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Don’t Overlook These Books: Standouts from 2009

by Kilian Melloy
Sunday Jan 3, 2010

Behind on your reading? Who isn't? If you didn't have a chance to enjoy the best that 2009 had to offer, don't worry: books were made to be enjoyed--and discovered--for years to come. Here are a few random, but delectable, selections from the old year... plus a glimpse of things to come.

Hot and Steamy

Gay erotic literature got off to a strong start in 2009 with editor Neil Plakcy’s ravishing anthology Surfer Boys, and stayed strong all year long with books like the Todd Gregory-edited Rough Trade, the Richard Labonte-edited Daddies, and editor Phillip MacKenzie’s Special Forces collecting the hottest of the hot in short, sweet fairy tales according to specified themes.

Fans of longer-form eros were ably served by James Lear, whose latest historical novel The Low Road took readers on an action-packed trip to Scotland in the 1700s, while Ann Somerville’s novel Remastering Jerna explored an alternate reality in which the politics and religion were all too familiar--but human nature remained as complex as ever: Somerville explores pleasure and pain with exquisite artistry in a sci-fi novel where words like "subspace" take on entirely new meanings.

Gumshoes, Guns, and Gams

Jeff Vandermeer’s Finch effortlessly mixes noir and science fiction, achieving serious literary heft along the way. Not coincidentally, mushrooms play a major part in this trippy adventure.

Paul G. Bens astonishes with Kelland, a strange, compelling thriller in which the title character isn’t just one person--he (and, on occasion, she) appears in multiple manifestations. Mind-bending and heart-wringing: the novel’s charming prose softens you up and then the plot ravishes your head.

In The Sower, Kemble Scott cooks up a blend of sly satire, international intrigue, and fantastical possibility when a HIV-positive man discovers that he possesses the cure to AIDS--and the only way to spread it is through lots and lots of unprotected sex. Can you say "Culture of Life?"

Fans of Michael Thomas Ford won’t want to miss What We Remember, a sensational hybrid of family drama and crime thriller. A new Michael Thomas Ford novel is always a red-letter occasion, and Ford’s at the top of his form here.

Rebecca Cantrell’s debut novel A Trace of Smoke is that rare beast that blends meticulous research with old-fashioned novel-writing skill. The book follows a young woman through the seedy streets and into the fashionable districts of 1931 Berlin as she unravels the mystery behind her brother’s death. Was the killer his long-time boyfriend, the young gay Nazi he was seeing, or one of his many admirers at the club where he sang in drag? Cantrell punches the reader’s ticket for a trip to a time long vanished, and yet still deeply fascinating and rich.

Ray-Guns, Robots, and Strange New Worlds

For an overview of not just the last decade’s finest in sci-fi, but the last six decades, check out the Gordon van Gelder-edited, 475-page tome The Very Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction: Sixtieth Anniversary Anthology, which draws from the pages of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Bradbury, Bester, LeGuin, Zelazny, Sturgeon, Vonnegut... Stephen King... it’s all there, and it’s all truly the old-school definition of quality.

Even non-fantasy fans will find plenty to enjoy in Kevin Brockmeier’s anthology Real Unreal: Best American Fantasy, Volume 3, featuring genre-crossing masters Peter S. Beagle, Jeffrey Ford... Stephen King... hey, the guy’s got talent, no matter what those pesky critics say.

Golden Gryphon Press presented a slate of top-tier choices in 2009. American wizard of speculative fiction George Zebrowski saw his short novel Empties given the GG treatment, which always means top-quality printing and binding. Real men read Jack Skillingstead, an emerging talent destined for a blinding-bright career, and that includes his instant-classic compendium Are You There and Other Stories. And the ever-reliable Mike Resnick saw his hunting-themed stories gathered between two covers in Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks.

When you head out to the cineplex to see Avatar, consider stopping by a bookstore for a novel that tackles similar themes of human greed and conquest aimed at a virgin world that turns out to be equipped to fight back: Judith Moffet’s Pennterra is everything classic sci-fi has always been: riveting, challenging, and fearless about examining even the moral issues we think we know all about. Pennterra bears many similarities to Moffett’s The Bird Shaman--another must-read--but it’s going to take you places you wouldn’t have gone on your own. You’ll thank her for it later.

Gay Literature

William J. Mann had a banner year in 2009, with two books hitting the shelves. The first was his novel Object of Desire, about an long-time married couple, one of them older and starting to slow down, whereas the younger partner is just taking off professionally-- and, in his early forties, reluctant to set aside his wild ways. Mann explores old scars and fresh romances in a book that feels resonant and timely for a world in which gay families are increasingly coming into the light of day.

Drew Banks pulls off a minor miracle with Ere I Saw Elba, revisiting his first novel, Able Was I, by building a gorgeously-realized new novel around a minor character from the earlier book. Drew’s writing remains elegant, and the story is organic and shapely, with the author taking his characters, and us too, through an emotional arc of trauma, resolve, and reconciliation.


