Category Archives: GLBT fiction

“The Uruguayan Book of the Dead” by Mario Bellatin— The Mysteries of Resurrection

Bellatin, Mario. “The Uruguayan Book of the Dead”, Phenome Media, 2017.

The Mysteries of Resurrection

Amos Lassen

In “The Uruguayan Book of the Dead”, Mario Bellatin blurs the line between reality and fiction. He writes to a mysterious correspondent he has only met once and in this he looks at mysteries of the resurrection of the flesh. In detail, he writes about the fantastical events that took place during his unusual existence including travels with Sergio Pitol to Cuba, having a massage by a blind masseur in an underground storefront at a Mexico City metro station, and meeting a family of dwarf bullfighters. He uses no timeline preferring to tell his story through real or fictional characters that are fully alive. 

Bellatin diffuses time and space and we find ourselves suddenly becoming the narrator that he created. The constant movement of the book makes us believe every word he writes. He shares his dreams, desires, truths and stories as he captures a life and its plural essence and nonexistence. Eternity is almost a cycle that connects constantly and we live his life with him.

“Who Am I If You’re Not You?” by Lynn Thorne– Soul Mates

Thorne, Lynn. “Who Am I If You’re Not You?”, Mascot, 2017.

Soul Mates

Amos Lassen

Marika and Jennifer , a real couple, were two soul mates looking forward to their future together until Marika announced that she was meant to be a man. “Who Am I If You’re Not You?”, a book about love and its capacity.

As her wife transitions, Jennifer goes through her own personal problems to find herself. She works through anorexia, cutting and crippling depression. Jennifer discovers those things that define her life, her love, and her marriage as she fights to save herself.

The book is beautifully written, honest and a pleasure to read. Jennifer and Marika’s lives became complicated and difficult as they struggled to stay together. You can imagine what it was like for Jennifer when Marika opened her heart and her life to her. While this is a topic for mature people. I think that it is fine for all who want to better understand what being transgender is all about. There are many emotions here and they are presented with sensitivity.

I was quickly taken in by the story and I gained a new sense of understanding and compassion for both women. We see Jennifer pain and watch her as she becomes accepting. We are given Jennifer’s poems and through them we get to know her better. Since we all struggle to find out who we are, this book is especially relevant.

“The Night Language: A Novel” by David Rocklin— Love, Loss and Repression

Rocklin, David. “The Night Language: A Novel”, Rare Bird Books, 2017.

Love, Loss and Repression

Amos Lassen

Prince Alamayou of Abyssinia (present day Ethiopia), is taken from his home and the Abyssinian war to the court of Queen Victoria and to a world he knows nothing about. Philip Layard, a young apprentice to one of the doctors on the battlefield in Abyssinia, becomes Alamayou’s guardian, only friend, and eventually, the love of his life. Then when Parliament accuses Alamayou of murder, the young prince is sentenced to return to Abyssinia where he will be executed. Alamayou’s only hope comes from the unexpected and forbidden love between him and Philip but at that time, it could not be spoken about.

The prose here is gorgeous and it packs an emotional and unexpected wallop. I find this to be a beautiful meditation on loneliness and being the other. This is storytelling at its best and I find myself haunted by what I read. Forbidden love, loneliness and loss go hand-in-hand with the price one pays to be repressed.

The love that Alamayou and Philip share reflects the complexity of social and political relationships. We look at sexuality, race, class, love, and war and we hope for the best for the two lovers. Rocklin brings gender, race, the past and the evils of colonialism together and then pits them against war, wealth and its privileges, xenophobia and love’s power. We go back in history to revisit what many have forgotten about— a time when one’s life was not his own and we see the contradiction of Queen Victoria taking Alamayou to her court while at the same time providing him with a steward that joins him in forbidden love and intimacy. We see what can happen when those who rule listen  to foreign voices.

“Sin Against the Race” by Gar McVey-Russell— A Different Kind of a Coming-Out Story

McVey-Russell, Gar. “Sin Against the Race”, Gamr Books, 2017.

