Monday, August 29, 2011

Fearless by Erin O'Reilly

Book:  Fearless
Author:  Erin O’Reilly
Publisher:  Affinity E-Book Press

My love and adoration for the tough and chewy butch with a gun is well documented throughout the many reviews I’ve written.  However, few know of my secret fascination with (and warm tinglies generated by) the fun, fabulous, and fearless aviatrices of the last century. 

I’d put a fair sum of money on the table that it would surprise a few fiercely independent feminists and much of Hollywood to learn that the annals of aviation history are littered with the ballsy and unrepentant accomplishments of amazing women not named Amelia Earhart.

Ever hear of Baronness Raymonde de Laroche?  What about Harriet Quimby, Ruth Law, Bessie Coleman, Adrienne Bolland, Anesia Pinkeiro Machado, Tadashi Hyodo, or Millicent Bryant?  How about Marga von Etzdorf, Amy Johnson, Bobbi Trout, Elinor Smith, Ruthy Tu, or Beryl Markham?  Surely the names of Jackie Cochran, Nancy Harkness Love, Marina Raskova, Melitta Schiller, Jerrie Cobb, Janey Hart, and Pauline Gower inspire images of unflinching courage and in-your-face altitude attitude.

They do, right?  You learned all about them in your Women’s Studies classes?  Maybe even did a term paper on how Jackie Cochran almost single-handedly delayed the entry of American women in space for almost twenty-five years due to sheer hubris? 

Authors such as Sarah Bryn Rickman, Giles Whittell, and Stephanie Nolan have offered up eye-opening, insightful and sometimes shocking real-life accounts of women pilots in the books Nancy Love and the WASP Ferry Pilots of World War II, Spitfire Women of World War II, and Promised the Moon: The Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race.  And, late last year, Lynne Ames released one of the very best books of 2010, Eyes on the Stars, which beautifully chronicles the adventure, love, loss, and redemption of two heroic American Women Airforce Service Pilots. 

Suffice to say, I like me a tough and chewy aviatrix with a joystick.

That’s why I was thrilled when Affinity E-Books Press sent me a copy of Fearless by Erin O’Reilly.  Fearless tells the story of a group of women flying for a British civilian organization called the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA).  As the book begins, we learn the back-stories of our main characters.  Meg O’Brien is a beautiful Irish lass who chooses flying with her Uncle in England over marriage to a pig farmer and a gaggle of kids back home.  Jo Laughlin, a caretaker for her younger sisters, struggles to earn a living as a crop duster and barn stormer and takes the opportunity to go to England and fly for the ATA with her sometimes friend/most times nemesis, Midge Reister.  Sarah Faulkner, dubbed the Flying Debutante, is forced to land in a field in the Australian countryside and meets then liberates Brenda Hiller. Lady Smyth-Armstrong didn’t have to serve her country, in fact, she was encouraged not to, but she followed the bright light of patriotism to the airfields of White Waltham.

The women pilots of the ATA ferry new, repaired, and damaged military aircraft between factories and assembly plants, Maintenance Units, scrap yards, and active service squadrons and airfields.  Oftentimes the planes have no communications, no radar, and no armament, and the women accomplish their mission through sheer will and determination.  Unbeknownst to their fellow flyers, Jo and Sarah are sent on a series of secret missions to fly over advancing German troops to photograph troop levels, positions, and equipment.  During one of these flights, the duo is shot down off the coast of France, and is pursued by German troops until members of the French Resistance rescue them, and eventually return them to England.  

The aviatrices return the same, yet very different.

Any time an author introduces me to a large group of women that are central to a storyline; I immediately begin to get the vapors.  What usually happens is that several women have similar names or descriptions, some have big roles and others just offer up a random bit of context or convenient conversation, and by the third chapter I end up confused and frustrated and contemplating slamming my hand in a car door.  Ms. O’Reilly, however, manages to nimbly and distinctly give voice to at least a dozen women associated with the ATA in addition to assorted family, members of the French Resistance, hospital workers, and blokes associated with the ATA and RAF.  It’s a pleasure to read a character’s name late in the book and know immediately who she is, and why her comments or actions are significant to the storyline.

