Monday, September 29, 2008

Review: Best Gay Love Stories: Summer Flings

Edited by Brad Nicols
Best Gay Love Stories

Published by Alyson Publications

Reviewed by John Dixon

Several American publishers – principally Alyson Press and Cleis Press - specialise in gay short story anthologies. There are now so many series that to distinguish between volumes needs a year and a subtitle. This particular volume contains twenty stories, none more than twelve pages, all bar one by men, all about gay men. Fifteen of the authors concentrate exclusively on this genre. The editor Brad Nichols had edited ten other volumes.

So what’s the appeal? Ask the same question about Mills & Boon. Comfort reading, short, light, reinforcing not questioning, with a happy ending, ninety percent of the time. What’s wrong with that? It shouldn’t be perhaps from a ‘literary’ point of view, but if people want it . . . .

Still, something is missing in these stories that even Mills & Boon has. One of the better stories, Fratelli, states ‘In a love story there would have been a crisis; an argument, a disappointment, an epiphany of disillusioning.’ What forms can the crisis take nowadays, given greater tolerance? I’m not suggesting the Bad Old Days made for better literature. It may be ‘legal’ to varying degrees (in the West), but there is plenty of hostility around. Little is mentioned in these stories. Most are mere pick-ups and sex scenes, set in a world where politics, money, race, religion and women don’t exist. Wealth is never spoken about; the characters seem on the same, comfortable income level. Only three stories feature women; a possessive fag-hag, a tit-jiggling temptress, and a girl-friend who unwittingly acts as a Pandar. There is one Japanese boyfriend, one Greek; but no Black, Hispanic, etc.

This lack of variety is made worse by the themed basis. ‘Summer flings’ means a sameness of setting; mainly beaches and bays, three summer camps; and three flats featuring a breakdown in the air conditioning (lovely plumbers!)

There are some worthy stories. In Second Chances, the narrator picks up a tramp who’s been on the streets for ten years after being turned out by his anti-gay parents. The story is underdeveloped but the setting and the bond formed between different backgrounds make a refreshing change. In Manna, the narrator works for a charity supplying food to down-and-outs, meets a rich farmer eager to get rid of his surplus stock, organic, of course. Gay Love as a redistributor of wealth? Perhaps not, but at least a darker side to society is hinted at. The day the governor came out has irony and humour, as does the previously mentioned Fratelli.. KC at bat is about a baseball player at odds with the macho image thrust on him; it has a real variety of language, and no happy ending.

Indeed, the better the language the more logical the presentation and the more believable the story. Thirteen of the stories are in the first person and chatty in style (“I saw this gorgeous . . .just what I needed . . and I just . . “) Any supposed heart-warming, feel-good factor is undermined when the editor lets pass a sentence such as -
“Turning to go into the room, hoping something good was on TV, I noticed something out the corner of my eye.”

On book production – the blurb says ‘From coast to coast and everywhere in between, explore the spark of gay eroticism in these twenty-two tales of summer loving.’ There are only twenty stories. (Thankfully!)

John Dixon has had several poems and short stories published, including in Chroma. He has won a prize in the Bridport Short Story competition, and was editor/contributor to Fiction in Libraries. He is a member of the Gay Author’s Workshop and is on the editorial board of and contributor to the forthcoming GAW short story anthology ‘People my mother warned you about.’ He hopes shortly to have his novel ‘Push harder Mummy, I want to come out’ published by Paradise Press. He has read his work at launches and several local LGTB events.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Review: Broadway Nights: A Romp of Life, Love and Musical Theatre

Seth Rudetsky
Broadway Nights

Published by Alyson Publications

Reviewed by Charlotte Evans

Like Bridget Jones, Carrie Bradshaw, and Jenny from The L Word, Stephen Sheerin is a character that you will either love or hate. He’s neurotic, camp, and wonderfully obsessive. I chose to love him.

This is a fun and highly addictive book. However, it is not without its flaws: Rudetsky’s constant use of capital letters and multiple exclamation marks can be rather annoying and his inconsistent use of asterisks is just puzzling (God is always doctored (G*d); fuck is often left uncensored).

The plot is quite conventional in form, if unconventional in content. Stephen is a sub (substitute pianist) for Broadway orchestras who dreams of one day becoming a conductor. His boyfriend is unavailable (mostly due to him having a boyfriend of his own) and Stephen is writing this book – his diary – as part of his therapy. (Because everyone in New York has therapy.) He’s constantly attracted to unavailable men, eats when he’s stressed and can’t cope with success.

