Category Archives: GLBT fiction

“To the Boys Who Wear Pink” by Raven Badingham III— A Dark Experience

Badingham III, Revan. “To The Boys Who Wear Pink”, Riley Palance, 2020.

A Dark Experience

Amos Lassen

You do not always have to like the characters to have an enjoyable reading experience and we see this in Raven Badingham III’s “To Boys Who Wear Pink”. We have a bevy of unlikeable characters— some are overweight, engage in drug use and excessive drinking, practice self- harm, and involved in rape being. We get their personal histories that are shared in fascinating and interesting ways.

Told from many different perspectives that do not always make sense, we cannot help but question their existence.   The plot is a character-driven and explores the lives of several gay friends who have come together for a reunion party. During the course of the evening, we learn about them through flashbacks and what brings them together. We ultimately learn that they are brought together by a tragic event and we learn little by little what that was. 

Each guy gets his own chapter and we follow what he thinks and how he acts, both in the present and the past. Some of the characters are likeable and others are detestable. These are dark stories coming together into an even darker whole.At the party, they argue, physically fight, get drunk, take drugs, sell drugs and have sex as they share their pasts. Each person is experiencing rough time in their lives yet some of the stories are inspiring. They are all different yet they all have flaws. They speak about how they are now and who they once were. This is most certainly not a fun read but it is a fascinating one.

The night seemed never to end but there are twenty-four stories to be told and a lot happens. I am sure I will be thinking about this for a very long time.

“The Death of Vivek Oji” by Emezi Awaeke— Understanding a Child

Emezi, Awaeke. “The Death of Vivek Oji”, Riverhead, 2020.

Understanding a Child

Amos Lassen

On an afternoon, in Aba, a town in southeastern Nigeria, a mother finds at her front doorstep,  her son’s body, wrapped in colorful fabric. Following this we have a family’s struggle to understand a child whose spirit is both gentle and mysterious. Vivek, the child had been raised by a distant father and an understanding but overprotective mother and suffers from disorienting blackouts and moments of disconnection between self and surroundings. As he matures from teen to adult, Vivek finds solace in friendships with the boisterous daughters of the “Nigerwives”, foreign-born women married to Nigerian men. His closest bond is with Osita, the worldly, high-spirited cousin whose teasing confidence hides a very guarded private life. As their relationship deepens, Osita struggles to understand Vivek’s escalating crisis and this gives way to a “heart-stopping act of violence in a moment of exhilarating freedom.” 

This is the story of family and friendship that challenges expectations, faces loss and a kind of transcendence that is incredibly moving. It is a work of social criticism, and a story filled with suspense. It revolves around an actual death, but also around the mystery of the dynamic of human relationships.

 Vivek Oji is the beloved son of a Nigerian father and an immigrant mother from India, and we learn in the first sentence that he dies. The question of how and why drives the narrative. 

The story is told in alternating chapters by an omniscient narrator, Vivek’s cousin Osita and Vivek himself. Vivek was born with a mark on his foot that looks exactly like a scar his grandmother, who died the day he came into the world, had. Vivek also suffers from an enigmatic “illness” which drives him into a deep depression. Not only Vivek queer, he is gender-variant and doesn’t know how to live his truth. He also Vivek senses a strong, mystical connection to his deceased grandmother. 
We seehow the people around him struggle with Vivek’s shy attempts to show and speak himself, including his feminine side. There are complicated relationships between friends and family, their love, their friendship and their sexual relationships, both straight and queer.

A subplot is based on the concept of “otherness” and we see this through the Nigerwives, foreign women who are married to Nigerian men and their stories show the challenges they face as immigrant wives. The Northerners who live nearby have different clothes and customs than the people living where Aba is found.

At one point in the novel, Aba asks why people are afraid of something different than what they are used to. They do not understand themselves but loving him is enough. We do get a hint that there will be a better future for those who are gender non-conforming.

I see the major themes are identity, belonging and sadness. We get a look at Nigeria and its culture as we move from small city to rural village and read about the variety
of cultural and religious traditions, daily life and conflict and intolerance. The large issues of gender identity and sexuality are present throughout the novel. Vivek is at the center of the novel even though he is dead in the first sentence.  

“A Saint from Texas” by Edmund White— Two Sisters

White, Edmund.  “A Saint from Texas”,  Bloomsbury, 2020.

