Category Archives: GLBT fiction

“Citadel” by Jack Remick— A Lot to Think About

Remick, Jack. “Citadel”, Quartet Global, 2017.

A Lot to Think About

Amos Lassen

Jack Remick describes his new novel as “a post-lesbian, meta-fictional, apocalyptic story braided into a contemporary novel.” That’s quite a mouthful but it also perfectly describes “Citadel”. It is a complex and mind-bending coming together of genetic science and a Citadel of women. We are living in a time when often taking risks is a necessity and Remick does just that by giving “a story within a story within a story” that challenges literary genre and writing style and makes us think about important questions, especially what does being a woman mean. We look at the relationships between men and women and how the world would be if women were in control. We look at important issues— domestic violence, crimes against women, misogyny, and rape. We meet the women of the Citadel and among them are scientists, writers, editors, publishers, and the warrior women, protectors of the women of the Citadel called daughters. What I find so interesting is that the stories are not new to us but we have pushed them to the backs of our minds and Reimer pulls them out. At first, I found it somewhat uncomfortable to read about Trisha and Daiva but then I realized that if we had paid more attention the first time we read their stories, the world might be very different today.

This is a difficult book to review because it is so easy to write spoilers but I will try to describe the book and its central character, The Citadel, to you. It is a world without men and therefore there is no rape and all pregnancies are planned. Birth is an altruistic ideal and each daughter chooses the kind of fetus she will carry and decides why she will carry it. Her choice makes her one who perpetuates the race.

Trisha de Tours, an editor at Pinnacle Books has been directed by her boss to find a bestseller. She learns that the new resident in her condos, Daiva Izokaitis, has a manuscript called “Citadel” and Trisha she agrees to read it. It did not take long before she realized that Daiva is a literary rebel. She does not go along with the basics of writing and refuses to be part of the editing process. Daiva’s book is revolutionary and after reading it, Trisha becomes a different woman.

The Trisha that we meet in the beginning is a woman who loves good literature, fine wine and sexy men. For her, men are objects and she is free with her sexual favors to them. She is not looking for anything more than instant sexual gratification; sex is casual but she does harbor a fear that one of her sexual tricks could become violent and even take her life. In this we see the uneasiness of all women even though this is not an overt trait. Women tend to behave in ways that men will not hurt them yet they know that this is not true.

In “Citadel”, Daiva calls this kind of behavior “the Niche” and it is the place where western women exist. Trisha understands that she is lucky to live when she does but she is also aware of the Niche being quite fragile and this sends her thinking. She soon acts s if she is a character in Daiva’s novel “Citadel” and becomes afraid to submit the book for publication because if enough women read it, it could bring an end to all she knows. It becomes even more interesting when Daiva shares with her that in modern science, the Y chromosome is dying and men are not necessary for the continuation of society.

Daiva shares Residual Evolutionary Response that explains that behaviors that have become part of our instinct, even though they are no longer needed or necessary. This is what has happened to the Y chromosome. The traits of strength, mass, and violence which have always been part of the world of men are no longer necessary or even advantageous like men themselves. However, men refuse to change because they believe they have power and women must say no in order to change everything.

Women have become more competent at doing what man alone was supposed to do. As soon as a field opened up to woman, it ceased to be of interest to man. Men then all except for being able to kill, to copulate, and to make war. Once a woman can do the same, it becomes feminine and weak. As a result men have little to do other than create war and trouble.

Women, therefore, have the capability to eliminate men entirely yet they worry if they will still be human if they eliminate men. So you see from what is written here how difficult it is to write about this book. Looking at this book philosophically, we get another level of interpretation but I will only mention comparing an author to God with the ability to create. I have often compared writing a book to pregnancy but Remick takes it even a step farther.

Remick has not only written “Citadel” the book but he has also written about the book but within it. We become very aware of how the book influences those who wrote it and how the characters affect the readers and how the book as a whole has an effect on the world. Not only am I still unsure that I understood the book, I am unsure that I understand what I have written here. “Citadel” has the effect on one and it left me thinking. That is the sign of good literature— it makes us think and it stays with us.

