Book Lovers: Places I Read About on My Summer Vacation
Being flat broke in Vegas and not much of a world traveler in any case, I let my imagination soar above baggage checks and TSA searches to journey to exotic locales safe in the hands of some capable m/m romance writers. If your vacation hasn’t gotten off the ground yet, it isn’t too late to relax by the pool with one of these cool books.
The Jasmine Revolution
It is unlikely that Neil Plakcy anticipated that he was placing the heroes of his Have Body, Will Guard series in the path of revolution when he chose Tunisia as the locale for his romance adventure series. But in Olives for the Stranger, (Loose ID, 2012), lovers and bodyguards Liam and Aidan find themselves in the midst of the geo-political upheaval that is still reverberating throughout the Middle East. When the ancient olive groves owned by Farid, a wealthy gay Tunisian with family ties to the political opposition, are vandalized, Liam and Aidan reluctantly accept the assignment of protecting the groves. With the revolution breaking out around them, Liam and Aidan need to find out if the vandalism is a reactionary attack against Farid’s brother and his revolutionary politics or against Farid, himself, and his American partner, James.
The duo’s assignment becomes even tenser when they are tasked with baby-sitting Farid’s petulant teenage Islamist niece, Leila. This theme of family responsibility is established in the novel’s amusing first scene when Liam is left trying to round up a client’s twin monsters, while Aidan and the brats’ mother are obliviously “chattering away and shopping like best girlfriends.” It would be fun if Plakcy has our heroes popping up as gay dads in some future adventure.
Plakcy shows great insight into the Middle East conflict when he has Liam and Aidan uncover a deeper motivation for the vandalism, rooted in an ancient people’s connection to the land. In the nail-biting climax, they discover almost too late that a blood feud over the land runs thicker than religion or politics or sexuality. As Plakcy has the book’s villain comment, “It is a very old story, back to the very first days of man on earth. The story of Jacob and Esau.”
The novel closes with a new chapter opening for Liam and Aidan that promises to bring gay romance’s sexiest couple even more romantic adventures. Plakcy also throws in a bonus short story, “The Jasmine Hero,” that offers an interesting speculation on the gay motives behind one Tunisian soldier’s refusal to fire on civilians during the revolution. I would like to think that men loving men would create a culture of “make love, not war,” but a recent Advocate story citing a report on an Arab news show “that suicide bombers were allowed to ask for anal sex to help hide explosives in their rectums” would suggest otherwise. Who do I have to fuck to get a bomb around here? The report has since been denounced by Arab-speaking bloggers as a hoax.
“Cleopatra’s Wedding Present”
Plakcy’s romance stimulated me to reread Robert Tewdwr Moss’ fascinating travel memoir, Cleopatra’s Wedding Present: Travels through Syria, (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1997). Though dated long before that country’s current civil unrest, the book provides many insights into the roots of the conflict through Moss’ intimate experiences with ordinary Syrians. At the heart of the book is the author’s unsentimental but still somehow tender relationship with “Jihad,” a former commando, scarred resisting the Israeli occupation in Lebanon:
He undid the rest of his shirt and pulled it open so that I could see the full extent of the scar. Then he shrugged the shirt off. He had a smooth olive torso, now a little out of condition but with large groups of muscles: a broad sweep of pectorals crowned with fleshy, square-tipped nipples, a long, narrow stomach, broad and meaty shoulders. His arms were strong and sinewy. When he pointed at his chest I could see a powerful bicep move beneath the glossy skin.
Jihad insists on bringing Robert back to his house:
Jihad twiddled the dial on his radio. A warm gush of classical music swept over the room… ‘Jihad, thank you for tea. I must go now,’ I said… ‘Here!’ He banged the bed. ‘Sleep here with me. Please. Don’t go now.’ He looked at me soulfully with beseeching brown eyes, making me feel mean and unreasonable. Suddenly we were plunged into darkness. The Chopin stopped. It was a power cut. I felt Jihad very close by. He whispered into my ear: ‘You see, habibi. Maktub.’ It was written.
