Monday, January 30, 2012

Batwoman by J.H. Williams III, Greg Rucka & W. Haden Blackman


Shining A Spotlight On Cutting Edge Lesbian Literature

With Special Guest Reviewer ANN McMAN
2012 Lavender Certificate winner & author of the best selling novels, Jericho and Dust

Book(s):     Batwoman: Elegy
                  Batwoman: Hydrology
Author(s):  J.H. Williams III and Greg Rucka
                  J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman
Publisher:  D.C. Comics

Author Ann McMan
I grew up in a small town on the banks of the Allegheny River in northwestern Pennsylvania, a stone’s throw from Lake Erie. Believe me when I tell you that up in those parts, you had to figure out how to make your own fun.

You did this with varying degrees of success.

In the wintertime, you went ice-skating on any one of a dozen frozen branches that eventually dumped into the big river. Or if you were like me, and didn’t yet have your own skates, you’d strap on your big sister’s old ones—the scuffed-up white ones with the beater blades—cram socks into the toes so they’d stay on your feet, and trudge out to that low section of back yard that my father would flood for the little kids—those of us who couldn’t yet be trusted to know what parts of the “crick” were safe enough to support our weight.

In the warm weather, we’d ride our bike (we had one, and we took turns)—or we’d play Kick-the-Can on that large gravel lot next to the house.

Those were the most intoxicating times—those hours after dinner and homework when the four of us could linger outside until the pink light faded, and the sun dropped behind the hills.

But we always had to do our homework. It sucked.

And on Saturday mornings, if we had been very good—which, in northwestern Pennsylvania parlance, meant you’d lived through a whole week and didn’t break any windows, try to jump start the old ’48 Chevy pickup, lie about eating the last cinnamon roll, hit anybody, get caught smoking Dad’s Salem menthols in the basement, or put the cat in the dryer…again…you’d get your allowance.

Allowance. A magical thing.

It should have been called “dispensation.” It came every week, just like manna from heaven. Fifty-cents each. A fortune. A treasure trove. The key to unlock exotic worlds that existed far beyond the one we knew—just like all those places described in that set of Illustrated Classics that our mother made us read.

My brother Steve and I would always get up early on Saturday, take our four shiny quarters, and walk two and a half miles to the small tobacco shop and newsstand that was a landmark in what passed for the nearest “town.”

We bought confections, of course. Fireballs. Chum Gum. Pixie Sticks. Well. I bought Pixie Sticks—Steve was already far too manly for that. Sometimes, we’d splurge and buy a big Phillie Cigar—then pretend not to get sick while we took turns smoking it on the walk back home.

And every week, we bought comic books. Lots of them.  

Superheroes were our favorites. Superman. Batman. The Flash. The Green Lantern.

And Steve liked Sgt. Rock, too—although he was always a bit too butch for me.

But we agreed about one thing: we needed these heroes in our small lives—these fantastic, iconic figures who fought for truth and justice. We needed them because we were just beginning to understand that our world wasn’t really a safe place. After all…a man with a rifle had just killed President Kennedy in Texas—and we watched all of that unfold in real time on our small black and white TV. Nothing like that had ever happened before—not in our lives, and not in anybody else’s either.

Yep. We needed superheroes. And we brought them home with us every week. They kept us company in the small hours before bedtime. We’d read them and trade them and save them in boxes beneath our beds, like hedges against our fears of the unknown.

Things are different today. And kids are different, too. They have different lives, different expectations, different possibilities, and different understandings of a world that is larger, more complex, more immediate, and much more volatile than the one I grew up in.

Do they still need superheroes?

Damn skippy, they do!

Enter Kate Kane, a.k.a. Batwoman.


She’s strong. Smart. Brave. Beautiful. Badass. Complex. Conflicted. Driven. Determined. Devoted to truth and justice. Looks hot in a black body suit.

Oh…and she’s a lesbian.

Oh my.

Toto? We’re not in Kansas anymore.

And it gets better. Under the pen of the every-award-they-give-for-graphic-illustration-winning J.H. Williams III, this ass-kicking icon among crime fighters—who just happens to like other girls—now headlines her very own, best-selling DC Comics franchise.

