Category Archives: GLBT fiction

“Home Is Where You Queer Your Heart” edited by Arisa White, Jeffry Miah and Monique Hero-Williams— Negotiating Feelings About Home

 

White, Arisa, Jeffra Miah and Monique Mero-Williams, editors. “Home Is Where You Queer Your Heart”, Foglifter Press, 2021.

Negotiating Feelings About Home

Amos Lassen

 “Home Is Where You Queer Your Heart” is a new anthology from Foglifter Press thatlooks at how “queer writers negotiate their feelings of home when their nation has further precluded them from a place of comfort?” It includes poetry, prose, hybrid and concrete works as it introduces us to a diverse group of authors from queer and trans life. Edited by Miah Jeffra, Monique Mero-Williams, and Arisa White, the anthology is organized around the four cardinal directions, north, south, east and west.

Many LGBTQ+ people, leave home to find a world where they fit in. They search for “family” because their own biological families and the places where they lived do not recognize, accept, and protect them. Liberation movements have changed the course of LGBTQ history but life continues to evolve with changing economies, environment, and technologies. With the passage of time, what was more equitable then is somewhat less today. Queer writers must “negotiate their feelings of home when their nation has further precluded them from a place of comfort.” Our communities today are filled with memoirs of journeys and arrivals and these have found their sources in “radical acts “ of “queer homemaking.” Yet there are still places in this country where opportunities are limited or do not exist at all. Home becomes not where you are from but where you are at.  It is up to us, the queer individual and community to change the present so that we can achieve a sense of “home”. We must deal with the status quo of the times that affect the way we find or create a home an d how we write about it. We face complicated questions about what is “home” as we work at a new definition of the concept. It is from the need and the desire to find or create chosen families even as we face the issues of gentrification and displacement. This is a look at something that is quite needed and eye-opening.

Included in the anthology are selections by Andrea Abi-Karam, Sam Ace, Anastacia-Renee Jubi Arriola-Headley, Daniel Barnum, Kay Ulanday Barrett, Carson Beker, Britt Billmeyer-Finn, Luke Dani Blue, Cooper Lee Bombardier, Sionnain Buckley, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, KJ Cerankowski, Dorothy Chan, K-Ming Chang, Erica Charis-Molling, Jason B. Crawford, J DeLeon, Robin Reid Drake, C.W. Emerson, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, t’ai freedom ford, Soma Mei Sheng Frazier, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Suzanne Highland, Luther Hughes, Kenan Ince, Stacy Nathaniel Jackson, Marlin M. Jenkins, Laura Jones, Michal MJ Jones, Bettina Judd, Donika Kelly, Jahan Khajavi, Benjamin Naka-Hasebe Kingsley, Afieya Kipp, Keegan Lawler, Juli Delgado Lopera, Joey Mancinelli, Maya Marshall, Airea D. Matthews, Clara McLean, Kate Arden McMullen, Gabriel Juan Membreno, Rajiv Mohabir, Tomas Moniz, Michael Montlack, Alicia Mountain, Gala Mukomolova, Mel Nigro, Romeo Oriogun, Holly Painter, Shelagh Patterson, James Penha, Baruch Porras Hernandez, Joy Priest, Claudia Rodriguez, sam sax, Maureen Seaton, J.G. Siminski, Kevin Simmonds, Benny Sisson, Christopher Soto, Travis Tate, Michael Todd, Milo Todd, Jason Villemez and Yanyi.

“Sex with Strangers” by Michael Lowenthal— A Look at Relationships

Lowenthal, Michael. “Sex with Strangers”,University of Wisconsin Press, 20021.

A Look at Relationships

Amos Lassen

Michael Lowenthal’s new short story collection, “Sex with Strangers” looks at contemporary relationships and hookups through the perspective of attraction. A collection of both gay and straight characters become involved in intimate relationships. We see how the power of intimacy can make us become strangers who face guilt, desire, protection and illness. We follow the arc that leads to attraction and erotic encounters and we struggle with our personal questions and desires as we search within while reading.  

