Julie Thompson reviews Flinging It by G. Benson

flinging-it-g-benson

Flinging It mixes pleasure and pain, levity and heartache, discomfort and freedom, as the protagonists, Cora and Frazer, fumble their way forward (and backward). The romance, set in Perth, Australia, is light and fun, but is also an emotional rollercoaster. I tried to keep certain plot points vague, but this review may seem sort of spoiler-y.

When it comes to sticky and seemingly hopeless  circumstances, like the ones Frazer and Cora find themselves in, I think of a scene from Katherine V. Forrest’s novel Curious Wine. It’s contains an important message that this story shares: it’s never too late to change the direction your life takes. I can probably relate my favorite romance to just about any story.

Frazer, a dedicated midwife and administrator, pours herself into leading Midwifery at the hospital where she works. It’s stable, steady employment. The hospital provides a secure launch point from which she can pursue her heart’s project: providing intensive support to pregnant people during and after their pregnancies. It’s also a safety net that both helps and hinders her and one that she’ll struggle to step away from.

Cora, meanwhile, is suffocating in her marriage to Alec, a man who also controls her professional life as her boss at the hospital. It’s an emotionally manipulative relationship, one in which Cora is disappearing. Alec insists that her interests, career as a social worker, and friendships don’t matter; and if they are deemed worthwhile, it’s only in relation to how expedient they are to his own ambitions.

Monday morning meetings and casual greetings are all the women share. They develop a strong friendship after Frazer approaches Cora about helping to re-draft her project proposal. They spend more and more time together outside of the hospital, relishing shared ideas, banter, and encouragement. Their relationship quickly complicates as they increasingly rely on each other for emotional support and sexual release. Guilt cuts into any pleasure they derive from each other. Whenever Frazer sees Alec after the first night with Cora, she thinks “I slept with your wife”.

 

Cora, for her part, is entangled in feelings of guilt, desperation, and thirst for a loving partnership. She keeps telling herself that she has to fix her marriage because she cheated.  She tells herself that she owes Alec the chance to “change”. However, the relationship has been plagued for months, years, by arguments and manipulation. Benson portrays his controlling and manipulative behavior with thinly veiled hostility, rage, and arrogance. It’s when he doesn’t get his way that the mask slips. The scenes in which they argue show how Cora always ends up on the losing side, even when she’s in the “power seat” in her office. Scenes in which she accepts Alec’s version of events over her own nearly every time are disturbing. Her internal struggle with her intense unhappiness and his domineering evolves at a pace that feels true to her character, based on her circumstances. Whenever she tries to leave him, he proceeds to demean her, telling her that she can’t do that to him, that she would be nothing without him, that her parents would be so disappointed in her for getting a divorce. Persons caught up in a cycle of emotional and mental abuse find it difficult to escape from the cycle, especially when they are cut off from a wide support network. Cora had assumed in the past that such behavior was “normal”. She makes this comment more than once in the story and I wonder what her dating and home life growing up were like.

Frazer comes to resent how the terms of their relationship always fall on Cora’s terms. When Cora feels overwhelmed by guilt, it’s off. When Frazer wants to pull back, Cora gives her no space. Their relationship isn’t on solid or healthy footing, either. They push and pull each other until they can’t ignore the tenuous balance of having a workplace affair. Both women seek out crutches to help them along. Frazer dives into swimming and alcohol. Cora also goes out more often and wakes up with slight hangovers.

The story explores a range of topics, including emotionally abusive relationships; workplace romance; pregnancy; hospital bureaucracy; infidelity; divorce; and investing in yourself. Frazer comes from an Indian-Australian family and Cora’s family heritage brings together Thai, Korean, and Australian. While the two women’s families are important to them, the story includes only minimal scenes in which we hear that they had a get together or dinner. Those relationships are not expanded on, aside from Frazer’s sister Jemma.

Secondary characters provide shine and add much needed support, love, and reality checks for Frazer and Cora. Jemma, Frazer’s annoyingly persistent, yet much loved, younger sister. Tia, Frazer’s close work friend and secretary for Alec, holds her friend accountable with tough love. And Lisa, Cora’s indefatigable best friend. Lisa, puts her energies behind helping Cora.despite struggling with heavy issues of her own. Cora, for her part, expresses concern over her friend’s plight, but vacillates between self-absorption and attentiveness.

Jack, a bisexual transgender teen, is one of the pregnancy program’s first patients. His ex-boyfriend drops out of the picture after learning of Jack’s pregnancy. The novel explores the difficulties of Jack’s situation: homeless, pregnant, and dropped out of school. Frazer and Cora combine their expertise to provide Jack with essential support during and after the pregnancy. First and foremost, they listen to him. Although he is a minor character, his role is essential to how the two women’s relationship plays out.

