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 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 Breaking Point, by Jenny Roberts

READ DECEMBER 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: In the eagerly awaited follow-up to “Needlepoint,” When Cameron McGill stumbles across a vicious knife attack, the victim begs her to pass on an email address, then slips into a coma. Cam starts to investigate, and meets animal rights militants, local thugs, a mysterious dyke called Beano, the troubled Angel who only wants to get her into bed… and the very unhelpful chief executive of an animal research establishment. Determined to get to the truth, Cam finds to her horror that she has now become the prey.

MY REVIEW: Good, they say, is the enemy of great. I have to confess I’m not necessarily an advocate for that adage. More often than not, a good book is just a good book, and talking about how it could  have been great seems a little pretentious. Anyway, what’s wrong with “good,” if it means passing a few pleasant hours with an intriguing story and/or characters you like? Who are the powers that be that decide that a book is “great,” anyway? Genre fiction, as a rule, is read for pleasure, not because it’s the “Great American (or British or French or whatever) Novel.”

So, Jenny Roberts’ Breaking Point is good. I’m not sure I’d ever heard of Roberts before the book, as well as her Needle Point showed up as Amazon recs. I have to admit, they both sounded interesting, and, at the time, the price made them attractive. Don’t have a clue why I picked Breaking Point, the sequel, instead of the opening novel of the series, but, it worked just fine as a stand-alone.

The suspenseful opening grabbed me immediately, but it took me a while to warm to Cameron, the protagonist. However, her dogged pursuit of what’s right, her feminist stance, her strengths and vulnerabilities — especially her strained relationship with her mother — eventually won me over. And, ooh, a woman on a bike! My “fave” character ever? Well, no, but I certainly liked her well enough that I wouldn’t mind reading the other novels about her. (The “faves“, if you care: Micky Knight and Aud Torvingen, I guess, and, not just in this genre. Yeah, pretty much moved on from V.I. and Kinsey.)

I like the way the fact that Cameron is gay is treated simply as another facet of her character. There’s none of the “See-how-open-minded-I-am; look-at-my-lesbian-main-character” feel that some novels have. Of course, many that fall into that category are probably written to titillate, or to épater la bourgoisie. I’ll also wager many such novels are written by men. Yes, her orientation is important, especially as his leads to some mistreatment, even abuse, but otherwise, it’s just who she is.

The writing is kind of hard to get a grip on. Despite the presence of cloning technology, it somehow feels older than it is, although that‘s not a real problem. And, the writing itself? It isn’t bad, just sorta “meh.” The novel is suspenseful, and the pacing is good, and, there are no grammatical errors to speak of, but, nothing about the narrative style really stands out. To use another of my pat sayings, “Of all the books I’ve ever read, this was one of them.”

The main problem I have with Breaking Point, as with many such novels, is with the villains. An analogy I’ve used before, and will, in all likelihood use again (and again): The bad guys are so clichéd, they should be twirling their handle-bar moustaches or saying, “Ve haf vays of making you talk.” Bwah-hah-hah! Cue the creepy music. The scene where Cameron is kidnapped and threatened with rape, and possibly murder, lacks the power it should have. The horror of rape is unimaginable to me, but, here, the attackers are such caricatures and their dialogue so trite that they loose any real sense of menace. It’s unfortunate, because this could, in fact, should have been the novel’s strongest scene. Other malefactors — the manager of the research facility and the Neo-Nazi leader are equally poorly-drawn. For what it’s worth, the near-rape scene confirmed my earlier suspicions as to who the real villain was, and that also weakened the threatening nature of the attack, though Cameron’s sense of peril is very real, and well portrayed.

I admire novels that are complex, but in Breaking Point, there’s just way too many threads for a book its size: The initial murder, human cloning, Cameron’s former lover, her commitment issues, her relationship with her mother, the murdered women who are dumped in the sea, animal rights, violence against women, the Aryan conspiracy. There’s so much going on, the novel loses its focus; you aren’t even sure where the author wants the focus to lie.

All that said, though, I still came away with an overall positive impression of Breaking Point. It was an entertaining enough way to pass a few hours, with some serious issues to think about, too. Despite some faults, I will, as I said, probably read more of Roberts’ works somewhere down the line.

A review of Street Rules (Dectective L.A. Franco Mysteries #2) by Baxter Clare Trautman

READ JULY 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: “For ‘Frank, ‘ L.A.P.D. Homicide Lieutenant L.A. Franco and her homicide squad, it’s business as usual — a multiple murder, ugly as it is, at least seems to have an easy explanation. Until it coincides with an untimely drive-by shooting.

