Sunday, April 24, 2011

Promises, Promises by L-J Baker

Book: Promises, Promises: a romp with plenty of dykes, a unicorn, an ogre, an oracle, a quest, a princess, and true love with a happily ever after
Author: L-J Baker
Publisher: Lethe Press

"This is the room of the wolfmother wallpaper. The toadstool motel you once thought a mere folk tale, a corny, obsolete, rural invention." 

So starts the 1990 masterwork, Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins. It could very well be the introduction to L-J Baker's reminiscent work, Promises, Promises. That's not to say that Ms. Baker's quest mimicked any part of Robbins' book, but man, what a sweet bit of playful, jaunty magic all rolled up in to a tasty phantasmagorical farce.

And all this without the faintest reference to a can of pork and beans, a spoon, a conch shell once part of the worship of the goddess Astarte, an Airstream disguised as a giant roast turkey, a vibrator, a dirty sock, or a talking stick.

True, true.  Instead our senses are assaulted with a Cyranoesque dyke, a dispossessed queen with loonie delusions and a wickedly shiny yet sharp paring knife, a post-modern feminist albeit straight warrior, a Renaissance Ogre horticulturist , stinky elves with way too much time on their hands, a unicorn dwarf with pathologic non-virgin issues, a pickled misogynist, a brutally frank talking pearl, one seriously closeted tin man, and the lovely, dimpled, resourceful, and business-savvy Ruth.

Va va voom!!!!

Promises, Promises . . . is the story of Sandy Blunt, an average at best witch with a silver tongue, when it comes to ladies she can't have.  One day, after sipping a bit too much of the brandy-laced Prodigiously Incredible Empericus's Cough Balm , she gets the opportunity to read the fortune of a most lovely lady, with [wait for it] creamy breasts.  Unbeknownst to her and her alcohol-soggy brain, Maybelle, the Princess, takes every silver-tongued promise to heart.  Sandy is then taken into custody, because prophesy is illegal in the Kingdom.  Drusilla, the self-proclaimed "dispossessed princess" cheerfully and clearly convinces the King to let Sandy make good on her seven promises.  Thus begins a fitfully funny journey into the world at large, that results in Princess Maybelle finding her true and pimply love, Sandy finding her destiny in dimples, and Mavis and Bob finding true equity in love, life, women's rights, and compost.

I could give a more in-depth description of the book's details, but why spoil the fun for those of you who haven't had the chance to experience any of it yet?

Okay, here's the scoop for the review:  This was a truly magical book . . . but I suspect that a lot of the ladies won't give it the respect due because it's like nothing out there on the shelves.  It's not a mystery with a tough and chewy butch with a gun [which I love]; it's not a romance full of push and pull before the girl finally gets the girl [pitter-pat goes my heart]; and there's not even the faintest hint of dykes-gone-wild, booty, patooty fun [schwing goes the rest of me].

So, why did you like the book?  Mmm, like I said, kinda reminded me of ol' Tom Robbins. 

I've read a whole bunch of fantasy books that star lesbian characters, and loved [just about] everyone one of them.  

And trust me when I say that love goes way, way, way, waaaaaay back to my first adolescent lesbian crush on Gaby Plauget, the astronomer from John Varley's Gaea Trilogy.  

L-J Baker, whether intentional or not, gives a firm nod to the awless stylings of Robbins, but has the joyous temerity to tweak Pynchon and Joyce.  She gleefully butt-smacks us with the flighty hint of texture and eloquence, and rolls the rest of the story in a tart, sexy, and surprisingly politically charged wrapper.  The result is a deliciously smart-assed and irreverent tale of heros, dirty underwear, love-lorn dragons, and a world that would be a lot better off if we all stopped to kiss the dimples.

While I fully expected to get to the end of the book, only to find that the whole story took place inside a pint of ripe mead, I wasn't disappointed to find that there was a truly happy ever after.

Of course, a little bit of lusty bar-wench sex wouldn't have been that bad now, would it????

I can't complain about much in this book being overbaked, over-used, or over-done. The romances, gay and straight or even piscine and humanoid, all seemed fresh and fun. If I have a complaint, as a reader, it's the timeline. The book takes place over "a year and a day". However, the story line seems to pick up speed at an alarming rate. The earlier adventures in the quest are well documented, but as the book progresses, they seem to do a badda boom, badda bing kind of thing. I would like to have seen the author spend more time detailing the talking pearl, the elves, and the hermit. In all three instances, the transition was so fast, I almost missed it . . . and I was just sitting there reading.