I felt satisfied by the way their storylines played out. No one in this novel is perfect and the two leads make more than their fair share of mistakes, but Alec takes the cake for being vile and odious and utterly irredeemable. How sustainable a relationship can be when it starts off this way? If the women had not distanced themselves from each other and cut down on contact, the conclusion would have felt less than satisfying. A cloud would have hung over their intentions and expectations. Towards the end, though, the women are compelled to make critical choices that will decide how close they come to realizing their dreams, passions, and truest selves. Flinging It is a romance that inspires muddled feelings. I’d love to hear what others think about this romance. Please let me know in the comments!

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur (jthompsonian.wordpress.com)

Julie Thompson reviews You're The Most Beautiful Thing That Happened by Arisa White

9780988735576

Arisa White’s newest poetry collection, You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, plumbs the depths of what it means to exist in the world as queer, female, a person of color, and beyond. She undresses a multitude of topics, including race, family, and relationships. The collection offers tender, tumultuous, and light moments.

In the introduction, White shares how a Wikipedia page full of translated terms for gay provided the initial inspiration for this work. She discovered “how sexist the language was, the fear of the feminine, how domestic, how patriarchal, how imaginative, and the beauty [she] discovered when [she] paused to wonder about the humanity inside these words and phrases” (Introduction, 9). Notes on the origins for poems titled with derogatory terms and cultural references are located at the end of the collection.

The collection draws its title from the poem “When They Say” (WTS), a poem filled with strong, intense imagery and challenging questions. “Gun(n) for Sakia Gunn” speaks to the 2003 murder of Sakia Gunn, a lesbian teenager from Newark, New Jersey. “Kokobar”, one of my favorites because of how White draws out the inherent beauty in everyday transactions and interactions, is the name of “the first cybercafé owned and operated by African American women” in Brooklyn, New York. Bullets, obsession, and mangled love, create a new constellation (“Hold Your Part of a Deal”). Infidelity becomes a rotten orchard (“Dirty Fruit”).

I could wax poetic about how much I love explorations of existence and identity through words-sounds-syllables. How culture, age, and history flavor the words that leave our lips. How fluid and malleable words and their meanings are and how translations can’t and don’t necessarily bridge the gap between multiple words. Before starting this review, I read and re-read the poems, both silently and aloud. You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened is a collection that will stay with you for a long time.

You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened is available October 11, 2016 from Small Press Distribution.

Julie Thompson reviews Me and My Boi edited by Sacchi Green

me-and-my-boi-cover

“Gender has no boundaries, and neither does lust.” — Sacchi Green, Introduction

Me and My Boi, edited by Sacchi Green, is a collection of twenty erotic encounters between those who, in addition to identifying as lesbian, also identify as bois, butches, masculine-of-center, or eschew gender labels altogether. These individuals seek out sexual romps and emotionally charged situations. Sometimes they satisfy existing desires or discover new ones when paired with the right partner at the right time. The diversity of experiences showcased in this volume allow for a greater possibility of connection with readers. That being said, not every story will resonate with every reader; we all have personal preferences that will find a home in (hopefully) at least one or two of the stories presented here.

The stories unfold against quotidian and risqué situations, well-worn paths and the unknown. Readers peer in on a car garage in the English countryside as two women get acquainted (“A Fresh Start” by Melissa Mayhew); join long-term partners on their Parisian honeymoon (“Gargoyle Lovers” by Sacchi Green); and get locked into a bar bathroom with a bittersweet memory (“Hot Pants” by Jen Cross). The characters negotiate intimacy dynamics and grapple with what their choices may or may not communicate about their identities (“Nisrine Inside” by Pavini Moray; “Resurrection” by Victoria Villasenor).

While I enjoyed the collection overall, there were a few stories suited to my personal taste and that I look forward to revisiting. Strong women who are handy with a tool, sport grease smudged jeans, and possess a subtle tenderness, are the characters that melt me to the page. In Sommer Marsden’s Bennie, Ava finds her long held desires reciprocated with the handsome butch-next-door, Bennie. I appreciate how Me and My Boi (M&MB) shares a range of sexual desires, which include needs for hard and soft; fast and slow; bound and free; and more. For people who want to flirt with danger, M&MBhas it. For people who want a safer, yet no less lusty fling, they’ll find it here. I admit that I struggled with the first half of “Resurrection” because I wasn’t sure how much was consensual seduction and how much was coercion. I know that as a reader I engage with stories through my own lenses. I’m interested in how other readers interpreted that portion of the story.

Other stories engaged me more on an emotional level than on an erotic one. One such story  is “Not Just Hair” by Annabeth Leong. Darla is eager to find a butch that will allow her to act out her desires as a femme top. The usual kink crowd gathers around scenes of controlled lust or cruise for playmates. Observing and participating femmes, butches, tops, and bottoms assess each other for possibilities and compatibility. Darla struggles against the restrictions imposed on her as a femme, by her partners, and by the group. When she thinks she’s spotted an unfamiliar butch, she eagerly approaches, only to find that it’s someone she knows. Shawn, at heart a butch bottom, is also breaking out of the stifling role as a femme bottom that her partner had expected. The two women see each other and embrace the opportunity to be who they are inside and out.

