Category Archives: GLBT fiction

“Survival is a Dying Art: An Angus Green Novel” by Neil S. Plakcy— Angus is Back

Plakcy, Neil S. “Survival is a Dying Art: An Angus Green Novel”, Neil S. Plakcy, 2018.

Angus is Back

Amos Lassen

Special Agent Angus Green is still in his twenties and because he looks so young, he is underestimated by many. He is a smart, fearless cop who believes in the FBI motto of Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity. Frank Sena is working with pawnshop owner Jesse Venable to retrieve a painting stolen from Frank’s uncle, a gay Venetian killed during the Holocaust. When Angus volunteers to help Frank, he discovers that Venable is the subject of a task force looking into smuggling immigrants out of the Middle East. Angus knows nothing about art and speaks no Italian yet he is assigned to befriend, and ultimately betray, Venable. He is lucky to have an Italian-speaking brother and an art-loving boyfriend. With their help, he may be able to both retrieve the painting and solve a smuggling case and potentially save thousands of lives.

The story begins in Fort Lauderdale when Angus’s friend, Tom, invites him to a gay men’s book group and introduces him to a man he’s interested in, Frank Sena. Frank is a descendant of Italian Jews from Venice and his gay uncle died at Auschwitz. His uncle’s extensive art collection (focusing on the male nude) was confiscated by the Nazis, and Frank has discovered that one of his uncle’s paintings may have surfaced in present-day Venice. Venable has volunteered to be an intermediary but Frank is not sure that the man is trustworthy. When an FBI connection to this occurs, Angus is off on his next adventure.Angus respects his boss, his colleagues, and his job. He is a great guy to work with.

I have been reading and reviewing Neil Plakcy for about ten years now and one of his earlier books was one of the first books I ever reviewed. I am so happy to see that he is still pulling in high ratings. He has created a loveable character in Angus ho is the total opposite of our conception of FBI agents and I picture him as “twinkingly” cute with a head full of red hair (the kind of guy I would have lusted after in my youth but can only dream about in my old age). I love that he is thoughtful and a caring young man and he is smart. He even feels sorry for the guys he has to go after. I love that Plakcy shows the new reality of today’s FBI and that we can as gay men uphold the honor of this country. I also admire the intergenerationality (if this is not a word, it should be one) of the novel as Angus explores his friendships with older gay men. It is those friendships that lead him to his next case of returning a painting looted by Nazis to its rightful owner.

We read of Angus thinking about his relationship with both his partner Lester and his brother Danny giving us insight into what a caring person he really is. and with Lester, the bouncer boyfriend turned entrepreneur. He still has questions for which he searches for answers but he is young and in love and determined to do well at his job.

I am having a hard time not writing about the plot but I do not want to give any spoilers or say too much. I want everyone to have the same enjoyment I did while reading this.

“2 Degrees” by Bev Prescott— A Race Against Time

Bev Prescott, Bev. “2 Degrees”, Bywater Books, 2018.

A Race Against Time

Amos Lassen

We are off into the future with Bev Prescott’s new novel, “2 Degrees”. It is the year 2092 and one woman risks everything she holds dear to save the life of the woman she loves.

Sharon Clausen is a self-reliant farmer who has a secret apple tree that keeps her and her wife, Eve, fed. Climate change has altered the face of Earth. There have been storms, disease, famine, thirst and war and those who have lived through these are worn out. The world has become a different place and trust with the ecology has eroded. It is necessary to hide one’s humanity in order to survive and that is just what Susan has done to protect Eve. Thus has to be done secretly and as far as Susan knows the only other people who know bout this are Dr. Ryan, a long-time confidant, and his wife, Areva. Every month, Sharon and Eve have to go from Maine to Boston to trade apples with Dr. Ryan for Eve’s leukemia medication. But then, Eve is kidnapped and the Ryan’s are murdered and Sharon learns that her best-kept secrets are coveted by a man known as the Strelitzia who is a cold and evil person.

Sharon embarks on a journey across North America to rescue Eve. Along the way, she is able to get help from an Inuit refugee boy, a stray dog named Erik the Red, an odd former school teacher, a jujitsu master, an Argentinean opera star, and a Muslim female scientist who leads an alliance of eclectic people known as the Qaunik. They all come together and they have to deal with storms, the desert, criminal gangs, feral humans and Strelitzia.

