Dog Days

Dog Days
TA Moore
Difficulty: Medium
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Blurb from Amazon:

“The world ends not with a bang, but with a downpour. Tornadoes spin through the heart of London, New York cooks in a heat wave that melts tarmac, and Russia freezes under an ever-thickening layer of permafrost. People rally at first—organizing aid drops and evacuating populations—but the weather is only getting worse.

In Durham, mild-mannered academic Danny Fennick has battened down to sit out the storm. He grew up in the Scottish Highlands, so he’s seen harsh winters before. Besides, he has an advantage. He’s a werewolf. Or, to be precise, a weredog. Less impressive, but still useful.

Except the other werewolves don’t believe this is any ordinary winter, and they’re coming down over the Wall to mark their new territory. Including Danny’s ex, Jack–the Crown Prince Pup of the Numitor’s pack–and the prince’s brother, who wants to kill him.

A wolf winter isn’t white. It’s red as blood.”

Depending on your level of involvement with self-published fiction, you may or may not be aware of the absolutely massive amount of werewolf-themed, Twilight inspired romances published every month. I regret to inform you that most of these are not very good. But a few are, and I think Dog Days is one of them, ironically for reasons that seem to alienate regular readers of the genre. The setting is grim, apocalyptic, and savage with a pronounced horror element, and Danny and Jack reflect their surroundings. Their semi-animal natures come through in their personalities, especially Jack’s, and it’s not often pretty. The romance between the two, if we choose to call it that, isn’t the kind readers of the genre are used to. Jack and Danny have a history, and there’s as much tension and antagonism between them as there is chemistry. It’s a believable relationship, more so than the love-at-first-sight ones typical of the genre, but it’s not always a pleasant one. 

Moore follows the science-fiction tradition of opting not to explain everything that’s going on to her audience. It’s not precisely clear why the globe is freezing over (climate change?) or if it’s actually the wolf winter, and the rules governing the reclusive werewolf community are never fully explained. None of the magical elements are made clear either, though, to be fair, they’re magic. But I don’t think it is necessary to understand every aspect of a story to enjoy it. If anything, some confusion can actually enhance it by placing the reader in a similar position to the characters, who also don’t know everything that’s going on.

Cruising Utopia

Cruising Utopia
José Esteban Muñoz
Difficulty: Very Hard
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Queer theory is a field of study in the humanities that attempts to understand exactly what queerness is and what it does in society. Though it was originally centered around alternative sexualities and gender identities, the idea of queerness has expanded to include a wider variety of non-normative and deviant practices and identities. Cruising Utopia was scholar José Esteban Muñoz’s interpretation of queerness, in which he develops his theory of “queer futurity.” In queer futurity, queer is not a thing we are, instead, it’s a thing we are “always becoming;” queerness represents potential for a different, better future. Put more simply, everything sucks right now, and the people and practices that are called queer point the way to a better future by criticizing the present. Muñoz condemns the popular focus on marriage equality and gays in the military, arguing that they are short-sighted goals that will assimilate us into problematic, heterosexual institutions. In other words, marriage and the military are inherently flawed, so why should we bother fighting to participate in them?

What will be most interesting though to non-academic readers are Muñoz’s analyses of queer avant-garde art, pieces and productions the average person (like me) will probably never come in contact with otherwise. A lot of these works of art were ephemeral, either short lived performances or pieces designed to disappear or dissolve after serving their purpose, so I think Muñoz’s illustrations of them are valuable. My personal favorite is his chapter on Fred Herko, a gay dancer in the ‘60s who comitted suicide during a private performance by leaping out an open window on the fifth story. It’s a moving moment to picture, and Muñoz does a great job teasing out the optimistic and utopian aspects of what seems to be a great tragedy. Fair warning though, Cruising Utopia is a work of academic theory, so these stories are told in the complex, jargon-heavy style common to theory books. Reading them becomes easier with practice, but for those just looking for something fun or entertaining this book is probably not the best option.

While I do enjoy the book, I take issue with Muñoz’s argument against gay marriage and military service. I understand and appreciate the sentiment behind it, but as flawed as those institutions may be, they still represent real, tangible life improvements for many LGBTQ people. Marriage equality, for example, has coincided with a real decrease in homophobic violence, and the military, problematic as it certainly is, is an important opportunity to escape poverty that was previously denied to young queer people (and still is, for transgender folk). So I can’t agree with those in die-hard opposition to those causes. It’s easy to oppose them when you don’t depend upon them. I feel similarly about the nostalgia for the ‘70s. Undoubtedly there were many good and important things happening at the time, but they were only happening in big cities. For those living elsewhere, things were not so great.