I also found myself appreciating that Ms. O’Reilly was able to construct a story that featured women from England, Ireland, Australia, USA, and Chile.  The women all had different motivations, as appropriate, for flying for the ATA.  And, they sometimes had a hard time understanding each other.  Brenda, the Aussie, continually confounds her fellow pilots and has to either translate or be translated.  The Chilean pilot speaks little English, and the others speak little Spanish.  One of the Brits is excited about hearing an American accent in person.  Other characters comment on the Southern accent and the Irish brogue.  Beyond that, Sarah speaks French, which helps when she and Jo are on the lam in France.  However, Sarah only understands enough German to know when to run for her life and when to shove a knife into some sorry bastard’s back.  Truly, it is a delightful treat to see the simple concept of communication treated in a very ‘real world’ fashion.

As many good things as there are about Fearless, there is one thing that drives me nuts:  Midge Reister, of the bleach blonde hair, red lipstick, and sensuous body.  Midge’s character is all over the place.  One minute the reader hates her, then the next you feel compassion.  For instance, Midge’s overt attraction annoys the snot out of Jo, but Jo is the one that introduced Midge to the wonderful world of girl-on-girl sex. Jo spurns every future advance of Midge until she thinks she’s going to die, then wonders why Midge is a bit put off.  After a stupid prank, Lady Smythe-Armstrong vouches for Midge with the agreement that Midge stop preying on Bess Porter, but Bess seems to want to offer herself freely to Midge. Shannon Brannigan seems hot for Midge, then beds her, hurts her, and continues to sexually harass her.  I kept waiting for some grand finale between the two, but ultimately what we're given is anti-climactic. And, sad as it is, the thing that ultimately dooms the feisty Midge is her unrequited love for Jo.

All in all, Fearless is a compelling read.  I love the story and remain invested in the characters long after I closed the book; I appreciate Ms. O’Reilly’s ability to weave a history lesson complete with tiny bits of politics into enjoyable and exciting fiction; and, I respect the skill and patience she shows by keeping the storyline focused and direct, even with the large cast of characters. 

I also offer up a hearty fist bump to Ms. O’Reilly for her respectful and honest portrayal of Commander Pauline Gower.

If you’re interested in a love story and adventure that is historically accurate and pays homage to some of the most fierce women our modern society has ever known, then Erin O’Reilly’s Fearless is a book you will want to read.  I’m giving it a 4.8 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale.  

Monday, August 22, 2011

Moving Pieces by Emily Maroutian

Book:  Moving Pieces
Author:  Emily Maroutian
Publisher:  Maroutian Entertainment

A few years ago, a former boss introduced me to the sport of “Airport Reading”.  We were flying to Boston, or Atlanta, or San Antonio, or some such place, and she drug me, almost literally, into one of the ubiquitous airport bookstores that populate terminals across the land.  She made a beeline to the large display set up for Kitty Kelley’s Nancy Reagan:  The Unauthorized Biography, and grabbed the first one she could get her sweaty little hands on, she plopped her hard-earned cash down on the counter before the startled clerk could scurry around the counter to even ring her up.  I looked at her with a bit of surprise, thinking, “Hmmm.  What just happened here?”

She scooped up her change, and whisked me on to the gate to catch our plane.  When we were finally settled in our tin can with wings, I asked her about the purchase.  She ‘Shushed!’ me, swore me to secrecy, and then explained the concept of “Airport Reading”.  To cut a long story short, it’s every traveler’s dirty little secret, the book you would never admit to wanting to read, let alone pay money for in front of your friends or family.  You read it when you travel, then leave it behind in the seatback pocket of the airplane, the evidence lost forever.  Since then, I’ve made it a point to check out each and every book that my co-travelers are reading to see what dirty little secrets abound around me.  Surprisingly, a large number of them read Johanna Lindsey’s bodice rippers and things like Chicken Soup for the Lousy Rat-Ass Bastard’s Soul.