The stories offer reflections of how we see ourselves and how we see others, as well as how we believe others should think of us and of themselves. It’s a mouthful and a mindful to process. Yet, more often than not, erotica at its best is a delectable mixture of physical, intellectual, emotional elements.

Julie Thompson reviews Roller Girl (A Lake Lovelace novel) by Vanessa North

roller girl vanessa north

Riptide Publishing
Release date: July 25, 2016

Roller Girl is the third installment of Vanessa North’s “Lake Lovelace” series. It stars Tina Durham, a retired pro wake boarder, who finds herself at a crossroads in her life. One of her main concerns is relying on other people too much. After her divorce (which happens before the novel begins), she reflects on how her ex-wife had taken care of most of the day-to-day maintenance of the house, as well as other tasks. Tina asks herself throughout the story if she can take care of herself. Where is the line between asking for help and over relying on other people to solve her problems? Late one night, her washing machine goes on the fritz.

Enter Joanne “Joe Mama” Delario, coach of the local women’s roller derby team and plumber extraordinaire. It’s lust at first sight, though Joe also sizes Tina up as a perfect addition to the derby team. The two women hit it off and meet up for a casual date soon after. It’s Tina’s first foray into the dating world after her divorce and since she began publicly living as a woman.

When Tina shares her identity as trans woman on the first date, Joe isn’t fazed. The major kink in their relationship has nothing to do with Tina’s gender identity. Rather, it centers on whether or not the two of them dating will wedge the roller derby team apart. The last thing Tina wants is for her potential teammates to think that she was awarded special privileges by hooking up with the coach. She’s a professional athlete and prides herself on her hard work and skill. Support comes from all corners – her friends and their partners, Ben and Davis, Eddie and Wish; roller derby teammates; her boss and clients; and local media. Tina experiences a lot of game changing moments in her life over a short period of time, but the author does a good job of weaving them towards a satisfying conclusion.

The author makes sure that her leading lady experiences everything from the tremulous nerves of a first date to heart pounding sweaty sex to the ultimate question of what does this relationship mean to you and do we have a future? Tina doesn’t have “fade to black” or “the door slowly closes” sex. The bedroom scenes are respectful, but not to the extent that the women are held with kid gloves. Both women’s bodies are a beautiful tangle of limbs and pleasure, not objects of revulsion or something to be fetishized.

The Lake Lovelace Rollergirls give Tina an outlet for her competitive drive, as well as a chance to make new friends and join in a sisterhood of strong women. It’s been awhile since she’s participated in anything athletic outside of the small gym where she works as a personal trainer. The team interactions as the women gear up for practice, tryouts, and bouts, are fun, with a fair amount of mental and physical bruises. Tina comes up with a saucy, meaningful derby moniker, but I’ll leave that as a surprise.

Roller Derby is the first lesbian romance I’ve read that stars a transgender woman. It also features one of my favorite sports, roller derby. These women are hell on wheels, but are ultimately a welcoming and supportive bunch. The novel paints an overall positive picture for Tina, though there are enough hurdles in her path to cause interesting drama. If you’ve read lesbian novels with trans women as protagonists, please let me know in the comments section below!

The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) has a gender statement on its website. It’s an inclusive organization where all are welcome. Go derby!

Women’s Flat Track Derby Association: https://wftda.com/wftda-gender-statement

Julie Thompson reviews Love in Action by Augusta Hill

love in action

I discovered this bundle by happenstance on Twitter, one of the things I enjoy about using it. The Indiana Jones-esque font on the cover drew me in like a moth to flame. As I sat in my airline seat bound for abbreviated adventure in the unknowns of Iowa, I dove straight into the stories. Love in Action is the collection’s name for the three novellas: Love Unearthed, Love Rescued, and Love Spied.

Augusta Hill uses the soft and tough, fresh and seasoned romantic pairings often found in romance novels and deftly pulls it off. The romances avoid falling prey to the doldrums of predictability. You know the leads will dance into the sunset together, but Hill makes it a lot of fun to tag along as the heroines discover more about themselves as they face high stakes and fall in love. Hill sets a quick pace to her stories, allowing you to get to know characters through action rather than bogging down events with a tedium of backstories and explaining what the women are feeling. Secondary characters help facilitate events and flesh out the leads, without seeming too flat or taking a lot of attention away from the protagonists. The tone is summer blockbuster fun, with a nice blend of tension and levity. No matter where your travels take you this summer, I recommend packing these bite-sized romantic adventures along.

