Monday, February 20, 2017

BLUE STEEL CHAIN, an edgy, triggery entry into a charming series of romantic suspense novels

Trowchester Blues, #3
Riptide Publishing
$17.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: At sixteen, Aidan Swift was swept off his feet by a rich older man who promised to take care of him for the rest of his life. But eight years later, his sugar daddy has turned from a prince into a beast. Trapped and terrified, Aidan snatches an hour’s respite at the Trowchester Museum.

Local archaeologist James Summers is in a failing long distance relationship with a rock star, and Aidan—nervous, bruised, and clearly in need of a champion—brings out all his white knight tendencies. When everything falls apart for Aidan, James saves him from certain death . . . and discovers a skeleton of another boy who wasn’t so lucky.

As Aidan recovers, James falls desperately in love. But though Aidan acts like an adoring boyfriend, he doesn’t seem to feel any sexual attraction at all. Meanwhile there are two angry exes on the horizon, one coming after them with the press and the other with a butcher’s knife. To be together, Aidan and James must conquer death, sex, and everyone’s preconceptions about the right way to love—even their own.

NOTE: The Trowchester Blues series features stand-alone titles that can be read in any order.

My Review: The stakes in this darker, more violent entry in the Trowchester Blues series could not possibly be higher. Aidan's life is in danger from the instant we meet him. His horrifying experiences as Piers's sex slave have reached crisis point. Pain and humiliation and viciousness are pale miseries compared to the violent escalation that Aidan precipitates by finding his very own friend unconnected to Piers in James the Trowchester archaeologist, familiar to us from his brief appearances in both previous novels. And there is no doubt whatever that Piers, the violent pedophile abuser, will make good on his ongoing threats to Aidan's life: No spoiler here, he's done it before. See publisher's synopsis.

James's own failing relationship is with self-absorbed rock musician Dave, a complete and utter bounder but not a murderous monster. James faces down the embarrassment of Dave's very uninterested and unloving attitude towards him with his accustomed acceptance. He finds he doesn't care much, is really only putting up with this nonsense on borrowed time. After all, the man he loves is being threatened with murderous intent by a stone-cold upper-class killer. That ain't a joke. Anything short of death threats? Pshaw! James will ride to the rescue! Blessedly, he does; he even leaves his dearly beloved entirely alone to find his way through a new world, one without rage and beatings, for himself. The fact that Aidan's new employer is James's bestie and a member of Finn's book club (now held at Finn and Michael's house on the canal) who willingly keeps James in the loop about Aidan's progress in his new life is making it easier, I'm sure. But it also keeps each man in a separate sphere of Romantic Self-Abnegation: I Shall Be Noble And Avoid My One True Love So That He May Find Himself/Get On With His Life.

And then it's time for reality. The harsh glare of terror dims down to the quotidian glow of spring sunshine and mellows into the lovely eternal tea-time of summer. Aidan discovers he's asexual. James discovers he has fallen head-over-heels in love for what seems to me to be the first time. And therein a significant rub: Party of the first part has only ever experienced sex as violence and party of the second part has only ever experienced love as sex.

I must pause here for an admission: I'm a bog-standard guy when it comes to sex. My sexual preference is more, and my orientation is towards whatever man I happen to be involved with, and asexual persons are not within my area of expertise. I do not get it. I don't have to, obviously, but I'm left utterly at sea as to how someone can have no sexual desire. I felt so sad for Aidan, and shouldn't have because he isn't broken or flawed or wrong, he's just not like me. And yet I am who I am: It makes me so sad that someone doesn't have the joy I experience in a strong, healthy sexual connection to my partner. Anyway, that's out of the way, on with the review bearing my inability to relate to the character's core identity in mind.

Aidan's life takes so many wonderful turns at this point...his newfound ability to relate to people, his new and exciting ability to support himself and to live as he pleases...that he decides to include James in his happiness. James is perfectly happy to have him there, since he's fallen hard for the man. Aidan, in his own way, is right there with James in the feeling realm:
Today James looked almost like a normal human being. He wore a tweed suit that should have looked ridiculous but in fact only cemented his resemblance to an absent-minded professor and resulted in a touching bohemianism. He had attempted to flatten out his hair with some kind of hair product, but fortunately it had fought back and was as distressed as ever. The day's heat had caused him to take his tie and jacket off and roll up his white sleeves, and the shape of his forearms seemed poetic to Aidan. His fingers itched to re-create the shape in art, to try to demonstrate to the world why James was so desperately important—why his existence said something that could not be said in any other way. Something everyone ought to hear.
That is, by anyone's standards, a man in love. Asexual maybe but a lover and a besotted one. Aidan has a wonderful eye for men, as does James. The men are having themselves a time there at the folk music festival; we see Billy and Martin, from Blue Eyed Stranger, on stage dancing their reconstructed Viking dances, James pointing them out as mates from the book club; there is such genuine joy in James now that he's there with Aidan that even though Aidan really doesn't much like the whole scene, he loves James and will learn not to hate it for his sake.

Another hiccup in their borning love comes when James, on taking Aidan home to his own place, expresses his love and gratitude for the evening that Aidan planned and executed for him with a kiss. Not a good idea. Spontaneous sexual gestures are complete triggers for Aidan. He has a massive meltdown on his front step, his protective housemates send James away with a flea in his ear, and things go from bad to worse when James gets home only to deal with a surprise of his own. Dave, whom James had thought well and truly thrown out never to return, has returned with his entourage, his new lover, and expects James to make his usual lifestyle adjustments to the whole insane clown posse.

