Category Archives: GLBT fiction

“Goldenrod” by Ann McMan— An Ever Changing World

McMan, Ann. “Goldenrod” (“Jericho”), Bywater Books, 2017.

An Ever Changing World

Amos Lassen

Jericho is a small town in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. It is a place for livers and lovers whose lives have twists, turns and surprises. We meet Syd, Maddie, David, Michael, Henry, Celine, and Roma Jean Freemantle as make their way in Jericho and the larger world. One thing for sure is that life in Jericho is never dull. Maddie and Syd are trying to find a new life now that their foster child, Henry Lawrence, is taking care of himself after being reunited with his father, a disabled veteran. Henry has become friendly with Dorothy, a young girl who is dealing with her own family demons. David is dealing with Michael’s love of working in a local soul food restaurant; Lizzie Mayes and Tom Murphy understand that their relationship is having problems and Azalea who is now ninety-years-old and a Yankee hater gets a job as a beta tester for Grand Theft Auto VI. As if that is not enough, Maddie’s mother retires to Jericho and is attracted to a much younger man while Roma Jean Freemantle tries to run her bookmobile as she realizes her growing attraction to another woman.

This is book 3 in the Jericho series and even though I had not read the other two, I had no problem here. I did not know the backgrounds of the characters but I picked up on them quickly. Hendy who is Maddie and Syd’s foster child in now with his father but sleepovers at the old house every now and then. Roma Jean is now a woman, David is thinking about politics while Michael thinks about food and Celine has a beau. There is a dark thread of child abuse and homophobia in the air and we see the real problem of being gay in a small town. We really feel the pain of this especially since this is a happy place.

Dorothy appears for the first time and she is an intelligent girl who is afraid of her father and his anger. Do not worry though because the anger I mentioned does not affect the fun dialogue and the amazing characters that we have here. It is just, from what I have read, that there is more emotional here than the previous two books. I have only read one other book by Ann McMan, “Backcast” and her wittiness and intelligence impressed me then as it does today. She is an observer of people and we certainly see that in the characters that she has created here.

Goldenrod is a book with depth that explores the concept of family and we see various examples of family here. We are reminded that it is parent who creates a family and we have examples of all kinds of parents here. We are in the Bible Belt so religion plays a big part here. What we see in Jericho, we see in so many other places in the United States, especially in small towns. We have really seen that ugliness with the election of the 45th president whose name I cannot allow myself to type. We also se how religion influences those who do not know any better as evidenced by the organizers of Chicago’s Dyke March this year. It seems as if we have entered a time in which it is easier to hate than to love, easier to reject than to include and easier to speak without thinking. It is books like this that show us what is wrong and even embarrass us to do right. What I really love about this book is that we have humor and depth side by side.

I mentioned earlier that you do not have to have read the first two books in the series “Jericho” and “Aftermath” to enjoy this but it helps and since I did not read them, I am going to do so starting tomorrow. The beauty of reading is that it entertains and educates at the same time and since I never have enough of either, I always feel the need for more.

“Sappho’s Bar and Grill” by Bonnie J. Morris— Back to the Past

Morris, Bonnie J. “Sappho’s Bar and Grill”, Bywater Books, 2017.

Back to the Past

Amos Lassen

Hannah Stern is a history professor and she is lonely. One night she walks into her local lesbian bar to talk to her friend Isabel who bartends there hoping to get some advice. Hannah has settled into the life of academia and raises her glass and announces that this year will be lonely like the others and she will be forced “to date” women’s history. However, that remark takes her on a voyage through time and she is totally surprised to find herself meeting with the women that she teaches about. It seems that she is caught up in something akin to time-travel that is somehow connected to Sappho’s Bar and Grill.

Writer Bonnie Morris cleverly takes us on a tour of women’s history and it is great fun. We can only imagine how it is to meet the people we study about and Hannah has the chance to do just that. Now she is a scholar so right away she begins to wonder what these historical women have to tell her ad what kind of questions can she ask of such women.

