A review of The Three, by Meghan O’Brien

ONLINE SUMMARY: Twenty-five-year-old Anna is ready to give up on living in a post-apocalyptic world where unchecked sickness and slaughter have killed off her childhood tribe, family, and best friend. But when Anna unexpectedly interrupts an attack on a beautiful woman lounging by a lake, she is drawn into the relationship of two other survivors of the sickness: young, idealistic Elin, who welcomes Anna into their makeshift family with open arms, and Elin’s lover, the older, more jaded Kael, whose dark and brooding nature initially keeps Anna at bay.

The threesome journeys south for the winter season but is beset by accidents, relationship strain, and an attack upon Elin by a group of religious fanatics who believe that a woman’s duty in the post-apocalyptic world is to bear children and repopulate the earth. Kael and Anna’s fragile connection will be tested repeatedly. Will they find a way to work together to save the woman they both love?

Intense, exciting, and sexually provocative, The Three is one book you do not want to miss.

MY REVIEW: Having read and very much enjoyed a couple of novels by Meghan O’Brien some time ago I figured it was way past time to dip into her works again. I’m glad I did and extremely glad I chose The Three. (Actually, it was an amazon recommendation and sometimes they’re kind of hit or miss.) As it turns out, The Three was a dead center bullseye.

O’Brien’s Wild and Infinite Loop featured engaging, even fun characters who also earn your respect and admiration, intriguing stories with perfect pacing as well as flawless execution in the mechanical aspects of writing. The Three definitely lives up to those high standards. Moreover, here we have, as the title suggests, a third main character to enjoy; this is more than lagniappe, though: all three characters, Anna, Elin and Kael, are absolutely essential to the story. It takes some time for the reader to warm to Kael, just as it does Anna, who has just met the other two; this, I assume, is by design, and adds another element of conflict for the characters to overcome. Elin, however, is adorable from the git-go. Despite her innocence in some areas, Elin is every bit as strong as her two companions. And, folks, in a world where a candidate for POTUS can brag about sexual assault with complete impunity, we need all the stories about strong women we can get.

I began reading science-fiction when I was about ten, so I’ve read my share of post-apocalyptic stories. What makes The Three different is that the disease-ravaged world merely provides the setting whereas, in most other such novels, the disaster which has befallen our world is the entire raison d’être of the work. Almost all dystopian novels are cautionary tales; The Three, on the other hand, is an intensive character study in triplicate. It takes a special writer to make such story quite entertaining as well, and O’Brien is more than up to the task.

A couple of online reviewers said they wanted more details about what caused the illness which devastated the Earth. If this were the typical post-apocalyptic tale, I might agree, but here, despite the fact that the adventure-filled plot holds your interest and is often riveting, it’s the characters that matter. The plot is certainly compelling enough to keep you turning pages but extraneous scientific detail would make this an entirely different novel.  What backstory there is occurs in the dialog, avoiding the common info-dumps which plague many science-fiction stories.

As for the mechanical aspects of the work, the nuts and bolts, if you will, of a writer’s craft, we’re also on very solid footing. Yeah, it’s a Bold Strokes offering and I can’t imagine Radclyffe and Stacia Seaman putting out anything but highly polished books, but something about O’Brien’s writing makes me think her work doesn’t need a lot of tightening up. In any case, there are none of those gaffes of grammar, etc. that can seriously interrupt the narrative flow and leave you scratching your head.

Finally, of course, there’s the sex. And, yes, there’s lots of it but it never feels like too much. Each such scene is certainly erotic but, though graphic, it never feels gratuitous or “porn-y.” Every lovemaking event is there for a purpose. I’m reminded of Katherine V. Forrest’s remark that you can show things about character in a sex scene that can’t be depicted any other way. The Three perfectly illustrates that.

One of the important things about O’Brien’s writing, in my opinion, is that she understands that people are people irrespective of orientation, gender, race or any other descriptive. While a character’s response to the events of a story is inevitably colored by experiences based on any or all of the above, what O’Brien’s characters always display is basic human emotion and that makes it easy for any reader to relate to them.

In summary, then, Meghan O’Brien’s The Three is an extremely well-written, logically plotted, entertaining novel with terrific characters whom you come to root for because they’re admirable and have become very real. If the overall tone is more serious than Infinite Loop or even Wild, that merely serves to underscore O’Brien’s versatility as a writer. I highly recommend The Three, as I do the other novels mentioned.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

A review of Emily Monroe Is Not The Chosen One: Night Shift, by Erik Schubach

ONLINE SUMMARY: Emily Monroe may be a lot of things, but one thing is for sure, she is NOT the Chosen One.

Emily is a normal girl working at Big Burger who has the unfortunate luck to look exactly like Big City’s superhero darling, the Chosen One.

It has been the bane of her existence as it disrupts her life and those around her when super villains come knocking, wanting to prove their mettle by fighting the Chosen One. Nobody listens when she insists she isn’t who they think she is.

With common sense and years of rage built up inside, she usually serves their butts to them on a platter, asking “Did you want fries with that?” No cape required.

MY REVIEW: When I read the Amazon sample for Emily Monroe Is Not The Chosen One, it sounded like it would be fun. A lot of my reading is on the heavier side and the sample seemed kind of tongue-in-cheek, so I asked myself, “Why not?” As I continued reading past the end of the sample, the light-hearted style remained but plot elements gradually became more serious, displaying a complexity I didn’t expect. The inclusion of a couple of subplots enriched things as well, so this is not quite the simple comic book-style yarn I expected.

