Each December I compile my list of favourite books read over the course of the year. Unfortunately, the trend I experienced in 2010 persisted in 2011 and my reading and reviewing time was extremely limited due to the demands of work. As a result, the number of books I did read was less than in previous years and there were a number of new releases by some of my favourite authors, as well as books by new-to-me authors of interest that I wasn’t able to get to. They include, among others, The Abode of Bliss: Ten Stories for Adam by Alex Jeffers, The Palisade and Finding Deaglan by George Seaton, The Visionary: Welcome to the Fold by the writing duo of Reno MacLeod and Jaye Valentine and The German by Lee Thomas. I’ve included these 2011 releases and several others in my reading list for 2012.
Even with less time to read, my reading habits remained consistent and I continued to read across sub-genres. My list of favourites for 2011 includes an eclectic mix of novels, one anthology and short stories from a cross-section of sub-genres including fantasy, horror, the suspense/thriller, erotica, contemporary, historical, indigenous and young adult literature. In addition, my list includes not only gay fiction (as in previous years) but also books and stories that feature lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer characters and themes, something I hope continue in 2012 as I broaden my reading experiences.
Always a thrill for me is the discovery of new authors and there are a number of books that made my list for 2011 written by new-to-me authors, including a debut author, all of whom I look forward to reading in the future. Also listed this year is The Equinox Convergence by Erik Orrantia, a novel that does not feature a prominent LGBTQ theme (there is a lesbian relationship involving secondary characters in the novel) I chose to include all the same because it is an excellent story by this LGBTQ award-winning author. Finally, two of the novels listed are past favourites re-read in 2011.
The Best in LGBTQ Fiction for 2011
Speaking Out: LGBT Youth Stand Up by editor Steve Berman (Bold Strokes Books, September 2011) is an excellent collection of thirteen short stories for and about LGBTQ young adults by new and prominent authors in the field of queer fiction and more specifically LGBTQ young adult literature. What distinguishes this anthology from other books with similar queer young adult themes is that the stories are not focused on the experience of coming out, but rather on LGBTQ youth experiences in living as out. In this sense, the collection offers stories that feature a diversity of life situations and a spectrum of issues that LGBTQ youth face in living as out teens and young adults. The stories in this anthology truly resonated with me and I found them to be quite empowering even as an adult. While the protagonists in each of the stories experience intolerance and adversity, none are portrayed as victims and each, in their own way, stands up, speaks out and fights back against homophobia and discrimination. Review
The impetus for my reading Vintage: A Ghost Story by Steve Berman (Lethe Press, March 2008) came by way of review and recommendation from my good friend Hilcia Suarez over at Impressions of A Reader. I do love a good horror story and Vintage fuses horror and coming-of-age in a chilling and darkly humorous tale of a young man who meets a boy named Josh walking along a lonely highway at night, who also happens to have died decades ago and is a ghost haunting that particular stretch of road. The unnamed protagonist develops a fascination with, and crush on Josh, and along with his group of friends sets out to solve the mystery of his death. In her review, Hilcia aptly captures the main themes of this story: “A haunting and touching coming-of-age story full of dark humor that encompasses not only the unique struggles of gay teens, but the awkwardness, fears, anxieties and a sense of wonder that all teens can relate to.” In addition to the points raised in Hilcia’s excellent write-up of this novel, one aspect of the story that stood out most for me was the deference and honesty with which Mr. Berman has written all the characters and the issues that they face whether in regards to their relationships, sexuality, fears and aspirations.