Let’s go back to when Hannah walks into the bar. Of course, she is lonely—it is Valentine’s Day and she is alone once again. As she speaks with Isabel she also drinks Isabel’s strange and exotic herbal cocktail and she begins to realize that perhaps she is missing something in Isabel. However, unknowingly how she did so, Hannah unleashes history and she is soon meeting the women who played an important role in the world over time going all the way back to Sappho. These meetings she has give her a new lease on life and her love for history and for women has been rekindled. She soon feels the need and desire for romantic love that has been slipping away from her up to this point. Suddenly she has centuries of feminist wisdom and knowledge at her fingertips. The chance for finding love is right in front of her and she finds these women to be seductive. Is there love there for her or perhaps somewhere else. What there is, it seems for the first time in a long time, prospects for love.

Neatly divided into chapters, each is for a certain time of year and a visit from a corresponding historical woman. As a male reading this, a light bulb went off in my head. I have worried that the younger generation of gay men is oblivious to our history and often seem totally disinterested (just as reading disinterests some) but what a great way to bring our history home. I love Bonnie Morris’ idea; it is a very clever way to impart history (something the organizers of Chicago’s Dyke March need very badly). We see here Morris’ own relationship to history and because she is such a good writer, the book is both educative and fun. Her prose entertains throughout and she gives us wonderful characters that live and breathe womanhood (I suppose that sentence should be in the past tense). It is a real treat to have these historical women come together to speak about issues such as history, politics, sexuality, and patriarchal notions even today exist. Issues seem to never change even though the approach to them does. I love that we are given a great deal to think about and we even feel challenged to act just as Hannah does. It is not easy to write a book that jumps through time and it is even harder to maintain its truthfulness but writer Morris has done both beautifully.

I am far from an expert on women’s literature but I know what I like and I know what is good literature. Hannah Stern and Bonnie Morris get A’s on both.

 

“Strays: A Lost Cat, a Homeless Man, and Their Journey Across America” by Britt Collins— Saving Each Other

Collins, Britt. “Strays: A Lost Cat, a Homeless Man, and Their Journey Across America”, Simon and Schuster. 2017.

Saving Each Other

Amos Lassen

If you have ever doubted the bond that exists between a person and his pet, you need to read “Strays”, the true story of Michael King, his rescued stray, injured cat and how they save each other. King is homeless, alcoholic, and depressed. He lives in a UPS loading bay on the wrong side of the tracks in Portland, Oregon. One rainy night, he finds a hurt, starving, cat and takes her in, nursing her back to health, he names her Tabor. When winter comes, they travel from Oregon to the beaches of California to the high plains of Montana, and along the way, people are drawn to Tabor and moved to help Michael, who either has Tabor riding high on his backpack or walking on a leash. Tabor comforts Michael when he’s down thus giving Michael someone to love and care for. She also inspires him to get sober and to come to terms with his past family traumas and grief over the death of his life partner.

Man and cat become inseparable as each heals the scars of each other’s troubled pasts. However, when Michael takes Tabor to a veterinarian in Montana, he discovers that Tabor has an identification chip and an owner in Portland who has never given up hope of finding his beloved cat. Michael has a difficult choice to make but he decides to return to Portland and reunite Tabor with her owner. He is then left to create a new purpose in his life after Tabor. What we see so beautifully here is the healing power of love and the profound bond between humans and animals. We see the ability that animals have to transform people and we also get a humanizing look at the factors that lead to homelessness. 

Tabor’s journey and willingness to persevere, is a wonderful reminder of how animals can help create extraordinary circumstances, which help people join together in even the toughest of times. The prose here is beautiful and the story is compelling. The narrative moves back and forth between Michael and Tabor as they hitchhike across the Oregon, California, Idaho and Montana and then to Portland as it gives us details the tough life of stray cats and homeless people living on their wits alone.

“Less” by Andrew Sean Greer— A Transformational Journey and a Transformational Read

Greer, Andrew Sean. “Less”, Lee Boudreaux, 2017.

A Transformational Journey and A Transformational Read

Amos Lassen

Arthur Less is a mid-list novelist who is nearing his 50th birthday and he knows that he needs to grow up. He also needs to get out in the world. His younger and very good looking ex-boyfriend, a poet, is about to get married and Arthur does not want to go to the wedding and in order not to do so, he accepts every literary invitation he receives, negotiates with his frequent flier miles and leaves San Francisco for a trip around the world. He goes to Mexico, Spain, Italy, Germany, Morocco, Vietnam, India, and Japan and as he travels, he finds love, despair, adventure, and misadventure. He comes to terms (by force) with the fact that he is getting older as well as with realities of life.

I found myself laughing on every page and it is rare to find a book that causes a reader to do that. Of course, I can only urge you to read this and tell you that you will be missing a wonderful experience if you do not. Having been reviewing for several years now, I feel safe in saying whether a book will be a hit or not so I have no trouble saying that “Less” will be one of the book to read in 2017 or in whatever year you decide to read it.

One of the biggest issues that gay men face today is that of being oneself. It was not that long ago that we could do so openly so trepidation is a part of the coming-out and being at home with oneself. As Arthur, Greer tells us that first it is important for us to be ourselves and once we are comfortable there is little that we cannot do. I know that I mentioned the humor of the story but let me also tell you that there are other emotions at play here because, after all, Arthur Less is human. We deal with so many emotions on a daily basis that it is hard to put these into prose although writer Greer has no trouble doing so.

Arthur Less cannot seem to control the adventures and the misadventures that he becomes involved in (and pulls us along). Because he is so filled with awkwardness, he makes us feel good. While I am sure it is the writer’s intention that we laugh with and at Less, sometimes the situations hit so close to home that we cannot help recognizing them. There is a phrase in the Hebrew bible that has become my motto, “there is nothing new under the sun” but there are new ways to talk about them and that is where Greer totally succeeds.

Quite basically this is a love story (wait a second, I have not mentioned that aspect of the novel and neither will I do so), it is also a sensitive look at friendship and the meaning of doing and living what you love. I feel like I have made a new friend in Andrew Greer even though we have never met and all I know about him is that he wrote this book. As a writer myself, I share the same anxieties as Arthur and as a naturally shy person (I hear my naysayers not agreeing with that), I have the same apprehension about visiting somewhere new and meeting new people even though I have had to do so several times in my life like when I moved to Boston without knowing anyone here.

Something else that we learn here is the importance of living the moment, something many of fail to do. When Greer tells you to do so in his beautiful prose, you cannot help but comply.

I have not yet mentioned the supporting characters. Each and everyone is a pleasure and they all have something important to say. I could not help being a bit nostalgic as I read and I was taken back to my coming out days in New Orleans and then the decision to chuck it all and move to Israel where I had to once again deal with coming out but in a different language and environment and years before Tel Aviv became the gay capital of the Middle East.

As I read, the more I began to love Arthur Less as I came to understand that here in this one character is a microcosm of the world we live in. Not many authors can create a character like him.

 

“While My Wife’s Away” by James Lear— A Journey to Self-Discovery

Lear, James. “While My Wife’s Away”, Cleis Press, 2017. July 11, 2017

A Journey to Self-Discovery

Amos Lassen

James Lear is a literary pornographer and that is not a term that I give away easily. I have reviewed all of his books and find that he just keeps getting better even though I rarely read gay erotic writing. I believe it was about ten years ago that I was first introduced to Lear (when I was one of Cleis Press’s regular reviewers before the company was sold). He knows how to create a situation that he make erotic in very few words and I can safely say that he has written some of the best and some of the hottest gay prose that I have ever read.

He does the same in his new book, “While My Wife’s Away” and just the title reeks of eroticism and sexy thoughts. Try to remember your first time with a married straight man (so many of us have done this) and see if it doesn’t rank with some of your most erotic experiences. Here we meet Joe Heath who seems to be a typical (“typical” is a word that bothers me because I am not sure that such a thing exists anymore) straight married man, living with his wife and two teenage children. He commutes to work, plays sports and enjoys beer but there are some things about Joe that very few people know and those that do have been his sexual partners. No one really knows that his marriage is sliding as is his relationship with his wife. They sleep in separate bedrooms and really have stayed together for their kids. only staying together until the kids have left home. Something else that others do not know is that Joe wants to have sex with another man.

When a chance meeting with a trainer at his gym occurs, it sets Joe off as a series of other sexual encounters with men. In fact, Joe has all kinds of encounters from casual to serious to dangerous. This is way James Lear goes to town. It did not take long before Joe began living a double and dishonest life (as far as his family is concerned). Joe earns for his family by day and becomes a sexual adventurer by night. His hunting ground is the internet where he can find whatever he wants.

Now you may ask where is the literary aspect of James Lear’s work. I see it in Joe’s self-discovery of who he really is. While he is not the kind of guy that I would want to call a friend, I cheer him on as he learns abut himself and we can only hope that self-acceptance will follow. Lear is a sophisticated writer whose pornography is also sophisticated and there is a profundity in this novel (and I will let you discover that yourselves). Yes, the prose is sexually stimulating but it is also, to a degree, intellectually stimulating. There is an inner psychological drama here and we see this clearly when we look at the lies that Joe need to use in order to be himself. Joe faces himself when dealing with what he considers to be personal need and not morality or the lack of it. He is not happy in a marriage that has run its course but we do not know who gets the blame for this.

This is in no way a romance—it is hard erotica with no emotions and no hanging around for coffee in the morning. While the sex is plentiful, it is not gratuitous in that they contribute to the growth of Joe’s character. It took the accident at the gym and the attentions of the trainer Adrian for Joe to realize what had been missing in his life. When Adrian helps him at the gym, Joe becomes aroused and this is where his journey begins. He sets out on a quest from which, in all probability, there will be no return. If he does not go about it in the right way he could destroy himself and everyone involved with him.

The novel just ends and it leaves us with several unanswered questions making me think that we have not seen the last of Joe.

 

The Truth About Goodbye” by Russell Ricard— The Final Goodbye

Ricard, Russell. “The Truth About Goodbye”, Wise Ink Creative Publishing, 2017.

The Final Goodbye

Amos Lassen

Sebastian Hart has said many goodbyes in his life. Now at a year after his husband Frank’s death, he still blames himself. He had started the argument that night over one of Frank’s former dates with someone younger than Sebastian.

When his friend Chloe told him to follow his dreams of becoming a choreographer, he realizes that has to deal with his romantic feelings for Reid, a new student in his tap class. He senses that Sebastian’s ghost is there warning him not to become involved with another man and this causes Sebastian to wonder if death is, indeed, the final goodbye. Sebastian sees that life is much like his chosen career of choreography and one just has to learn the steps or adlib when necessary.

This is a read filled with emotion as is life and we read about the good times and the not-so-good times. Writer Russell Ricard has written a book that looks at the basic themes of being left alone, sadness and grief, stereotyping and aging and re-finding love.

Sebastian Hart is quite a fascinating character. He is an experienced theater singer and dancer who loves classic cinema. We see him as being lost and he still feels that he was abandoned by parents and faces unresolved loss because of it just as he feels unresolved loss as a result of Frank’s death. We see though him that letting go is difficult regardless of the circumstances.

Ricard’s prose is clever and because of this and the well drawn and his multi-faceted characters, we are pulled into the story on the first page.

 

“Sparkle Boy” by Leslea Newman— Casey Shines and Sparkles

Newman, Leslea. “Sparkle Boy”, Lee & Low Books, 2017.

Casey Shines and Sparkles

Amos Lassen

I always look forward to a new book from Leslea Newman who was once of the first authors I reviewed when I started doing this some ten years ago. From “Heather Has Two Mommies’” to Matthew Shepard, we have seen Newman’s versatility and sincerity in her writings. It is interesting that on the day “Sparkle Boy” arrived in my mailbox, I had just finished reading an article on why glitter should be banned from Pride parades and had really never thought much about it aside from the fact that it is really difficult to clean up when those shiny little specks are everywhere. Yet glitter is something else since it makes us shine and in its own way, it emphasizes the differences in us all. When I opened the mailer in which “Sparkle Boy” was mailed, the first thing I noticed was that the cover had glitter on it. Knowing Newman’s writing style, I already knew that the story within would sparkle as much, if not more than the cover.

Casey is a young boy who loves his playthings— his blocks, his puzzles and his toy truck but he also loves things that boys are not “supposed” to love such as those that sparkle and gleam like his sister’s Jessie’s bracelet, glittery nail polish and her skirt that shimmers. Casey wants things like that yet even though his parents and his grandmother are okay with that, Jessie is not. It seems that young Jessie has already formulated her ideas on gender but that changed when two older boys teased him because of what he was wearing. This made Jessie realize that her brother had every right to be who he is and wear what he wants. I love seeing that Casey’s family embraces his rebellion against a dress code based upon a social construct dictated by society. Jessie wants that she and Casey can both love things that sparkle

Casey loves to play with his blocks, puzzles, and dump truck, but he also loves things that sparkle. We all have the right to be whoever we want and dress however we want as the gender binary becomes more and more outdated every day. For some it might take a sweet and heartwarming story like this one to realize that. After all, life is about acceptance, respect, and the freedom to be oneself. With beautiful illustrations by Maria Mola, Newman wonderfully captures the innocence of youth and envisions a world where we can all be ourselves. We also see the pleasures of a family that cares and lets us know that we can each shine in our own ways. Isn’t it fascinating that Jessie teaches us about acceptance and understanding and that it was actually a part of her own learning process.

What I really appreciate about Leslea Newman is that we never know it advance what will be the next topic she will write about and regardless of what it is, she glitters and gleams like Casey. There is always some issue in society that needs to be addressed and we can be pretty sure that Newman will be there to introduce them in her own inestimable way. I always seem to ruin into Leslea a couple of times each year, after all, we both live in the same state, and the next time I see her I will have glitter on somewhere and she and I, like Casey, can sparkle together.

“PAULISTA”— Relationships

“PAULISTA”  (“Quanto Dura o Amor?”)

Relationships

Amos Lassen

“Paulista” cptures the brief and fleeting relationships that in Sao Paulo, Brazil. It is the story of three young twenty-somethings living in the “Jaqueline Apartment” building and each is looking for love. Marina (Sílvia Lourenço) is an aspiring actress who has moved from the countryside for auditions and begins living with Suzana (Maria Clara Spinelli), a lawyer with a secret. Their neighbor, Jay, is a poet with a severe lack of self-esteem.

Roberto Moreira’s film is a melancholic study of modern relationships in the sterile and cold world of São Paulo. As the film moves forward, Marina becomes disconnected in both a figurative and compositional sense. While Marina is the main character, it is Maria Clara Spinelli’s Suzana that becomes the focal point, breaking out of the conventional portrayal of transsexuals in film. The film does not sexualize nor demeans her and she is the most stable character in the movie and a contrast to the chaotic and spoiled Justine.

The word “Paulista” refers to both inhabitants of São Paulo. The film was originally titled “Quanto Dura o Amor?” (“How long does love last?”) We see that love, in this film, is very brief. All of the characters are defined by their longing for love. Marina falls for Justine, a singer at the nightclub just around the corner. Justine is a wild child and seems to still be attached to Nuno, the owner of the club. Justine is also loony, which becomes increasingly obvious as the movie progresses. Suzanna wants to settle down with a husband, and Gil seems like an ideal match, but her secret causes her to withdraw from him. When she finally opens up, it’s disastrous. Jay’s obsession for Michelle, a prostitute who increasingly tells him that she’s only in it for the money, leads him to humiliating lengths. At the end of the film, all three characters are alone and brokenhearted. While this sounds depressing, it doesn’t matter because it is an enjoyable viewing experience. The ending is perfect and satisfying for all its sadness and sometimes we need to remember that sadness can be sweet.

The São Paulo of this film is an ugly city. It is characterized by concrete housing blocks and sterile buildings. What makes the city come to life here is the life force of the assembled humanity.

Suzanna and the actress, Maria Clara Spinelli, who plays her, are transsexuals, so I have some vested interest in her portrayal. She is fairly unique in movies yet this is not a big thing for the plot. She’s a normal person with a normal job and normal wants and dreams and a normal sex life. The film doesn’t sexualize her, even though she’s gorgeous, nor does it rob her of her sexuality. She’s the most stable character in the film. Spinelli, for her part, invests the character with a kind of melancholy resignation, because her paramour is totally not past it. I am a little bit wary of the way the film eases into revealing her past, but the character is herself totally stealth, so there’s a method to it. It doesn’t play into the trans woman as deceiver archetype, but it flirts with it. Sexualities are taken in stride and the most dysfunctional character in the movie is Jay, a straight man.

