Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Oranges and Lemons by Liz Bugg

Book:  Oranges and Lemons
Author:  Liz Bugg
Publisher:  Insomniac Press

2012 Home of The Con
Last week I had the honor and privilege of attending the Golden Crown Literary Society (GCLS) Conference in proximity to the fine city of Minneapolis.  If you’ve never been to one of these Cons, picture a hundred and thirty lesbians, three dogs, two men, and a motley handful of straight women who write lesbian fiction descending upon an otherwise white bread hotel in an otherwise familiar business park on an otherwise cool and rainy long weekend in mid-June.
While the mosquitoes resembled small bears with gossamer wings and sharp, pointy, sucking proboscises, the bacon from the hotel breakfast buffet was surprisingly transcendent.
My Twitchy Little Toolbox
Being a twitchy little dyke with geek-like tendencies, my favorite part of the Conference was Ellen Hart’s workshop on Writing the Modern Mystery. Not that I expect to be writing a modern mystery any time soon, but because listening to her talk about the technical aspects of writing mysteries gave me a pile of new tools for my Twitchy Little Toolbox.
Note to self:  The Structure of a Lesbian Mystery must include the following:  (1) Crime; (2) Detection; (3) Solution; and (4) Smokin’ Hot Love Interest with Sketchy Past and Tantalizingly Firm Breasts.
At some point during the workshop, various attendees evoked the sainted names of The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.  As a kid, I read them and liked them, but for my money the best junior detective of them all was Donald J. Sobol’s Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown.  Each tricky little story was a gem, rich in detail and full of inventive plots, brainy jokes, and clever metaphors.  The clues were complex and required the reader to question each detail and alibi, looking for inconsistencies and incongruities.
Better yet, the toughest kid in the book wasn’t the bully, Bugs Meany, it was the brainiac baby dyke, Sally Kimball.
Private Investigator, Callie Barnow hit the mean streets of Toronto in Liz Bugg’s debut novel, Red Rover, which won the GCLS Debut Author Award in 2011.  In the eagerly awaited follow up, Oranges and Lemons, Callie goes undercover in an advertising agency to find out who is swindling small sums of money from a long list of accounts.  While it’s freezing outside, things heat up quickly when the employee responsible for bringing Callie in to investigate the theft dies from an insulin overdose.  As Callie continues to collect information from the firm’s remaining employees, she hits an artistic snag when the Creative Team won’t accept her as one of them.  Cue Dewey, Callie’s best friend-cum-superstar drag queen, who poses as a fabulous client using the ad firm to vamp up his growing image and website.  The dynamic duo pound the icy streets of Toronto and begin to collect information and sniff out clues, but the bodies keep piling up.  In the blink of an eye, Callie comes face-to-face with the rapidly decompensating big bad itching to spill the beans, and the two begin a frightening overnight arctic odyssey that very well may leave Callie’s longtime girlfriend and new fiancée a widow.

Liz Bugg’s Oranges and Lemons is a solid, old school mystery that features a craftily flawed PI, a fabulous best friend and sometimes partner, a crusty by-the-book cop friend, and a cast of quirky and likeable supporting characters.   The pace is crisp and even, and Callie and Dewey are well written and believable.  The romance between Callie and Jess is sweet and supports the story rather than detracts from it, while June is the voice of order and conscience, and Svetlana is the eccentric genius next door.  Likewise, the wide cast of suspects are each brimming with ample opportunity, bushels of secrets, strong motives, and timely alibis--and the plot twists and turns with each new power suit Callie reluctantly dons.

There’s even a smokin’ hot love interest with a sketchy past and tantalizingly firm breasts.

The city of Toronto comes alive in Oranges and Lemons, and even becomes a central character.  The reader walks the streets with Callie, and becomes familiar with her neighborhood and its heartbeat.  We feel the gusts of icy wind, hear the crunch of frozen snow beneath our feet, and wrap ourselves in the comforting cloak of fresh brewed coffee. All of these are deceptive, though, because just as Toronto is much bigger than Callie’s neighborhood, so to is the danger and deceit that grows from a simple case of fraud.

Much like the Encyclopedia Brown stories of my youth, Oranges and Lemons makes the reader question each detail and alibi, and look carefully for inconsistencies and incongruities.  If there’s any lingering disappointment, it’s that the whodunit was a bit obvious, since all of the other strong suspects ended up dead.  Still, even with that, the evil twists and turns that follow the big bad reveal are taut and beautifully paced, and each page presents the height of exhilaration and depth of bottomless despair. 

The ending isn’t unexpected, but it is a satisfying, heart thumping, heavy breathing surprise.

There are many reasons why I want to read the third book in this series, and chief among them are finding out why Callie has panic attacks, how she came to have an unnatural relationship with her worry stone, who put the Xanax dispenser in her bathroom, and why the titles of these books are from schoolyard games?  Joking aside, Oranges and Lemons is a strong follow-up to Red Rover, and Calli Barnow has a solid future in front of her as long as the seamy side of crime abounds in the Great White North.

