A Review of Also Known as Rising and Falling, by Kelli Jae Baeli

READ JUNE 2014

ONLINE SUMMARY — Jobeth O’Brien discovers that even when she’s out of commission, due to a back injury, there’s no way she can stay out of the loop. Not when so much is going on in her household full of women.

There’s a disturbing theme to things though, when time after time she and Phoebe, Izzy and Ginger are forced to help women out of violent situations, and go after the men intent on keeping those women exactly where they want them.

Both couples – Jobeth and Phoebe, Izzy and Ginger – are suffering from the side-effect of all this, questioning their roles in the world and their relationships.

Phoebe is she from whom all blessings flow – but is this enough for her?

Jobeth is sharp but unschooled – she’s not liking how she compares to Phoebe’s old college friends.

Izzy is having a really tough time, the return of unwelcome family connections making her question her talent and her dreams.

Ginger takes on the case of her career, but at home, she’s having to hide something from Izzy.

Meanwhile, a rapist is on the prowl, and no one is feeling safe anymore.

MY REVIEW — Also Known as Rising and Falling is another very enjoyable entry in Kelli Jae Baeli’s AKA Investigations series. Not as emotionally intense as Book 3, Also Known as Syzygy, it parallels that novel’s timeline, viewing some of the events from the POV of a different set of characters. The quartet of principle characters from Book 2 of the series, Also Known as DNA, return to the fore here, having had a more peripheral role in Syzygy; logically, the three main characters of the latter novel appear only briefly in Rising and Falling.

As much as I like a compelling story, I generally read more for character than for plot. No matter how good the story itself, if the characters don’t appeal to me, I’m not likely to continue with the series, so the fact that I’ve now finished four AKA Investigations novels should speak for itself. Baeli’s works feature a strong, varied female dramatis personae. If the characters are a skosh quirky from time to time, it’s never in a way that makes them seem inane or insignificant; instead, it lends realism – no Mary Sues here – and adds to their not inconsiderable charm. They’re appealing in a way that makes you wish you knew them in real life.

My favorite character in Rising and Falling is Izzy, who has found the strength to abandon a belittling, demoralizing life to seek something better. When we meet her in DNA, she certainly has some self-esteem issues, and while the effects of her past are still present in Rising and Falling, she’s come a long way toward overcoming them, by her own efforts but also thanks to the supportive new family she’s found: her long-lost sister, fledgling PI Jobeth , Jobeth’s lover Phoebe, and Izzy’s lover Ginger, a detective in the Denver PD. While each of the four is a strong, intriguing person in her own right, together they from a kind of gestalt where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The narrative voice of Also Known as Rising and Falling is a mixture of first person (Jobeth) and limited third person from the POV of the other main characters. Baeli handles the combination of styles well and uses it not only to move the action along but also to broaden the scope of the narrative. This is particularly important since our first person narrator Jobeth is incapacitated from the git-go by a fall down a flight of stairs; after all, a novel set in a convalescent’s bedroom doesn’t sound all that exciting, Rear Window notwithstanding.

I mentioned earlier that Rising and Falling lacks the gut-wrenching emotional depth of Syzygy and that’s absolutely the right auctorial decision. Syzygy was a story that needed to be told, and told in exactly the way Baeli told it, arousing our righteous indignation and moral outrage, but to revisit that impassioned dark emotional landscape would somehow lessen its effectiveness, I think. However, Rising and Falling also deals with violence against women and shows us again that such violence is far more common than we might care to admit. That it does so while returning to the wittier, more colorful mood of Book 1 of the series in no way lessens its impact; it’s simply a shift of perspective: Syzygy is centered around one of the victims of the physical, sexual, psychological and verbal abuse while in Rising and Falling the viewpoint is largely that of those investigating the crimes. Yes, in Rising and Falling events are described which invoke our anger and disgust, but our reaction is less visceral. (This is a good thing: as important and moving as Syzygy was, I’m not sure I’m up for a replay, emotionally.)