Wonder: A Novel by Dan Boyle (Lethe Press, January 2011) is one of the most conceptually captivating books that I’ve read in quite a while. One that engaged me on a multitude of levels both intellectually and emotionally. In this novel the author marries the subject matter of quantum physics, namely String Theory, or the Theory of Everything, with the main character’s journey of healing and self-discovery. Wonder is an extremely well written novel in which the author deftly interweaves incredibly complex themes that deal with physical and metaphysical questions of space, time and existence with the emotional complexities of personal loss and family relationships to write a story that at its heart is all about our interconnectedness and the possibilities of the universe. Review
Kiss of the Fur Queen (Doubleday Canada, 1998) by internationally acclaimed Cree play write Tomson Highway is the fictionalize account of the real-life of Tomson and his brother René, and the beautifully written and hauntingly tragic story of Cree brothers Champion and Ooneemeetoo Okimasis. Born in the 1950s on the trap line near the northern Manitoba/Northwest Territories border as children they are taken from their family and community to a Catholic residential school where they remain until they are sent to a high school in Winnipeg. Their language is forbidden, their names are changed and they are sexually abused by priests. They return to their community as young men but with their formative years spent in residential school they are estranged from their family and people and have been robbed of their language and culture; nor do they fit within the Euro-centric mainstream culture imposed upon them. Belonging nowhere, the Okimasis brothers flee to the big city to make a life for themselves where Champion pursues his calling as a classical pianist and Ooneemeetoo as a dancer while they continue to suffer the effects of their experiences at residential school. Throughout the story the Fur Queen — a wily, shape-shifting trickster — watches over and protects them. Kiss of the Fur Queen is a powerful story that is written in the tradition of Cree story telling and teachings and through his lyrical and poetic style Highway intimately captures and deftly nuances the experiences and issues faced by Indian residential school survivors through the characters of Champion and Ooneemeetoo. I first read this novel when it was initially published in 1998 and re-read it for the first time in 2011. I consider it a reading treasure in both indigenous and Canadian literature and it remains one of my favourite novels of all time.
In October of 2011, Reno MacLeaod and Jaye Valentine released a revised and re-edited version of their homoerotic urban fantasy Sins Of The Messiah (M&V Tailz), which was originally published in 2009. I had initially read and reviewed this novel in November of that year but with the release of this second edition my curiosity as to what, if anything, had changed in the story got the better of me and I set out to re-read one of my favourites of 2009. In Sins of The Messiah the authors take millennia-old, well-known and accepted religious stories and figures stemming from Judaeo-Christian and even Islamic traditions to write a tale from a perspective that is not often told, that of the “Fallen.” Set in the year 2039, the world building and plot development are stellar as the authors combine an old and familiar story with futuristic accoutrement to create an alternate universe and their version of the messianic tale. While the revised edition of this novel has not fundamentally changed the overall story, the second edition edits have made an already extremely well written story that much tighter in terms of writing, plot and characterization. I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading this provocative and subversive erotic tale, and as I mentioned in my 2009 review of the book I await with great anticipation the next revelation in their Messiah series. Review
The Equinox Convergence by Erik Orrantia (Etopia Press, May 2011) follows on the heels of his Lambda Literary Award winning novel Normal Miguel. The seasonal equinox – a balance between equal parts of light and darkness – serves as the metaphor for this gripping mystery suspense thriller in which worlds collide, that of Mexico’s drug trade and traditional indigenous life. Beginning with a jolting opening scene and with each successive chapter the mystery and suspense is incrementally and continuously heightened plunging the reader into a page-turning web of intrigue as the story unfolds. The author achieves this with chapters that are relatively short in length and by alternating the first person perspective amongst and between the main characters and the multitude of recurring and occasional secondary characters. It is truly an ensemble cast and each character holds a certain piece of the story’s puzzle, which they slowly reveal through their respective narratives. Mr. Orrantia has an innate talent and ability for writing multiple voices and perspectives in a distinctively concise manner. We get a glimpse of this aspect of his writing in Normal Miguel, but, in my opinion, the in-the-round multiple character perspective technique employed in The Equinox Convergence is taken to an altogether higher level of writing. This, coupled with the author’s exceptional prose, superb characterization and his in depth understanding of, and sensitivity to, the complexities and diversity of Mexico made this suspense thriller an unforgettable reading experience for me. The story ends in a cliff-hanger and I await the sequel with great anticipation. Review