Here’s to You, Zeb Pike

Here’s to You, Zeb Pike
Johanna Parkhurst
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from Amazon:

“Fact: When Zebulon Pike attempted to climb what is now known as Pikes Peak, he got stuck in waist-deep snow and had to turn back. That’s the last thing Dusty Porter learns in his Colorado history class before appendicitis ruins his life. It isn’t long before social services figures out that Dusty’s parents are more myth than reality, and he and his siblings are shipped off to live in Vermont with an uncle and aunt they’ve never met.

Dusty’s new life is a struggle. His brother and sister don’t seem to need him anymore, and he can’t stand his aunt and uncle. At school, one hockey player develops a personal vendetta against him, while Emmitt, another hockey player, is making it hard for Dusty to keep pretending he’s straight. Problem is, he’s pretty sure Emmitt’s not gay. Then, just when Dusty thinks things can’t get any worse, his mother reappears, looking for a second chance to be a part of his life.

Somehow Zebulon Pike still got the mountain named after him, so Dusty’s determined to persevere—but at what point in life do you keep climbing, and when do you give up and turn back?”

Wow that’s a lot to cram into a blurb but hey, it’s the publisher’s decision. Here’s to You, Zeb Pike isn’t as doom and gloom as the description makes it seem, in fact, it’s Dusty and his siblings’ optimism and resilience that proves to be the book’s defining features. And boy do they need it, as you can see, they’ve got a lot to deal with. Of course, there’s still plenty of angst, it just comes from places you might not expect. Dusty does acquire a love interest in the latter half of the book (who stars in the semi-sequel, Thanks a Lot, John LeClair), but it’s much more the story of Dusty’s coming-of-age, or, rather, his return-to-age as he learns to cope with the major changes occurring in his life.

I’ve always had a soft spot for stories about foster care or difficult family situations, especially in YA. For starters, it’s heartwarming to see characters find their way to safe and healthy living situations and to be able to do the things their circumstances formerly prevented them from doing. But it’s also nice to read about young characters with problems beyond the usual high school drama/identity crisis sagas. And I don’t mean The Hunger Games either, things can be tough enough without imagining entire dystopias to go along with them. My background was nothing so bad as Dusty’s (thank goodness), but it was different enough that I wanted stories that reflected my experiences. I didn’t have many of those at the time, but reading them as an adult is still a cathartic and affirming experience.

Maurice

Maurice
E. M. Forster
Difficulty: Medium
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Blurb from Amazon:

“From early adolescence to his college years at Cambridge and into professional life at his father’s firm, Maurice Hall plays the part of the conventional Englishman. All the while, he harbors a secret wish to lose himself from society and embrace who he truly is.

Maurice’s first love, Clive Durham, introduces him to the ancient Greeks who embraced same-sex attraction. But when Clive marries a woman, Maurice is distraught enough to seek a hypnotist who might “cure” him of his homosexuality. In his quest to accept his true self, Maurice must ultimately go against the grain of society’s unspoken rules of class, wealth, and politics.”

Maurice was originally written in 1913, but it would remain unpublished until 1971, a year after Forster’s death. Forster was proud of the novel and shared it with friends, but ultimately believed that the public wasn’t ready for it because he had dared to give the story a happy ending. Generally, it was only possible to write about homosexuality in the early twentieth century as long as the deviant characters were appropriately punished for their transgressions so they could serve as a warning to readers. That’s why Giovanni is executed in Giovanni’s Room (1956), why Stephen ends up alone and suicidal in The Well of Loneliness (1928), and why Jim murders Bob in The City and the Pillar (1948). The history of queer literature is one of miserable, godawful unhappy endings, and that’s why I try to emphasize happier stories on this blog. So Forster was probably right, the public probably would have hated Maurice. Considering how much he had to lose at the time, I can’t say I blame him for choosing not to publish it then.

Maurice has since aged beautifully. It feels like it could have been written today as a work of historical fiction, and the book enjoys a reputation as one of the most approachable and enjoyable works of its era. This may be partly due to Forster’s willingness to disregard social conventions when those conventions obstruct the happiness of his characters. Watching people in older novels grapple with now-antiquated cultural norms can be difficult, not to mention tedious, so it’s such a relief when Forster sets his characters free. Maurice himself also plays a role in the novel’s accessibility. If he were a sensitive, exceptional darling buffeted about by a cruel society, he would have seemed unreal, and the story would have been reduced to a mere protest novel. Instead, Maurice is merely a typical man working to overcome his biases and accept himself, and that’s something a lot of readers can relate to, myself included.