Many novels featuring PIs or police detectives either totally eschew humorous content or give it very short shrift. Baeli shows that morally repugnant crime and humorous writing can not only coexist peacefully, but that their juxtaposition can actually heighten the effect of both thanks to the contrast between them. The humorous aspect of Also Known as Rising and Falling isn’t as over-the-top as, say, Joan Opyr’s Idaho Code or even Kate Allen’s truly hilarious Alison Kaine novels, though it’s closer to the latter. It might be accurate to say its style lies somewhere between Allen and Mary Vermillion’s easy-going Mara Gilgannon stories. Baeli’s wit, in contrast to humor, reminds me a little of Ellen Hart’s Jane Lawless mysteries. A couple of examples will suffice to give you the idea: Turns out Izzy has pseudonymously published a series of novels with titles like Lesbian Zombies from Hell. Reminds me a little of Sharon McCrumb’s Zombies of the Gene Pool. Also, mention is made again of policewoman Chloe Eckert’s pet chicken. A stand-out scene has Ginger join Chloe on a nighttime patrol, answering calls of an increasingly amusing and bizarre nature.

I hate reading a book that takes forever to capture my interest, and that’s certainly not the case. here. The initial chapter is, to use a chiche, a grabber. Although it involves a character falling down a flight of stairs, it’s, frankly, a riot. Even the other characters have trouble suppressing their giggles. Not every scene of a novel, even a mystery, has to be fraught with  trauma; in fact that sort of thing tends to diminish my reading pleasure, as witness Gerritsen’s The Surgeon. Baeli’s Chapter One perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

To the tale of our feminine fantastic four versus two serial rapists, the author adds a compelling subplot: Izzy’s mother, Linda, whom she’s tried to escape, wants to reconnect, viewing Izzy’s link to the affluent and generous Phoebe as her (Linda’s) key to a leisurely retirement. Izzy wants of this: she’s rejected her birth family because she “was sick of their crap.” Jobeth, Phoebe and Ginger see Izzy through this new crisis with Ginger showing Mommy Clueless the door in no uncertain terms. This affirms for Izzy that this trio, only one of whom is her blood relative, are her true family who will stand by her no matter what.

Some who are familiar with this series and with the majority of Baeli’s fiction may find it odd that I haven’t made more of the fact most of the characters are lesbians, simply pointing out in passing that Jobeth and Phoebe are a couple as are Izzy and Ginger. I think that’s because the author treats their orientation the same way. There’s lesbian fiction – Forrest’s Curious Wine comes to mind — and then there’s fiction with lesbian characters; all of Jae Baeli’s writing I’ve encountered so far has been the latter. No doubt many in the LGBT community will take issue with this but, to me, people are human beings first and gay, straight, lesbian, bi, or whatever second.

In short, Also Known as Rising and Falling is a well-written, quick, entertaining read with very engaging characters. While there are  important themes addressed, the writing never becomes pedantic; the points Baeli makes arise from the story rather than being the intrusions they are in some works of fiction. One of these themes I alluded to earlier in what I called a gestalt: although some women are certainly capable of dealing with difficult issues, as the incident with Izzy and her mother shows, those close to you can be a great help. You don’t always have to go it alone. There’s another subplot in which Phoebe establishes Ascension House, a facility to aid women in dangerous straits, mostly victims of abuse of some kind. The lesson here, I think, is that there are sources of assistance available to women who are in unsafe situations; IOW, it’s possible to get away from an abuser, though, certainly, it’s not easy.

A final note: though this novel is a gratifying, at times even delectable read, the theme of violence against women is an extremely serious one, especially given the plus ça change, plus la même chose nature of efforts to overcome the patriarchal sense of entitlement many men exhibit. I mean, we inhabit a world where a friggin’ Pulitzer Prize winner can blithely state that being a rape victim has become a status symbol on college campuses. (Get a goddamn clue, George!) So, to repeat, stories dealing with violence against women need to be told. My only regret is that Jae Baeli and others who tell those tales are in all probability preaching to the choir, given their likely readership. Many men could profit from a novel like Also Known as Syzygy or Also Known as Rising and Falling. Unfortunately, I don’t see those who really need the lessons as at all likely to read such books. More’s the pity.

A review of Blood Oranges, by Kathleen Tierney

READ May 2014

ONLINE BLURB: My name’s Quinn.