I’m giving Oranges and Lemons a 5.0 out of 6.0 on the Rainbow Scale.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Everything Pales in Comparison by Rebecca Swartz

Book:  Everything Pales in Comparison
Author:  Rebecca Swartz
Publisher:  Bella Books

June is Pride Month, the High Holiday for all of modern queer culture.  

For lesbians, one of the most empowering aspects of Pride is the annual Dyke March, which was first organized in 1993 by the Lesbian Avengers as a protest during the March on Washington. Today, Dyke Marches are held in more than a dozen U.S, cities, as well as a growing list of cities all over the world. And, while I lived in Washington, D.C. for more than twenty years, pound for pound, the best Dyke March going takes place in New York City. 

It’s large, it’s loud, and it’s the only Dyke March featuring the Nudist Socialist Lesbians.

Back in the mid-nineties, I routinely made the sojourn to NYC for Pride Weekend.  One of my closest friends is a New Jersey Filipina named Becky. She always offered a place for me to stay, insisted that I join her parents for homemade Laing, and required me to join Kilawin Kolektibo in the Dyke March. 

If your Tagalog is a bit rusty, Kilawin Kolektibo is loosely translated as “Hot and Spicy Pinay Collective.” 

The year was 1995, and as tens of thousands of lesbians rallied in front of the New York Public Library before the start of the march, the conversation amongst my Kilawin counterparts centered on who, among the throngs of dykes surrounding us, was most compelling to each of us. 

I know, I’m sorry, but when 20,000 lesbians surround you, the inner pig in all of us comes rolling out in all her twitchy glory.

It was a moveable feast of women in all colors, shapes, and sizes. There were stone butches, soft butches, and femmes. Bois, baby dykes, tomboys, and girls-next-door.  There were even plenty of twitchy little dykes just like me.  It was a veritable cornucopia of all things lesbian.  So, when it was finally my turn to pick, I pointed towards a tall, athletic blonde, ably filling out a tight pink t-shirt and shorts, striped knee socks, and wearing roller skates.  

As an aside, I’m not normally the kind of girl to go for either hot pink or roller skates, but for this celestial creature, I easily and gladly made the exception.

Several members of my group playfully encouraged me to go over and introduce myself, and one even offered to walk over and do it for me.  I was just about convinced to screw my courage to the sticking place, when my dream girl turned around and smiled brightly at me—high cheekbones, Carolina blue eyes, an aquiline nose, and a full platinum blonde mustache.

[insert record scratch]

Full mustache?

Not just a full mustache, but a handlebar mustache, the kind with curly waxed tips—rendering her more than a tad reminiscent of Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Este.

Everything Pales in Comparison, the debut novel by author Rebecca Swartz tells the story of two women with more in common than they realize.  Constable Emma Kirby, working security at a concert featuring an up-and-coming country singer swings into motion when a bomb explodes on stage, gravely injuring singer/songwriter Daina Buchanan.  Her instincts and quick actions save the life of the singer, and make her a reluctant hero.  After awakening from a coma, Daina’s mother sets up a visit between the two women, so her daughter can say ‘thank you’ in person.  Sparks fly, but neither woman considers the other a viable option for romance.

A few days later, Emma, returning home from work, finds a note threatening both her life and the life of Daina.  In no time, Winnipeg’s finest springs into action to protect both women and find the Unsub.  Since there are no clues as to the Unsub’s identity, both women are reluctantly placed into a safe house, with Emma acting a dual role as threatened party and Daina’s bodyguard.

Almost immediately, the walls between the two women begin to crumble, and they grow closer together.  Neither is looking for a relationship, and both try hard to avoid it.  But, the attraction is too much, and just as they begin to weigh some sort of a future together, all hell breaks loose as the rapidly decompensating Unsub moves in for the kill.

Everything Pales in Comparison is a well-written and edgy page-turner that features a compelling fusion of romance and thriller. The pacing is brisk and the main characters are equal parts strong and vulnerable.  The writing is clean and crisp, sometimes surprising with a well-timed turn-of-phrase or an unexpected change in perspective; and the dialogue joyously sidesteps hackneyed clichés and dime store dramatics.

If anything though, Everything Pales in Comparison is a book sporting an identity crisis. While it is rightly a compelling fusion of romance and thriller, it suffers in that it is both and neither. 

The romance between Emma and Daina is immediate, but not fast or certain, and the characters must both stare down demons and make extraordinary leaps of faith to trust one another. It is both believable and satisfying that they fall in love. However, the sweetest aspects of the romance are often lost among the gritty elements of the thriller

Likewise, the thriller within this novel speaks volumes to suspense, tension, anticipation, ultra-heightened expectation, uncertainty, and surprise—it even features literary devices like the red herring and plot twist.  However, much like the case above, the very best aspects of the thriller are often lost among the softer elements of the romance.

Still, Everything Pales in Comparison is a rock-solid debut, and Rebecca Swartz is a strong, talented writer with a long future in Lesfic ahead.  This story offers believable characters, an exciting plot, robust dialogue, and a petal-to-the-metal ending that will leave the reader breathless.  I’m giving it a 4.8 out of 6.0 on the Rainbow Scale.