Tuesday, July 23, 2002

Unexpected Sparks

Gina L. Dartt
Justice House Publishing

Forty years old and a prominent businesswoman in her town, Kate Shannon is about to change her life. The owner and manager of Novel Companions, an independent bookshop in downtown, Truro, Nova Scotia, Kate has spent much of the last year becoming friends with a regular customer, Nikki Harris.

The 26 years old Nikki is a shy, intelligent, beautiful and openly lesbian woman struggling to survive small town life in the economically depressed Canadian Maritimes. A book lover, Nikki enjoys the cozy atmosphere of Novel Companions, especially since Kate started carrying gay and lesbian fiction. She also enjoys the detailed discussions with Kate of novel plots, characters, favorite authors and related political themes. In fact, Nikki has become painfully aware that she is quite attracted to Kate and has recently cut down on her time at the bookstore, in hopes of weaning her affections away from the charming, presumably straight, owner. A bleak February is looming long and lonely for Nikki.

When the insurance office across the street from the bookshop burns down one night, Nikki rushes to the scene to make certain it's not Novel Companions. A perplexed Kate had noticed the new distance from Nikki. Seeing Nikki standing out in the cold, Kate invites the young woman into her apartment above Novel Companions. The two women watch the fire and begin to speculate about its origin.

Nikki's natural curiosity is piqued when the body of Sam Madison, the owner of the insurance office, is found in the ashes. She convinces Kate to help her investigate the fire. Kate, willing to go along with an opportunity to spend more time with Nikki, agrees to help. Unexpected Sparks is a classic armchair mystery with old fashioned, timeless clues and important character revelations leading Nikki and Kate to answer the questions of why and how Sam ended up in the burning office.

Via their amateur sleuthing project, Kate and Nikki find themselves drawing closer together. Their attraction and developing romance is another theme of Unexpected Sparks. Dartt illustrates falling in love and coming out in a charming and touching manner with respect and humor for her characters. Indeed, her characterization is realistic and perceptive. The elegant and composed Kate is surprised and delighted by the depth and range of the emotions she feels for Nikki. She is also startled by the attention, positive and negative, from customers, friends and neighbors as they begin to hear about her new lavender relationship. Dartt's Truro setting is nicely detailed and provides insight into Canadian small town life, particularly for lesbians.

Unexpected Sparks is Dartt's first novel and there are some elements that could be explored more. Several aspects of Nikki's past are still a mystery and readers who know Dartt's Star Trek fan fiction stories might be surprised at the slightly reticent quality of her love scenes. However, these details are minor and take nothing away from one's pleasure in the story. In fact, the possibilities for just such future revelations have this reader looking forward to the next two Kate and Nikki mysteries. In the meanwhile, if you enjoy armchair mysteries with a lovely lavender flair, pick up a copy of Unexpected Sparks. This book is a perfect cozy evening read.

-MJ Lowe

BN: Unexpected Sparks was re-released by Bold Strokes Books in 2006 and has been followed by Unexpected Ties.

Death, Sweet Suitor Mine

Chris Anne Wolfe
Windstorm Creative

Windstorm Creative has released another short story in it's Delimit Nonpareil series. Death, Sweet Suitor Mine examines the "relationship" between Death and a woman struggling with a life threatening illness. As Chris Newport mentions in her introduction, "This isn't a light read." (5) She is quite correct. Death, Sweet Suitor Mine is a first person and intimate exploration of how the narrator views death. A touching, even haunting story, it lingers in the reader's mind. This is especially true given that this story was written by the late Chris Anne Wolfe, who died in 1997 after several years of struggling with cancer. Wolfe saw four fantasy adventure novels published in her life. Each of them is wonderful and it appears that her skill with short stories was equally impressive.