Love Unearthed

Dr. Rose Stevens ventures deep into the jungles of Guatemala in search of the burial site of a once magnificent queen, now obscured by centuries of neglect and local ghost stories. Leaning on the shared memory of a small, remote villages, Rose throws the risks to her professional reputation to the wind and digs in. Before she can take her first step into the excavation site, however, she becomes unexpectedly saddled with a group of whiny, inexperienced undergrads from the university where she works. Former US soldier, Gabriella Torres, further complicates matters, exuding confidence, a quick wit, and sex appeal that pull at the fabric of Rose’s professionalism. Rose’s excitement over the upcoming excavation and elusive scholarly achievement that it will bring helps her suppress the attraction she feels for Gabriella. The struggle between the good doctor’s professional ambitions and personal life makes the romance a nice, slow burn.

When an unsavory bunch swoops in and threaten to take it all away, the unlikely group must band together to preserve the rare cultural find from disappearing. Hill packs plenty of thrills, flirtations, comic relief, and romance into this installment of Love in Action. This is my favorite story from the bundle. Sexy archaeologists, plunges into dark and dangerous unknowns, and romance! Oh my…

Love Rescued

Emmeline Smith is sent to Sarajevo, Bosnia, to find her jackass brother, Jacob, who disappeared there while on his mission trip for the Mormon Church. She is a relatively sheltered woman who works for her family’s business and regularly submits herself to painfully mismatched blind dates with single Mormon men that her mother arranges. Coming out as a lesbian to her family has never been high on her list of things to do. Instead, though she grudgingly takes on the task of rounding up the favorite son. It’s a task not without benefits: she thrills at the chance to take her first trip out of the United States and at the opportunity to avoid further pressures on the marriage front.

Hana Divjak is an anarchist, yarn bomber, and animal champion extraordinaire. While she’s close with her group of friends, she’s not exactly out as a lady loving lady. Most of her energy is expended outwardly, trying to make a better world for the people and creatures she cares about. She and Emmeline meet by chance on the streets of Sarajevo. The tough cookie with a heart of gold steps in to help the Emmeline the travel novice from becoming a target for swindlers and pickpockets. They hit it off immediately. Emmeline shares her plight over a cozy dinner for two. It soon becomes clear that Jacob has gotten in over his head with local mobsters.

Emmeline’s worldly naiveté coupled with Hana’s street smarts make for an entertaining pairing. Their outlooks and personal experiences complement and balance each other. I never felt either woman was somehow superior to the other or carried more weight during the story. They challenge each other and support each other all the way to the end.

While the story touches on the hardships faced by Hana and her fellow Bosnians during an era of political instability and armed conflict, don’t expect the novella to deliver a detailed history lecture. Its presence in the story infuses the characters and setting with further layers of meaning and motives.

Love Spied

Nara Yamada is a plucky journalist covering social unrest and political upheaval in Istanbul, Turkey. An ambitious president and a shadowy band of international supporters threaten to throw the country into chaos and damage its prospects for joining the European Union. Nara and her camera crew sneak into an area of the city expressly forbidden to the press at an explosive moment, unaware just how hot things are going to become. She’s tenacious when it comes to reporting and doesn’t let a pesky little thing like running for her life get in the way.

At the moment events in the area go to hell, Ophelia spies with her well-trained eyes the impending chaos, as well as the foreign news crew caught in the thick of it. Ophelia is in Turkey on a highly classified government assignment. When she receives conflicting information from her superiors on the data she worked months to obtain, she finds herself at a standstill. No files exist to document her existence; she moves through life, delivering results to a secret government agency? and then disappearing without a trace. When Ophelia defies company policy to keep a low profile, she sets in motion a chain of events that changes all of their lives. Over the course of their travels, the two women fall in love, and keep each other warm and safe as they try to escape corrupt international agents and local law enforcement.

Love Spied is full of exciting car chases, explosions, secret hideouts, double agents, and of course, romance. I really enjoyed Ophelia’s ability to dispatch her opponents with expert efficiency and fast on her feet smarts. That kind of character is one of my favorites to read about or see onscreen. Both women take chances outside of their usual modus operandi and it pays off.

Julie Thompson reviews Go Deep (All Out Vancouver #2) by Leigh Matthews

Go Deep

(This review contains some spoilers)

Buckle up for a rocky road  of doppelgängers, hospitals, concussin’, and a ménage à wedding.  It’s heating up (literally, I am melting into the asphalt) around the Pacific Northwest and what better way to enjoy your burgeoning beach bum status than with a fun, flirty, roller coaster of a  novel? Pack your staycation bags and prepare to head up North of the border, up Canada way!

The second book in Leigh Matthew’s All Out Vancouver series threads through the adventures and lives of the first novel’s crew: Kate, Cass, Em, Hanna, and Steve. If you don’t mind slight spoilers of the first book, read on. We meet new folks: Afra, genderqueer character with a big heart for social justice, who shares a run-down apartment with Scout; Scout, a charming young queer fresh from the prairie; and Alice, a nurse from Vancouver General Hospital.