While, at first, these stories are about relationships, they are also about us and deal with topics that we face in life— aging, decisions, fidelity, sex and our bodies.

 have loves Lowenthal’s writing and have given him excellent reviews in the past. I knew before I began to read “Sex with Strangers” that I was in for a treat and a chance to read gorgeous details that run through whatever he writes. He creates characters that are identifiable and relevant. Lowenthal is a master storyteller and the way he develops his plot makes the reader sit up and notice and feel involved in what we read. Along with the characters, we face the trials and tribulations of life as well as see the not so beautiful aspects of doing so. As an older gay man, I so identified with what I read, especially realizing like Keith in “Over Boy” that I am no longer who I was once spiritually, psychologically and physically.

Lowenthal’s use of flashbacks make the stories come alive and give us insight into why the characters act as they do and how their lives are affected. We see the origins of desire and hope and we are reminded that hope can always be a part of us. There is something strange about sex, love and commitment yet we face them is all of their strangeness with the hope that all will be fine.

In these eight stories, we realize that characters are not alone and that they reflect so many of our own experiences. When I sat down to write this review, I debated with myself whether to write about each story or to look at the collection as a whole which is what I decided to do. At first, it might seem difficult to see how they are linked together but after letting them rest in my mind for a while, I realized that each story stands on its own but when considering them together, they are so much more powerful. If I seem to be rambling, it is because I am still thinking about what Lowenthal says here.

Beginning with feelings of loneliness and desire, the characters face their lives and begin to deal with who the really are and understand that it is not who they are that is important. It is more important to become…

“Bedside Matters” by Richard Alther— Coming to Terms with Coming to the End

Alther, Richard. “Bedside Matters”, Rare Bird Books, 2021.

Coming to Terms with Coming to the End

Amos Lassen

Several years ago I read Richard Alther’s “The Scar Letters” and was profoundly moved by it. When I learned that “Bedside Matters, his fifth novel was being published, I became very anxious to read it and was once again deeply moved. It is the story of  an unexpected journey at life’s end for one man. 

Walter had lived a good life and was a master of the business world only to learn that now, in old age and ill, a disease that would cause his body to become useless. He sits at home and watches the world move on but without him.. 

Visitors come to see him with their agendas that are meant to remind him of his life and responsibilities. Polly, his ex-wife Polly, Paula, his all-business daughter, Gavin, his good-looking but irresponsible son.  They fill Walter with emotions he had closed off long ago. Things change when he reads the work of 13th-century Persian poet Rumi’s and his inner life takes on a new shape, even though his body continues waste away. He says a long, reluctant goodbye while holding onto a side to life that he had never explored. As he deals with his pain, his garden grows and new people enter his life giving him feelings of life that he thought he had lost. He begins to have romantic feelings for his physical therapist, Tressie, and awaits her visits.

Paula is obsessed with what will happen after her father’s death. Gavin tries to start over again after another bout in rehab and Walter watches them at the game of life as an observer drifting in and out of his thoughts. For the first time, he seems to experience life as a poet would, even as the inevitable end comes closer. 

Alther examines the promise of life, even at its end with ideas that are important to all of us when we consider what really matters in life.  As Walter prepares to let go of life, we become part of his last days and he leads us to think about what is important and authentic. As he faces his own physical decline and deals with family intrigues, he manages to rise above his state and find meaning in the beauty of philosophy, art and literature. This is so much more than the story of a man facing his last days. As Walter struggles to break from his constraints ad find peace, we begin to understand how it is to face the end of life.”

“The Recent East” by Thomas Grattan— Identity, Displacement, Family, Belonging

Grattan, Thomas. “The Recent East”, MCD, 2021.

Identity, Displacement, Family, Belonging

Amos Lassen

In his first novel, Thomas Grattan takes us back to shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Beate Haas defected from East Germany as a child and has now been notified that her parents’ abandoned mansion is available for her to reclaim. She is recently divorced and eager to escape her mundane life in upstate New York, where she moved as an adult and with her two children, she arrives to find a place  that has become a ghost town. The move hurts the siblings’ close relationship. Michael who is free to be gay, begins robbing empty houses and partying with young anarchists and Adela becomes fascinated with the of the Holocaust and reads whatever she can on the subject and  becomes close to a previously unknown cousin. As time passes, the town changes from a dismantled city and becomes a haven for refugees and a place for neo-Nazis and then becomes a seaside resort town.  As they are surrounded by change, the family faces violence that forever will define the family. 