A Different Kind of a Coming-Out Story

Amos Lassen

It has always bothered me that there is a racial divide in the LGBT community even though many of us have African American gay friends. What we do not have much of is insight into the Black community and how it reacts to its own gay members. We have had reality few novels and nonfiction works on the Black LGBT community and I found it distressing when in many cities Black Pride activities began to take place since this widened the gulf between us. Please understand that I am not saying that our community is racist, I am just saying that we do not know much about of brothers and sister of color.

When I get the chance to read and review a piece of work by and about the black community I jump at it for two main reasons—to educate myself more about something I know little about and then to pass on what I have learned. I was so pleased to be recently contacted by Gar McVey-Russell who asked me if I would be interested in reviewing his new novel and I told him what I tell so many others— it is polite to ask but unnecessary. I review because it is important to spread the word about our literary heritage. Whenever someone has a new book or movie out, they just have to send it to me and as hard as it might be to believe, I review everything that is sent to me. Reading has long been a part of education and none of us have ever learned enough.

Alfonso Rutherford Berry III is the son of a city councilman and the grandson of his state’s first African American legislator. He believes that history has ordained for him and while it might not be the kind of life he hoped for, it is his to build himself. Some might think he has a disadvantage with having a established political heritage while others might see this as an advantage. Alfonso loves dance and he hoped that hat would be where his life was heading. Sometimes we forget that to gain what we want we must move in that direction and surmount the difficulties that block our way. What has hindered Alfonso are a series of tragedies that began with the death of his out gay cousin Carlton. Alfonso and Carleton had shared a love for jazz and the blues but now with his cousin gone, he is on his own to make his way in the world.

Leaving his own closet behind him and in shatters, Alfonso hangs on Carver Street, the queer Northside of his largely black neighborhood. There he becomes friendly with some of Carlton’s friends including Sammy, a local storekeeper and “mother” image to all the gays in the neighborhood, Bingo, a “leather queen and nurse practitioner”, Vera, a transgender activist and photographer, and Charlotte, his father’s political rival. Alfonso is in the process of finding himself and he is lucky that Carleton came before him and opened the door for him to be able to walk through. Until this point he had simply been the son of a politician but soon he will be his own man.

When he goes to college, Alfonso becomes close to Roy, a guy he knew from high school and who has dreams of becoming an actor and Bill, a guy he recognized from his days at church. Then there is Jameel, who he has had a crush on.

Alfonso soon realizes that these events will pit him against his father, his family and his church and will definitely hurt what his grandfather established years earlier.

McVey-Russell is an excellent writer who pulled me into the story from the first moment and even with all of the coming-of-age stories that are out there, this is one that is very special. We are taken into a community that we know little about and we are with Alfonso as he moves into self-acceptance and stops being just the son of a politician to becoming his own man. I love that as I read, I became involved with the characters and felt what they felt. There were moments that I had to stop and dry my eyes. This is such a beautiful read and one that is badly needed as we see that we all deal with similar problems and that race is not important as we deal with who we are.

“Green” by Tom Baker— Drafted

 

Baker, Tom. “Green”, Lethe Press, 2017.

Drafted

Amos Lassen

Let me start by saying that I am a Tom Baker fan and became so when reading and reviewing his two previous novels and his short story collection. I knew when this book arrived that it was going to be an enjoyable read and since he had told me over a year go that it was coming, I was anxious to sit down and get started. It has been a while since I read a good story about gays in the armed forces and this also seems to be an are where we could use a few more novels but I suppose that is a trade-off for our now being able to serve while being openly gay.

We begin in 1967 when Tim Halladay graduated from William and Mary (which also happens to be the author’s Alma Mater). Tim had hoped to go to Yale drama school for graduate work but the United States Army felt differently and drafted him. Because he has a college education, he is not really accepted by the other soldiers in C Company that regard him with suspicion and ridicule. (Baker’s words not mine but perfect for the sentence). Tim knows that he is gay but he knows he must also make sure that no one else does. For those of you who were around back then, you remember that for gay people the times were very different. (That same year I was leaving this country to move to Israel so I really remember very well how it was in both countries).

Tim worried all the time that someone would learn of his sexuality and Baker beautifully shows us how it was back then. It was a time when an outward show of affection or even a touch between two men could result in jail time and names published in the press.