Other characters share the spotlight, such as Drew, a lawyer trying to get pregnant via artificial insemination, who also coaches the group’s queer softball team. As Matthews introduces more characters into the East Vancouver scene, she deftly alternates between storylines, skillfully merging the disparate lives that are connected like a game of six-degrees of Kevin Bacon or Alice’s chart on The L Word. New challenges arise and old problems fester.

The action starts up in Amsterdam, a few months after Kate and Cass settle in. The edges of their nascent relationship are fraying with the stresses of moving to a new country, new jobs, and most of all, the unsettled bumps in their relationship. They fall back into the same patterns, desperate for change, but unsure of how to make that happen. A change of scenery isn’t enough to help the insular couple from trapping themselves in a cycle of fight-sex-fun. It takes an emergency trip back to Vancouver to break the cycle. Both women are forced to take a long hard look at who they are together and if it’s worth all the drama and heartache. I’m unsure about how deep they’re willing to go to transform their relationship into one that is healthy and mutually satisfying. Cass is a difficult character for me to enjoy, but she manages to grow up a little bit.

Kate sums up the relationship, such as it is when the story opens: “It’s like living with a toddler, an academic, and a sex addict, and I never know which one I’ll come home to.”

Go Deep also explores also explores possibilities for couplings and families. Drew and Scout hook up, leaving the politics of tops and bottoms to the flip of a coin. Outside of the bedroom, they enjoy a relationship that does not involve the possibility of a romantic partner/co-parent, but does open the doors for other options.

Scout is one of my favorite characters. New to town after life on the prairie, Scout joins the softball team and plunges into the East Vancouver queer scene.  Scout is tough, yet sensitive; flirty and fun, yet guarded. It’s the uncertainties, contradictions, and charm that shine through and make this character fun to follow. A case of mistaken identity results in further excitement and complications.

Stability radiates outward to the group from the triad of Em, Hanna, and Steve. Even with a life-threatening illness thrown in, they not only stay afloat, but manage to juggle the drama of their less-than-balanced friends. Theirs is the novel’s romance that gives me warm fuzzies.

Em is the kind of friend we all need on our side. Someone who won’t hesitate to call us out on our crap, but is not unkind about it. I cheered when she tells Kate that something needs to change because the only stories she hears Kate tell about life with Cass taste sour.  Em makes friends wherever she finds herself. In her hospital bed, not only does she plays therapist to Kate, but connects with other patients in an important way. She is the cat herding master!

As far as the supporting characters go, they pop up to provide nudges in the action, but we don’t see them as much, yet. A little teaser of storylines to come, maybe. Matthews drops breadcrumbs about where the next installment may head as the gang pools their talents and passions together for a labor of love.

Julie Thompson reviews Confucius Jane by Kate Lynch

confucius jane katie lynch cover
Warning: This novel may induce drooling! Produces a Pavlovian response to descriptions of Chinese cuisine. A platter of deliciousness is advised to have on hand while reading.

Confucius Jane is a wonderful treat. After the emotionally heavy drama-rama of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, it was nice to slip into a world that’s comfy and welcoming, but also dotted with imperfections.

We meet our protagonists, Jane and Sutton, at a crossroads in their lives. New York City’s Chinatown and Upper East Side provide colorful and staid backdrops to the tale. There is also plenty of awkward Will-I-Won’t-I romance dancing between the two women. It’s a great mix of drama, humor, and food for thought.

Jane is the kind of woman who never needs a coat, plucks poetry from the air, and seems to have hidden wells of confidence in reserve. Under the surface, however, lies a thick layer of uncertainty. It’s one thing to offer pat advice and ambiguous futures to strangers she’ll never meet, via the slips of paper inside each fortune cookie. It’s quite another for Jane to divine what step to take next following her early departure from college. She spends her afternoons in an office above her aunt’s and uncle’s fortune cookie company, penning pithy prognostications and furtively watching “The Goddess in Glasses” eat at the Noodle Treasure — a woman she will come to know as Sutton St. James.

Sutton is a swirling mix of scientific passions and career drive, with no time for love. She struggles to balance her parents’ expectations for surface perfection and strict adherence to their moral code. Her father, a former US Surgeon General, known as “America’s Doctor”, pressures his daughter to follow in his footsteps. Neither of her parents wants her to find love with a woman. Despite her sacrifices of time and emotional energy, she ends up giving more to her parents and their world, than she receives in return from them.

Kate Lynch peoples this world with charming and frustrating characters. The supporting cast provides just the right amount of seasoning to give Confucius Jane full flavor. Min, Jane’s precocious eleven-year-old cousin, pokes and prods the love lives of her family and friends. She even Googles pick-up lines for Jane to use on Sutton before she works up the nerve to approach her. It’s adorable and hilarious when she reads them aloud to Jane. Sue, an older woman who runs a Chinese apothecary and astrology shop in the neighborhood, offers encouragement and support for Jane, and later for Sutton, as well.

“Sue made [Jane] feel part of the fabric of the community instead of a frayed thread barely dangling from the edge. That sense of never quite belonging came with the territory of being hapa.”