William J. Mann’s second book of 2009 is the raucous, tender How to be A Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood. As sparkling as the jewels Liz sports in the cover photograph, Mann’s bio sizzles with the kind of glamor only Taylor possesses.

Completed shortly before his death, Sen. Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy’s autobiography True Compass sums up a legendary life. There are no bombshell revelations here; rather, the book is a dignified and cogent vision of a fifty-year career, liberally sprinkled with canny and compassionate insights.

2009 brought several biographies of Paul Newman, two of which stand out. The more reserved, respectful, and, arguably, responsible is Shawn Levy’s Paul Newman: A Life, which gives us Newman from soup to nuts to Newman’s Own, through, disappointingly, without a comprehensive filmography.

For the spicy and saucy, readers might turn to Paul Newman: The Man Behind the Baby Blues: His Secret Life Exposed, by Darwin Porter. This is a wild expose, claiming that Newman wasn’t just a ladies’ man, but a man for all... seasons. We all love gossip, and Porter gives the people what they want.

A book of short, funny biographical essays from a gay writer about the Christmas season... are we talking about David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice? Up until 2009 we would have been, but now there’s a second option: Augusten Burroughs’ You Better Not Cry. You can’t describe this book--you can only react to it, typically with hysterical laughter and gasps of "Oh... my... God!"

Just the Facts: Non-Fiction

They say that sometimes, in a room full of shouting people, a calm voice commands attention. Such is the case with Nathaniel Frank’s Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, a comprehensive, uncompromisingly presented, solidly researched book on the military’s policy excluding gay troops. There have long been other books in print on the subject of gay servicemembers, notably Allan Berube’s Coming Out Under Fire, but Frank’s book sets the standard for today’s discussion on repealing "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell."

It might not be as great a distance as you’d think from the field of battle to the dance floor: Tammy L. Anderson’s Rave Culture shows how social and legal pressures created the rave phenomenon and then pretty much undid it. Anderson strikes a suitably academic pose (and prose), but the fact that she injects herself into the joyous proceedings makes this more than a scholarly take; it’s an insider’s view, and lament, on the decline of a musical sub-culture.

Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human may not have the kitchen-porn sexiness of the summer’s hot cooking movie Julie and Julia, but it does present a fascinating theory on the human relationship to--and evolutionary reliance on--the culinary arts that will have you eyeing your sauce pans and your chopping knives with new fondness and respect. Not all gay men have the "cooking gene," but anyone can savor this book’s juicy insights and meaty, science-based theorizing.

For film fans, the brand-new Thomas Waugh and Matthew Hays-edited Queer Film Classics series, only three books in, is already indispensable. The first few titles take deeply penetrating looks at Pedro Almodovar’s Law of Desire, Andy Warhol’s Paul Morrissey-directed Trash, and Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters. These are the definitive books--written by Jose Quiroga, Jon Davies, and Noah Tsika, respectively--on definitive GLBT classic movies.

Young Readers

Kids--all kids--need to know that they are safe, they are loved, and they are okay just as they are. Writer and educator Pat Palmer knows this and has allowed that simple truth to guide her in the creation of classic kids’ books Liking Myself and The Mouse, The Monster, and Me. The books were global bestsellers; now they’re back in print, thanks to Dr. Louise Hart, herself an author in the "socio-emotive" genre (The Winning Family is Hart’s signature book).

Gay kids especially need to know that they are okay, and author Alex Sanchez writes books for--really, to--them that offer understanding and savvy. For his 2009 release, Sanchez changed up his approach a little: Bait is about a straight boy with deep-seated insecurities, stemming from sexual abuse trauma, that get him into trouble for fighting at school. With his entire future at stake, Sanchez’s young protagonist has to learn to let go of his anti-gay prejudices--along with his hurt and anger. The character may be straight, but the message is crucial for GLBT and straight kids alike.

New and Next

Candidates for your 2010 reading list:

Michael Thomas Ford saw out 2009 with the Dec. 29 publication of his second novel of the year, Jane Bites Back, the first in a trilogy of books in which Ms. Jane Austen is alive and well in the 21st century... and daintily sucking blood as a vampire. In the new year, Ford’s novel The Road Home will also hit the shelves.

K.M. Soehnlein, author of The World of Normal Boys, picks up the story of Normal Boys’ protagonist Robin MacKenzie, now in his 20s, this April with the release of Robin and Ruby.

Three more volumes of the Queer Film Classics series are slated for release this year: Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine gets the treatment by author Helen Hok-Sze, while Thomas Waugh and Jason Garrison take on Frank Vitale’s Montreal Main, and Shohini Ghosh guides us through the text, subtext, and cultural context of Deepa Mehta’s incendiary film Fire.

See ya in the funny (as well as the dramatic, biographical, historical, and sweaty hot) pages in 2010!

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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