Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Gift of Time

Robin Alexander
Intaglio Publications
9781933113821, $16.95

For practical, grounded, thirty-something CPA Leah Marks, time is about to become far more complicated than she ever imagined possible. A chance stop into a local antique shop introduces her to Reagan Montgomery, a woman that Leah feels very attracted to and results in her acquiring an unusual, lovely, antique snow globe. The globe is one of a pair created by a local craftsman nearly 100 years ago. No ordinary globe, it would seem, as Leah discovers that its image changes while she watches it. A tiny woman who looks very much like Reagan appears from within the elegantly wrought Victorian house in the globe. Investigation of the artifact reveals they once belonged to two women who bear a striking resemblance to Leah and Reagan.

The story takes a remarkable and fanciful turn when Leah is propelled back in time to 1907 via the globe. In 1907 Leah becomes Leanne, a young woman who is in love with Elizabeth, who looks like a younger Reagan. Returning to 2004, Leah finds herself compelled to discover all that she can about the women, who for some magical and unknown reason, appear to be herself and Reagan in another lifetime. Leah decides the only way to understand the full story is to return to 1907. When Reagan joins Leah in the past, the women find they have set in motion a complex set of events. When Elizabeth's mother discovers the young lovers in a compromising position, they both experience the horrifically violent attitude toward lesbianism at the time. The situation looks dire. Still, Leah's humor is engaging, as she recalls, "I had been clawed, dragged, slapped and choked in less than twenty-four hours. This was the most action I'd seen since I tried to put the neighbor's cat in a grocery sack as a child" (110).

Gift of Time evolves from a "simple" time-traveling romance to a complicated, layered tale with several plot twists. The women struggle to minimize the impact of their actions on the future--and still win a life together in the 21st century. As Leah observes of the early timeline, "There was no central heat, the cold chilled me to the bone, no Internet, and heaven help me, no Mountain Dew, the main staple of my diet" (110).

Alexander has given readers a charming romance with some fast-paced action. Leah's internal voice is often funny and self-effacing; the romantic interludes are sweet and sexy. The first portion of the story was not quite as engaging to this reader, however, perhaps because some of the characterization seemed unsettled and forced. Within a few chapters the characterization improves as the action picks up and the surprises unfold. The result was engrossing and enjoyable. Alexander makes observations about racism and human relationships in the South, then and now, which are thoughtful, hopeful, and earnest. The settings of historic and pre-Katrina Gulfport are carefully realized. Give yourself a Gift of Time and enjoy every minute.

-MJ Lowe

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Date Night Club

Saxon Bennett
Bella Books
9781594930942 $13.95

Meet Chris McCoy, a charming, neurotic lesbian mail carrier living in Albuquerque, N.M., and member of a group of middle-aged lesbian friends who find themselves single, AGAIN. They decide to commit themselves to finding not just a lover-for-the-moment but a "perfect mate." Thus they form the "Date Night Club" where "Instead of letting love fall to chance, they would research it, explore all the places where it might lurk or frolic and nail it to the wall of each of their futures" (40).

The club members are an eccentric mix of women who provide a great deal of heart and humor on their "quest" for love. There is Bernadette Chevez Maestas, known as B., a high-energy and highly successful realtor with a physique akin to Dolly Parton's. Sarah K. Roswell is the pastry chef/business woman behind a well known line of creme puffs available in upscale groceries. Sarah calls herself "Midge" because as a Little Person, she feels she might as well control and embrace her identity with disarming, self affirming humor. Luce is the resident bohemian-earth-mother-artist-type who works in large scale stained glass and may still be grieving her late lover. And Amadeus, a tall, blue-eyed, red-haired German Amazon, runs The Zoo, a hip restaurant that's popular with "club members."

The group makes monthly forays dubbed "date night" that include volunteering at the local pride-fest picnic and attending a book group sponsored by the local women's bookstore. In the latter scene, Alex Taylor, the author of the month's selection, is in attendance because she hopes for feedback from readers. (Her book, titled "The Heiress," bears a striking resemblance to the story line of Bennett's book Talk Back.) Particularly amusing is the hot seat on which the author finds herself when her literary use of pickles is criticized by two very uptight feminist readers. The discussion that results is bizarre and hilarious. While no reader should assume an autobiographical origin to any novel, one can not help but wonder if Bennett is exorcising some particular experience with this wickedly funny scene. Alex Taylor's rather plaintively confused comment, "The pickle heiress was meant to be funny," (75), says it all.

