

Coming to America

Amos Lassen

Regarding immigration, we are living I troubled times and we are certainly well aware of that. It seems even more troubling when we remember and realize that many of us are first generation Americans and we grew up with stories about coming to America. If you don’t have a personal story, you borrow “Gittel’s Journey”, the wonderful and sensitive new book by the amazing Leslea Newman. We immediately see how important it is for the young community to understand what the importance of coming to this country is and especially not having to face a wall to get in.

Gittel is nine-years-old when she and her mother leave “The Old Country” to come to America. They do not just leave physically; this is also an emotional journey as they leave friends, possessions and memories. There is no room in a suitcase for memories. Gittel wants to bring Frieda, their goat but her mother tells her, “We cannot bring a goat to America”. But when they reach the boat, Mama is barred from boarding due to an eye infection, and she insists that Gittel continue without her. It is difficult to get through this part of the story with dry eyes and we know what Mama knows— it was not safe to stay in Europe at that time and Gittel knew her mother was right so she put her mother’s Shabbat candlesticks on her bundle and with her little more than what she was wearing and could put in her bundle, she boarded the boat with the address of a cousin in New York City and began her journey to Ellis Island and America. It’s not a new story, we have heard it many times before but today it is especially important. To have Leslea Newman tell it to us is a ”mehayeh”.

The mixed-media images by Bates are washed in yellows and browns and framed by woodblock motifs and give us a sense of the historical context. They  beautifully capture emotions. Speaking of emotions, Leslea Newman injects true emotion into the story in the form of fear, excitement and loneliness and with sharp insight she modulates those emotions with both restraint and warmth We can only imagine how difficult it was to write about a young girl leaving everything she knew behind but then  she also must leave her mother. Of course things will work out but if we put ourselves in Gittel’s place and try to imagine what she felt, we get an entirely new take on leaving home.

Now I have a selfish story to interject here that also has something to say about restarting life in a new place. Way back when, I had decided to leave America and move to Israel— it had become my Jewish and Zionist responsibility to build the land. I was in the auto with my mother driving to the airport when I could no longer control my tears. My mother looked over at me and asked why I was crying. (At that time, I did not know that I would ever see anyone from my family again and my father and I did not part on good terms). I answered her saying that it was very difficult to say goodbye and she responded with, “Think about how many new hellos you will say” and that beautiful thought is always with me as it was with Gittel as it probably was with Gittel.

There is not a lot of text in the story but every word is a pearl and the design of the book is just gorgeous. The ending is a tear-jerker but one that leaves you feeling complete and emotionally happy. Leslea decided to tell this tale that obviously means a great deal to her. We learn that this is the story of her grandmothers coming to America.

I think it is only fair to say that I am a huge fan of Leslea Newman  and if you have read my reviews in the past, you might remember that I mentioned that one of the first books I reviewed was Newman’s “A Letter to Harvey Milk” and it was that experience that caused me to decide to continue reviewing. I wanted to share my excitement about reading our literature. I have reviewed many of Newman’s writings—- she has written seventy books for adults and children and it is my goal to read them all.

For those of you in the Boston area, Leslea will be with my temple, Temple Sinai of Brookline, during the weekend of March 30 and will speak to the entire temple on Friday night as our Rainbow Shabbat speaker and on Sunday she will speak to my adult learning class as part of my series, “Judaism and the LBGT Community: An Exploration”.

 

