Monday, November 26, 2012

Aftermath by Ann McMan

Book:  Aftermath
Author:  Ann McMan
Publisher:  Bedazzled Ink Publishing

Note to readers from Salem West: Before it was even released, many followers of The Rainbow Reader wrote to me requesting a review of Aftermath by Ann McMan, who I married earlier this year. As much as I would love to climb on my bully pulpit to tell you what I think about her latest release, it's hard for me to maintain a fair and impartial position regarding anything she writes. So, I reached out to the respected author, Susan X. Meagher, and asked if she would step in and share her thoughts on this novel.  


Special Guest Reviewer,
Susan X. Meagher
Recently, my wife and I made a trip to Italy. I have not one drop of Italian blood, but I feel as comfortable there as I do in my own town. I’m not certain why it resonates with me, but I have a few guesses.

Italy is as steeped in Catholicism as I was as a child. The nineteen years I spent in Catholic school was a minor influence compared to how the faith was the backdrop of every aspect of my life—from Catholic newspapers, magazines and comic books to Catholic camp, Girl Scout troop and sports teams. It was so deeply infused that I didn’t notice until I left that environment that everything had been imprinted on an underlayment of Catholicism.

Italy is a bit like that. Catholicism is everywhere; the art, the architecture, the calendar, even the food.

What struck me during my recent trip was how different the Italian experience must be for someone who knows little or nothing about Catholicism.

Botticelli's The Trial of Moses
from the Sistine Chapel
One day, we were on a small tour, just six people—of the Sistine Chapel. For me, who spent countless hours in an almost bare, utilitarian church in a lower-middle class town in the Mid-west, looking at the exuberant art that covered the walls and ceilings was overwhelming. A Technicolor dream that delighted me in ways I can barely describe.

But the people we toured with that day had no frame of reference. They were Americans who’d never been to Europe and had no faith background. 

One of the men actually looked around, only vaguely interested, and said, “The Pope lives here, right?”

While I applaud people who try to get out there and take a peek at the rest of the world, I have to acknowledge that you’re not going to get a hell of a lot out of the Sistine Chapel if you have no context for the place. Clearly, you don’t have to be Catholic to love religious art. But it has to help—at least to get your feet wet.

I’d apply that same analogy to Aftermath, the eagerly awaited sequel to Jericho. A reader could pick up the book with no prior knowledge of Ann’s work and easily get into it. There’s no complicated backstory that requires notes and flowcharts. But I’d recommend a different, more pleasurable tack. 

I met Ann McMan this summer at the Golden Crown Literary Society’s conference in Minneapolis and decided I had to read Jericho, given that she and her spouse were both so quick, erudite and side-splittingly funny. But I got involved in my own work and soon that pledge escaped my short-term memory.

Recently, upon being asked to write this review, I decided I’d better get busy and catch up. Reviewing the sequel without having read the urtext seemed like an unwise shortcut.

I spent a few days (big book!) with Maddie, Syd, David, Michael, and a cast of characters large enough to make Cecil B. DeMille a bit jealous, and was delighted to see Ann’s wit, energy and charm vividly displayed through her words. When I finished, I truly understood why so many people quickly became vocal fans of her writing and also why the demand for a sequel was so high.

In Jericho, Ann created a world filled with unique characters who rather effortlessly worked their way into your heart. In Aftermath, she gives readers a chance to sit down and visit with the whole gang once again.

It was fun to experience the build-up and dramatic tension of Maddie and Syd coming together in Jericho, but being able to jump into the action in Aftermath with their relationship strong and true has its own rewards. In my view, the drive behind every good romance is the reader’s desire to have the characters build a lasting partnership. Aftermath allows the reader to see that partnership in action, and experience how a real love-match can guide a couple through the peaks and valleys of life. That’s something that is satisfying in a way that the “will they or won’t they” period can’t reach.

Aftermath showed clearly that Maddie and Syd have each other’s backs. They’ve become an anchor for so many people in the town of Jericho and beyond; showing by example how love and commitment can help a person grow to their fullest potential. That’s a wonderful message, and Ann McMan sells it with the zeal of a true believer.