Alcibiades the Schoolboy

Alcibiades the Schoolboy
Antonio Rocco
Difficulty: Medium
Full Text, American Translation (cannot vouch for accuracy)

Published in the year 1652, Alcibiades the Schoolboy is a defense of pederasty, or love between men and pubescent boys, presented in the style of a Platonic dialogue and attributed to the Italian priest Antonio Rocco. The setting is ancient Athens, and the schoolmaster Philotimes, clearly intended to be Socrates, is desperately trying to convince his angelic and well spoken pupil Alcibiades to sleep with him by offering arguments defending the practices of pederasty and sodomy. His major points are that laws are arbitrary and often unjust, that nature gave men urges so they could act on them, and that women are icky and want things from you (putting it nicely). Bookending his argument are long poetic passages extolling the virtues of boys in startlingly explicit detail, even by today’s standards. In fact, the most striking attribute of the whole text is its incredibly frank discussion of sex, both its pleasures and mechanics. Such explicit writing leads me to believe it was also intended to double as pornography. As you might imagine, such a book was not particularly popular with the church and it was promptly destroyed, with the few surviving copies hidden away for the next 200 years. It wasn’t until 1862 that it would finally be reprinted in the original Italian, before being translated into French in 1866. The novel wouldn’t appear in English until the year 2000, translated by Oxford Professor J. C. Rawnsley, now out of print.

The preface to the 1891 French translation calls it the first homosexual novel, and as far as I know they’re right. How is it that such a historically significant piece of writing has flown almost completely under the radar, not receiving an English translation for almost 350 years? The obvious answer is subject matter, I suppose, Rawnsley didn’t even want his translation published until after his death. But we willingly engage with other pederastic dialogues like Phaedrus and Corydon, though they’re nowhere near as explicit (Phaedrus gets a little steamy though, stop loosening your robe Socrates). It seems like an arbitrary line in the sand to me, but there it is. Erotica and pederasty are only okay as long as they aren’t both present in the same text.

As an argument, Alcibiades the Schoolboy comes off so-so. His points about arbitrary laws and natural urges are reasonable but not particularly persuasive, certainly not to the early modern church. After all, resisting our urges is pretty much the cornerstone of Christianity. It’s very jarring to hear Christian arguments delivered by Greek characters, especially the invocation of Sodom and Gomorrah, the setting and subject just don’t mix. The allusion to Socrates’ pursuit of Alcibiades is similarly confusing, as Socrates famously eschewed physical love in favor of the spiritual kind (as told by Plato). But for me, what really detracts from the argument is Philotimes’ descent into masturbatory rapture as he goes on and on about the beauty of a boy’s buttocks. Seriously, there are paragraphs upon paragraphs about it. It’s a little difficult to be enthusiastic about his argument when his motivation is so obviously base.

One more strange thing: at one point in the argument, Philotimes claims that it’s good to love young boys because dolphins, yes, dolphins, also love young boys. And he offers no less than three examples. I thought this was a very strange thing to say, and with so much evidence, so I did a little research. It turns out, according to “When A Dolphin Loves A Boy: Some Greco-Roman and Native American Love Stories” by Craig A. Williams, there are at least TEN separate stories in Greek history and myth of dolphins falling in love with boys. And they’re not ambiguous in the slightest. In several of the stories, the dolphin and boy are buried together. In another, a dolphin beaches himself to commit suicide after his boy dies. Apparently dolphins are associated with Dionysus, god of wine, fertility, ritual madness, and religious ecstasy (among other things), so perhaps Philotimes claim is that these sacred creatures love boys, so it clearly must be a good thing? I have no idea what to do with knowledge of this tradition of interspecies dolphin-boy love so I’m telling everyone. The world needs to know.

The Wild Boys

The Wild Boys
William S. Burroughs
Difficulty: Hard
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Imagine Naked Lunch, but gayer and possibly even more abstract, then you’ve got The Wild Boys. The plot: organized gangs of homosexual warrior boys roam an apocalyptic wasteland doing battle with various military forces in order to bring about the downfall of western civilization. But it might take you two or three read-throughs to piece that all together because Burroughs is all in with his signature surreal style. The story is told in a series of vignettes–or fragments of vignettes–that leap wildly from one subject and style to the next. Most of the time it’s hard to see how they’re connected, and it’s only once you’re solidly into the book that you might be able to get a sense of what’s going on. But it’s not the plot you should read The Wild Boys for, it’s the aesthetic. 

