Monday, August 29, 2005

The Unknown Mile

Jamie Clevenger
Bella Books
1931513570, $12.95

Life is in turmoil for Kelly Haldon, the protagonist of Jamie Clevenger's The Unknown Mile. A college student who plans to spend the summer earning her senior year tuition, she returns to her home town of Ashton, less than an hour from San Francisco, and experiences that odd "out of place" quality of a young adult in the midst of transitions. Traveling that "unknown mile" without a map, Kelly isn't sure what she wants to do after she graduates college. She can't decide on graduate schools or a profession. Compounding this confusion, within days of her arrival Kelly finds herself involved in love affairs with two women: Shannon has recently finished her Army enlistment and is in the Reserves, while Gina is an SFPD rookie officer. Neither woman has been able to let go of their last relationship and thus both are sending Kelly mixed messages.

Realizing that her job as an instructor at the local karate dojo will not provide enough money, Kelly begins looking for additional work. Very soon, however, the work comes to her. Rick, the enigmatic silent investor in the dojo, offers her to pay her to deliver mysterious packages late at night. Retired from the FBI, Rick runs his own investigative service and, strangely, he seems to be aware of Kelly's involvement with Shannon.

The coincidences compound when Kelly literally runs into a woman in the BART station who has a photo of Shannon's ex-girlfriend, apparently as part of a report of some kind. How can this woman be connected to Shannon? Before long Kelly's Don't Tell" policy for lesbians serving in the military comes to the forefront as it appears that Shannon and some of her friends are being investigated. Somehow Rick seems to be involved as well. Kelly finds herself trying to sort out everyone's secrets while she juggles a few of her own.

The Unknown Mile is Clevenger's first novel. She manages to capture the feel of that unsettled time of one's early 20s and her characters are intelligently drawn and interesting. This is particularly true of Kelly; even when (or perhaps because) she can be annoying in her indecision, she is also often quite endearing. There are insightful and touching little side stories with Kelly's students at the dojo, engaging sparring matches in Kelly's own study of the martial art, and some fast moving, suspenseful scenes in Kelly's "jobs" for Rick. Meanwhile, the sexual energy between Kelly and her girlfriends is electric.

In many ways, The Unknown Mile raises more questions than it answers. And indeed, the next book in what looks to be a promising new series has already been announced. However, the novel is not just a "series teaser" as Kelly does seem to have a little more direction for her drive through life and her growth is satisfying for readers. Like the sporty fun of a little ride in Kelly's Volkswagen Bug (chapter titles are actually the odometer readings from Kelly's car), The Unknown Mile is worth the purchase price of that tank of gasoline. This reviewer will be looking to catch Clevenger's next vehicle as well.

-MJ Lowe