Category Archives: GLBT fiction

“Being Emily” by Rachel Gold— “You Weren’t Born That Way”

 

Gold, Rachel. “Being Emily”, Bella Books, 2012, rerelease, 2018.

“You Weren’t Born That Way”

Amos Lassen

Rachel Gold ‘s “Being Emily” is the first young adult novel about a transgender girl told from her own perspective. It was first published in 2012 and since that time, the trans community has made significant strides forward but has also been attacked by the current presidential administration. Both the author and the publishing house feel that this is such an important and crucial time that they have decided to rerelease “Being Emily”. It has also been updated. The novel was originally set in 2008 so this new edition has an epilogue that is set in 2018, ten years later. The new edition is also 25% longer than the original and the language has been updated as has been science; there is a new introduction by Harvard professor Stephanie Burt; there are new scenes and along with the new epilogue is a note from Rachel Gold.

Emily is a sixteen-year-old trans girl coming out in rural Minnesota and we are with her through her conflicts with her parents and her therapist (who thinks he can cure her) and as she tries to keep her friendship with her Christian girlfriend. Emily was

born Christopher “and her insides know that her outsides are all wrong.” The “It Gets Better” campaign does not work for Emily and telling her parents who she really feels she is gets her sent into therapy with a doctor who insists Christopher is normal and Emily is sick. Telling her girlfriend means lectures about how God doesn’t make mistakes like this. Emily wants it all to get better; she simply wants to be who she is. But nothing good happens until a substitute therapist and a girl named Natalie come into her life and she finally is able to think that she can really be Emily.

Wow… this story really spoke to me. For years I have been trying to understand my trans nephew who I had only known as my niece since I had been away for most of his life and hadn’t seen him for years before his transition. Most of the family was fine except for the gay uncle who slowly has come to understand.

“Being Emily” is a “story for anyone who has ever felt that the inside and outside don’t match and no one else will understand”. It is a beautifully written story with very real and deep characters that holds the readers’ interest with every carefully chosen word in its text. Emily is so likeable and even when she is still Chris, she wins us over. Chris is an athlete on the swimming team who really wants to tell his girlfriend that he is really a girl inside but is afraid to do so because his girlfriend is so Christian. As Emily, Chris realizes that his whole life is fake and phony and the only time that she is real is before everyone wakes up and Emily dresses as a girl while exploring a trans website. (Imagine how it was before computers).

Claire, the girlfriend, is a very complex, interesting, and likeable character. She is a Goth girl with a secret and that is that she is a religious Christian. She uses Christianity to better understand and to be more understanding of people but she does not influence belief.

The story became very touching for me when Emily went to her first session with a new therapist, who gets her to say that she is transgender, and then asks her what name she calls herself. We see Emily put down her guard and open up and as she does, the tears from my eyes flowed. (I’m a sensitive guy).

From this point non we see that the more that Emily gets to live as her real self, the happier she is. Her parents were not supportive and certainly not accepting but they gave Emily what she needed and I found this to be very moving.

We see multiple trans girl characters supporting each other and this is heartwarming. It is also heart wrenching to read about the reality of the scenes and emotions but we must be aware of these. I believe the real beauty of “Being Emily” is that it offers hope and love. This is really a book about being who you are and we all need to read it. As you can imagine and probably even see here, I had troubles with pronouns but I am getting better. Boston has a very large and active trans population and it is different from having lived in Arkansas where you can imagine how this would be received.

Reading this was quite an experience and I must admit I am a bit flustered and having a hard time write because of the emotions that are going on in me right now. I believe that will happen every time I think about this book and that is a good thing. All of the rest of you really need to read “Being Emily” since it is really about being yourself.

“The Talebearer” by Sheri Lewis Wohl— The Aftermath of a Shooting

Wohl, Sheri Lewis. “The Talebearer”, Bold Strokes Books, 2018.

