Sunday, October 23, 2011

Verge by Z Egloff

Publisher:       Bywater Books                                          

Is it possible to like a book but not like its main character?  Verge will give the reader a chance to decide that.

Claire McMinn is a recovering alcoholic and sex addict who wants to be a film maker.  Unfortunately, she slept with the wife of the professor who controls whether or not she can stay in the film program at her college and she got caught.  Now Claire is scrambling to save her career.  If she can complete her class project, maybe she'll be allowed back in the program.  Hope resides in Sister Hilary, who works at a community center where Claire volunteers.  The center owns video equipment and Claire is given permission to use it if she will make a film about the center. Complications pile on top of complications between Claire's peculiar family, her best friend Shelby, with whom she has on and off again affairs, and Sister Hilary.  Whether or not Claire is going to be able to accomplish any of her goals is highly doubtful.

The best way to describe Claire McMinn is to say that she's a mess.  She's certainly irresponsible and her own worst enemy.  In quick order she sleeps with her professor's wife, her best friend, who identifies herself as straight, and then seduces a nun.  Some of her behavior can be explained by her being in an alcoholic haze, but there's also an underlying feeling that Claire thinks she can do anything she wants to and get away with it.  She always seems perplexed when other people don't see things that way.  If she was deliberately trying to ruin her life, she couldn't do a much better job at it.

A description of this book says: "Verge will appeal to readers who are interested in spirituality, addiction recovery, the madcap humor of gay/lesbian AA, the creative arts, and the lives of twenty-first-century nuns, as well as the trials and tribulations—and adventures—of contemporary lesbians."  The book certainly touches on some of those subjects, but not in a very convincing manner.  If this is supposed to be a picture of the lives of contemporary lesbians, then it's a disappointing one.  While Claire says she's dedicated to recovering from her alcoholism, her behavior calls into question her true dedication to the underlying problem. She makes bad decisions.  It's hard to know whether to be pulling for Claire as she bumbles through her life or hope that someone finally confronts her for what she's doing and holds her accountable.

The same feeling involves the whole book.  Verge is structurally well written.  That can be said with certainty.  Z Egloff knows how to write.  It has received acclaim from some well-known writers and was a finalist and winner of some awards.  The question is if the acclaim is for the production of the book or the story within it. No matter how well the story is written, the main character is irritating to the point of wanting to sometimes slap her for her behavior.  Perhaps that is the essence of creating a realistic character.

Going back to the original question, is it possible to like a book but not like its main character?  Maybe it's best to leave that up to the reader to decide.  This reader's answer would be "No," but there is room for discussion.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Photographs of Claudia by KG MacGregor

Publisher:          Bella Books

Photographs of Claudia is about the relationship between two women in two different decades.  Leonora Westcott is hoping to be accepted into a program for photographers and she needs to put together a portfolio.  She meets Claudia Galloway, a teacher intern, who agrees to become her model.  As their sessions progress, the pictures become more intimate and an attraction grows between the women.  Claudia is scheduled to marry a very wealthy man, so Leo is afraid to tell her how she feels, but Claudia takes the lead.  She decides that she wants to spend her life with Leo and returns home to tell her family.  She never comes back.  Years later Leo, who is now a successful photographer, agrees to do a friend a favor and take wedding pictures for a young woman who turns out to be Claudia's daughter.  The passion that was once there reignites, but Leo has risked herself one time.  Twice might be more than she's capable of.

This book starts off a little slow and turns into another "straight woman discovers she's gay" story.  However, it is well developed and tells a poignant story.  The women meet in their twenties and don't see each other again for a quarter of a century.  It's rather sad to think about what they missed in their lives, but there is no guarantee that their situation would have worked out anyway.  As mature women, they might have a greater chance of success.

MacGregor is an accomplished writer.  She knows how to give a story a sad twist without it becoming maudlin.  She also knows how to resurrect it into something happier.  The characters are appealing, the plot flows at a good pace for most of the book and it's an enjoyable book to read.  KG MacGregor is a dependable writer, so spending the time on one of her books really isn't a gamble.


