Category Archives: GLBT fiction

“The Falls of Wyona” by David Brendan Hopes— Growing Up in Appalachia

Hopes, David Brendan. “The Falls of the Wyona”, Red Hen Press, 2019.

Growing Up in Appalachia

Amos Lassen

Friends growing up in Appalachia right after WWII face their growing maturity in David Brendan Hopes’ “The Falls of Wyona.” We meet friends growing up on the banks of a wild Appalachian river just after WWII who discover, almost at the same time, the dangerous yet alluring Falls along with their own maturing hearts. The story comes to us from Arden, childhood friend of Vince, a football hero who falls in love with Glen, the new kid. However, they do not have the ability to understand feelings and they are facing high school after a great war in a world that has been forever changed. It was a time when friendship was just that with no sexual connotations in beautiful Appalachia where peaceful living seemed to be the rule.

Yet we get a sense that something is not quite right and something that should not happen there does. I have had my own adventures in locales like Appalachia and I know that disturbing the status quo is difficult and when it happens, changes abound. Link that to adolescence and the fears and the pleasures that come with it and we have a story. I understand that this is the first of three novels set in Appalachia.

There is a tense feeling beneath the beautiful prose and it is as if we don’t really know what we think we know. This could be because the story of Vince and Glen is told by a third character, Arden who sees from the nostalgic perspective of  looking back on his youth with fond nostalgia, forgetting the racism, homophobia and sexism of the time. It is important to realize this because of what happens in the story but if I share that here there would be no point in reading the novel. We are surely all aware that nostalgia certainly colors the ways we see things in retrospect. On the other hand it is important to remember things as they were to better understand the way they are. To be able to do so while reading a novel that is beautifully written like “The Falls of Wyona” is a special treat.

“Red, White and Royal Blue: A Novel” by Casey McQuiston— America’s First Son and the Prince of Wales

McQuiston, Casey. “Red, White and Royal Blue: A Novel”, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2019.

America’s First Son and the Prince of Wales

Amos Lassen

When Alex Claremont-Diaz’s mother became President of the United States, Alex was promptly seen as the American equivalent of a young royal (Interesting that this was not the case with Baron Trump). Alex is handsome, intelligent and charismatic, a great image of millennial-marketing gold for the White House. But there is a  problem: Alex has an issue with the actual prince, the British Duke-of-Wales, Henry and when the tabloids get hold of a photo involving an Alex-Henry altercation, American/British relations take a dive. 

Heads of family, state, and other handlers come up with  a plan for damage control: A truce  is staged between the two rivals. What began as a fake friendship soon grows deeper, and more dangerous, than either Alex or Henry could have thought. Soon Alex finds himself in a secret romance with Henry that could upend two nations. I am well aware that this is a ridiculous premise for a book but I am also aware that something like this while not likely could possibly happen. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that it is such fun to read. It is outrageous and it is also romantic, sexy, witty, and thrilling (a kind of chick lit for gay guys).

The storyline is simple: “A rivalry between the son of a U.S. president and the Prince of Wales turns into a whirlwind romance ” But in between the love scenes, we can picture a world where coming out is simple with no self-loathing and where fan fiction and Twitter aid relationships and the government of this country is in the able hands of a liberal president and Congress.  The love affair between Alex and Henry is intense and romantic and we know this because we can read their poetic emails that are funny and steamy. There is clever plot devices and quick wit throughout the novel.

The drama involves political rivals, possible betrayals, and even the queen but it’s the frank and unforgettable romance between these two young men that keeps us reading. We grow to love the lovers and so not want to say goodbye when the story is over.

“You Will Be Safe Here” by Damian Barr— Abuse, Redemption and the Human Spirit

Barr, Damian. “You Will Be Safe Here”, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.

Abuse, Redemption and the Human Spirit

Amos Lassen

In “You Will Be Safe Here”, Damian Barr explores  abuse, redemption, and the strength of the human spirit and their legacies from the Boer Wars in South Africa to brutal wilderness camps for teenage boys.

We begin in 1901 in South Africa at the height of the second Boer War. Sarah van der Watt and her six-year-old son Fred are forced from their home on Mulberry Farm and the polite invaders welcome them to Bloemfontein Concentration Camp where they promise Sarah and Fred that they will be safe there.

We switch to 2014 and meet sixteen-year-old Willem, an outsider. His mother and her boyfriend want him to become the man she wants him to be and force Willem to attend the New Dawn Safari Training Camp where they are proud to make men out of boys. They promise that he will be safe there.

“You Will Be Safe Here” is a powerful novel of two connected South African stories that were  inspired by real events and they bring forth both a hidden colonial history and a dark contemporary secret as the novel explores the legacy of violence and our will to survive.

This is a powerfully moving tale that brings the Boer war and contemporary South Africa together. We have beautiful moments of love alongside too much private grief in three unforgettable stories. I was both devastated and educated as I walked the paths where historical grief engendered violence. I grew to care for every character and it is amazing how three very different stories are  woven together in such unexpected and powerful ways.

Here is a novel concerned with a single strain of human history “of how a people are made and unmade and how they go on to make and unmake others, of the stories they tell themselves to allow such things to pass.” Author Barr has “captured the threads of all of human history” and his novel is very unsettling in the narrative and in the way that narrative reveals hidden trails through the points of light and darkness, such that the reader reaches the end after having seen over one hundred years in the making. I doubt I will ever forget what I read here nor do I want to forget it. By exploring sins of the past, we feel the impact they continue to have on the present. This is quite an accomplishment for a first novel and “an unblinking look at the terrors humankind can perpetrate to squash the ‘other.’”

“FOREIGN PASSIONS”— Greg and Nick and Bart Are Back

Baker, John Roman. “Foreign Passions”, The Nick and Greg Books, Wilkinson House, 2019.

Greg and Nick and Bart Are Back

Amos Lassen

Nick and Greg have been friends since they first met as gay teens. They were created by John Roman Baker and are the lead characters in the Nick and Greg series. It is through them that we cover British gay history. The guys want to experience all that there is in life and as they do, they build new relationships while remaining the best of friends. They have been through some hostile times as young men in Brighton in the 50s but they have also had wonderful adventures as they navigate gay England.

I see them as two of my friends and I always look forward to spending time with them even though I can only do so through Baker’s books.

Most of you are aware that I read a lot and not everything I read is classical literature nor will it be. I love to take time off to read something that does not make it think and probably will not stay with me long after I close the covers and that is fine. Not everyone is a great author (not everyone is an author at all just because they have written a book) but that is okay. The fact that I still look forward to reading about Nick and Greg shows they do the job of entertaining the reader.

Now we leave England for Paris and it is 1969. Greg and Bart have travelled from Brighton in search of Karel, but what begins as a search for their lover becomes a way for Greg to live in Paris just as he has wanted. In book three, Greg returned to Brighton not long after another friend, Bart arrived. It did not take long for Greg and Nick to rekindle how they once felt but this time, Nick brought a new boyfriend, Karel, with him.

Now in Paris, Greg explores physical, emotional and philosophical territory and these bring him to question his faith in humanity and his relationships with Bart and Nick. Here is also where you will find a few surprises. Nick and Greg might be young and lusty, yet they also have shown us the Swinging Sixties London and post-’68 Paris. They discover gay literature and other cultural reference points in music, film and theatre making them more than just characters in pulp fiction but characters who have a purpose to share with us.  In a review of one of the other books in the series, I once wrote, “Baker has such a way with words and descriptions that you actually feel a character becomes a friend. I promise you will love Baker’s writings both in this series and other books.” That still holds true.

“Love and Other Curses” by Michael Thomas Ford— The Curse

Ford, Michael Thomas, “Love & Other Curses”, Harper Teen, 2019.

The Curse

Amos Lassen

The Weyward family has been haunted by a curse for generations—if a Weyward falls in love before their seventeenth birthday, the person they love dies. At least, there is a warning and Sam takes it seriously by not planning to fall for anyone in the weeks before his birthday. He’ll spend his time working at the Eezy-Freeze with his dad; doing magic with his grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great-grandmother (the Grands); and experimenting with drag with the help of the queens at the Shangri-La, the local gay club. However, a new guy comes to town and Sam finds himself in trouble when they strike up a friendship that might be way more than that.

As Sam’s birthday nears and he still hasn’t fallen in love, the curse seems to become more powerful and less specific about who it targets. Sam talks to a mysterious girl on the phone late at night and a woman he’s only seen in a dream might have the answers he’s been looking for but time is running out to save the people he cares about. “Love & Other Curses” is a story of queer and trans teenagers finding themselves and each other; a story of the failures and joys of created family and the cruelty and limitations of (some) families of origin. The book explores queerness, gender, attraction, family, and identity and does so powerfully.

Most of us don’t come from queer biological families and we learn our history and our culture from the people who came before us. Young people are often told the lie about blood being thicker than water, and family being more important than anything but unfortunately we learn that this is not true most of the time. It’s important for young people to hear that it’s okay to let go of people who don’t bring anything positive to one’s life, even if those people are your parents. Sam in the book has an excellent relationship with his family, but he also has this other chosen family that is just as important to him. We see that it is possible to have different families in your life.

Sam and Tom are really complex characters who behave badly and have deep desires. Tom, the trans character, does not get a particularly happy story line. And because he’s a supporting character to the cis, gay main character, there has been some criticism of using a trans character to forward move the cis character’s story. But that’s the role of supporting characters and it was important to include a realistic portrayal of what trans teenagers living in rural areas go through. Everything that happens to Tom has happened to one or more trans teens. Tom and Sam do some things to each other that are unkind. But that’s what teenagers do, particularly teenagers who  struggle with intense feelings of wanting to be loved and accepted. Sam wishes desperately that he could be what Tom wants, and when he isn’t, he responds in a hurtful but realistic way.

This is an intense, complex exploration of family, love, and gender & sexual identity and we laugh through it, sometimes with eyes filled with tears.  It is a commentary on what it means to be a family and respect. It is a book with lots of heart that it shares with Its readers.

“Correspondents” by Tim Murphy— Love, Family, Duty, War Displacement

Murphy, Tim. “Correspondents”, Grove Press, 2019.

Love, Family, Duty, War Displacement

Amos Lassen

A couple of years ago I read and reviewed a beautiful novel, “Christadora” by Tim Murphy. It was the first book I read by Murphy and I loved every word but we did not hear much about it. I worried that it would be a while until I could read something new from him and I was surprised to learn that he already had a new book out and once again I was in love with his printed page. The man can really tell a story and if that is not enough, he pulls you into it. This is a tale of love, family, duty, war, and displacement as well as an indictment of the ill-fated war in Iraq and the heavy tolls on its people that continues today.

We meet Rita Khoury, the very bright and  very driven daughter of a Boston-area Irish-Arab family that has manage to rise (over the generations) from poor immigrants to part of the coastal elite. (I immediately started to guess who was the model for this character— Boston is a small town). Rita grows up with corned beef and cabbage  on the dinner table alongside stuffed grape leaves and tabuleh,  cooked by Rita’s mother, an Irish nurse who met her Lebanese surgeon husband while wat work at the same hospital. The resulting family is unconventional but close-knit and bonded “over summers at the beach, wedding line-dances, and a shared obsession with the Red Sox.”

Rita is ambitious and we see that in her studies at Harvard and unto work at one of the best newspapers in the country. Her post is cosmopolitan Beirut where she meets and dates a handsome Palestinian would-be activist. However when she receives her assignment to cover the America-led invasion of Baghdad in 2003, she is unprepared for the warzone. Her lifeline is her interpreter and fixer Nabil al-Jumaili, a restless young man whose dreams are damaged by life in a deteriorating dictatorship alongside his own seemingly impossible desires. Because of personal betrayal and the horrors of war, Rita and Nabil are forced out of the country and into uncertain futures What lies in wait will upend their lives forever, shattering their own notions of what they’re entitled to in a grossly unjust world. 

With displacement as the major theme here, satire and heartbreak are obvious throughout. When I speak of displacement, I mean to think about Rita leaving her safe home in Boston to find herself in a war zone for which she was totally unprepared just as she was unprepared for the  “violence America promotes both abroad and at home, and the resilience that allows families to remake themselves and endure even the most shocking upheavals.” Rita and her fellow journalists, photographers, and translators become something of a  family as they witness to the violence, chaos and unrest that war brings. But we do not stop there as the  novel spans generations, giving us a look at Rita’s family and what it means to be living in America (and abroad) in the aftermath of September 11th. It’s a character driven novel of those whose lives are complex and who are all too human. The family that was once connected by love becomes connected by war and across culture. We also get the chance to experience the complexities of Arabic language and culture and depictions of life in Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut as well as the anxiety and the hard work of war reporting.

I have learned that author Murphy is himself Irish and Lebanese and I can only wonder how much of him we see  in Rita. Above all else, I felt the need to empathize with and to respect the characters and their cultures. The fact that we go into the lives of our characters make this a very different kind of book than other books about the Iraqi war. The human element makes it very human. What the war has done to families, individuals, careers and society is a major part of the story and cannot be overlooked. The story of Rita and Nabil defies and transcends categorization because of its intimacy and the fact that it is part of a larger epic.

“Correspondents”  acknowledges and embraces the universality of the experience in Nabil, a young Iraqi interpreter who finds he can tamp down his sexuality for only so long before a drastic choice must be made. Murphy says that he wanted to write a novel that somehow wove together a contemporary American Arab-American family like his own with an Iraqi family during the American invasion of Iraq. He, himself, was obsessed with how the U.S., could have just gone into Iraq with really zero justification and destroyed an entire country and millions of lives, including some American lives, and then walked away from it all before it was even over. It became tragic and a fiasco of this country’s own making. Murphy also wanted to understand how an American family, like his, can in the course of 100 years come from a place like the Middle East (or Asia or Latin America) and basically shed the language and most of the culture over just three generations and become  totally and hopelessly American with very little sense of belonging to other parts of the world. The book gives us the American occupation of Iraq as something that got worse year after year between 2003 and about 2007 and became an increasingly tense and horrifying nightmare, in a city that may have been slowly suffocating under Saddam but certainly was not in a state of total lawlessness and chaos. There was pleasure in daily family and social life, just as there is here until we robbed Iraqis of that and “allowed their lives to become a living hell.”

 Here is a novel that starts out a traditional story about American immigration and then suddenly we are in another country with another family. Eventually these two worlds unravel at the same time. Prepare yourself for a novel you will not soon forget but then you will not want to.

 

 

 

“Queer Voices: Poetry, Prose, and Pride” edited by John Medeiros, et al. — The Community Speaks

Medeiros, John, Andrea Jenkins and Lisa Marie Brimmer (editors). “Queer Voices: Poetry, Prose, and Pride”, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2019.

The Community Speaks

Amos Lassen

Beginning in 1993, the Queer Voices reading series has featured both emerging and established Minnesota-based writers of the LGBTQIA+ community. Now after more than twenty years, the series has become a national model and one of Minnesota’s most important literary institutions. It is said  to be the longest-running curated queer reading series in the country. 

“In this volume, series curators John Medeiros and Andrea Jenkins and facilitator Lisa Marie Brimmer present the finest poetry, fiction, and nonfiction pieces by the presenters. Their work, generated and performed in a powerful space of understanding, explores the material of life without internal or external censorship. Living, loving, working, learning, playing, reflecting, knowing, inventing, and being—these magnificent queer voices affirm the importance of civil literacy and the power of vulnerability.”

Contributors include Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, Cole Bauer, Ryan Berg, Stephani Maari Booker, Lisa Marie Brimmer, Kimberly J. Brown, Nate Cannon, Anthony Ceballos, Stephanie Chrismon, James Cihlar, Venus de Mars, Jay Owen Eisenberg, Kelly Frankenberg, Ben French, Julie Gard, Christina Glendenning, Rachel Gold, Molly Beth Griffin, CM Harris, Andrea Jenkins, Kristin Johnson, Bronson Lemer, Raymond Luczak, Catherine Lundoff, Josina Manu Maltzman, John Medeiros, Nasreen Mohamed, Michael Kiesow Moore, Ahmad Qais Munhazim, Gary Eldon Peter, Junauda Petrus, Trina Porte, William Reichard, katie robinson, Dua Saleh, Lucas Scheelk, Erin Sharkey, Christine Stark, Vanessa Taylor, Bradford Tice, Ann Tweedy, Morgan Grayce Willow, S. Yarberry, Ariel Zitny