The next day is the make-or-break point for the men. They have to clean up the messes of the lives they have never actually led but simply allowed to occur around them. They are each motivated to fix things up so they can get to the real fixing they want to do: Fix the other man into his own life, become the couple they cannot imagine not being. The major event that brings them together I won't reveal, but it was very satisfying. They fight their way into life together. They fight for their oddly assorted love. They come into a true and loving and satisfying life together, complete with strange corners and odd angles and the eternally unknowable alchemy of couplehood.

I am sad to see this series over. I don't know if Beecroft and Riptide plan to publish more of them, but I hope so. Trowchester could become the gay Barsetshire, and I for one would welcome it. There hasn't been an English setting as rich as Barsetshire since Mrs. Thirkell died in 1961. The time is ripe for one, and there couldn't be a better modern spin on the concept than one focused on gay men, lesbians (are we calling them gay women yet? I heard that was going to be the new thing), asexuals, transgender people, immigrants, and the whole lot whirling in a set of orbits that would make an astrophysicist dizzy.

Mrs Beecroft, I salute you for making in Aidan someone so powerful and amazingly appealing that even I, utterly alien to the concept of asexuality, could fall for him. Many many thanks for the hours of pleasure your books have already given me. Many more happy and creative years to you.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

A KISS FOR A DEAD FILM STAR, short fiction done with panache and verve


Brain Mill Press
$12.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Isaac Rubinstein has no choice but to kill himself.

He’s in love with Rudolf Valentino, and now Valentino is dead. His acolytes are committing suicide all over the city. The window to definitively display his devotion is closing, and for once the New York tenement apartment he shares with his mother, his grandmother, and his siblings is quiet. It has to be now.

Unless he doesn’t, because his grandmother calls out for him right before the blade touches his skin. Unless he does, and the cuts bleed away his heart’s blood.

In Karen M. Vaughn’s romantic and darkly funny melodrama, Isaac Rubinstein does both. Dies, and is united with his beautiful Valentino. Lives, and finds a reason to live.

A Kiss for a Dead Film Star is an astonishing debut collection of stories that inspire weird love and uncover surprising caches of eroticism. A museum T-Rex fossil awakens and contemplates his existential crisis. A devoted and loving wife copes with the inevitable loss of her handsome husband with an unusual provenance when he grows scales and a tail before her desperate eyes. A woman at the nadir of a breakup hears a song in a dingy bar and becomes rapturously, gloriously pregnant with a child made from song. A lemon grove that has sheltered a family of migrant workers reveals their secrets when their small daughter removes her own arm. Polyamory, the cosmos, and the end of the world serve as the angel of death for a wry scientist at the end of her life.

Psycho-medical-magical realism intertwines with old and new New York City, epic love stories, and tales best told in the smoky alleys behind bars or beneath the covers. Karen Vaughn’s capacious imagination and remarkable voice glitter—this collection is a comet that comes around rarely.

My Review: Look at that cover. The image is naive, charming, evokes a sense of simple drawings by sincere young artists. I can imagine a young artist seeing a Chagall painting for the first time and snapping into focus at last, "I am going to do that, yes that's right and it's me." Therefore it's the perfect cover image for this collection of Karen Vaughn's meditations on identity and voyages of discovery.

"A Kiss for a Dead Film Star" is a bang-up introduction to Vaughn's world-view.
The longer Isaac worked there, the more his life began to take on a kind of duality. During the day, he steeled himself against the various constrictions of the tenement: the overachieving brother; the distant mother; the school assignments that did nothing but demonstrate to the world how unexceptional he was; even the green paint that kept appearing beneath his fingernails, as if he had been clawing at the walls in his sleep. But in the evenings—oh yes, in the evenings, everything was different. There was glamor. There was mystery. There was divine justice. It was only in this rarefied atmosphere that Isaac felt he could truly breathe, within this strange golden existence that was like a sliver out of someone else's life.

And then, in his eleventh year, the reels arrived for a film called The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. As Isaac watched this new leading man tango across the screen in a Spanish hat and gaucho pants—eyes darkly seductive, limbs sinuous as a panther's—he felt the gears within himself quietly shifting into place. He knew he was falling in love.
That reason to live? As honest as they come: The small things. It's the small things that make decisions for us, that influence us, that bifurcate death from life. It's a charming tale.

"Still Life with Fossils" brings us the stoic ruminations of two outsized survivors of an era dim and distant as they adjust to their new, shabby world dominated by creatures they don't comprehend and can't eat. Nothing to eat them with...and she is an herbivore anyway. He spends his afterlife making conversation with her until, as is inevitable, everything is said and there is the heaven of shared silence. A lovely meditation on how it feels to find one's soulmate.

"The Piscine Age"

"The Angel Appearing to Corrine"


"Edna, Filled with Light"

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

BLUE EYED STRANGER, another Trowchester Blues novel

Trowchester Blues, #2
Riptide Publishing
$17.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Billy Wright has a problem: he’s only visible when he’s wearing a mask. That’s fine when he’s performing at country fairs with the rest of his morris dancing troupe. But when he takes the paint off, his life is lonely and empty, and he struggles with crippling depression.

Martin Deng stands out from the crowd. After all, there aren’t that many black Vikings on the living history circuit. But as the founder of a fledgling historical re-enactment society, he’s lonely and harried. His boss doesn’t like his weekend activities, his warriors seem to expect him to run everything single-handedly, and it’s stressful enough being one minority without telling the hard men of his group he’s also gay.