Twin Sisters

Amos Lassen

Almost every summer, I look forward to reading something new from Edmund White and it is always a highlight of my literary experiences. This summer was no different with “A Saint from Texas”, White’s new novel that tells the storyof twin sisters, one set for Parisian nobility and the other moving toward Catholic sainthood. 

Yvette and Yvonne Crawford are twin sisters who were born on an East Texas prairie. Their destinies turned out to be dramatic and we are with them as they follow them.  Each girl has secrets and dreams which will take them  from Texas and from each other. As the years pass, Yvonne becomes a member of the elite of Parisian society while Yvette enters to a lifetime of worship and service in Jericó, Colombia. Even though, they are separated,  and live very different lives, they share the bonds of family and the past. 

Beginning in the 1950s and taking us to the recent past, these two Texas women’s lives are bound together even though they are very different from each other. From the newly rich of Dallas, the society of Paris and Colombian convent, we see the lines of class and sexuality.

Edmund White explores love, sex and family over 50 years bringing the non-believer and the totally-committed to God together and we share their lives. Yvette and Yvonne are finely-drawn characters and we sense White’s sympathy for them. He explores sin and envy, in-depth, through them.

This is a story about us as well. As the sisters find themselves through losing themselves, so do we. We have human love and divine love alongside of passion and sin and desire. As the novel moves forward, secrets come to the fore and revelations explode on the pages It is White’s wit and irony that makes “A Saint from Texas” so wonderfully readable.

The storyis told from Yvonne’s perspective  and as she tells about her life (through letters to her sister), she also tells the story of  Yvette. Yvonne went to Paris in college and married a Baron there. Yvette converts to Catholicism and becomes a nun.

In a world of morally corrupt and unlikeable characters, Yvette is able to maintain some decency even with the difficult life she has led. Her timidity and self-effacing and both sisters ultimately become being sex-obsessed. Since they are from a very homophobic part of Texas, we would expect them to be bothered by desires for other women but they are not.

I thought that this was going to be quite a light read so I was surprised  that it is much more than that.  Collections of stories make up the plot and as I hinted, the characters are strange. Each sister searches for her own sense of perfection and we see that faith drives Yvette while Yvonne is by status. They both mature when they realize that there is no such thing as perfection. This is, in effect, a comedy of manners and I was totally and completely drawn into it— so much so that I read it from cover-to-cover in a single day. Since I am a huge Edmund White fan, this is not surprising. The clashes between cultures are hilarious while, at the same time, explore the characters. There were moments that my feelings toward the twins bordered upon love and disdain. Their experimentations with them themselves teach them about who they are.

There is a lot to think about as we read making this an intellectual experience to a degree. While the pace, at first, seems swift do not be surprised if you find yourself stopping to think several times. We root for the sisters as they face societal demands of conformity and subservient women.

“Elixir” by Charles Atkins— A Cure for Cancer

Atkins, Charles, “Elixir”,  Severn House Publishers, 2020.

A Cure for Cancer

Amos Lassen

Pediatric oncologist Dr Frank Garfield has discovered a genetic cure for cancer that can save his young patients. However, his mentor, Nobel Prize laureate Dr Jackson Atlas, believes that this is fodder for drug companies who are interested in profits will twist and weaponize it. 

UNICO Pharmaceuticals CEO Leona Lang wants desperately to find a new product and Garfield’s formula could be it. Jackson is an obstacle and so Lang’s son, a sociopath named Dalton Lang is told to join to get Garfield to join UNICO. Dalton is tasked with eliminating Jackson and make it look like a burglary. 

The question remains now with Jackson gone, whether Garfield can be persuaded to join UNICO or let his research die. Lives of innocent children thus hang in the balance and while Frank can save them, the cost could be exorbitant. Everyone wants a part of the cancer cure and each is willing to do whatever it takes to get it.

We see ruthlessness everywhere and the characters here are cold-hearted. We sense that something is not right with Leona and Dalton and this stays with us in this medical thriller. We meet big pharmacy, caring medics and appealing children and writer Charles Atkins, a psychiatrist, uses psychological motives to creating a twisted plotthat moves quickly.

 

“A Star is Bored” by Byron Lane— The Assistant

Lane, Byron. “A Star Is Bored: A Novel’, Henry Holt, 2020.