But Stephen isn’t too unhappy – just a little messed up – he has his friends, colleagues and his passion for the theatre. And the director of his new play appears to be lovely – if not Stephen’s usual type.

This novel is not as always as funny as it tries to be; the one constant of the novel, however, is Stephen, the hero who worries about his weight, commitment issues and pleasing his parents. Even when he fails to amuse he’s the sort of (pathetic) protagonist that you can absolutely empathise with.

The play that Stephen becomes involved with is a perfect creation – creating something fictional within a novel, film or play is easy to get wrong. However, Rudetsky’s Flowerchild is perfectly believable – a “new show slated to come to Broadway featuring a conglomeration of sixties songs by various pop artists inserted into a plot about a hippie commune”.

The ending is as predictable as one of Stephen’s plays but no less brilliant for that. Like all great shows, this book delivers exactly what the audience wants. We leave the theatre happy. All is right with the world. If there is hope for Stephen, there is hope for us all.

If you’re not a fan of musical theatre this is not the book for you, however if you love musicals then this book will have you itching to go and see one. Next time you go to the theatre you’ll applaud the orchestra just a little bit more than normal.

Charlotte Evans writes “I’m a twenty-three year old writer, currently working for my local library service. Lovely to be surrounded by books all day, depressing that they're all written by 'celebrities'. I'm interested in reading, TV, theatre, stand up comedy, film and music.”


Monday, September 22, 2008

Review: Mass Dreams by Berta Freistadt

Berta Freistadt
Mass Dreams

Published by Discovered Authors Diamonds

Reviewed by Layla McCay

In a world without men, that everyone is a lesbian is taken for granted in Mass Dreams. Such a speculative future is rife with possibilities for a writer who is acclaimed for her queer-themed stories and poetry. This only makes it more disappointing that the potential scope of this intriguing concept is so superficially and frustratingly explored in her latest book.

The book’s structure is based upon the tradition of storytelling, focussing upon one woman, the designated “Storyteller,” who recounts her tales to a rapt audience in their community bar, Eye The Girls. This community is known as “Paradise” and is set up as a kind of utopia for those lucky few who have escaped an ill-defined global disaster from which occasional refugees occasionally turn up, though do not stay. The details that might explain the nature of this utopia are never fully available; instead, the reader is charged with the task of piecing together The Storyteller’s world from suggestion, detail, parable and metaphor found within her stories. Real characters merge with The Storyteller’s cast, and storytelling plots with events in the community, imbued with meaning in a way that almost suggests how a bible or tribal history might be created. This is an interesting technique in a very original book. Disappointingly, it feels pretentious, is self-conscious in its execution, and leaves the reader in a confused realm between short story, novel and speculative scripture. Occasional chapters do describe events in Paradise conventionally rather than through stories, and such interludes form the most compelling part of the book. These episodes at times are intriguing, inspired and contain some beautiful character sketches. The reader must be careful not to grow attached to these characters though, for they are rarely followed up, and this is what makes reading the book so frustrating. While one can imagine The Storyteller or her successors creating a future story pertaining to these episodes, the reader in the present is never given quite enough information to care about those involved. Instead we must to endure story upon allegorical story without being given access to the tantalising, and immeasurably more interesting, life of The Storyteller and her companions in Paradise.

This book has a confused identity but is best placed within the genres of fantasy and speculative fiction. The author consistently favours lyrical, imaginative prose over any concrete substance, and playfully challenges the reader to think, speculate, and make interpretations in order to be admitted into the Storyteller’s world. The point is that by failing to define the nature of this community in any firm terms, it feels different for every reader, and grows into each individual’s own personal Paradise (or dystopia). For those who cannot tolerate speculative fantasy fiction, the abstract, tangential style of Mass Dreams may tempt the reader to fling the book aside in frustration, mid-story. For those who are more enthusiastic about this genre, the book provides an intriguing insight into an original way of creating a setting and developing a story that requires the reader’s active participation and commitment to relax into the tangents and create their own meaning.

Layla McCay is a doctor who lives in Camberwell, London with her partner.


Friday, September 19, 2008

Review: Hot Valley by James Lear

James Lear
Hot Valley

Published by Cleis Press

Reviewed by Radcliff Gregory

Erotica is a notoriously difficult genre to write well, and I’ve read very little of it that satisfies me on any level. Too many erotica writers think that if they are dirty enough, no one will notice that they are extremely poor writers.