Tragically, Moss was murdered in London on August 24, 1996, the day after completing the manuscript of this memoir, which remains his gift to both the people of Syria and to us. Cherish it.
Protection is a well-written weeper self-published by S. A. Reid in 2012 and available on Amazon. Bound within the walls of Wentworth Prison in England between the wars, the setting for this romance is obviously static, so I was especially impressed by Reid’s use of smells and other small details to make vivid the life of the prison to the reader. Hardened patricide and lifer Gabriel MacKenna discovers his heart and falls in love with Joey Cooper, a young Oxford-trained physician who is an innocent prisoner of circumstances. Reid plays rough when in the first encounter between our romantic heroes Gabe brutally rapes Joey in the prison showers. For their subsequent romance to be believed by the reader, Reid must make Gabe’s self-justification for the rape understandable, even if reprehensible. She succeeds because in Gabe’s eyes, he is protecting Joey from worse.
‘You’re no longer up for grabs. I fucked you in the showers—’
‘—and that’s debatable ownership. But just now I offered you a cigarette and you took it. Let me light it and you’re mine. Meaning you’re protected from all the bull-necked, ham-fisted motherfuckers who’d kill you trying to love you. No man in Wentworth will touch what’s mine.’
‘I don’t want you to touch me.’ Cooper’s voice shook with the force of his loathing. ‘Not ever again.’
Bringing his own cigarette to his lips, Gabriel took a deep draw, exhaling the smoke in the other man’s direction. ‘Sure and you don’t. But think on it, Cooper. I’m the devil you know. You’ve endured my worst. I’m only one man and easy to please. Care to let the G-block Lovelies gang-bang you?’
Likewise, Joey’s ultimate forgiveness of Gabe has to be based on a genuine change of character on Gabe’s part, a change that Reid expertly draws out of the character’s inner logic. What is fascinating about these two men’s love for each other is that both are ostensibly straight. The heartfelt turning point is when a terrified Gabe is whisked away to hospital with an attack of appendicitis and Joey assures him of his protection, “I’ve gone with you as far as I can. And I’ll be waiting for you, I promise.” These words are repeated again in the book’s heartfelt ending that will have most reading through their tears.
What Happened in Vegas
Most of what happens in Vegas isn’t in Vegas. The actual City of Las Vegas makes up only a small portion of the sprawling urb across the desert that is broken up into little unincorporated townships. Paradise, the location of Las Vegas’ famous Fruit Loop, is one of these, and it was here on Bastille Day at one of the nation’s last remaining LGBT bookstores, Get Booked, that I was privileged to hear Lambda Award winning author Jim Provenzano read from his award-winning romance, Every Time I Think of You, (Myrmidude Press, 2012). Read Jim’s blog about the event and see pictures here.
Get Booked is owned by Wes Williams and managed by his partner, Raul Gutierrez, and I applaud these community heroes for keeping the doors open at one of America’s oldest LGBT bookstores. This brick and mortar bookstore remains an invaluable community resource in a world of virtual books. It was here at Jim Provenzano’s reading that I discovered local gay writer R. J. Stastny’s debut novel, Falling Forward, (iUniverse, 2012, www.rjstastny.com).
Stastny has an interesting story to tell in this artless roman à clef whose theme is set out clearly by Stastny’s fictional alter ego, Wes Svoboda. We are, Wes says, “the products of both accidents and miracles. The past—or the ‘non-fiction’ part of my life, as I called it—was done and couldn’t be changed. Now, I wanted to do everything I could to make sure that the yet-unrealized part of my life story, the ‘fiction’ that I fantasized about, could be written.”