Okay, I made that last one up – as a matter of principle, I refuse to invoke the name of She Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken.  Come on, you all know who she is now, dontcha?  [wink]

Be that as it may, I must apologize profusely to Emily Maroutian.  I found myself heading out of town, and grabbed her book, Moving Pieces, as I rushed out the door.  Much to my chagrin, there was no way to avoid being publicly seen reading her book in the Dulles, Atlanta, and Evansville airports, and on connecting flights.  While fellow travelers might have smiled knowingly and assumed "Airport Reading", the book is not a dirty little secret, it was not abandoned on an airplane, and it will remain firmly entrenched in my possession.


Moving Pieces, follows a week in the life of the nameless Narrator, a lost soul searching for some thing of meaning.  Some looking glass to bring the disparate pieces of an unsatisfying existence into focus.  The Narrator takes a road trip to San Francisco to listen to some music and hang out.  While not long on planning, the trip serves to break up the numbing routine of everyday life in Los Angeles.  When the Narrator and best friend arrive at the first destination to listen to a friend’s band, the narrator meets Anari, an infectious, beautiful, punk rock Goddess that turns the Narrator upside down and inside out.  However, Anari is the modern definition of a woman in Punk, her soul damaged by a man that will never love her, and unwilling or unable to break the poisonous bond that holds her down. 

The Narrator and best friend hang out with the musician friend and his band, drink too much, sleep too little, and visit some clubs to catch a bit of music.  The Narrator climbs on the roller coaster that is Anari, getting closer and being pushed away.  Finally, coming to terms with opening up to love, and how that new feeling changes every element of life.  However, Anari pushes away any attempt at love, and the Narrator begins the return trip to Los Angeles with a new vision and perspective on self and life.  

Moving Pieces is a fascinating book on many levels, and no discussion on the story can be held without first mentioning that the Narrator, by intent, remains genderless.  It can be a man or it can be a woman, and it’s left completely up to the reader to choose which.  And, with that choosing, comes a slightly different book.  I appreciate the difficulty in writing a solid story under this convention, and understand the shifting sands the author navigated to construct a narrative that works on multiple levels.  I fully anticipated that I would read the book from the perspective of a woman, but found that my mind wrapped itself around a male character.  And, in all honesty, I have to say that disappointed me a bit. 

That’s not to say the book disappointed me, I just really wanted the Narrator to be a woman!  ARGH!

Cooler heads prevailed, and the second time through the book, I forced myself to make the Narrator a woman.  And, as Ms. Maroutian promised, I was surprised at the interesting level of complexity that worked its way into the story.  As a woman, the narrator becomes a lesbian with a male best friend.  She is a woman that, in terms of school and work, has existed and outwardly succeeded in a life of external expectation.  She is a woman that has embraced addiction as a means of coping, and then sobriety as a method of surviving.  She knows she wants something, but doesn’t know what it is.  And, she’s not entirely convinced that if she finds it, that she should have it. 

She exists in a confusing place.  At times, her clarity is startling, but she continues to snuff the clarity with self-doubt.  Time and again, she tells us that she’s not very smart, that she wishes she participated in intellectual conversations.  However, she is smart, and she does participate, even if it’s not necessarily on a vocal level. 

She’s also maturing, and like a lock, the pins are methodically clicking into place.  As the story progresses, we see her taking small then larger steps towards self-realization.  She begins the migration from listening to other people’s words to creating words that others will listen to.  She begins to see each of the pieces, understand their relationships and their dependencies, and accept that as much as things change, they stay the same.

There’s no magic elixir in life, we can learn new things, go to new places, and meet new people, but we are who we are.  The trick is to own yourself and the space that you create.  You might feel like an innocuous piece of sky, but in the big picture, there’s a gapping hole without you. Emily Maroutian’s Moving Pieces is the kind of book that forces you to focus the bright light inward, because the book isn’t about a genderless Narrator, it’s about each and every one of us.