Ultimately, Sharon must face her greatest challenge if she wants to stay alive with Eve. She learns a great deal through this experience and she realizes that she has to change how she feels about love, trust and family. As she learns so do we especially about global warming. In the book no one paid any attention to the warnings and I was reminded that I had ignored the warnings about Hurricane Katrina and how surprised I was to see the devastation afterwards including losing everything. I understand that Bev Prescott is an environmental attorney so she knows what she writes about here. The condition that the country was in was due to ignoring the warnings but we do see that human decency and humanity can still exist during hard times.

I truly enjoyed the book and love the way Bev Prescott shared her story. Her prose is smooth and fresh, her characters are well developed and I found myself rapidly turning pages.

“THE CATCHER WAS A SPY”— Perhaps a Gay Spy

“The Catcher Was a Spy”

Perhaps a Gay Spy

Amos Lassen

Director Ben carries a nostalgic charge, allowing us to enjoy 1930s- and ’40s-era costuming and sharp dialogue in “The Catcher Was a Spy”. It is the story of Moe Berg (Paul Rudd), a catcher for the Boston Red Sox who worked in the Office of Strategic Services as part of the Alsos Mission, which was partially concerned with preventing Germany from developing a fission bomb. Lewin and screenwriter Robert Rodat take the approach that Berg’s unlikely role in World War II comes from his permanent sense of being an outsider. He was a ballplayer with multiple degrees who speaks many languages. He dresses stylishly and the film suggests that espionage is an extension of the evasions that Berg must practice so as to live in society as a Jew and a rumored homosexual. Using his otherness to advantage, Berg travels with a band of men to Italy and Switzerland to find the German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong), and learn whether or not the scientist is helping the Nazis develop a bomb. The answer to that question will, of course, dictate whether or not Berg is to kill the scientist. Berg’s various closeted tendencies are relegated to the stuff of mechanical character motivation and utilized as handy justification for reducing him to almost nothingness.

Berg was an American hero that was shrouded in mystery in life and in death. Moe Berg was a major league catcher for 15 years and he volunteered for the service before World War II. He felt he wanted to help his country. He was also a highly intellectual professor who spoke seven languages fluently and several others conversationally. As a Jew he was battling a country in Germany that was slaughtering his people. It was hinted that he was gay and because he remained a bachelor until his death, there was nothing to dispel that rumor. Even with his Jewish religion and his sexuality, he was asked to go behind enemy lines and assassinate German physicist, Werner Karl Heisenberg—the man who was supposedly trying to build Germany’s atomic bomb.

Paul Rudd brings as much charisma to the character as is possible. The subject matter is utterly fascinating but the film just does not deliver. It is based on the book by Nicholas Dawidoff but the screenplay falls short of the book. This is epic true tale of a man who was awarded the highest honor in America, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He declined it and this is a fascinating aspect of his life. Berg here is meant embodied those men and women who left their comfortable lives in America and headed overseas to battle an enemy that sought to bring an end to freedom. Rudd is fine and does his best to play all the positions necessary to make a film work but his charm is just not enough save this film less than mediocrity. The rest of the cast, including Jeff Daniels as Berg’s CO and Paul Giamatti and Mark Strong are all hampered by a script that goes nowhere. Sienna Miller and Guy Pearce are wasted and as good s they can be, we do not see that here.

What saves the film from total disaster are the scenes between Berg and Heisenberg. The former is in Europe to determine whether he believes the latter is working on an atomic weapon. If he thinks he is, the physicist must be assassinated. If Berg comes to understand he is not then the outcome would be different. The literal and figurative chess moves between the two men are fascinating to watch and it is too bad that the rest of the film does not rise to meet these scenes. The story begins in flashback with Berg learning that he has orders to assassinate Werner Heisenberg. The real-life inspiration for Berg is a character that is so fascinating that if you start reading about him, you will have a thirst to know more and more. Born in Manhattan but raised in Newark, New Jersey, Berg graduated from Princeton (quite an accomplishment for a young Jewish man in the anti-Semitic Ivy League university system) and went on to play for a number of minor and major league teams, including the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Senators, and the Boston Red Sox.