Hapa relates to Jane’s biracial heritage and also to her globetrotting formative years. The author explores the idea of existing in halves across cultures. It’s an interesting idea to chew on, this need to categorize people and things as either one thing or the other. In the supplemental “Author Interview”, Kate Lynch discusses Hapa further, relating it to lesbians:

“LGBTQ-identified people are socially hapa by virtue of our sexuality; we stand at the intersection of multiple communities, endeavoring to make a space for ourselves in all of them.”

The bonus Author Interview and Discussion Questions are great supplements to the story.

April is National Poetry Month. Like Jane, you can find poetry wherever you go. If you’re interested in exploring her way of weaving words together, it’s pretty easy to do. Find a space to sit with a pen and paper and listen to the flow of words as the fragments float past. After your outing, read through the lines of conversation you caught and select the ones that speak to you. Arrange them into a poem. You can learn more about other ways in which “Found Poetry” transforms text (menus, advertisements, lists, etc.) at Poets.org and at foundpoetryreview.com

https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/poetic-form-found-poem

http://www.foundpoetryreview.com/about-found-poetry/

Julie Thompson reviews A Grave Talent by Laurie R. King

agravetalent

A Grave Talent is the 1993 debut novel of Laurie R. King and the first in her Kate Martinelli series.  King won an Edgar Award for Best First Novel and a Creasey Award from the Crime Writers’ Association for her first novel.  Avid mystery readers and fans of Sherlock Holmes may be more familiar with King’s Mary Russell series.

Two San Francisco investigators, Kate Martinelli and Alfonso “Al” Hawkins, newly partnered, look into a rash of murders of kindergarten-age girls.  Their bodies are discovered along “Tyler’s Road”, a small, rural community located outside the bustle of San Francisco.  Tyler’s Road hosts an assortment of people who want to avoid life on the grid, for various reasons.  Plenty of red herrings clutter the landscape.  One of the residents along Tyler’s Road is Vaun Adams, an artist with a dark past.  She becomes an early suspect, though her involvement is far more complex. 

The mystery unfolds at a measured pace, fitting the dry and dogged style with which Al and Kate pursue the murderer.  The novel challenges the world of appearances, challenging the reader and the detectives to delve beneath the surface, whether that surface is Tyler’s Road as an Eden or the visage of a pale and aloof convicted murderer.

Laurie R. King writes in much the same way as Kate conducts her life.  The first ¾ of the book project a cool exterior, with her personal life a carefully guarded secret, even from the reader.  Both when we see Kate on the job and when we see Kate at home, we are the distant viewer, the outsider, no more privileged to know Kate than is her newly assigned partner, Al Hawkins.  Under the surface, however, her thoughts hum with reassurances that she can handle whatever comes her way and that her private life is the least of anyone’s concerns.

Martinelli is “Kate” to friends and “Casey” to everyone else.  Casey is derived from her first two initials; the name serves as another barrier between her personal life and her career.  The conscious disconnect between those two worlds offers a sort of mental and emotional protection.  Kate possesses a keen wit and a wry sense of humor that pairs well with Al’s laconic, dryly sarcastic wit.  I love how concisely King depicts the characters. Hawkins in a nutshell: “He missed little, reacted less, and thought incessantly about his work.” (Chapter 1).

She is in a tough line of work that can drain her emotional, mental, and physical energies if she isn’t careful to keep some part of herself for herself.  As a police officer, Kate encounters gradations of the good, the bad, and the ugly, the best and the worst that humanity has to offer.  Later events force the fiercely private investigator to open the doors of her home to her work.  The division between her career and her personal life blur towards the close of the case.

Kate considers the new assignment a “dubious honor”.  She isn’t sure if her position on the case is due to assumed need for a female face to present to the media and the public or if the brass believe a woman is “better with children” than men.  Whatever the reason, Kate proves her worth ten times over.

The evolution of Kate’s mindset about opening up her private life to the outside world does not feel forced, hurried, or out-of-character.  The novel was originally published in 1993, so that is a factor to consider when you read it.  Kate wrestles with her desire to retain a layer of silence over her life and with her partner Lee’s desire to live more openly. Kate’s fears that her male colleagues might abandon her on the job are not unfounded. Discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was common across the United States, and remains an issue in many States and work cultures.  She also hesitates because the last thing she wants is for her hard won reputation to be replaced by ill-fitting stereotypes in the minds of her colleagues.  The supporting characters, especially the men and women who live within the unplugged world of Tyler’s Road, also defy being slotted into stereotypes.

King’s masterful use of language is one of my favorite aspects of the Martinelli series.  She wields her pen to great effect, altering the reader’s perception of existence and events with a carefully chosen cast of words.  It’s not directly revealed that Kate’s partner is a woman, for example.  All pronouns are carefully excised to conceal that Kate is a lesbian.  A pronoun is never used with Kate’s partner Lee.  Even when she drops the tidbit to Al that “Lee buys the coffee”, no pronoun is used.  She lets Hawkins assume the pronoun “he”.  The assumptions and omissions play into a well-crafted concealment of both Kate’s sexual orientation and that Lee is female.

I became more aware of the words used around me and by me, as a result of reading this story.  It wasn’t until I was editing a draft of this review that I noticed how I had initially written “The bodies are discovered along “Tyler’s Road…”.  It was not a conscious decision, but after mulling over how King describes the discovery of Samantha Donaldson’s body, the wording I had used popped out at me.

When the young girl’s body is found at the bottom of a muddy hillside, she is transformed from a frail human child into a “lifeless object” and a “disturbingly small parcel” (Chapter 3).  The choice of words is not meant to sound insensitive.  Rather, it is protection against what the investigators are seeing: the cold, hard reality of a dead child.

And so, King adds another item to the list of found materials at the crime scene.

  •  Rusty tin cans
  • One broken Coke bottle, old
  • An assortment of paper scraps, including a soggy matchbook from a bar in San Jose.
    … … …

All packed away into impersonal, plastic evidence bags.

Even when the identity of the culprit becomes clear, it does not detract from mounting tensions.  Readers who relish strong female characters (especially in positions of authority), prefer limited crime scene gore, and crispwriting, will find much to enjoy in this mystery series.

Author website —> http://www.laurierking.com/books/kate-martinelli/a-grave-talent-1993

Reader Guide —> http://www.laurierking.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/A-Grave-Talent-reader-guide.pdf

Julie Thompson reviews The Warrior, the Healer, and the Thief by Diane Jean

the warrior the healer and the thief

The Warrior, the Healer, and the Thief (WHT) by Diane Jean is a bite-sized, action-packed adventure across the rugged terrain of the Western United States.  WHT is incredibly fun and entertaining.  It re-imagines the Oregon Trail within the lens of magical realism.  Chase, Mara, and Ari, three women with different motives, join forces against demonic energies and black magic as they head west.  Jean avoids story-stopping exposition, relying instead on character revelation through events and flashbacks.  The pacing is quick and lively, but doesn’t run roughshod over the plot.  At the outset, Chase embodies the warrior, tough on the outside and a bit brisk; Mara, as the sensitive healer; and Ari as the thief, slipping in and out of sight.  However, the women aren’t limited to any one job, emotion, or social category.

Magic, for the most part, possesses a practical nature in this world.  People with any degree of magical ability are referred to as “users”.  Many families have only enough power to aid in simple tasks, such as starting a campfire.  Other people use their magic to attain political power, while others pursue more insidious occupations.  Magic does not prevent drowning or dysentery or any other common ailment on the road.

The mythical creatures that populate this world integrate seamlessly into the rugged terrain of the Oregon Trail, a place that seems almost mystical and unreal to people on the East Coast.  These creatures transform into flesh and blood, beak and claw, among the mountains, sagebrush, and canyons.  They mingle with more familiar animals, such as bison.  Thunderbirds terrorize from the skies; wild hodags threaten from the ground; and herds of bison plow through the fields.  Cue our early season wagon party, featuring the Warrior, the Healer, and the Thief.

Chase Templeton (never, ever call her Chastity) descends from a prestigious line of Old World dragon slayers. Although this is all ancient history by the time Chase was born, this badass shortie still finds uses for her family’s extensive weapons training and magical beast lore.  Early on, Chase recoils from the idea of living a conventional, stay-at-home-and-get-married kind of life.  She loves the rugged terrain and the colorful people who call west of the Mississippi their home.  For her, wilderness and civilization are a state-of-mind, an opinion she shares with her companions.  Every wagon train she guides west is full of people she believes are escaping past lives, their hopes pinned on the shimmering horizon.  Chase’s personal conflicts with the expectations laid out for her by her family and her own beliefs, play out along the trail.

After years of fruitless supplication to the Goddess, Mara (née Aurora Nacht) flees Princeton Seminary and her illustrious family, and hits the open road heading west.  West is the land with all the answers, at least that’s what she wants to believe.  When she signs up for a wagon party leaving Independence, Missouri, she strives to keep a low profile.  Her education and upbringing allow her to pose as a missionary out to spread the word of the Goddess.  She values her faith, but doesn’t push it onto others.  As her fellow travelers risk injury and death, Mara’s resolve to stay silent on her identity and personal mission, weakens.  Mara is a character that, written another way, could have ended up mousy and dry.  Instead, she channels newfound strength, while retaining her empathic qualities.