When Billy’s and Martin’s societies are double-booked at a packed county show, they know at once they are kindred spirits, united by a deep feeling of connectedness to their history and culture. But they’re also both hiding in their different ways, and they need each other to be brave enough to take their masks off and still be seen.

NOTE: The Trowchester Blues series features stand-alone titles that can be read in any order.

My Review: Unstoppable force, this is immovable object. Advise your trajectory can now continue unimpeded.

History geek Martin meets morris dancer Billy. Each is hella hot for the other. Problem 1: Martin's a half-Sudanese/half-Yorkshireman Viking warrior re-enactor. Not exactly the best candidate for romantic kissy-face, more the hot sweaty sex type, oh and shelve that hand-holding lark. Problem 2: Billy suffers the agonizing, debilitating curse of depression. It's all he can do most days to haul himself out of bed and there are times even that isn't on. Problem 3: They can't reach around their barriers to get at each other consistently despite a near-desperate need for the other man's being.

Add in the immigrant parent with impossibly high expectations, the hostile work environment, and the curse of trying to lift words out of the stygian gloom of broken souls...well. It's all I can do to put the book down long enough to tell you to go get it and read it and defy you not to fall in love with these marvelous men before re-reading it.

Yep. Thass right. I, the arch-advocate of "too many new pretties, don't bother me with that re-reading thing" am going to re-read this book as soon as I close my computer because I absolutely can. not. WAIT. to re-experience the ending of this book.

Yep. Thass right. I, the ever-whinging arch-complainer about the unsatisfactoriness of endings that either tie things up tight with Honey Boo-Boo bows or leave so many threads dangling that they resemble old-fashioned fringed vests (waistcoats to y'all Brits) am going to re-savor the beautiful, beautiful ending Ma Beecroft has imagined for this book.

Oh, and that missing half-star? It's the same place that the missing thirty thousand or so words dedicated to Martin's family, Billy's morris dancing side, and the gents' mutual projects are. I'd glower about it some but I'd be fronting. I love what's here enough to demand more. Brevity might well be the soul of lingerie, but it's not on when you're immersed in a deeply satisfying read.

Oh, and the book club crossover is on that list as well. Better pump the MIA count up to thirty-five thou.

Monday, February 13, 2017

TROWCHESTER BLUES, a tale of the rightness of love shared

(Trowchester Blues, #1)
Riptide Publishing
$17.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Michael May is losing it. Long ago, he joined the Metropolitan Police to escape his father’s tyranny and protect people like himself. Now his father is dead, and he’s been fired for punching a suspect. Afraid of his own rage, he returns to Trowchester—and to his childhood home, with all its old fears and memories. When he meets a charming, bohemian bookshop owner who seems to like him, he clings tight.

Fintan Hulme is an honest man now. Five years ago, he retired from his work as a high class London fence and opened a bookshop. Then an old client brings him a stolen book too precious to turn away, and suddenly he’s dealing with arson and kidnapping, to say nothing of all the lies he has to tell his friends. Falling in love with an ex-cop with anger management issues is the last thing he should be doing.

Finn thinks Michael is incredibly sexy. Michael knows Finn is the only thing that still makes him smile. But in a relationship where cops and robbers are natural enemies, that might not be enough to save them.

NOTE: The Trowchester Blues series features stand-alone titles that can be read in any order.

My Review: Dear Mrs Beecroft,

A long time ago I bought a Christmas tree from a fireman. He carried the tree to the car, put it in the trunk, tied the lid down with some twine, and before he was through making the last knot (four in total...I said I was traveling a half mile, wasn't that enough knots already?) he asked for my phone number.

It was a wonderful few months.

I mentioned what happened next in my earlier review of your book CAPTAIN'S SURRENDER. Frank was shaken, changed, by the honesty, the clarity, the truth that you told in that book's most perfect (to me, of course) moment: Peter's coming out as a lover of men, a man, to himself and to his god. I still give people who need it copies of CAPTAIN'S SURRENDER. It hasn't failed me yet. That specific facet of your story has comforted four more hurting souls after Frank's response proved to me that there is healing in being seen and being loved.

I hope that fact fills you with pride and happiness. It does me. That it was your second novel amazed me then and amazes me now. I am happy to say that the pleasures of reading your novels has only increased as time has gone by and you've written steadily and well.

I've come to expect from you that gift of seeing the moment when depth is too deep, and when gloss is too glib; your ability to balance them is one of the unteachable gifts that you possess. I recommend your books to people based on that fine balance. But then there's the thing that I don't tell them. I just leave the lucky sods to discover it for themselves:
Shame was perhaps ninety percent of the weight lodged under May's breastbone where a heart should be, but he had enough experience of the stuff to know the shame was only a sugar coating on something more insidious, so deep, so hollow he often wondered why he didn't just implode. Take himself out of existence, like a soap bubble with all the air sucked out. Right at this moment, he'd welcome it. Stop thinking. Stop hurting. Stop being him. That would be fantastic.
I can't guess how you know with such intimacy the exact experience of toxic shame. I can say that your finely honed words that are both funny and horribly painful, encapsulate fully the experience as I know it. And again I say that there is healing in being seen, being loved...being created as your character Michael May was in your accepting imagination.