The main character’s voice is immediately engaging, creating someone you’d love to know in real life, someone you can laugh with, sympathize with, and, most important, respect and admire. I love strong female characters — see “About me ‘n’ the blog” on my home page* — and Emily certainly qualifies: She lives in a world populated by many people with superhuman powers, ranked on a 50-point scale. She weighs in at only 0.1%, the lowest measureable amount of power, but she can hold her own against numerous villains without major damage to her body. Though the reason is partly selfpreservation, Emily also has a need to protect others just as if she did have superpowers.

Emily’s also the main source of the story’s humor. Her “aw, man” tagline, is varied in spelling, adding a’s, or w’s in successive utterances indicating her growing exasperation as bad things continue to beset her. It’s a simple, but clever device. Her various interjections verge on the laugh-out-loud; my favorite: holy, sea-humping radish farts. (Punctuation, mine, about which more, later.)

The other main character, Heather, also the superheroine Photon, makes a nice counterpoint to Enily. She’s just as snarky and she accepts Emily as she is, not condescending because of the other woman’s 0.1 power ranking. Her cluelessness as to how her powers affect others is a nice touch. Neither woman is a Mary Sue, for sure.

I have nothing against a well-written, non-porny sex scene, but I appreciate how Schubach leaves it to our imaginations. Still, Emily implies the couple’s hook-ups are frequent and, possibly, toe-curling. We’re happy for her as a result.

Schubach is, at least in this instance, a fine storyteller with firm command of his 1st person narrator’s voice. The actual writing is much more problematic, however; grammatical errors, awkward syntax, and the frequent absence of some very necessary punctuation are a considerable distraction. When used with discretion, sentence fragments can be effective; here, they’re so common, it seems as if the author may not even be aware they’re not complete sentences.

And, if I run across another instance of “phase” when it should be “faze”, I may put my fist through the screen of whichever device, laptop, tablet or phone I happen to be using.**

Frankly, the novella reads like a first draft, published without even a single reread. This shows disrespect for the reader and continually interrupts the narrative flow. It renders what could have been a terrific reading experience, something only a little above average and that, only because the story itself is so good.

In short, this is a terrifically entertaining story betrayed by careless execution. Despite all the above, Emily Monroe Is Not The Chosen One: Night Shift, is still worth a read thanks to its entertaining storyline, unbridled humor and a great protagonist.

* havebookswillreview.wordpress.com

** I’ve read several other Amazon samples of Schubach’s works and the same gaffe appears in every one.  Oh, well, at least it’s not “taught” when it should be “taut”. Sigh.

A review of Simulacra, by Kate Genet

DATE READ — Sept 2015

ONLINE SUMMARY — It’s winter, and the five houses in Deep Dell are shrouded in snow. Outside, it’s a black and white night, black sky, white snow, but inside, life continues, as life always does, better for some than others.

Five houses, eight different lives, separate in their preoccupations until the sky over Deep Dell turns orange.

The valley is bright with light, a sudden jack-o-lantern on a snowy night. Afraid, everyone asks the same question – just what is happening? They don’t know it, but their lives are about to change forever. What they always believed – if they ever considered it – about their place in the universe was wrong. They’re no longer alone on this cold, snowy night.

Trapped in the valley, they must pull together, protect each other against an enemy they never expected, and can’t explain.

Because what do you do, when the enemy turns out to be just like you?

MY REVIEW — Damnit! Kate Genet’s done it again. I’ve always said I don’t care for romance novels; then, not quite a year ago, I read Kate’s Don’t Go There and thought it was great. I’ve also maintained forever—maybe even longer — that I absolutely don’t do horror. (This could be because my first taste of the genre was King’s It, and maybe that was just too heavy a dose for a beginner.) Anyway, after reading Simulacra, the “I don’t do horror” assertion no longer holds water, either. I could say that it’s more a suspense novel than pure horror, but that would be a cop out. Hell, if Kate Genet wrote a friggin’ western, I’d probably love it, too.

Simulacra is considerably longer than anything else I’ve read by Kate except for the aforementioned romance novel, but Don’t Go There has a smaller number of characters than Simulacra. However, she handles the larger form and the challenges presented by a bigger dramatis personae with all the skill I’ve learned to expect from her shorter works such as the Michaela and Trisha series and the Reality Dawn novellae.

As always, Kate’s narrative style is fluid but never ornate. Elsewhere, I’ve called her style “spare.” That doesn’t mean depictions aren’t vivid – “There was something decidedly sick-looking about the cloud, as though any moment it would burst open, and some oozing infection would drain out on top of them.” — just that the words aren’t superfluous. Even in an expanded form, there’s no fluff – no Doc either, for you Pat Califia  fans out there — no filler or padding. The matter-of-fact, economical style serves the author well, making the uncanny events of the story stand out in contrast.

As I said, I haven’t read much in the way of horror, so I don’t know which writers to compare this to. Switching media, though, I’d say the overall creepiness and the escalating suspense is almost Hitchcockian, if Hitch had ever used elements of sf as a jumping-off place for his imagination. I especially like the way Genet builds suspense: Initially, there are five pairs or individual characters in five separate locales. Tension escalates in the first pairing, then when we move to the next character or couple that section begins at the initial level and rises again. This continues through the course of the novel in a sort of ebb and flow, but each time the cycle begins anew, the starting point tension-wise is higher than before. Also, the characters, spread out in the beginning, are gradually “herded” to a single locale, another means if increasing tension and suspense.

The characters are all well-drawn and the dialogue is realistic, even in this unrealistic situation. The same is true of their behavior, despite the outre occurrences.

Simulacra is a very well written, enjoyable and entertaining novel. So, does it convert me into a diehard horror fan? Not so much. Unless, of course, it’s written by Kate Genet.