The story might be a little heavy for some readers, but it’s a quick read and well worth the internal dialogue that will invariably clutter your brain.  Moving Pieces doesn’t sugarcoat the reality of addictive personalities or the brutal honesty required to live with it and survive your "self".  Emily Maroutian is a smart, skilled, and gutsy writer, with a unique vision and a story to share.  I’m giving this novel a 4.9 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale.  It was fascinating, and different, and worth the multiple reads to experience both Narrators.

Monday, August 15, 2011

When Women Were Warriors by Catherine M. Wilson


Shining A Spotlight On Amazing Books From The Last Few Years

With Special Guest Reviewer, BAXTER CLARE TRAUTMAN, author of The River Within

Trilogy:  When Women Were Warriors
               Book 1: The Warrior’s Path
               Book 2: A Journey of the Heart
               Book 3: A Hero’s Tale
Author: Catherine M. Wilson
Publisher: Shield Maiden Press

Have you ever been wandering about your day and been suddenly struck by a remembered fragment of dream? A fragment so curious you stopped to wonder, was that a dream, or did it really happen? Reading When Women Were Warriors felt much like walking through a half-realized dream – did Catherine M. Wilson make this up, or did this really happen?

When Women Were Warriors is fantasy, but reads like the best historic fiction. The tale isn’t set in a specific time - one assumes from the title that the time has passed, but it could well take place in the future, when “it is the custom that a free woman leave her mother’s house to bind herself and those of her blood to a neighboring clan, either by the sword or the cradle.”

That is what Tamras, the main character does, binding herself to the house of Lady Merin, where her mother and aunts were bound before her. Tamras becomes companion to Maara, a mysterious outsider from the North, with whom her alliances to House and clan are quickly tested. In choosing alliances, young Tamras has little to rely on other than instinct.

Tamras is innocent but not unwise. She doubts herself, and makes mistakes, albeit well intentioned mistakes, in the service of her enigmatic warrior, Maara. Indeed, much of the story’s tension revolves around Maara’s identity and intent. Who is she? Where does she come from? Who were her people? The screw turns tighter when Maara reports that warring Northern tribes plan to make a winter raid on the house of Merin. Sides must be chosen - to believe the stranger among them and prepare for war, risking entrapment and ambush, or ignore Maara’s warning and take the chance of being overrun?

As in the best mythic epics (think Beowulf, but comprehensible and with girls) Tamras’ subsequent initiation into the world of warriors is fraught with danger, mystery and sacrifice. Through trials and initiation, she is transformed from a child into a young woman of burgeoning wisdom.

I have to admit I was thrilled when Salem asked me to write a guest review. I must also admit that when she gave me my choice of novels, I was less than thrilled.

Aw, man, Baxter!  You make me sound like a blogging bully - for the record, I never threatened to take your milk money, I just grovelled unmercilessly. SW

Unless you stretch Stephen King into the category, I have never willingly read fantasy. Not my genre of choice. But I trusted Salem. If she said When Women Were Warriors was great then it must be great. My last admission? She was right.

Like the stories Tamras was told as a child, and that she passes on to her homeless warrior, Wilson’s tale is mythic. In the lyric voice of an ancient bard, Wilson has incorporated all the classic archetypes - the wise one, the innocent, the warrior, villain, hermit, and fool – in the time-honored duels of good and evil, pride and humility, heart and ego. Her tale is tender without being sappy, sad without being maudlin, passionate without sentimentality, and joyful without silliness.

Much of literature is grossly indulgent, with every desire immediately sated, each whim acted upon as quickly as it is conceived. One of the more endearing aspects of When Women Were Warriors is that it unfolds gradually. Love develops of testing, trust, and knowledge, not an itch. Healing takes place painfully, slowly, and imperfectly, not as a miracle cure. Much in Ms. Wilson’s story remains private, unspoken, or unseen, and her writing’s strength lies in the subtle use of what is not revealed. As in life, When Women Were Warriors is veiled in mystery, slowly revealing itself as Book I segues into Book II and then Book III.

I must also confess the title put me off a wee bit. I was afraid When Women Were Warriors might be a glorified tome for man bashing. Instead, this is a powerful tale of women’s wisdom, in which men have a significant and well-respected purpose. As Ms. Wilson explained, it makes sense that women be the fighters, because a woman who has carried a child “will hold life dear differently than someone who has not.”

