The Picks I Missed
Let's see, how can I excuse this year's dereliction of reviewing duty?
The dog ate my homework….
Yeah, right, Paul (a.k.a. John Grant). Everyone knows you don't own any dogs. You're possessed by cats. Besides, I used that excuse in 1999.
It didn't work then either.
Someone shorted me on my share of discrete pieces of time.
Quantum physics did the trick in 2000, the year I interviewed Robert Hewitt Wolfe, formerly of Andromeda. Unfortunately, I kind of over-used the relevant theorums -- just a little, honest! -- and everything broke.
Yes, I confess, I broke the universe, and they tell me it won't function properly until January 22, 2005, at the earliest. Maybe not even then. Ooops.
But burrowing through the list of possible excuses doesn't do anything for the wonderful books roosting reproachfully on the top of my writing desk. Any moment now, they threaten to fall upon my typing fingers and beat them and my poor, innocent computer into a bloody pulp. So with a large helping of mea culpa and not too much further ado, I present the books I should've reviewed in 2003.
Jean Marie Ward
Baen (Paperback), ISBN 0-7434-3532-X2
By this point in the history of Crescent Blues it shouldn't surprise anyone that I consider the books of P.N. Elrod a necessary supplement to any literary diet. Elrod makes her readers hear voices in the best possible sense of the word. Her command of characterization and dialogue can't be topped.
Elrod never fails to deliver a rip-snorting, (sometimes quite literally) red-blooded yarn that invites cheering for the hero and hissing at the villain. When her heroes triumph, you feel like a small but vital portion of the universe has righted itself on its axis. Their victories give you hope for your own situation, no matter how dire.
The situation couldn't get much worse for the heroes of The Adventures of Myhr: Myhr, a humanoid cat, and Terrin, a wizard with a taste for obscene T-shirts. Terrin can hop magically between worlds, and used this ability to remove Myhr and himself from a sticky situation on 21st century Earth. Unfortunately, Terrin's relocation spell went a little south, and he can't find the way back without a lot of magic and an Astral Plane map. Even more unfortunately, our heroes' latest joy ride through that pesky time-space continuum lands them in a world losing its magic at an alarming rate.
The Adventures of Myhr takes place well beyond the universe of Jack Fleming and Richard Dun, two of Elrod's most famous vampiric creations. But in typical Elrod fashion, the rollicking plot barrels forward like the proverbial freight train, fueled by an endless supply of snappy banter and cockle-brained inventiveness. Fans of SF/fantasy television and movies will also enjoy matching the descriptions and speech patterns of the book's characters with the characteristics of some of their favorite stars.
The biggest star in the book's universe cannot be found on the small or large screen, however. Elrod based her characterization of Myhr on the character artist Jamie Murray plays at SF/fantasy cons. In turn, Murray painted the cover, which features…Myhr.
Does this count as life imitating art, or art imitating life? Or did I just get sucked into one of Terrin's teleportation spells? Oh oh!
Roxanne Longstreet Conrad: Exile, Texas
Five Star Publishing (Hardcover), ISBN 1-59414-071-5
Whether she writes as "Roxanne Longstreet," "Roxanne Conrad" or under her full name, Roxanne Longstreet Conrad delivers some of the most beautiful, evocative prose around. Despite this, her books can be hard to find. Niche marketers don't know where to shelve a writer whose books effortlessly move between mainstream and genre fiction. Nevertheless, connoisseurs of rich characterization, beautifully realized plots and a truly twisted turn of mind will find the search more than worth their while.
Exile, Texas should prove a boon for genre-conscious booksellers and the readers who shop in their stores. Without sacrificing an iota of her storytelling verve, Conrad plays this West Texas mystery "straight." Nothing in this tale of small town murder and revenge goes beyond outside the pall of everyday reality. But human monsters abound, and the ghosts of their crimes do not rest easy.
Fifteen years ago, Meg Leary managed to duck the rap for murdering her mother, and she left Exile in the dust. Literally. The town paid a high price for Meg's arrest. Some citizens even say she killed the town.