May returning to Trowchester, where he never drew a happy breath, makes a lot of sense in the context of a man hollowed out by a rough life seeing the least and the lowest in constant action. He's down near the bottom of the well already and there's nothing to lose by going to a place that taught him the worthlessness of happiness and the falseness of hope:
When [Jenny, his best friend] signed off, the place felt emptier, lonelier, a million miles away from anywhere. The boat looked bare and the bed cold. He tried sitting on it, but in the small space the curving walls seemed to be clenching around him, crushing him. He wondered how long it would take before whatever it was that was gnawing away at his insides would finally swallow them and let him die.
I think we're all, those of us broken and hollow and stinging with the pain of a parent's emotional abuse, familiar with the no-space-can-be-big-enough problem. You put it so well...the cold bed, the clenched walls, the apparatus of protection being made the mechanism of any act more cruel than depriving another soul of the ability to find comfort in the place that we must all return to, our home? If there is, I don't know about it, and I don't want to.

But May isn't the only one whose life you're excavating to such good effect. Finn the ever-so-slightly bent boy-man whose long dark night of the soul came from the darker paths that his love of beauty led him down. Yes, like Michael's, his life was deeply and unnervingly flawed by his inability to resist the lure of the object even when its provenance was clearly tainted. His cultured soul recoils only from ugliness, brutality, not from legal niceties that mean nothing when matched against a palette of perfect beauty and the unique historical presence of objects. Finn will do anything to possess a perfect object, because he is imperfect. Criminality? Pfui. Pettifogging bureaucratic nonsense.

Until the day he loses more than his illusions can support. Again, I can't guess how you know with such intimacy what happens when one loses a partner. Far as I'm aware your husband is hale and hearty and bids fair to see your grandchildren married. But wherever it comes from, your knowledge of that loss's effects on the entire rest of a man's life is spot-on. After Finn loses his illicit career as well as his beautiful love Tom and runs away to Trowchester, you leave him alone for five whole years. That feels so familiar. Finn won't rush into anything serious because, well, there can't be anything worse than the disappointment of let-down, can there? You said it so well, in this moment after Finn, in short order, suffers many body-blows to his hard-won peace, not to mention an attempt on his life that damages his bookshop, and all without his Michael to protect him:
Bathing and dressing in clean clothes did a little to alleviate his mood, but not even eating bacon and eggs, toast and marmalade and coffee did anything to fill the hollow inside him, where everything that he was had drawn itself deep inside, retreated, squeezing itself together in a singularity of soul so buried he couldn't tell if he was angry or sad or calm.
There's really nothing much to say after that, is there, except "however it is that you know that sensation so intimately, I am sorry."

Finn has depths he doesn't visit too terribly often, depths of deeply sentimental and shockingly sincere lovingkindness. His is the kind of smiling, bright face that no one thinks to wonder what propels the wattage out, they just bask in the warmth and dread the flares. He quite simply can't not help when his help is necessary. He somehow knew that a shadowy lurker around his home was a soul in need, and he's been leaving a meal for the shadow without ever knowing the lost soul's identity. His grace is knowing when to poke and pry and when not to. His ghost has, in the whirl of events, vanished...but his concern has not:
"And you used to put dinner out on the table most nights, when you was eating yours." Her smile wavered and crumpled. Her eyes filled with tears all of a sudden. "And I used to eat it, and I'd look up, and I'd see you sometimes in the window. And it would be...It would be like I wasn't alone."

She raised her hands to her face, made a sound like a laugh until it escalated into racking sobs. Finn's own eyes watered in response.

"You're my ghost?" He didn't stop to think, just stepped forward and threw his arms around her. She stiffened briefly and then turned into him, burying her head in his shoulder, as she wept. "You're my ghost! I've been so worried. When you stopped coming I thought something bad had happened to you. I didn't know—" He looked up over her shoulder to Michael who was looking stunned and suspiciously glossy-eyed behind her.

"I can't believe it." He had a good cry himself, for joy mostly. His eyes were closed when Michael slipped his arms around them both and briefly held them both up. Then there was embarrassment and overly bright, overly cheerful voices as he passed Sarah his handkerchief, and Jenny picked the spilled coats off the floor, and insisted on a hug of her own.
I see what you did there: You made a family from the detritus of unmet needs and unwanted feelings. I am as sentimental a sod as they make 'em, and that just about perfectly met my need for the pieces to be picked up and made into a work of kintsugi by a mistress of the art.

There is a rightness to a story deeply felt, properly told, and burnished to a soft gleaming imperfect warmth. It lets me in, lets me inhabit the characters as I wish and as my needs demand. It isn't a common effect in any field of writing. It is a sensation that I have come to expect when reading your books...and I'm pretty much all caught up on your to-date output...and that is the reason I come back for more. Moments like this:
Michael had risen to his feet before it occurred to him that he should not be taking orders from Finn. He had a bizarre flash of mythology, the thought that if he was a fucking animal at times, maybe together, with Finn's controlling hand on the reins, they could be a centaur.
Well. That's me destroyed. You, kind lady, you reached southwestward from your northerly latitudes and delicately flensed from my hiding place the secret of my joy. I wonder if my cynical wounded self will have another Michael, be another Finn; it's almost enough to have your enfolding generous imagination include me in the world.