Within her fabled kingdom (again, think Heorot, only ruled by girls) Catherine Wilson creates a magical sense of place, and of belonging to that place. Within that, she also tells how it feels to not belong, while reminding us it usually isn’t the place that won’t have us, but rather that we won’t have it. Ms. Wilson’s is a tale of bone wisdom. It whispers of what we remember when we sleep at night and dream. It calls us to remember that women had, and still have, a wise and powerful place in the world. Our only weakness is in forgetting that place.

When Women Were Warriors gets a dreamy 5.5 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale. 

Salem never at any point threatened to take my milk money...however, the frozen chocolate-covered banana is another story! Seriously, I am indebted to you, Salem. Not only for the kick in my pink Spandex hot pants that catapulted me from my literary comfort zone, but for the opportunity to then rave about what you helped me discover. BCT

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Damaged in Service by Barrett

Book: Damaged in Service
Author: Barrett
Publisher: Affinity E-Book Press

 PTSD is a tawdry, insidious, undiscerning little bitch. 

She doesn’t care who you are or how finely tuned your sense of logic or emotional balance is.  It doesn’t matter to her if you’ve survived a war zone, walked away from a car crash, been physically or sexually assaulted, faced a devastating illness, said goodbye to a lover, friend, child, or parent, or even if you tried like Hell to keep someone else’s business from going up in flames. 

She’s a trickster for sure.  She knows how to find your secret backdoor, piggybacks her way into your internal control room, then resets all your psychological, rational, and coping dipswitches until up is down, right is wrong, and haywire is your new steady state. 

You can’t sleep, but you’re exhausted.  You’re angry about things that have never bothered you before.  Your heart races, your head throbs, your hands shake, and your left eye twitches wildly with any sudden noise.  Parts of your body suddenly start hurting, and nothing makes it feel better. You isolate yourself from family and friends, and it takes all day to screw up the courage to dial a phone or write an email. Maybe even, you’re afraid to drive over a patched pothole on your street, or you order your groceries over the Internet because the dairy section is too much commitment for any given Sunday. Some days are definitely better than others.  Then again, some days are worse, much worse.    

Yeah, she’s a sadistic bitch – the stronger you are, the harder you fall.  Just the way she likes it.

Damaged in Service by Barrett takes us on the journey of FBI Special Agent Zeke Cabot, who’s recovering from both a head injury and months undercover as a homeless woman on the mean streets of Chicago.  The sadistic serial killer has been caught and placed into custody, but not before he managed to brutally kill one of her closest friends.  The FBI knows she faked her way through the psychological assessment, but they hope as much as Zeke does that an extended vacation will give her the time to recover physically as well as mentally.  Zeke heads off to the Land of Enchantment, but first stops to visit her biracial parents in Mississippi.  She’s always felt some disconnect with her dad, but adores her mom.  However, as much as she wants to ignore it, it appears that mom is slipping into some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s, and dad is in complete and utter denial.

Almost immediately upon touching down in New Mexico, Zeke is bowled over, quite literally, by the beautiful nurse, Anne Reynolds.  Anne is navigating the waters of a failed sham of a marriage, and not feeling any desire to get back into the game any time soon.  The Fates conspire to bring Zeke and Anne together time and again, until Anne rescues Zeke from a hiking mishap, and takes her home like a stray puppy to make sure the lonely visitor has proper medical care.  Both women sense something happening between them, but struggle mightily to brush it off, understand it, and then embrace it.  However, the Fates are cruel, and the women are unexpectedly pulled back into the collateral horror of Zeke’s serial murder case.  Anne is good for Zeke, very good, but the damage from Zeke’s PTSD runs deep and wide.  Besides, Anne is still healing from her own emotional traumas, and new love is fragile and easily shattered by assumptions, miscommunications, and fear.

