Gerry B's Book Reviews

Time Well Bent: Queer Alternative History, Edited by Connie Wilkins

  If you enjoy a broad variety of unique and imaginative stories, superbly written, then this book is for you.

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Book blurb: We have always been here. For as long as there’s been such a thing as sex, alternate sexual identities have been a fact of life. So why have we been so nearly invisible in recorded history and historical fiction?

Now editor Connie Wilkins, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, has assembled fourteen stories that span the centuries from ancient times to the Renaissance to the modern era and explore alternate versions of our past.

Their queer protagonists, who bend history in ways dramatic enough to change the world and subtle enough to touch hearts and minds, rescue our past from invisibility, and affirm our place and importance throughout all of history, past, present, and future.

Also available in Kindle version.

 

Review by Gerry Burnie

“Time Well Bent” [Lethe Press, 2009] is one of the more intriguing collections of stories that I have had the pleasure of reading—for a number of reasons.

The first, off-hand, is that it contains several tales about lesbian love; something that I have not had an opportunity to review, previously.

A Wind Sharp as Obsidian by Rita Oakes opens the collection and sets the tone for the stories that follow; inasmuch as it is an imaginative example of superb writing. Malianalli, a mortal, is in a relationship with the Mayan goddess Xochi. The story then goes on to focus on one moment in that relationship, and leaves the fictional consequences to take their shape in the reader’s imagination. This allows the author to concentrate on the political, physical, and spiritual world of the Mayan peoples at the cusp of the conquistadors’ invasion. An intriguing “What if” melding of history and fiction.

“Roanake” by Sandra Barret is the second ‘gal-story’ set in the early (1585-1587) Puritan settlement of that name in North America. Elizabeth, unhappy with the rigidly enforced gender roles of Roanoke, is fortunate enough to be mentored by Maigan, okitcitakwe (two-spirits) to the Croatan Indians. This story is unique inasmuch as it explores lesbianism in Puritan society, and the feminine side of ‘two spirits’. It also provides a ‘what if’ answer to the Roanoke mystery.

 In “A Spear Against the Sky,” M.P. Ericson has chosen the Roman settlement of Britannia as a setting, and two of the most famous women warriors in history; Boudica and Cartimandua. It is a story that adds an intriguing and plausible dimension to our patchy knowledge of events.

In “Great Reckonings, Little Rooms,” Catherine Lundoff shines her light on Woolf’s Judith Shakespeare as an Elizabethan cross-dresser in a story of complex relationships packed into this short story.

“The Heart of the Story” by Connie Wilkins is alternative history set in the second world war. It’s a compellingly solid and active world where mythology and history come together, around a fairytale lesbian love story.

“Morisca” by Erin Mackay is a juxtaposition of great leaders and lowly individuals, in a tale set in the fifteenth century court of Spain. This is a heart warming and charming look behind the scenes.

On the male side “The Final Voyage of the Hesperus,” by Steven Adamson blurs the lines between dreams and realities as the Hesperus sails between India and the sugar plantations of the West Indies. Woven into this is a male love story that is divinely inspired.

“A Marriage of Choice” by Dale Chase is a quintessential ‘what if’ story that imagines Thomas Jefferson debating the terms of the American Bill of Rights with James Madison—as narrated by Jefferson’s male lover, Caleb. Personally, I found this story the most fanciful and intriguing as the two most celebrated minds in American history come together to debate an issue that is not yet settled; i.e. same-sex marriage. A real flight of fancy!

“The High Cost of Tamarind” by Steve Berman is a slight juxtaposing two young men’s haunting past and present, but it was a bit too impressionistic for me to follow comfortably.

“Sod ‘Em” by Barry Lowe is an interesting tale set against an austere location and time—around the ninth or tenth centuries. It is a fairly credible recreation of the conditions a lowly monk might have endured, and almost certainly M/M relationships did result. The idea that the Bible, as we know it, is the product of various translations, transcription and interpretations over the centuries is a ‘what if’ story in itself.