“Fabulous: An Opera Buffa” by Laury A. Egan— Paying the Rent

Egan, Laury A. “Fabulous!: An Opera Buffa”, Tiny Fox Press, 2018.

Paying the Rent

Amos Lassen

Sometimes when life is getting you down, you need to do something to raise your spirits. (I doubt that sentence needs any further explanation these days). The way I do this is to look for a book that will pick me up and take me away to a place I would ordinarily not go. It just so happened that I received an invitation to review a book by an author I did not know and it did the trick. Just think about the intersection between the mob, opera and drag and you will see what kind of fun can be had.

Gilbert Eugene Rose is a talented opera singer who moonlights as a drag queen and diva divine, Kiri De Uwana. Sometimes it is what we have to do to pay the rent. But let’s face it, there are not too many drag dives that make it to the big time and Gil really wants to make it on the New York opera scene. He gets two gigs (surely there is a more refined word in opera-talk), one as a soprano and one as a tenor in separate productions and he also gets to chance to sing Handel when he is hired by a very dangerous female gangster who just happens to be in the midst of war with the producer of one of the other two operas. The chances of any of this ending happily are very slim.

As might be expected in the world of drag, this is a campy story that is way over the top and Gil only has his drag apparel, his wigs and his wits for support in a very trying time. Like many operas, we have an epic cast of characters; unlike many operas, the characters seem to be missing something and as the story moves forward, the reader is in for great fun. I was so reminded of when as an undergrad, I took a part as an extra in a New Orleans Opera House production of “La Boheme” and as I attended rehearsals, I came to understand that sanity in the opera world is a rare trait…. but the insanity is fun. I felt a smile on my face the entire time I read “Fabulous”.

Now I certainly do not want to ruin a read by writing spoilers so I am going to very carefully attempt to skirt the plot as much as possible (and no, the use of the word “skirt” here has nothing to do with drag). We immediately see the conflict that Gil faces when he is so anxious to make a name for himself that he takes on more than he can handle (or Handel). Taking two leading roles at two different opera houses was already too much but he had to take one more job to privately perform privately. And we are off on a crazy journey through three different aspects of New York City life— the drag, mob and opera scenes. What I find so wonderful about this book is that it does not ridicule or make fun of drag but rather captures the scene believably and beautifully. Sometimes we have to be reminded that we have to be able to laugh at ourselves.

I have to comment on Laury Egan’s character development of Gil. She has developed not only a loving main character but his alter egos as well and we can say the same for all of the other characters. The other characters run the gamut from “drag queens, psychics, spirit guides, mobsters to lesbian best friends, ex-lovers, hitmen/women, crazy love interests, absent parents, multiple identities and kidnappers. If you thought that “The Ten Commandments” had a big cast, you will be surprised at how many characters we have here and each is well developed. As if crazy characters are not enough, we also find them in crazy situations. Forget the world of reality and come away with Laury Egan to a world you have never visited before.

I came across a review (something I rarely do is read other reviews before writing my own) that uses the word “audacious” to describe “Fabulous” and I believe that hits it on the head. In fact, I felt the story to be so audacious that I read it in one sitting. I do think that I should mention that the humor is well meant and sophisticated so you will be laughing more internally than aloud— but you will be laughing.

I have only on a few occasions had trouble reviewing a book without giving something away especially because there are situations that I am dying to share but holding back. That is about the strongest recommendation that I can give and hopefully you will agree with me after reading “Fabulous”.

“Into?” by North Morgan— We All Know A Konrad

Morgan, North. “Into?”, Flatiron Books, 2018.