In 1934, Berg made the second of two trips to Japan as part of a baseball players’ delegation and filmed Tokyo harbor with a movie camera. While it seems unclear whether this was actually a precursor to Berg’s espionage activities, the film uses it thusly and the trip sets up some thoughtful conversations between Berg and Japanese delegate Isao Kawabata (Hiroyuki Sanada)  about the likelihood of war between their two countries. Berg was thought to be gay, although the movie never quite confirms that he was; we see him having sex with his girlfriend Estella Huni  (Sienna Miller)  but holding hands with Kawabata, an intellectual with whom he clearly has a deeper connection.

Unfortunately, the film never gets into Berg’s personality and he comes across as a blank-slate character. Berg’s character remains a closed book, a personality type that’s difficult to portray, because it requires the actor to continually tease the possibility of revelation without giving audiences the answers they look for. Rudd does an excellent job in capturing the character’s casual coldness, starting in an early scene where he tells Estella that he’s traveling to Japan; when she says she’s always wanted to see Japan, he smiles subtly and says, “I’ll take pictures.” As an intellectual who holds intolerant or less-educated people in mild contempt, he is fine. We get the sense that Berg is a restless spirit, possibly driven by a desire to prove himself to a gentile-dominated world by being smarter and more athletic than most of the gentiles who order him around. But except in certain scenes, something seems to be missing from the character and the performance, and it’s hard to tell if this is due to miscasting, unimaginative writing and direction, or something else. The cinematography, production design, costumes and music are all superb, but the direction doesn’t do much more than showcase them.

“I Give You My Heart” by Robin Anderson— Anderson, An Unforgettable Character

Anderson, Robin. “I Give You My Heart”, CreateSpace, 2018.

Anderson, An Unforgettable Character

Amos Lassen

When I was growing up and studying in the New Orleans Public Schools way back when people actually went to public schools, we were required (for English class) to get a subscription to the student edition of “Reader’s Digest”. When each issue arrived I would quickly turn to the article about the most unforgettable character. I wonder now why Robin Anderson was never one of those. By my count he has written some 36 books and he never fails to get a laugh out of me when I read his work. As proficient as he is, it sometimes feels like a long time between books but that is because I read him so quickly. He writes ribald stories that make you laugh and gasp simultaneously.

Now his new book, “I Give You My Heart” is a mixture of comedy and horror but what really defines it is how Anderson writes— it is as if he chose each word specifically for his book. And as ribald as he is, he still writes with a style that is uniquely is. As much as I have thought that I know what to expect, he always manages to surprise me. This time he tells a fairy tale with equal emphasis on the politically incorrect “fairy” and “tale”.

The satire here I about a serial killer and the novels that are written about serial killers. Let me give you advance warning— clear you day before you start to red because once you do, you will be turning pages as quickly as possible and there are 400 plus pages. It all begins on quite a horrible note and although I would love to share that, it would affect your ability to enjoy the read. Pay careful attention to the names of the characters as this is where Anderson excels. His puns and plays on words are stunningly amazing. I am realizing as I write this that the more I write, the less I can say since I do not want to spoil the read for anyone but keep Valentine’s Day in mind. Let me close by saying that I do not want you to get the wrong idea; Anderson is no supercilious writer; he is a serious writer who can write supercilious books.

“North Facing” by Tony Peake— October, 1962

Peake, Tony. “North Facing,” Myriad Editions, 2018.

October, 1962

Amos Lassen

During one long, intense week in October, 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought with it an East-West standoff and the possibility of nuclear holocaust. On the other side of the world, in Pretoria, a group of boys look to the horizon for signs that the world is about to end.

Paul Harvey is a sensitive and isolated young man who really wants to fit in more than anything. He was invited to join a gang of the most popular students and will do whatever he needs to in order to please the ringleader, Andre du Toit. What we see here in microcosm is the corruption of the wider society by the power struggles and cruelties of damaged little rich boys. We soon become aware that it is inevitable that will lead to an inadvertent betrayal with terrible consequences and resonances.