Initial impressions can be frightfully deceptive, yet I’ve always been a firm believer that the first page of any book is the strongest argument to continue reading.  And, it’s true, I squeed like a piglet on a red-eye gravy drip after finishing the first page of Damaged in Service.  Barrett is masterful in grabbing the reader, and invoking an immediate flight or fight response through raw visuals and sentences that fly off the page at a heart-pounding pace.  She hooks you, and before “the ominous scene fades to black . . .” you’re invested in Zeke Cabot and more than willing to follow her anywhere she goes.

Best. First. Page. All. Year.

But, the story continues on with near perfect pacing.  As readers, we’re given a chance to meet Zeke and Anne, to learn their stories, and figure out the basis of their characters before the romance picks up speed and hits the highway of love.  I don’t mean to knock love at first sight, but Barrett’s approach adds a healthy level of believability and credibility.  We see both women feel the initial tug of attraction, argue with themselves over the pros and cons of the pursuit, and finally screw their courage to the sticking-place.

With all due credit to Gary Larson, as the alpha says to the wolf pack surveying a barn lot full of pigs, “I say we do it! And trichinosis be damned!"

The pacing extends beyond the simple romance into the deeper issues both women are grappling over.  Anne has always been straight, but she’s attracted to a woman who happens to live in Chicago, and is an FBI agent that pursues serial killers.  That’s not an ‘oh, by the way’ set of problems to reconcile, and we experience her ongoing point/counterpoint.  Likewise, Zeke is physically and emotionally traumatized, worn out, and coming to terms with the mortality of one of her parents.  Still, we see her reach highs and lows, good days and bad days, and times when she’s social as well as times when she retreats deep inside.  Again, the author’s patience and pacing allows the reader to develop a familiarity with the characters, which in turn leads to a richer, more sustainable relationship between the characters and the reader.

And we all wanna love the one we’re with . . .

The mystery and intrigue associated with the men pursuing Zeke took a backseat to the developing romance.  At first, this struck me as a bit strange.  Of course, I realized at some point that Damaged in Service is the first book in an ongoing series, and the reader is teased into knowing the mystery and intrigue will evolve into something even more sinister and damaging than what we see in this first book. 

If that doesn’t up the ante (and pressure to deliver), nothing will.

As a reader, my complaints are few and mostly minor.  However, I notice that even Zeke refers to Anne Reynolds as “Mrs. Reynolds”.  While it can be considered correct to refer to a divorced woman as Mrs., the reference feels a bit dated, especially given the animosity of the divorce.  

Silly, I know, but it bugged me - I probably would have slugged Zeke the first time she said it.

And lastly, the ending of the book was more of a cliffhanger than a first part conclusion that sets up the second book in the series.  To me, it’s a bit of a tomato/tomahto argument.  However, I can easily imagine any number of readers anxiously flipping the page and muttering, “Oh no you didn't just do that to me!"

Oh yes she did!

Damaged in Service is a fantastic debut for Barrett.  The main characters are well conceived and written, the romance is honest and believable, the bad guys manage to shock the reader, and the scenery is as beautiful and lyrical in print as it is in real life.  The pacing flies when it needs to, surges when it’s called for, and soothes when the time is right. 

There are so many delightful things about this book, and Barrett has my anticipation locked and loaded for the rest of the series.  It’s one of those books that just hit me right between the eyes, and I loved it.  I’m giving this solid debut a 5.0 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Leaving by Gabriella West

Book:  The Leaving
Author:  Gabriella West
Publisher:  Self-Published at Smashwords

As an intelligent, slightly quirky, baby dyke with a cowlick, coming of age in small town, rural America in the mid-eighties was a confusing, awkward, lonely experience.  I didn’t read the same books, listen to the same music, or wear the same clothes as my peers; and whenever I tried to engage anyone in conversation, they tended to look at me like I was asking them, in a little-used dialect of isiXhosa, to conjegate a sentence with multiple verbs.

And, as hard as it may be to believe, I never actually did that – with “that” being the operative word.

Because friendships of any depth were fleeting, at best, I tended to focus my teenage energies inward, and spent a lot of time thinking about travelling to places like Marrakesh and the Heart of Darkness, and meeting people just a little more like me.