“Thorn” by Anna Burke— A Fairy Tale

Burke, Anna. “Thorn”, Bywater Books, 2019. A Fairy Tale Amos Lassen We are never too old to enjoy a good fairy tale and Anna Burke has a great one that will remind of sitting in front of a fire and listening to a thrilling story. I had no idea of what to expect when I stated reading and when I finished, I did not want to close the covers of the book because that usually means the story is over. “Thorn” is set on a cold day in the winter and it begins when Rowan’s father returns from “an ill-fated hunting trip bearing a single, white rose.” Now following the Rose is the legendary Huntress The rose is followed by the Huntress who is tall, cruel, and beautiful and she takes Rowan back with her to a mountain that is populated solely by the creatures of the hunt. Rowan knows she must change—she had once thought that she was better than the villagers and their superstitions. She now finds herself in a curse that has deep roots and ruled by an old insidious magic.  Rowan is torn by her family loyalties. She feels both guilt and relief about escaping her betrothal to Avery Lockland who is both charming and arrogant. Yet she has complicated feelings for the Huntress, Rowan must find a way to break the curse she is under before it destroys everything she loves. There is a problem, however. If she can find a way to lift the curse, she will have to return to the life she left behind and that means the villagers and Avery and the cold winters that plague her village. With the Huntress, she can have eternal springs. “Thorn” is a retelling of the classic fairy tale, “Beauty and the Beast” but with a lesbian twist. This is the story of Rowan’s self-discovery when she inevitably met The Huntress. We go back in time to read how Rose became the prisoner of The Huntress. The Huntress has her own back story that led to the curse cast against her by the witch. Burke gives the story true beauty with her words. It becomes the story of two women who are completely different  yet fall in love with each other and deal with the truth of their lives. The Huntress is dark, cold and mysterious yet is one of the heroines of the story. We work our way, with Anna Burke’s help,  to understand her. We want her to be a positive kind of character and so we work at becoming empathetic and it is not always easy. It is the beauty of Anna Burke’s prose that brings the Huntress and, in fact, the entire story to life. We are determined to break down her defenses and get to know her so that we can relate. With time we watch her change from a misunderstood and tortured character who is arrogant, selfish and heartless but who transcends the journey to redemption. By the time we reach Rose’s ultimate sacrifice, we learn of the real meaning of the curse. In case you could not tell, I am having a bit of a difficult time writing this review and I just wonder if that has anything to do with my being a gay male reviewing a lesbian novel. There is so much that I can say but I do not want to ruin the read for anyone. I love that there is so much social relevance here and that this is a fairy tale for our times. There are several minor themes here— clothing, the release from bearing children, self-reliance, rdealing with a family or past that no longer fits, partnership, and the iimportance of self-knowledge and love. The book is a lovely way to escape into fantasy for a while.

“Lock and West” by Alexander Eberhart— An Emotional Story

Eberhart, Alexander C. “Lock & West”, 7 Sisters Publishing, 2019. An Emotional Story Amos Lassen Lock is an awkward guy. He is unable to make eye contact, gets nervous easily and has to remind himself several times a day how ‘normal’ teens behave.  He has been homeschooled for most of his life and his resigned himself to a friendless existence at his new Atlanta high school. West has everything.  He is good looking, has talent and money but he also has secrets. He harbors a pain that is buried so deep that a million therapists have not been able to get to it and West is determined to keep it that way. He’s an actor and he can act normal. Locke’s  and West’s lives are equal but opposite and the universe just keeps throwing obstacles in their path. Every time they are together they find it harder to say goodbye, harder to keep their secrets and harder not to lean on each other. What they need to do to keep this relationship going is to stop trying to re-write the past and start to understand out how to build a future together.  Here is a novel that plays with the emotions and there are intense moments in this book. We have quite a look at sexual assault that is intense. We also read about eating disorders. This is a beautifully written novel with wonderful LGBT representation and accurate portrayals of various mental health and social issues. Writer Alexander Eberhart has the ability to make us feel everything his characters feel and some of it is quite disturbing.

“Sugar Run” by Mesha Maren— Before and After Life in Prison

Maren, Mesha. “Sugar Run”, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2019. Before and After Life in Prison Amos Lassen In 1989, Jodi McCarty turned seventeen years old and sentenced to life in prison. When she’s released eighteen years later, she finds herself at a Greyhound bus stop, dealing with the shock of unexpected freedom and determined to chart a better course for herself. Because she is not yet able to return to her lost home in the Appalachian Mountains, she heads south to look for someone she left behind, as a way of finally making amends. When she gets there she meets and falls in love with Miranda, a troubled young mother living in a motel room with her children. Together they hope l to have a fresh start but they do not know what to do with their pasts and with a town and a family that refuses to forget, or to change?