The Aftermath of a Shooting

Amos Lassen

“The Talebearer” defies genre classification since it mixes mystery, recovery, perseverance, psychic ability and PTSD. After being shot, Elizabeth Boone has PTSD and now has protective dog Attila, a German Shepherd. Liz also has some very close supportive friends but she is having a great deal of trouble trusting herself and what she can do. When she meets Willow Blue, a kindred spirit who is also victim of a violent crime, the two form a strong connection. Somewhat by surprise, Liz begins drawing pictures of deceased women and their final resting places and she knows that the person who shot her is still out there and still killing.

Liz is haunted by visions that she and Willow understand are the faces of the dead and of the killer who took their lives. As one by one the murdered are found, a stranger works to stop Liz before the serial killer is brought to justice. I realize that this introduction may not make a lot of sense to those who have not yet read the book but everything eventually falls into place.

When she starts having visions of a woman that has been missing for years, Liz realizes either she’s crazy or something unbelievable is going on. With a serial killer on the loose, Liz is about to find out if her visions have come to her as a gift or as a curse.

While we might see Willow as a love interest for Liz, this is not a romance in the true sense. The two women who are attracted to each other and start a connection but that is it. Besides, a serial killer is out there and that is the primary focus.

This is the first book I’ve read by Sheri Lewis Wohl so I had no expectations. As a crime story, it is a good read that had me turning pages quickly but I am not a reader of or a believer in the paranormal so those parts of the novel were a stretch for me. The book is well written and the characters are well-developed. This is a book that will find its audience quickly.

“A Tiny Piece of Something Greater” by Jude Sierra— Navigating Love and Mental Illness

Sierra, Jude. “A Tiny Piece of Something Greater”, interlude, 2018.

Navigating Love and Mental Illness

Amos Lassen

I usually do not look at other reviews before I sit down to write my own but for some reason I took a look at the Goodreads page of this book and found twelve reviews all written by females. This struck me as odd for a M/M romance but then we never know who our readers are.

Jude Sierra introduces us to Reid Watsford, a young man who has a lot of secrets and a past he can’t leave behind. While staying at his grandmother’s condo in Key Largo, he decides that he wants to learn to s scuba dive so he signs up for introductory classes and there he meets Joaquim Oliveira, a Brazilian dive instructor. The two men are instantly drawn to one another and what might have been just a casual roll in the sack, becomes much more. As their relationship becomes more serious, they both have to deal with the challenges of Reid’s mental illness, separately and together.

Reid’s illness allows him to cope but he does not have the ability to feel what he thinks is “normal”.He has mood swings that vary from depression to almost euphoria and he has suffered with then his entire 20 years of life. He has been through therapy and taken medication and has come to understand that some people are toxic to him. This is why he is staying at his grandmother’s house in Florida. Home in Wisconsin was not good for him.

Because he had nothing to do, he decided to take a SCUBA course and there he meets Joaquim. But then his former boyfriend shows up uninvited and the fact that he is able to tell him to go away shows that he is progressing in taking care of himself.

Joaquim is a Brazilian doing an internship far from his home and hoping to find permanent work in Florida. When he is unable to get a job, he decides to go back home to visit his family which is the opposite of what Reid might do in the same situation. Reid is almost OCD. He keeps his home clean and orderly and in order to function, he must have a plan while Joaquim prefers to go on instinct and sees what happens. The two have their ups and downs but are able to be together.

Jude Sierra does a wonderful job building the relationship between Reid and Joaquim. They take time to get to know one another and to care for each other. Joaquim learns to understand and respect Reid’s boundaries without letting go of his own. This is a love story that is not as much about love as it is about the characters and learning to be an adult (and deal with mental illness).

“Little Fish” by Casey Plett— All in the Family

Plett, Casey. “Little Fish”, Arsenal Pulp, 2018.

All in the Family

Amos Lassen

Wendy Reimer is a thirty-year-old trans woman who finds out that her late grandfather who was a devout Mennonite farmer might also have been transgender himself. She pushes that knowledge to the side because of more pressing problems but as she and her friends struggle to cope with the challenges of their lives (including alcoholism, sex work and suicide) Wendy returns to what she can find out about her grandfather’s life and is determined to know the truth. This is the story of a transgender woman whose “past and future become irrevocably entwined”.