The investigation ultimately pulls Frank and her squad in conflicting directions while drawing Frank closer to the county’s new Chief Coroner, Gail Lawless. Through a series of twists and turns, all Frank’s leads eventually bring her to the disquieting possibility that the killer she seeks might well be one of her own brothers in blue.”

MY REVIEW: Very mixed feelings about this one. First, to get prejudices out of the way: Kennedy, Franco’s lover at the end of the previous book, Bleeding Out, was by far my favorite character in that book, so I was disappointed in the direction the author took their relationship. In fact, Clare seems to go out of her way to make Kennedy less likeable than in the previous book. I completely understand it, I just don’t like it.

Okay, now to the more objective: Clearly, the writing isn’t as good technically as in the first book, largely an editing problem. There are a lot of sentences that are really awkward, and some that are just — well, wrong. This adversely affects the flow of the novel, because mechanical issues draw the reader out of the story and back to the surface, calling attention to the words themselves rather than to the story.

Then, there’s the dialog. The pervasive, almost overwhelming use of street slang and gangsta talk, and just basic crudeness, are so inconsistent with Bleeding Out that you wonder if this is even the same character. I understand the desire for verisimilitude, and, yes, there was some street language in the first novel, but in this one,  it’s simply overdone. And, I assure you, folks, I’m no prude. In many other places, the dialog feels unnatural, again more so than in the earlier volume in the series. These, of course, are largely editorial issues. I’ve always found Bella to be pretty inconsistent when it comes to both copy editing and story editing, which does a disservice not only to the reader, but also to a group of very talented writers.

Our protagonist, Lt. LA “Frank” Franco, is a complex character who, while she’s not always likable, is nonetheless admirable. There’s something of a Dirty Harry mentality about her, though, which, while it makes her less commendable than she could be, also lets you know that she’ll do whatever is necessary to get the job done. She seems to open up emotionally a bit more than in Bleeding Out, too, which is nice, and, despite the Dirty Harry aspect, is more personable, maybe “warmer” is the right word, than in Bleeding Out.

All that said, Street Rules is certainly worth reading. Saying the writing isn’t as proficient mechanically as Bleeding Out doesn’t mean it’s “bad” and the mystery itself is interesting, nicely paced, and consistently plotted, with plenty of curves thrown our way. The characters are  well developed. As I say, we get a better “feel” for Frank, a more complete sense of what makes her tick. We also get a pretty complete picture of Gail, the new love interest. The blossoming romance between Gail and Frank proceeds at a really nice, leisurely pace which I found quite refreshing. The rest of Frank’s squad are varied enough to add interest and depth. Only the “perp” seems ill-defined, which is a little disappointing.

So, though not exactly a rave review, still recommended.

A review of Justice in the Shadows (Justice #3) by Radclyffe

READ NOVEMBER 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: in a shadow world of secrets, lies, and hidden agendas, Detective Sergeant Rebecca Frye and her lover, Dr. Catherine Rawlings, join forces once again in the elusive search for justice. Rebecca is aided in her struggle to uncover a pornography ring and expose its connections to a traitor within the police department by a rag-tag team of dedicated cops and civilians: JT Sloan, a cybersleuth committed to avenging her lover’s devastating injury who walks the fine line between justice and revenge; Dellon Mitchell, a young police officer who discovers an unforeseen talent for undercover work; and Sandy, a prostitute who develops an unexpected passion for cops. Ultimately, this secret investigation may risk not just their careers, but may cost one their life.

MY REVIEW: This series just keeps getting better! I was pretty “meh” when I read Shield of Justice, book one of Rsdclyffe’s Justice series; some time earlier, I had read book one in her Honor series, and was basically underwhelmed by that one, too. Well, there’s that old saying, “Third time’s the charm,” so I tried Matter of Trust, which is sort of a prequel to Justice, but only in the fact that it introduces two new characters who will appear in the rest of the series. I was very well aware that “third time’s the charm” could equally well turn out to be “Strike three!” but, happily, that wasn’t the case. I really enjoyed Matter of Trust, though it’s more a romance than mystery or police thriller, enjoyed it enough to spur me to read Pursuit of Justice, which I liked even more, and, finally, to Justice in the Shadows, about which: Wow!

Where to begin? First, of course, Radclyffe’s prose is, as always, exemplary from a technical or mechanical standpoint. The plot is intriguing, especially as a continuation of the previous novel. The suspense is plentiful, and there’s enough humor sprinkled in to be a little relief from the cop stuff. The characters are what really stand out, here, though.