Set in rural West Virginia, this is a searing and gritty look at making a break for another life through the use of makeshift families and how the mistakes we’ve made remain with us for long periods.  Jodi McCarty went to prison for a mysterious crime we learn about as the story unfolds and she is eager to return to her home in the Appalachian Mountains. Her detour to the south that was supposed to be well-meaning, ends up threatening to keep her from staying on the straight and narrow. Written as a Southern noir, the book follows Jodi as she tries to rebuild her life and when this is hindered by things over which she has no control. Maren writes beautifully and with keen insight and she manages to make us feel compassion for characters even with their flaws and problems. Her descriptions of America’s modern wastelands in this gritty novel are wonderful. Basically this is a novel about two girls on the run and who are actually two damaged women trying to rebuild their lives. We really see what life is like for those who slip through the cracks of society and remain on the margins. Our two women are the type of people we rarely see, much less get to know yet they come across as sympathetic. Jodi went to prison for murdering her older lesbian lover and now free she wants to settle down and grow roots. The story moves from one adventure to another and even though some of it is not so believable, the prose keeps us reading. “Sugar Run” maintains a dual storyline: the first follows Jodi and her girlfriend Paula through drug-fueled poker binges in 1988 and the second follows Jodi’s release from prison in 2007.
A lot happens in this book and the plot covers small town bigotry, the awful destruction brought on by fracking, substance abuse, poverty, the love of land and the shifting of love. It can be a tough at times as it explores place, connection and redemption in the face of the justice system and the struggle to avoid destructive choices.

“Shadowtide: A Blue Rose Novel” by Joseph D. Carriker— “Something Dark Stirs in the Veran Marsh…”

Carriker Jr., Joseph D. “Shadowtide: A Blue Rose Novel”, illustrated by Magdelena Pagowaka,  Green Ronin Publishing, 2018. “Something Dark Stirs in the Veran Marsh…”
Amos Lassen I must admit that I do not read much science or fantasy fiction— it is jut not me. However when I am asked to review a book of this genre, I try to put aside my personal feelings and give an honest review. I was very surprised with “Shadowtide”— it pulled me in immediately. The characters are interesting and well-drawn and they are motivated to fill their parts of the plot. I have a strong feeling that we are just getting to know them now and that their story will continue. “Shadowtide” is set in the world of Aldis, the setting for the Blue Rose table-top role-playing game.  We are introduced to the situation on the prologue and learn that two agents are in serious trouble. The rest of the book is about three agents who are trying to find out what happened to the first two. We find ourselves in the city of Serpent’s Haven where smugglers live in the middle of a swamp and where evil activity is the course of the day. We meet Ydah, a female warrior who has spent the last year dealing with personal loss, Soot, a “self-aware” raven who has the ability (among others) of being able to heal wounds and
Morjin, a spy with a good and open heart and who can predict the future. Generally, each of the three works alone but here they have come together to deal with the mysteries of Serpent’s Haven. Because I do not read novels of this type, it took me longer to read this then the average reader. The setting was a bit difficult to understand. What really had my interest was the diversity we experience in the plot especially with regard to the sexuality of the characters. Morjin, for example, falls in love with both sexes and is part of an open marriage arrangement with both a man and a woman in the capital city. This did not stop him from the pursuit of another man in Serpent’s Haven. There is also an asexual character who is described as being “aromantic” as well. It  is interesting that this “different” sexuality at one time might have seemed to be characteristic of a fantasy world while today it has become accepted in our regular world. The ending is somewhat open which has led me to believe that this is the first book in a projected series. As for the prose, it is an easy read once you get past the introductions of the characters and the introduction to the customs of the people. This is a book about people and with each page you get to know them better. “Shadowtide” is also a good introduction to the Blue Rose setting.   We just have to wait and see if our characters can deal with their suspicions and fears to fulfill their mission.