Oh dear, that was rather earnestly American of me, wasn't it. You will simply have to dig deep under your proper lady's reserve and forgive a heartfelt statement of admiration from,

Your fanboy,


PS if you're wondering where the missing half-star on this review is, it's the same place as the missing twenty thousand or so words dedicated to the Lis, to Sarah, to the book club boys are. (Yes, I know, James is coming, but it's not enough!) And while I, book magistrate, have determined that you have no case to answer, I strongly caution you that old American fanboys deprived of a return visit from Michael, Finn, Jenny, Sarah, and the rest of this cast could result in unwished-for squatter tents in your front garden. Complete with curmudgeonly glowers.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

THE SONG OF ACHILLES, Patroclus tells The Iliad

Madeline Miller

Ecco Press
$25.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Greece in the age of Heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. Here he is nobody, just another unwanted boy living in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles.

Achilles, 'best of all the Greeks', is everything Patroclus is not — strong, beautiful, the child of a goddess — and by all rights their paths should never cross. Yet one day, Achilles takes the shamed prince under his wing and soon their tentative companionship gives way to a steadfast friendship. As they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something far deeper — despite the displeasure of Achilles's mother Thetis, a cruel and deathly pale sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.

Fate is never far from the heels of Achilles. When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows Achilles into war, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they have learned, everything they hold dear. And that, before he is ready, he will be forced to surrender his friend to the hands of Fate.

Profoundly moving and breathtakingly original, this rendering of the epic Trojan War is a dazzling feat of the imagination, a devastating love story, and an almighty battle between gods and kings, peace and glory, immortal fame and the human heart.

My Review: Here I am faced with a conundrum: What new thought can I give? This is The Iliad, told from Patroclus's point of view. Miller starts the story with Patroclus's memories of his father, King Menoitius, whose unloving, unforgiving horridness blighted Patroclus's childhood. When Patroclus causes the death of a bully who happens to be a powerful noble's son, the boy's family gives the king what he wants: An excuse to rid himself of unpromising Patroclus. He is exiled (a nine year old boy) to Phthia, and the court of King Peleus.

Father of Achilles. Born to the sea-nymph Thetis. Best of all the Greeks...Aristos each and every thing, yet mortal and so consigned to our world.

Patroclus and Achilles find each other, and Achilles chooses the unpromising boy to be his companion. Peleus says, when the choice is made, are you sure about this, son? This boy will add nothing to your lustre. Achilles responds, without rancor or boastfulness, “I don't need him to.” This being self-evident and inarguable, Peleus shrugs and life goes on. The boys spend a golden childhood as best friends, a golden adolescence as lovers, and, after being outed by Odysseus in Scyros where Thetis was trying to hide Achilles from the Trojan War where he is fated to die, a long (for the times) manhood as husbands. Everyone knows what time it is. No one says boo about it, except Thetis who LOATHES Patroclus because he's not good enough for her little boy. Who would dare? Achilles is a killing machine. He is the Aristos Achaion for a reason.

And now we rejoin the mainstream of The Iliad for the remainder of the plot, with only a slight change in angle of view.

I think I wrote three heart-felt appreciations of this book. It is strong, and beautiful, and passionate. It is tough, and cruel, and inevitably sad. It is tender, and loving, and generous. It is indeed the Song of Achilles, sung by Patroclus, and it is a fitting funerary offering to them both.

But let me get out of the story's way. It speaks for itself.

”I will go,” he said. “I will go to Troy.”
The rosy gleam of his lip, the fevered green of his eyes. There was not a line anywhere on his face, nothing creased or graying; all crisp. He was spring, golden and bright. Envious death would drink his blood, and grow young again.
He was watching me, his eyes as deep as earth.
“Will you come with me?” he asked.
The never-ending ache of love and sorrow. Perhaps in some other life I could have refused, could have torn my hair and screamed, and made him face his choice alone. But not in this one. He would sail to Troy and I would follow, even into death. “Yes,” I whipsered. “Yes.
Relief broke in his face, and he reached for me. I let him hold me, let him press us length to length so close that nothing might fit between us.
Tears came, and fell. Above us, the constellations spun and the moon paced her weary course. We lay stricken and sleepless as the hours passed.

I can't make any stronger a case for the book than this. I hope you will read it.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

HOW ARE THE MIGHTY FALLEN, a mythopoetic extravaganza that still moves me to tears


Out of Print
various prices from $5 plus shipping

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Cyclops and sirens, halfmen and godlings...that of which myths are made and that from which worship arises—these are the materials Thomas Burnett Swann weaves together in the fantasy-historical tapestry of this new novel, which he considers to be his most important work to date. For the author of Green Phoenix and The Forest of Forever now tells of a Queen of ancient Judea who was more than human, of her son who became legend, of their Cyclopean nemesis whose name became synonymous with Colossus, and of loves and loyalties and combats fixed forever in the foundations of human society.

The ever-growing audience that Thomas Burnett Swann has gathered for his unique novels will find How Are the Mighty Fallen a new fantasy fiction experience.

My Review: When this book came out in 1974, the publisher had to fight with its distributor to get it onto store shelves. The topic, gay male love in Biblical times and, in fact, between two men whose friendship *ahem* has survived the millennia in myth, was treated frankly as falling in love and being a couple. Yep, that's right, David and Jonathan were doin' the nasty in Swann's fantasy universe. And much like our own time, even more like the times 43 years ago, they had to avoid religious nuts and disapproving fathers and nosy old bats with more time on their hands than is healthy.