“North Facing” is a touching look at a teenage boy’s gradual comprehension of the reality of racism and politics in South Africa in the 1960s. We share a pivotal moment in Paul’s life as he attempts to ingratiate himself into the bully’s secret club. The tasks that Paul has to execute expose a clandestine relationship between the black gardener and a liberal teacher, but Paul realizes this when it is already too late. Switching between the teenage Paul, and the adult revisiting his past, Tony Peake takes us into a boys’ boarding school environment that he describes vividly. In doing so, he re-creates the angst and awkwardness of many a teen, as well as the complex motivations of adolescence. We also see a sensitive and subtle treatment of social injustice and atonement.

The story shifts between St Luke’s, a private boarding school for boys in 1962, and the present time. Mandela has been arrested as a result of a CIA tip of which has set off chain of events leading him to become internationally known; and on the other side of the world, the Cuban Missile crisis is unfolding.

The boys at St Luke’s realize that something extremely serious, perhaps even dangerous, is going on but do not really understand what it entails causing edgy tension which builds as the story unfolds. We see how children don’t see the full picture of what is happening in the world. They live and experience their own smaller universes, and it is only with the hindsight of adulthood that they can make sense of how people behaved and why.

Paul Harvey, born in South Africa, is the only child of English parents and he is an intelligent rather quiet boy who has an extremely close relationship with his mother. She is ambivalent about living in South Africa, and conveys that feeling to her son. At school most children want to be recognized by, and included in, what is seen as the dominant peer group – and Paul is no exception. An Afrikaner farmer’s son, Andre du Toit is a bullying boy who rules his little gang and the members of the group are all desperate for his approval. Eventually he invites Paul to join the club. This leads to a series of events that Paul doesn’t quite understand, but which have devastating consequences for some of the teachers and staff at the school.

The latter part of the book is when Paul, now in late middle-age returns to South Africa and goes on a private quest to correct the wrongs he thinks he unwittingly did when a schoolboy. He has carried an uneasy burden of guilt for many years. “North Facing” is a depiction those cruel, difficult, yet exhilarating times in a country that was mostly cut off from the world at large.

“Black Diamond Fall” by Joseph Olshan— One Winter in Rural Vermont

Olshan, Joseph. “Black Diamond Fall”, Polis Books, 2018

One Winter in Rural Vermont

Amos Lassen

“Black Diamond Fall” is a literary mystery that is based on two real events that took place at Middlebury College in Vermont. Yet it is more than just a mystery in that it looks at passion and love, sexuality and grief and anger. It is the skill of writer Joseph Olshan and how he crafts the mystery as part of his characters emotions.

Luc Flanders is a student at Middlebury, a small Vermont college. As a teen, he suffered a traumatic brain industry that has caused him to be guarded. He is also complex as we might imagine, and this is probably because this is his second chance at leading a “normal” life. One night, after playing hockey on a frozen pond with his roommates, he realizes he lost something that is important to him and so he goes back to the pond to find it. Once back there, he encounters someone and never returns.

Luc’s parents, roommates, ex-girlfriend, even the police are at a loss as to what happened to Luc and although some have suspicions, no one really knows. But then, it is learned that Luc has been involved in a secret relationship with Sam Solomon, an architect who is closer to his parents’ age than to his own. There were those who knew that Luc was hiding something but no one suspected that this is what it was.

Luc’s disappearance puts pressure on Sam with the police interrogating him about it and the relationship between the two of them. He did not want his relationship with Luc to end and could not understand why Luc refused to accept and acknowledge his sexuality. Luc was even ready to give up loving someone and being loved in return.

Then the home of poet Robert Frost that is not far from the college campus, is vandalized. During the police investigation, some links between it and Luc’s disappearance are discovered and there is the question whether the two are connected in some way. The parts of the story that deal with Luc and Sam are beautifully written and quite painful to read. Here is Olshan’s skill once again as he writes with emotion about the conflicts that Luc faces and how he feels about love and being loved. We feel Luc’s conflicts as if they are our own (we have probably dealt with the same emotions as we acknowledged who we are) and we likewise feel the sadness and grief that Sam feels while dealing with his sense of loss.

The police department in Middlebury is divided as to what happened to Luc and some feel that Flanders left on his own accord and is deliberately staying out of touch. Then there are those like detectives Nick Jenkins and Helen Kennedy who suspect that he has been harmed. As the search continues, suspicions are raised about several different people, including Luc’s roommates, his ex-girlfriend and Sam (who is unable to prove where he was when Luc disappeared).