“Temper CA” by Paul Skenazy— Family Secrets

Skenazy, Paul. “Temper CA”,  Miami University Press, 2019. Family Secrets Amos Lassen
Joy Temper grew up near the woods of Temper, CA, where she would wander almost on a daily basis. Temper is a Gold Rush town that her family helped establish in the 1840s. When she returns to her childhood home for her grandfather’s funeral, she learns that the stories she’s long believed about her hippie upbringing are far from real. Joy struggles to face who she once was, and what she now desires and is forced to confront family secrets and long-suppressed memories. Here is a novella in the style of the Romantics and it is about contemporary and historical family. Here is a story that surprises the reader with every sentence. Do not expect anything as you red because nothing will happen the way you surmise. The characters are sympathetic but strange and they represent human bonds that are both tense and strong.
We are pulled into the secrets and desires of Joy Temper who carries the weight of her family and an amount of California history with her. Writer Paul Skenazy reminds us that our deepest wounds are those that many times make us most receptive and alive. Lile I said earlier, this is a novella that rests somewhere between a short story and a novel and it looks at
hatred and deep affection within a difficult family. It is also a mystery story about redefining a childhood and reimagining varied aspects of love. It is a moving and sensitive tale that is deeply insightful and a fascinating read.

“Still in Love: A Novel” by Michael Downing— Leaving the World Behind

Downing, Michael. “Still in Love: A  Novel”,  Counterpoint Press, 2019. Leaving the World Behind Amos Lassen
English 10 at Hellman College is a very popular course. Mark Sternum is a veteran teacher who has been separated for six months from his longtime lover. He desperately wants to duck the overtures of double-dealing deans above him and disgruntled adjunct faculty below him, Mark has one ambition every day he is on campus. He really just wants to be able to close the classroom door and leave the world behind. This hope is complicated by his contentious and complicated relationship with the Professor, the tenured faculty member with whom Mark has co-taught this creative-writing workshop for ten years. This relationship gives  students (and the rest of us), a chance to learn what an amazing arena the classroom can be. This is the story of one semester in a college classroom and a reminder that we desperately need classrooms where we learn to love our lives. Downing wonderfully and poignantly illustrates the dynamics of the college classroom as well as its potential for lasting lessons.  The book is also a sequel to “Perfect Agreement” which Downing wrote twenty years ago. While it is a sequel, it also stands alone. We meetstriving adjuncts teachers, grade-grubbing students, and smug professors, Downing uses academia as an object of ridicule. Here is a new meaning to the word “classroom” as a space for reflection, rumination, and pause “in a world that doesn’t seem to be stopping”. What we read is both very funny and genuinely moving. By poking fun at university politics and the comedy of manners that every teacher witnesses on a daily basis, Downing gives us quite a look at the classroom.  But this is also a love letter to teaching, students, and the classroom. We also have an entire classroom filled with irresistible characters. Downing captures the alchemy of teaching and learning and chimes in on subjects race, beauty, heartbreak, grammar, gender, mortal illness, and growing up. We are moved as we laugh and if, like me, you have spent your life teaching, you will zo love this book (because you identify with it).