Date Night Club is a very fine example of what Saxon Bennett does best: She creates a funny, charming and very human ensemble cast of lesbians, then carries her readers through an arc of challenge and growth with them. I laughed out loud several times, especially in regard to B.'s type A dominating, if well meaning, approach to orchestrating not only her own life but those of her good friends. The scene with the duct tape still gets me to smile.Dog people will love The Pipster, who makes Lassie look ill-trained, and the flyball games. Date Night Club is one of the funniest books I've read in a very long time, and is in my opinion the best of Bennett's many charming novels, in that her characters are so clearly defined and articulated from the very beginning, making the story a pleasure to follow. Give Date Night Club a try, you might not find your true love, but you're sure to enjoy the evening.

-MJ Lowe

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Running with the Wind

Nell Stark
Bold Strokes Books
1933110708, $15.95

Sail away in Promising First Novel.

Running with the Wind is an engaging engrossing debut novel by Nell Stark. Corrie Marston, a graduate student in engineering, spends her summer teaching sailing in Rhode Island. Corrie is talented, intelligent, fit, good looking and very good at sailing--Olympic-class good. Denise Lewis was Corrie's crew for the Olympic trials. Their relationship was intense, exciting and closeted, as Denise wasn't ready to come out. Before long, Denise left Corrie for the security and validation of a heterosexual relationship with William, Corrie's brother. The siblings have always had a competitive streak but this blow created a rift between them. Since Denise and William's engagement, Corrie has shut off a great deal of her pain, anger and her capacity for love. She has "made a point to hook up with friends--not random, but no strings attached"(47).

Corrie is one of the most thoughtful and articulate depictions of a bisexual woman this reviewer can recall. As a friend of Corrie comments, "I get the feeling that gender doesn't really matter to her. That it's just another physical characteristic like body type or something"(48). Still, Corrie admits to herself that "seducing men made her feel powerful, somehow. Whereas women just felt good" (49). Some elements of Corrie's view might make readers uncomfortable. She has not dealt with the emotional scars from Denise's rejection and that has pushed Corrie into a patch of windless water where she is foundering.

Quinn Davies, an intelligent, shy, 27 year-old woman in vet school has been convinced by an old friend, Drew, to take sailing lessons this summer. Quinn's gift with animals results in her helping Corrie's dog, Frog when she has an accident. The event places the two women in more intimate surroundings than the marina. Aware of Corrie's approach to sex, Quinn, despite her attraction to Corrie, is careful. For Quinn, "The entire idea of casual sex-- even between friends--made her uncomfortable. Sex meant losing control, and losing control meant whoever you were with could really, truly see you. Not just physically because you were naked, but emotionally--and what if they didn't like what they saw? Even if they did, you could never take it back. Sex wasn't like blurting out a confession by accident that you could then pretend was a joke. It was permanent"(48). With this thoughtful self awareness, Quinn refuses Corrie's causal overtures.

When Corrie realizes that William and Denise will be sailing in the annual Regatta, she decides to court Quinn in a face-saving plan to prove that she can get a girlfriend. Despite her sexual experience, Corrie is the naive one in many ways and the leaks in this boat appear quickly as Corrie, whose observing ego is not very strong, begins to fall for Quinn. Yet the more "innocent" Quinn understands more of herself, Corrie, and the nature of love and loyalty. The two women will have to find winds of trust and love for the relationship to sail.

Appropriately, sailing is one of the characters of Running with the Wind. How Corrie, Quinn, William, and other characters approach and relate to the sport is fascinating and revealing. The race scenes, both impromptu and formal, kept this reviewer turning pages. Further, Stark uses the various characters' understanding of sailing to explain sailing elements without distracting the reader with details. Corrie's frame of reference for a great deal of life is sailing and her analogies are nautical. She understands the boats, the sails, the wind, the sea and her role as a sailor. Corrie finds solace in the power and non-judging challenge of the wind and the water.

Running with the Wind is a fast-paced read. Stark's characters are richly drawn and interesting. The dialog can be lively and wry and elicited several laughs from this reader. Like Kallmaker's All the Wrong Places, the discussions of the nature of sex, love, power, and sexuality are insightful and represent a welcome voice from the view of late-20-something characters today. Stark also captures lovely, intimate, and vivid moments such as, "Corrie remembered how smooth and soft [Denise's] eyebrows had felt as she traced them with one forefinger in the aftermath of their lovemaking" (14). The love scenes between Corrie and Quinn are erotically charged and sweet.

