Fall four

Literary offerings of a different color

Baltimore, or the Steadfast Tin Soldier
Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden

Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary
Monica Nolan

The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue
Manuel Munoz

Milton McGriff
AMM Publishing

Fall fiction lists are all too often made up of new releases from the usual suspects. But rather than new books from Kathy Reichs, Sandra Brown, Terry Brooks, and the James Patterson franchise, some readers prefer unusual novels we might not find without a nudge in a different direction. Here are four such offerings:

Christopher Golden collaborated with illustrator Mike Mignola on Baltimore, or the Steadfast Tin Soldier, but it isn’t a true graphic novel; Mignola’s illustrations serve more as accents to the story in the old tradition of illustrated books. In one of WWI’s bloody trenches, Lord Baltimore accidentally provokes what the world calls a “plague”; it’s really an attack by vampires who have been feeding off the carnage of war.

Baltimore, like most good horror fiction, reaches beyond the merely gruesome and supernatural—shape-shifters, demons, vampires—and focuses on the nature of evil and means of battling it without succumbing to destructive lusts. Golden creates a vision based on stories-within-stories that is only slightly more disturbing than the reality of post-WWI Europe. At the same time, he provides some fantastic (in the truest sense of the word) twists to vampire lore.

Also a period piece (set in the repressed 1950s), Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary, isn’t supernatural—just super-sexy. Monica Nolan’s tale of poor Lois (her “practice” kissing sessions with her fellow cheerleader-slash-best friend are the highlight of senior year) is nothing short of hilarious. Lois’ dread of a future as a suburban housewife is relieved when she’s offered a secretarial position in nearby Bay City, where she moves into a dorm-like women’s residence.

In this parody of pulp fiction, there are so many lesbians locking lips it’s hard to believe that any typing gets done. Lois finds her place in the world and solves a mystery that involves a cryptic filing system, blackmail and (my goodness!) Communists. It lacks the angst of Ann Bannon and Vin Packer, but, omigawd, is this book ever fun. Who knew typing could be foreplay?

Unlike Nolan’s parody, in The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue, Manuel Munoz has created a realistic and heart-wrenching portrait of life just south of Sacramento. Munoz, a Fresno native now living in New York, details the lives of the people who do most of the hard work in the Valley in this loosely-interrelated collection of short stories. From the maid who has just lost her only son in a motorcycle accident to the disappointed father who performs maintenance for the school district, the working people—many of them Latinos—of Fresno are drawn with loving and respectful attention to detail.

What’s more, Munoz reveals family secrets with great compassion and unblinking honesty: the gay son who can’t go home to either parent; the daughter who disappointed her doting family by getting pregnant and dropping out of high school, only to lose her son to crime. He deftly commingles the despair, dust and redemption of working-class Valley residents. Munoz is a young writer to watch.

And finally, in 2236, Milton McGriff takes a new twist on the dystopian police state novel by merging the science-fiction elements with suspense-thriller styling. McGriff’s tale of a near-future America in which police shootings of black Americans have gone beyond common-place to epidemic centers on the mystery surrounding a covert group, 2236, which vows to protect black citizens from the government. It also involves a Muslim-like religious and social organization, the Covenant of the New Commandment, and a worn-out journalist, Andy Blackman, still reeling from a relationship gone bad while trying to find his own moral center.

Like the rest of these novels, 2236, is a genre-bender: too close to reality to be science fiction, and too pertinent to all of us who live in an ever-more-repressive society to be dismissed as only of interest to African-American readers.

These four novels by lesser-known authors cover a variety of genres, but they’re all entertaining reads that provoke serious thought about the state of the world.