Archive for June 2023

Big Gay Wedding by Byron Lane


What are your must-have ingredients for a perfect summer read? I want a book that captures my attention from the start, the kind of book I can't stop reading. I need to fall for the characters and have someone to root for. Most importantly, I need an intelligent book that doesn't take itself too seriously. Bring on some humor! My last few reads have been tense thrillers and a war epic, so I was desperately in need of that perfect summer read. Lucky for me, a copy of Byron Lane's new novel Big Gay Wedding arrived at my door courtesy of his publisher. It was exactly the kind of book I was looking for. 

Chrissy's life has seen a lot of change in the past few years. Her son Barnett moved from the rural Louisianna farm to the "heathen coasts" of Los Angeles. Her husband passed away, leaving Chrissy alone to run the family farm. Now she makes ends meet by hosting school tours of the farm. Despite all the change, Chrissy hangs onto the hope that one day Barnett will move back to take over the family estate. He's coming home for a visit this weekend and has told her that he has something he wants to tell her. Could this be the thing Chrissy has been waiting for? Is Barnett finally moving back home?

Barnett's return to the farm he grew up on is filled with trepidation. He loves his mom, but his coming out to her caused their relationship to become distant. He knows his mom loves him, but her deep-rooted faith prevents her from truly accepting him for who he is. Knowing this only makes Barnett more nervous. You see, he's come home to introduce him to Ezra the man he loves with all of his heart. As if that's not enough, the couple is planning to get married. They hope to have the wedding at the family farm. The wheels have been put in motion to have the event this weekend. Will Chrissy press the breaks, or finally accept her son and the man he loves?

Big Gay Wedding sees Byron Lane write a novel that wears its heart on its sleeves. As I read the opening chapters, I couldn't help but think of the work it took my own mom to come to terms with me being gay. There was a period when both of us weren't sure how to communicate with each other, but our unconditional love won out. Lane doesn't shy away from the complex realities of homophobia. This fictional town is laced with well-meaning Christians who just don't know what to make of the loud and proud gay couple who are hosting a large event in their town.  Lane laces the entire book with humor that had me audibly laughing at several points in the story. His characters are larger than life and will have you rooting for them even during their most absurd moments. Ultimately Big Gay Wedding is a novel about the unyielding power of love. Gay, straight, or somewhere in between, this is the kind of aspirational story that will appeal to summer readers of all kinds. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 34)

Good Night, Irene by Luis Alberto Urrea


Peruse any local bookstore, and you'll find shelves lined with historical fiction novels set during WWII. Recreations of famous battles, fictionalized versions of real people, and even soaring romances set amongst the rubble of the war are all available to read. The sheer volume of works centered around the subject can be overwhelming. I've always been fascinated with the history of that time, but I've had mixed results with reading the fiction inspired by it. It was with cautious optimism that I accepted a copy of author Luis Alberto Urrea's latest WWII epic Good Night, Irene from his publisher. It was a wonderfully written novel that separates itself from similar fares by focusing on solid character work and meticulously researched scenes. 

The Second World War saw many Americans looking to support the cause in whatever way they could. We've heard countless stories of brave men called to fight for their country, but what about the women? They didn't simply sit at home, waiting for their husbands to return. No, many women participated in the war efforts at home and abroad. Good Night, Irene follows one such group. 

Irene has just called things off with an abusive fiance when she decides to join the Red Cross. The year is 1943, and she is enlisting to serve overseas. Lacking the medical training that would be required to be a nurse, Irene is instead placed into a group of women nicknamed the Donut Dollies. She has been paired with Dorothy, a tall, farm-raised woman who is Irene's complete opposite. As they are planted in Europe, their task is simple. The pair drive around the war zone frying donuts, serving coffee, and spreading a bit of hometown goodwill to the men fighting for freedom. What begins as an adventure of a lifetime soon becomes much more real. The realities of war are at hand, and nothing can shield these women from that fact. 