Now a high-powered private investigator, Exile's prodigal child returns to help a desperate mother search for her missing daughter. Sheriff's Deputy Dan Fox, possibly the only inhabitant of the town who doesn't know Meg's history, arrests her for speeding. An exile from the Houston police force beset by ghosts of his own, Dan insists on playing the arrest by the book. This forges a connection with the prickly but eminently desirable Meg that nearly gets them both killed.
Naturally, things can only go downhill from there. The threads of murder, corruption and conspiracy spiral from past to present and back again. Dan's desire to do the right thing sets him on a collision course with a gross injustice enveloped in extortion and buried under a whole West Texas landscape of lies. At the same time, Dan's personal load of guilt hammers him like the relentless beating of Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart."
Highly recommended for those who like classic American mystery with a double dose of Chandler and a local color chaser. Conrad pulls you in so fast, so far, so deep, you'll feel the windblown grit sting your eyes.
Laurie Toby Edison (with text by Debbie Notkin): Familiar Men, a Book of Nudes
Shifting Focus Press (Trade Paperback), ISBN 0-9743343-0-8
Laurie Toby Edison's photographs in Familiar Men, a nominee for this year's Lambda Literary Awards, explore the largely uncharted territory that lies between the naked and the nude. Undoubtedly many people will find the journey an uncomfortable one. Most voyages of discovery are. Yet we must know ourselves -- as individuals and as a species -- before we can hope to learn anything useful about the universe around us.
Edison's work with nudes, both here and in her earlier collection, Women En Large, teaches us about ourselves by showing us what we look like, "imperfections" and all. She celebrates the diversity of our species and, in the process, helps us shed some of our more peculiar preconceptions about who we "ought to be." At the same time, her straightforward presentation exorcises the potential prurience of her subject matter.
Paging through Familiar Men, my eye kept wandering to the men's faces. I wondered who these guys became when they put their clothes back on, and whether (as suggested on in Debbie Notkin's intriguing text) clothes really do make the man. I pondered, how do these men define themselves -- with clothes or without? Would I like them as people, and what would happen at a board meeting if instead of imagining your competitor naked you actually knew what he looked like in the buff?
More importantly for this reviewer, Familiar Men achieves more than a meditation on the nature of body image and identity. The photos themselves look gorgeous. Edison treats a black-and-white print as an extension of her work as a jeweler, polishing it throughout the development and printing process until it glows like a precious silver artifact. I can't wait to see what new subtleties of tone and balance she will achieve with recent advances in digital reproduction technologies.
Jo Beverly: St. Raven
Signet Historical Roomance (Paperback), ISBN 0-451-20807-2
You think I'm kidding? Just ask anybody on United Airline's January 28, 2003, non-stop flight from Chicago to Hong Kong. They'll tell you all about the diminutive terror in the front row of the business class section who kept demanding…loudly…an explanation of passages like:
By the time Mom cornered me on the flight to Hong Kong, she was well into her third reading of Beverly's tale of noblemen masquerading as highwaymen, highwaymen masquerading as nobles and a young woman's search for a particularly naughty Hindu sculpture. Mom had already marked all the sections she didn't understand and asked all her friends to help her parse them out. When that failed, she sought out the one person she knew could unlock the delicious mysteries of Beverly's prose.
I still don't know whether to be honored by Mom's faith in her only child or appalled that she considers me the last word in erotic expertise. My husband, damn and blast him, laughed so hard he nearly choked on a chicken bone. Once she satisfied herself that Greg wouldn't expire in mid-flight, Mom calmly settled herself down for read-through number four.
Aside from the personal satisfaction derived from the fact that Mom will never look at cucumbers and potted shrimp the same way ever again, the experience taught me one very important lesson. Never, ever let anyone know you possess a copy of a new Jo Beverly until you finish reading it at least twice. And maybe not even then.
St. Raven provides an outstanding demonstration of Beverly's ability to walk on the wild side of Regency high society without sacrificing a convincing sense of time and place. The story ably plays the innocent determination of heroine Cressida Mandeville against the experience of her hero, the Duke of St. Raven, and the depravity of the villainous Lord Crofton. At the same time, Beverly's use of symbolism -- especially with respect to the elusive erotic sculpture that conceals a cache of precious gems -- magnifies the resonance of her compelling, intelligently told tale.
This novel ranks as one of my favorites among Beverly's books, even if I did need to arm wrestle my own mother to read it.
Jean Marie Ward