 

 

 

A review of Bingo Barge Murder (A Shay O’Hanlon Caper, #1) by Jessie Chandler

READ JUNE 2015

ONLINE SUMMARY — As co-owner of The Rabbit Hole, a quirky-cool Minneapolis coffee shop, Shay O’Hanlon finds life highly caffeinated but far from dangerous. That is, until her lifelong friend Coop becomes a murder suspect. The victim was Kinky, Coop’s former boss and the unsavory owner of The Bingo Barge, a sleazy gambling boat on the Mississippi. The weapon? Kinky’s lucky bronzed bingo marker.

While unearthing clues to absolve Coop, Shay encounters Mafia goons hunting for some extremely valuable nuts. Looking for the murderer without help from the cops proves risky—especially with distracting sparks flying between Shay and the beautiful yet fierce Detective Bordeaux. When Shay’s elderly friend and landlady is held for ransom by the mob, all bets are off. Can Shay find the killer before the stakes get any higher?

MY REVIEW — Some time ago at my local library, I came across Jessie Chandler’s Pickle in the Middle Murder, book three of her Shay O’Hanlon series. The unusual title grabbed me, as did the blurb, the cover was kinda cool, and, last but not least, since I’m an ardent hibernophile and main character’s name — Well, you get the idea. Though I hadn’t read the first books in the series, Pickle… worked pretty well as a stand-alone, and I enjoyed it. However, it did leave me wondering how Shay, the protagonist, and JT, her girlfriend, got together.

So, I finally got around to the initial entry in the series, Bingo Barge Murder, and enjoyed it every bit as much — well even more, maybe, than the other book. Not only was the mystery interesting, but the book was also a helluva lotta fun, on the level of Elizabeth Sims’ first two Lillian Byrd novels or maybe Jessica Thomas’ Alex Peres series. A few reviewers on amazon called it slapstick or farcical, but I think that overstates the case; while it is indeed lighter in tone than many murder mysteries, I didn’t find the humor to be that exaggerated. It was, pace Goldilocks, “just right.”

In Pickle in the Middle Murder , Shay wasn’t really even my favorite character, but, here, she definitely is. Though completely out of her element, her loyalty to her friends makes her relentless in solving the mystery. Now that I have a much better feel for Shay, I’m confident that a reread of Pickle… would change my feelings about her in that book, too. Having a little more backstory on her friends Eddy and Coop helped me warm to them, as well; they’re quirky – maybe not Joan Opyr Idaho Code quirky — but quite likeable. And, even though she doesn’t have a huge amount of time “on stage,” I love JT. The diverse nature of the characters in Bingo Barge Murder is one of the major strengths of Chandler’s tale.

The plot of the novel is convoluted, though not in an off-putting way, and the author does a good job handling that complexity. That our intrepid amateur sleuth, coffee shop owner cum Tenacious Protector, has two sets of baddies to deal with ramps up the suspense, giving us basically two climaxes. While both pairs of perps are a few peas short of a casserole – Eddy calls one duo “Ding and Ling” — they’re still clearly dangerous and the sense of menace evoked is absolutely real.

The actual writing is rock solid. None of those distracting gaffes of grammar, syntax, etc. to pull your interest away from the story to the actual words on the page. The narrative style is smooth and natural, colorful with just the right amount of humor sprinkled throughout. In first person POV, the narrative style is literally the narrator’s voice, and here, it simply feels right. The story’s pacing is also a plus, with action scenes effectively alternating with calmer passages that are more dialog-filled.

Finally, there’s the budding romance between Shay and JT. What really impressed me about this was that even though there’s no sex, absolutely none, no, not any at all,  just a brief kiss and, at the very end, a bit longer make-out session, the continuation of which is merely alluded to — Chandler still manages to make every interaction between the two women quite sexy. Very nicely done.

In short, Jessie Chandler’s Bingo Barge Murder is a well-written, interesting and enjoyable mystery with realistic characters who feel more like they could be your neighbors, not just characters in a book. It features a well-balanced blend of drama and humor. I’m particularly glad I read it because of how it changed my feelings about Shay. Unreservedly recommended. I don’t imagine I’ll wait nearly as long to read book two, Hide and .Snake Murder.

A review of Killer Storm, by Jen Wright

Read: May, 2015

ONLINE SUMMARY: “Killer Storm” features the adventures of Jo Spence, a forty-year-old, coffee-addicted, dog-loving lesbian whose desk job suddenly places her in the middle of a murder investigation and the escalating violence of a new gang in Duluth.

Set near the shores of Lake Superior close to the wilderness of the north woods, this story combines a description of the idyllic life led by the women of the Valley with an action-oriented plot involving raids and drug busts, a hostage situation, and the invasion of Jo’s home.

During this turbulent time in Jo’s life, her friends set her up with Zoey, a new faculty member at the local university. Their first date turns into a three-day stay at Zoey’s house during a record-setting snowstorm. Jo tries to resist the strong attraction she feels for Zoey, but she is drawn into the most intense affair of her life.

MY RIVIEW:

Jen Wright’s Killer Storm was one of those books where my impressions changed markedly in the course of reading. Several people on amazon commented about the lack of emotion in the narrative, a couple even using the term “grocery list.” You know, A happens, then B happens, then I said that, then she did this. At first, I shared their opinion, but instead of a grocery list, my mind dredged up Buffy’s description of Giles’ stuffiness: “Blah, blah, biddy, blah.” I’ll return to this in a bit.