This new incarnation of Batwoman exploded into the modern day comic-verse back in 2006, as part of the DC maxi-series, 52. The reimagined character (Batwoman first showed up back in the mid-1950s as a quasi-love interest for Batman) was so successful that she catapulted (literally) to headline the stalwart “Detective Comics” franchise. All twelve issues of Batwoman: Elegy, drawn by Williams and written by GLAAD laureate Greg Rucka, are nicely collected in a beautiful trade volume that features an introduction by MSNBC political commentator, Rachel Maddow—whose own career slightly parallels that of the red-caped arbiter of the night. Well—all except for that love-interest-for-Batman thing….

But that’s another essay.

Still. If you’re in any doubt about the stand-alone literary merit of Batwoman’s first, mainline foray into the annals of lesfic, consider this endorsement from Maddow’s intro to Elegy:

I won’t lie to you: I would read anything Greg Rucka wrote. I would read Greg Rucka’s grocery lists. I would read Greg Rucka’s discarded edits. I would read a Greg Rucka forty-volume soft-hearted navel-gazer about characters I couldn’t care less about, if he was capable of writing such a thing, and if he did I’d probably read it out loud to my friends and exclaim and swear about how he made me care.

Hard to argue with that.

This show stopping, twelve-issue run led to the development of the lesbian caped crusader’s own label—and Batwoman: Hydrology made its explosive debut last September, wrapping up its five-issue, debut run this month.

And what a debut it is.

J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman hit a home run with Batwoman: Hydrology not just because of the jaw dropping, heart-stopping, awe inspiring illustration—but because they know how to tell a great story about a complex character who just happens to be gay.

And, after all, isn’t that what we each aspire to? To arrive at a safe place where our sexual orientation is rightly understood as just one part of who we are—in tandem with things like blue eyes, an unruly head of husky hair, or a curious fondness for root vegetables?

I think so.

The new Batwoman is many things. She’s an ex-solider who was drummed out of military service under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. She’s Jewish. She’s slightly Goth. She’s an heiress. She has a string of failed relationships. She is dark and besieged with self-doubt. She sometimes makes bad choices. Her family life is in flux. When she’s garbed up to fight crime, she wears a wig that channels Rita Hayworth. 

And she’s gay.

When The Advocate interviewed J.H. Williams III, he talked freely about the challenge of writing a high-profile gay character for a mainstream publisher—and the implied pressure that goes along with it.

I feel the pressure, but I have confidence in it too. For me, the pressure comes from wanting to make sure we’re telling a good story. The political aspects — in terms of her being a gay character — are irrelevant to me because I’m just writing a good character. I think that is probably the smartest way to approach it instead of worrying about any sort of media feedback the story could possibly generate. It’s more important for me to treat the character the same way I would treat any other character. That means respecting the way Kate Kane’s story is told. ...I want the series and the character to have a unique voice in comparison to any other superhero title. Not because she’s gay, but because I want to tell a unique story.

He succeeds.

But don’t take my word for it—or Rachel Maddow’s, for that matter. Pick up your own copy of Hydrology, and judge for yourself. Even if graphic novels are not your style, you’ll find plenty here to like: good story telling; a fast-paced, action packed adventure; exotic locations; creepy bad guys; fantastic feats of human endurance; and a tender love story.

And maybe—just for a moment—you’ll reconnect with that small part of yourself that still, in the quiet hours of the night, cries out for a hero.

She’s here. She’s queer.

And the world is ready for her.

Rating:  A solid 5.4 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

After the Night by Rachel Dax

Book:  After the Night
Author:  Rachel Dax
Publisher:  Self-Published

One of the advantages of growing up in a small town is that I had the good fortune of knowing my grandparents as regular features in my life.  In particular, my dad’s mom, Wilma, was my best friend, hero, and chocolate chip cookie enabler. 

I’m the twitchy little dyke I am today because of her constant love and devil-may-care attitude.

