Maxine Wore Black, by Nora Olsen (2014)

“Maxine Wore Black” is basically two stories mashed into one. Mostly, it works.

The first–and primary–story is an updating of Daphne du Maurier’s classic, “Rebecca.” In the acknowledgements, author Nora Olsen calls “Maxine Wore Black” an homage to “Rebecca,” and it does this admirably.

The other story follows the struggles of a transgender girl named Jaylen. She has to deal with things I’d never even have thought of: regular hormone pills, laser hair removal, even getting a valid photo i.d. so she could prove her new identity to the world.

The stories mesh one night at the Queer Prom, where wallflower Jaylen spots the beautiful Maxine from across the dance floor. They exchange numbers, but Jaylen deletes Maxine’s from her phone–she figures Maxine is way too high class for her.

Maxine doesn’t quite see it that way. Although she has a girlfriend–Becky (get it? Rebecca?)–who goes to Princeton, Maxine still contacts Jaylen.

One night, Becky dies, banging her head and drowning in the waters off Fire Island. Maxine is devastated, and Jaylen is there to pick up the pieces, as the two fall in love. The questions start to arise, though: just how devastated was Maxine? Was Becky’s tragic death a suicide or an accident, or maybe something more heinous? And just how far would Maxine go to control Jaylen’s life completely?

“Maxine Wore Black” is a good book, with some great parts. The mysterious death plot was beautifully handled–Nora Olsen has serious storytelling skills, and she draws Maxine as a truly insane witch. Jaylen is an interesting narrative voice. We know she’s not educated–she repeatedly mentions she doesn’t even have her GED yet–but she seems to have some intelligence. She quickly realizes that Maxine is controlling and manipulating every facet of her life, from showing up at her jobs to going through her phone messages.

Like many abusive partners, though, Maxine can go from vicious to loving in a finger snap. That’s why Jaylen stays with her, even though we, as readers, just know this isn’t going to end well.

The second, underlying story–Jaylen’s transgender obstacles–doesn’t always mesh with the mystery surrounding Becky’s death. At times, it feels like the transgender part is just forced into the story randomly. This is a shame, for there aren’t a lot of books that handle transgender issues well. “Maxine Wore Black” doesn’t downplay the issues–Ms. Olsen deals with them in an honest, caring manner, in my opinion. The problem is that this particular mystery might not be the place to raise the transgender subject, or maybe it could have been handled more smoothly. I honestly don’t know. It just felt like the novel’s flow kept getting interrupted, which is a shame.

Maxine is a truly terrifying figure, and her scenes just crackle with insane electricity. “Maxine Wore Black” is worth the read just for her. There are many other positives to be said for this novel. Sometimes, they just don’t quite fit together well.

Recommended

Posted in Books, Books Read in 2014, General Fiction, LGBT, Mysteries/Thrillers, Romance, Young Adult | Leave a comment

Season’s Meetings, by Amy Dunne (2014)

(nb: I received a review copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley)

Catherine is a type AAAAAAAAAAA (read that, extremely type A), and she hates Christmas. When her boss suddenly demands Catherine’s underlings turn in reports just before Christmas or lose their jobs, Cat takes it upon herself to do all the reports herself. This means she misses out on her flight to Scotland, where she was to spend Christmas with her best friend and her partner.

The weather forecast is dire, and the only option left for Cat to get from London to Scotland is riding with her best friend’s cousin, Holly. There are instant sparks between the two, as they drive through the rapidly declining weather. Things get so dire, that they make a pact: if they survive the blizzard, they’ll make it a Christmas to remember.

Before long, the two are finding just how physically compatible they are, and how much joy they bring to one another’s lives. They’re falling in love. There’s just one problem…an old promise that could ruin everything.

Amy Dunne’s “Season’s Meetings” is a fun, easy read, perfect for this hectic time of year. I loved vivacious Holly from the very beginning, and it was wonderful to see how she gradually draws Catherine out from her self-protective shell (she’d been hurt before). Add in a special Cairn Terrier named Kimmie, and you have a perfect little family…except for that promise.

There’s nothing in “Season’s Meetings” that should surprise anyone. But it’s Christmas. There’s nothing wrong with a little steamy sex and some joyful tears to make the holidaze (sic) a little more bearable.