1967 was the time of the war in Vietnam and Tim was really upset that the educational deferment that he requested was denied. Perhaps he could have tried to get out of the army by proclaiming his sexuality, but he was afraid of the repercussions that would ensue. He certainly had every right to be such. Besides, he felt the army was his civic duty and was shocked that straight men were trying to get out of service by pretending to be gay. There was a time when people were proud to be Americans and serve their country.

Tim was also aware that he might not come back from the war but he still reports for duty. It seems that from the moment he entered the service that this was not going to be easy for him and I can tell you as a veteran of The Israel Defense Forces, army life is very difficult and stressful. When you add homosexuality to that. Here was Tim with a degree from a fine university with a bunch of fellow recruits who just did not like him for that. Yet despite that, the guys managed to become friends during basic training and I can tell you that this period is really very difficult. Tim finds the friendships to be foreign and comforting at the same time and it is obvious that the foreign feeling came from hid not being able to be who he really is. Tim manages not only to succeed but to also find his place in the army, all-the- while knowing that he could only keep his identity hidden for so long.

This is Tim’s story and he tells it tip us in the first person thus making us feel that we are part of it. I was taken in immediately and read the book in one sitting and I felt very proud that I know the author. Sometimes it is very hard to review a book if you know the author but I have managed to find a way to divide friendship and criticism. Tom Baker has yet to disappoint me and if he ever does I will say so. His prose is clear and tight; often humorous but it always makes me think. I love the way he writes about the Army and what goes on there and it is as if he gives us a window into a culture that many of us do not know about. This could easily have been a war story but instead it is a story about serving in the military on home ground. Tim never gets to war and he gives us look at the inside structure of those who served but did not fight. There are other things that happen that I am not going to share because I want you to read the book. I have deliberately not said much about the plot so that you can enjoy the read as much as I did.

“Tarantella+ by Scot O’Hara— Family

O’Hara, Scott. “Tarantella”, Old Boy Books, 2017.

Family

Amos Lassen

Anthony tries very hard to understand the meaning of family especially with regards to his own. His father is a hard man and his mother is very much like his dad in that respect. She is totally supportive of her husband. Antony’s brother Paddy is rarely around and Rosalia, his sister supports him when she is not angry about whatever. Anthony and his lover Steven are having relationship problems and it is near its end. The only person Anthony can really talk to is his grandmother, Doughna Mira who loves him unconditionally and who seems to be always read to give him advice. We get to know Anthony by reading about his life by flashing back to his past and observing his present.

We are with Anthony on his personal journey as he tries to understand himself and his family. His life is like a dance and many of us have experienced what he experiences here. We travel through time and place with him and see his dysfunctional world. Writer Scot O’Hara has written beautiful descriptions and has created an unforgettable character in Anthony. He tries so very hard to win the love of his homophobic parents and he realizes that Steven is using him for financial comfort and little else.

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“Edge of Glory” by Rachel Spangler— Two Champions

Spangler, Rachel. “Edge of Glory”, Bywater Books, 2017.

Two Champions

Amos Lassen

I am constantly surprised at the diversity of the books published by Bywater Books and it is equally surprising that I have enjoyed every book from the press that I have read. I was not sure what to expect in a love story about lesbians training for the Olympics and I soon realized that this is a very special book with wonderful descriptions and the thrill of competition. More than that, it is a story about friendship and how it grows and develops.

We meet Corey LaCroix, an Olympic snowboarder, and skier Elise Brandies who both feel very much at home in the snow and cold temperatures where they feel safe. Things, however, heat up… (but we will get to that).

Elise is a cold woman who lives life as if it is a business and she knows that she is to be the best alpine ski racer in the world. However, she has already lost Olympic medals on two occasions and this has considerably hurt her ego. As if that does not bother her enough, she has also had to have several knee surgeries and her When she is finally cleared by her doctors, she is determined to make the greatest comeback that has ever been seen and she is not about to let anything hinder that. Compromise is not a word that is in her vocabulary and she demands total control of herself and the environment she is in. What we see that she doesn’t is her vulnerability.

