A summer reading rainbow

We here at PGN have been (occasionally) accused of being bookish. We don’t mind. Books don’t download slowly, lose their signal, get viruses or poke us. They are portable: You can grab a quick read on the train or bus, or invest a whole afternoon while sunning on the beach. They don’t need a plug or a battery. They lengthen our attention span instead of shortening it. They expand our vocabulary (if not our pronunciation). They enlighten, educate and entertain us. They remind us that we are neither the most important thing in the world nor the center of the universe. We are far more likely to feel a sense of accomplishment if we finish a book than if we have “wasted” time on the Internet.

Here’s what we are reading this year.

Appetite For America Stephen Fried Non-fiction

Philadelphia author Stephen Fried does a riveting job chronicling the life and times of businessman Fred Harvey in his latest book. Harvey rose from his humble beginning as immigrant and dishwasher to a business tycoon who built an empire of railroads and what is believed to be the nation’s first restaurant chain, Harvey House. Granted, there’s the usual hyperbole associated with a story of this nature (we’re guessing he didn’t “civilize the West” all by himself) but, overall, this book is a feast for anyone with even the slightest fascination with American history and how we became the mechanized consumer culture we are today.

There’s also a gay element to Harvey’s story in the form of Harvey’s great-granddaughter Kitty, a socialite who was so “fiercely single” that eventually the press gave up on the idea of her getting married.

Even the appendices of the book yields some pleasant surprises, like “Meals By Fred Harvey,” a treasure trove of old-school recipes featured at Harvey Houses as well as a detailed list of all the places where the chain operated.

Fans of The History Channel, Americana and a good old-fashioned rags-to-riches success story will find an embarrassment of riches in “Appetite For America.”

— Larry Nichols

(Between) Boyfriends Michael Salvatore Fiction Salvatore’s inaugural novel reveals just about everything that could, might or does happen to a gay man when he is “between boyfriends.” Stevie B. gets dumped by his boyfriend Jack on the second page of the two-page prologue, setting the stage for the rest of this New York City blend of “Will & Grace,” “Soap Dish,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Golden Girls” and an all-gay “Friends” cast.

“Boyfriends” includes a guy known as the Fuck-counter (that’s not his number of partners, but the number of thrusts), a phone number written on a penis, a Christmas pageant at a retirement village, a daytime television show with divas and closet queens called “If Tomorrow Never Comes” and a British porn star. Stevie’s mother is “not Jewish, she’s Sicilian, which means she’s like a Jew, but she has access to a gun.” There is also figure skating, Broadway, shopping, texting, Starbucks coffee chats and a group of friends who make Lucy, Ethel, Ricky and Fred look like MENSA candidates and, well, now you may start to get the picture.

Readers will identify easily with one or more of the characters and probably point fingers at people (friends, acquaintances, enemies) who act like them. This is a hilarious, ridiculous romp through a year of bachelorhood, guaranteed to be a laugh-out-loud page-turner. It’s light, refreshing and fast-paced. After you read it, you’ll want to share it with your crazy coffee friends as well.

— Scott Drake

The Big Bang Symphony Lucy Jane Bledsoe Fiction

Antarctica is an unforgiving place. Less than one night of exposure is fatal. And it’s also intense, ramping up emotions and encounters for everyone who ventures there.

In Bledsoe’s latest work, she crafts the experiences of three women who meet on the Ice, telling stories of friendship, lust and longing.

For Rosie, it’s her third season on the Ice, and she’s planning to put in her time, then use the money she earns for a down payment.

For Mikala, Antarctica holds the father she’s never met and, hopefully, the key to unlocking that composer’s block that set in after her partner died.

For Alice, Antarctica is both an escape and an opportunity — from her smothering mother and to launch her career as a geologist.

Bledsoe’s characters resonate with the reader — such as how Rosie finds herself drawn to a married man and tries to distract herself, or how Alice has struggled to stake out her identity under her mother’s grasp.

“Big Bang Symphony” is engaging and suspenseful too: The reader will want to stay up late to see how the storylines interweave and resolve.

— Sarah Blazucki

Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher Monica Nolan Fiction

In her third retro-pulp novel, Nolan tells the story of — gasp! — a lesbian gym teacher. After a fall derails her professional hockey career (professional women’s hockey? How many professional women’s hockey players do you know?), Bobby is convinced to go into teaching by a vocational counselor. Though she doesn’t think she’s smart enough to teach, she takes a job as a “Games Mistress.”

At Metamora, an elite girls’ high school, Bobby meets her share of characters with secrets, stories and motives. At a young 23, Bobby doesn’t know who to trust or believe. And what of the former math teacher who plummeted to her death from the tower?