“Meg and Linus” by Hanna Nowinski— Best Friends

Nowinski, Hanna. “Meg & Linus”, Swoon Reads, 2017.

Best Friends

Amos Lassen

Meg and Linus are best friends who share a love of school, coffee and being queer. It’s hard to be the nerdy lesbian or gay kid in a suburban town but they have each other and are happy.

However, things start to change when Sophia, Meg’s longtime girlfriend, breaks up with Meg. At the same time, Linus starts tutoring the new kid, Danny and Meg thinks setting them up is a great chance to get her mind off of her own heartbreak. But, Linus isn’t so sure Danny even likes guys, and maybe Sophia isn’t quite as out of the picture as Meg thought she was. This is a story about two teens who must learn to get out of their comfort zones and take risks.

The story is told in alternating points of view and it is sweetly romantic. Meg and Linus have to deal with pain and uncertainties as the story goes forward.

We do not get many stories of a lesbian and a gay guy being best friends and that makes this a unique story. It is also a story of a very strong friendship of two people who are not romantically interested in each other but really care. Even with the pressures from others to conform, the two remain true to themselves throughout.

Meg and Sophia have been together since Meg was fifteen years old and Meg already dreams about getting married after college. Therefore she is shocked when Sophia breaks up with her at the end of the summer. Sophia is a year ahead of her and already in college and doesn’t want a long distance relationship. This devastates Meg is devastated but is determined to try new things. So she and Linus join the drama club. However, she has a motive and wants Linus to find a boyfriend so she is going to help him to get together with Danny but she isn’t even sure that Danny is gay.

When Linus begins hanging out with Danny,

their friendship starts to change. Linus does not know how to help Meg with her broken heart.

This is both a love story and a story about friendship as well as insecurities, happiness and change.

I love the ethnic diversity here— Danny is Indian and Sophia is African American.

Meg and Linus take risks and try new things as we watch them grow over the course of the book.

The characters are well drawn and give a feeling of validation for others who identify as geeky and queer. Meg and Linus are both comfortable with their sexuality and I found the focus on love to be well done and fun to read.

“The One Who Taught Me Everything” by John Harris— Accepting Onseself

Harris, John. “The One Who Taught Me Everything”, (True To Myself Memoir Book 1), CreateSpace, 2017.

Accepting Oneself

Amos Lassen

In “The One Who Taught Me Everything”, we meet John, a man in the Midwest young man who is unsure of where his life is taking him. He has a girlfriend he doesn’t love, and he works for his father but he would he’d rather be writing. He tells his story through his diary and we see him face a bad period when everything seems dark. But then he meets Richard, a caring, smart, and good looking gay man and everything changes. Richard shows John that he may just be gay himself and John gives in to his true desires, and his relationship with Richard makes him a new person and he man he believes he was meant to be. He goes to college with plans to become a writer, and he and Richard seemed destined for a long and wonderful life together. However, Richard doesn’t want to keep their relationship a secret, and John isn’t willing to come out to anyone. When tragedy strikes, John realizes that a man always has things that are expected of him, even if they’re at odds with the things he wants for himself.

As we read we feel the entire range of emotions and truths. John understands that though he is in love with Richard he’s not ready to be public about it. For John it was a step harder in figuring out he was gay and what is he suppose to do finding this out.

John learns from Richard, and the two men fall in love but there is oppressive heartache in their relationship. John is afraid to be openly gay in the small town where they live, knowing that his father would be furious. He is expected to take over his father’s business, but John wants to be a writer.There are moments of happiness and moments of sadness. It is important to remember that this was written in 1964-65 and it was difficult to be openly gay.When his father dies, John has to make a decision to sell the business or take it over as his father wanted. He chose the latter and stopped his dreams of becoming a writer and being with Richard. The two men broke up. John wasn’t strong enough to accept himself openly and lost Richard even though both men were deeply in love with each other.

Today, John Harris, a 28-year-old bisexual man currently single and living in a small apartment in New York City who sees the world as a community united by feelings. I do not know it this is a memoir of his own life but surely there is part of him in the book.