Like a lot of Burroughs other works, The Wild Boys is dripping in color, texture, and bodily fluids. Vivid and trippy sexually charged scenes slide into one another and back again without warning. In one scene a boy dies and then steals the body of another boy by entering him as he cums. In another, several boys masturbate giant penis plants so they can collect the semen to sell at market. Or my personal favorite, the creation of a wild boy, achieved by summoning a spirit and having anal sex with it, creating a physical body for the spirit by ejaculating inside it. I’d like to say these are the more crazy scenes, but no, it’s pretty much all like that. Despite how weird and pronographic the book is, The Wild Boys was surprisingly influential upon its publication. Most notably, David Bowie’s character Ziggy Stardust was based largely on Burroughs description of the wild boys. Duran Duran’s song “The Wild Boys” was also directly inspired by the novel.

I’ll admit, reading this novel the first time I mostly felt irritated by how incomprehensible it was. In retrospect this was an unfair reaction. Naked Lunch was much easier for me, but that’s because Naked Lunch received much more public attention than The Wild Boys ever did. I knew what to expect with Naked Lunch, I knew what I was getting into and how I might interpret it. Not so with The Wild Boys. But in the years since reading it I’ve come to appreciate it much more. I’ve never read anything else quite like it, and some of the scenes really stick out in my memory, for better or worse.

Taji From Beyond the Rings

Taji From Beyond the Rings
R. Cooper
Difficulty: Medium
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Blurb from Amazon:

“The Interplanetary Trade Coalition has not been welcomed with open arms by the Sha Empire. Isolated at the far edge of a distant system, the Sha are distrustful of outsiders, and previous I.P.T.C. diplomatic missions have ended with members imprisoned or dead. But, if pushed enough, the I.P.T.C. will overrun the planet to take what it wants. The situation is already precarious when student linguist Taji Ameyo is conscripted to translate for the newest I.P.T.C. ambassador. Taji, used to being alone, has never learned to hide his heart or his opinions, and the controlled Sha nobility regard little, outspoken human Taji with fascination, calling him shehzha.

Mysterious, coveted figures, so devoted to their lovers that pleasing them is a test of Shavian honor, shehzha are usually kept out of public view. Taji is a nobody, hardly alluring, and yet it’s not long before his runaway mouth gets him entangled in imperial politics, and he has no one rely on but the soldiers assigned to protect him—one soldier, more than the others.

At the mercy of both a greedy trade coalition and a proud empire, Taji has to determine what it means to be shehzha, while surrounded by ambitious noble families and a sharp-eyed emperor, and hopefully learn enough about the Sha to keep him and everyone he cares about alive.”


I’ve read a couple of R. Cooper’s books and found them to be enjoyable, but I had no idea she was capable of a novel like this. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever read something this good from the self-publish/small press M/M community before, except for Klune’s Murmuration, and this one might be better. Taji From Beyond the Rings is a rigorous, anthropological science-fiction romance that repackages radical ideas of sex and gender first found in works like Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand in the form of an accessible genre novel. The Sha society depicted in Taji is creative, consistent, and believable, and so are the interactions between them and the I.P.T.C. emissaries of which the eponymous protagonist is a member. Cooper uses the complex, perilous challenge of learning and navigating a foreign culture as a versatile plot device that grants the story natural momentum, something many romance writers struggle with when they try to force their plots to replicate desired romance genre conventions. The linguistic mystery of shehzha, an enigmatic, untranslatable rank in Shavian culture, was particularly engaging. The experience of constantly redefining the term as Taji discovers new information reproduces for the reader the experience that Taji is having in the story. Like him, we can only speculate on the meaning of Sha words and symbols and adapt when we find out we’re wrong. Readers less familiar with science fiction as a genre may find this experience disconcerting at first, but becomes easier to process with time.

Interwoven with all this detailed and complex science fiction is an interspecies romance I can only describe as “mushy.” There’s lots of pining and angst, stoic handsome space marines, several explicit sex scenes, the works. But where these elements might feel melodramatic or just plain silly in a typical romance novel, they’re all quite natural in the context of Cooper’s extensive worldbuilding. One Amazon review wrote, “Without the author’s storytelling skills and imaginative vision, this book could easily have been shelved under the overheated and unhinged section for teenage wet dreams.” The reviewer’s not wrong, Cooper is working with some very delicate sexual tropes that before now I would have said could not be done tastefully, yet there they are in all their erotic and sensual glory. I’ll admit, some of them made me a little uncomfortable, but that’s only because they challenge values western culture holds in high esteem, like agency, independence, and self-reliance. Through the Sha, Cooper convincingly argues for the beauty and bravery to be found in relinquishing those ideals in order to become closer with another. As I write, it occurs to me that this is the principle behind BDSM, though I don’t think this particular story could be described as that. Anyway, it’s not often that I come away from a pulpy genre like romance feeling like I’ve learned something, so I feel very fortunate to have come across Taji From Beyond the Rings and enthusiastically recommend it to others.