Nolan’s writing is reminiscent of Nancy Drew books. If Nancy Drew liked kissing girls.

Her writing is also interspersed with fun applications of sports advice, such as: “When you get control of the ball, keep control of the ball. Don’t pass it to a player who’s unprepared.”

So true. Especially when that player is your girlfriend, and the game is, well … — SB

Flight of the Jaguar Magician: A New Queer Mythology Tome Vol. 1 C. Huilo C. Fiction

This imaginative piece of gay fantasy fiction has great ambitions. What it needs is a better budget and execution.

The first volume in this series follows Lolaboy, who was created and brought to Earth by the Creators to restore a sense of wonder, help gay society get back in touch with their lost magical heritage and push for equal rights in the global community. (Is that what has been missing from the fight for gay marriage all this time? Magic?) Along the way, he encounters a colorful menagerie of mystical and fantastical entities (like the titular Jaguar Magician) that teaches him the ways of the world.

It’s a noble idea and a mercurial enough of a concept for a writer and artist to go crazy with, but the results here are pedestrian at best. At times, it feels like this story wasn’t written for the adult reader — except for the overt references to sex and sexuality.

Maybe it will take another volume for this series to hit its stride, but this story and these characters need to grow up fast.

— LN

Foxy: My Life in Three Acts Pam Grier Autobiography

Now this is a true Hollywood story.

Fans of Pam Grier, whether it’s from her days as a sexually charged action hero in 1970s blaxploitation films or her later work in TV shows like “The L Word,” know about the ups and downs of her professional career. But reading her account of the events that lead up to her stardom and have transpired since gives the reader a new appreciation of just how focused and driven she is.

Grier’s childhood and young adulthood was especially difficult, given that she had to overcome family strife, including being abandoned by her father, sexual abuse and constant moves, all amid the cultural turmoil of the civil-rights movement.

Her rise to stardom in the 1970s brought the kind of problems one would expect, but that doesn’t make them any less difficult to fathom. Readers learn about the high-profile relationships Grier had to watch crash and burn as her star rose. The most eyebrow-raising account involves the late, great comedian Richard Pryor, whose cocaine use was so great that it made his semen toxic to Grier’s system.

Grier’s narration is matter-of-fact but gripping, especially in the third act when she discusses her victory over cancer and her successful comeback, thanks in large part to her role in Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown.”

Overall, “Foxy” is an entertaining read, in which Grier’s struggles are validated by the triumphs that follow.

— LN

From This Moment On PJ Trebelhorn Fiction

No matter how fast you can run, the past will always catch up to you. That’s a lesson learned by two women at the center of “From This Moment On,” who find they need to come face-to-face with their pasts before they can embrace the future.

After the death of her lover and their unborn child in a car accident, Devon Conway left Easton, Pa., and resolved to never look back. But when she returns three years later, she can’t escape her past any longer and is forced to confront her loss. When Devon encounters Katherine Hunter, a woman who’s also struggling to come to grips with her own previous relationship, she begins to see a glimmer of hope for her future, which both complicates and facilitates her healing process.

Trebelhorn, an out author from eastern Pennsylvania, created characters for “From This Moment On” that are flawed, faulted and wholly realistic: While many of the characters are struggling with loss, their unique approaches to dealing with it reveal their weaknesses and give the reader a deeper appreciation of the characters. While “From This Moment On” isn’t rife with thrilling or suspenseful moments, it tells a gripping, emotional story about love, loss and the fusion of the two.

— Jen Colletta

Insignificant Others Stephen McCauley Fiction

Both a comedy of manners and a comedy of errors, McCauley’s “Insignificant Others” is an outstanding book — easily the author’s best to date. The story is nimbly told with wry, precise language in a series of short, sharp chapters that showcase keen perceptions about relationships — gay and straight, personal and professional, romantic and platonic.

Richard Rossi is an aging HR executive who learns that his partner is having an affair. Although Richard is having his own affair — with a married man, no less — the discovery rankles him, and prompts him to re-evaluate his life.

Although it sounds like a somber portrait of midlife malaise, “Insignificant Others” is anything but. Richard’s situation is nicely contrasted with his friends and colleagues — all of whom are struggling with their forms of quiet desperation. Most of the characters are holding secrets or indiscretions from loved ones, and how they work through their problems is both amusing and moving.

McCauley is a master of tone and mood. He deftly shows how good intentions can sometimes result in bad behavior. He also shrewdly uses elements from the atmospheric Boston winter to a room’s furniture to comment on the characters. Even an over-prepared chicken makes a nice symbol for Richard’s messy life.