Still, Wilma led a hard life as a farmer’s wife, and my parents and aunt finally convinced her to move off the farm and into town in 1970.  At the time, she grumped that she was just fine where she was, but I never heard her complain about suddenly having electricity, indoor plumbing, running water, a washing machine and dryer, a telephone, or a furnace.

She did, however, put up a valiant and successful fight against the evils of air conditioning for another thirty-one years.

One of Wilma's Stories
One of the things my grandma loved most about living in town was that she could regularly volunteer at the library three times a week, and any time she needed to go to the Stop-n-Shop to do her trading, which was conveniently located next door.  Grandma would help the librarian restock the shelves, work the front desk, and carry stacks of books to and from the bookmobile. 

As ‘payment’ for her efforts, the librarian would send grandma home with a paper bag full of “stories,” as she liked to call them.  Her absolute favorites were the Avon originals, Harlequin romances, and the old Mills & Boon books in brown.

As a kid, I mostly remember the covers usually featured handsome, square-jawed men and women with flowing hair and oh-so-heaving bosoms…no wonder I grew up to have a squishy little heart and a healthy libido.

In After the Night, author Rachel Dax takes her readers back in time to 1960 in this pulp fiction nod to the 1956 film, Yield to the Night.

Yield to the Night Poster
US Theatrical Release
Which featured the “eye-filling, gasp-provoking, blonde bombshell,” Diana Dors, as a murderess sentenced to hang and spending her last days in the condemned cell in a British women's prison.

Twenty-two year old nurse, Leah Webster takes a position in the hospital wing of Deepdown women’s prison in order to save up money for her impending marriage to the handsome and square-jawed Bill.  Dark haired serious looking Chief Officer Jean MacFarlane is assigned responsibility by the Governor for her introduction.  Immediately, “Mac,” who is a walking contradiction, intrigues Leah – the guard is edgy, distant, rigidly professional, and gruff, but almost without fail, the prisoners and other prison workers seem to brighten up when she is near. 

By the time Leah is introduced to Matron and the prisoners in the sanatorium, she’s having second thoughts about taking on this position.  Almost immediately, Marge, who is infirm with a broken hip, begins flirting openly with Leah.  Leah has heard stories of inverts and perverts, but has never really encountered one before, and is even more unsettled.

Of course, over the next few days, Leah learns of Mac’s heart being broken by the execution of a prisoner she was assigned to guard.  And, then, a young prisoner that is one of Mac’s favorites is rushed to the san – she’s been beaten severely and is deep in the throes of pneumonia.  Mac stays by her side night and day, and as Leah watches the motherly love and devotion, she suddenly realizes that she may be developing feelings for the older woman.  Leah fights the feelings, and even capitulates to sex with Bill to convince herself she’s not an invert, but all she can think of is Mac.

Of course, true love must always be fought for, and their budding relationship is tested time and again by a prison break that turns deadly, lies and deceit that threaten their jobs and their honor, ugly prejudice and vile accusations, and a wholly unplanned and unimagined surprise.

They push, they pull, they have partially-clothed sex in Mac’s office, they plan a life with hundreds of dogs and cats…

Rachel Dax delivers a solid debut in this highly stylized piece of British historical romance.  After the Night features strong central characters that offer a satisfying mix of strength and vulnerability, and a plot that twists and turns and inspires feelings of true joy and ultimate despair. 

The author gets her mojo rolling and channels the very best of the Avon, Harlequin and Mills & Boon authors of the late 50s, 60s, and early 70s.

Ms. Dax has produced a story that exemplifies the very best of the classic romance novel, and checks off each and every box on the “So You Want to Write Romances” pamphlet… 

  • After the Night revolves around two women as they develop romantic love for each other and work to build a lasting relationship together.
  • Both the conflict and the climax of the story are directly related to that core theme of developing a romantic relationship, and the myriad subplots that do not specifically relate to the main characters' romantic love add appropriate levels of angst and turmoil. 
  • In addition, Ms. Dax rewards the characters who are good, and penalizes those who are evil; we see the couple fighting for and believing in their relationship, and we see them rewarded with happiness and unconditional love in the end.

