Monday, June 24, 2013

Starting from Scratch by Georgia Beers

Book:  Starting from Scratch
Author:  Georgia Beers
Publisher:  Brisk Press
Producer:  Dog Ear Audio

A non-traditional cookbook
I was truly fortunate to have grown up in a home with two parents. And, though it sometimes led to a quirky confluence of family dynamics, my mother’s father lived with us from the time I was six. Still, I was closest to my father’s mother—a tough-as-nails farmwoman who weighed 100 lbs. soaking wet, and who never saw fit to drive a car, drink a cup of coffee, or wear a pair of pants.

Her name was Wilma. I called her Grandma.

Growing up, Grandma was my best friend, and closest confidant. She was a playfully eccentric old woman who dyed her lovely gray hair a shimmering shade of auburn not found in nature, walked to town twice a week to do her trading, wouldn’t eat cheese because it “cramped” her, and made the best chocolate chip cookies in the universe. When she passed away, I inherited her “cookbook,” an old-timey spiral notebook full of handwritten recipes for concoctions such as Osgood Pie, Crackled Sugar Cookies, Olive Taylor’s Slaw to Freeze, Albolene Cream for Dry Skin, and “Cleans Drains.”

Grandma was a simple woman—if you mixed it together, then it was a recipe.

A well-loved cookie recipe
Of course, the woman had standards— she put a big black “X” across Glenna McDowell’s Hot Water Pie Crust recipe, with a firm rejoinder, “(Don’t Like).” Still, I loved her cookies, and the first time I went to bake up a batch of the transcendent chocolate chip, I was tickled to realize it was the original Toll House Cookie recipe—only written in the down-home vernacular that she spoke.

And for every imaginable reason, I Iove that last part most of all.

A few years ago I cracked open Starting from Scratch by Golden Crown Literary Society 2013 Conference Keynote Speaker, Georgia Beers. This classic romance tells the story of Avery King, a self-deprecating cookie baking, child fearing introvert. Suckered into coaching her best friend’s t-ball team, Avery comes face-to-face with a hoard of dreaded children. She surprises herself when she succeeds at not breaking any of the kids, or thumping their parents up-side the head. She’s even more surprised when she finds herself hurtling headlong into a relationship with the very hot mother of one of the t-ballers.

Of course, nothing is ever easy, and Avery has a long laundry list of mommy issues dating back to the age of four, when she was abandoned into the care of her about-to-retire grandmother. Still, Avery is great with little Max, and her relationship with his mother is going gangbusters until a slightly bitter ex-girlfriend exposes all of Avery’s fears and failures. And, as much as Max’s mom, Elena, has come to love Avery, she needs a partner who understands that children come first…always. What happens next is enough to turn Avery inside out, as everything in her life begins to change in ways she never could bring herself to imagine.

Admittedly, it’s been a while, but I remember that Starting from Scratch was a well-written novel that was balanced on almost every level. It was equal parts sweet, smart, sad, and saucy; the characters had both depth and definition, the plot was predictable but plausible, and the pacing was universally apropos to the elements of the storyline. Overall, it was a better-than-average romance that left me with a warm and gooey feel-good vibe.

Recently, however, the good folks of Dog Ear Audio slipped me an audiobook copy of Starting from Scratch, and asked if I’d consider taking it out for a spin.


The audiobook market has always been the red headed second cousin, once removed, from the publishing industry. However, it serves a deserving audience that ranges from long distance commuters and exercise enthusiasts to those with physical and neurological disabilities. Some traditional readers refuse to listen to a book, believing that it lessens the impact. Of course, many folks who prefer audiobooks claim that listening requires you to experience every word—something that is often lost when readers devour written books in huge gulps. There is no universal right or wrong way to experience a book: it is as personal as any subject matter or genre preference a reader might have.

Still, for any audiobook to succeed, a lot of elements must converge.

The interplay between literary content and technical production is a balancing act that would make any of the Flying Wallendas proud. A truly effective audiobook maintains a balance between strong content and faultless production values.

In Starting from Scratch, which is read by author, Georgia Beers, narration is the foundation to the listening experience. Her reading is authentic and appropriate to the first-person narrative content, with voices that match the regional dialect, as well as the genders, ages, and moods of the characters. She uses well-placed inflections and tones, conveying the storyline through engaging expression, emotion, and energy. Technical terms and other challenging phrases and words are pronounced correctly and with ease.