When Wes Svoboda’s long-time partner, Kevin, dies of lung cancer (he was a smoker), his “universe suddenly changed the balance of things.” He relocates from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to separate himself, “emotionally and physically from the past,” but discovers his past “falling forward” to meet him in a series of encounters with friends from both his old life in Southern California and from his past travels in Latin America. When Wes flies to the rescue of an Ecuadorian friend, Tico, whose El Barcito in Quito is being extorted for protection money by a Colombian gang of thugs, his past collides with his possible future in an unexpected and chilling turn. Fortunately, Wes survives for a very romantic third act with someone that the reader will have been rooting for all along.
The magical character of Claire, a sort of fairy godmother, points out to Wes that he should “gather all the mistakes and triumphs that you’ve had, acknowledge them, and then put them on a mental book shelf where you can visit them from time to time….” Stastny has done just that with this marvelous “fictional” memoir and we are fortunate that he has chosen to share it all with us.
A Canadian’s Bildungsroman
Shirts and Skins is a brilliant debut novel by Canadian writer Jeffrey Luscombe (Chelsea Station Editions, 2012) that explores the inner and outer life of a “latent homosexual,” Joshua Moore. Luscombe revitalizes the over-romanticized “coming out” novel by subjecting it to a cold shower of literary realism. This collection of linked stories from various episodes in Joshua’s life reminded me of Keith Abbot’s poignant collection of intertwined stories about boys becoming men, Harum Scarum (Coffee House Press, 1984).
Luscombe explores the process whereby a pudgy, asthmatic gay boy growing up in a working-class Socialist household learns to hide his sexuality under his skin. When the child Josh finds a true crime paperback with grisly crime photos, he wonders, “This is what I look like on the inside?” Playing skins and shirts indoor hockey, Josh longs to touch the skin of fellow outcast, Matt:
…that thing he longed for would not appear. Still Josh knew whatever it was it had something to do with Matt. Maybe he just wanted to have long hair like Matt, or have a body like him so everyone would see Josh’s muscles move and twist just below his skin, just like how Matt’s back and shoulders looked when he reached for the puck. That was not it, though it was part of it. And the harder Josh tried to name this thing, this warm soft and sweet thing, the more it seemed to come apart…
Josh turns violently against Matt when he is caught tenderly touching the other boy’s skin under the sneering gaze of his gym teacher.
Instead of going to college Josh hides his intelligence and gets a job at the steel mill, like his father. The town of Hamilton reeks of slag from the ever spewing mills. Josh’s father tells him, “Hard work smells.” The job is mindless and Josh frequently gets plastered with his buddies at the local strip joint before their shift. Nonetheless, Josh is ambitious to become a “shirt,” a shift manager over the other men. When his best bud, Steve, who smells of “sweat, metal and Obsession for Men” goes into the VIP room at the strip joint with a stripper to get a blow job, Josh rushes in after him with his own stripper for a hand job and the two men look into each other’s eyes as they cum. The accident at work that follows is fueled perhaps less by alcohol than by unsatisfied yearning.
Going back to school for a computer technician certificate, Josh befriends fellow student Rob and his girlfriend, Allison. S(He) is attracted by Josh’s Indian cheek bones and long-hair pulled back into a pony tail. Josh’s eyes follow Rob’s bobbing Adam’s apple. In classic sublimation he ends up with his best friend’s girl. But their sexual life is reduced to clinical mechanics as they strive to have a baby.
Lubricated by several martinis, Josh finally comes out at an out-of-town business convention: “These were his few first baby steps into a new fabulous world. His life was finally waking up. This is just the beginning. Everything is open to me.” But Luscombe’s sober realism does not allow Josh or the reader to romanticize coming out. As Josh leaves the bar with a hot, young thing, he hears a screeching voice shout after them, “Where are you going with that old guy?”
Josh meets his LTR at an AA meeting. They visit his senile father together; wear each other’s shirts and fall asleep together in front of the TV. A mundane HEA that is satisfyingly real.
The novel’s charming cover art is by artist Seth Ruggles Hiler. See more of his work at www.facebook.com/sethruggleshiler.