Read Aftermath after you’ve read Jericho. Context is everything, and I’m confident you’ll agree that reading about the strength of Maddie and Syd’s pairing is significantly more satisfying once you’ve experienced the first flickers of their attraction for one another. Or as Nadine Odell might say, Jericho is the chicken-fried steak and Aftermath is the white gravy.

Coach Bum Phillips
They’re best enjoyed together.

I'm not able to assign a Rainbow Scale rating for Aftermath because I think it's sui generis--a work with unique characteristics, rendering it incomparable. 

To paraphrase what Bum Phillips once said about a stellar quarterback, 'Aftermath might not be in a class by itself, but whatever class it's in, it don't take long to call the role.'

Friday, November 9, 2012

Come and Go by Lee Harlem Robinson

Book:  Come and Go
Author:  Lee Harlem Robinson
Publisher: Self-Published

In so many ways, I am the daughter of fortune.

However, unlike Isabel Allende’s Eliza Sommers, I’m rarely mistaken for a homosexual man, even though the lady at the big Teeter (the local grocery store) calls me “sir” weekly.

In all seriousness, I had the advantage of growing up with an extended family—my mom’s dad lived with us from the time I was seven years old, and my dad’s mom lived only a few short miles away.  And, we did most things together as a family—holidays, birthdays, church, Sunday dinners, and the annual town Chowder Day.

My grandmother and I were particularly close, and I spent a lifetime of summer mornings mowing her yard, which backed up to the local Free Methodist Church and Masonic Temple.  Well, technically I was “trying” to mow her yard—even though she was sixty-nine years older than me, she was so concerned that I would succumb to the daunting heat and humidity that was prevalent in the soft white underbelly of the Wabash River Valley that she would “spell” me every ten or fifteen minutes. 

Picture a bird-thin woman of eighty, wearing a dress and sensible shoes, pushing a lawn mower at Mach 2, stopping every three minutes to blow her nose and slip the Kleenex back into her dress sleeve for safe keeping.

After “I” was done mowing, my grandma would usher me into the house where she would feed me a feast of roast pork, rivels, cooked spinach with vinegar, green beans with bacon, and a gallon of sweet tea.  To finish off, she’d ask, quite daintily, if I could “eat half a pie?”


After that, we’d do the dishes and retire to the living room to watch her “stories.”  Most people refer to them as “soap operas,” but to a little old lady who got electricity, plumbing, and running water in her mid-seventies, they could be whatever she wanted them to be.  Her favorites were the ABCs, that is, All My Children, One Life to Live, and General Hospital.  But, if something good was happening on one of the other networks or the writers were dragging their feet, she’d switch back and forth to Search for Tomorrow and Guiding Light. 

For the record, grandma never forgave Laura for stepping out on Scottie Baldwin with her ne’er do well rapist Luke Spencer (forgot that little tidbit, didn’t you); and she always thought Dr. Dorian Lord never got the gratitude she deserved for letting that scumbag pedophile, Victor Lord, die a slow, horrible, agonizing death.  Oh, and she also thought Erica Kane made the right “choice” in 1973.

So, to a lot of people, soap operas are poorly written, badly acted, never-ending vacuums that suck up precious moments in life, never to be seen again.  But, to my grandma, those chance meetings, coincidences, extramarital affairs, missed opportunities, secret relationships, unplanned conversions, last-minute rescues and revelations, and deus ex machina endings were grand and welcome entertainment after a life filled with hard work and sacrifice.

The story, Come and Go, by Lee Harlem Robinson is the very modern lesbian equivalent of the soaps of my youth, and a big, juicy story that would have kept my grandma well entertained.

To clarify things a bit, author Lee Harlem Robinson is in fact a fictional character created for the blog, Trying to Throw My Arms Around the World penned by real life author, Hannelore Arbyn. In this blog opera, Lee narrates the story of her work, life, love, heartbreak, and passage to Hong Kong. Come and Go picks up where Trying to Throw My Arms Around the World and the short story, “Dirty Pleasure,” end. 