“The Stranger Game” by Peter Gadol— A Thriller

Gadol, Peter. “The Stranger Game”,  Hanover Square Press, 2018 A Thriller Amos Lassen Peter Gadol’s “The Stranger Game” is a fun, thriller about an eerie social game that goes viral and spins dangerously and legally out of control.
Ezra, Rebecca’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, Ezra, is missing, but when she notifies the police, they are unconcerned and suspect he has been playing the “stranger game,” a viral game in which players start following others in real life, as they might otherwise do on social media. As the game spreads, however, the rules begin to change and play becomes more intense and disappearances are reported across the country. Rebecca is curious about this popular new obsession and hoping that she might be able to track down Ezra, she tries the game for herself. She also meets Carey, who is willing to take the game further than she imagined possible. Both her relationship with Carey and her involvement become more intense and she begins to uncover a disturbing subculture that has moved into the world around her. However, playing the stranger game, may lead her closer to finding Ezra but also may take her further and further from the life she knew and lived.
In effect, we get a look at the connections, both imagined and real, that we build with the people in the physical and digital world, and where the boundaries dim between them. This is the story of a game of following random strangers, shared in a magazine article, becomes a worldwide cult and ends up getting people killed. Each “following” is a story in itself that helps us understand how the game could be addictive. There is also a melancholy undercurrent about alienation. This is a commentary on the ways in which ‘following’ can bring about a pretense of intimacy between strangers, and how the falsity of this intimacy can create a dangerous hunger for “more access, more communion, more knowledge.” Rebecca, the narrator of the story, is an artist who would probably be more successful if she was able to focus a bit more on her craft skills. She has been in an on-again, off-again relationship with Ezra for years, with the two coming and going into each other’s lives. The puzzle in the book begins when Ezra suddenly disappears, abandoning his apartment, belongings and car while leaving Rebecca to clean up in his wake.
What is telling, though, is that the police think Ezra might be playing the “stranger game”.  Rebecca and Ezra played a variation of it, where they would people-watch and make up stories about who these individuals were, what they were doing and for what purpose. The stranger game takes this a bit further, but there are rules to it. Rebecca is all but resigned to Ezra’s disappearance when she encounters a rather strange man named Carey, who is very much into the game. The two tentatively begin their own relationship, but when Carey also disappears, Rebecca is convinced that he, too, has met with foul play. It seems that the stranger game is much more prevalent than Rebecca realizes, with levels to it that could very well extend into law enforcement and government. She understands that she best get away from the game and its practitioners, but her options are limited and just might be futile. The game has three simple rules— 1. pick your subjects at random, 2. NO contact and 3. never follow the same subject twice. I was immediately drawn into both the novel and the game. I see the book as a good social commentary on how obsessed we have become with social media and how we are impacted by the people we know. Everything I have read by Peter Gadol (love that name) has been well written and this is no exception.

We have become so into social media that we spend time looking at a screen instead of at our companions, we label and categorize beliefs and behaviors rather than try to understand them, and the  lack of permanence is pervasive in the way we live our lives.
“The world was a world of strangers, and all anyone wanted…was to be seen and to be known, truly known.”

“Silent Terrorism: Saudi Arabia” by Phetra H. Novak— A Political Thriller

Novak, Phetra H. “Silent Terrorism: Saudi Arabia”, Beaten Track Publishing, 2018. A Political Thriller Amos Lassen In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia we meet Swedish correspondent and cameraman Ebbe Skoog who is out nearly in the morning getting shots for an upcoming story when he comes upon something he isn’t supposed to see. On a building site, on the outskirts of the city, four men who look like the secret police are stoning a man to death. Ebbe  retreats but continues filming when another man comes onto the scene and throws himself on top of the dying man, shielding him with his body and tries to soothe him. Ebbe’s reaction is immediate and he grabs  his camera and drags the man and they head for the desert.

Correspondent reporter Mattis Andersson is a rebel and Ebbe’s only hope of getting out alive with his new companion, Aasim El-Batal, and the footage that will hurt Saudi Arabia in the eyes of human rights activists the world over. Andersson and Ebbe had once been lovers and now Andersson must protect his and Ebbe’s future. However,  the Swedish government wants to silence them and is not willing to jeopardize years of lucrative weapons deals for a gay love affair. Some of the descriptions of violence are hard to read.
The story moves very quickly and so do the characters.

This is a political thriller about the plight of the LGBT community in Saudi Arabia. It is a raw and in-your-face story of human rights violations. Ebbe Skoog learns that the man was stoned because he was gay. His partner Aasim El-Batal who appears on the scene is rescued by Ebbe who has managed to secretly film the event and the pair barely escape with their lives. Their only hope is a dash across the desert to the border. Ebbe manages to warn his assignment partner and on-off lover, journalist Mattis Andersson who escapes the country and on arriving home puts out a call for help and tries to put pressure on the Swedish government to get them involved in their rescue.
While this story is set in Saudi Arabia, it and involves the Swedish government. It is important to remember that repression of basic human rights occurs in many countries within the western world and not just the Middle East.

This is not a love story. The two main characters are best friends but they are work partners. It is a very emotional story. There is murder, violence and torture.