I’m not done my holiday shopping yet (I know, I know, three years out of retail and I’ve become “that guy”). In my defence, I had a major fall last week on the ice and my arm, shoulder, and hand have been weak and aching ever since (I did something to the muscles near my forearm and elbow, I think) and the thought of carrying anything makes me twitch. At the moment, I can’t even lift a full cup of tea in my left hand without pain, so I’m going to be a bit later with my shopping.
If you’ve got any queerfolk who are readers on your shopping list this year, here are some of the awesome books I came across over the course of 2016. We’ll start with the books for guys into guys…
Chaos Station, by Jenn Burke and Kelly Jensen
The basic narrative set-up is simple enough: a soldier with some dark secrets and a friend in need ends up meeting up with a ship of shippers who sometimes delve in the greyer areas of the law. He hopes to affect a rescue before his former military friend ends up dead. What he couldn’t have hoped for was to find a man he once loved, a man he’d been told was dead, alive and acting as one of the crew on the ship. Their past complicates an already complicated mission, but gives both men a chance at something they thought long-past hopeless.
The world-building here is grand, and done in small steps and small revelations that help not to overwhelm the reader with too much, too fast. You learn about the war humanity fought with one of the alien races in broad strokes at first, and in detail as the backgrounds of the various war vets are explored. The culture that exists post-war is also revealed in bits, and you get a sense of just how much humanity suffered and lost, and how much work there still is to be done to recover.
Ditto with the characters: both the main fellows are definitely the walking wounded. Both men suffered in the war (in very different ways), and their scars (literal and figurative) are a major part of their characters. There’s quite a bit of angst in their feelings for each other, too, but none of it feels forced or unnatural. Survivor guilt, trauma, disability—there’s no “use magic technology X!” solution to the very real hurts these men have encountered. The balancing act with their more hopeful selves is all the more delicate because of this grim side to the narrative, but it’s handled well. I find I can’t handle books where the suffering is endless and the angst is almost a force of nature, and at no point does Chaos Station go that far. Better, the book is sprinkled with humour in places that serve as a great pressure valve for some of the harsher moments.
At the core, the romance is a major force in the novel, but it’s also not the entirety. The rescue mission, the foil of a criminal organization the crew has (albeit accidentally) angered, and the “family” sense of the crew all contribute to make a well-rounded adventure to boot.
There’s a full series ahead after this title, and I’m a few books in.
Country, by Jeff Mann
I was lucky enough to get an advance reading copy of this one, and though any of you who follow my blog know I adore Jeff Mann, I have to say I was nervous about this one: it features a bunch of things I don’t necessarily connect with: country music, rural culture, and living a closeted life. But I shouldn’t have worried.
Following a big name Country star, Brice Brown, who is outed in the late 90’s, the exploration of homophobia is bang-on perfect, and all the more vicious given both the time and the culture. Jeff Mann’s voice is so lyrical and clear I had zero trouble connecting with a man so very unlike me, and yet found my empathy evoked. I also liked that Brice is by no means a perfect man—he’s as much a product of his culture as those who throw hate at him from within it, and beyond self-loathing there are a few moments of pot/kettle that are deftly written. Brice is flawed, and that made it all the easier to connect with him. Mann explores depression, too, which is a welcome change, and there’s a sense of realism to the entire novel that keeps it from being a “happily ever after with rainbows” that would completely break the suspension of disbelief.
And, of course, the food. Some day I will learn not to read a Jeff Mann book while hungry. I don’t even know what half the dishes are, but I eat so damn much while he describes them.
Night Sweats, by Tom Cardamone
I did a Q&A with Tom Cardamone back in January, which you can read here. I should point out that I don’t normally read a lot of horror or darker fiction because it gets stuck in my head and I end up having nightmares, which is as pathetic as it sounds (more on that when I get to Christian Baines, most likely).
Despite not loving the world of horror, I read Pumpkin Teeth from Cardamone (which I adored), and read this book a story at a time during bright sunny hours so my subconscious has time to chew through the stories long before I headed to bed.
Listen. I said I’m not a horror reader usually, and I meant it.
Cardamone weaves darker tales which have a way of subtlety to them rather than visceral shocks. “Suitcase Sam” stuck with me for months after the fact, for instance. And Night Sweats, for anyone who likes horror, has a complete range of dark and disturbing to be had. It’s rare I can suggest horror, and to add to this my love of short fiction means Cardamone is a perfect suggestion for those queerfolk in your life who love the things that creep, crawl, and scuttle in the shadows.
Puppet Boy, by Christian Baines
So, this took me a long time to read and I don’t want anyone to think that reflects upon the readability by any means. It’s actually quite the opposite. These characters, who were in turns dark, empathetic, frightening, engrossing, and disturbing kept knocking me for a loop and—a quirk of mine—if I read tension thriller type books or horror books or dark psychological books and then go to sleep, I end up with bad dreams. So I measured this one out, read it when the sun was up, read it when I had something light and silly to do afterwards, and I really, really enjoyed it.