Hot Valley by James Lear is a scorcher of a novel – in every respect of the word. Deliciously dirty sex drenches the book down to its very marrow – and, if you care, it has a brilliant story holding it all together – well written enough to please even those who expect literary excellence.

The novel is set in New England, and follows the misadventures of Jack Edgerton, spoilt white brat heir of a hydropathic institution and Aaron Johnson, the freed son of a slave. They meet when the latter, an educated black man, begins work at the institution – and they are instantly attracted to each other.

Jack is the uber-hedonist, and imagines that no one back home knows the true nature of his nocturnal shenanigans across the other side of town. Being the boss’s son, he believes that he has a divine right to take anything – and anyone – he likes. Normally, his name (and handsome looks) ensure a smooth passage – in more ways than one. That all changes when he meets Aaron, a man of supreme self-control who has reformed from his sexually wayward youth because of the mortal danger of being black and queer. His life is in constant danger from the racist and homophobic lynch mobs.

The American Civil War is already rumbling in the Southern states, and soon shatters the illusions of the complacent northerners. People are losing their homes, families, fortunes, and everyone is forced take sides – whether or not they want any involvement in the war. Both Jack and Aaron have to leave the comfort of everything they know, but not before a protracted exchange of sexual tension, and their certainty that their love for each other is lost forever, without even being consummated.

Going their separate ways, both Jack and Aaron are literally sucked into the Civil War as they try to stay alive. Both find themselves embroiled in situations at odds with their desires, which, ironically, leads to their more basic desires being fulfilled – over and over again, in every way imaginable. Their respective scrapes involve numerous memorable misadventures, almost all of them sexual, of course, and a novel way of escaping a prison sentence.

Hot Valley takes the reader on a riveting journey through time, and brilliantly evokes the terrifying and liberating lawlessness of North America in 1861. Sex and loyalty, however dubious, underpins everything, and forces Jack and Aaron to learn some lessons they had never wanted to. The sizzling sex will keep you gagging for the next cock in the novel, but the painful love story will stay with you long after the double-edged climax.

Radcliff Gregory is the author of Everywhere, Except…, and the sold-out Fragile Art, and Figaro’s Cabin (under a pseudonym), and also anthologised in Chroma, Poemata, Coffee House and Poets International literary publications, and a dozen books by publishers including Crystal Clear, Forward Press and Poetry Now. Outright winner of six UK poetry competitions. Also writes non-fiction articles and essays on literary criticism, literature, disability and gender issues. Currently organising Polyverse Poetry Festival, which he founded. He also tries to find time to pull in a little PhD research at Loughborough University.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Review: Quidnunc by Gregory Woods

Gregory Woods


Published by Carcanet Press

Reviewed by Giuseppe Albano

Baudelaire believed that the more a man cultivates a taste for the arts, the less often he gets an erection. Any man who secretly shares this concern would do well to seek out Gregory Woods, whose poems will, for some readers, heighten eyebrows when at their most highbrow, while for others ‘raise the spirits as they stir the cock’. This quotation is not the poet speaking as himself, but through the dramatic guise of the Alexandrian poet C. P. Cavafy in ‘Days of 1912’, the first of a suite in Woods’s latest collection probing the anguished sexuality underlying the lives of three great – and queer – modern writers, and all in the most refined heroic couplets. In the second piece, ‘Proust’s Way’, the effete French novelist describes having ‘dignified a house of ill repute / With mother’s furniture’, finally finding himself ‘at liberty to clutch / The parts his mother told him not to touch’, while ‘One for the Master’ details Henry James’s ill-fated ‘Attempts to fascinate the feckless young / With written language’s prosthetic tongue’ and ends with a dictum: ‘There is a purpose to such Chinese boxes: / They keep one safe from love and other poxes’. But Woods has always known what his sexlessly erudite speaker fears: that literature protects us from nothing, and that any attempt to silence our impulses with the intellect is wishful thinking indeed. And so his work to date has unapologetically celebrated the body.

Readers familiar with Woods’s work will recognise some of the types of persona here. There is the thoughtful voyeur gripped by a psychosexual drama played out before him (‘Queer Pedagogies’); the social commentator enraged by the cruelties of history (‘Civilisation’, ‘A Triumph’), and by our collective failure to learn from them (‘This Fastness’, ‘Heroic Memoir’); the time-travelling queer scanning the canon for companions (‘Consuming Love’) as well as the train-travelling queer seeking comfort, or even just a sign of acknowledgment, from a stranger (‘Man on Train’). But in this, his fourth, volume, Woods’s dramatic range and technical ambition are greater than ever, particularly when he summons up two literary ghosts to help prove some of his theories, rustling up two brilliant sequences of rhyming tercets in the process. In ‘Sir Osbert’s Complaint’, a lonely Osbert Sitwell sifts through a life devoted to bookish pursuits. When he awakes one day to the sound of a muscular young gardener raking leaves outside his window, he limply shrugs off his inaction: ‘If I dress and hurry down I’ll find no Corydon, but just / Dead leaves scudding through the doorway on a cold, autumnal gust’.