Like all the great love stories between men that have come to our own time, the idiotically squeamish have seen fit to reinterpret the tales as being examples of friendship. After all, friendship is sexless! And that means we don't have to think about men gettin' all naked and sweaty and touching each other with lovers' hands! Couple things wrong with that, hypocrites: 1) If your spouse isn't your friend, I feel very very sorry for both of you. 2) You have, by your squeamishness about man-on-man action, demonstrated that you're already thinking about other people, all other people, in sexual terms. Which is considered deviant sexuality in theraputic terms. Sex therapists teach that all sexual thoughts which do not involve the prior knowledge and explicit consent of the subject thereof are deviant. So every time you pleasure yourself thinking of Nick Jonas or Taylor Swift, you're a deviant!

Ha ha ha, deviant. That's the price of being a mere human!

But David and Jonathan paid the price that's demanded of all those who love transcendantly: Loss. It's not as though all of us mortals don't lose, it's that the stakes aren't as high for us. The great ones always excite envy in the lesser. Then the burden of life in the muddy mess of the world is lifted from them by their love and, well, that's more than can be borne by the small-souled:
Saul looked to Elim. "What do they say?" Deeply religious, he had not lost faith in Yahweh; rather, he feared that Yahweh had lost faith in him.

"Let the king discover and punish the transgressor."

Saul sighed and the years seemed to rest on his shoulders like a mantle of snow. Was this the ardent man she had loved at the well in Endor, he who had left his unite a divided country? It sometimes seemed to her that...he hardly possessed the energy to sigh. It was her one satisfaction that he could no longer be an impassioned lover to Rizpah [his mistress].
The great one here is Ahinoam, a Siren, a winged Queen of her people exiled from their happier exile on the abandoned Crete post-Minoan times. She and her son Jonathan swam to Judea from Crete in an escape from the Cyclopes, whose attentions great queen Ahinoam has been fleeing since her people first fled the great northern lands in fear of the Goddess. She, creature of the sky, found love and sanctuary with an earthy, earthly man of rough ways and deep passions, Saul the reluctant farmer-king of his people. Ahinoam and Jonathan are his, his alone, and none was happier with this than Saul himself. The wars roll past, the queen bears Saul sons and daughters, and slowly loses her Siren's powers even as she keeps her Siren's perfect beauty. Of course this beauty becomes her curse, loses her the beloved Saul to a manifestly inferior being as his mistress, and sets in motion the loss that all who dare to love, really love, face.

Jonathan grows up knowing nothing, except what's whispered near him, about his genesis. Saul loves him as a son. That's what Jonathan knows. He behaves as a king's son must behave in Saul's world, learning war and battle as the noblest accomplishments. He is, when the book opens, wounded and recovering when he and his one great love meet. David is a young man of great vigor and surprising depths of creativity. He is the son of a nobody, he has older brothers who are larger and stronger than he is, but he has a golden talent for psalmistry. I think we'd think of him as a rapper today. His lyrics have survived in the Torah and the Bible because he wrote beautifully. He sang beautifully, too, and it was this that brought him to Jonathan's bedside at his mother's behest. She thought to comfort her son, though Swann loads her actions with foreknowledge. David sees, really sees, Jonathan and that is doom for one who is primed by otherness for passionate love:
He discovered too a surprising weakness in the famous young warrior. It was neither moral nor ethical; it was not a shifty eye or an averted gaze. Rather, there was a fragility about him; he was like a purple murex with its delicate spines and its exquisite dyes. He is too beautiful, David decided. He has about him the transience of perfection. Being already perfect, he cannot be improved, he can only be broken.
Or, in simpler terms, love at first sight. Ahinoam, as the Siren that she is, knows what time it is, and has no problem with it. Her people and so many others, those who follow the Goddess, place no limits on love. Yahweh, jealous and angry god of a small people in a larger world indifferent to their fate, decrees the sexual love of like for like to be a sin (a concept lacking in Goddess worship) because the attraction is too powerful and will prevent Yahweh's people from making babies and thus perpetuating his worship:
The Goddess never decreed that men should lie only with women. All of the races which worship her...accept the love between two men as one more affirmation of the divine plan, the tide which rises and falls to the moon's compulsion, the inevitability of the seasons, the certainty that those who love will meet, after death, in the Celestial Vineyard. A man’s love for a man is neither more nor less than a man’s love for a woman, it is only different.
Loving each has its joys. Loving both has its pleasures. But sooner or later, a choice gets made, and it's not yet possible, like a Gethenian, to pick and choose one's physical state. I suspect that, when we're honest, each of us likes sex enough to give any old thing a whirl. Love is usually a little choosier. Falling in love is Game Over for all the others.
He is still in love with her, but Rizpah is comfortable, and the old need comfort more than passion. It is hard for advancing age to confront eternal youth. (italics in original)
I understand this, but I guess it means I'm not old yet because I ain't ready to say "buh-bye" to passion. Maybe this is why I find myself in relationships with younger men. Thank goodness there are one or two still ready to think of me in that way. Ahinoam chose, in Saul, the path of love; Saul lost himself to the immense gravity of a great love, a once-only full-being involvement. Such a thing can't last for a lifetime and, since his one true love is the very definition of Otherness, what else can he be expected to do except flee to the ordinary when he can't sustain his passion?

David is set to discover the same tragedy. Jonathan, in his illness, can't do battle with Goliath the Cyclops who has stalked his mother since the halcyon days on Crete ended. David the rapping shepherd, a young man of great strength who slew a lion with his bare hands, is still too young, too untested, too small to fight such a creature as a Cyclops, says the voice of consensus. The consensus fails to take into account the fact that a man in the grips of his one true love isn't limited by practical, realistic considerations. He will amaze everyone with his seemingly miraculous abilities:
"I will not die!" The words were a trumpet call.