Lee Harlem Robinson’s love life has never been boring—she’s loves women, and women can’t seem to get enough of her.  Well, that was true while she tripped the light fantastic in London and Paris.  But now, her employer has shipped her off to the unforgiving city of Hong Kong—a gay man’s paradise and a lesbian’s long day’s journey into night

Lee’s life is filled with flirty and fabulous gay boys and bars galore.  The only things missing are the lesbians.  After a quick, one-night stand soon after she arrived, it took Lee months to find a hot, sexy, eligible lesbian.  However, the lovely banker, Stella, dumps her for the ever-sexy CJ, and Lee finds that she can’t quit obsessing about Stella.  Whether it’s Stella, raging hormones, or the fact that she doesn’t like losing, Lee spirals deeper and deeper into alcohol-induced despair.  When all seems lost, she meets the hip and sexy Nikki, who is smart and secure in her wants and needs.  The two immediately jump into bed, and then begin a relationship of sorts.

But, CJ suddenly dumps Stella, who immediately begins chasing Lee.  To complicate things, Lee’s boss and former lover, Lucy, descends upon Hong Kong with lust in her eyes.  Lee has a lot of choices to make, and each one seems worse than the last.  Of course, Lee has a real problem with lying, and her confessions to Nikki lead her new girlfriend into the arms of another hip and sexy woman.  So, Lee has a lot of decisions to make—risk it all again on Stella, risk losing Stella for Nikki, or keep making stupid decisions and loose them both?   

Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of Lee Harlem Robinson’s life…

Back over the summer, author Hannelore Arbyn asked if I would review Come and Go.   I was intrigued by the story locale, and the fact that the main character was the “author,” so I immediately agreed.  Of course, I had a long list of books to review, and it kept getting pushed further down the list. And then, a few weeks ago, I had the brilliant idea to buy three random short stories, and write up a review featuring them. Best laid plans, right? One of those short stories, “Dirty Pleasure,” by Lee Harlem Robinson was so strangely and unexpectedly compelling that I immediately dusted off my copy of Come and Go, and tucked into it.

Come and Go is equal parts funkysweetsexycool, and the writing manages to stay crisp and clean throughout the sordid story of the main character’s turbulent love life.  Lee Harlem Robinson is truly a memorable character who is somehow able to keep the reader firmly in her corner in spite of her near constant self-pity, poor decision-making, and selfish choices.  In many ways, she’s every woman—a character who is so much more real and vulnerable than the serialized pseudo lesbians littering large swaths of lesbian fiction.

Supporting Lee Harlem Robinson is a bevy of pretty gay boys, all richly and cleanly written.  These handsome twinks, muscle boys, and Nellies dote on their appearance, flirt wildly with everyone, correct the fashion choices of lesbians, and surprisingly run much deeper and wider than anyone would ever credit them based on appearance alone.  I appreciate the author’s use of them as a collective to advance the story incrementally, and as a means of comparing and contrasting attitudes and actions related to love, sex, and loyalty. 

Come and Go’s character-rich trifecta is completed as the author manages to make the larger-than-life Hong Kong come alive with attitude and opportunity.  Full of bright lights, endless hills, heat and humidity, and thrumming gay bars and discos, this vibrant metropolis manages in turns to be exhilarating and crowded and then soulless and lonely. 

Simply stated, Come and Go is a slick and well-written episode of the blog opera Trying to Throw My Arms Around the World, and it continues the familiar pattern of the loves and loses of the expat, Lee Harlem Robinson. Moving effortlessly between sweet and sad emotions, and laugh-out-loud moments, it draws the reader in and makes you care.  For the most part, the story moved quickly and effortlessly, and while it tended to drag on occasion, it always got back on track.

I got my love of these types of “stories” from my grandma, and I have no doubt she would have tuned in daily to find out what would happen next to the irrepressible Lee Harlem Robinson.  So, give "Dirty Pleasure" a try—it’s free on Amazon and a quick read at 34 pages.  Then, let me know whether or not you find yourself drawn in and wanting to see what happens next in Come and Go. For me, against my expectations, I was hooked. 

So, in honor of grandma, I’m giving Come and Go a 4.8 out of 6.0 on the Rainbow Scale