Friday, May 23, 2008

Fool on the Hill

Morgan Hunt
$14.95, trade paperback, 190 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1593500276
Alyson Books

Morgan Hunt's second mystery, Fool on the Hill brings back Tess Camillo, a smart-mouth lesbian with a varied and colorful past. Tess is a 40-something computer nerd and breast cancer survivor. Her original love was actually mathematics, and computer programming was more palatable than accounting or teaching math. Hunt has created a strong, quirky voice in Tess. Her whimsical associations, internal musical sound-tracks, and slightly skewed world view are charmingly idiosyncratic.

Fool on the Hill opens as Tess and her housemate, Lana, attend a rock concert of Gabrielle Letheross with Cody Crowne as the opening act. Cody had been a chart topper in the 1980s but is fading in his late middle years. Lana, president of the local Cody Crowne fan club, has been waiting for years to see him in concert. Both women have a fantastic time. The next day brings a shock when his murdered body is discovered by Tess out walking in Open Space. Particularly shocking is the extremely brutal method of his murder. His teeth were removed, his finger tips were cut off, and he was crucified.

The traumatic discovery piques Tess's curiosity. Prompting her to this: "I wondered if [Lana]'d remember to separate the whites for bleaching, but didn't want to nag her. I wondered what Thomas Paine would have thought of our current electoral process. I wondered how many IQ points we lose for each hour of reality TV we watch. I wondered if I should take a personal interest in tracking down Cody's murderers. I wondered a lot of things, then helped Lana with the laundry. Even after your own personal Calvary, you need clean underwear. " (24)

Tess is assisted in her amateur sleuthing by a range of folks. Lana uses her new age touch to help question suspects and acts as look out. Tess's "husband" Roark Jurist -- they met over 20 years ago while both were struggling to survive in that closet called the US Navy, married for cover, divorced after they both left the service, and have remained friends -- now works with the "Immensely Powerful Government Spooks or IPoGS" (34) and provides Tess with an amazing array of valuable information via his connections. Kari, a detective with the SDPD whom Tess dated briefly, provides more official assistance. Hunt has created a fairly traditional mystery in that the clues are apparent to the reader as Tess finds them. The story is fast paced and fun. As secrets are uncovered, another murder occurs, bring the case even closer to home for Tess and Lana.

Tess's San Diego and its surroundings add color and character to Fool on the Hill with various locales playing roles in the plot. Carousel rides, trips to Legoland, Balboa Park, and the historic district give texture to the story, including a charming scene at the Chicken Pot Pie Shop, a San Diego landmark diner. Or as Tess describes, "The decor was Green Acres kitsch. .... A high shelf along the far wall held ceramic poultry of every sort. Rhode Island red knickknacks could be found behind the cash register; macaroni art of leghorns and bantams hung on the dinning area walls. Not exactly Martha Stewart, but with food this good, who gives a cluck?" (159)

Tess's voice is distinct and amusing, although sometimes her over-the-top metaphors are distracting. Occasionally Tess's powerful narrative voice becomes expository, not quite successfully taking the place of dialogue and action, from which some scenes might have benefited. This kind of "telling" of the story has a "thinning" effect to the novel overall. Hunt is a talented writer who has created a cast of quirky characters. Additional constructive editing could help Hunt develop a more robust mystery to better showcase her vivid characterization. She has great promise for future mysteries. This reader certainly looks forward to more of Tess.

The prime example of a metaphor that did not work, for this reader, was Tess's analogy for oral sex. "When we changed positions, her softest layers became the rink in an Olympic competition; my tongue, the skates. I played with figure eight's [sic], smooth glides, and occasional double Axels. Encouraged by her moans, I won the Gold with a triple loop." (143) Ice and blades, even attached to skates, just aren't on my mind regardless of the grace involved. If Hunt needed a sports analogy, synchronized swimming might have worked better.

Perhaps more importantly, the love scene, which was Tess's first sexual encounter since her surgery, seemed anticlimactic, as it were. Certainly the scene failed, for this reader, to resolve in a clear way the anxiety that Tess had previously expressed while anticipating the event, baring her surgery scars to a lover for the first time. It seemed a disservice to Nova's character for her not to be shown reassuring and satisfying Tess's needs. Yet Tess seems much less introspective about the relationship than she is about other aspects of her life. Since Tess's romantic life is the second most important thread to the novel, its light treatment is unsatisfying.

Overall, Fool on the Hill is fast paced, engaging and fun. The characters are interesting and compelling. Tess Camillo is a welcome addition to the cast of amateur sleuths that mystery readers can enjoy. Pick up a copy, Tess is sure to have you humming along with a world spinning round.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Winners vs. Classics

Award season has started. Nominations have closed, short lists are being announced, and excitement and anticipation are building.

Every year, looking at the various lists of winners, I find myself with mixed feelings. The American Library Association's GLBT awards, now known as the Stonewall Book Award and Barbara Gittings Literature Award are the earliest GLBT book awards, dating back to 1971. The Lambda Literary Awards and Publishing Triangle Awards both began in 1988; while the Golden Crown Literary Society is still the new kid on the block founded in 2004. I am proud
that in my lifetime, organizations have been founded to honor books that reflect and validate the lesbian experience. However, invariably there are titles that I would have liked to have seen honored that weren't short listed, let alone granted an award.