Corey is now at the end of her career, having turned thirty. She has had an illustrious career and was the best at Boardercross since the sport became a main event. She loves life and has been and remains a hard worker. However, she feels unsure about the upcoming Olympics. She is not sure that she can beat the competition and she knows that regardless of how hard she works, her chances are not what they once were. She really wants to add another medal to her collection (and she wants to meet Elise). She is well aware of Elise’s personality and she takes that as part of the game.

Because she is such a nice person she has been lucky in being noticed by other women and she seems to take everything as it comes, even Elise’s overt nastiness. The tabloids have unfortunately not been kind to her. (It takes quite an author to create two such distinct characters and Rachel Spangler is one such writer). It is interesting that we see the two women going opposite ways in regards to each other but then…………. Romance comes but it does so slowly. This is a character driven novel and it challenges us in that we sense that Elise and Corey will eventually become a couple but they must first get to know each other and build trust. When that romance comes, it is very special. I can say the same about this book; it is very special. I am no expert on romance between women even though I review many lesbian novels and this one of the best of them.

 

 

“Crimes of the Father” by Thomas Keneally— Sin and Sacrament

Keneally, Thomas. “Crimes of the Father: A Novel”, Atria Books, 2017.

Sin and Sacrament

Amos Lassen

Father Frank Docherty was sent away from his native Australia to Canada because of his radical preachings against the Vietnam War, apartheid, and other of the time. He had had a satisfying career as a psychologist and monk. Later when he returns to Australia to lecture on the future of celibacy and the Catholic Church, he becomes that they been sexually abused by a prominent monsignor. Docherty was

a member of the commission investigating sex abuse within the Church, and because he is a man of character and conscience, he decides he must confront each party and try to bring the matter to the attention of both the Church and the secular authorities.

The book explores what it is to be a person of faith in the modern world, and Docherty’s courage to face the truth about an institution he loves. Keneally has a clear and of a culture that has been deeply wounded. We see here the “cynical casuistry of a church determined to fight critics down to ‘its last lawyer’, an institution that puts its survival above its soul.”

On his arrival in Sydney, his taxi driver abuses him when she realizes that he’s a priest, and he suspects that she was a victim of sex abuse by a priest so he gives her hid card and tells her to call him if needed. He then discovers that the son of a family friend committed suicide with a drug overdose, naming a priest as abusing him in a suicide letter. A bit later, the taxi driver contacts him naming the same priest as her abuser. This same priest is a prominent member of a church commission set up to conceal sex abuse by the priesthood and pays victims small amounts of money to sign confidential agreements.

Docherty feels legally and morally obliged to report the allegations to the Archbishop of Sydney, even though he knows that it isn’t going to help his application to return to Sydney. The Archbishop also refuses to give any credence to the allegations. He learns that the very same Archbishop was being transferred to the Vatican.

Set in the 1990s, this is a story about sexual abuse by Catholic priests and brothers and contains some thinly disguised portraits of current figures in the Church. This is a well-written (as we have come to expect from Keneally) and powerful novel that takes on a volatile subject.

“Numinosity: A Fractured Memoir”, by Linda Morganstein— Family History as Fiction

Morganstein, Linda. “Numinosity: A Fractured Memoir”, Linda Morganstein, 2017.

Family History as Fiction

Amos Lassen

As a reviewer I am often asked who my favorite writers are and because I actually know many of the people whose works I review, I always claim that I have no favorites. Rather, I have writers that I always look forward to hearing from especially when they tell me that have a new book and would like me to review it. One of those writers is Linda Morganstein, a writer who never ceases to surprise me. Last week I got an email from Morganstein telling me that she had a new book out and she said a few a words about it and then let a UTube video say the most. She did not ask me if I would review it; she simply announced that she had a new book. She may have assumed that I would ask her to send me a copy and I loved that there was no pressure put on me. Of course I wanted to review it and answered her immediately with a request for a copy. It arrived yesterday and I have been with the book ever since. (Linda, you never have to ask—just send the books). As both a fiction and mystery writer, Morganstein has drawn fascinating and real characters. In one of my reviews of another of her books, I wrote “that [her characters] are well defined and real. When I say real I mean that we can see ourselves in them.” In her new book, “Numinosity”, her characters are drawn from her family and herself and that is about as real as one can get. This is Morganstein’s family history as a fictionalized memoir and the entire book is very clever. Morganstein has thrown traditional formatting out of the window and gives us a book modeled on the old “Life” magazine. Size wise it is about half the size of a coffee table book but certainly not the size of books that we are used to reading. It is filled with photographs and blurbs and I soon found myself tearing up about some of the memories it raises.