Recommended

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Treasure, by Rebekah Weatherspoon (2014)

treasure

(nb: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley)

“Treasure” is a fun book to read, a concentrated lesbian romance between a shy college freshman and a stripper from her sister’s bachelorette party. The two connect immediately, initially when one of the revelers pays for eighteen-year-old Alexis to enjoy a private-room dance with the stripper of her choice. She chose the girl known as Treasure.

Treasure’s real name is Trisha, and when the two turn out to have the same Computer Science class at the local university, they find themselves drawn to each other. Friendship comes first, followed by an unabashed physical relationship. Throw in a little family drama on both sides, some difficult past issues, and you have the makings of a short, sweet ride of a novel.

I’ve read some other of Rebekah Weatherspoon’s work–I gave a five-star review to her novel “At Her Feet”–but this one was a purely fun read. I loved how Ms. Weatherspoon seemed to be having a ball writing this story of two scared, scarred young women meshing perfectly.

The romance was portrayed sweetly, and the sex was steamy without going over the top (much was hinted at, if not described into graphic detail).

Best of all, this is an easy novella to knock out during a lazy afternoon or evening. I loved both Trisha and Alexis, and how their mutual yearning for love and friendship enabled them to span their different backgrounds.

This book is not for everyone (if you have a problem with lesbian relationships, you should’ve stopped reading this review a few paragraphs ago and moved on) but for fans of well-written LGBT romance–hell, or romance in general–“Treasure” is…a treasure. (Sorry, but I had to do that)

Highly Recommended

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The Melody of Light, by M. L. Rice (2014)

(N.B. I received a review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley)

The only constant in Riley’s life has been the love and support of her older brother, Aidan. The two endured childhoods that would’ve crushed many kids’ souls, but as a team, they endured.

As childhood ended, Aidan moved on to his further adventures, and Riley found an outlet for her own passion and genius through her virtuosity on the cello, which earned her a scholarship to The University of Texas.

It’s at UT where Riley is really left on her own, with her big brother away. She clings to him as her only source of protection at first, but soon–with the help of new friends (and her first love)–Riley finds she can endure her past, and even face the most-crushing blow yet.

It would be difficult to write a huge synopsis, and not give away too many spoilers, so I’ll leave that to the other summaries and reviews you might read.

“The Melody of Light” is a two-fold tale. First, we have Riley dealing with PTSD from a nightmare of child abuse, something she’s only handled previously with help from her brother, Aidan. The second story is Riley dealing with her own romantic awakening. During her freshman year at UT, she finds herself torn between two women–one the brashly sexy Tori, the other the nerdily cute Beth.

For me, the book really picked up once we got Riley to college. It has nothing to do with her new girlfriends, or anything salacious as that. It’s simply that Riley seemed to blossom as a character once she started making her own way through life.

Big brother Aidan was there as much as possible to lend support, but in the end, it was her friends–and girlfriend–who saved her.

This book works well as a YA Romance, especially for LGBT readers, for whom there is a tragic shortage of decent fare. Some of the early scenes seem to drag with Riley at one age, then the next chapter zooms her ahead six or seven years. That aside, I liked the pacing of the book, and most of the characters were pretty well-drawn (though one I won’t name seemed a bit cliched to me).

The last quarter or so of “The Melody of Light” dragged the bow pretty hard across the heartstrings, but then again, isn’t that what a romance is supposed to do?

Posted in Books, LGBT, Romance, Young Adult | Leave a comment

The Haunted Vagina, by Carlton Mellick, III (2011)

haunted vaginaCarlton Mellick III is at the foremost of the new “Bizarro” fiction genre, and “The Haunted Vagina” is certainly bizarre.

It’s also hysterically funny in parts, oddly touching in others, and really, a damned good read…for some people.

Steve works in a call center, and one day he meets Stacy on a bus. Stacy is tall and Thai. The two become a couple, and Stacy moves in with Steve. Everything is wonderful, until Steve notices voices emanating from somewhere. Gradually, they grow louder. Then he realizes Stacy’s vagina is haunted. Not even so much haunted, as being home to a completely different world.

One night, Stacy forces Steve to investigate further. And just as Alice fell down the rabbit hole, Steve falls down…um…a different sort of tunnel, until he plummets into the strange world inside Stacy’s vagina. What he finds there amazes him, to the point where he’s no longer sure he wants to leave.

This novella blew me away. It’s a super-fast read, and it comes off almost like a verbal graphic novel. The blend of real-life and fantasy works beautifully, and the characters’ behaviors are perfectly comical in parts.