Set in the very cold winter in Winnipeg and Wendy feels a bit like the weather, frozen. Then she gets an unexpected phone call from a distant family friend who shares a shocking secret about Wendy’s Opa (grandfather) might have been transgender himself. At first she pays no attention to it but uses it as an escape from the craziness of her life and she wants to know the truth and is determined to get to it. There are many details here and these help to make the characters real. There are times when we feel. Wendy’s pain, especially when she was made fun of. and not being who she feels she is.

“Little Fish” is actually a character study and a brutally raw one at that. It looks into the lives of trans women and shares their lives and this is much more than a look at transitioning. We see trans women living their lives as women with difficult families, struggling with mental health issues, working as sex workers, community builders, and more. It is beautifully written and from the first page we are drawn into the lives of the characters.

“Jonny Appleseed” by Joshua Whitehead— A Two Spirit Glitter Queen

Whitehead, Joshua. “Jonny Appleseed”, Arsenal Pulp, 2018.

A Two-Spirit Glitter Queen

Amos Lassen

Joshua White’s debut novel introduces us to a Two-Spirit Indigiqueer young man and proud NDN (Native American) glitter princess who must reckon with his past when he returns home to his reservation.

Off of the reservation Jonny becomes a cybersex worker who fetishizes himself in order to make a living. He seems to be constantly trying to find ways to live and love in the big city. He ordains himself as an NDN glitter princess. But things can change for Jonny when he goes home in a week to attend the funeral of his stepfather. We read here stories of love, trauma, sex, kinship, ambition, and the heartbreaking recollection of his beloved kokum (grandmother). Jonny’s life has been difficult and now he knows that before he can go home, he must find a way to put his life in order.

“Jonny Appleseed” is a look at First Nations life with all that comprises it. Jonny is sexy, powerful, broken hero Joshua Whitehead redefines what queer Indigenous writing can be as Jonny transcends tradition genre and brings the sacred and the sexual together to share queer Indigenous life. The characters here are complex and layered thus meaning that we cannot characterize who they really are but here that is a good thing.

The story comes to us via a nonlinear timeline that intentionally goes through past stories of family and tradition, trauma and survival and the descriptions of eroticism and the exploration of sexuality. The prose is stunning and the descriptions are vivid. What Whitehead does best here is how he has captured the experiences of those who are marginalized.

Those sections about  Jonny’s relationship with friend and lover, Teas, achingly beautiful. There are also some very funny moments. This is truly a beautiful read.

“Raised by Unicorns: Stories from People with LGBTQ+ Parents” edited by Frank Lowe— Unique Storytellers, Unique Stories

Lowe, Frank, editor. “Raised by Unicorns: Stories from People with LGBTQ+ Parents”, Cleis Press, 2018.

Unique Storytellers, Unique Stories

Amos Lassen

LGBTQ+ parenting has been a hot topic in the news lately Everyone seems to have a unique way of parenting and that made me think as it did Frank Lowe, the editor of this collection. If someone has a unique way of parenting, do they also have unique stories to tell their children. Why is it that the stories we heard as children no longer suffice for today’s world? Now I have thought about this for a while now but Frank Lowe went a step further and investigated and voila, here is the fruit of his labors— a collection of stories for children of LGBTQ+ parents. This was no easy task as you can well imagine but somehow he collected fourteen stories that as an adult I loved to read.

I must confess that for as long as I have been reviewing LGBT literature, I always face the same problem when I have a collection or anthology to review. Do I look at the book as a whole and review it as such or do I review each and every story? In this case, I am going to look at the book as a whole. I do have a request though. As you read this review and/or the book, think about whether we need to have separate stories for the kids of LGBTQ+ parents. Granted we have unique individuals in our community but then so does every community. I think, however, if we consider the past lives of those who are parents today and the problems they faced getting to be where we are now, perhaps this is what needs to be shared with our children.