After Shield… and Pursuit… I’ve definitely warmed up more to the original characters, Rebecca, a Special Crimes Detective and Catherine, a psychiatrist, or, I think maybe it’s they who have done the warming. Sloan, computer security wiz and Michael, the principals in …Trust, are still a likable, as are the secondary characters from that book, Jason and Sarah. In a review of Pursuit…I wrote of the characters Dell, a street cop and Sandy, a prostitute, that their developing relationship was intriguing, and that I’d like to see a lot more of them in the series. Well, I got my wish, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. It doesn’t diminish the likable and admirable nature of the other characters to say that Dell and Sandy are the highlight of …Shadows. They’re brave, resourceful, loving, a bit qurky and, somewhat more than Sloan and Michael, and a lot more than Rebecca and Catherine, they’re just plain fun. I can see where Rebecca and Catherine could be an iconic couple for some people, a Bette and Tina, so to speak, or, to stay in the same general genre, a Micky and Cordelia. For me, though, Dell and Sandy are what makes this entry in the series truly memorable. As with all Radclyffe’s characters, whether in series or stand-alones, everyone here is well fleshed-out, even the less prominent characters; clearly, this is an author who understands that cardboard figures and “filler” characters can be fatal to a work of fiction.

The police drama, as in Shield… and Pursuit, is compelling and suspenseful. Like her characters, Radclyffe’s story-lines are always credible and logically executed; Justice in the Shadows is no exception. The balance between that element and the personal relationships of the characters seems just right, as it has been in the rest of the series, and both are well-written and thoroughly believable.

There is, for those interested in such things, a lot of sex here, much more than in the other books, but, then, there are now three pairs of lovers, so it doesn’t seem like an undue amount. I’m again reminded, especially in the case of Dell and Sandy, of Katherine V Forrest’s comment about how such scenes can be used as means of characterization. Certainly, it’s true in the case of Dell and Sandy, whose relationship is just blossoming, and, I’m pretty sure in the future that it will help them work through issues that derive from their disparate lifestyles and professions. In the case of Rebecca and Catherine, it serves a similar purpose, for they also have issues, and sex can at times aid in opening lines of communication, bringing them close when otherwise Rebecca’s issues could cause them to drift apart. Despite a considerable number of sex scenes, however, they never feel gratuitous, and, while some of them are definitely quite erotic, they never feel prurient, nor are they titillating just to be titillating.

It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a book this much. To sum up, the characters are thoroughly depicted, complete with their respective fears and foibles, and all are engaging, especially Dell and Sandy.  The police drama is believable, well-paced and, intriguing, with a decent amount of action. To repeat, as regards the mechanical aspects of the book, the nuts and bolts of writing, Radclyffe’s serves as a model for other writers in any genre. While this might be expected from her editorial skills, it’s a quality I’ve come to never take for granted.

All the features above combine to make Justice in the Shadows an eminently readable and thoroughly enjoyable novel which can be read by police fiction aficianados and romance fans with equal pleasure. Very much worth your time.

A review of Ill Will (Micky Knight #7), by J.M. Redmann

READ JUNE 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: First, do no harm. But as New Orleans PI Micky Knight discovers, not every health care provider follows that dictum. She stumbles into a tangle of the true believers to the criminally callous, who use the suffering of others for their twisted ends. In a city slowly rebuilding after Katrina, one of the most devastated areas is health care, and the gaps in service are wide enough for the snake oil salesmen—and the snakes themselves—to crawl through. First, her investigation is driven by anger, but then it becomes personal as someone very close to Micky uses her cancer diagnosis to go where Micky cannot, into the heart of the evil where only the ill are allowed. Micky is her only lifeline out. Can Micky save her in time to get to the medical treatment she desperately needs to survive?

MY REVIEW: If you read “About me an’ the blog,” you know that Redmann’s Death by the Riverside, the first book in this series, was what caused me to begin reading mysteries with lesbian protagonists. So, you might say Micky Knight and I have a long history together. I recently finished Ill Will, the seventh entry in the series. Before starting it, I reread the entire series, a third reading for all but books five and six. That was rewarding in itself, and helped prepare me for he latest volume. Sorta like rereading all the Harry Potter books before seeing the movies.

Well, if I look to this genre for emotional impact, then Ill Will is a veritable bonanza. Things have been so since the early books where Micky deals wih the trauma of her childhood years. It would not be out of place to call Redmann’s writing visceral, affecting you not only emotionally, but also physically. Very few authors have hit me so hard in that way, and, certainly, not as consistently. But, in the current volume, the emotional stakes have risen, even over the wrenching events of the previous two books.