I appreciate that Rachel Dax wrote this historical romance, stayed true to the rules of romance writing, and produced characters and dialogue that are appropriate to the time period and character stations in life.  After the Night is a fun, artful, and compelling read, and it is different from anything else on the Lesfic market.

Think the love child of Kathleen Woodiwiss and Mabel Maney.

This book took me back in time, and reminded me of those stories my grandma loved so much – and I mean that to be a high compliment to Ms. Dax.  At times, the plot was a bit predictable, but the story forged ahead at a brisk pace.  For aficionados of classic lesbian romance, this is a must read. 

After the Night gets a rising 4.9 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Faithful Service, Silent Hearts by Lynette Mae

Book:  Faithful Service, Silent Hearts
Author:  Lynette Mae
Publisher:  Regal Crest Enterprises

This week I’m taking a look at a debut novel by Lynette Mae that chronicles the life of a young lesbian soldier during a seminal time in American history.  The story Faithful Service, Silent Hearts deals with a young Army officer focused on the mission of identifying terrorists and keeping soldiers out of harm’s way, all the while trying to protect her heart and hide the secret of her sexuality during the homosexual witch-hunts of the Reagan Administration.

However, before I tuck into the overview of the story and my thoughts about it, I want to take a few minutes to talk about something close to my heart.  Yesterday morning, my beloved Aunt Jackie passed away.  She was 87 years old, and my siblings and I are the only family she had in the world.  When I was a baby, she would give me cold coffee from a spoon, and rub whiskey on my chest to help me breathe during asthma attacks. 

Aunt Jackie was at every birthday, Christmas Eve, and graduation; and she was one of only four people I asked to attend my baptism.  When I didn’t think I had enough money to go away to graduate school, she told me there was no way I was going to pass up THAT opportunity, and offered financial assistance without a second of thought.  The last time I saw her, she was in the hospital recovering from surgery.  I leaned down and she kissed me and said, “I love you, Mother.”   It didn’t matter that she was confused; the emotion was very real for both of us. 

I love you, Aunt Jackie – thank you for always being there for me.

And now, back to the regularly scheduled book review:  Faithful Service, Silent Hearts tells the story of Devon James, a studly young leader that very well could have been the face of the new Army.  Smart, clever, and dedicated, she took on every assignment with passion and clarity.  While on assignment at the Army Intelligence Center, she begins a lusty relationship with her roommate, the equally smart, clever, and dedicated rogue, Lieutenant Jillian Gray.  That is, until the witch-hunt begins, and Lt. Gray’s once-promising Army career is burned at the stake. 

The Marine Barracks, Beirut,10/23/83
Photo courtesy of the USMC
Lt. James is spared from discovery, and she continues her career, eventually hooking up with an old college friend and CIA Agent, Alex Sommers.  Both women find themselves walking a professional and emotional tightrope in Beirut until members of an Islamic Jihadist movement took the lives of 220 Marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers in one act of barbarism.  Among the causalities of this harrowing day was Agent Sommers.  Broken hearted, and seriously wounded, Lt. James returns to the United States and finds herself both honored for her heroism, and targeted for her sexuality. 

Faithful Service, Silent Hearts is a truly compelling book that takes a unique look at lesbians in the military who skirted the legal policy of 10 U.S.C. § 654, which stated that homosexuality is incompatible with military service and that persons who engaged in homosexual acts or stated that they are homosexual or bisexual were to be discharged.

For the history buffs out there, that means before President Clinton’s ‘mine is bigger than yours’ to Congress with his signing of Defense Directive 1304.26, more popularly known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”.

It’s a pleasure to read a story about lesbians in the military that separates itself from the myriad books being released that deal with more contemporary Iraq/Afghanistan issues.  This story gives us a fresh look back at the not-so-distant past, and subtly reminds readers of some of the political decisions and questionable policies that directly lead us to where we are today. 

Specifically, I mean the perception of the United States abroad, the perception of women in combat, and the perception of gays and lesbians in the military. 

Ms. Mae’s main character, Devon James, is well written – professionally confident, yet personally vulnerable.  She is dedicated to her job, her soldiers, and her friends, but unsure how to truly give her heart away.  Yet, somehow she does, despite her best efforts not to.