The young Byron, on the other hand, would less likely have missed such a trick and in ‘The Newstead Fandango’, a tour of the bon vivant’s early life compressed into the structure of the Odyssey and comprising nineteen sets of five scrumptiously para-rhyming tercets, each set carrying an extended rhyme all the way through (yes, that really does mean fifteen end-rhyming words apiece), Woods seems to have found his intellectual soulmate. ‘In literature, preserve us from the pleasant and the subtle’, screams ‘Byron’, although this could almost be a younger version of Woods himself speaking, and the claim that ‘There’s not a single English poet whom I wouldn’t throttle / In the attempt to shape his feeble voice to something brutal’ is the sort of war cry – provocative, if knowingly exaggerated – which justifies much of Woods’s own earlier work. Readers of Quidnunc will find that the candour of this poet’s sexual vocabulary has mellowed somewhat since previous outings, but that his poetry has never been more alive.

Giuseppe Albano has a PhD in English Literature from Cambridge University and is a former fellow of Edinburgh University's Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. He lives in Edinburgh and works at Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, Midlothian.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Review: My Miserable Lonely Lesbian Pregnancy by Andrea Askowitz

Andrea Askowitz
My Miserable Lonely Lesbian Pregnancy

Published by Cleis Press

Reviewed by Emily Moreton

Note to self: do not get pregnant six months after breaking up with girlfriend. If this book is anything to go by, it won’t be a fun experience.

Askowitz’s account of her pregnancy is not the stuff of women’s magazines and feel-good ‘chick-lit’. There’s no warm fuzzy feeling of connection to the Earth and the sisterhood, or whatever it is that we’re all supposed to feel if we get pregnant. Her story is as much about how it feels to be gay and alone and pregnant as it is about morning sickness and the cost of donor sperm. It’s not an easy journey, to read about any more than to go through, only partly because what Askowitz is experiencing isn’t much fun. She’s not the easiest person to like, on paper – no-one behaves in the way she wants them to, everyone is wrong, and she’s a little too obsessed with her weight (and her ex-girlfriend’s).

It’s not all doom, gloom and whining though – I wouldn’t say it’s a hilarious account, like the cover proclaims, but it’s definitely amusing. When she wants to be funny, she’s sharp and dry, and it’s a lot easier than to forgive her for the whining. Wouldn’t you if you were pregnant and on your own, with your family on the other side of the country?

This isn’t, in the end, just a book about being pregnant, or even a book about being gay and pregnant. It’s as much about her unspoken fear that the fibroid she suffers with will turn out to be, as it did for her childhood friend, cancer, and ultimately fatal. It’s as much about her job, running outward bound cycling holidays for inner-city gay kids, what it means to her, and what it means to her to give it up for her child. It’s as much about family and religion and friendship, and what these all mean to Askowitz, how they’ve shaped her life and will shape her child’s. And in the end, it is, like most pregnancy memoirs, about how it feels to bring someone new into the world, and how that starts to change your life.

And yes, it does have exactly the sappy ending you’d expect from a pregnancy memoir, but in this case, it’s okay, because it comes at the end of nine months of what feels, written down, like suffering, and you can’t help thinking that Askowitz, annoying as she sometimes was, deserves this ending, this connection with her child and their future.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Review: We Disappear by Scott Heim

Scott Heim
We Disappear

Published by Harper Perennial

Reviewed by Shaun Frisky
Original photos by Kurt

Have you seen the film MYSTERIOUS SKIN? Watching hot young actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt whoring himself out to men was reason enough to get me to the cinema. But the film also happens to be one of the most emotionally moving, thought-provoking, edgy and stylistically beautiful queer movies of this century. The film was based on Scott Heim’s first novel. This year Heim released a new novel called WE DISAPPEAR and it’s every bit as startling and diabolically sexy as that first book.