As to Ill Will itself, I’ll speak in generalities, for it would be extremely easy to drop spoilers. Let me start by saying I consider Micky and Cordelia to be the iconic couple of the genre, kinda the Bette and Tina of lesbian mystery. And make no mistake, though Redmann’s books are very enjoyable simply as mysteries, the interpersonal relationships are every bit as important. As the book opens, something over two years post-Katrina, Micky and CJ (Cordelia James) are beginning to get somewhat back to normal after the hurricane and after CJ’s brief fall from the monogamy wagon. Then, after the various mystery elements have been introduced — the Micky Knight stories usually have several mystery threads going on simultaneously — new and  even greater emotional turmoil arises. Gotta admit, Redmann totally blindsided me with this one. The French have a word,  boulversant, which can mean simply upsetting, but which usually implies shattering or staggering. That’s how I felt. Like I said, Redmann tears at your guts. I was stunned. I mean, I fuckin’ love these two characters.

Anyway, enough angst. The mystery is enjoyable in and of itself, and satisfactorily, if messily — quite literally —  concluded, but the major emotional issue remains unresolved. I was a bit disappointed that familiar secondary characters didn’t occupy a bigger role, but understand that, given the issue I don’t wanna name, Redmann was right to focus on the two principals.

I was, just here and there, a little disappointed in the writing, which heretofore has been so rock-solid, even exemplary. Sprinkled throughout, not terribly often, but enough to be jarring, is some phrasing that’s just really awkward, not  necessarily wrong, but very un-Redmann-like. It isn’t enough to spoil an excellent reading experience, just enough to cause you to scratch your head a few times.

So, to conclude, most highly recommended, on several levels. Like the others in this series, this one goes straight to my “favorites” shelf.

A review of In Pursuit of Justice (Justice #2), by Radclyffe

READ JULY 2013

ONLINE SUMMARY: In the dynamic double sequel to Shield of Justice and A Matter of Trust, Det. Sgt. Rebecca Frye struggles to return to duty after a near fatal shooting. Joining forces with enigmatic computer consultant J.T. Sloan, Rebecca accepts a temporary assignment with a Federal task force investigating an Internet child pornography ring. Rebecca’s obsession with finding her partner’s killer and her involvement in the multi-jurisdictional investigation threaten both her life and her new relationship with Doctor Catherine Rawlings. When Catherine becomes professionally involved and an attempt on the life of a task force member ensues, the pursuit of justice becomes a deadly race against time

MY REVIEW: I wrote a pretty positive review of Shield of Justice, the first book of Radclyffe’s Justice series., but I was surprised at how much more I enjoyed its sequel, In Pursuit of Justice. In thinking about this, I realized that the overall tone of the book seems markedly different. The mood of Shield… was really forbidding, with almost no relief throughout. Admittedly, the fact that the novel features a serial murderer contributes to this, but the mood bleeds over into the blossoming relationship between the Detective, Rebecca, and the psychiatrist, Catherine. Even the lovemaking scenes are kind of a downer.

Although Pursuit… also deals with another horrendous crime, child pornography, it feels lighter, somehow, and more of a pleasure to read. I still haven’t completely warmed to either Rebecca or Catherine, but they aren’t quite the dour personalities of the first book. Even their lovemaking isn’t as austere. The addition of Sloan, Michael, and Jason, all of whom I liked very much in the prequel, Matter of Trust, helped lighten the atmosphere until near the end. Really though, it’s the addition of two new characters, Sandy, a young prostitute who’s Rebecca’s confidential informant, and Dell, a uniformed officer assigned to the Task Force Rebecca is leading, that really improved things for me. They’re the most likeable of the six main characters, and, though they don’t have major time on stage here — sorry for the mixed metaphor — they’re both important to the plot. In addition, the relationship which seems to be developing between them is quite intriguing, given their respective professions. I’m looking forward to seeing what direction Radclyffe takes them in the next book, in which I hope they play a greater part.

Only one complaint: The ending is really unsatisfying. And while Radclyffe is hardy the sort of writer to create a cliffhanger just to get you to buy the next volume in the series, it does kind of feel that way. SPOILER — When the cops catch a purveyor of kiddie porn with his pants down, quite literally, the Feebs show up and make off with all the evidence, leaving Rebecca’s team nothing to show for their effort. The ending also leaves us with Michael having just suffered a devastating injury in an attack meant for Sloan. Things feel terribly incomplete, at least for me.

Nonetheless, the book is, as always with Radclyffe, very well-written technically, the characters are extremely engaging, the pacing is just right, and the plotting is solid, even despite the lack of closure. In Pursuit of Justice is definitely worth your time.  (It would be a good idea to read the previous novels first, or Shield…, at least.)