“Insignificant Others” has only one drawback: It ends.

— Gary Kramer

Into the Stars Thomas James Fiction

James is a first-time novelist from the Allentown area who has crafted an intricate story of family, friends, relationships and work with “Into the Stars.” Orlando “Lan” Lafayette is a songwriter who moves to New York when his former employer gives him the opportunity to direct his first musical. Having had no luck with life or love since his ex Derek left him for someone else 10 years previously, Lan needs this opportunity to turn his life and luck around.

Lan’s best friend is Sekoya, who is also the biological mother of his daughter, Arianna. Arianna’s classmate Leo and his father Angelo become the double-dating pair for Orlando and Arianna. A cat named Caleb with a translator microchip implant that allows humans to understand his thoughts seems a bit far-fetched — even for a story set 25 years in the future — but eventually Caleb becomes believable and integral to the storyline.

Lan and his family and friends learn about each other through book-reading meetings with school parents, rehearsals, family gatherings and surprise appearances by exes, but James surprises the reader at nearly every plot turn. And nothing will prepare the reader for how everyone and everything ties together to bring this story within a story to an unpredictable crescendo.

Humorous, clever and poignant, “Into the Stars” will at various times leave the reader breathless, light-hearted, angry, amused, romantic and sad, but never bored. This is a great summer beach read and will keep you up into the wee hours to find out what happens next. Fortunately for us, a sequel with Orlando’s nephew is already in the works.


The Little Stranger Sarah Waters Fiction

In Waters’ fifth book, she features her first male narrator, taking the reader to post-World War II England. Her protagonist, Dr. Faraday, is called to Hundreds Hall to care for a servant girl, bringing back memories of when he visited the house as a child — when it was grand and full of life.

No longer well off, siblings Roderick and Caroline Ayres struggle to keep Hundreds Hall intact and functional, with limited success.

As Faraday is increasingly drawn to the house, namely to administer experimental electrical treatments to Roderick for his injured leg, strange, unexplained things begin happening at Hundreds Hall.

Waters’ ghost story, a Man Booker Prize finalist, is like molasses: dark, thick and slow moving. But it’s also a satisfyingly spooky tale.


Leave The Light On Jennifer Storm Memoir

Thanks to TV shows like “Intervention,” “Celebrity Rehab” and “Sober House,” Americans have become a society that is way too fascinated with other people’s addictions and recovery. But “Leave The Light On,” for better and for worse, takes readers through the parts of recovery many don’t get to see.

This book is the follow-up to Storm’s “Black Out Girl,” which chronicled the out author’s troubled upbringing, descent into drug and alcohol addiction and her eventual success at rehab.

“Light” chronicles her post-rehab struggle to figure out who she is and her direction in life, and to establish some stability in her drug-free life. While it’s certainly an enlightening read (who knew recovering-addict culture was so complicated?) its alternating deluges of 12-step preaching and Storm’s hard-knock life can be tedious at times for those who don’t appreciate a long, hard soak in someone else’s pain.

Things get more interesting as Storm’s recovery gives way to her understanding of her own sexual identity, which had been pushed to the side because of her addiction, past sexual trauma and emotional issues.

If you want to get a good, detailed look at the way the mind of recovering addict works, “Leave The Light On” is definitely an eye-opener.

— LN

Party Animals: A Hollywood Tale of Sex, Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll, Starring the Fabulous Allan Carr Robert Hofler Biography

Given that Allan Carr is the man who made “Can’t Stop the Music” and produced the infamous Oscar ceremony where Rob Lowe serenaded Snow White, one would suspect that a biography would be overblown. And “Party Animals” certainly is — just not in the right way. Sure, there is dish about Valerie Perrine’s cutting remarks to Nancy Walker on the set of the Village People movie, but author Robert Hofler, a senior editor at Vanity Fair, tries far too hard to make Carr’s story over the top.

Carr certainly spoke with exclamation points, but Hofler includes several factual errors and needlessly repeats information as he charts Carr’s Hollywood rise (“Tommy” and “Grease”) to his spectacular failures (“Can’t Stop the Music,” “Grease 2” and the Oscar debacle).

Only when “Party Animals” describes the producer’s crushes on his straight leading men does Hofler explain why Carr desired and fought so hard for others’ approval — often by throwing attention-getting parties. At least Hofler gives readers a sense of Carr’s extravagance and waste. But this book is mostly a wasted opportunity at profiling an interesting out-sized personality.

And surely, if he were still alive, Carr would not be pleased that he does not appear on the cover of his own biography.