The Assistant

Amos Lassen

Byron Lane’s “A Star id Bored” is influenced by the author’s time assisting the late movie star, Carrie Fisher. We meet Charlie Besson as he prepares for a job interview and he is quite tense. He idles his car just as he has idled his life but his car is outside the Hollywood mansion of Kathi Kannon, star of stage and screen. Unfortunately, Kathi is on “People” magazine’s Worst Dressed list. She’s an actress who needs assistance. Charlie is adrift and needs a lifeline. Kathi is an icon, a bestselling author, and an award-winning movie star who is most famous for her role as Priestess Talara in a blockbuster sci-fi film. She’s also known as outrageous as Charlie quickly finds out when he gets the job.

Charlie begins three years filled with late-night shopping sprees, last-minute trips to see the aurora borealis, and a welcome to the famous job of personal assistant. Kathi who is just supposed to be his boss is so much and the two becomes friends. Charlie realizes that he is jut on the sidelines and that his chances of becoming more than that are very slim.

While this is fiction, I don’t doubt that some of what we read is based on actual experiences making it all the more fun. While he was growing up Charlie idolized Kathi and now has the chance to work for her since his job as a TV news writer on the graveyard shift is getting him nowhere. He has had no personal life because he’s always sleeping when everyone else is living and having fun He is filled with anxiety and suffers from low self-esteem. With Kathi, he begins to heal and grow as a person and as a result of their friendship. They both have many flaws and virtues making for a strange relationship that is both tender and very funny.

We see the “ridiculous, bizarre and oft-magical world of Hollywood” through the ideas of a personal assistant and his boss. There is a lot of dish and wit as we explore
Kathi’s mostly acerbic personality and her attachment to Charlie. This is also a love story which I did not expect. “The pitch-perfect absurdity and sharp heartbreak of this story come to life so vividly that the last page left me aching. Completely outrageous and positively lovely.”
The book is a reflection of today’s obsessionwith celebrity culture. Here is Los Angeles and the people who live there, who chase dreams. We sense that not all is well with Kathi whose story is about  the mutual love that existed between her and Charlie.  We read of love, loss, acceptance, and overcoming adversity. It is really a fun read.

“Horrorsexual: The Queer Erotic Fright Fiction Of M. Christian” by M. Christian— Terror and Queer Erotica

Christian, M. “Horrorsexual: The Queer Erotic Fright Fiction Of M. Christian”, Amazon Services.com, 2020.

Terror and Queer Erotica

Amos Lassen

I want to give my friend, M. Christian, a shout out for his new collection of queer erotica. If you have ever read Christian, you know that he is great off-the-wall fun. If you have not read him, this is a good time to start. Christian is a genius for being able to mix the terrifying and queer erotica in “explicit tales of man-on-man passion mixed with the shivers and shakes of your most shocking nightmares?”

“Horrorsexual” gives you  “ stygian darkness where forbidden lusts dance hand-in-hand (and tentacle-in-tentacle) with paralyzing fear”. The stories are outrageous, sexy and  spine-tingling creepiness  and they are haunting and exhilarating. Ghosts and specters, cannibalism and dark revenge, serial killers and vampires bring us disturbing surprises throughout.

“Echoes” – What’s worse than being haunted by the vengeful spirit of an ex-lover? For Red, it’s when terror pushes him over the edge … and into even deeper darkness.

“Suddenly, Last Thursday” – Sebastian likes to play dangerous games with people, but when he takes things too far he bites far more than he could ever chew.

“Matches” – Dying was the best thing that’d ever happened to Mr. Skila. But, as with all good things in his sad ex-life, even being a ghost was too good to last…

“That Sweet Smell” – JJ could make or break an entertainer’s career on a whim. But when it came to Sidney, JJ had only one thing on his mind–something far worse than just crushing his dreams of success.

“Chickenhawk” – The bait was laid out, the trap was set, and the needle was in his hand. But who is the prey and who is the predator?

“Whatever Happened To…?” – Bouncin’ Betty used to be a star but now, broken and bitter, there was just one, very dark and disturbing thing that gave this old drag-celebrity any pleasure.  

“Friday Night At The Calvary Hotel” – Everyone has at least one of them: a dark and twisted fetish we’d love to enact but are just too frightened to make a reality. But one night, in a seedy hotel, someone will do just that…
“Bitch” – Quinn hated his neighbors. Their laughter was too loud, they flaunted their toned bodies, and, worse still, they were happy. He wished someone would do something about them. Then, to his terror, someone does.