The love affairs are artfully developed and believable, and the friendships and professional exchanges have a depth that speaks to authenticity.   The interactions and descriptions of the military and intelligence communities are simple and convincing, and delightfully don’t fall victim to cartoonish heroism or villainy.

The story is tightly written, well plotted, and free of gratuitous trips to the bully pulpit.  While it contains a handful of romantic and sexual encounters, the story does not stray into syrupy romance.  True, the reader wants the protagonist to find and keep the love of her life, but the story is more about a soldier walking a tightrope between two incompatible worlds.

Well, “perceived” incompatible worlds, that is…marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen have shown us time and again how truly ridiculous that perception was and remains.

Lynette Mae is one of the brash and gifted new writers strutting into the world of Lesfic.  She’s talented and skillful with the insight and ability to tell a story we don’t recognize.  She shows us that we can have sexy, steamy, edgy, heart pounding fiction that feels fresh and new, and far removed from the mundane. 

If I were to point to one flaw in Faithful Service, Silent Hearts, it would be the pacing, which is a bit hurried toward the conclusion.  Still, the overall strength of this tale outweighs that minor blemish.

If you haven’t looked around lately, the theme of ‘Women in the Military’ is becoming a hot commodity in Lesfic, and for good reason.  We all love strong women and we all need heroes.

Let’s just say, they’re the new breed of tough and chewy butch with a gun – a .50 caliber, fully automatic, with armor-piercing-incendiary-tracer ammo, that is. 

Lynette Mae has given readers a thoughtful, solid story, a memorable protagonist, and a happy ending that is evenly tempered with hope and loss.  This is a compelling read, and one that is worth the investment in time and money.  I’m giving this intelligent, well-written story a solid 5.1 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Clara's Story by Doreen Perrine

Book:  Clara’s Story
Author:  Doreen Perrine
Publisher: Bedazzled Ink Publishing

Many years ago, I had a brief sojourn in Paris, during which I became interested in the American expatriate experience. 

I took moonlit strolls along La Seine, studied the reliefs of the Arc de Triomphe, stood at the top of the Eiffel Tower on a starlit night, climbed the stairs of Montmartre’s Rue Foyatier, and listened to an organ concerto at Basilique du Sacré-Cœur.  I spent many of my days wandering the streets of La Rive Gauche, trying to channel the vibes of Picasso, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Matisse, and Sartre.

A little light reading
I spent my evenings studying the collective works of Frederic Bastiat in sidewalk bistros, swilling red wine, and being not-so-politely told to “Arrêter d'essayer de parler français!”

During my stay, I spent one memorable day wandering the vast collection of art at Le Musée du Louvre.  One thing I feel obliged to confess, though, is that I'm a neophyte when it comes to everything related to art and art history.    

I do, however, have a well-used box of 96 Crayola Crayons with a built in sharpener, and a few sketchbooks.

I went to Paris in September, after the French nationals and the hoards of tourists returned to work from their summer vacations.  It was the perfect time to visit, no crowds, no lines, and plenty of time to sit and watch the boats in the fountains.  I particularly remember that special day at The Louvre, and feeling like I was the only person allowed entry.  Imagine being able to stand mere feet from da Vinci’s The Mona Lisa, and staring into her quirky little smile for an undisturbed hour. 

But it wasn’t just The Grande Dame of The Louvre that got my attention that day, I was also able to spend considerable alone time with Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, Prud’hon’s Empress Josephine, Ribera’s The Club-Footed Boy, Rubens’ The Disembarkation of Maria de' Medici at the Port of Marseilles, and Titian’s, Pastoral Concert.

In the immortal words of Joni Mitchell, “Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.”  