Running with the Wind is a wonderful debut novel which holds great promise. It's a touching romance with lively, realistic characters in an interesting setting. This reviewer looks forward to reading Stark's future stories and in the meanwhile, recommends readers pick up a copy and set sail.

-MJ Lowe

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Finders Keepers

Karin Kallmaker
978-1594930720, $13.95

In her latest romance, Finders Keepers, Kallmaker has once again turned the genre on its ear. She has given readers a hot, romantic story that bookends two complex journeys her lovers take in order to become and find the "keepers" they desire. In the course of the lead characters' struggles Kallmaker prompts readers to seriously consider two questions at the heart of romantic love in general and the romance novel genre in particular. She asks us to consider: what is beautiful? And what makes a perfect match?

Linda Bartok and Marissa Chabot meet in a lifeboat when the cruise ship they are on sinks. The vacation is saved when they find an island. Romance blooms in the languid and lush tropical resort. Both women find in the other someone who sees parts of them that most people never notice. In Marissa's case, Linda sees not only her intelligence and wit but past the excess pounds to the strong, attractive, and desirable woman. In the Linda's case, Marissa sees beyond the highly cultivated gorgeous exterior to the strong, capable, and intelligent woman. In the physical expression of their love, they find new aspects of themselves. The sweetly romantic week is a watershed for both women and a delight for readers. When their vacation ends, Linda and Marissa each begin a struggle to better integrate their exteriors and interiors and to fulfill the potential they glimpsed via the other's eyes. Both woman will deal with their past and discover their own strength and beauty.

Linda, frequently mistaken for a popular, beautiful actress, has been running to various far-flung and out-of-the-way locales to avoid the demons of her childhood and her mother's irrational expectations for an acceptable daughter. Hiding behind what she thinks of as her fa├žade of beauty, Linda has engaged in empty sexual encounters but no one really saw her, none of the women really touched her. At the outset of one of these meaningless encounters Linda thinks, "What piece of me do you want? You have to pick because you don't get the whole me. There is no whole me anymore." (86) Until Linda finds Marissa. Time spent with Marissa allows Linda to see that she has to face and make peace with her past in order to heal and to find a future.

A computer geek with a wry sense of humor, Marissa has hidden herself in her work, oversized clothes and the all-too-easily acquired extra pounds of a sedentary job and a lonely personal life. Falling for Linda has been a wake-up call to for Marissa to stop the spiral and reclaim her body as part of herself. Since adolescence Marissa has been hiding her sexual attractiveness behind the protection of her size. Yet Linda's impression of Marissa is that she "had a passion for living and it had shown in the way she'd attacked the cliff. It showed in the way she made love. Even in the way she enjoyed water, sand and new experiences ..." (81)

Finders Keepers is not a light read, if you'll pardon the pun. It is a complex story with many layers. Marissa's struggle with weight-loss and fitness illustrates the "get thin quick without work" claims most American weight loss companies tout. (An attractive promise Americans are all too happy to buy.) Kallmaker provides insights into evaluating programs and understanding reasonable goals without being pedantic and Marissa's hard-won success is inspiring. Readers glimpse relatively small portions of Linda's childhood and the frightful and bizarre trauma at the hand of her mother. It reminds us that monetary success is no guarantee of love, health, happiness, or sanity. Yet the roots of her mother's obsessions are a dark reflection of American views toward perfect beauty, particularly epitomized by the beauty pageant circuit.

Further, Marissa is one of the owners of "Finders Keepers" a dating service that uses computer analysis of a complex and detailed questionnaire to match hopeful singles with their perfect partner. Thus the question of what makes a good match and, perhaps most interesting, what threatens to break even the best match, is an engaging thread through the story.

Despite the heavy topics and the "anti-romance" elements, Finders Keepers is a touching, powerful, sensual romance. In her trademark style, the author has breathed life into interesting, multi-faceted characters; she handles intense issues with care and insight; and perhaps most importantly, she uses humor and wit to keep the story from being too heavy. Marissa's tendency to write "letters" that she will never send to her mother, deceased father, or Linda are charmingly wry observations and the delightful scene wherein Marissa's mother announces her acceptance of her daughter's lesbianism is one that will stay with this reader. Indeed, her success in weaving all these themes into a moving romance makes Finders Keepers one of Kallmaker's best novels. Readers should make a date with Finders Keepers. You are likely to find it is a perfect and beautiful match.

-MJ Lowe