Windstorm Creative has taken some effort in creating this book, described as handmade, 50 pages, and full color. However, this reader was disappointed with the aesthetics of the project. The book is actually 24 pages with a large font, unusual margins -- very wide on top and bottom, yet very narrow on the sides -- and the pages of this copy are not cut square to the print. Much of this formatting appears to be to make more of an approximately 3000 word, at the most, short story. Perhaps least forgivable in a book of this nature and length are the typographical errors. The cover is quite attractive -- a recognizable portrait of Wolfe with a shadowed profile of an African American woman -- yet somewhat disturbing in its implication, which to this reader was not defined by the author's work.

The handmade and environmentally friendly elements not withstanding, Death, Sweet Suitor Mine does not justify the price. It is not a pleasing gift book format. Nor is it long enough -- regardless of the quality of the writing -- for the price. And the repeated color photograph on each page does not compensate, regardless of publisher expense. There are a number of possible formats that could have been used to create a more enjoyable tribute to Wolfe's legacy. Newport's introduction also mentions that Wolfe gifted several unpublished short stories, novellas, and novels to Windstorm Creative in her will. Hopefully, the press will not attempt to dole out each of Wolfe's stories in this manner.

Finally, Windstorm Creative has the annoying habit of requesting in a front peice that readers buy their books, rather than borrowing them, bemoaning the difficulties faced by small presses. This reader is very sympathetic toward small, independent publishers and values their struggles to provide access to non-mainstream books, especially titles with positive lesbian characters. Having said that, the best way to increase book sales, is to release more good books. Lecturing the reader tends to create the opposite effect. Death, Sweet Suitor Mine is disappointing in everything except for Wolfe's writing. If you have the opportunity to read it, do so. . . . Perhaps you'd like to borrow my copy?

-MJ Lowe

Monday, July 1, 2002

The Road to Glory

The Road To Glory
T. Novan and Blayne Cooper
Renaissance Alliance Publishing,
1930928270, 264 pages

The Road To Glory is a charming romantic comedy from two of Xenaverse's better known bards, Blayne Cooper, AKA Advocate and T. Novan. The lead characters, RJ Fitzgerald, a tall auburn haired handywoman, and Leigh Matthews, a petite chatty blonde trucker have a familiar feel to uber fanfiction readers. Cooper and Novan even point this out via a dialog between a very animated couple of squirrels. Yes, the squirrels from Cooper's Story of Me make a reappearance and observe:

The female followed her mate's line of vision. "The humans we spy on back home!"
"Not quite."
"The hair ..."
She squinted. "The eyes ..."
"Just a little different. But not much. Same builds. Same wonderful screen presence no matter the location or genre." She rolled her eyes. "We all know what they're going to look like.""Genetic mutations because of the inherent weakness of their race?"
"Or lazy writers." (41)

Leigh finds herself diverted to Glory, South Dakota, by a highway construction detour. At Fitz's, a diner just outside of the small town, Leigh falls in lust at first sight with RJ. She happily returns each week during her circular truck route. After several fast and furiously erotic encounters, Leigh invites RJ to join her on her week off in Seattle.

As these two women continue explore their feelings and each other, it becomes increasingly clear that nothing is quite what it seems in Glory or with RJ. The vacation week in Seattle is full of humor, romance, and revelations. There are amusing trips to shop, to dance at a popular lesbian club, to play the arcade at a carnival and even to visit a retirement community. Strangely at the latter RJ spends time with an old friend named Ruth and gives us insight into the varied roles of women in the military during World War II.

Wry and witty observations of American culture in general and particularly of scifi/fantasy fandoms are sprinkled throughout the story. For example, upon discovering that RJ still lives with her mother, Leigh asks:

"You don't attend Star Trek and Xena conventions wearing silly costumes and stalking the actors, do you?" RJ looked totally confused. "I have no idea what on this earth you're talking about." "Good." Leigh nodded. A girl couldn't be too careful. Serial killers were one thing. But those weirdo convention goers were something else. (89)

The Road To Glory is an enchanting story dealing with issues of love, death and finding the hearts desire. Readers familiar with the Xena fandom, particularly uber fanfiction, might have a greater appreciation of some of the humor. However, that familiarity is by no means needed to enjoy this story. All that is required is the time to indulge and a willingness to go for the long haul.
-MJ Lowe