In WE DISAPPEAR narrator Scott is a frequent drug-user who is uncertain with the direction of his life. He returns to his native Kansas to care for his mother Donna who is suffering from a terminal illness. While reading the book you’ll no doubt be feverishly wondering what’s based on the author’s real life given that there are many obvious parallels. However, Heim saves you having to conduct a series of Google searches because there’s an interview with the author at the back of the book which will answer many of the “What’s real? What’s fiction?” questions.

Rather than taking it easy and emotionally reconnecting with her son, Donna becomes obsessed with researching missing children - not seeking to recover them, but understand the mechanism of their disappearances. She frantically tries to connect this with her belief that she herself was kidnapped as a child. She even goes so far as to develop a dangerously close rapport with a young man who wants to disappear. The abducted becomes the abductor. That’s when Scott discovers the near-naked boy chained in the basement. And that’s when the story and the narrator’s psyche takes on the feeling of a run away train.

In the end the mystery is in a sense solved, but we are left with more questions about the validity of Scott’s conclusions given the narrative’s near-hallucinatory tone. The desperation to uncover the mystery of his mother’s past runs parallel to his own sense of trying to keep his head together. Like many guys today, this sexy queer dude is just scraping by. He comes close to vanishing himself through crystal meth abuse, his unfulfilling NYC job, random short-lived sexual encounters and a lack of supporting loving friends. The effect of WE DISAPPEAR is lasting like observing something illicit through a keyhole. If you want cutting-edge and a rusty-haired writer whose dick you’d gladly kneel down and worship – Scott Heim is it!

Thanks to Kurt for the photos. See more of his work at


Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A Push and a Shove by Christopher Kelly

A Push and a Shove
Christopher Kelly

Published by: Alyson Books

Reviewed by: Steven J Watson

Ben Reilly teaches in high school. Dissatisfied and disappointed, closeted to all but a few and with a string of failed relationships in his past, nevertheless he is more or less satisfied with his life until, one afternoon, one of the kids in his senior class pushes another down the stairs. Ben is instantly taken back to his own experiences in high school, where he was bullied by the mysterious, enigmatic Terrence O’Connell, a boy for whom Ben had seen a crush develop into a dangerous obsession. He quickly (and, I have to say, not entirely convincingly) decides that, if he is ever to move on with his life he must give up his job to track down the adult Terrence , in order to confront him with the effects of his actions so long ago. What he finds, though, is a very different Terrence from the one he remembers, and Ben is not the only one with things left to work out.

Christopher Kelly’s debut novel is a confident, assured piece of writing. He weaves the past and present together skilfully, building up a compelling portrait of the bullied as well as his oppressor, and cleverly reveals how apparently pre-meditated campaigns of oppression can be entirely arbitrary at their core. The book can be read as a meditation on identity, too, on how the past is what makes us what we are, but also how much of what we are lies beneath the surface, hidden from view. The book can tend towards the bleak - Ben’s family is fractured, riven by secrets and all but destroyed by their inability to communicate over his sister’s early death – but (just) avoids being mawkish.

A Push and a Shove is an enjoyable read, but one cannot help but feel that Kelly’s best work is still to come. There are too many moments of implausibility here and attempts to ratchet up the drama that are simply unnecessary. The writing is enjoyable, though it too is solid rather than spectacular. Too often the narrative is stalled by Kelly’s unnecessary labouring of a point and one finds oneself yearning for a more ruthless editor. Nevertheless ‘A Push and a Shove’ is certainly enjoyable, and minor quibbles aside, recommended.

Steven J Watson lives and works in London. He is currently working on his first novel as well as numerous short stories, and writes regular columns for several magazines. He can be contacted at


Monday, September 01, 2008

Want to learn how to review Poetry?

For the first time, The Poetry School is offering a short course to teach poetry reviewing skills led by notable critic Charles Bainbridge who writes regularly on poetry for the Guardian.

Reviewing Poetry: how it works
Tutor: Charles Bainbridge
Venue: Poetry School, 81 Lambeth Walk, London SE11 6DX
Day / Time: Wednesdays, 6.45-8.45pm
Duration: 6 weeks
Start Date: 8 Oct
Fee: £60 (£46 concs)

Writing reviews can be a way of deepening your engagement with poetry. It can also be an additional way for poets to make money or gain exposure. Charles – a regular poetry reviewer for The Guardian – will give you some lively tips for writing reviews and interviews for newspapers, magazines and blogs, and Poetry London will consider these reviews for publication.

To book, call 0207 582 1679 with a credit / debit card or download a booking form from and send payment to the Poetry School, 81 Lambeth Walk, London SE11 6DX