Sunday, October 16, 2011

After the Fall by Robin Summers

Publisher:            Bold Strokes Books

Taylor Stone is trying to survive in a world that has been devastated by a plague.  Though it's never clear exactly what the plague was, it's killed millions of people around the world, more women than men.  Keep moving, don't get involved has become Taylor's mantra as she struggles to get to her family in Indiana to see if any of them survived.  Then she comes to Burninghead Farm.  She finds a community of survivors who   through ingenuity and will-power have built a self-sustaining camp and they invite Taylor to join them.  Her intention is to only spend a few days while she strengthens herself for the rest of the trip.  She doesn't need friends and she doesn't want friends, but the people in the community have a way of working themselves into her emotions.  That's especially true of Kate.  Kate reignites Taylor's interest in life.  She shows the potential for new hope and love, but Taylor doesn't find that as appealing as might be thought.  Taylor has done things she's not proud of and she feels they make her unworthy of Kate's love.  Kate could heal Taylor's soul, but Taylor isn't sure she can have that.  She needs to find out what has happened to her family.  That need may destroy Taylor's chance to create a new life.

Summers knows what the focus of her story is.  She doesn't dwell on what caused the catastrophe because the message is clear that it doesn't matter how mankind failed.  What matters is that it did.  This book is about survival and what comes after the destruction.  It's not an odyssey either.  Unlike many similar stories, the reader will not follow Taylor through the situations she encounters before she arrives at Burninghead Farm.  Just enough of that is revealed to know that life hasn't been easy and that Taylor's soul has been scarred.  What matters is the time that Taylor spends on the farm and the way it transforms her.

Taylor and Burninghead Farm provide an interesting contrast.  Because of her experiences, Taylor is cynical and jaded.  She trusts no one because she knows even people who seem friendly are probably waiting for a chance to take advantage of you.  The farm is comparable to an experiment in utopianism.  Things are almost too perfect in that the people work together peacefully with no disharmony.  The only malcontents are expelled soon after Taylor arrives and though they reappear later, they're unimportant to most of the story.  The people live by a common set of rules that appeal to everyone.  It would be interesting to see how this community was established in the first place and able to achieve what they had, but again, what is important is that it exists.  Taylor and the farm represent the battle between despair and hope.  Taylor will come to realize that, contrary to what she says, she's just as invested in the farm's success as the people who have been there all along.  With all of the discussion about whether or not the world is about to come to an end, one can only hope that there is a Burninghead Farm out there for when it happens.

After the Fall is easy to read and tells a compelling story.  Summers alternates third person chapters with those written in first person so that the reader is always aware of what is going on in Taylor's head and can follow her transformation.  It makes a very interesting debut novel for Robin Summers; one worth reading.

Fearless by Erin O'Reilly

Publisher:        Affinity e-Book Press

A story that is getting more coverage in recent years is the one about the women pilots who helped with the effort to win World War II.  Although they were not supposed to go into battle, these women acted as the pilots who ferried planes to the war fronts and to repair facilities.  That occasionally brought them into as much danger as the war zones.

Fearless is about a group called the Air Transport Auxiliary.  Both men and women joined it to carry out work that would free battle-ready pilots for combat.  The story features a group of women who come from such diverse places as England, Ireland, Australia, Texas and Chile.  They also come from diverse backgrounds – rich, poor and in-between, gay and straight.  They train together, they fly together and they form a uniquely molded band dedicated to a common cause.  Two of them, Jo Laughlin and Sarah Faulkner, are particularly popular with the rest of the group, so when they disappear on a mission, everyone goes into a tailspin.  These women face danger and adventure every day.  Can they deal with the possible loss of two of their own?