“Counting” – In the near future, religious fanatics despotically rule over San Francisco. But the city has a hero, one on a mission to bring his own unique form of terror to the terrible. Or maybe he’s wants something else entirely…

“Wet” – You might call Doud a vampire but he’d disagree. One thing he most definitely is, however, is lonely.  

“Don’t Be Afraid of Virginia’s Woolf” by Ryan Field— Clever Title But That’s It

Field, Ryan. “Don’t Be Afraid of Virginia’s Woolf”, Ryan Field, 2020.

Clever Title But That’s It

Amos Lassen

Ryan Field is back with a new novel but unfortunately it is the same old novel with a new title. Having written over 100 books, we would think that we would see some maturation in the way he writes and in plot development. The blurb claims that “Don’t Be Afraid of Virginia’s Woolf” is “A riveting contemporary novel that examines the lives of two modern gay married couples who decide to get together for drinks one night.” The drinks open the door to a lot of drama and quite frankly, that was no surprise. Field looks at the differences between straight and gay marriage but in quite a condescending way. Isn’t it time to stop looking at differences?

We have Preston and Dave, a happily married couple who delight in their union. They invite Bob and Tom, their young newly married neighbors over and they had no idea what to expect. Secrets are exposed, a seduction ensues and bitterness rules. I thought we were over that aspect of gay life but Field seems to delight in exposing the sordid ways that some gay couples live today and it is far from pretty. The only pleasure I got from reading this was closing the covers after the last page.

“Enter the Aardvark” by Jessica Anthony— Secrets Kept

Anthony, Jessica. “Enter the Aardvark”, Little, Brown and Company, 2020.

Secrets Kept

Amos Lassen

When ayoung congressman finds a mysterious stuffed aardvark on his doorstep, he sets out on a journey to find out what it means and in doing so learns about the secrets we keep from ourselves and their consequences.

One hot day in August, and millennial congressman Alexander Paine Wilson (R), is planning his first reelection campaign. He is in  denial about his sexuality. Then, via FedEx, he receives a gigantic aardvark, the work of a taxidermist. Like Wilson, we are thrown into contemporary American politics and Washington, D.C. Wilson tries to get rid of the aardvark, knowing that it could destroy his career. At the same time, the reader finds himself in Victorian England where the taxidermist, Titus Downing and Richard Ostlet, the naturalist who hunted her, live. We begin to see that the present world has been shaped in profound and disturbing ways by the secret that binds these men. 

Combining political satire, a ghost story and a love story, “Enter the Aardvark” looks at the consequences of repressed male coming together with oppressive male power, and how we are blind to this.

Writer Jessica Anthony connects characters from today with those from 19th-century England giving us an original and unsettling look at “male power as it has evolved over time.” She does so with humor and lots of heart, raising “some standard commentary about our relationship to politics and the media”.

“THOSE WHO LOVE ME CAN TAKE THE TRAIN”— A Psychological Drama

“THOSE WHO LOVE ME CAN TAKE THE TRAIN”

A Psychological Drama

Amos Lassen

Director Patrice Chéreau’s “Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train” is a bleak psychological drama that has a gathering over for a funeral for an elderly misanthropic, bisexually active minor painter Jean-Baptiste Emmerich (Jean-Louis Trintignant). The painter became something of a father figure to a disparate group of close friends. The title refers to the dying words said by the painter.

A group of about twelve family, friends, lovers, hangers-on and assorted weirdos leave Paris by train for a four-hour trek to Limoges, where the artist’s funeral will take place as he had requested. His coffin is on a station wagon traveling parallel to the train and being driven by drug addict Thierry (Roschdy Zem), husband of Catherine (Dominique Blanc), who’s on the train with their bratty daughter Elodie. On the train the cast of characters share why the artist, an admirer of Francis Bacon’s sadism, was revered even if he was a bastard. We also hear other gossipy revelations and learn about the group’s stormy relationships and their dysfunction. While there’s not much in the narrative, the actors seem to intensely put everything into their performance and give it an air that something big is taking place. The direction highlights interesting shots of intensity from the passengers in the claustrophobic moving train and when reaching Limoges, a city of 140,000 residents that holds the largest cemetery in France with 185,000 corpses, it captures the chilly atmosphere of the artist’s birthplace and introduces us to the rest of the artist’s family including his shoe merchant twin brother Lucien (Jean-Louis Trintignant, in a double role). He’s in a worried state about dying, losing his estate and still holds some deep resentment for his selfish brother. Lucien exclaims that his brother took his wife and son Jean-Marie (Charles Berling), and left all of his estate to Elodie.