This collection has all kinds of stories just as the world is made up of all kinds of people. We are most certainly more accepting of non traditional families than we were when I was growing up and perhaps, indeed, the time has come to “create a literary space for this not-so-unique, shared, but completely individual experience.”

Lowe’s collection “reflects on the upbringing of children in many different forms of LGBTQ+ families.” His selections are as diverse as the colors of the rainbow and there is a story (or even more) for everyone. Sometimes we try so hard to fit into society that we forget that our journeys are different from the non-LGBT world. There are differences even within our shared journeys. Many of the stories are based upon actual events this providing others with a view of how we have lived.

I am not a parent but I love stories and I love each of these stories probably because they are a reflection of ourselves. I  realize that I have not really reviewed the book but talked around it and that is a reflection of how we had to grow up. We had to talk around who we are but those days are over and today our kids can have some really good stories to read and to hear. Start them off with these.

“The Annotated Joseph and His Friend: The Story of America’s First Gay Novel” by Bayard Taylor and edited and annotated by L.A. Fields— Rediscovering a Lost Classic

Taylor, Bayard. “The Annotated Joseph and His Friend: The Story of America’s First Gay Novel” edited by L.A. Fields, Lethe Press; Annotated edition , 2018.

Rediscovering a Lost Classic

Amos Lassen

There is some discussion as to whether Bayard Taylor wrote the first American gay novel. L.A. Fields says that this is indeed the first, a nineteenth century book “Joseph and His Friend” that is often unknown to contemporary readers of queer fiction. Author and researcher L.A. Fields wants to change that with her new book, “The Annotated Joseph and His Friend: The Story of America’s First Gay Novel”. She supplies notes to each chapter that move from the private life of the man who inspired the story (Fitz-Greene Halleck), through the secrets of its author (Taylor), noting especially his private love for and public rivalry with poet Walt Whitman. The notes expand on Whitman’s unique position in gay and American history: especially on the coming-out letters Whitman called ”avowals” from such people as Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde. There are notes about Whitman’s witnessing of the Civil War, the Lincoln presidency, and his lover’s attendance at Ford’s Theater the night of Lincoln’s assassination; as well as Whitman’s own understanding and defense for writing honestly about the love of men. This study combines Taylor’s original 1870 novel with American history, contemporary anecdote, and curiosities from a more secret history. A new topic is positioned behind every chapter, providing the background that shows just how important this novel was at the time, how rare it is now, and how daring it’s always been to tell the truth. I do have the odd sense of wondering if it was so important to its time, why do we not know more about it or at least heard of its existence. I am not arguing either for or against the book’s standing but I am curious as to why I had not heard of it except in passing at a very scholarly seminar on early American LGBT literature.

Nonetheless, it is very good that we now have this to refer to and as an annotated edition. We must congratulated writer L.A. Fields on her effort. However, if this is such an important book, I cannot help but wonder why it was not picked up by a major publishing house.

“In a Whirl of Delusion” by J.R. Greenwell— Becoming the Queen

Greenwell, J.R. “In a Whirl of Delusion”, Chelsea Station Editions, 2018.

Becoming the Queen

Amos Lassen  

Chester Davis narrates J.R. Greenwell’s comical take on Southern drag queen pageants. Chester finds himself in bed with Zac Efron and Ryan Reynolds. However, he is really hallucinating as the result of a concussion. Such is the stuff of dreams and wishes.

Next we go back a year in time to find twenty-one year old Chester escaping from the Morning Glory Trailer Park where he was living with his abusive, homophobic grandmother outside of Birmingham, Alabama. It was there that Chester became Daphne DeLight, the name her prefers being known by. Now we already have a drag queen and a trailer park and there should give you ideas where this book is going and it is certainly not the Vatican or the White House.

Daphne has her heart set on winning the title of Miss Gay Drag Queen Alabama and she has strong supporters at Club Diva. They help Daphne hone her craft and pursue her dream to be queen. Sam and Mike, a gay couple are the first two characters to offer Daphne a helping hand and we learn from overhearing them that Daphne has developmental issues and is extremely socially awkward. Sam doesn’t really care for the term retarded and prefers to think of Daphne as “challenged, slow, low IQ, autistic, whatever the term. She can barely even read, for God’s sakes.” Writer J.R. Greenwell gives us a Daphne who is a babe in the woods who needs almost everything explained to her (Bless her heart). Daphne interprets language literally and I suspect that you non-Southerners might be at a disadvantage here and might just have to wait for a translation from one of Daphne’s mentors (Bless their hearts).

Sam compares Daphne to a young Elizabeth Taylor but then feels compelled to add: “Well, thinner, blonder, and younger…you do have blue eyes. Not violet, but blue. Close enough.” (Take that for what its worth but remember that Liz Taylor did have some successful roles as a Southern woman). What is fun about drag queens is playing with stereotypes and Greenwell does that just great here (Although Daphne is her own stereotype, Bless her heart). By the end of the book, Greenwell reveals the cause of Daphne’s concussion as well as what has caused her social and academic difficulties.

Now you should know that a book about a drag queen has to be campy and this one certainly has its share of camp and in good, clean fun. I am sure that it is Daphne’s/Chester’s naiveté that opens the door for camp that is experienced on the road to the throne.

I actually felt that I was involved in helping Daphne win the crown and let me tell you, the Alabama drag world is a rough place to be. The would be ladies (Bless their hearts) show no compassion for competition even when it is as slow as Daphne.

This is no drag “Gone With the Wind” and I am not sure it is even literature. I am sure, however, that it is a fun read and was perfect for me to read today when everything is rainy and overcast in Boston. Besides there is some kind of butch race or marathon going on outside in the rain.

“Social Media Central” by Kevin Klehr— Living in the Real World

Klehr, Kevin. “Social Media Central”, NineStar Press, 2018.

Living in the Real World

Amos Lassen

Have you noticed how much of your life you live behind a screen? So much happens while we are on our smart phones, our tablets and our computers and now our watches (yes, I have one of those, too).

We are moving towards a world where actually meeting someone is a rarity. In that world, everyone connects via Social Media Central for their social interaction. Tayler, however, leaves his home each day to go to work and he does not have a personal computer. Events lead to his entering Social Media Central where he soon has quite a following. Tayler learns quickly that while new and intoxicating, this world is not all what it seems to be.

One day as Tayler is sitting on a park bench, a beautiful woman with a bunch of groupies carrying some kind of devices walks by and he is quite beside himself even though he has no idea who she is. This stuns the guy who happens to be sitting on the same bench. The woman is Madeline Q and she is so intrigued by Tayler’s ignorance that she gives him her card. Tayler’s phone is just a phone. He has no web connection and therefore no presence on Social Media Central. SMC has reduced the internet into one interface and portal.

The story is set in Astra City which is dominated by empty steel and glass buildings because most people now work from wherever and there are no longer any schools since education is online through instructional videos. People do not visit each other or share meals because they can now ‘mirror meal’ whereby they each get the same meal, connect and eat in front of their computers.

You may begin to wonder who is this Tayler and where does he fit into this story. He is an anachronism as a person who actually prefers real contact with people. However, he is mystified by Madeline and decides to go to one of her affairs. He learns that she is a fashion icon with a huge following and whatever she does or wears starts a trend. It does not take long for Tayler to become swept up in her lifestyle. But then, somebody dies and Tayler, Madeline and two others are implicated.

I must admit that the whole idea of a world run by the internet is totally depressing. I hate the idea of reading an ebook because I believe a book is meant to be held and cherished. I rarely agree to read something electronically and then only for a select few writers will I do so.

There is something way too futuristic and too didactic in a world where we know each other via icons. Nonetheless, after having a bit of a hard time getting into the story, I soon found this to be quite a gripping read. I am sad that the plot is plausible but I enjoyed the bold characters who really have no idea just how without power they are. This is a thought-provoking read even though I found it troubling. I felt that George Orwell was hovering above as I read the powerful social commentary presented here.

