Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Step into the Wind by Bev Prescott


With Special Guest Reviewer, BARRETT, author of DAMANGED IN SERVICE and  DEFYING GRAVITY

Book:  Step into the Wind
Author:  Bev Prescott
Publisher:  Blue Feather Books

For a kid growing up in the Midwest, every summer brought the opportunity of “going up north” for vacation. I believe there’s something magical about the north woods for children, as well as adults. Maybe it was the quiet or the sheer joy of being swallowed up by, what seemed like, endless acres of trees and lakes.

My family, like hundreds of others, packed the car before dawn to make the excruciatingly long drive to Northern Wisconsin. For two blissful weeks my brother and I led a carefree existence of swimming, running loose, picking blueberries, fishing, and capturing frogs.

When I was a little older, I had the chance to go to scout camp in Wild Rose, Wisconsin. Some of the memories are just as vivid today as they were then. It was my first time away from home and I met dozens of other girls enjoying a special week of coordinated recreation and learning. I also learned the wonder of “camp counselors” for the first time.

Author Bev Prescott’s new release, Step into the Wind, offers readers a peek behind the scenes of a landmark camp in the beautifully described town of Glasgow, Maine. The Marcotte Camp has been a rite of passage for decades for many lucky children. But with the death of their son, the beloved Marcotte family is self-destructing.

Alex Marcotte fled the town and her family after the tragic death of her twin brother. Finally, on the pretext of researching the wildfires in Maine, she returns to her hometown. Sadly, Alex carries with her the same emotional burdens that she had when she left. The psychological wreckage that, after so many years, continues to metastasize through the roots of her family, hooks her back in almost immediately.

A lifesaving distraction appears in the form of self-assured wildlife biologist named Zoe Kimball. Tasked with studying a very special pair of breeding eagles on an island owned by the camp, Zoe Kimball finds herself drawn into the vortex of a growing storm. Her attraction to Alex blooms, but it’s her rock solid courage and patience that bond her to the unmoored young woman.

At first glance, the story lines up to be a romance. And to be sure, the relationship between Zoe and Alex develops in halting steps. But the real story, from my perspective, is one of survival on many levels. Ms. Prescott has intricately woven a tapestry of back-story that involves not only the Marcotte family, but all of the colorful individuals who make up the saga.

The well-researched tale of the eagles and their offspring is gripping and enchanting. (It reminded me of Marlin Perkins and his Sunday night “Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom” television show). By the end of the story, I was truly hoping for a sequel about the baby eagles. 

Anyone who knows Bev Prescott, will understand her passion for the bounty of nature surrounding all of us. When you read her words, you will feel it.

Each character is drawn with the same meticulous attention to detail, and you’ll feel as though you know each one of them.

The pacing of the story moves quickly and evenly. I engaged early and had trouble finding a place to stop for the night. The only time I felt slowed, as a reader was midway through when Alex slipped into a dark space of self-analysis. Her emotional state is vital to understanding the story, but I understood that earlier.

There’s richness in the novel that resonates even after its finish. And it stems from the very title—Step into the Wind. It’s a matter of trust, it’s a matter of survival, and it’s a matter of seeing what’s in front of you. At one point, they discuss the remarkable vision of the eagles, the ability to spot their objective from hundreds of feet in the air.

Bev Prescott has given us a well-written story layered with some of her authentic observations that give her writing a rich satisfying ring of truth. I enjoyed my time in Glasgow, Maine and I’m sure I will revisit Step into the Wind soon. In the meantime, I will be paying  a lot more attention to birds nests.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Ghost and the Machine by Benny Lawrence

Book:  The Ghost and the Machine
Author:  Benny Lawrence
Publisher:  Bedazzled Ink Publishing

I suck at chess.

Not the kind of suck that has me struggling to recognize myriad variations in the Italian Game, or even the kind that has me botching up the classic Ruy Lopez opening salvo of 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5.

It’s not even the kind of suck that has me referring to “birdbaths,” “horsies,” or “those little medieval dudes.”


My suck is extra special. 

It’s the kind of suck that has me digesting things like Vukovic’s Art of the Attack in Chess, Heisman’s Elements of Positional Evaluation, and Shirov’s Fire on the Board and still losing in three moves to a drunken goat in plaid lederhosen chain-smoking Pall Malls.

And it’s not a recent suck, this one dates back to my fifth birthday when my highly skilled and very patient father finally patted me on the shoulder, and kindly suggested a lively game of Animal Rummy instead.  I tried to hold out, but he used my affinity for Hoppy Hippo to talk me off the edge of my kitchen chair and into a better mood.