He fitted his last stone, Jonathan's tourmaline, into his sling and somehow, propped on his other arm, flung the stone awkwardly upward and toward the bewildered eye.

I have missed, he thought, or done him no harm with so light a shot. He stands above me frozen like an Assyrian statue. Stone; stony and heartless. No welt has appeared on his brow. His boot will complete its descent and grind me into the flowers.

The earth exulted with Goliath's fall.
The power of love is terrifying.

But so is the price. David, in his deep passion for Jonathan, becomes more than a hero to his people, he becomes a legend. He is the name on every tongue, his psalms are sung by every voice, his lover Jonathan the royal prince is beautiful beyond compare...the very priests of Yahweh say he is the next king after Saul, beloved of the whore Rizpah.

NEVER threaten a woman's one great love. She will rise up and smite those who are stupid enough to do so. If a mother is the most dangerous opponent on the planet, a woman in love is next down the list, and both are far, far more dangerous than polar bears or sharks. Rizpah might be a whore, but she is a whore whose one great love is a king, and she does everything in her not inconsiderable powers to protect him. Including destroying his son, his son's lover, and to the extent she calls into motion the powers of war, her man himself.

Great love will always exact its price.

David survives the battle that destroys Saul and Jonathan. David goes on to found the greatest royal house known in Israel's history. David lives. What a curse it is, outliving your great love...alive but not yours anymore, like Ahinoam's Saul, the lover is allowed a painful comfort in knowing the beloved still lives. David's Jonathan, as Swann tells us, is in No-Land; his body is unburied so his spirit is trapped between worlds. Alecto the Siren calls Jonathan from his shadowy non-place to tell David how to release him into the afterlife. Naturally, David does this for the one love that exceeds all others, saving his Jonathan yet again, just as he did when he stood down Goliath.

Alecto should, I think, have the last word. She speaks these words to Jonathan when he visits her to lose his virginity with women. It isn't his desire to do so, he does this to please his David, but Alecto calls forth the shadow of love from him and he gives her his child. Her gift to him is to distill the nature of love into a memorable phrase:
There ought to be laughter in love. But there also ought to be wonder.


Thursday, February 9, 2017

THE PRIZE, a damning indictment of greed and careerism with a huge dollop of blame for the Lady Bountiful syndrome

THE PRIZE: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?

Mariner Books
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Mark Zuckerberg, Chris Christie, and Cory Booker were ready to reform our failing schools. They got an education.

When Mark Zuckerberg announced to a cheering Oprah audience his $100 million pledge to transform the downtrodden schools of Newark, New Jersey, then mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie were beside him, vowing to help make Newark “a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.” But their plans soon ran into the city’s seasoned education players, fierce protectors of their billion-dollar-a-year system. It’s a prize that, for generations, has enriched seemingly everyone, except Newark’s children.

Dale Russakoff delivers a riveting drama of our times, encompassing the rise of celebrity politics, big philanthropy, extreme economic inequality, the charter school movement, and the struggles and triumphs of schools in one of the nation’s poorest cities. As Cory Booker navigates between his status as “rock star mayor” on Oprah’s stage and object of considerable distrust at home, the tumultuous changes planned by reformers and their highly paid consultants spark a fiery grass-roots opposition stoked by local politicians and union leaders. The growth of charters forces the hand of Newark’s school superintendent Cami Anderson, who closes, consolidates, or redesigns more than a third of the city’s schools—a scenario on the horizon for many urban districts across America.

Russakoff provides a close-up view of twenty-six-year-old Mark Zuckerberg and his wife as they decide to give the immense sum of money to Newark and then experience an education of their own amid the fallout of the reforms. Most moving are Russakoff’s portraits from inside classrooms, as homegrown teachers and principals battle heroically to reach students damaged by extreme poverty and violence.

The Prize is an absorbing portrait of a titanic struggle, indispensable for anyone who cares about the future of public education and the nation’s children.

Another gift from a special friend. Thank you, darling heart, but can I have a comic book now?

My Review: Betsy DeVos is the Secretary of Education. That sentence, plus the one about the racist, sexist shitheap that is Jeff Sessions becoming the Attorney General, really should drive home the point that these people your fellow Americans voted into office are the lowest of the low, the lowest and the least principled represented in halls of power where their like should simply never be allowed.

I do not belong to the school of thought advocating healing our divisions. I advocate the secession of the decent people from the rotten-souled fascist right-wing rest of y'all. And we'll take our tax money with us...we pay more than we get.

But then my conscience gets to me. What about the desperately poor and the hungry whose lives will, horribly, get still worse? The schools that will close? The school lunch programs that will vanish forever?

This book makes the cost of the Union's dissolution stark. It's never mentioned. It's not part of Dale Russakoff's brief in the least. But listen to this:
To those...who see education through the lens of students and classrooms, it is obvious that urban public schools are being asked to overcome nothing less than the effects of poverty. Reformers are insist on consistently excellent teaching and leadership, but the results in Newark and in distressed cities across the country make clear that much more support is needed.
Given that most of the nation's schools are financed by property taxes (a system as blatant in its intent to preserve and protect the existing system of privilege as can be designed), and given that US government spending on early childhood support is abysmal compared to the entire rest of the planet, where is that support meant to come from? DeVos won't be there in her seat of power advocating for the Head Start program or the school lunch program. So now what?