In Doreen Perrine’s debut novel, Clara’s Story, twenty-nine year old Claire Doral finds herself weaving her way through a dispassionate life.  She’s working at a tony New York art gallery, trying to maintain balance between her overbearing uptown mother and her guilt-ridden downtown father, and sleepwalking through an unfulfilling romantic relationship.  One day, she is introduced to a flirtatious, free-spirited Italian artist named Isabelle.  Claire is at once drawn to Isabelle’s charming ways, but at the same time feels the need to maintain her distance and discretion.  But after falling to Isabelle’s charms, finds herself unable to return to any of her previous life.

by Raphael
Oh, she tries.  But, she finds herself pursuing another female artist, pushing further and further away from her mother, and drawing closer to her father.  After getting sacked by the Gallery and ending her loveless relationship, she sells her artist’s loft, and heads to Europe to embrace the art and culture.  First London, then Paris, and then Milan.  A side trip to Venice inspires her to make contact with Isabelle, and the two begin a push and pull relationship that threatens to leave both heartbroken.  Within the shadows of Michelangelo and Raphael, is it possible for Claire to break free of the bonds of her past familial burdens and find her own free spirit, and can Isabelle regain that joie de vivre that embodied her life and art and brought Claire back into her life?

As a reviewer, I have the privilege of reading a lot of books by a wide array of talented authors.  Every lesfic novelist has a certain, oh, je ne sais quoi about her writing.  That is to say, a style of narration, dialogue, and ultimately, storytelling.  Doreen Perrine is no exception to this unwritten truism. 

However, I must admit, it took me a while to “get” where she was taking Clara’s Story, and to “get” into the hustle and flow of the characters.

As I began to read this novel, I found myself not really liking Claire Doral, feeling unsympathetic to her struggles, and almost bored with her story.  She wasn’t particularly a nice person, she didn’t treat people particularly well, and I didn’t particularly care about her problems.  I DID find myself almost immediately falling in love with her therapist, Gary, her father, George, and his long-time partner, Lloyd.

This distressed me for quite a while, but I stuck with the book.  I wanted to find out how Claire was going to find her way to Isabelle, and what path they would take.  What happened, though, was the ultimate beauty of Clara’s Story.  At some point, it occurred to me that Ms. Perrine had intentionally written Claire to begin the story more like her mother and end up more like her father.  This character growth was not only central to the romance with Isabelle, but more importantly it was the story for me. 

As Claire begins to open herself up to humor, adventure, and happiness, she becomes interesting, the world around her becomes brighter, and the story becomes lighter and more approachable.  The art takes on color and form, and the supporting cast of characters develops more depth and vitality. 

With any book, I look at the depth of characters, and Ms. Perrine does a remarkable job of transforming her protagonist.  A few characters seem flat; including the mother and Mr. Lacy, and that may very well be from design.  However, a few other characters, like Lloyd and Nonna, become unexpected and delightful co-stars.

Clara's Story begins slowly and builds up into a satisfying conclusion; again I believe the pacing is a product of author intent.  The plot is sound, and Ms. Perrine joyously avoided the use of tired plot devices and trite conflict.  

I will say, that as a reader, I am not particularly enthralled when an author plops a 9/11 scene into an unrelated story when that same scenario could have happened without connection to that historic event.   In this case, Claire could have 'saved' her father from a robbery or some type of accident.

However, after reading a bit about the author, I learned that the book was dedicated to a friend and survivor of that day, so I’m giving it an official pass because in this case, it isn’t a plot device inserted for maximum heart tugging effect.

I’ll freely admit, when I started Clara’s Story, I had more than a few misgivings.  However, Doreen Perrine stayed true to her vision for the novel, and the pieces came together into an interesting and satisfying conclusion.  I’m giving this surprising debut from a talented new author a 4.8 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Open Water by Pol Robinson

Book:  Open Water
Author:  Pol Robinson
Publisher:  Bella Books

Welcome to The Rainbow Reader 2012!

It’s no secret; I love sports and books about sports – especially books about lesbians and sports.

One of the very best parts of any even numbered year is that we get to watch the Olympics.  This year, the very best athletes in the world will travel to London to take part in the most anticipated sports competition known to mankind, the XXX Olympiad. 

The Summer Olympics offers sports fans and casual observers the opportunity to witness competition in a wide array of sports that rarely grace the advertisement happy medium of broadcast television.  We finally get the opportunity to spend untold minutes choosing previously unknown favorites in events like Ping Pong, Handball, Match Racing, Dressage, Saber, Archery, Race Walking, Water Polo, and Rowing.