Ms. Beers consistently maintains and differentiates character voices and dialects, and narrative descriptions (e.g., “I gulped,”) are read appropriately. She reads in a straightforward manner, using her natural voice with suitable inflections, tones, and emphasis, allowing the narration to stay true to the spirit and context of the written word, and forging a direct, personal connection with the listener.

Production factors work in tandem with the reading to create total listener engagement. Dog Ear Audio provides a clean, crisp sound that allows for periods of silence and a range of dynamics. Volume levels remain consistent throughout the recording. Music is used as a framework to the narration, but it is not obtrusive and does not interrupt the narrative flow. The recording was free of sibilant or plosive microphone pickups, and no noticeable sound effects were used— if they were, then they subtly enhanced rather than detracted from the reading.

For audiobooks, the packaging should correctly note title, author, readers’ names, running times, and abridgment status. In this instance, Dog Ear Audio provided a download from Payloadz that went into my iTunes Library instead of the more traditional format of Compact Discs. As a result, the only information provided within iTunes on my iPad was the running time, and the document title of “sfs_payloadzsinglefile”—leaving it difficult, but not impossible, to distinguish from other audiobook titles in my library. It should be noted, however, that the title, author, and narrator were stated at the onset of the audio recording.

An audiobook must stand alone as a fully realized expression of the author’s intent and meaning, and the clear mark of an excellent audiobook lies in its ability to remove the wall of performance and draw the listener into the story with minimal effort. Georgia Beers’ Starting from Scratch allowed me the luxury of experiencing the novel in both written and audio forms. I distinctly remember enjoying the story when I first read it in 2010, but I was impressed by, and enjoyed, the audiobook more than I could have imagined.

Fans of Georgia Beers, and those who are looking for a textbook romance that is sweet, smart, funny, and a little bit sad, will likely love Starting from Scratch. And, for those who have a little more than seven hours, and are looking for something to entertain them on the treadmill, on the train, or on a rainy weekend—the audiobook from Dog Ear Audio will not disappoint.

The download rings up at $22.50 USD, and the CD set will set you back $24.95 USD—a healthy sum for one story. Still, if you’re in the market for a quality lesbian fiction audiobook, Starting from Scratch is well worth the price.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Willing Suspension of Disbelief - TRR Reviews Marquette & Bigelow

Across the wide world of fiction, readers are often asked to believe a premise that they would never accept in the real world. This is especially true in genres such as Fantastika, science fiction, space opera, and paranormal, where things and events happen in the story that most people would not believe for a second if they were presented in a newspaper as fact.

Of course, one could make the argument that it holds true for a large portion of the lesbian erotica hitting the market these days.

In order to fully engage in and enjoy such stories, readers participate in a phenomenon known as "willing suspension of disbelief.” This is a semi-conscious decision in which we put aside our disbelief, and accept the premise as being real and plausible for the duration of the story.

Apt examples of the willing suspension of disbelief include menopausal werewolves, hot lesbian couples having simultaneous orgasms in a rainstorm under a double rainbow, and the fact that I’m forty-six and just bought my first pair of flip-flops.

The very concept of willing suspension of disbelief is a product of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1817 he published what has become one of the landmark examples of literary criticism with his Biographia Literaria; or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions.

"In this idea originated the plan of the ‘Lyrical Ballads’, in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith." 
                                                                                 — Samuel Taylor Coleridge

And this is why the willing suspension of disbelief frames the premise for my review of the newest episode of a classic lesbian space opera and the launch of a fresh new Fantastika series—Andi Marquette’s The Edge of Rebellion and Susan Jane Bigelow’s The Daughter Star.

Book: The Edge of Rebellion
Author: Andi Marquette
Publisher: Bedazzled Ink Publishing

Andi Marquette’s The Edge of Rebellion is book three in the feisty little Far Seek Chronicles. Trader Torri Rendego keeps her ear to the ground as she runs merchant routes, and the chatter tells her that a rebellion is simmering across the Coalition. Her former Academy bunkmate and inamorata, Commander Kai Tinsdale, receives orders to post to the Koto military base on the planet Hanzey. Kai hears the rumors of rebellion, but knows that one is unlikely on the virtually impassible jungle planet. Once there, her orders suddenly change, and she is tasked with training a battle squadron. Clearly something is going on, and Kai must use her wiles and wisdom to seek answers from those around her. But the fates conspire to bring Torri and her Far Seek shipmates to Hanzey, as they deliver an unexpected visitor. As Kai and Torri reconnect on a physical and emotional level, they begin to piece the puzzle together, and learn they are being used as pawns in a game of chess that could bring the Coalition to its collective knees.