We All Know a Konrad

Amos Lassen

On social media, Konrad seems to be everywhere. He is the guy that no matter what we do, he has done it first and better. But then there is Konrad Platt who is heartbroken after his boyfriend left him for another man. You see, Konrad abandoned his life in London for the warm sun and blue surf of Los Angeles where he attends parties in the Hollywood Hills filled with handsome men and beautiful women, snorts mountains of Adderall, and dances the weekends away. He attempts to mends his broken heart through dating apps and he is constantly searching and scrolling through profiles and chatting with an endless number of men and each one is handsomer than the last. However, when one captures his heart, a twisted modern romance begins and it is thrilling, confusing, and devastating. What we find is that this guy who seems to have it all is missing what he is really desperate for— real connection.

Writer North Morgan takes us into the modern generation of gay men that are living firmly outside the closet, freed from the horror of AIDS and elevated by popular culture. But there is a new set of problems— insecurities and self-destructions. This is a very funny and shockingly perceptive story of excess and love. It is the story of a life spent online that has a sense of urgency —“a brutal story about loneliness in this hyperactive social media age that was bursting to be told.”

Morgan wonderfully captures message-only relationships, the gym-dysmorphia, and that is purely physical. We come into the life of Konrad at a seemingly arbitrary point, and then taken from it just as abruptly. The novel is dark and takes self-loathing to a whole new level. Konrad is a character that so many individuals can relate too that for many readers, this book will become their book.

Here is the shallow world of gay men on social media that delivers a funny and sobering look at the two dimensional personalities that are online personas. Konrad is both a participant and a tortured observer who documents his desires, inadequacies, and eccentricities.

In today’s society, there is a huge disconnect between societal demands and emotional sustainability especially because there is a strong tendency for one to become an agent who promotes social norms rather than following one’s own moral values.

Konrad is dealing with this and as we read about him, we see ourselves in some of his struggles. We gain an insight into our own unspoken struggles that we are deal with daily. Konrad lives in a pretty world with pretty people and is treated indifferently by everyone but doesn’t do anything about it because there’s something alluring waiting for him. Morgan’s story of the endless search for what one can’t have is so timely especially when thinking about today’s gay culture. We have the never-ending parties, the drugs and the sex but they are only a part of this story.

Konrad comes to America and to LA, right into a scene of gay men who exist solely on the surface. Konrad works in finance for his dad, reveals his true addiction: social media and a heteronormative man that he can’t have or possibly be. He spends hours on Facebook, Instagram, and the dating apps engaging with men hoping for one that defines his very specific and limited view of masculinity. Those he does hook up with only disappoint by word or deed and then he’s on to the next. He realizes that it’s the chase and the actual obsession with someone he won’t have that is the fun.

Konrad looks for what we all search for— someone to be happy with. He is his own worst enemy as we often are, looking for what we most want at any given moment, but not what we actually need. This is a very satisfying, modern tale of contemporary urban gay life with many twists and turns.

“After the Monsoon: An Ernst Grip Novel” by Robert Karjel— A Swede in the Horn of Africa

Karjel, Robert. “After the Monsoon: An Ernst Grip Novel”, Harper, 2018.

A Swede in the Horn of Africa

Amos Lassen

Robert Karjel’s “After the Monsoon” is a thriller set in the terrorist- and pirate infested world of the Horn of Africa. It is also a place where Ernest Grip, a Swedish detective can count on nothing but his own shrewdness to survive.

When a Swedish army lieutenant drops dead on a shooting range in the desert, it is unsure if it was an accident or something much more serious. Ernst Grip, an agent of the Swedish security police and a bisexual male, is sent to the Horn of Africa to find out what really happened. Once off the plane and on the ground, he quickly learns he’s on his own and that no one wants him snooping around—especially not the American Embassy’s CIA station. With military transport planes leaving from the base carrying untraceable pallets loaded with cash, this is not surprising.

Grip’s investigation is complicated by another dangerous situation. Somali pirates have kidnapped a wealthy Swedish family during their adventure of a lifetime: a sailing trip from Sweden to the Great Barrier Reef. Grip wonders why no one in Sweden is willing to pay the ransom in order to save these innocent lives.

Solving the mystery of the soldier’s death is a tipping point that leads him deep into a web of intrigue, greed, and dark dealings with both allies and enemies. It seems that we live in a world where no one can be trusted.

The plot looks at the tough compromises made every day for the greater good. How do we know which is the lesser of two evils? How much is the cost of betraying one interest to save another? Robert Karjel has created a world in which the sins of good men forced impossible choices. The characters are compelling and the suspense us reading. This is Karjel’s second novel to be translated into English and after reading the first, “The Swede”, I found myself wishing for more. Someone at Harper’s must have heard my wishing for here is the sequel and in English. I can’t discuss the plot since it is a thriller but I can tell you that I was turning pages as quickly as possible. The only problem is that now I have to wait for Karjel’s next book to be translated into English.

“Kite” by Xavier Queipo— Into the Lives of Emigrants

Queipo, Xavier. “Kite”, Small Stations Press, 2018.

Into the Lives of Emigrants

Amos Lassen

When I first learned of the publication of “Kite” by Xavier Queipo, all I knew about it was that there was something of a gay theme to it. I had no idea who Quiepo is and I am somewhat embarrassed about that now knowing of his many literary accomplishments. Xavier Queipo is a Galician writer based in Brussels, Belgium who has published nearly twenty books, ranging from fiction, to poetry, to children’s literature, as well as essays. He has won several prizes for his novels, including the Spanish Critics Prize in 1991, for “The Arctic and Other Seas” and the Blanco Amor Prize in 2015 for his most recent novel, “Os kowa”. He also works as a translator, and has translated work by Joseph Conrad as well as being one of the four collaborators on the 2013 award-winning translation of James Joyce’s ”Ulysses” into Galician.

“Kite” is the story of Francis, a Galician-born emigrant in the United States living in the city of San Rafael, north of San Francisco and who works as a freelance translator and editor. While at the movies seeing “Apocalypse Now” (based on Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”), he meets Rose, a liberal and career-minded Irishwoman, and they are soon involved in quite a passionate relationship. However, this is threatened when Francis’s publisher, Martin, asks him to finish an English translation of the Portuguese writer José Saramago’s “Essay on Blindness” but it must be done quickly as there have been predictions that Saramago might win the Nobel Prize. Francis has been diagnosed with the onset of blindness and wonders if there will be time to finish the translation. We go on a journey into the lives of emigrants in the United States whose traditional upbringing is often in conflict with the new liberal society they find here. We also meet Andy who is Francis’s ex-lover and still a loyal friend and for whom there are still many strong feelings. With a return to the Galicia where he was born, his hopes for a restful visit do not work out and he is beset by catastrophe. The story ends with a Chinese boy on the beach in San Rafael, trying to fly his kite and we understand this to be a symbol of something or someone at the mercy of the wind. Francis offers to help the boy who is unsure as to whether to accept and we are left to ponder what that means.

This is quite a reading experience and I found myself affected by almost every word that seemed to be carefully chosen to take us through Francis’s life and experiences. In the back of mind I kept hearing T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock saying that “there will be time” while not believing that to be so. The philosophical question of the meaning of life is everywhere here but as a question and not an answer.

“Anh Sang” by Barry Brennessel— A Chance Metting

Brennessel, Barry. “Ánh Sáng”, Manifold Press, 2018.

A Chance Meeting

Amos Lassen

Since I began reviewing seriously some twelve years ago I have been lucky go meet some of the nicest people in our LGBTQ community. One of these was Barry Brennessel who I met at the Lambda Literary Awards after party some seven years ago. He introduced himself and asked if I would review one of his books back then and of course I agreed and since them I wait for him to have something new out. He always remembers to send me a copy. What I really like about Barry’s work is that he doesn’t follow formulae and writes as he feels. This means that everything is not tied together and there is no guarantee of a happy ending.

“Anh Sang” is set in French Indochina or French occupied Vietnam (whichever you prefer) during the First World War. We meet Minh who shares that French colonials treated the local citizens inhumanely and he was having quite a difficult time taking care of himself and his blind mother. The Vietnamese were forced to take a false French pride as they struggled against their colonial masters. I am quite sure that most of us have never read a gay story set in this part of the world and therefore we have to appreciate the writer’s research in daring to learn the background of what he is writing about and then presenting it to us. What I like about the writing here is that it is clear and to the point—- there are no literary or syntax surprises. Brennessel is also excellent at writing emotions and he takes us through the gamut of fear and confusion and ultimately rage.

Bùi Vân Minh had to grow up quickly when his father left home and went to the northern provinces. He had a responsibility to his family and he knew that his mother relied upon him. By chance, Minh meets Ngô Công Thao and he suddenly finds himself confused regarding how he feels for him. Ngo also feels what Minh feels and they both realize that they share something stronger than just friendship. However, life is difficult under the rule of the French and what happens as a result of World War I will change their lives completely. I really love the tenderness and the care of the writer in developing a first love story set against such a terrible time.

Life in Thái Nguyên City was difficult at best and the love that the two men feel hangs over it—at least in our minds. During wartime, it is difficult to live much less foster a romance and in this story, it is that love that brings light into the darkness.

Minh and Thao manage to find the short moments to express their feelings for one another and to give them hope that better times are coming for them. But then there is nothing traditional about this story so to expect it to end with a traditional happy ending seems to be too much to ask for. Everything comes to a head during the Thái Nguyên uprising of 1917 in which the anti-colonials destroyed the French rule. So what happened top our two young lovers? Do we get the happy ending we hope for or….. We do see them together one more time in the last pages of the story. I see no other way this story could have ended and it totally shook me for days.

“Social Intercourse” by Howard Greg— A Gay Teen in South Carolina

Howard, Greg. “Social Intercourse”, Simon & Schuster, 2018.

A Gay Teen in South Carolina

Amos Lassen

“Social Intercourse” is a clever love story that challenges preconceptions that people are either gay or straight or that the Bible Belt and football necessarily means a homophobic community. Beckett Gaines is a gay teen living in South Carolina, whose world goes through major changes because of a jock.

Jax is the Golden Boy, star quarterback who faces uncomfortable truths about himself and his past. It all begins when Beck’s “emotionally fragile dad” starts dating the recently single (and supposedly lesbian) mom of bully, Jaxon Parker. Neither Beck nor Jax is happy about it. They boys put aside their own differences and try to stop the romance before it becomes serious and they plan to do this at the first ever Rainbow Prom in the town but nothing goes according to plan.. Hearts will be broken, new romance will bloom, but nothing will go down the way Beck and Jax have planned.

We see the challenges of growing up different in a small southern town through the eyes of colorful and unforgettable characters and it is great fun. The story is told through Beckett and Jax as alternating narrators. The two guys are total opposites with Beck being openly gay, choir singing, sassy and proud and obsessed with the Golden Girls and Jaxon, the school’s star football player and ladies man whose reputation is built on the points he’s scored on the field and the ladies he’s scored before and after games. They come together for a mutual purpose of tearing their families apart, so they can return to the safe lives that they knew before their parents started dating. before. As they scheme together, the boys become closer, and things get complicated and we see that there is more to each of the boys than we think, at first. 

Beck is a person who cares about his best friend, and who gets angry at her mother’s mistreatment of her and tries to help her see that she’s more than the negative ideas that she has been led to believe. After his mother walked out on the family, Beck became the adult and took care of his dad. He really wants to protect his father from any more hurt. He sees the life that he has worked hard on after his mother leave slipping away from his control. After all, he is just a teen.

Aside from being a jock, Jax is a nice guy who loves his two moms who saved him from a broken and abusive home, and, like Beck wants to keep his home and family intact. As his mothers’ separate, Jax questions his image of the jock that his entire social life has been built on.

When they come together, Beck and Jax are funny, awkward, and confrontational. They can surely serve as the basis for many good discussions and become good examples of how things can be and should be done. It seems that in order to take a good look at who we are, we often have to be forced to do so as Jax and Beck are both forced to when they look at how they’ve dealt with each other and how they’ve dealt with their parents.