Let’s face it, The Powers That Be at the Network give us hours upon hours of money events like sprinting, swimming, and Men’s Basketball, but secretly every one of us wants to watch at least one Steeplechase.

Be that as it may, the beauty of the Olympics is that we are granted two weeks every four years to broaden our summer and/or winter sports horizons, and catch a brief glimpse of these events and athletes that never have the opportunity to capture our attention.

Now, every sport has it’s own language – boot, bowball, button, gate, gunwale, keel, loom, Macon blade, rib, rigger, scull, skeg, and my personal favorite, cox box – all describe various aspects, elements, and pieces of rowing equipment.

And then, who can forget “repechage”, perhaps the sexiest word in the lexicon of all sports.

Pol Robinson takes readers back to Beijing and the Summer Olympics of 2008 in her debut novel, Open Water. Cass Flynn took up rowing later in her collegiate life, and was at the top of her sport when a pizza delivery boy ran a light and almost ended her rowing career.  But she was determined to come back, and her hard work and dedication to the sport landed her a last minute spot on the US Olympic Team.  Upon arriving in Beijing, she meets Laura Kelley, Captain of the U.S. squad and stroke of the eight-boat.  Laura is strong, smart, and beautiful, but she is fighting emotional demons that leave her edgy and sullen.  However, the two have an immediate attraction, that both initially try to suppress.  After a rocky start, both women agree to restart their relationship, and slowly begin to build from there. Of course, Laura has a tendency to let herself get closer to Cass, and then back away with no explanation. 

This push and pull continues as Laura’s sinister and angry ex, Shelly, steps into the picture and tries every angle to hurt both Laura and Cass.  Finally both women admit an attraction, but Laura has pushed Cass away too many times.  Still, Laura cares enough about Cass to change her ways, and work her way toward love once and for all.

One of the downfalls of most sport fiction is that the sport is overwhelmed by the story surrounding it.  For instance, we know more about the speed skater’s broken heart in high school than we do about her split times in the 1,500-meter race or her technique in the final lap against the reining World Champion.  

One of the joys of Open Water is that Ms. Robinson skillfully brings the reader into the heads of the women rowing, and into the teammates and coaches watching.  The reader gets an appreciation for the grueling nature of the sport, and the skill and precision needed to reach such an elite level.  She simply yet expertly describes the equipment, the anxiety, the determination, and the exhaustion.

Not to mention the chunky air quality of downtown Beijing.

A recurring complaint is that a significant number of lesbian novels rely on the overused literary convention of “love at first sight”.

And, as a reviewer, I always get a little twitchy when I sense it happening. 

Ms. Robinson firmly inserted this convention into Open Water, but she doesn’t allow her characters to fall victim to it.  Cass and Laura do have a moment in the Beijing airport where their eyes meet, but the characters are crafted in such a way that neither of them can accept that feeling at the moment.  Cass has to figure out what it means to be in love, and Laura has to learn to forgive herself for something that wasn’t really her fault in the first place.  This pacing allows the reader to get a better feeling for the process of the characters struggling within themselves, while trying to open up to something neither saw coming.

My only significant criticism of Open Water is that I really didn’t develop a deeper appreciation for Laura, who was a de facto main character as Cass’ love interest.  Cass mainly narrates the book, and we have guest narration by her roommate and the Coach, but very little access to Laura’s point of view.  We see her struggles and her emotional acceptance and growth at arms length.  As the book moves past the push and pull events into the ultimate ‘will they/won’t they’ aspect of the relationship, Laura’s decisions and growth are made off page, and the reader really only knows what Cass is told by Laura. 

Cass is taking a lot on faith, but then again, haven’t we all?

Still, Open Water is a fast and fun read, you do care about the characters and the outcome of the races, and you want the Big Bad to get her comeuppance.  Pol Robinson’s debut is a solid book that will surely get each and every reader into the Olympic spirit, and make us pay a little more attention to the fascinating sport of rowing.  

I’m giving this spunky little debut 4.7 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale, and looking forward to Pol Robinson’s next major event.