Or even totally not like me, but at least able to conjugate a sentence with multiple verbs.

In The Leaving, by Gabriella West, we are introduced to teenager Cathy Quinn, a smart, quirky, social misfit growing up in the dreary and depressed 1980’s Dublin.  Her gay brother, Stevie, begins a new relationship with the one boy she thinks she likes only to discover she really doesn’t.  Stevie is sometimes her friend and sometimes her antagonist, but always her older brother.  Cathy understands that she’s not like anyone else, but isn’t going to be coerced by her parents, her brother, or her schoolmates into fitting in to their definition of ‘normal’. 

After Christmas break, she meets Jeanette, another misfit, and begins her first in-depth friendship.  Quickly, the friendship grows stronger and deeper, and Cathy soon realizes she’s fallen in love. But, being gay is strictly verboten in this society, and Jeanette is more concerned with starting to fit in with the kids at school than in exploring and pursuing her feelings for her best friend.  Cathy is faced with changing herself to fit in with Jeanette, or staying true to herself and being alone again.  She chooses to focus inward to cope with the separation, loss, and pain; and looks outward as she starts to plan her escape from school, home, Dublin, and Ireland.

“California, here we come . . .”

When I first read the synopsis of The Leaving, I thought I’d be reading a YA novel.  And, while some young adults might pick it up and learn a thing or two, the book transcends the boundaries of that genre’.  Yes, it’s about a teenager dealing with school, friends, family, sexuality, and first love; but it also explores complex themes like sibling rivalry, gender bias, social bullying, and raw emotional default.   

Cathy is described as chubby, homely, standoffish, and weird, but you get the sense that at some level she understands that she’s biding her time, keeping the plates spinning, and waiting for the time to spread her wings and fly.  This is portrayed beautifully during the section of the book where Cathy and Jeanette spend several weeks on the farm in County Meath.  Cathy flourishes socially, emotionally, and physically before it all falls apart and the downward spiral of her relationship with Jeanette begins.  But still, she has the brief, sweet taste of things to come.

While Cathy’s relationship with her parents is almost non-existent, her relationship with Stevie is complicated and central to the book – he’s everything she isn’t – strong, popular, bold, and good-looking.  He looks after her, tells her things, and shares part of the burden of home life with her.  But, he senses her inner strength and capabilities lurking deep inside. Surprisingly, and sometimes not, it appears that Stevie senses her gifts, and tries to sabotage her through passive and not-so-passive aggressive behavior.  As the book progresses, however, we start to see a shift in each of them and their relationship – Cathy, for all her faults and insecurities, begins to come into herself, and makes decisions that change the course of her life and moves her beyond Stevie’s shadow.

Overall, I thought the book started out very slowly, but came to understand that this is Cathy’s journey, not that of the reader.  The book is written in first person narrative, and we follow her pace, her thoughts, her decisions, and her directions.  She treats herself not so differently than she treats everyone around her, and the reader often times feels so close to breaking through, only to be pushed back slightly.  At times, we’re invited inside, much like Stevie and Jeanette, but not much more.  I sense that this takes an amazing amount of discipline by the author to tell Cathy’s story without stepping outside her carefully guarded emotional façade.  While it can be trying for the reader, it makes perfect sense.

One of the near constants of any coming of age story is that there is something that each of us identifies with, and this story stays true to form.  The Leaving is a powerful book, but it’s not emotionally easy to read.  We want to be closer to Cathy, but she won’t let us.  We want her to meet the perfect woman, but we don’t know if she ever will.  And, we want to her be happy, but there’s no guarantee where life will lead her. 

If you’re looking for something with a little bite, something that will challenge you, something that will take you back to those not-always-so-halcyon days of your teens as you assess where you’ve come and how you got here; then The Leaving is the perfect catalyst.  I’m giving this book a 4.8 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale.

Gabriella West isn’t afraid to be different, and she isn’t afraid to stay true to herself - for a little more info on her and how the book came to be, don't hesitate to check her out at either of the following sites: