An intriguing and well-written, if emotionally flat, rendering of a gay relationship under siege.

ACQUAINTANCE

MEDICINE FOR THE BLUES TRILOGY

From the Medicine for the Blues series , Vol. 1

A doctor and his jazz pianist lover square off against intolerance in the Roaring Twenties in this knotty gay romance.

It’s 1923, and Carl Holman, a 32-year-old, up-and-coming surgeon in Portland, Oregon, is attending a society wedding reception when he is smitten with piano player Jimmy Harper. Jimmy sports sandy hair, a trim body, and a strong jaw line, all of them “bathed in light from a stained-glass skylight.” Carl must keep his ogling discreet since he doesn’t know if Jimmy would reciprocate his affections, and because gay sexuality is illegal. That’s just one of many bigotries plaguing Oregon, where the Ku Klux Klan is a potent political force that backs eugenics laws, an education act that could ban Roman Catholic schools, and a general suppression of suspicious cultural influences. (When Jimmy and his band start playing conspicuously Black-sounding hot jazz music at a dance, club-carrying Klan louts insist they cut it out.) Carl gingerly pursues Jimmy, who agrees to a fishing trip that escalates to skinny-dipping, lunch, a Chaplin movie, and a spontaneous make-out session. Jimmy’s fiancee, Mary, dumps him after he confesses his same-sex inclinations, and he moves into Carl’s house, which accommodates much graphic, untrammeled sex. Alas, a boy spies them kissing through a window and the ensuing gossip gets Carl ostracized by neighbors and patients and draws the wrath of his boss, a Klan stalwart who is pressuring him to join the Invisible Empire. Carl’s only hope of salvaging his career is to quiet all the talk by contracting a sham engagement to his lesbian pal Gwen Cook.

Stookey’s period piece, the first installment of his Medicine for the Blues Trilogy, paints a frank, atmospheric portrait of closeted gay life in a hostile time, full of furtive eye contact, assignations in parks, a claustrophobic dread of exposure and violence, and a poignant sense of being shunned and abandoned. (“I don’t want to end up a lonely old fairy,” mourns Jimmy after his breakup with Mary.) The author’s prose, filtered through Carl’s first-person voice and medical sensibility, is often vivid and evocative, whether he’s describing jazz—“The music writhed and pulsated like a heart on an operating table, refusing to stop beating, pounding with joy and rambunctious freedom”—or a sensual touch. (“We delighted in the way the pliable, soft skin rides over the bony areas and adheres to the muscled parts of the body, in the sensations of warmth from the flesh attached by sinews and ligaments to the sturdy armature of skeleton.”) Unfortunately, the novel’s nods to historical details (“I suppose you haven’t heard about the inflation in Germany”) and intellectual fads feel tacked on. Supporting characters like teen hustler Billy Butler, tragic queen Jerry the Fairy, and Gwen’s raucous lover, Charlene Devereaux, are lively and magnetic, but the romantic leads are not. Carl is a staid liberal, Jimmy a bland ingénue, and their interactions often feel stilted. (“Jimmy asked about my work and I shared with him some humorous encounters I’d had with patients recently. Then he told me a funny story about his Uncle Wally’s gall bladder operation.”) The result is a love story that feels more like a yarn about an acquaintance than a tale of real passion.

An intriguing and well-written, if emotionally flat, rendering of a gay relationship under siege.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: 978-1-7326036-0-8

Page Count: 299

Publisher: Pictograph Publishing

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2021

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For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

THE FOUR WINDS

The miseries of the Depression and Dust Bowl years shape the destiny of a Texas family.

“Hope is a coin I carry: an American penny, given to me by a man I came to love. There were times in my journey when I felt as if that penny and the hope it represented were the only things that kept me going.” We meet Elsa Wolcott in Dalhart, Texas, in 1921, on the eve of her 25th birthday, and wind up with her in California in 1936 in a saga of almost unrelieved woe. Despised by her shallow parents and sisters for being sickly and unattractive—“too tall, too thin, too pale, too unsure of herself”—Elsa escapes their cruelty when a single night of abandon leads to pregnancy and forced marriage to the son of Italian immigrant farmers. Though she finds some joy working the land, tending the animals, and learning her way around Mama Rose's kitchen, her marriage is never happy, the pleasures of early motherhood are brief, and soon the disastrous droughts of the 1930s drive all the farmers of the area to despair and starvation. Elsa's search for a better life for her children takes them out west to California, where things turn out to be even worse. While she never overcomes her low self-esteem about her looks, Elsa displays an iron core of character and courage as she faces dust storms, floods, hunger riots, homelessness, poverty, the misery of migrant labor, bigotry, union busting, violent goons, and more. The pedantic aims of the novel are hard to ignore as Hannah embodies her history lesson in what feels like a series of sepia-toned postcards depicting melodramatic scenes and clichéd emotions.

For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-2501-7860-2

Page Count: 464

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

THE MYSTERY OF MRS. CHRISTIE

In December 1926, mystery writer Agatha Christie really did disappear for 11 days. Was it a hoax? Or did her husband resort to foul play?

When Agatha meets Archie on a dance floor in 1912, the obscure yet handsome pilot quickly sweeps her off her feet with his daring. Archie seems smitten with her. Defying her family’s expectations, Agatha consents to marry Archie rather than her intended, the reliable yet boring Reggie Lucy. Although the war keeps them apart, straining their early marriage, Agatha finds meaningful work as a nurse and dispensary assistant, jobs that teach her a lot about poisons, knowledge that helps shape her early short stories and novels. While Agatha’s career flourishes after the war, Archie suffers setback after setback. Determined to keep her man happy, Agatha finds herself cooking elaborate meals, squelching her natural affections for their daughter (after all, Archie must always feel like the most important person in her life), and downplaying her own troubles, including her grief over her mother's death. Nonetheless, Archie grows increasingly morose. In fact, he is away from home the day Agatha disappears. By the time Detective Chief Constable Kenward arrives, Agatha has already been missing for a day. After discovering—and burning—a mysterious letter from Agatha, Archie is less than eager to help the police. His reluctance and arrogance work against him, and soon the police, the newspapers, the Christies’ staff, and even his daughter’s classmates suspect him of harming his wife. Benedict concocts a worthy mystery of her own, as chapters alternate between Archie’s negotiation of the investigation and Agatha’s recounting of their relationship. She keeps the reader guessing: Which narrator is reliable? Who is the real villain?

A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

Pub Date: Dec. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-4926-8272-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2020

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