And only a few nightmares.
Kidnapping, rent-boys, Titus Andronicus, religious fundamentalism, exploration of sexuality, usury, dubious consent, there’s so much going on here and yet Baines manages to get Eric under your skin even as he makes terrible choices and you’d like as much to slap him as help him.
Normally, when I write a review, I try to give some hint as to the narrative, and I have to be honest, I’m not going to expand much on what’s listed on the back of the book, as I found myself enjoying peeling back the onion, as it were, and discovering each new layer. Much else would be a spoiler, and in this case, I’d say it matters.
Having already read The Prince and the Practitioner and The Beast Without and having enjoyed both, I should also mention The Orchard of Flesh was high on my “as soon as I can get my hands on it” list, and just as wonderful, though again I’m not done because there are squishy bits that make me flinch.
Soul’s Blood, by Stephen Graham King
Before I say anything else about this book, I’ll start with this: If you love futuristic sci-fi action adventure served up with smart stories, well-built worlds, and just a dash of romance, you don’t need to read the rest of my review, you need to grab this book and start reading.
But hey, if you want to humour me first, here we go.
The Maverick Heart is a sentient AI ship, one of the rare survivors. That sentient being, Vrick, travels the systems with Keene and Lexa-Blue, a pair who do what they need to do to get by and earn their living and freedom to travel the stars. When a former flame from Keene’s past asks them for help (and doesn’t take no for an answer), they find themselves enmeshed in the middle of a culture clash rapidly turning violent that could spell doom for a whole world.
Soul’s Blood juggles a lot at once. The three main characters (I’m including Vrick among these, who is my new favourite AI ever) are all engaging in their own way. I freaking adored Lexa-Blue, the more “shoot first and then shoot second” of the trio, though I’ll admit I’m a sucker for a kick-ass lady in my sci-fi. Keene is more of a “fixer” and technological in focus, and while his relationship with his former love is the starting spark of the story, he’s not relegated to “romance plot” alone, and both men show clear growth from their days of young love; yes, they still feel the spark, but they’re also grown men now, and one of them has the weight of his world on his shoulders.
I already knew Stephen Graham King could write solid space opera, having read and enjoyed Chasing Cold, but with action, intrigue, tech, firefights, and just enough breathing spaces between the chaos, Soul’s Blood brings an A-game.
Best of all, world building is artfully balanced. At it’s heart, the main conflict of the story is one of culture: two vastly different races living on the same planet on the edge of a war that would devastate both sides. Keene’s former love is a technarch of a highly technological society, and trying to stop attacks from a genetically modified people who have a vast array of psionic ability and a hatred of the technology that was used to create them. As Vrick, Keene, and Lexa-Blue learn more of the players and issues at hand, the reader is brought with them in a way that feels very natural. We learn about the specific planet in enough detail that it lives and breathes, and gain glimmers of the other systems outside that world in teasing ways that paint an enticing picture and leaves the reader ready for the next voyage of the Maverick Heart.
I, for one, can’t wait.
Spinning the Record, by Robert Hyers
This was my first book I chose for myself to read for a new “leave the house and all electronics behind on Sunday mornings and go read for an hour” plan with my husband. As I already love anthologies, and I knew I’d be pausing for a week between sessions, it was a perfect fit.
When I first came out, my brief experiences with the gay club scene were exactly that: brief. I had one brush with a rave, as well, and it was a wall of exclusion that was as clear as the bright colours everyone wore: You Should Leave. So part of me was worried I’d find these stories wouldn’t let me in either.
Instead, I was drawn in almost from the start, and impressed at how Hyers’ characters walked such a range within what does become a very tightly explored theme throughout. There are voices here we never get to see in most queer books: these aren’t your upper-class pretty twinks and muscleboys enjoying the clubs (though they are also there, they aren’t the characters who bring the stories to life). The voices shared in these stories are poor, they’re Latino, they’re the eyes who watch from within as well as without, and they’ve existed before, during, and after the hey-days of many versions of the DJ-hosted worlds of music, dance, and raves.
The drugs flow freely, the lines blur and criss-cross in an ever-changing maze of who is allowed in, and who will never be. There’s violence on the page as often as there is compassion (with a few scenes that left me flinching—though my own tolerance for violence on a page is set quite low). Manhattan (and New Jersey) are represented here in a way I’ve not encountered before, and I’m the richer for having read them. If there’s any justice, this anthology will get noise.
Specifically, quite a few tales struck me. ‘Stuart and His Mannequin’ tucked itself neatly aside my love of the speculative and strange; ‘Bosom Buddies’ had pitch-perfect balance between the hopes, joys, injustices, and frustrations of the drag world; ‘Mariposa in Outer Space’ was outright brilliant; and the final tale, ‘Spinning the Record,’ was the perfect final beats to a series of tales that never let the rhythm pause for a moment.
I’m really, really glad to have read this collection, and will be seeking out more from Robert Hyers.