Some of the mourners on the train include art historian Francois (Pascal Greggory) and his lover Louis (Bruno Todeschini), who has a quickie with the attractive teenage Bruno (Sylvain Jacques) aboard the train and finds himself in love, and then discovers from Francois that Bruno was his lover and is HIV-positive. Jean-Marie is a former drug addict who has long been estranged from his father Lucien and has a volatile relationship with his pregnant wife Claire (Valéria Bruni-Tedeschi). They are both junkies and their uncle Jean-Baptiste had an affair with his nephew. Jean-Marie upsets everyone at the funeral with his eulogy, where he says “Nature is efficient, it kills things that are half-dead.” Also along for the funeral is Frederic (Vincent Perez) who under Jean-Baptiste’s influence had a sex change operation and is now Viviane, and flirts with Lucien as he buys her a pair of red high-heels.

Eric Gautier’s jumpy camera succeeds in a great sense of loss, but the narrative intellectually fails to give off any gravitas except in showing the mourner’s deep feelings in their life and death struggle to find a way to cope without their leader’s guidance.

On the surface, this is a simple story with an artist who dies of heart failure. His friends and family travel to Limoges for the funeral. Most leave after the ceremony. A few stay in the big house overnight and leave in the morning. But beneath the surface, passions flame, emotions claw and scratch, old wounds open, new ones are inflicted. The air is filled with lust, loathing and intrigue. Love is masked by grief and betrayal. ‘The specter of drugs, Aids and death is ever present. The ideal of a united family mocks the reality of a manipulative old man’s play things, as the promiscuous excitement of homosexual infatuation contrasts with a running war between former lovers.”

Performances are almost too perfect. Vincent Perez’s transsexual is remarkable. Jean-Louis Trintignant, in the dual role of the dead man and his brother, reminds those who have forgotten the triumph of his early years that talent matures with age. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, as the estranged partner of the artist’s nephew performs with an intensity.

“Find Me When I’m Lost”,  (A Charlie Mack Motown Mystery) by Cheryl A. Head— Crime, Politics and Police

Head, Cheryl A. “Find Me When I’m Lost”,  (A Charlie Mack Motown Mystery), Bywater Books, 2020.

Crime, Politics and Police

Amos Lassen

I am not really much of a mystery reader but Cheryl Head’s Charlie Mack’s series are something else. No sooner do I finish one, I begin waiting for the next one. She has the ability to create characters and plots that we love and look forward to— but sometimes it can be a long wait in between books. When a new one does come it is cause for celebration but I really must stop reading them so quickly.

In “Find Me When I’m Lost”, Charlie is hired by her ex-husband’s new wife Pamela and while that might seem a it strange, it is not nearly as strange as things will get., things get awkward quickly. Pamela’s ex-Franklin, has been charged with his brother-in-law’s murder. While Charlie and Pamela both believe he didn’t do it, Franklin has gone into hiding for a reason that neither understands. The police see this as a sign of guilt but Charlie feels differently. She thinks that he has learned sonething that might have life-threatening complications. Charlie needs some kind of proof that there is no double-cross here and when the Investigation uses all of its assets on the case, worry follows. Mandy, Charlie’s girlfriend is worried that Charlie’s attempts to find Franklin could be caused by some romantic feeling that she still has for him and loyalties are questioned.

The case is a mixture of family and murder and as time progresses, nothing is certain. Charlie is detrmied to prove Franklin’s innocence and she puts that above all else in her life (including Mandy). Soon she realizes that she never could have imagined where the case was going.

Cheryl Head brings together the politics of Detroit, the police and crime and it is all very real. The story  builds in intensity to a point that keeps us turning pages. I love the character of Charlie Mack. She is never afraid to show her vulnerability yet she is thorough and totally into the work she does. After having spent time with her now, I see her a friend who is complete, honest and determined and she is always there to do her job.