Was it pressure to hit a deadline, writers fatigue, intention? Ya know, I can't say from my comfy chair on the deck, but it sure seemed like the book missed out on a whole slew of potentially wonderful bits because of the exponential speed of the story.

Like I said, I fear that a lot of readers won't give this book the respect it deserves. If Tom Robbins had written it, he'd probably be back on the best seller list. Because he didn't, well, the world sometimes deserves a sound plunk up-side-the-head.

If you get a chance, grab Promises, Promises, open your mind to a little quirky fun, and consume it with both hands and no napkin. It's really a fresh take on the genre of modern-lesbian romance, and L-J Baker needs to be encouraged to keep pressing the envelope if for no other reason than 'she can'.

Sometimes reading is a participatory sport, kinda like eating barbecue.

On the Rainbow Scale, I'll give it a fit and furious 5.0 because as good as it was, it just moved too fast. Now, if only L-J can find a way to answer the question, "How to make Lesbian Bed-death die" in her next book . . .

Friday, April 15, 2011

Pitifully Ugly by Robin Alexander

Book:  Pitifully Ugly
Author:  Robin Alexander
Publisher:  Intaglio Publications

A few years ago, I spent an afternoon at Ellis Park, a horse racing venue in Owensboro, Kentucky.  It was a typical summer day on the Ohio River, probably in the mid-nineties, with humidity pacing the temperature step for sticky step.  As I recall, it was the fifth race of the day, and my friends were applying their individual parlay philosophies when I looked at the race card and instantly knew I had a winner.  A little, gray, spotted filly named 'Margaret Thatcher'.

Well, heck yeah. I saw that her odds were 52-1, but sometimes you just feel 'it' in your bones.  Big spender that I am, I gleefully thumped my two dollars down on Mags, and sat back to watch the show.  

Well, a better ending would be that she showed the boys how it's done by taking the race in grand fashion.  But in reality, Margaret Thatcher looked and ran like her namesake in a pair of sensible shoes with low heels.   It wasn't pretty, but I'd do it again in a heartbeat, if ever given the chance - someday a Margaret Thatcher out there IS going to win.

Flash forward to 2011.   I was thumbing through the cyber-shelves of one of my favorite publishers, and imagine my giddy delight when I spotted the book called Pitifully Ugly by Robin Alexander!  Much like my Margaret Thatcher moment, I knew deep inside my soul that this book was going to be mineminemine.  I bought it, and put it away for a rainy day.

Let's just say, it rained a whoooooole lot this week.

Pitifully Ugly is the story of Shannon Brycen, a thritysomething  lesbian stuck in a rut.  Her sister, Kalen, has tried fixing her up with women, but each one is worse than the last.  After two particularly bad blind dates, which included cat piss in a shoe and what could have been Lorena Bobbit's long lost sapphic sister, Shannon takes matters into her own hands, she goes on-line.  Of course, it probably wasn't the best idea to write her profile while feeling surly after half a bottle of wine.  Claiming she was 'housebroken" but "rabid", she signed it Pitifully Ugly.  She gets a few creepy replies, but also makes a few promising connections, including Newbie.  At the same time, she meets Hailey and her golden retrieverish dog Fuzzy.

Shannon likes the email back and forth with Newbie, but feels an immediate connection with Hailey.  Both women draw her in, and then back off almost as fast.  Long story short, Shannon finally figures out that Newbie and Hailey are one and the same.  Hailey isn't ready for a relationship, and Shannon likes her enough to try to respect her need for a little space.  Hilarity ensues, and of course, both girls keep running into each other.  The push and pull continues.  Both eventually realize the force of the cosmic pull after Fuzzy gets lost.  It takes a while, but they find the crazy chicken-on-a-stick pooch, have a belated Valentine's day, and then enter into a new phase in their lives, together.

This book was a fantastic read, and I'll tell you right now that it will be one of the first books I go to when I need a laugh-out-loud, feel-good bandaid for my soul.  The concept is simple, but handled brilliantly. Every character in the book has a role that advances the story, and the scenes are tightly written.  The internal and external dialogue is consistent throughout, and Fuzzy's tennis ball was appropriately soggy.