Here is a well-written story of two opposite types finding first gay love in the conservative South that will put a smile on your face as you read. We also see something about family here in the special relationships each boy had. The love and respect each boy gives his parents and the close-knit relationships each boy has with them is a warm and cuddly read that makes us feel good. There are so many ways we can read this and I am amazed at how quickly I fell in love with everyone in the story.

“Ivy Vs. Dogg: With A Cast Of Thousands!” by Brian Leung— A Challenge

Leung, Brian. “Ivy Vs. Dogg: With A Cast Of Thousands!”, C&R Press, 2018.

A Challenge

Amos Lassen

In “Ivy Vs. Dogg”, Brian Leung introduces us to teen Ivy Simmons who shocks her small town by daring to challenge hometown boy-hero, Jimmy Doggins, in a showdown election for the title of Junior Mr. Mayor of Mudlick. This is a conversation about how society imagines the correct subject position for a person and does so satirically with the goal of arriving at the fantasy version of correctness. We see that the committee has a received and built vision of gender propriety and “value the young people performing the simulacrum of this vision.” The committee and community (mostly) has long dealt with this kind of thinking.

Ivy Simmons has a longstanding rivalry with Jimmy, “Dogg,” Doggins, high school tennis star, and hometown hero. It comes to a head when the town of Mudlick’s annual Jr. Mr. Mayor election is announced and Ivy becomes the first female ever to run. Mudlick’s busybody leaders, known as “the committee” don’t approve, especially when Ivy reveals that she is pregnant. Displeased with the public debate over what Ivy should do about her unborn child, matriarch Abigail Colton displays a lifelike topiary girl on her front lawn, enchanting all of Mudlick to the point where they fear for the life of this “girl” when Colton also rolls out a topiary of a giant squid. Between this and the election, emotions run high, forcing Ivy and Dogg to make the most adult decision of their young lives.

Brian Leung’s satire of suburban politics and helicopter parenting, laughs at the rules we follow to keep people in their place. In the campaign, the fault lines in community rise to the surface and we see the courage it takes to be not just a candidate but to be being.

Mudlick is filled with characters both human and humane and it is a place where the absurd collides with the status quo and chaos follows. We see who we truly are and how we wish to be seen.

“Beowulf for Cretins: A Love Story” by Ann McMan— Gay in Acdemia

McMan, Ann. “Beowulf for Cretins: A Love Story”, Bywater Books, 2018.

Gay in Academia

Amos Lassen

Ann McMan hits close to home for me in her “Beowulf for Cretins” but I will get to that later. We meet Grace Warner, an English professor and want-to-be novelist who spends her days teaching four sections of “Beowulf for Cretins” to bored and disinterested students at one of New England’s “hidden ivy” colleges. Even though I spent two semesters in graduate courses on “Beowulf”, I must admit by having done so, my life has not been changed in one way. Grace had the misfortune of being dumped by her girlfriend and while flying across the country, she met Abbe who is extremely engaging and equally mysterious. Once the plane landed, Abbe and Grace enjoyed a no strings night of passion.

Upon returning to teaching at St. Albans in New England, she is greeted by the announcement of the appointment of the new president, a woman for the first time in the 165 year history of the school and Grace gets the shock of her life when Abbe… Entering Grace’s life is a dog with neuroses named Grendel and a woman named Ochre.

What a place for a romantic comedy especially when the world of academia that Edward Albee gave us in “Virginia Woolf” was so different, or was it? Writer Ann McMan also introduces us to a cast of characters that are both loveable and a bit off-track and she uses them as a way to look at human behavior in both its sanity and absurdity. I cannot decide which I enjoyed more– McMan’s prose or her story— but then I really do not have to make a choice. It’s great when the style and the plot come together to give a good read. It is, above all else, the writer’s wit that makes this a fascinating read. Bringing comedy, intellect and sensitivity is not an easy job and this also allows for different levels of understanding and interpretation. I could not help but notice that my reviewing colleague Grady Harp had the same to say. There is a bonus and that it is an observation of how we live today and everyone who reads this will find something of themselves here.