Typical of the genre, The Edge of Rebellion is set in a far future space faring civilization, where the technology is ubiquitous and entirely secondary to the storyline. It has two dashing, epic heroines, the universe is huge, there are diverse, sprawling civilizations and fleets of space ships capable of interstellar travel, and there are political conflicts, rebel attacks, black markets, heinous crimes, and intrigue galore.

Since The Edge of Rebellion is the third book in the Far Seek Chronicles, readers have had ample opportunity to get familiar with the pasts and presents of Kai and Torri, the Far Seek and her crew, the Empire, and the Coalition. Still, it is refreshing to see Kai and Torri advancing their relationship with the caution that is expected of two women on different life missions, but sharing one like mind. As a reader, I found the setting and the construction of dialogue to be fascinating, adding depth and definition to both primary and secondary characters. Whether describing the planet, the BetaSuns, the Far Seek, or Major Vic’s office, there was always a visual reference to make the scenes come to life. Additionally, I truly appreciate the care taken by the author to create different languages (i.e., Empire and Coalition,) and then religiously write dialogue that follows the rules established for their use, while saving contemporary dialogue for intimate and familiar situations.

Andi Marquette offers up another satisfying slice of her space opera, Far Seek Chronicles, and The Edge of Rebellion unabashedly makes me feel like a kid again. It tells a compelling and exciting story of intrigue with solid characters, smart dialogue, best buddies, sexy women, and zooming space ships that whiz by shooting lasers that go “Pew! Pew! Pew!” A lot of readers will bypass books like this because they don’t take them seriously. But, here’s the thing: you don’t have to be a kid to feel like a kid, and books like this are all about having fun. Andi Marquette writes a grown up story with grown up themes, but she can still find a way to let her readers have fun and feel like kids. 

Book: The Daughter Star
Author: Susan Jane Bigelow
Publisher: Candlemark & Gleam

Freighter pilot Marta Grayline has a great life doing what she loves, a smoking hot military pilot girlfriend from a desirable sister planet, and an excuse to avoid her home planet, her sexist home country, and her overbearing parents. But it all begins to crumble when an illogical intrasystem war forces her employer to disband, and she is required to return to her home planet. Marta doesn’t belong in the world of her birth, and her parents do not support her profession or her choices.

Along with her youngest sister, Beth, Marta sneaks off and joins the Novan Emergency Fleet as a way to break free and return to her beloved space. However, Beth isn’t the same young woman she remembers. As Marta slowly begins to decipher the connection between her sister and the mysterious Abrax, she is forced to confront unexpected alien forces, overcome her internal doubts and fears, complete an ill-defined mission, and unravel centuries old lies, deceptions, and masterful illusions.

As a proprietress of Fantastika, Susan Jane Bigelow is unquestionably skilled at writing epic pieces full of mythic themes—The Daughter Star is a worthy example of her ability. She captures and maintains an honest sense of relationships, even as she writes characters who are nonconformists, and longing to have closer, deeper involvements.

The character of Marta is smart, sexy, interesting, and capable, but she is unable to truly appreciate and understand all that she has to offer. While her restrictive and uninspiring upbringing is partially to blame, so too is her overwhelming lack of self-confidence—an odd yet well-plotted personality trait for a highly capable pilot. Her relationship with her younger sister is multi-faceted, at times presenting mutual interest and engagement, and at others revealing self-absorption and non-confrontational tendencies—it is as if Marta cannot control the need to protect and shelter her younger sister any more than she can stop pushing away those that try to do the same for her.

While The Daughter Star starts out a bit slow, a necessary byproduct of character design and plot development, the pace accelerates into a speeding, taut story full of political, moral, intellectual, economic, environmental and societal metaphors relevant to myriad issues now facing mankind. Ms. Bigelow confronts a familiar dichotomy in the LGBT community by placing Marta, a lesbian who fears her family and home country knowing the truth, in a greater human and alien culture that accepts these relationships as part of societal norm. In essence, Marta has a foot in two disparate worlds, leaving her struggling to achieve and maintain a healthy balance.

Ultimately, The Daughter Star is an engaging story that leaves the reader much in the same position as Marta—unbalanced. While we get to know Marta, Beth, and the Abrax, we are never truly allowed to connect on an emotional level with any of them. Still, this is only the first book in a series, and it feels somehow intentional that we are not allowed to know more about the characters than they know about themselves. And, as a reviewer, I believe that readers who are patient and trust Ms. Bigelow to complete the journey she and her characters have started will be well rewarded when this series reaches its conclusion.