“Barbaric Splendor” by Simon Sheppard is sometimes creepy guided tour of the fabled Xanadu; i.e. the court of Kubla Khan, and it is definitely not what popular, historical accounts have led us to believe.

“Opening Night” by Lisabet Sarai, is very cleverly set around the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, “Ruddigore,” but from there it departs rather dramatically from G&S history. Okay, I was prepared to live with that, but the North American connection left me backstage. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting take superbly written.

“A Happier Year” by Emily Salter is a charming period piece spun around E.M. Forster’s “Maurice,” a novella that was suppressed until after Forster’s death. Salter has created a very sensitive story in which she extrapolates how the publication might have affected society if it had been published before the Great War. She has also created a beautifully complicated character in Henry.

“At Reading Station, Changing Trains,” by C.A. Gardner recalls the story of  T.E. Lawrence’s life as he tries to hide from his fame and ‘other self.’ The problem being that he has revealed his ‘other’ in thefirst draft of his autobiography, The Seven Pillars of Salt (which he burnt). The second draft–sans any reference to it–has been stolen a Reading Station, but mysteriousl comes back to him through his friend, Feisal Ibn Hussien. It is the manuscript, therefore, that brings the two friends back together, and the question then becomes whether the modern history of Iraq would have been different if Lawrence had once again joined forces with Feisal? What if?

As an added feature the authors have each included an explanatory note at the end of their contribution, shedding light on the process and intent behind each entry.

If you enjoy a broad variety of unique and imaginative stories, superbly written, then this book is for you.

September 25, 2010 Posted by | Fiction, Gay fiction, Gay historical fiction, Historical Fiction, Historical period | Leave a comment

A Vigil for Joe Rose, by Michael Whatling

A compelling read

 

 

Publisher’s blurb: What is it like to be “out” in high school today? Is homophobia still rampant, or have things changed? How do the reactions of students, teachers, administrators, and families affect the out gay student?

A Vigil for Joe Rose is a collection of stories told with empathy and humour about the experience of being out in high school. As a unified collection, these eight short stories and a novella chart the journey of the main characters from first coming out to their growth into confident young gay men, and the challenges, triumphs, and losses along the way.

About the author: MICHAEL WHATLING grew up outside of Montreal, Canada. For a time he escaped and lived in London, Paris, and Tokyo. He holds a Ph.D. in education, and has taught at the elementary, secondary, and university levels. His writing includes short stories, novels, and screenplays. He now lives in the town where he grew up, tormented by intolerance, the need to write, and wild rabbits in his yard.

About Joe Rose: Montreal – Early Sunday morning a local man was stabbed to death on a city bus by a gang of youths. Joe Rose, 23, was attacked by 15 or more assailants who jeered at him and shouted, “Faggot.” The incident occurred at about 4:30 a.m. outside the Frontenac métro.

Witnesses to the attack say the youths beat him and stabbed him because his hair was dyed pink. The youths pulled off Rose’s hat and started punching him, then pulled out hunting and kitchen knives and scissors and stabbed him repeatedly before fleeing the bus. A female bus driver who tried to intervene was struck but not seriously injured.

“I’m convinced it was because he’s gay,” said one witness who asked not to be identified. “There were a lot of people they could have singled out. Why him? He had pink hair and looked gay. They  chose him.”

A family spokesperson said Rose was returning home from a friend’s house on the last bus. In college, Rose was the president of the gay and lesbian student group.

A 19-year-old and a 15-year-old will be charged later today with second-degree murder. Two juveniles, 14 and 15, who cannot be named under youth protection laws, will be charged as accessories after the fact.

 

Review by Gerry Burnie

I first encountered Michael Whatling’s writing on Authonomy. It was with regard to the novella, The Last Coming Out Story, now published as part of a collection called, A Vigil for Joe Rose [iUniverse, 2008]. At the time I was impressed by his skill, but finding Authonomy too much of a popularity contest cum paper chase, I didn’t revisit it until recently. That’s when I learned of Michael’s published work.