Until now I have known Kevin Klehr as an LGBT writer and it is nice to see that he has branched out (yes, there is bisexuality here but it is not the core of the novel) into a story that is both something of a mystery and a thriller. His writing is, as usual, pristine and engaging and while the basic idea of the internet controlling us is abhorrent to me, I did totally enjoy the read. Just the fact that I could become so emotional about what I read is the sign of a good writer.

“The Vampire’s Angel” by Damian Serbu— Chaos, Revolution and Love

Serbu, Damian. “The Vampire’s Angel”, (“Realm of the Vampire Council)”, Nine Star, 2018.

Chaos,  Revolution and Love

Amos Lassen

There are about ten to twelve writers whose work I await and when there is a new book, I stop whatever I am doing to sit down and read. Damian Serbu is one of those writers and the strange thing is that I am so over vampire novels. After all, I come from the same town as Anne Rice and it seems that Lestat and I have aged together. So what is it about Serbu and his vampires? I have no idea except that his characters are unforgettable and I love his prose style. I am sure that there are those among my regular readers who are thinking that this is not a new title and that I have already reviewed this book and that is correct. I believe that I have reviewed all of Serbu’s books but this is a new edition of “The Vampire’s Angel” in which the book is streamlined and revamped. Serbu has a new publisher with Nine Star and I understand that they are going to republish all of his vampire books and will also publish those that are yet unwritten. It looks like the new home is comfortable for both parties.

“The Devil’s Angel” is set in Paris during the French Revolution and three lives come together. We meet Xavier, a priest, who is struggling to hold on to his trust in humanity but whose own faith is threatened by the desire he has for Thomas, a mysterious American visitor. Thomas fights against the Catholic Church to win Xavier’s heart and he is forced to hide the act that he is a vampire and this threatens the love he hopes to find with Xavier whose sister, Catherine, works with Thomas to bring them together while at the same time protecting the family fortune. She, however, becomes a victim of evil forces as the danger, the catastrophes and the deaths of the Revolution meet the “world of magic, vampires, and personal demons as Xavier, Thomas, and Catherine fight to find peace and love amidst the destruction” (and that is just the introduction). As Xavier and Thomas fall in love with each other, they both face their own separate demons. Thomas must learn to deal with his impatience and temper, while hiding that he is a vampire from Xavier who combats a devotion to the church and society, both of which are against his loving another man.

This is, in effect, a coming-out story but certainly not the usual that we get. Xavier’s struggle includes so much more than gaining acceptance at a time that this is not done—not only does he have to accept his homosexuality but he needs to find some kind of approval from his family, society and the church and his own faith. He also must face the reality of being the submissive half of his relationship.

Serbu gives us a Xavier who is vulnerable and filled with emotion. At first meeting, we see him as a pure man of faith something akin to what the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau had to say about man being born pure and then corrupted by society and I do not mean that homosexuality is corrupting but at the time this was written there were many that did.

We immediately sense his submissiveness. He is gentle, speaks softly and is a man of total obedience. He has chosen a life of serving others and this fulfills him. He is emotional to the point of tears and he needs a dominant personality to take care of him. Before he met Thomas, the church was his protection but that all changed along with the way he began to think about religion.

Thomas is Xavier’s total opposite and immediately knows that he wants Xavier as his life partner. He is domineering and self-confident, hot-tempered and can be violent if provoked yet Xavier has quite a calming effect on him. He wants Xavier but knows that to get him requires patience. He is also afraid that Xavier lacks the strength to accept who he really is.

Serbu writes emotion beautifully thus allowing us to know his characters inside and out. Xavier is the kind of character who seemed to be reaching out for direction and I wanted to tell him to take the plunge and be who he is. He is a very real character, so real, in fact that I wondered if Serbu was writing about himself or someone he knows really well.

Many vampire novels are filled with action but you will not find that here unless you consider actions of the heart and mind. What we really read about is learning to accept oneself. Yes, it is a fantasy but one with great truths.

I could go on and on but to do so would not be fair to those who have yet to read “The Vampire’s Angel”. I would just rater end here positively and encourage you to read not just this but whatever you can get your hands on by Damian Serbu.