It worked then and it works now. 

Really—ask my wife and our gay husbands every time Game Night rolls around.

But seriously, chess is a game that combines the basic fundamentals of strategy, vision, calculation, pattern analysis, pruning and prophylaxis. Just about anyone, other than me, can win at chess some of the time, but it takes a true savant to harness the finer elements of theoretical and applied tactical pattern recognition such that any given game is theirs to lose.

Author Benny Lawrence, well known in backroom reading parlors like The Athenaeum and The Royal Academy of Bards as Zipplic, masters both the game of chess and the art of storytelling in her debut novel, The Ghost and the Machine. The year is 1838, and while the Spaniards are focused on the Battle of Peñacerrada, the rest of Europe is obsessed with gizmos, gadgets, and all manner of mechanical contraptions.  Most impressive and entertaining among them is the chess-playing machine known as the Rajah.

Rajah’s Mistress of Ceremonies is inventor, Diana Rushmore, also known as “Rush.”  The drunken, jowly lackey, Caroline Von Hausen, and the diminutive, agoraphobic chess master, Kit, are Rush's companions as they travel across Europe in search of fame and fortune. Kit has toured with Rush, Von Hausen, and the Rajah since she was a child, and knows the rules and the secrets of the show all too well.  But after more than twelve years, the act is growing stale, and Rush is forced to book a private engagement at the Vienna manor house of an eccentric Countess who is a collector of oddities. 

Rush rules the act with an iron fist, but the slightest slip in judgment by Kit brings her face-to-face with the Countess’s mysterious niece, Eleanor.  This violates rule number one that no one is to ever see Kit but Rush and Von Hausen.  Still, the deed is done, and Eleanor begins to insist that Kit attend meals and the obligatory social calls prior to and including chess matches.  As the relationship between Eleanor and Kit twists and turns, Rush and Von Hausen are sucked deeper into the vortex of their individual psychoses, and everything begins to fall apart.  As Rush initiates a strategy for them to flee the engagement, the thin lines between truth and illusion and love and hate suddenly begin to blur, and Kit finds herself a helpless pawn in a deadly game.

I’ll openly admit that on occasion, my reviews fall victim to Shiny Object Syndrome.  That is, I abandon my normally regimented and prioritized list of books for review, and grab one because it has a pretty cover.

The Ghost and the Machine is one of those books.

The simple fact is that the cover art is clean yet striking, and accentuated with great typography.  Still, as nice as a quality cover is, something else has to grab your imagination if the pages are going to keep turning. 

In this case, it was the first three sentences: “People sometimes ask me what it’s like to travel inside a box. I don’t like to answer with sweeping statements, because I think it depends on the box.  Mine was quite nice, as boxes go.”

Ah, there it is, totally and completely hooked in 2.3 seconds.

Written in the first person, The Ghost and the Machine is a smart, cunning, original, and well-written story dotted with dollops of droll observation, dry wit, and gripping pathos.  The characters are by turns quirky, insolent, insightful, deceptive, and all together brilliantly flawed. In addition, the storyline is fresh and tight, and manages to surprise, even though the end game is revealed to the reader early in the narrative.

The writing style and cadence are both consistent with, and apropos to, the Victorian era, and evoke a delightful Dickensian aura rife with vivid description, similes, metaphors, personification, and wonderful imagery to capture the essence of character personalities and traits.  This particular story element is dramatically illustrated by the irrepressible Kit, who we come to learn has lived the majority of her life both as a ghost—and a machine. And, it's backed by the inquisitive Eleanor, who knows more about ghosts and machines than anyone would ever dare guess.

Author Benny Lawrence has a joyously unique voice in the world of lesbian fiction, and The Ghost and the Machine is an utterly fascinating and fantastic read.  

In an effort to circumvent testy letters from readers of traditional lesfic romance, I want to clearly state that this book features only the subtlest suggestion of romance, and mere hints and allegations of lesbian sexual activity—most of which are predatory and clearly not consensual.  There are no heaving bosoms, turgid clits, or moist panties, and the absolute sexiest and sweetest parts of the story take flight in the form of witty banter and shy glances between Kit and Eleanor.

Still, The Ghost and the Machine is an intelligent and unexpected treasure, and Ms. Lawrence is an up-and-coming lesbian robot samurai pirate / author with a solid literary future.  This one is worth a read, and I’m giving The Ghost and the Machine a 5.1 out of 6.0 on the Rainbow Scale—if I ever get to meet Benny Lawrence, I’ll most assuredly ask her to sign my copy in red crayon.