To appreciate the nature of this work the reader should first take note of the introduction, wherein Whatling explains that the genesis is found in his doctoral research, and that, although it is a fictionalized account, it is based on interviews with actual gay students, i.e. a “non-fiction novel,” á-la-Truman Capote’s ”In Cold Blood.”

In this regard, Whatling has done a superb job of shining the spotlight on the thinking of sixteen to eighteen-year-olds, who happen to be gay, out, and attending high school. Sometimes the ‘coming out’ is intentional and planned, and sometimes it is not. “Losing control of the process,” it is called in “Elton John, Uncle Dave, and Me,” and that is a frightening process. “The Holy Ghost” explores teacher homophobia, and “A Lesson on Being Inseparable” tells the tale of a boy who is dedicated to teaching younger students about sexual orientation. Therefore, a wide range of perspectives are explored with the same sort of insight.

Best developed, in my opinion, is “The Last Coming Out Story,” which probably best fulfills the “non-fiction novel” function as well. It is a postmodern take on the ubiquitous coming out story. How does the president of the school’s “Rainbow Club” go from being the most popular student to the most hated? Though not for being gay.

So far. so good. The writing is very strong throughout, and one cannot be overly critical regarding the facts. After all, non-fiction is its own defense.  However, when this is combined with the requisites of a novel (per se), the ordinary rules of entertainment apply. In this regard there was a sameness among the various short stories, and a lack of any real conflict.  “Episodes in Fear: Mathews Story,” comes fairly close, but otherwise there is no real ‘high drama’ On the other hand, the factual account of Joe Rose’s murder is high drama enough. (See above)

A compelling read. Four-and-one-half stars.

Gerry B’s Book Reviews has been awarded a LOVELY BLOG AWARD!

From M. Kei, author of Pirates of the Narrow Seas 1: Sallee Rovers

Congratulations! You’re the recipient of a Lovely Blog Award. This
community generated blog honors blogs in the field of historical
fiction. Some of you are not exactly ‘historical fiction,’ but as a
writer of historical fiction I find you useful and interesting, and I
think other readers of historical will, too.


 

September 17, 2010 Posted by | Canadian content, Gay fiction, Non-fiction | 3 Comments

Barrack Buddies and Soldier Lovers, by Steven Zeeland

An insightful, informative and interesting read

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Publisher’s blurb: Steven Zeeland’s Barrack Buddies and Soldier Lovers is a raw, unsanitized personal record of conversations he had with young soldiers and airmen stationed in Germany shortly before the outbreak of the Gulf War. These interviews document the far-ranging and pervasive gay networks with the U.S. Army and Air Force. While a few of Zeeland’s buddies were targeted for discharge, most portray an atmosphere of sexually tense tolerance — and reveal a surprising degree of interaction with straight servicemen. Some of these soldiers even found that, ironically, the U.S. military actually helped them become gay. It did this by taking them away from hometown constraints, stationing them overseas in cities where they found greater opportunity to explore their sexuality, and thrusting them into the sexually charged atmosphere of all-male barracks life.

 

Review by Gerry Burnie

 I suppose that nearly every gay male—myself included—has fantasized at one time or another about a uniform bulging with raw masculine virility. Of course, according to the politicians and military brass, homosexuality is not supposed to exist. Gays in the military? Unheard of! Steven Zeeland’s Barrack Buddies and Soldier Lovers [Routledge, 1993] puts a lie to that proposition by introducing us to sixteen very active gays in the military.

Although the timeline is dated some things are timeless, and human sexuality is one of these. So is the myopia of policy makers who, in the face of indisputable proof, continue to pretend that the issue simply does not exist.

The book is a collection of transcribed interviews with sixteen, gay servicemen, who describe their personal experiences while stationed in Germany. Critically speaking, the experiences are not that different or unique from any other group of sexually active men this age, but what is remarkable is the network of social connections that are inadvertently revealed; red light districts, gay bars and bath houses that soon become known and frequented.