Probation Tom Mendicino Fiction

Another first-time novelist, Philadelphia’s own Mendicino, has created an entertaining and engaging world of coming out, opening up and self-realization with “Probation.”

Tony Nocere is caught giving a blowjob to a trucker in a dirty highway restroom and the state of North Carolina disapproves. He is put on one-year probation and assigned mandatory counseling sessions. Subsequently, Tony’s wife dumps him and he reluctantly moves in with his aging mother, who is diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Mendicino deftly segues these basic premises with flashback scenes so the reader will progress with Tony through the year of probation while catching glimpses of how he got where he is in life. Not a typical coming-out tale, one aspect that makes Mendicino’s book engaging is instead of a teen/tween first-love coming-out story, “Probation” deals with self-realization later in life. Tony is reaching midlife when he realizes his marriage and lifestyle aren’t working for him. And he faces conflicting thoughts and emotions as to how he got to that restroom and who he is.

For anyone caught in the struggle for self, this is a dynamite book for learning to accept who you are and what you truly want in life.


The Road Home Michael Thomas Ford Fiction

This book describes a journey taken by photographer Burke Crenshaw when he suffers a broken leg and a broken arm in a car accident and is forced to move from Boston to his father’s farm in rural Vermont to recuperate. Summer drags on as Burke tries to keep himself occupied with books, going to the town library, taking photographs around the area and trying to communicate with his father and the locals, who are content with living there.

The question Burke ultimately faces is, where is home for him? Is it back in Boston with the son of his former high-school buddy, Will Janks, who is 20 years younger than him and refuses to say he is gay even after performing numerous sexual acts? Is it living alone again in Boston with his friends that seem so shallow and uninteresting now that the day-to-day interaction has waned? Or is it somewhere else?

Ford creates some appealing characters and storylines in this quick read but, in the end, he fails to resolve many of the interesting conflicts and plot lines, and some of the characters that hold promise simply disappear. A speculative tale of lovers from the Civil War gives the book a quirky tie-in to Burke’s own struggle, but ultimately does not carry the reader to a satisfying conclusion.


Stuck Rubber Baby Howard Cruse Graphic novel

Don’t let the fact that this is a graphic novel fool you: “Stuck Rubber Baby” is a serious read.

Set in a fictional Southern town, this is the semi-autobiographical story of a young, white working-class man trying to figure out his identity among the shifting racial, cultural and sexual politics of the 1960s.

When we first meet Toland Polk, he isn’t as enlightened as he will be at the end of the story. His views about race seem to be more of an echo of his parents’ views, which are somewhat moderate for the time compared to the virulent and unapologetic racism of others in his town.

But events throughout the book steer Polk further away from those views. His parents die in a tragic car accident. He’s drafted into the Army, only to be rejected for admitting he has homosexual feelings.

Returning to his small town, somewhat closeted and determined to appear heterosexual, he still pushes at the bounds of local conformity by falling in with civil-rights activists. They eventually introduce him to folk musicians and nightclubs catering to gays and both blacks and whites.

All along this richly illustrated story, readers are introduced to a cast of characters: black and white, gay and straight and varying shades of accepting and bigoted. The confrontations are unflinching in depicting the injustices that blacks, gays and lesbians had to endure in that era.

“Stuck Rubber Baby” is a captivating, essential read. Cruse’s story and illustration work so well together that it almost makes you forget how complex, dense and potent the story is.

— LN

Ten Minutes from Home Beth Greenfield Memoir

In 1982, as they return from her ballet recital, Greenfield and her family are hit by a drunk driver. Both her younger brother and her best friend (and first girl crush) are killed, forever changing the family dynamics. Here, Greenfield recounts both her life before the accident and directly after, how the family tries to cope with the crushing grief.

After the accident, Greenfield, who was 12 at the time, slowly begins to move on, doing the things she did before the accident — dance recitals, days at the shore, school. But there is always a void, and instead of sharing her grief with her mother and father, she keeps it to herself.

At times, Greenfield comes across as far too self-aware for a 12-year-old, and it’s unclear if she was that perceptive at the time or if her feelings and actions are clearer now that she’s older. Other times, she seems self-absorbed.

Throughout the book, Greenfield writes with thought and detail about a time in her life that was difficult but, ultimately, surmountable.

— SB

Toss and Whirl and Pass Shawn Stewart Ruff Fiction

Ruff’s “Toss and Whirl and Pass” examines the intersection of public and personal tragedy.