There are a lot of positives, here: the characters are realistic and, for the most part, quite engaging and even the supporting cast is very well-drawn; the plot is well thought-out and holds your interest; there’s plenty of suspense to keep you reading and the budding romance between Jo and Zoey nicely balances the mystery; although the writing is rather flat at times, it’s grammatically solid. Telling the tale from the perspective of parole officers is a unique twist in the mystery/suspense genre and the author’s experience adds a great deal to the realism of the work. On the purely subjective side, as it’s nearing summer here  in the MidSouth, Wright’s vivid depiction of winter at Lake Superior’s North Shore makes me wanna be there. Now!

The not so positive: Despite the lack of grammatical errors, in places the writing, including dialog, feels somewhat stiff. Also, there are some brief scenes that contribute to neither the mystery plot nor the romance. And, on another subjective point, I rarely like dream scenes and there are several here; I feel they could have been left out or else the concept of their interpretation further developed.

To get back to the writing style, as I said, early on I had somewhat the same complaint as the other reviewers: it was basically emotionless. Somewhere around the middle of the book, though, the actual writing ceased to bother me. At times, a matter-of-fact – “dry” seems too strong a word given the book’s rich descriptive passages – is an asset, bringing into relief the drama or suspense of a work. In Killer Storm, it seems to highlight the main character’s detached persona, her tendency to sweep emotional issues under the carpet; in that sense, it’s not as objectionable as others have suggested or as I had first thought.

Whatever the reason, as I warmed to Jo’s character, I warmed to the narrative style as well. This occurs pretty much around the time Jo is introduced to Zoey. Some might suggest that I simply became more absorbed in the story and didn’t notice the issues with the writing. Sorry, folks, but I’m just not wired that way; if there are problems with the narrative style, I notice them, just as I do grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. As Jo becomes more open with her feelings, the writing feels less constrained, too. Whether this is Wright’s intent, in which case it’s very nicely done, or simply my own perception, it’s definitely a plus.

So, in short, Killer Storm is a fast-paced, intriguing and suspenseful mystery told from a unique perspective. It’s peopled with engaging, realistic characters whom I wouldn’t mind revisiting. Recommended.

A review of Lesbians on the Loose: Crime Writers on the Lam, ed. Lori L. Lake & Jessie Chandler

READ MAY, 2015

ONLINE SUMMARY: These tales of murder, mayhem, and suspense by some of today’s finest crime writers will keep you up way past your bedtime!

The lesbians on the loose in this collection are an entertaining mix of protagonists: cops, amateur sleuths, a PI, a judge, a bounty hunter, and one very insightful dog. There’s even an intrepid high schooler and a mystery writer.

Despite greed and grief, rage and revenge, secrets and lies, many of the stories feature humor from a variety of characters trying to find their way in a difficult world—cops who’ve seen too much, revenge seekers, and women who want justice for themselves and others.

You won’t regret going on the lam with these terrific writers!

Stories by: Elizabeth Sims, Carsen Taite, SY Thompson, Andi Marquette, Linda M. Vogt, VK Powell, Kate McLachlan, Lori L. Lake, Lynn Ames, Sandra de Helen, Jen Wright, Sue Hardesty, Jessie Chandler, J.M. Redmann, and Katherine V. Forrest

MY REVIEW:  Not surprisingly, given some of the authors included and, as editor, Lori L. Lake’s imprimatur, so to speak, there’s some really good stuff here. Originally, I was going to comment on each story, but that got a little unwieldy — okay, a lot unwieldy — so I’ll limit it to the ones I most enjoyed.

Elizabeth Sims’ story has the wise-cracking humor you’d expect if you’ve read any of her excellent Lillian Byrd novels. Not everything is fun and games of course. In an introspective moment, our narrator admits, “I’d pretended not to want to be liked so expertly for so long that most people took me literally and simply didn’t like me.” The ending is a tad cynical, too, but “Untold Riches” is still an enjoyable read.

“Colt .45” is different from Carsen Taite’s novels featuring attorneys, usually criminal defense attorneys. This brief glimpse of Luca Bennett definitely makes me want to check out the novels in which she’s the main character. Crisp hard-boiled writing and an intriguing protag. Only complaint: not much drama or suspense; a more memorable confrontation between Luca and the bail-jumper would’ve been nice.

I’m a great admirer of Andi Marquette’s work, and you can add “The Falcone Maltese” to the list, now, too. Fun, cute story. While the story lines of Marquette’s works are always entertaining and compelling, her characters are the best part of her stories and this little short is no exception, showing – no surprise here, folks – that she can write credible, engaging YA characters every bit as well as she does adults. Wouldn’t mind encountering these two again somewhere down the road, with Jo joining Nattie in her future sleuthing as their relationship develops.

Another very fine story – I’m beginning to realize the debt we owe our editors for bringing us this collection — Linda M Vogt’s “Roar,” is based on an actual event. The skillful writing moves things along efficiently and captures not only the women’s terror, but also the resolve of the narrator to get them out of their dire circumstances alive. It’s also a cautionary tale well worth reading. I’m sure I’ll sample more from Vogt at some point.

VK Powell’s very brief “Just Desserts” hit home; it’s hard to think of anything I find more abhorrent than child abuse. What’s clever about the story, of course, is the open ending. Most mysteries are resolved by story’s end, but not this one. Was Langley’s death accidental, or was the chocolatier français aware of the man’s deathly allergy to nuts, perhaps having overheard Cutter’s conversation with the bailiff? Will Syl reveal her suspicions to the detectives investigating Langley’s death? Will the ME find the death accidental? A lot of substance in such a small package. Nicely done.

Lynn Ames “It’s a Dog’s Life” is based on the sort of literary conceit that would be a major fail in the hands of many writers but Ames executes it quite nicely. Even if the putative “crime” being committed — Is someone stealing Mama’s stuff? — is a little off-the-wall, as are the perps, it’s a sweet story and, in a world that seems worse everydamntime you turn on the news, a little sweet can’t hurt.