The topic of the women pilots in World War II is one that has been covered in a number of books recently.  O'Reilly's book doesn't add any new knowledge to that history and unfortunately it doesn't tell a very compelling story.  Too much time is spent devoting chapters to telling the backgrounds events for each of the women.  It feels like the reader is spending chapters reading through biographies.  The details that are necessary for the later story could have been covered much quicker.  The part of the book that relates to the women's experiences flying the planes never explodes with the adventure that would seem to be inherent in this activity.  When Jo and Sarah are shot down in France, little about their adventure really seems to be dangerous until the last few minutes.  As some say in the advertising world, the book just doesn't pop.  It seems to hover right on the edge of catching fire, but misses its chance.  It's similar to eating really good food with a cold.  You know the taste is there, you just aren't receiving it.

It's difficult to know how to classify this book.  There is a small romance in it, but it's very subdued, so the book is not a romance.  There is some adventure, but not the kind that has the reader on the edge of her seat wondering what is going to happen.  It could be classified as historical fiction or possibly a character study of a group of people.  The story itself is fine, certainly for escapist reading.  There are more memorable books about the same topic however.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Beyond Instinct by Lynn Ames

Publisher:          Phoenix Rising Press

Sometimes you see reviews that say, don't start this book unless you have time because you won't be able to put it down.  When I say that about Beyond Instinct, believe it.

Sage McNally saw something she shouldn't have.  She didn't know it, but what she saw causes her to be kidnapped off of the streets of Mali and taken into the desert by Tuareg warriors.  Vaughn Elliot, former CIA agent and now a security expert for the State Department, hasn't known the diplomat long, but she knows she has to rescue Sage and determine why someone would do this to her.  The women have fallen into a treacherous plot that stretches from Washington, DC, to Africa and on to Afghanistan.  Vaughn, who has watched a former lover be murdered in the line of duty, is determined that it won't happen again.  A congressional visit appears to be at the center of the mystery and Vaughn has to determine how all of the pieces fit together.  Sage holds the key if she can only remember what it is.  The women are joined by a cast that includes highly skilled field agents, corrupt politicians, deadly assassins and heroes who are willing to die for what is right.  Though Sage and Vaughn are attracted to each other, nothing can come before the mission.  Too much depends on its outcome.

Lynn Ames has written a suspenseful adventure novel that can be compared with the best in the field.  Beyond Instinct can stand against any Robert Ludlum or James Patterson novel on the shelf.  The action is fast paced and the characters are defined just enough to see each one of them clearly and why that person had to be in the story.  The weaponry and technology that are employed in the book have obviously been well researched and their usage gives the book a very real and modernistic feeling.  The emotions that come from the characters tap into the reader and create a feeling that the reader is sharing the fear, horror and relief that everyone is experiencing.  As the reader nears the end of the book the need to read slower speaks to the reluctance to see the story end.

Ames does two things in this book that make it refreshing.  The people of Africa are treated with great respect.  Unfortunately, the stereotype in Western literature is to show them as poor, corrupt and backward.  Ames' Africa most certainly contains poverty and illegal activities, but there are also characters who act with great dignity and honor.  There is a very delicate balance struck in the Tuareg leader.  Though he is going to perform a despicable act, he does it out of a sense of honor and has the decency to understand that what he is doing is wrong.  The other interesting point is the relationship between Sage and Vaughn.  The fact that they are lesbians and feel drawn to each other is a strong thread in the story, but it doesn't dominate what is going on.  There is never any doubt that the point of this story is to figure out who is behind what is happening, what their ultimate objective is, and how to stop them.  This is never a story that is simply holding together scenes so that the women can hop into bed together.

One of the best things to observe in literature over time is the growth of an author.  Anyone who is a Lynn Ames fan from her first books is going to find a very different writer in Beyond Instinct.  From someone who wrote rather formulaic novels, she has progressed to something much more.  Her use of vocabulary, characters and scenery has grown tremendously from her first books and gives this one a more mature feeling and allows the reader to flow seamlessly from scene to scene.  Ames' development of her abilities is striking.

For anyone who enjoys a book that is based around adventure, intrigue and suspense, there can't be a better example than Beyond InstinctJust one warning.  Don't start it late at night because you won't be going to sleep for a while.