This year,
that thought prompted me to consider books that never won an award but have the publishing version of "living well is the best revenge." The titles listed below are now considered classics. All pre-date most such awards. However, as part of that "classic" characteristic, they are still in print, or so frequently so as to be readily available in the secondary market, and they have touched untold lives since their first appearance.

The Price of Salt, Claire Morgan (aka Patricia Highsmith) 1951. Originally produced in hardcover, The Price of Salt appeared shortly after Highsmith’s success, Strangers on a Train. Yet due to the controversial, not to mention illegal subject matter, it was released under a pseudonym. The Price of Salt was the first novel in English (I don’t know about other languages) that ended with the two female leads surviving to love each other. No murder. No suicide. No jail time. No one married the Y-type ... or more correctly, Carol got divorced and went after the girl. Wow.

Spring Fire, Vin Packer (aka Marijane Meaker) 1952. Now credited with launching the lesbian themed pulp genre, Spring Fire was the first of some 20 titles written by Ms. Meaker before Stonewall. As Ann Aldrich, she wrote a series of non-fiction (and controversial) titles printed in from 1955 to 1972. In 1970, Gene Damon (Barbara Grier, co-founder of Naiad Press) in The Ladder (Daughters of Bilitis newsletter) referred to Ms. Meaker as "the evil genius" for her excellent writing about unpleasant and unsatisfactory lesbian themes. Ms. Meaker has written award winning teen novels under the name, M.E. Kerr and in 2003 released a memoir of her two year relationship with Highsmith. Spring Fire has been re-released by Cleis Press in 2004 and is now available in ebook formats.

Odd Girl Out, Ann Bannon, 1957. The first of five novels in the "Beebo Brinker Chronicles" was Odd Girl Out and while the Beebo books have a certain campy quality of the time; they were a relatively positive depiction of lesbians. They granted women an alternative to heterosexual “Susie Homemaker” in the years before Stonewall. Ms. Bannon has said that Vin Packer's novels were an inspiration to her.

Desert of the Heart, Jane Rule, 1964. Perhaps better known for being the inspiration behind the movie, Desert Hearts, Jane Rule's work was groundbreaking in the matter of fact quality of the lesbian relationship. After several rejections as not negative enough toward lesbianism, it was originally released in hardcover. The relationship is touching and thoughtful, but it's not the focus of the novel which has much to say about gambling and capitalism as well as loneliness.

Ruby Fruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown, 1973. Ms. Brown is better known today for her anthropomorphizing mysteries, the Mrs. Murphy series and Master of the Hunt Sister Jane series. However, Ruby Fruit Jungle is arguably the best selling lesbian novel. First released by Daughters Inc (a now defunct feminist press), it went through numerous editions before Ruby Fruit Jungle was sold to Bantam. With her humor and outrageous adventures Molly Bolt has seen unknown thousands of women out of the closet with a new defiant joy and affection. Reading Ms. Brown’s bio on her website is rather fun.

Annie on My Mind, Nancy Garden, 1982. One of the most banned books in America, Garden dared to te
ll the charming, confusing, touching story of two high school girls falling in love and coming out. Garden has written dozens of books for children and teens and others since Annie have dealt with lesbian and gay themes, most notably The Year They Burned the Books, 1999 and Endgame, 2006. The former was inspired by the controversy around Annie while the latter deals with the violent response of youth to repeatedly hostile bullying. My personal favorite of Garden's lesbian themed books is Good Moon Rising, 1996. However, Annie and Liza’s story (which has even been adapted into a play) still reigns for its groundbreaking.

Curious Wine, Katherine V. Forrest, 1983. Forrest didn't just raise the bar for lesbian romance with Curious Wine, she built a whole new jump course. The story of Lane and Diana is romantic, erotic and quintessentially female and feminist in ways that nothing had been before it. Further, Amateur City (1984) was the first mystery to feature a detective who was a lesbian, Kate Delafield. Ms. Forrest is now the Supervising Editor of Spinsters Ink.

Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley, 1983. MZB re-set the standard in how women might look at our cultural mythos, giving a new life to the divine female. Under the name Miriam Gardner, she wrote lesbian themed pulp novels and contributed to The Ladder. None of MZB's Darkover novels were honored by GLBT awards, nor was The Catch Trap, 1979, which featured two men who starred in the flying trapeze in the circus world and struggled with their love during the 1940s and 1950s.

Toothpick House, Lee Lynch, 1983. This was the first title of a dozen that Ms. Lynch has written, including Dusty's Queen of Hearts Diner, the first of the Morton River Valley trilogy. There is a review for her most recent title, Sweet Creek here. She is perhaps best known for her for her column the Amazon Trail, which appears
in GLBT periodicals across the country. In the 1960s, Ms. Lynch also wrote for The Ladder.

Other Women, Lisa Alther, 1984. Some folks might rather Kinflicks which was released in 1976 or Original Sins, 1981, but I have a soft spot for Other Women, as it were, which focused more on lesbians, in my opinion. And therapy, a favorite pasttime for lesbians. All three books were best sellers and book club selections, which resulted in putting stories about lesbians in the hands of lots of closeted women who might not have found them otherwise.

Yes, many of these authors have been honored with other accolades and successes and obviously, they could not be honored by organizations that didn't yet exist at the time these
titles were originally released. Indeed the existence of these titles without a doubt served to prompt the creation of various GLBT literature award programs. This list is by no means complete and I welcome additional suggestions via comments. Nevertheless, it reminds one that books might not win awards, and can still win the hearts and minds of readers.

-MJ Lowe