If you buy into my reputation, I’m the most notorious demon hunter in New England. But rumors of my badassery have been slightly exaggerated. Instead of having kung-fu skills and a closet full of medieval weapons, I’m an ex-junkie with a talent for being in the wrong place at the right time. Or the right place at the wrong time. Or…whatever.

Wanted for crimes against inhumanity I (mostly) didn’t commit, I was nearly a midnight snack for a werewolf until I was “saved” by a vampire calling itself the Bride of Quiet. Already cursed by a werewolf bite, the vamp took a pint out of me too.

So now…now, well, you wouldn’t think it could get worse, but you’d be dead wrong.

MY REVIEW: Holy cow! Or, maybe, unholy werepire. (Or vampwolf. The author can’t decide either.) Anywho…

Since Kathleen Tierney is actually Caitlin Kiernan — and it doesn’t get much more Irish than either — I’ll say Blood Oranges is, without reservation, “dead fockin’ brill!” I’ve seen some vicious reviews of this novel, and in my never humble opinion, to continue the hibernian theme, they’re after missin’ the p’int altogether. This is no more dark urban fantasy than Kiernan’s works are horror (to which genre they’re usually perforce  relegated); what it is, I think, is a deliciously wicked pastiche, as evinced by its intentionally over-the-top style, as well as a kinda unconventional character study. It’s also an absolute riot. Or, to borrow from the Buffy canon, “a hoot and a half.”

Warning: Those of you looking for sympathetic vampires or wolfies à la Angel or Oz, seek elsewhere. Quinn, our protag, once she vamps out, doesn’t leave “two little, little holes in his neck,” pace Buffy. In fact, she doesn’t leave any neck. She’s foul-mouthed, self-absorbed, a junkie (even though her addiction changes from skag to something more hemoglobin-laden), definitely not PC, and a few other things not so admirable. I’m not sure even “anti-hero” is the right word; the closest somewhat comparable character I can come up with is Burgess’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange, the difference being Quinn’s gruesome actions are forced on her by circumstances beyond her control, thus making them grisly but not malevolent, while Alex commits utter evil because he delights in it. Whatever. I totally loved Quinn from the get-go. Note — she does have redeeming features, too. For example, she cares about her (few) friends, and she’s implacable in pursuit of whoever set her up.

Warning the second: If you’re looking for the lushly evocative prose of Kiernan’s novels such as The Red Tree, you’re gonna be disappointed. Some have commented negatively about the style she uses under the Tierney nom-de-plume, even suggesting a lack of effort on the author’s part. Again, I think they just don’t get it. Having been dazzled by the prose of Kiernan’s other works, I think she’s capable of writing any damn way she pleases. One person said the tale reminded him (her?) of Hammett structurally, but without Hammett’s gift for language. Bullshit! It’s imperative in first-person POV that the author write in the narrator’s voice, not adopt some unauthentic style simply for the sake of style. The narrative style of Blood Oranges perfectly suits both the narrator and the events of the book. What more can you ask?

I can’t help thinking of Harlan Ellison, whose style varies vastly from story to story. You could say Blood Oranges is to The Red Tree as “A Boy and His Dog” is to “When Jeffty is Five” or “On the Downhill Side.” Kiernan/Tierney is like HE in that every word, every syntactical construct is exactly as she intends it to be.

Others have pointed out that Tierney gives short shrift to action scenes, and I get it. But both author and narrator acknowledge this fact. Here’s the thing, though: action scenes are a plot device. The discerning reader of Kiernan’s novels, and by extension, Tierney’s, understands that plot is hardly the driving element in her work. But, the works of the author, under either name, are pretty loosely plotted because plot isn’t their raison d’être. It seems to me that the most important aspects of her work are character and mood, and the intent of her writing is largely to explore how words can be used to accurately portray the former and evoke the latter.

All that said, Blood Oranges isn’t gonna be everybody’s cuppa. I loved the character, the acerbic wit, the not so gentle digs at romantic UF (no, dammit, vampires don’t the fuck sparkle), and, frankly, the writing. As the range of reviews for the novel clearly shows, though, your mileage may vary.