Jen Wright’s “Lost” is a bit more complex than most of the stories here. While on the surface it’s a well-crafted adventure tale with plenty of suspense, the narrator also has moments of quiet reflection about the nature of friendship, as well as a articular friendship. Wright does a good job blending these two story elements. As a great admirer of the outdoors and a sometime paddler, the setting added considerably to my enjoyment, too.

To say I love JM Redmann’s Micky Knight series is in no way exaggeration. In fact, the almost visceral emotional impact of Death by the Riverside is what attracted me to fiction with lesbian characters – god, I hate the term lesfic! – in the first place. “The Curious Case of the Disappearing Dildoes,” and another short story featuring the same character, prove Redmann is equally at home with more light-hearted fare. To quote Faith from Buffy, The Vampire Slayer – was it really seventeen years ago? – this one’s “a hoot and a half.” Despite the tone, though, it’s still a well thought-out and cleverly solved mystery; the surrounding zaniness is simply lagniappe.

As different as the parable of the purloined plastic pleasurers is from Redmann’s novels, Katherine V. Forrest’s “Jessie” is classic Kate Delafield. And that means it’s very good indeed. Forrest’s ground-breaking Delafield novels still rank at the very top rung of police procedurals with lesbian protagonists (and of crime novels in general, but that’s a subject for another time) and I don’t think it’s at all a disparagement to Claire McNab, Gerri Hill, Baxter Clare or Radclyffe to suggest that KVF’s series is, arguably, still the best. This new addition, “Jessie,” is every bit as good as the novels. As a pioneer in this genre, Forrest deserves to be included in any collection such as this.

Again, these were my personal favorites in the anthology and exclusion doesn’t mean the other stories are bad. If I left out one of your favorites, mea culpa, and should we ever meet up, the Starbucks is on me.

Kudos to Lake and Chandler for bringing us such a fine batch of stories. Definitely worth your time.

A review of The Scorpion, by Gerri Hill

ONLINE SUMMARY: Poking a sleeping bear with a sharp stick is foolish. Marty Edwards is about to be very foolish.

Investigative reporter Marty Edwards has found her niche: cold cases. She loves pouring over old notes, hunting down long-forgotten witnesses, and digging down through the layers of an unsolved murder case. But this time, Marty is digging where someone obviously doesn’t want her. And that someone might also include the Brownsville Police Department. Why else would they assign Detective Kristen Bailey to baby-sit her?

Barely surviving two attempts on her life, Marty abandons Brownsville and the case. Danger follows her as the case turns red hot. With Detective Bailey along for protection, they race along the Gulf Coast, neither knowing who, if anyone, they can trust. The hardest part is learning to trust each other before it’s too late for their hearts–and their lives.

MY REVIEW:

There are so many good things about Gerri Hill’s novels, including The Scorpion, it’s hard to know where to begin. The writing, from a purely mechanical standpoint, is absolutely sound, and the narrative flows smoothly, the narrative style well-suited to the tale itself. The pacing is just right, the more violent scenes alternating with quieter, sometimes introspective passages in which we learn more about the two main characters and in which they learn more about each other. Despite those relatively calmer passages, there is more than enough suspense to make this a definite page-turner. The plot is interesting, well-executed and logically consistent.

For me, though, the best thing about The Scorpion and the other of Hill’s novels I’ve read is the two main characters. As usual, the two principals are strong women, but not without certain vulnerabilities. (No Mary Sue characters for Hill.) While those traits could apply to any number of the author’s characters, Kristen Bailey is no Tori Hunter, no CJ Johnston, no Andrea Sullivan, nor is Marty Edwards a retread of any of Hill’s other characters. What they are is likeable, well-drawn, realistic (within the context of the story), unselfish, resolute women. Still, they have issues – Kristen’s unwillingness to talk about her father and brother and to address her mother’s death, and Marty’s sexual dysfunction – which help round out their characters and make them easier to relate to. Also, as in Hill’s other works, the characters don’t remain static; they – especially Marty, of course – aren’t the same at the conclusion as when the tale began.

One reviewer claimed she’d like the story better if the two women just remained friends. Sure, that would work, but it would be a vastly different book. And, it wouldn’t be Gerri Hill, not that she couldn’t write such a story, she simply chooses not to, and the genre is the better for it, IMNSHO. I admit I’m not into romance novels per se but I don’t object when romance is an added element in mystery, urban fantasy, or science fiction as long as the relationship doesn’t seem forced. Here, it’s a natural outgrowth of the women’s interaction and the circumstances into which they’ve been thrown. The unhurried pace at which things develop is what makes it work, I think; no “instant lesbianism.”

The sex – yes, boys and girls, there’s sex, though not a lot – is explicit without being graphic; if that seems like a contradiction, I mean that you can say “clit” without it being all porn-y. The sex scenes are erotic, but hardly gratuitous. Instead, they’re revelatory; as Katherine V. Forrest wrote many years ago, sex scenes can reveal – pun intended — things about a character that can’t be shown any other way. Like the emotional relationship between Kristen and Marty, the physical one develops gradually and the latter couldn’t have happened had the former not preceded it.

Another reviewer complained about the vigilante aspect of the plot, calling Kristen “Rambo.” While I think a Charles Bronson type character is closer to the mark, I understand the point, but I think Hill sets things up so that it’s the only solution that works. To the complaint “who knew that police officers were trained in espionage and counter-terrorism,” aside from the use of a couple electronic surveillance devices, with which the duo admit they’re not experts, there’s little else of a James Bond nature here: Kristen is, after all, an experienced detective with known undercover experience. As to the counter-terrorism cavil, the novel was written in 2009, well after the 911 attacks and at least some training in that area would be expected in a major metropolitan police force. (Remember, Bailey hasn’t always been a cop in Brownsville; she started her career in Houston.)