As Luke Flanders disappears, the Robert Frost house near the Middlebury campus is vandalized. The police are determined to discover if there is a link between the Robert Frost house and Luc’s disappearance. As I said earlier, this is more than just a mystery; it also examines desire and the lies we tell others and ourselves.

The characters propel the story forward and as we read about them, we find ourselves becoming close to those we identify with and we hope that they are not implicated in the event (I hesitate to use the word crime until it is established that there is indeed a crime) we have here.

Olshan is a master of description and of creating an atmosphere for his novel and I felt the crispness of a cold Vermont night that is also a night of secrets. The story comes to us in several points of view— the investigators, Luc’s mother, Sam, and Luc himself that adds another layer to the mystery, however yet even with this Luc remains a mystery. I cannot tell you whether or not everything comes together in the end but I can tell you that the ending will haunt you long after you close the covers.

The more that I write here, the more I feel that to say anymore would spoil the read for others and so I will stop but I must add that if you want to read beautiful prose and a seductive story, then “Black Diamond Fall” is the book for you. Joseph Olshan secures his place in the canon with yet another beautifully written book.

“Wanderer” by Sarah Leon— A Relationship

Leon, Sarah. “Wanderer”, (translated by John Cullen), Other Press, 2019.

A Relationship

Amos Lassen

Sarah Leon’s novel “Wanderer” looks at the power of one person and one complicated relationship, to define our entire life. This amazing novel was first published in France when the author was a mere 21-years-old and it went on to win the prestigious 2016 Prix des Lecteurs.

Hermin has lived a secluded life near the Bourbonnais Mountains in France and is quite satisfied with it. In fact, he has deliberately secluded himself so that he can write a tribute to Shubert. That isolation ends one day when Lenny, his protégé and former piano student shows up at his door and shocks Hermin. It was already ten years ago when Lenny was a teenager and left Hermin without any advance notice or even a simple goodbye. Now Lenny is a young man and well known in the fine arts world who wins praise as a gifted pianist. In the ten years that have passed, the two have had no communication and there are unspoken and unanswered questions—why did Lenny leave? And why did he choose now to return?

Lenny has become a pianist of genius but is now emaciated and tormented. He tells Hermin that he has definitively renounced music. From then on, two narratives respond to each other, that of this clumsy reunion, where the secrets of a mysterious departure are glimpsed, and in echo, that of their meeting, of their friendship and their musical osmosis, until the inevitable rupture. We guess and feel Lenny’s confusion. He is unable to find his place. Hermin is divided between the anger aroused by the attitude of his friend and a sense of attachment that goes beyond all reason.

We move back between past and present as Hermin once again relives and remembers his relationship with the young man especially how Lenny’s musical gift struck him. But along with that gift there were secrets, periods of Lenny’s introspection and jealousies. Seeing him now as a man Hermin wonders if anything at all has changed since he still is not ready to discuss the past.

Set aside the glorious snows of winter in France, the two men are forced to confront their pasts. While this is the story of a reunion, it is also the story of friendship and past lives. Sarah Leon writes with emotion and grace and romance. We meet two men, whose complementary talents, composition and interpretation, have met with a hidden passion for each other. Sarah Léon’s first novel is mature and alive and punctuated by glorious music. The story is delicate, powerful, and beautiful.

 

“The Hillside Roble” by George Bixley— A Queer Antihero

Bixley, George. “The Hillside Roble”, Dagmar Muira, 2018.

A Queer Antihero

Amos Lassen

I was very surprised that I had not been sent a review copy of this book since I have been receiving books from Dagmar Muira for about four years but since I get lists of all new publications, I found this anyway. I did quite favorably review the first in the Slater Ibanez series in June of this year. We learn that Slater is a freelance investigator who sees himself through the kinds of men that he likes and they fall into either one of two categories— those he would like to punch and those he would like to have sex with.

Slater Ibáñez is only interested in two kinds of guys: the ones he wants to punch, and the ones he sleeps with. Slater’s turf is the dark side of Los Angeles, where he roots out insurance fraud and is not afraid to use whatever means necessary to get things done. He is, shall we say, a “queer antihero for a new age”. His employer, Della, gets him jobs and his ex, Conrad, an ex-cop as well as his ex-boyfriend supports what he does as does his f*** buddy Andy.