The content comes from Morganstein’s “eccentric family history” but written as a fictionalized memoir. Divided into six chapters, we have articles written by invented personalities (all of whom are the author herself). Like a magazine, there are ads on many pages but what is advertised are products of the author’s mind (and great fun). Morganstein parodies consumerism with ads for “NYX Ballbuster” cigarettes and “Nadir” televisions. There is something special on every page making this one of the “funnest” books I have ever read or even held in my hands.

It does not tale long to realize that this is a book about “the relationship of humor and tragedy in art” and that if we are going to leave the past behind us we must take a look at what was and fashion it into its own story which will be a tragicomedy. By consciously laughing and crying about the past, we liberate ourselves from it.

I was reminded when I was a young religious school student at my synagogue in New Orleans and we began to read the Hebrew bible. One of the major Jewish publishing houses put out a comic book edition of the Five Books of Moses and we were all given a copy. The rabbi knew that the best way to get his students to understand was to make the read fun for them and this was the age of Archie and Veronica who we soon saw as Samson and Delilah. This is how we learned— reading a comic book about the patriarchs (for us there were not yet matriarchs back then) and I grew to love the Bible stories in the comic book that I kept next to my bed. In effect, that is what Linda Morganstein has done here. She gives us an illustrated biography that is fun to read and like those Bible stories, I am not likely to forget it. She has torn down the barriers between genres, stood literature on its head and shows us how to have fun as we read. Here is “visual/verbal” art that has a message of seriousness. I now will replace my own Bible comic book with “Numinosity” on the bed table next to where I sleep and I am pretty sure that I will read it as many times as I read about Moses parting the sea.

 

 

 

“Carnivore” by Jonathan Lyon— A New Kind of Thriller

Lyon, Jonathan. “Carnivore”, HarperCollins 360, 2017.

A New Kind of Thriller

Amos Lassen

Leander suffers from fibromyalgia and lives in constant pain and his personal therapy is very strange. He manipulates, tortures and emotionally devastates his ‘victims’ as he tries to deal with his own physical and emotional situation. While his pain his chronic, he uses sex, control and class A drugs to try to cover it up.

At times, the plot becomes quite violent as Leander tries to become high and disguise what he feels. He intentionally and constantly puts himself into dangerous and sadistic situations that he describes in great detail. This is a disturbing story that is written in gorgeous prose with vivid imagery and a lot of brutality that is upsetting, unsettling and overwhelmingly sadistic; not the kind of book you read before bed.

Leander is wise, manipulative, intelligent and totally without morals. He is drawn to the most notorious, violent criminal in London and soon the loves of the two men are intertwined to the detriment of all who become involved with the pair. Drugs, murder, anal rape and sex seems to become a way of life for the two. They are detached emotionally from the violence they partake in and while it is disturbing to read, it is never gratuitous, salacious or pornographic.

I am not sure how to describe or even summarize the plot because this is one of those books that pulls you in and keeps you reading without, at first, understanding what is going on. We are simply pulled into a world that is much unlike our own yet we dare not leave.

The prose is of such horror, beauty and madness that it is difficult to dwell on them. Almost all of the characters are unlikeable but have been drawn in a way that makes us look at them. Leander makes us totally aware that he is a messed up person who is seductive who sells himself so that he can buy heroin to ease his physical pain. He is handsome, insane and totally dysfunctional yet I could not turn away from him.

Leander pulls us along with him as he manipulates the lives of others. His internal monologues are twisted rantings and he is both strong and weak because of his ailment. I do not yet know why I really liked this book; I suppose as it settles into my mind I will find that out.

I had to look away from the text several times so it is important to realize that this is not a book for everyone.