Mm, well, funny thing is, I know what it's like to have a wet tennis ball dropped in your underpants.

I was impressed with the circular nature woven into the story.  For instance, early in the book Shannon is a victim of strap-on interuptus.

I actually laughed so hard my Siberian Husky started yodeling at me.

Anyway, near the middle of the book, Shannon learns that Hailey is going out for drinks with a group of friends that includes Ms. Birthday Strap-on.  Then, in the end, Hailey helps Shannon forge new memories through strap-on compleo.

This was only one example, but we see this sort of thing throughout the book with other people and things - I found that to be a welcome aspect of this storyline.

Like I said, it was simple but complete, no loose threads or dangling plot devices.

I have to say I can't remember the last time a book made me laugh as hard as Pitifully Ugly.  Of course, it seemed like the first third of the book was a riot, the middle had a few chuckles, and the end found another burst of humor.  That part wasn't so consistent, but then again, if the whole thing was a riot then I'm afraid some of the better parts of the story would have been overshadowed by the abundance of mirth.

Sometimes a book just reaches out and grabs you, pins you to the wall, and claims you.  Body.  Mind.  And, soul.  Pitifully Ugly grabbed me with the title, pinned me to the wall with the cover, and claimed me with a simple, sexy, smart, and funny story.

This is the first Robin Alexander book I've read, but if she approaches her other stories with the same wit and gusto, I'll gladly add more of them to my bookshelf.

On a Rainbow Scale, I'll give Pitifully Ugly a 5.7 out of 6 - this was a flat out tilt-o-whirl of fun.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Sweet Carolina Girls by R.E. Bradshaw

Book:  Sweet Carolina Girls
Author:  R.E. Bradshaw
Publisher:  Blue Crab Publishing

I love getting email, especially from my readers, so I did a funky little box-step, box-step, shuffle, shuffle . . . unghhhk [stand up quickly, look around to see if anyone noticed me falling on my ass, brush myself off], fist pump, fist pump, "yeah!", when I got my first bonafide request for a review.

Pffffft, I'm having fun, here!

From the fingertips of the Lust Lizard of Zoom Zoom, "Warm sun, green grass, light breeze on your face.  That means it's softball season.  How about some R.E. Bradshaw?"

Well, Ms. Lizard, excellent point!

I strolled over to my electronic bookshelf, pulled out Sweet Carolina Girls, and blew the dust off it's little pixilated cover just for you.

Sweet Carolina Girls hit the shelves in mid-2010.  It's the story of Harper Lynch, a 23-year old Okie pursuing a Ph.D., who's recently immigrated to North Carolina to work on a big grant project.  While she's somewhat familiar with the area and has an elderly grandmother a few hours up the road, she's on her own.  Of course, this is familiar territory for Harper, since she was orphaned by a drunk driver as a teen.  Shortly after arriving in Kerrville, Harper wanders into the Tarr Barr, meets it's softball loving owner, and gets an invitation to play on her team.   Excited about the opportunity to play the game she loves, Harper shows up at the first team meeting, and meets the women she will come to love and hate.  The ladies on the team are a diverse family:  young, old, married, single, happy, angry, shy, black, white, Latina, gay, and straight.  Ooh, and beautiful.

The last one would be Lauren Zachary.  Lauren is "happily" married to Dr. Shelby West, who just happens to work in the same department as Harper. Sparks fly immediately between Lauren and Harper.  Both girls try to resist the pull, and their teammates try to warn them off.  But we soon find that Lauren and Shelby are navigating rough seas, and all isn't well in the Zachary-West household.  Lauren finds the strength to assert her independence, tries to resist the supersonic pull of Harper, then flings herself into the arms of the woman that very well may be the love of her life.  But, Shelby isn't ready to give up on Lauren, and a life-altering struggle that affects everyone on and everything about the team ensues.

First off, I have to give a hearty back thump to Ms. Bradshaw for the goofy golden retriever and Pat Summit.  These are two of my favorite things . . .

Okay, now on to the discussion.

This book used a couple of worn out plot conventions that usually make my left eye twitch:  (1)  Parents die in a fiery crash; and (2)  One or more of the main characters are independently wealthy / smart / talented / athletic / stunning [in this case, all of the above].