Another aspect that comes to the light in these interviews is the lack of danger or fear as a result of their sexual orientation. Some spoke of minor discrimination, and others of frustration at having to hide their orientation, but most claimed that life was not unpleasant, overall. Moreover, the overwhelming majority thought that gays represented no particular problems in military service.

The shortcomings of this study are there as well. The first is the limited scope of the sample. Virtually all the interviewees came from the same branch of the military, located in the same base. Moreover, none of the interviewees were actively engaged in combat at the time. Would their responses have been any different if that were not so? It is hard to say. Nevertheless it is a question that is still open with this reader.

With that caveat, I recommend this study as being both interesting and informative. Four stars.

September 12, 2010 Posted by | Non-fiction | Leave a comment

Casa Rodrigo, by Johnny Miles

A fun read by which you can cheer the good guys and hiss the villain

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Publisher’s blurb: On a lush, tropical island inhabited by rogues, thieves and villains, where men take the law into their own hands, a father and son are thrust into tumultuous events that will change their lives forever.

Bernardo de Rodrigo is proud of his son. Alonso is handsome and winning, and everyone he meets is instantly drawn to the tall, warm Spaniard. But how could either of them have known that a forbidden love is about to claim Alonso’s heart?

Arbol, the charismatic male slave who was saved from the clutches of Raul Ignacio Martín, feels an instant connection with Alonso, the moment he looks into Arbol’s eyes, the moment they touch.

Bernardo has other things to worry about, however. He’s trying to exorcise himself of an intensely gratifying yet shame-filled sexual affair with Raul, who secretly adores Bernardo but doesn’t know how to show it.

When Raul blackmails Bernardo, their dark and sordid relationship not only threatens the bond between father and son, it places Arbol’s life in danger. Now Bernardo must make a difficult choice that could further alienate his son while Alonso must find a way to keep the man he loves.

Front cover art: Anne Cain. Front cover design: April Martinez 

 

Review by Gerry Burnie

 The above blurb is accompanied by the caveat: “This book contains explicit sexual content, graphic language, and situations that some readers may find objectionable: Dubious consent, male/male sexual practices.” Usually I shy away from stories of this nature, not because they offend my sensibilities, but because they are so woefully short of any plot worth mentioning.

While the plot in Casa Rodrigo by Johnny Miles [Loose Id, LCC, 2010] is not its strong point, it is a credible storyline and an effective balance for the abundance of “explicit sexual content.” Indeed, it has some quite original scenes—such as the opening where the runaway slave vainly tries to save herself and her newly born child, Arbol. It is also a dramatic way of introducing the main characters in the roles they will play throughout the remainder of the story.

The genre, apart from being homoerotic, is a period story. I have seen it described as ‘historical fiction,’ but since it lacks any real historical content I have difficulty in reconciling that description. However, its treatment of slavery seems quite credible to someone who is no authority on the subject. Slavery was certainly inhumane and cruel, and I think Miles has done of effective job of bringing those aspects to the fore.

The characters, Bernardo do Rodrigo, his wife Adelina, the main character Alonso, the slave Arbol, and the villainous Raul Ignacio, are all reasonably well-developed and distinct. However, I had some difficulty identifying with any of them. Bernardo came across as a pathetic, self-serving weakling, and his long-suffering wife, Adelina, seens to be the author of her own misfortune; Alonso, while loving enough, was  altogether to wimpy to be a true hero figure, and Arbol was too articulate and cultured for a slave. Finally, although consistent. Raul Ignacio’s character was a bit over-the-top with his villainy.

Nevertheless, Casa Rodrigo is a fun read. The sort of story by which you can cheer the good guys and hiss the villain. Three-and-one-half stars.

 

See what others have to say about Coming of Age on the Trail (Coming Soon).

If you haven’t done so already check out my other books, Two Irish Lads, and Journey to Big Sky.

September 5, 2010 Posted by | Fiction, Gay fiction, Historical period, Homoerotic | 4 Comments

   

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