If I have one small quibble, it’s with the denouement. It’s the only part of the book where Hill (briefly) tells rather than shows. Though the “riding off into the sunset” ending works, it seems just sort of tagged on, as if Hill weren’t quite sure exactlyhow to bring things to a close. That said, The Scorpion is a fast-paced, very well-written, exciting entry in the suspense/romance genre. Admirers of CL Hart’s From a Distance or Baldwin and Alexiou’s Elite Operatives series should love it. It’s deserving of its Goldie Award and of your time as a reader.

 

 

 

 

A review of Beauty of Fear, by L. E. Perez

Read July 2014

ONLINE SUMMARY: The First One died to pique her interest,
The Second to touch her soul.
The Third One died to steal her peace,
The Fourth makes Fear, his goal.

Violence leaves a stain on your soul, and the fear that accompanies that violence can never be removed. It can be hidden, shadowed, and put away, but throw in just the right set of circumstances and it will blossom once again.
Leigh Ramirez has been through a lot in her short life: an abusive husband, raising two kids on her own, and two near death experiences on the job. All she wants now is to get back to a sense of normalcy, in her life and at work. She wants to move on from all that’s happened to her. It was her decision to leave police work and put that life behind her, but when a young girl is found dead in a local park with something of Leigh’s in her hand, Leigh is lured back into the world she left behind.
Someone wants Leigh to experience the beauty of fear. They want her to live it, feel it, and breathe it.
As young women continue to turn up dead, their resemblance to Leigh is lost on no one, least of all her. Each victim found takes a piece of her soul, steals more of her peace. It doesn’t take long for Leigh to realize that this can have only one end. Even while her friends try to protect her, Leigh refuses to go into hiding and is ultimately forced to face her greatest fear, as it threatens both her children’s lives and her own.

MY REVIEW:

Note: this review refers to the 99-cent Kindle edition of this book.

I found L. E. Perez’s Beauty of Fear while browsing sappicabooks.net. (If you enjoy fiction with lesbian characters and want to support some talented indie writers, I encourage you to check out the site.) Beauty of Fear is a really good story with some terrific characters. A thriller, well, more of a chiller, actually, with a nascent romance providing a nice counterpoint to the more grisly aspects. The writing, from a narrative standpoint, is quite well done; unfortunately, there are plenty of copy-editing issues, about which more, later, that prevent the book from being all it could be.

Leigh Ramirez and Jordan Samuels, the two principal characters, are likable and we come quickly to care about them. Strength and loyalty define their friendship. Perez does a great job of showing Leigh’s increasing alarm as the events unfold and escalate. Leigh’s emotions alternate between nearly succumbing completely to abject fear and then finding an implacable will to survive and to protect her two daughters. This seems perfectly natural given the circumstances. Jordan’s unwavering support of her friend is a highlight of her character. Leigh’s and Jordan’s realization that their relationship may be verging on something more than just friendship provides a nice counterpoint to the more climactic elements of the story. The idea of two male characters who are “crushing” on Leigh doesn’t ring quite as true to me, for some reason, but despite that, it adds another level of complexity.

Perez does an especially good job creating suspense: The serial killer is a genuine “wack job,” every bit as menacing as Gerritsen’s Hoyt or Cornwell’s Temple Gault. She also deftly shows us Leigh’s rising terror, but counterbalances it with a the firm resolve to prevail no matter what. The alternation of tense, dramatic events with the characters’ personal interactions keeps the sense of foreboding and terror from overwhelming us while at the same time heightening that suspense by creating anticipation.

The narrative style is 3rd person limited with the POV shifting between various characters, though largely centered on Leigh. Scenes from the perspective of characters other than the two principles are fairly brief, but the author still manages to give the supporting characters sufficient depth. My favorite minor character by far is Leigh’s mid-teen daughter, Victoria. Though obviously out of her depth in the violent, traumatic events taking place, she displays a strength and resiliency equal to her mother’s.

From a strictly narrative standpoint, the writing is very proficient, fluid, well-paced and emotionally moving. No question, Perez knows how to write and how to involve the reader in her tale. From a purely mechanical point of view, though, things don’t quite measure up. While I understand that what I read was a 99-cent offering, capable copy-editing would have significantly improved the reading experience. There are lots of missing commas, and places where existing commas could be omitted. There are also more than a few cases where words are obviously left out of sentences. I wouldn’t consider these to be egregious mistakes, more an annoyance, really, but things like disagreement in number between pronoun and antecedent, or incorrect use of pronouns (“between she and I” instead of “between her and me”) do seem to fall in the former category. The problem, of course, is that any kind of mechanical error, however minor, lifts the reader out of the story; the focus, even if only briefly, is on the surface, the actual words on the page, rather than on the tale being told. This is a disservice not only to the reader but also to the writer: a story this good, and otherwise this well-written deserves better.

Nonetheless, I greatly enjoyed Beauty of Fear, an entertaining and often compelling read. By virtue of the characters and the almost visceral dramatic impact, I definitely recommend it. I hope the author will bring Leigh and Jordan back in another novel. In any case, I’ll almost certainly turn to more of Perez’s work at some point and, given that whole “so many books, so little time” conundrum, I think that says a great deal.

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 after having had a more peripheral role in Syzygy; logically, the three main characters of the latter novel appear only briefly in Rising and Falling.