Grattan gives us a look at whatit means to leave home, and what it means to return as seen and experienced through a family that is deeply affected by displacement and loss. Both sad and life-affirming, he reminds us of  what it takes to find ourselves at home. Here is a look at Germany as it was in the late 20thcentury and still dealing with the legacy of war. As we read, we learn to better see ourselves as who we are and how we fit into the world of today. We move back and forth over time as we experience (not just read) a queer story of coming-of-age that makes us laugh and scares us at the same time. We get a look atCold War-era Germany both as a memory and as an actual place through the eyes of wonderfully created characters who share themselves in all off their intimacies against the backdrop of political and cultural change and immigration.

“First, Become Ashes” by K.M. Szpara— A Road Trip of Self-Discovery

Szpara, K.M. “First, Become Ashes”, Tor.com, 2021.

A Road Trip of Self -Discovery

Amos Lassen

 In “First, Become Ashes, K. M. Szpara explores self-discovery after trauma and outgrowing abusive origins over the course of an American road trip. For some thirty years, the Fellowship of the Anointed isolated its members and conditioned them to believe that pain is power, magic is suffering and that the world beyond the fence has fallen to monsters. However, when their leader is arrested, all of her teachings are questioned. 

Those involved in the Fellowship must now face a choice: how to adjust to the world they were taught to fear, and how to relate to the cult’s last crusader, Lark. For Kane, survival means rejecting the magic that he and his lover have suffered for. For Deryn, the cult’s collapse is chance to prove that they are worth as much as their Anointed brother. For Calvin, Lark remains the fulfillment of the magic he has been searching for his entire life. Lark does not see the Fellowship as over but before he can begin to find himself and heal his life of trauma, he has a monster to slay.

This is not a book for everyone as it is quite sexually explicit at times yet it is a wonderful look at what is real and what is magical. Centered onfour members of the Fellowship of the Anointed, a cult that isolated its members for thirty years but then broken up by the FBI, they now must decide how to adjust to the world they were taught to be afraid of. They embark upon a journey of  self-discovery and come to terms with who they are in the wider world. We look at themes of fandom, queerness and religious disillusionment set in a story of love and family.

Told in alternating point of views between past and present, this is a tale of trauma. It is hard to not to tell spoilers in reviewing the book as it unites fantasy and narrative storytelling. Lark and Kane are on the verge of a major life change when this story begins. They are both members of the “Anointed” and have spent their entire lives being trained to control their magical skills through ritual and discipline. They live at Druid Hill with those who train and care for them. They are cut off from the outside world of humans. and monsters. The monsters who live in the world outside of Druid Hill are the creatures that they must one day fight and conquer in order to protect themselves and  everyone else.

When Kane who leaves the safety of their home, Lark is left alone. He’s lost without his partner and counts the time in days until he can be out fighting side by side with Kane once more. At this point, the FBI busts into Druid dragging everyone from their home and Lark surmises that Kane seems to be working with the FBI.

The characters in this story have been involved different non-consensual sex and BDSM practices. From this we come to understand what the main characters have lived through. When Lark is faced with Kane telling him that everything they have been taught is false,  he does not accept it. Here is where the reader has to make his own decisions,.

Lark leaves and allies himself allied with Calvin who is something of a nerd who wants magic to be real. To him, Lark represents magic and everything that Calvin wants to believe exists in his world. Together the two men use magical skill and technology to so that Lark can fulfill his mission of finding and killing the monster that that threatens humankind.

While written as a fantasy, This is actually a look at how we are controlled by belief and those who are able to control us as well as what we hope for. This is not a comfortable read but I think the issues it deals with are important.

“Lies With Man”, (Henry Rios Mystery Series, 8) by Michael Nava— The Case of His Life

Nava, Michael. “Lies With Man”, (Henry Rios Mystery Series, 8), ,Amble Press, 2021.

The Case of His Life

Amos Lassen

In volume eight of the Henry Rios Mystery Series,Latino criminal defense lawyer Henry Rios takes on the case of his life defending a young, queer activist who is charged with the murder. It all begins when Evangelical Christians and right-wing politicians team up to pass a ballot initiative to forcibly quarantine people with AIDS. When a fundamentalist church is firebombed and the pastor who publicly supported the initiative is killed, a member of a militant gay activist group QUEER (Queers United to End Erasure and Repression) is arrested for the bombing and charged with first-degree murder which brings the death penalty.

As Rios works on the case, secrets about the pastor come to light as well as about the accused, the activist organization and even the Los Angeles Police Department. Set in Los Angeles, 1986, the AiDS epidemic was devastating the gay population. When the initiative seems as if it is going to pass, Rios agrees 
to be counsel for QUEER that claims to be committed to peaceful civil disobedience. However, one of its members is implicated in the bombing and Rios finds himself with a client suddenly facing the death penalty. You might think that since AIDS is no longer the threat that it was once, that there is little relevance here. We are still dealing with some of the same problems we did back then— homophobia and the rise of Evangelical Christianity. Let us not forget what these Evangelicals did in the Trump presidential administration.

If you have read any of the Rios books, you know that writer Michael Nava has drawn a character that is “on it”. He is authentic and very real. Nava is a brilliant detective writer who has us turning pages as quickly as possible. He keeps getting better and better making me wonder how he will ever top this. Of course, I cannot say much about the plot without ruining a wonderful read so you will just have to take my word for it. Nava also writes wonderful dialogue and is obviously in command of the law and legalese. This is not just a crime story but a story filled with what it was like to live during the AIDS epidemic, relationships and intimacies between people, politics and morality, fundamentalism and race. We see the power of the emotions especially those of love and hate. In our new freedoms in America today, we often forget the gay shame we once had to deal with and how it affected us so deeply.

“Sarahland” by Sam Cohen— A Queer Look at the World

Cohen, Sam. “Sarahland”, Grand Central Publishing, 2021.

A Queer Look at the World

Amos Lassen

Sam Cohen’s “Sarahland” is a collection of stores that “imagines new origins and futures for its cast of unforgettable protagonists—almost all of whom are named Sarah.” It explores the ways that other more traditional stories have been unsatisfying by giving us
“new ways to love the planet and those inhabiting it, and new possibilities for life itself.” Cohen looks at the search for self, demanding that we have more to resist and repair than our own personal stories.  For example, the ever-evolving “Sarah” is “recast as a bible-era trans woman, an aging lesbian literally growing roots, a being who transcends the earth as we know it” and so on. We see  a world moving toward its end.

There is no single narrative in each story and we see how we can build a better world which does not necessitate or demand“no fixity of self, no plague of consumerism, no bodily compromise.” It is a place called Sarahland. We see how we are able to see ourselves and where we are. Here is the world as seen through a queer lens in which our culture and fairy tales are used to present the lives and worlds of the Sarahs. Here are the various lives, stories, and worlds the Sarahs can live in. The world of the women named Sarah is revolutionary as it looks at modern identity. The stories are filled with wisdom, emotion, culture and vulnerability. I was so into it that I devoured it in one sitting. Now I miss my Sarahs.

“The Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire” by Rachel Sharona Lewis— A New Kind of Rabbi

Lewis, Rachel Sharona. “The Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire”, Ladiesladies Press, 2021.

A New Kind of Rabbi

Amos Lassen

One of my favorite things about being a reviewer is reading new talent. Rachie Lewis is not new to me as a person but she is as a writer and I had no idea what to expect from her first outing into literature. I knew her as a social activist in the Jewish and LGBTQ communities Boston as an activist so I was not surprised to see that she included activism into her story but I was delightfully surprised by the quality of her writing— so much so, that I read “The Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire” in one sitting. I read a lot of books with Jewish/LBGTQ themes and have noticed that they use this motif as happenstance whereas here it is an integral part of the test and it is extremely well done. I have lived through fascinating times as a member of this community and have watched it change and it is so good to have a book about a rabbi who is both a lesbian and Jewish. (I can just see myself explaining the premise of the book to my observant parents who would immediately have something negative to say).

Rabbi Vivian Green is the head of Congregation Beth Abraham in Providence where they feel that their new rabbi should “sing some songs and go to an environmental rally.” She, however, sees things differently  and wants the membership to become involved with what is happening around them. This, to her, means getting involved in the special election for mayor of the city, to attend interfaith breakfasts with their city-special mayoral elections, interfaith breakfasts, fight for affordable housing and become people who really care and act on how they feel about the larger world in which they live. Then there is the rabbi’s social side when she “would like just one night off to go dancing in the leather boots that make her look like her finest gay self.” The new Judaism has arrived and for Beth Abraham it has done so with Rabbi Green.

Things do not go smoothly and the temple is set on fire bringing about that old division in the congregation. But then they learn that there were other fires in town as well. The rabbi is not willing to let go causing tensions to flair between  her and her boss, the community and a mysterious person who wields a lot of power. The case becomes more than just knowing who committed the crime.

The idea of a rabbi who is also something of a detective is not new. In fact, I have read similar novels with some of the same trademarks of a mystery novel. What is new is the way writer Lewis handles her story. She writes from a different perspective as she attempts to solve the crime as she takes us behind the scenes of the temple’s inner workings.

Today’s issues of solidarity with communities of color, changing wealth from power and the rabbi who is new on the scene provides a fascinating read and also has us questioning ourselves as if we are actually part of the situation. I think the major plus of the book is its relevance to our lives in terms of modern Judaism— a move away from the old-fashioned emphasis on learning and the new emphasis on doing. We really see how much the religion has progressed.  We do need read about study and intense prayer but rather about making a difference. The characters are Jews like us who care about community and justice in our world and not about a world that is far removed from us. I certainly hope that this is the beginning of a new series and that Lewis has plans to continue. She is off to a great start.

“The Guncle” by Steven Rowley— Love, Patience and Family

Rowley, Steven. “The Guncle”, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021.

Love, Patience and Family

Amos Lassen

Patrick is a gay uncle (GUP, for short) who loves his niece, Maisie, and nephew, Grant. That is, he loves spending time with them when they come out to Palm Springs for weeklong visits, or when he goes home to Connecticut for the holidays. However, caretaking and relating to two children overwhelm him. When the kids lose their mother and their father becomes ill, Patrick facestaking on the role of primary guardian. Even though he has a set of “Guncle Rules” ready to go, Patrick really does not know what to expect. He had been preoccupied barely making it himself after he lost his own lover and his career as an actor stalled. He knows that the way he lives is not the best for a six- and a nine-year-old. It does not long for him to understand that becoming a parent is much more than fun and games. He now has a new sense of responsibility and the realizing that makes him see that he is, indeed, human. 

Being a gay uncle myself (although not to the degree that Patrick has to undertake), I found so many relatable sections in “The Guncle”. I also found great humor and wonderful heart. Steven Rowley gives us a new kind of hero in this novel that gives us yet another definition of family. There is a sweetness and tenderness to this story that has us confront love and death and family. Patrick is a fabulous character who is not likely to become a parent or to help the children deal with grief yet he does so wonderfully. He is just what they need and they, in turn, help him deal with his own loss of love. Even with all of the humor here, Rowley deals with emotions beautifully.

“The Tender Grave” by Sheri Reynolds— A Search for Home and Healing

Reynolds, Sheri. “The Tender Grave”, Bywater Books, 2021.

A Search for Home and Healing

Amos Lassen

Two sisters, Dori 17 and Teresa, her older sibling have try to find the way to connect after being estranged. Dori has been involved in taking part in a hate crime against a gay student at her school and flees in order to not be prosecuted. She has had a lousy childhood as well and needs to get away. She has a half-sister but the two have never met even though Dori keeps her address with her. What she does not know is that her sister is married to another woman. In their confrontation, they must deal with the issues of understanding. They do not like each other yet they are tied to each other in ways they do not understand. They must find ways to overcome the differences that exist between them and they do manage to do so. As they work toward this, hey discover something about family and deep connections that seem to be contrary to who they are.

I found themes and ideas that are reminiscent of other Southern writers in “The Tender Grave”. Writer Sheri Reynolds gives us beautifully constructed characters through whom we learn about ourselves. The sisters have to deal with feelings of doubt they have been with them throughout their lives and the awful childhoods that they had to endure. That they are able to come together even with their differences has something to say about how we relate to those we do not really know as well as the importance of family, whatever that family may be.

The prose is gorgeous and the story flows as we explore the lives of the sisters from the South as they both search for “heart, home, and healing.” While circumstances definitely influence us, we see that they cannot determine what we need most in life— to be ourselves.