Queer Voices radiates with the diverse truths, struggles, and ecstatic genius of Minnesota’s LGBTQIA+ community. The warmth cast from its pages will melt any preconception you might have had, leaving you with new and beautiful wisdom in its wake.” Stewart Van Cleveauthor of Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota

“This is a living document. A live place where love is recalled, the dead are remembered, and the varied vibrancy of the LGBTQIA+ writers of Minnesota comes to join your life and remind you of the texture, the tension, the trouble of being who we are and accepting whoever we are becoming. This work should be taught locally and nationally, used in groups and programs for people of many ages and with many missions.” Alexis Pauline Gumbs, author of M Archive: After the End of the World

“This beautiful and vivid collection of prose and poetry offers real insight into the complex realities of LGBTQIA+ life in Minnesota in the twenty-first century. Queer Voices also stands as a testament to the power of a creative community to foster talent and advocate for social change.”  Kevin P. Murphy, co-editor of Queer Twin Cities

“This splendid collection, by writers hailing from one of the nation’s most enduring queer reading series, is broadly diverse and soaringly intersectional, establishing the depth and excruciating beauty of the Minneapolis–St. Paul LGBTQIA+ community. Open these pages for the radically clear and queer-eyed words we all need to keep on reading.”
Barrie Jean Borich, author of Apocalypse, Darling

“Clio Rising” by Paula Martinac— A Secret

Martinac, Paula. “Clio Rising”, Bywater Books, 2019.

A Secret

Amos Lassen

Every time I read something by Paula Martinac, I feel amazed that she chooses themes so close to my heart. This time she wonderfully brings together the word of the ex-patriates and the New York City Gay scene. As a Gertrude Stein fan and somewhat scholar (can one call himself a scholar?), I knew I would love this book. Set in New York city in 1983, we meet Livvie Bliss who has just come out as a lesbian. She has left western North Carolina come to New York to do hopefully begin a career in publishing and to be able to live openly as a gay woman. It was not easy for her and she actually almost gave up until a friend helps her get a job with Bea Winston’s literary agency.

With her southern charm and youthful outlook, Bea hopes that Livvie will help her become close to one of the agency’s most illustrious clients, Clio Hartt, an older closeted lesbian, modernist writer and a woman who lived through The Lost Generation in Paris. It seems that Clio has become something of a recluse who rarely goes out and is content to stay in her Greenwich Village apartment just as she has done for the last forty years. Livvie becomes, in a sense, Clio’s companion. Clio was considered a major force and as a literary giant even though she had published only one book. What Livvie really wants to do is begin a career in publishing and to be able to live openly as a gay woman.

Essentially, Livvie becomes Clio’s gofer and companion. The two connect partially because of their shared Carolina heritage, and the communication and rapport they share gives Clio support and inspiration to begin to think about returning to publishing. Livvie notices that there is something about Clio’s writing that bothers her and as time passes and the two women share conversations, Livvie learns about Clio’s relationship with playwright Flora Haynes. Livvie notices uncomfortable parallels between her own circle of friends and the world of expatriate artists of the 1920s. Finally when Clio realizes that her days left are numbered, she shares a secret that could totally change Livvie’s life and upend the literary establishment.(And no, I am not sharing that here).

Paula Martinac has been able to bring together two important eras of history—- the Paris years and the New York gay scene of the 80s. Though the two periods are separated by decades, there are commonalities, especially in the literary world. I was immediately pulled into the book both because of its plot and its prose. Martinac brings back the past in her own special way and we are so lucky to have it. I also love the intergenerational aspects of “Clio Rising” and the difficult friendship between two women of contrasting generations offers so much. The fact that they are both Southern women was a touch of genius and while I won’t explain that here, I am sure you will understand what I mean when you read the book.