But, and a big 'but' at that, my left eye failed to twitch once throughout this book.  The reason is fairly simple - the author took the time and effort to construct a complex story and embed them firmly and logically within it, instead of using these devices simply as an excuse to explain why a character is distant and unable to form attachments easily; or because the the plot wasn't solid enough to hold up to a character that wasn't amazing on some level.   More specifically, drunk driving and it's real and potential consequences play an important role throughout the book.  And, the fact that Harper and Lauren connect on so many levels means that their physical attraction is bolstered and reaffirmed in a way neither has experienced before.

The book also introduced us to an entire softball team, as well as their spouses.  This, in itself, could have gotten messy and out of hand very easily.  But, it didn't.  The secondary characters had distinct names, distinct personalities, and distinct roles.  On a few occasions, I had to thumb back to try to remember who someone was, but it really wasn't that bad.

Thank God!  I usually find myself skipping forward if it gets too messy or tedious.

Overall, I thought the story was very well constructed, the characters were solid and memorable, and only a few teeny tiny leaps of faith made it through the final edit.

Really, Harper JUST happened to have a copy of the software the State Police uses to reconstruct accidents?  M'kay.

As I sit back, and go through the story in my head, I'm actually hard pressed to find much wrong with the book.  A few little things like the software gimmick smacked of the word "convenient", but most all the other parts were well done.

How about the fact that the book was constructed around a softball team, and they actually practiced AND played games?  How about the inconvenience that the dogs barked, peed, drooled, had messy paws, and didn't like being left along for long periods of time?  Then some of our characters said the wrong thing at the wrong time . . . not out of spite or stupidity, but just because it slipped out?

Been there, done that, almost been strangled by the t-shirt . . . 

Seriously, authors whisking past these smaller details within the story . . . that's precisely the kind of thing that drives me crazy when I read the darn thing.

Now, if I have to have one really bad thing to say, it's this:  It drove me nuts that the word "passed" was used instead of "past" on at least three occasions.  Now, admittedly, I am using an e-reader, so it could have been a product of the translation, but I was starting to feel the first subtle tugs of an eye twitch.

Ooh, and if I have to have a second bad thing to say it's that Harper sort of 'felt' like a superbly-integrated soft butch.  Trust me when I say:  Sherri Coale isn't a soft butch [even though she could easily kick my sorry little butt], and Soft Butch doesn't wear Jimmy Choo!

Now I feel better about rolling the whole thing up:

This was my second reading of Sweet Carolina Girls.  I liked it as much the second time through, if not a little better.  As I mentioned before, the story was well constructed, it had a plausible beginning, middle, and end, the characters held up well in their roles, and I wouldn't keep harping about worn-out plot devices if they were all used as well as they were in this book.

I'm pretty sure I've read all of Ms. Bradshaw's books at this point, and this is my favorite so far.  To me, it's always telling if I get mad when a book ends - because I don't want it to be the end of the characters.  Well, I'm still a little ticked off, so you know Sweet Carolina Girls is a keeper.

On the Rainbow Scale, I'll give it a 5.2 out of 6, but mostly because I'm still steaming that it ended.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Shout Out by Me

First off, I want to send a loud and proud 'SHOUT OUT' to all the new Readers and Followers!

Thanks for stopping by my literary sandbox, and spending a little of your precious time with me.

Ugh, did that just sound a wee bit too much like Mr. Rogers?  

My role through The Rainbow Reader is to advance the genre, help the authors to reach a wider audience [that means sell lots of books], and have a little fun in the process.

I'm a fan of lesbian-centric literature, as I'm sure most of you are [duh].  Over the years, I've been lucky enough to collect an extensive library, and I'm always looking to expand to new authors, new books, and new ideas.  If you have any suggestions or requests, whether it's a classic or a new release; a celebrated author or an emerging talent; maybe even an action, thriller, romance, mystery, short story, or anthology . . . send me a note, and I'll try to queue up a review for you.

Also, if you agree with me, let me know.

If you don't then you can sh . . . just kidding, let me know as well. 

I won't always be on the mark, and I'll probably miss something important or just get it wrong on occasion.

The bottom line is that dialogue is good.

I only ask that people keep things civil - I try to maintain a 'do no harm' philosophy, and want this to be a positive experience for everyone who wants to play in the sandbox with me.

So, with that said, kick your shoes off, let me know what's on your mind, and what author or book you'd like to see in the on deck circle.