When Slater investigates a million-dollar robbery at a gallery in the Arts District, Slater is unable to gain access to a meeting with its owner, Eli, until he uses a bit of “pressure” that gets him into a mansion where he learns that Eli is something of a minor celeb. Eli looks perfect but seems to be obsessed with himself and his looks. It’s too bad that his personality does not match his countenance. Gallery manager Pilar and her girlfriend also seem to be hiding something. Begins working on the case posing as a straight guy in order to get the answers that he needs. Then we meet Ty, Eli’s nephew who has a job in a massage parlor and Slater suspects something. More than that, I cannot say because this is a mystery. It is also a page-turner that keeps you guessing.

“Night Soil” by Dale Peck— Family Secrets

Peck, Dale. “Night Soil”, Soho, 2018.

Family Secrets

Amos Lassen

Dale Peck’s “Night Soil” introduces us to a mother and son and then presents the queer, complex family history and present education of the narrator and insider-outsider, Judas ‘Jude’ Stammers. We read about family secrets, sexual explorations, art world wealth, and legacies of racism and environmental destruction. Jude’s mother Dixie is an artist and her pottery is lauded. Jude is pathologically shy, and retreats into a world of anonymous sexual encounters at a roadside rest area. He really wants to be in a relationship with one of the boys at The Academy, the private school he attends. The Academy was founded by Judas’s grandfather who had been a nineteenth-century coal magnate. Jude’s mother’s secretive nature, causes him to explore his family’s history, and the Academy’s as well and he discovers a series of secrets that cause him to question everything he thought he knew about his world.

Writer Dale Peck mixes parable and a queer coming of age story to give us this story of love and longing. Here is queer identity at the intersection of art, family, capitalism, and the American racial order.

Jude’s face and torso have a very prominent birthmark and he is a self-deprecating and sexually receptive youth, who eventually is prized by a black boy who attends the Academy. Jude is sexually precocious and has been allowing other males to have sex with him without letting them see him or his body.

The story is beautifully told and intelligently written look at a shy boy who remains detached from others around him. Judas masks his loneliness by escaping through his sexuality. He explores his sexuality in bathroom stalls and anonymous sexual experiences. He will not show people who he really is, not only physically, but personally. As he learns about the secrets his family has kept hidden for generations, he explores who he is and what he wants to be. He knows he can only pursue his sexual desires with random older men although we never learn why.

“Exit Plans for Teenage Freaks” by Nathan Burgoine— Finding His Place

Burgoine, Nathan. “Exit Plans for Teenage Freaks”, Bold Strokes Books, 2018.

Finding His Place

Amos Lassen

Most of us seem to forget how difficult adolescence is once we leave it behind us. Here we meet seventeen-year-old Cole whose plan is to get through high school with good grades and without any trouble. He is at peace with his sexuality and he faces his life head-on. But then there was the day when after entering his school building, he realized that he is not in the building at all. In fact, he finds himself in the museum he had just been thinking about and must decide if there is something wrong with him or he has been teleported.

Cole knows himself and I think that it is this self-knowledge that makes him such a loveable character despite his awkwardness and nerdiness (sort of like the runt of the litter that you cannot help but love). In fact all of the characters in this young adult novel and well-defined characters that act and speak the way teenagers do.

We have had more than enough coming out young adult novels and the fact that this is not one of those makes this book a pleasure to read. We do not meet the characters as they are coming out but rather after they are out and at pace with themselves.

The kids here are lesbian, gay, asexual, transgender, bisexual, and pansexual characters but they are, above all else, kids whose sexualities are incidental to their lives. They are teens who to go to school, have crushes, are experiencing adolescence just like all other teens. But this is where reality stops and if you want to understand what I mean by that you will have to read the book. I found the plot to be secondary to the characters. There is a lot going on and, in fact, the plot is very busy; perhaps a bit too busy. I could have done without so much going on and instead spending time with my new teen friends. One other problem that I had is the prose and that is because the majority of my life has been spent in teaching writing courses but I will let you discover the writing for yourselves. I hate to laud a book for one reason and then tear it apart for another so I will simply say that is a fun read about a world we were all once a part of to which we can never return (except when others return for us).