We certainly see “how we became entangled with one another— as lovers, friends, allies, and enemies.” Martinac leaves nothing out and her descriptions of the time include daily life with its job issues and housing problems. Then there is the AIDS epidemic and I am so glad that this was included since we should not for a moment forget our Holocaust.  The characters like the history is very real and as such there are  unsure approaches, lost and missed opportunities and satisfying connections just like in life itself. I love, love, love “Clio Rising”.

“The Order of Nature” by Josh Scheinert— Where Love is Illegal

Scheinert, Josh. ““The Order of Nature”, Josh Scheinert, 2019.

Where Love is Illegal

Amos Lassen

After college, Andrew accepted a volunteer placement in Gambia. He was a sheltered and shy guy who wanted a change from his well-to-do suburban life. At first, everything was great. He did good work, made friends, and actually started to come out of his shell. Then, he met Thomas, a charming hotel bartender. He had run away from his homophobic village and knows too well how unforgiving his country can be to people like himself. He has one friend and  there is nowhere safe for him to be who he is. Then he met Andrew.

“The Order of Nature” is the story Andrew and Thomas as they navigate a place where their love is illegal. In the beginning, they actually thought that it would be possible to have a relationship in the worst and most trying circumstances. But as their relationship strengthens, homophobia becomes more hostile and the politics of prejudice rears its head with exposing and arresting them and forcing them confront what it means when one’s existence is considered a crime  and one’s  love goes  against the order of nature.

We are taken on a journey in which we see the struggles and fears of being gay in West Africa – of having to constantly hide, and never be free. We are reminded on every page of the human cost of discriminating against people because of who they are and who they love.

The beauty of Gambia is juxtaposed with the harshness of its political reality and that reality becomes an assault on our senses. We are taken into a world where individual freedom is at a premium and, in turn, we see  how fortunate we are to have been born in countries where we are free to live our lives as we wish. (Even though it was not always that way).

Andrew and Thomas faced personal relating to family and personal growth while at the same time facing a political landscape that wanted to tear them apart. While this story is fiction, but reads like, it is believable and we know that it could be. I am still thinking about what I read here and likely to be doing so for some time.

“Immaculate Conception” by I.J. Miller— Two Moms

Miller, I.J. “Immaculate Conception”, Island Publishing, 2019.

Two Moms

Amos Lassen

Maddie and Al are two moms in a committed relationship. Their story begins in the present when two women are stuck in a motel room in Weehawken, New Jersey that is surrounded by a SWAT team and a hostage negotiator. From here we go back in time to see how Maddie and Al were mistreated when they were children. Both women had terrible childhoods and as we watch, we become angry. This is of the beautiful aspects of the book—we are pulled into the story and feel some of the same emotions that the characters feel.

Moving forward here means going backwards to when Al and Maddie met two-and-a-half years earlier when they were working in the athletic department of a small college in Oregon. Beginning as friends, they come together as lovers and decide to have a baby together The way they unravel each other’s defenses and become partners is very well done. They decide to have a baby together and give their child the kind of childhood that they never had.  However, there is a problem who the father is.

Coming back to the present, we have  a climax that stuns us. Maddie and Al went to New Jersey hoping to find safety for their child. The biological father is manipulative and the women had to get away from him. He managed to find out where they were and they are quite literally prisoners of the state’s top hostage negotiator and his personal four-man SWAT team.

This is quite an emotional read as it moves back and forth between past and present. We understand why Al and Maddie are so desperate to keep their baby; it allows them to come to terms with the way they were treated and to try to negate that by raising this child with as much love as there is for them to give. We might say that it is a kind of apology to show that they are able to rise above the way that they were treated.

They also show us how important it is to protect our children at all costs and how much it might be necessary to fight to rise above what they have had to deal with as a result of abuse.

Here are two women struggling to be a part of society and starting their own family. We all deal with conflicts but none quite as difficult as what Al and Maddie have faced and continue to face. I am aware that I have not mentioned what the child’s father is so concerned with and I have no intention of doing so.  (This is a thriller and you would not want me to ruin it by saying too much). Just sit back and put yourself in the hands (and words) of master storyteller I.J. Miller and let her prose take you on a trip you will not forget.