Yours in mixed metaphors and dangling participles,

Salem West

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Souls' Rescue by Pat Cronin

Book: Souls' Rescue
Author: Pat Cronin
Publisher: Regal Crest Enterprises, LLC

Pat Cronin has been lingering around the fringes of lesbian fiction publishing for a few years now. Mostly known for her short stories and editing skills, she finally released her first full-length effort. In this feature, she treats us to what appears to be a personal study of firefighting and the tolls it takes on those putting their lives on the line, and those who love them because and in spite of it.

In Souls' Rescue, we meet Kelly McCoy, a gutsy firefighter/paramedic who left a post 9-11 NYC for the quieter life of Cincinnati. As we get to know her, we find out she's got all the requisite notches on her smokey turnout coat:
  • Dad died on the job: Check
  • Broken heart: Check
  • 9-11 First Responder: Check
  • Breathes firefighting:  Check
We also meet Talia Stoddard, who coincidently works in insurance, has a delightful gay best friend, a controlling mother, and a stuck up freak for an ex-girlfriend. As the book begins, Talia is caught up in a frightening accident, and Kelly McCoy comes to her aid. Kelly crawls under a truck to first evaluate Talia's condition, render immediate first aid, and then ask her out on a date.

Yes, that really happened in the book. I don't know, but if two tons of truck and concrete were sitting on my chest, I'm not so sure I'd be thinking in terms of candlelight and soft music -  I'd probably be reminding myself NOT to walk towards the light.

Talia is rescued, and spends the next many weeks in the hospital. Kelly, having been immediately smitten, shows up daily in the hospital to moon and flirt over the badly injured woman. Enter Talia's over-controlling mom, who just needed to be told where to go.

And I don't mean a 'take a left at the Nurses Station, it's the third room on the left' kind, either.

Momma has designs on getting Talia back with her ex and then returning to DC, because the ex is the daughter she really wants. The story progresses with Kelly and Talia becoming closer and closer, despite a few bouts of miscommunication and assumptions. Talia ends up losing her leg, and Kelly is injured in a fire after a jerk-wad with a small pee-pee abandons her. A few things happen and Talia tries again with her ex, but keeps coming back emotionally to Kelly.

I'll save the ending of the book, but there's a little bit o' drama, some dastardly action, and our girls finally get very naked and sweaty.

Okay, overall this was a nice little story. The 'good' characters were likable with depth, and the 'bad' characters were disgusting. The rescue scene was graphic and frightening, and the fire fighting scenes made your heart drum a little faster, There was some snappy dialogue, the pace was steady, and no major parts that required the reader to take a deep breath before making that grand leap of faith over the Great Fiction Gorge.

However, there were just a few plot points that didn't hold up as well as the rest of the book:

(1) In the book description, we're told Talia is "too big, too tall, too black, too lesbian, and not a very snappy dresser" . . . and other than the fact that her ex is girlie-girl that dresses well, none of this really matters in the book. Kelly isn't bothered that Talia is what Mma Ramotswe would proudly call 'a traditionally built woman'; race is never brought up; Talia's momma wants her to get back with her ex, a woman; and who wears anything fashionable in a hospital bed?
(2) Kelly REALLY did ask Talia out on a date while her fellow firefighters were using the Jaws-of-Life to cut up the truck parked on top of Talia . . . Really.
(3) One could almost say that Kelly was stalking Talia in the hospital, until Talia started expecting her to show up as a friendship developed.  I was thinking Stockholm Syndrome for a few paragraphs early on.
(4) We learn about Kelly being a first-responder on 9-11, and losing most of her Company when the towers came down. We learn that she worked for weeks trying to first rescue then recover. That's pretty heady stuff, but she seems remarkably well adjusted. This is one point where the author went too far off track. Kelly could have had the exact same baggage without bringing 9-11 into the story.

I did, however, like that Ms. Cronin had the courage to break with a few conventions in recent lesbian literature: We have a black woman and a white woman who fall in love. These two women cover the white collar/blue collar spectrum; and one is a big girl and the other isn't.

I'd throw out Baptist and Catholic, but nobody bothered to go to church. Can I get an "Amen"?

I can't say this was the most well-rounded book I've read, but the author told a good story, wrapped in some gripping action, and made you care about her characters. I'd like to see Pat Cronin work on another book or three to see if she can work out a few of these early kinks. With a little luck, her novels can put her a little more solidly on the map.

On the Rainbow Scale, I'd give this a 4.1 out of 6.