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center shook many Americans hard, but for New York City resident Yale Battle, the grief that settled over his city mirrored the grief he’d been living with since the death of his lover, Courtney. An HIV-positive poet, Yale had fallen into a tailspin since his partner fell victim to AIDS, as he grappled with loss, guilt and what he saw as his own impending death. Describing himself as a “rotting fruit,” Yale is simply awaiting the end and, surrounded by so much death, struggles to find the resolve to face his life.

“Toss and Whirl and Pass” is set in the weeks following 9/11, but much of the story is told in flashbacks, detailing the ups and downs of Yale and Courtney’s relationship. Ruff utilizes an effective balance of dialogue and reflection, allowing the reader to become not only immersed in the connection between Yale and Courtney but also in the trauma that the latter’s death inflicted on the narrator.

Ruff’s novel will resonate with anyone who’s experienced loss and provides an effective commentary on the impact of community-based tragedies, such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the 9/11 attacks.

— JC

Travels in a Gay Nation: Portraits of LGBTQ Americans Philip Gambone Interviews

Gambone traveled the country spending hundreds of hours interviewing significant members of the LGBTQ community to create this interesting collection of 44 distinct and personal stories. “Travels in a Gay Nation” is more than a reference book: It’s a window into each person’s background and personality in their own words, told by the people who know them best — themselves.

Whether you want to know more about Tammy Baldwin, Barney Frank, Frank Kameny, David Sedaris or George Takei or you want to learn something about Zoe Dunning, Hillary Goodridge, Randall Kenan or Urvashi Vaid, there are stories here that may enlighten, inspire or cause the reader to reflect on her/his own life experiences.

Each interview and story is only a few pages long, so this is a nice companion for short-break reading and a good long-term reference book for the shelf. Since Gambone interviewed 102 people, we expect a second and possibly a third volume may emerge in another year or two.


What We Remember Michael Thomas Ford Fiction

Every family has secrets, but the families of Cold Falls, N.Y., have enough to keep generations whispering.

For eight years, the McCloud family has been under the assumption that patriarch Dan McCloud — also the town sheriff — committed suicide, but when his body is eventually discovered, the hunt begins for his murderer, and no one in the small town can escape the shadow of blame, including his own children, one of whom is a gay drug addict.

Ford artfully fuses suspense, drama and mystery, making each chapter a satisfying guessing game. The story skips between the years leading up to and following Dan’s death, with each piece of the puzzle gradually falling into place as each character reflects on his/her own version of events from the preceding decade.

Ford’s characters are all multi-dimensional — with a new layer revealed each time the story switches perspective — and their flaws are exposed in a way that leaves the reader likely to name each character as the murderer at some point in the book.

“What We Remember” gives a frank account of what can happen to the future when the buried past surfaces. The book would be a great addition to an afternoon at the beach, but that afternoon could stretch into evening, as it’s hard to put down from page one.

— JC

Wicked Philadelphia Thomas H. Keels Non-fiction

Out local author Keels explores the darker side of the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection in his latest endeavor.

While innumerable works have profiled the city’s storied past and its countless contributions to American history, “Wicked Philadelphia” reveals the stories shunned from the history books. Keels traces the corruption that makes headlines in today’s news all the way back to the city’s founding when, shortly after the death of William Penn, the heirs of the state’s namesake demolished treaties with the Lenni-Lenapes, usurping and selling the land to pay their own debts. In the ensuing 300 years, the city was riddled with financial, political and sex scandals, some of which were masterminded by conmen — and women — who could give today’s Ponzi schemers a run for their money.

Keels describes that the city has perpetually struggled with its Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde complex — founded on values of peace and philanthropy, but with residents often betraying those principles for personal gain — but rightfully cautions the reader that the book is not an attempt to cast the city in a negative light, but rather to show its more colorful side. Even lifelong Philadelphians likely don’t know just how colorful their hometown’s history really is, and “Wicked Philadelphia” does an excellent job of fusing history with humor to create an informative, inviting work that educates as well as entertains.

— JC

Yield Lee Houck Fiction

This story takes a look beneath the surface of the world of gay sex work as one young man strives to escape the industry.

Simon, a 20-something New Yorker, spends his days in a secluded hospital filing room and his nights going from appointment to appointment with his male clients. He’s perfected the art of closing his mind to the reality of his life, but it slowly seeps in as a rash of antigay attacks takes over his neighborhood. As the gay community starts to fight back against the beatings, Simon begins to fight back against the direction his own life is taking.

Houck delves deeply into Simon’s consciousness, which sheds a rarely seen light on those who make a living as sex workers. Although the development of the secondary characters could have been stronger, “Yield” successfully tells the story of one man’s twisting, turning path to self-discovery.

— JC