In the Fall of 2011, Rick R. Reed released Caregiver (Dreamspinner Press, October 2011) a semi-autobiographical novel based on the author’s personal relationship with his AIDS buddy Jim, who died while serving time in a Florida state prison in the early 1990s. Set in the same time period and heavily drawing on the author’s relationship with Jim, Caregiver is the intensely moving story of Dan Calzolaio’s personal journey as a result of the friendship he forms with Adam Schmidt when he volunteers to be his AIDS buddy. Dan believes that his role is to help Adam who has developed AIDS and is dying. But Adam is not at all what Dan expects when they first meet, and as their short-lived friendship deepens it is Adam that in many ways rescues Dan and changes the course of his life forever. Caregiver is beautifully written and one of Mr. Reed’s most heartfelt novels and at the same time one of his most life-embracing stories. Review
The Loss of Innocence Store by George Seaton is one of four stories featured in the anthology Honourable Silence: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (MLR Press, November 2010) which deals with different thematic aspects of the issues faced by gay men serving in the U.S. military under past laws and policies, such as the recently abolished Don’s Ask, Don’t Tell, that required them to remain closeted. While the anthology provides for an eclectic mix of stories from different sub-genres, Mr. Seaton’s The Loss of Innocence Store clearly stands out as the best written. It is a thoughtful and evocative story of a man in his middle years as he looks back on his short time in the Army (circa 1972-1974) and other events in his life that helped shape him. It provides an extremely intimate and moving look into a man’s heart and mind of not only his experiences as a soldier, or even a gay soldier, but more importantly those that helped him toward self-realisation and self-acceptance. Review
The Value of Rain (The Practical Group, July 2011) is Brandon Shire’s debut novel. It is the powerful and haunting story of Charles Benedict a fourteen-year old boy that, in 1971, is sent by his mother to an institution for the mentally insane when found in the bed of his best friend and lover Robert. Spanning two decades from 1971 to 1991, the story chronicles Charles’ ten years of institutionalisation in two separate facilities, the physical and emotional horrors he and others endure under the guise of psychiatric treatment, the relationships he forms with two young men while incarcerated, and his quest for vengeance against his mother’s cruelty when he’s released at the age of twenty-four. Mr. Shire’s distinct literary style not only captures the emotional magnitude of the experiences of Charles and the other characters in this novel, his writing envelopes the reader within it. His use of language is quite distinct in that the novel is written in a lyrical and poetic style with beautiful prose and subtle descriptions juxtaposed the brutality and horror that Charles and the others endure. This story resonated with me on a number of levels. On the surface it is about a young man’s journey into hell and his quest for revenge. However, for me this story speaks to, among others, the failure of societies to ensure the protection and rights of children, teens and young adults, in particular LGBTQ youth. For a debut novel The Value of Rain is beautifully written and Mr. Shire is most definitely an author I will be reading in the future. Review
The Zagzagel Diaries by Bryl R. Tyne (Untreed Reads Publishing, March 2010-April 2011) is a beautifully written contemporary fantasy short story series that is part of the Minority/Diversity Voices Collection published by Untreed Reads. In all, there are six short stories in the series (Forsaken, Denial, Desperate, Lost, Broken and Loved) which chronicle the “day in the life” experiences of Zagzagel, the Angel of Wisdom, who develops deep feelings for his human charges thereby putting him in continuous conflict with God. This series is the first work I’ve read by Bryl R. Tyne and I absolutely relished the thrill of discovering his writing. The author takes a unique approach in the writing of this series and in particular in the writing of Zagzagel, who is truly unconventional and like no other angel character that I have previously encountered within the (urban) fantasy sub-genre. All of the stories are superbly written and socially relevant as the author explores issues of sexuality and gender-identity with emotional integrity, sensitivity and a deep understanding of the stark realities that LGBTQ people face within the world. Review of The Zagzagel Diaries (Stories 1-5) and (Story 6)