Here's one perspective:
“Education reform is not about its leaders and their prerogatives. It’s about communities,” Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund and an ardent reformer, wrote on The Root, an online magazine. “Education reform doesn’t have to be—indeed, cannot be—force-fed to communities of color . . . We can be equal partners in ensuring what is best for our children and all children. It won’t work any other way.”
Inviting dialogue! Wow. What a concept. Except that there are a lot of people with huge financial stakes in the status quo that do NOT want to see reform. A 1994 Department of Education audit (mentioned in the book) of the Newark system found breathtaking corruption, a building that a school board member was selling to the district for $2.7 million that was generously worth under $200,000 being the one I was most repulsed by. In fact, "outsider" Democrat Newark mayor Cory Booker presented machine Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie with a school reform plan that warned explicitly against opening the process to public scrutiny since the unions and the other money-suckers would subvert or derail the process to protect their slots at the trough. (My phrase, not his.)

Then again, it's not just the greed factor that's at work in this process and its manifest failures:
“Education reform comes across as colonial to people who’ve been here for decades,” [an insider] said. “It’s very missionary, imposed, done to people rather than in cooperation with people.”
So even though our kids are failing to get even the minimal education they're being offered in the first place, who the hell asked your white ass to come sit at the table and tell us what's what? The Annenberg education initiatives of the 1990s (the Chicago branch of which featured one Barack Obama among its leading lights) faced the same issues. Here's a piece by a Teach for America alumnus. He isn't sanguine about the efficacy or the future of the program. Russakoff gives more detail, which I felt was nicely summed up by this:
“The ethos when I went through Teach for America was that good teaching and good leadership could solve the problems of poverty,” said [a Newark program participant]. “That’s part of the pie, but that’s not all of the pie. Our most dynamic teachers were burning out—the need and anger in the children, the mental health issues, the absenteeism, the transience.” They were witnessing the effect of what researchers call adverse childhood experiences, multiple traumas that, studies have shown, significantly interfere with learning and focus in children in the most disadvantaged communities.”
Back to the problems of poverty that education is being asked to overcome. That is manifestly absurd. Education is the way out of poverty. This is an article of faith among the educated. But what does that statement look like to a child whose world contains one educated person, usually not of his or her own ethnic background? "Be like me," they hear said earnestly and with all the best wishes in the world.

How? What does that look like?
Research had shown that children in the lowest-income families heard only a fraction of the words or conversations that were the daily bread of the more affluent. By age three, the difference was an astonishing twenty million words. (my emphasis)
By. Age. THREE.

Are you getting a view of the biblical proportions of this problem yet? The sheer magnitude of the changes needed to make even a minuscule dent in the problem? The reformers have hammers. The problems become nails:
“A lot of high-stakes accountability has become self-defeating—focusing solely on the identification of bad schools, the bad teachers, as opposed to creating a signal and involving teachers in processes that lead to investigations and changes,” [an expert] said.”
So here's The Purpose Explained:
[An expert] said the system, known as Student Growth Percentile, was designed to measure student gains or losses, not to assign blame or credit for them. “Simply focusing on teachers as being the only potential cause of growth of students is pretty obviously myopic..." The data would be more a starting point for discussions with teachers on the reasons individual students are improving or losing ground, which could include many factors in and out of school.
Mmm hmm. Statistics used as ploughshares, not swords, in the battle to save yet another generation of poverty-mired Black children from a lifetime of marginal existence. That's gonna happen. After all, the entire system isn't based on the need for the Black child to grow up to be a grunt worker, a pawn, or a prisoner, is it?

So what's the answer? Mark Zuckerberg, who comes across in this book as a genuinely well-meaning man with a slightly different hammer he wants to wield on Newark's public school system:
Zuckerberg’s document laid out similar goals: “Restructure pay scale to increase base salaries for new hires . . . Abolish seniority as a factor in all personnel decisions and incentivize the removal of poor performers.” He also wrote that he wanted the best teachers to receive bonuses of up to fifty percent of their salary, the kind of incentives paid to top workers in Silicon Valley.”
Selected from among many other equally utopian proposals to stand for the dangers of false equivalency in public conversation about society's needs. Zuckerberg, a political conservative, wants to model the world on a business platform created by and for people who are high achievers. In Alcoholics Anonymous, this is called "acting as if," or "fake it til ya make it," an idea that behavior becomes habit becomes character.

Oh dear. That's not such a great idea, Zuck, especially since your own organization is so...fallible, let's say, due to its constituent members aping your own regressive politics and enforcing the attendant repressive and unpleasant standards on the billions who don't want any part of them. But that's another rant for another day.

Businesses aren't by their nature equipped to deliver what the teachers in the trenches say with near unanimity what they really want:
[T]eachers consistently tell researchers that, given the choice, they would opt for a good principal and supportive working conditions over merit pay. Indeed, research had found no correlation between merit pay and student achievement, although reformers and venture philanthropists were fighting hard to make it a staple of new teacher contracts.
So that's easier and cheaper than the throw-money-at-the-problem shtik, right? That's the teachers sorted. And the kids?
Children with more than one traumatic experience—violence, severe poverty, family breakup, or substance abuse in the home—were more than twice as likely as others to fail at least one grade.
And we're back to square one: Support the family that a child comes from, help the family eat, live in a stable location, get the services that it needs, and the battle's more than half won.

Does any of that seem to you likely to happen in Trump's America?