Luis Alberto Urrea was inspired to write this novel in part by the life of his late mother. He writes in a forward to the book that at the time of his mother's passing in 1990, she left her journals and scrapbooks that revealed the truth about her time in the great war. That personal connection to the story reveals itself within the careful consideration taken to bring each character to life. Urrea inhabits his novel with real people who you can't help but root for. He combines these characters with heart-racing scenes of the war that more than drive the novel's plot. My only real complaint with this one is that the ending was a bit more sentimental than I anticipated. That doesn't make it bad, but it was a bit of a different tone given everything that preceded it. As I read, I was struck by the similarities of that time with the present day. War is still a plague to humanity, and the reverberating impacts of it continue to ripple across generations. Good Night, Irene is a brilliant tribute to the Greatest Generation and a sobering reminder of the horrors of war. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 33)

The Quiet Tenant by Clémence Michallon


How well do you know your neighbors? The folks who live on either side of my house are always good for a wave or a quick chat, but I can't say I truly know them. I'm reminded of the countless news stories that we see where neighbors are shocked about the actions of the people living near them. Sentiments like "He was always such a nice guy" or "He was a quiet neighbor, never caused any problems" come to mind. The truth is we can never really know the people we choose to live by. In her debut English language novel The Quiet Tenant, French author Clémence Michallon explores the idea of the community everyman and the dark secrets he harbors. 

Aiden Thomas is a hardworking utility lineman, known in his upstate New York community as an all-around good guy. He's the kind of guy who will drop everything to help out a friend in need. Car won't start? Call Aiden. Has the freezer at your restaurant stopped cooling? Give Aiden a ring. Along with his wife and teenage daughter, Aiden has become a pillar in his local community. There's more to Aiden, however, than meets the eye. He isn't the man everyone thinks he is. If his secrets were to come out, the community would be appalled to know him. 

The woman in the shed has come up with a set of rules for staying alive. It is simple really. Do whatever he tells you, and you get to live. Anger him or go against what he says in any way, and you'll end up dead like the others. This is her reality, the life she's been forced to live for several years. He sneaks in food for her, a bucket to relieve herself, and books that belonged to the girls who came before her. He uses her body for his own primal pleasures. She lets him do what has to be done so that she can stay alive. Her life is completely at the mercy of this monster. This is the existence she has been resigned to, and there seems to be no way out. 

The Quiet Tenant is a shockingly impactful psychological thriller that had me glued to each page. I couldn't put this one down! Clémence Michallon writes from three unique perspectives that give a holistic view of her horror story. There's the voice of the imprisoned woman, desperate for escape but aware that there's little hope for the life she lived before. There's also the voice of Emily, the next woman targeted by the abductor, though she's completely unaware of his true intentions. Finally, there's the voice of the abductor's daughter, a child living with a monster. By combining the POV of these characters Michallon vividly builds the world where her story takes place, inviting us into the psyches of everyone involved. Only the abductor's perspective is omitted, giving him an air of mystery and uncertainty that drives much of the suspense in the novel. The characters and their stories culminate in a pulse-pounding conclusion that will have you breathlessly turning the pages. The Quiet Tenant is a fantastic thriller that should go to the top of your summer reading list. My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a copy to review. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 32)

Just by Looking at Him by Ryan O'Connell


We are halfway through June, and I've come to the realization that I haven't read a single book to celebrate Pride Month. Granted, I try to read diverse works from a variety of authors all year long, but the absence of a book by a member of the very community I'm a part of is an egregious oversight on my part. Enter Just by Looking at Him by Ryan O'Connell. The cover of this one caught my eye at my local library, and I recognized O'Connell's name from his TV credits such as Queer as Folk and his Netflix series Special. His debut novel is equal parts comedic and tragic, the kind of multifaceted read that I couldn't put down. 

From the outside looking in, Elliot's life seems perfect. He lives in LA with his longtime boyfriend, and he has a successful career as a writer on a TV show. Beneath the surface, however, things are beginning to crumble. Elliot suffers from cerebral palsy which causes him to walk with a persistent limp. Although mild compared to others who suffer a similar fate, the disability completely obliterates Elliot's self-image and self-esteem. That's only the beginning of Elliot's issues. 

Elliot has been in a years-long monogamous relationship with his boyfriend Gus. As much as he loves Gus, Elliot can't help but feel as if he may have settled down too soon. Their evenings typically consist of watching Real Housewives and drinking way too much wine. As restlessness settles into his relationship, Elliot begins a dark spiral downward filled with sex workers, alcoholism, and drug abuse. He'll have to dig deep and find himself before his demons get the best of him. 