No matter how good the story, 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 novels feature a strong, varied female cast. 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 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 tells it, arousing our righteous indignation and moral outrage, but to revisit that impassioned dark emotional landscape would somehow lessen its effectiveness. However, Rising and Falling also deals with violence against women and  suggests anew 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. 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. Save that for Book 6)

Many novels featuring PIs or police detectives either totally eschew humorous content or give it very short shrift: Scarpatta, Rizzoli & Isles (not the novels, not TV). Baeli shows that not only can morally repugnant crime and humorous writing 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,  Kate Allen’s often hilarious Alison Kaine novels, though it’s close at times, sans the dominatrix. It might be accurate to say its style lies somewhere between Allen and Mary Vermillion’s easy-going Mara Gilgannon stories. When Baeli’s wit rather than humor is on display, it calls to mind Ellen Hart. This in no way means Baeli’s novels are derivative, but is meant to give a hint what her writing like for those not familiar with her work. Put simply, it’s writing of quality and a distinctive voice.

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. Not so, AKA Rising & Falling.

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 none 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, is 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. That’s because, to me, 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. Unquestionably, some in the LGBT community will take issue with this but, to me, people are human beings first and foremost  gay, straight, lesbian, bi, or whatever second.

In short, Also Known as Rising and Falling is a well-written, quick, entertaining read with engaging characters. While there are  important themes addressed, the writing never becomes pedantic; the points Baeli makes arise from the story itself. One of these themes I alluded to earlier in what I called a gestalt: although women are certainly capable of dealing with difficult issues, 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, victims of abuse of some kind. The lesson here is that there are sources of assistance available to women who are in unsafe situations.

A final note from my soapbox: though this novel is an entertaining, at times even delectable read, the theme of violence against women is too serious to simply gloss over, especially given the plus ça change, plus la même chose nature of efforts to overcome the patriarchal sense of entitlement many men exhibit. 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 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 Reality Dawn, by Kate Genet

READ FEBRUARY 2014

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: Reality Dawn is a dimension travelling Reality Worker. She’s on our Earth to make sure no unauthorised doors between dimensions are opened, Unbeknownst to most people, this happens quite often – passages from one Earth to another, parallel Earth open without warning, and the consequences can be alarming. Fearless, adventurous Reality Dawn loves her job, and loves having company on her travels, which is why, when Rae meets her after her sister-in law mysteriously disappears, Rae is invited along for the daring rescue from a parallel Earth unlike anything she’s ever seen.

In this first episode, Rae’s sister in law vanishes into thin air right outside her house. No one can figure out how that is even possible, never mind what has happened to her. Until, that is, the equally mysterious Reality Dawn turns up late that same night. Rae is alternately baffled and intrigued by this strange woman who is addicted to tea and biscuits but claims she can get Rae’s sister-in law Morgan back from wherever she disappeared to. When Reality invites Rae along, Rae can’t help but go – this might be the big adventure she was always hoping for. If not, at least it’s better than sitting around twiddling her thumbs. And anyway, if this Reality woman is half as nutty as she seems to be, it’s going to be one interesting trip. She only hopes Reality is serious about rescuing Morgan.

MY REVIEW: To put it simply, I loved Kate Genet’s Reality Dawn. Some time ago — must’ve been almost a year, ‘cause St. Paddy’s Day was coming up — the author mentioned a series featuring a lesbian Doctor Who-type character. Lapsing into my occasional faux-Irish mode, I said the idea sounded “dead fockin’ brill.” Well, folks, the realization of that idea is even better. I’ll warn you in advance: some gushing may ensue.

But, ya know, it’s not enough to say you love a book (film, song, painting, single malt Irish whisky); then, a review becomes just fan a letter, and too damned many of those, along with a plot summary, get posted as “reviews,” already. As inquiring minds do, you want to know why I loved it. So…

Reality Dawn has all the qualities I’ve come to expect and admire from Kate Genet: intriguing premise, logical plotting (within context, it is SF, after all), interesting twists, very likable characters, a decent sized serving of humor, very proficient writing, technically, and a fluent narrative style.

The premise: A Doctor Who-like protagonist who, it’s implied, at least, is a lesbian, and her reluctant companion, who happens to share that orientation, embark on a quest. Make no mistake, though: this is in no way Doctor Who fanfic, or, I suppose, femslash. It simply takes the general concept of a character like the Doctor and asks, as all science-fiction should, “What if?” or pace Rod Serling, “Posit this.” What results is more of an homage (fem-age?) to The Doctor, but, on Genet’s own terms. There are even very brief nods to Tolkien and Madeline L’Engle, in addition to a more obvious one to the Brothers Grimm.

Plotting: Given the above premise, the plot follows logically and events never violate Genet’s created world. While this should be a requisite of any type of writing, it’s absolutely de rigueur in any sort of speculative fiction. In fact, it’s probably the biggest downfall of unsuccessful stories in that genre. Yeah, I know that seems paradoxical, since, in science/speculative fiction, some elements are already at variance with the world as we know it; here’s the thing, though:  once the rules of the author’s fictional universe are established, any deviation can topple the entire house of cards. In other words, having already suspended a healthy chunk of our disbelief, the story mustn’t go beyond that, or we say, “Whoa! Enough, already!” Or maybe just “WTF? “ Happily, even the most unlikely events in Reality Dawn don‘t exceed the boundaries the author has set.

Interesting plot twists: Let’s start with the opening scene. A woman is walking across her front lawn, observed from an upstairs window by her life partner. Suddenly, she just disappears. No, she doesn’t fall into a hole, though hookah-smoking caterpillars and Off-With-Her-Head queens wouldn’t be out of place here. She simply vanishes. Into the proverbial thin air. Twisty enough for you? Good. Then I won’t give anything else away, which would spoil an awful lot of fun for you.