I have to admit: I bought this book, because a Facebook friend of mine posted the cover on her page. She also posted the link to Amazon. I saw it was real, and immediately bought it.

I’m glad she posted this cover, because it led me to this book, one of the most fun reading experiences I’ve had in a long time. Bizarro world, I’ll be back.

Posted in Books, Books Read in 2014, General Fiction, Horror, Humorous, Novella, Paranormal | 3 Comments

The Kennedy Imperative (Book One of a Trilogy: Berlin, 1961), by Leon Berger

Author Leon Berger’s “The Kennedy Imperative” throws the reader right into Cold War Berlin, where fledgling agent Phillip Marsden is given what seems to be a simple mission–to accompany Major Hank Leland to an international conference in East Berlin. East-West tensions were running high, and this conference was designed to clear up boundary issues. This was good. Phillip–who spoke Russian like a native–was trained to sound like a poorly trained American lackey, just to put the Russians at ease, just so they wouldn’t know he was well-trained CIA.

The problem is, Phillip never arrived at the conference. He was taken from the Jeep, and driven to a desolate prison. There, he was kept in a stark cell with nothing to do except wait. He had conversations with the seemingly jovial prison director, but that was the extent of his communication.

Until one day, Phillip was marched through Checkpoint Charlie to freedom in West Berlin, while a Communist agent was marched from West to East.

When Phillip Marsden realized who that agent was–and what it meant for his life–he knew he had to get back to East Berlin and perform a rescue.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., we delve into the machinations of the JFK administration, watching as they quarrel amongst themselves, work out solutions, and ultimately, have to put their trust in bombastic former General Lucius Clay in Berlin. The way the Kennedy White House transfers on-site control to Clay–and the way Clay goes eyeball to eyeball with his East Berlin counterparts–could make a novel in itself.

Meanwhile, Phillip finds an unlikely ally in his rescue mission, a mission which seems to unravel almost from the beginning. He’s in a foreign land, and he doesn’t know who he can trust, if anyone, or even whether he’ll ever make it out alive.

There are so many beautifully set-up, beautifully realized scenes in “The Kennedy Imperative,” that it makes for a fast, rewarding read. The problem is, to mention them here would be tantamount to spoiling the novel, so I can’t really describe much more.

I can tell you that author Leon Berger has written one hell of a book, a sort of hybrid between Tom Clancy and James Ellroy. Like Clancy, Berger deals with all manner of political and military intrigue, and he has obviously done extensive research into both fields.

Like James Ellroy, Berger seamlessly mixes actual historical figures–JFK, RFK, General Clay–with equally believable (sometimes more so) fictional characters.

The main story in this book–Phillip Marsden and his missions–are fiction. The backdrop happened. It takes a great author to weave them together, and Leon Berger is that author.

I can’t wait to read volumes two and three in the trilogy. I suspect, having read “The Kennedy Imperative,” that they will be equally intriguing.

Highly Recommended

(nb: I received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley)

Posted in Books, Books Read in 2014, History, Literary or Genre Fiction, Mysteries/Thrillers, series | Leave a comment

Empty, Not Hollow: And Other Stories, by A.C. Adams (2014)

A.C. Adams’s “Empty, Not Hollow: And other stories” is the perfect book for a Sunday afternoon.

It’s not long–92 pages on the Kindle–but it’s ideal for sitting back with a big glass of red wine (The book is dedicated to red wine, so that should tip you off), and reading.

In a normal book review, I’d give a long summary of the plot, then my personal reactions and analysis, blah-cubed.

With this book, this is impossible, as there are so many different short stories–some are very short–that the review would be longer than the book.

Suffice to say that A.C. Adams is a very talented, eccentric soul. These stories range from zombies, to armed robbery, to dystopian horror, to a household appliance run completely amok.

What makes “Empty, Not Hollow” so much fun to read is the author’s tone. You can sense the fun she’s having creating these stories. The stories are well crafted, too–don’t get me wrong–but most of them have a certain background joy to them.

There are also some last sentence surprise endings, perfect for the short story format.

All-in-all, this is not a Joyce Carol Oates collection–and she’s one of my favorite short story writers. It’s a quick, fun read, one that will make you double check your vacuum cleaner (read the book, and you’ll know why).

Highly Recommended

Posted in Books, Books Read in 2014, Dystopian, Fantasy or Sci-Fi, Humorous, Short Stories/Novella | Leave a comment