There's an interesting dichotomy at play in Just by Looking at Him. Author Ryan O'Connell's quick wit is peppered throughout the novel, giving the work a breezy pace and light-hearted air. At the same time, O'Connell doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of infidelity, addiction, and chronic illness. This came as a bit of a shock to me at first, especially given the congenial tone that the book opens with. I'll admit that I struggled to empathize with the main character at first. Much of his troubles stem from his own actions. Graphic sex-fueled benders illustrated the trajectory to rock bottom that he seemed to be on. As the novel progressed, however, I couldn't help but identify with his journey. Queer people have historically been made to feel shame and are often forced to hide who they are for much of their early life. The act of finding yourself and coming to terms with your sexuality often happens during young adulthood. That's the journey I faced as a young gay man, and that's what's ultimately depicted in this book. Depending on your own experiences, your mileage may vary, but I don't doubt that you'll find something to latch onto with this read. Just by Looking at Him was the perfect book to pick up in honor of Pride Month. 

For more information visit Amazon and Goodreads

(2023, 31)

All the Sinners Bleed by S.A. Cosby


S.A. Cosby wowed me with his novel Razorblade Tears. The story about two fathers seeking revenge and redemption over the murder of their gay sons shook me to my core. I vowed to read whatever Cosby came up with next. Luckily for me, I didn't have long to wait. His latest novel All the Sinners Bleed was released last week, and his publisher kindly provided me with the audio version to listen to. The work is filled with contemplations on complex subjects, all wrapped together as a police procedural. In short, it is another must-read novel from this talented author. 

Titus Crowne built a prestigious career in law enforcement. His security expertise saw Titus rise in the ranks of the FBI, proving his ability in the upper echelon of his field. He left the FBI to return to his home in Charon County. An ailing elderly father and troubled younger brother gave Titus plenty to do, but he missed the sense of purpose that came from police work. Soon, he put his hat in the race for Sherrif. To his surprise, Titus won the race and became the first Black sheriff in the county's history. 

One year later, Titus is called to the scene of an ongoing shooting and the local high school. It is every police officer's worst nightmare. Titus expects to find the kind of mass casualty massacre that lace the headlines every week. Instead, he finds a shooter much more focused on his target. A single teacher is murdered before Titus's deputies fire the fatal shot that kills the shooter. In the immediate aftermath, the community mourns the loss of a well-loved teacher. The pastor of the local church decries the death of the young shooter. None of them, though, are prepared for the shocking truths to come out of the investigation. The teacher was a serial child abuser. The murderer was one of his victims turned accomplice. A third, masked accomplice is still at large. Titus will stop at nothing to bring this mysterious figure to justice. 

All the Sinners Bleed sees S.A. Cosby level up as an author in every way and cements his status as one of the most compelling American novelists writing today. The basic setup of the novel is very much in the tradition of classic police procedurals. The form creates a page-turning sense of urgency while allowing Cosby to delve deeper into themes of community, racism, and religion. The fictional setting of Charon County feels as palpable as any southern town I've ever visited. Complete with Confederate sentimentalists, snake-wrangling preachers, and a community divided among racial and generational lines. Cosby transports us to this place through his detailed descriptions and deeply drawn characters. There's conflict both internally and externally that helps to propel this novel to the top of his already stellar collected works. All the Sinners Bleed is the novel of the summer and already stacking up to be one of the best that I've read this year. 

For more information visit the author's website and Goodreads

(2023, 30)

Games and Rituals by Katherine Heiny


I've always turned to short stories to get me through a reading slump, or to intersperse between my other reading. One benefit of the form is that it allows readers to start and stop at will. I've been working through Katherine Heiny's latest collection Games and Rituals for the last couple of weeks, turning to a story here and there when I needed a break from the longer sci-fi work I was trudging through. Heiny is an author I'd heard of but had never read, so I was excited to be offered a copy of this work from her publisher. It was filled with heartfelt and witty stories that worked well in the bite-sized format of short stories. 

The book comprises eleven stories, each of which has something to do with relationships. Heiny peeks into the lives of these characters as they face a kind of turning point in their life. The opening story Chicken-Flavored and Lemon-Scented sets things off on the right foot as it imagines the lives of DMV employees and the people they encounter during their driving tests. Office relationships come to a head when professional and personal lines are crossed. Several of the stories explore romantic relationships in their various stages. 561, one of the stronger entries in the collection, imagines a woman called to help her husband move his ex-wife out of their family home. 

Like most short collections, some of the stories in Games and Rituals are stronger than others. What is apparent throughout, though, is that Katherine Heiny has a penchant for digging deep into characters and conjuring relatable situations to place them in. Heiny's dry wit permeates the pages, adding humor to even serious moments. I easily breezed through the collection. The slice-of-life approach really works here, giving us just enough insight into the lives of these characters to latch onto them. Games and Rituals is a solid collection that has me interested in exploring more of Katherine Heiny's writing. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2023, 29)

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