The characters: For me, the most enjoyable thing about Kate Genet’s stories is her characters. Sure, the stories are always really entertaining and the writing itself is excellent, but characterization may be her forte, or, at least, first among equals. Anyway, Reality Dawn is very recognizable as a Doctor Who type, especially the 4th Doctor (Tom Baker — long scarf, long coat, certain mannerisms,  fondness for sweets. Reality also exhibits some of the brashness of the 9th Doctor (Christopher Eccleston — “Stupid, on the whole, but curious at least”, though he, like Reality, would soften the cheeky words with an “impish smile.”) My favorite line, “I don’t have to tell you what I think I’m doing, because I can tell you what I know I’m doing,“ (italics, mine) could have been spoken by almost any of the Doctor’s incarnations, but somehow it’s uniquely Reality‘s, as well. Genet doesn’t try to disguise the similarities, either, as some writers might; in fact, she flaunts them  (“Doctor Who’s Tardis had nothing on this”), and this is exactly the right tack, as well as the source of much of the story’s considerable humor. Despite Reality’s debt to the Doctor, though, she’s every inch her own distinct character, too.

The other main character is Rae, whom Reality cajoles into joining her by saying it will be a fun adventure, and you get the idea that there hasn’t been much fun in Rae’s life, not to mention adventure. It’s a little like Han telling Leia, “You like me because I’m a scoundrel. There aren’t enough scoundrels in your life.” Ostensibly, Rae’s rationale for going is the desire to “retrieve” Morgan, Rae’s sister Bronwyn’s wife (see online summary). Apparently, though, she’s not very close to either Morgan or Bronwyn which makes her willingness to help rescue Morgan all the more admirable. But, whether she admits it or not, the need for excitement is definitely a factor, too; she knows this may be her only chance to escape, even briefly, her humdrum life with its series of dead-end jobs.  Rae is unsure of herself, of her abilities and of who she’s meant to be, so, in a sense, this is also a coming-of-age story. A character discovering her inner strengths is a common theme in Genet’s works, and watching those characters unfold, blossom, even, is one of the true pleasures of reading her stories.

The interaction between the Reality and Rae is, on one level, typical Doctor/companion, stuff. But, and it’s a big one, the potential for romance here is much stronger, the kiss between Rose and the 9th Doctor notwithstanding. Yes, the Doctor does feel affection for some of his companions, but, in Reality Dawn, Rae is genuinely attracted to Reality, and, while Reality doesn’t overtly express her feelings, there’s a helluva lot of hand-holding which you sense could easily turn into something more. The (possibly) developing relationship between the characters helps move the story along every bit as much as the mission to save Morgan. It’s also an inducement to read the next entry in the series, assuming you need a reason aside from the sheer fun you had reading this one.

Humor: I don’t remember more than a couple of truly laugh-out-loud moments, but, that’s okay: that type humor quickly evanesces. Instead, almost every page has at least two or three things that elicit a knowing smile, especially if we’re hip to the Whovian canon, and they leave us with a longer-lasting, warmer feeling of familiarity.

Proficient writing, technically: The lapses so common these days, in grammar, punctuation, and word usage, all of which remove the reader from the story in which s/he’s become absorbed, simply aren’t an issue. Of only a couple of other writers, I’ve written that I’m not sure they’re even capable of writing badly; I now officially add Kate Genet to that small list.

Narrative style: Another reviewer has referred to Genet’s narrative style as “eloquent,” and I’ve used the word “spare.” Essentially, we’re saying the same thing. Eloquent, in addition to meaning fluent and forceful (in the sense of moving or effective) also means appropriate, and what I mean by “spare” is that latter connotation, using the right words at the right time, uncluttered by unnecessary verbiage. In other words, perfectly pristine prose. (Hey, Ursula Le Guin says you should  use alliteration, and who am I to argue with a master, a Grand Master, in fact?) Genet has a knack for choosing just  the right words and avoiding the extraneous ones, while still filling the narrative with plenty of descriptive detail.

A couple of examples might help give you the flavor of the thing: “Black, blighted building;” “deep, dark dusk (Remember what Le Guin said about alliteration? I thought you did.) Phrases like “The words tripped over themselves falling from Rae’s dry mouth” could, for some authors, become mere mannerism, but Genet recognizes that, as effective as personification can be, it can also be overdone, so she uses it fairly judiciously. Similarly, a word such as “perambulation” would, for some, be pretentious, but, here, it’s absolutely right. There are plenty of similar words the author could‘ve used — meander, amble, mosey, but there’s something about “perambulation” that takes Rae’s casual saunter and makes it purposeful. (Note: Lest you think I’ve given you too many snippets, spoiling the reading pleasure in some way, fear not: the story’s chock-full of them, and, anyway, you‘ll be so absorbed in the story, you won‘t even remember I mentioned them.)

In Writing Fiction, one of my favorite books about writing, Janet Burroway tells us “Significant detail, active voice and prose rhythm are techniques for…taking the reader past the words and the thought to feeling and experience.” Genet, whether intentionally or instinctively, makes use of those techniques, and so we become immersed in her stories instead of just being outside observers.

Deep breath, now. Drum roll, maybe: While I’m not completely sure what it is — partly, that ability to know just which words to use and how to put them together to evoke a particular emotion or mood — there’s something about Genet’s writing, that reminds me of Harlan Ellison. It’s a statement I don’t make lightly, folks, ‘cause, for me, anyway, there just ain’t any higher praise.

To conclude (whew!), I’ve used a few academic concepts to explain why this is such a damned good book, and, hopefully, to make you want to read it. I have only one thing more to add: Reality Dawn is a deliciously fun, thoroughly entertaining romp, and a joy to read. Try it. I think you’ll agree.