Enter the third member of this dynamic trio: Ari.  Ari’s jocularity, wide open heart, and special ability, help her survive and thrive.  She wants snuggles, bright lights, company, and sexy good times, not pity and loneliness. Ari doesn’t define herself by the obstacles and sinister forces that seek her soul.  Her journey reflects her struggle to keep dark elements at bay.  Racism and slavery still exist in this alternate Oregon Trail universe. The amorphous evil that follows first Ari’s mother, and then Ari herself, originates on the plantation from which her mother escaped before Ari was born.  After performing a few favors for the New Orleans’ elite, Ari learns from Io, an elderly witch, how slaves were used against each other to enact punitive measures.  Ari’s mother and Io the witch gift her with tools that enable and drive her forward.  The story doesn’t linger on slavery, but it does give you some idea of how it affects the Ari and her mother.

As the narratives of these women unfold, their lives become increasingly intertwined.  The romantic relationships I’ve read about usually involve two people and perhaps a few others known in the novel as speed bumps on the way to some kind of bliss beyond the final page.  Third or fourth persons are regarded as complications, with love as a contest between opposing parties.  Their burgeoning friendship and romance stutter steps over some petty jealousies, but most of those incidents arise from Chase’s initial mistrust of Ari.  I think it’s pretty understandable to reserve trust from a person who pops out from under your wagon.  The women don’t agonize over whether what they feel is “right” or “wrong”.  Instead of stalling the story with introspection, the romance is one of many elements that move the story forward.  The trio becomes closer over the course of events despite differences in their backgrounds and personalities.  All of the elements of a meaningful relationship are present, but the women, apart from Ari, have no frame of reference for emotional and sexual unions among three persons, so they don’t fully recognize the possibility at first.  They help each other grow into the best possible version of themselves.  Nothing about their relationship feels forced or tacked on.  It develops as organically as the rest of the story.

The tale is complete as a stand-alone volume, but has enough leeway for a sequel.  I’m crossing my fingers for a sequel or maybe some prequels!  If you love adventure, the extraordinary mixed with the pedestrian, and history seasoned with magic, then what are you still doing reading this review?  Hitch up your internet oxen and get your copy today!  And then go play Oregon Trail.

Available from Less Than Three Press’s website as an e-book, as well as from Barnes & Noble and Amazon (e-book and paperback formats).

Oregon Trail → Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/msdos_Oregon_Trail_The_1990

Julie Thompson reviews Trusting Tomorrow by PJ Trebelhorn

trustingtomorrow

This review contains spoilers.

Trusting Tomorrow opens with Logan hunkered down in her car, not quite ready to face her father’s empty house.  Having never met Logan, Brooke calls the police to check on a suspicious person parked out front of the duplex where she lives with her grandparents.  Much to her mortification, Brooke learns that the lurker is a longtime family friend and daughter of their recently deceased next-door-neighbor, John Swift.

Death, doubt, and dark family secrets influence the emotionally topsy-turvy course of events.  Logan and Brooke are almost always at loggerheads, following a well-trod path through the land of romantic fiction.  Every encounter ends up souring, no matter how well it starts off.  They are constantly bickering, second guessing, and apologizing.  Yet, Brooke and Logan find each other strangely magnetic, an instant attraction that they don’t understand and can’t pull away from.

Their contrasts are front and center from the very start of the story.  One cares for the deceased and the family and friends of the deceased; and the other cares for the living.  I enjoyed the fact that Logan is a mortician, an unusual occupation among the romances I’ve read.  As a fan of the HBO drama Six Feet Under, I enjoyed how the story explored the effects that living with death had on Logan and Jack, as well as on the surrounding community.

Logan Swift, small town mortician and self-avowed single, takes the helm of the family business, the Swift Funeral Home, following the sudden death of her father.  She runs from commitment, preferring one night stands to a long-term relationship.  No woman, aside from family and friends, has ever crossed the threshold to her apartment above the funeral parlor.  Logan doubts that any woman would be interested in her as a long-term partner if they knew what she did for a living and where she lived.  However, she’s just as wary of women who want to date morticians.

Brooke Collier, a registered nurse, is newly arrived in town to help care for her ailing grandfather.  She relocates for more than just the love of her grandparents.  Several months prior, she found herself suddenly single when Wendy, her girlfriend of three years, moved out without warning.  The bitter revelation of the reasons behind their breakup leaves Brooke wanting nothing to do with love or relationships.

Friends and family conspire to unite Logan and Brooke in happy-ever-after.  Jack Swift, Logan’s younger brother, is home for the funeral of their father.  The two siblings share a close bond in which teasing and telepathy (well, not really, but they know each other well enough to finish each other’s brain waves, sentences, and sentiments) play a large part.  As Jack strives to make peace with life’s disappointments, he seems determined to make sure Logan experiences the same kind of peace.

Brooke’s grandparents and other extended family also nudge her towards Logan at every turn.

My main concern with Trusting Tomorrow is that it’s stuck in a kind of Ground Hog’s Day repetition, with both women repeating the same choices.  After the events of the story and the protagonists’ behavior, I wasn’t convinced of the inevitability of their connection as friends and lovers.  Overall, while this novel isn’t high on my list of contemporary romances, it may satisfy readers who enjoy small town settings, close-knit families, and uncommon occupations.