40. Island Pursuits by Heather Rodney-Diaz

Published in 2012 by Crimson Romance.

Chance encounters have an often-mystifying way of turning one’s life around. This is the case for Second Lieutenant Adrian Mendez and Cory Phillips, who meet under unfortunate circumstances at a police station, in the early hours of New Year’s Day. Mendez, a former U.S. Marine, has returned to his homeland of Trinidad, in the interests of serving and protecting his countrymen. Instantly mesmerized by what he describes as Cory’s “sun-kissed island goddess” beauty, Adrian soon comes to realize that the alluring, intelligent Ms. Phillips is unlike any woman he’s ever known. As he steadily falls for her, despite the cautions of his closely-guarded heart, Cory also struggles with her feelings for this enigmatic, dashing military man. As a woman with more than ample reason to despise the armed forces and what they represent, the island goddess’ emotions for this man in uniform are complex from the very start. Will this stop them from expressing their truest selves beneath the relentless blaze of the Trinidadian sun?

As a debut offering, Island Pursuits plays it close to the traditional structure and character development of any successful romance novel. There are no bold narrative leaps of experimentation made here; nor will the reader find any genre-defying calculations intended to push the romantic envelope. This is one of the ways in which the story is safe: it tells the tale of relatable people, alternately pursuing or fleeing from desire that threatens to overwhelm them with its intensity. The chronicle of Cory and Adrian’s fiery courtship cannot be said to break moulds or pioneer inventive new structures for romance writing. Thankfully, the novel is far from being a colour-by-numbers affair. Although the character types are ones that fall into neat archetypes – the courageous soldier torn between duty and ardour; the feisty career woman who’s been once burnt, twice shy – Rodney-Diaz serves them up with humour, framing them in believable situations as opposed to fantastical ones.

What is most laudable about the novel is that it is set on Caribbean soil: not the Caribbean of an idealized weekend getaway, not a foreigner’s beach idyll, but the living and breathing entity that is an everyday Trinidad and Tobago. The fact that the story is grounded in an environment so largely unexplored by mainstream writers of romance fiction is one of its highest points of merit. The reader has the luxury of a true immersion of place, within these pages. She can relate immediately, for instance, to the sights and sounds evoked by a run around the Queen’s Park Savannah.

“They started walking at first, making small talk with each other along the way as Gothic churches, historic buildings, the U.S. Embassy, the Zoo, and the President’s House all came into their view. They spoke about their day and week so far, about the extremely hot weather and Carnival coming up.”

The author captures without unnecessary embellishment details that might otherwise be lost in a different climate, or on chillier shores. Much of Trinidad and Tobago’s natural beauty is on display in the novel, interspersed with highlights of the nation’s dynamic culture. Witness, for instance, these familiar descriptions of Carnival’s colourful spectacle: “Already runaway beads and other remnants of discarded costumes lay strewn about the streets. Varying hues of brightly coloured materials in golds and oranges, blues and greens dazzled in the midday sun.”

One hardly expects issues of a serious nature to be given much scope in the romance genre, but beneath the adult-scenario sizzle, many books of this persuasion tackle concerns that are more troubling than a cheating boyfriend’s roving eye. Island Pursuits continues admirably in this tradition, focusing on injustices within the judicial and protective services systems. Rodney-Diaz writes bravely and convincingly of the dangers that form an uneasy part of opposing the law, even when one is on the side of the innocent. There are deep-seated troubles at the heart of this complicated land we inhabit, and oftentimes the rewards for persistence may seem uncertain. Her characters have their own burdens to bear, and do not seek love out as a Band-Aid for all their worries. Love, however, continues to be a reliable anchor in the world crafted by the author.

This review first appeared in its entirety in the Trinidad Guardian‘s Sunday Arts Section on October 14th, 2012, entitled Love, Trinidadian-style.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by Heather Rodney-Diaz for review. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, and are not influenced by her generous gift of gratuitous literature.

22. On Dark Shores 1: The Lady by J.A. Clement

Published in 2011 by Weasel Green Press.

“For a time, a countless time, there had been nothing more than ceaseless water, stinging bone-sand, and the wind, keening; but suddenly the wind died and the grinding waves smoothed down to uneasy swells. Sounds whispered over the unquiet waters like a chanting of spells; at first they held no more meaning than the mourning wind or the hissing sea-spume, but then came a sound that caught and held, like the anchor of a ship.”

Nereia is a resourceful thief, quite likely the best pickpocket that the small, salt-sprayed fishing town of Scarlock has seen. Though bitterly weary of her trade, she perseveres for the welfare of her sweetly trusting younger sister, Mary. Orphaned since Mary’s infancy, both girls live uneasily in thrall to Copeland, a small-time shady businessman with big-time aspirations, in the acquisition of which he intends to involve Nereia, whether she willingly consents or no. Bolstered by his stoic bodyguard heavy, Blakey, Copeland proves himself distressingly capable of meting out punishment to those who would liberate themselves from his iron grip of control. Despite her prior knowledge of this, Nereia cannot help but make a desperate bid for freedom. In so doing, she pits her gritty resilience against Copeland’s well-crafted cruelty. The quietly slumbering village that witnesses their struggle, and the startling events wrought of its consequences, may well hold more time-brined secrets than its shuttered windows and sea-slick walkways suggest.

Reading the expository opening paragraphs of On Dark Shores 1: The Lady prompted my best hopes for a gracefully constructed and fertilely imagined creative landscape. In these lines, we are introduced to the cast’s main players not by name, but through their dreams, all of which are uneasy, tempest-tossed. Tidings are being washed ashore which will bode ill, we are given to understand, and this hinting at future upheaval is admirably conveyed through Clement’s subtle associations of geographical tumult with individual distress. It is evident that we are reading the work of someone who enjoys implementing literary ornamentation, someone who is mindful of the importance of strongly crafted situations, and equally worthy characters to populate them.

That being established, however, the novel lacks a certain evenness of successful storytelling. There are beautiful, glowing passages, to be sure, but there are also areas which appear to have missed a similar application of consistent, dedicated layering. Much of the novel’s narration is dependent on third-person accounts of events, which provides the writer with a broad canvas for perspectives. Given the number of personages to whose inner thoughts we are privy, the potential richness available from multiple non-omniscient narrative seems only hinted at in promising glimpses, without ever truly being deeply sustained.

Reading Clement’s depictions of the natural terrain of her novel offers the surest marker of appreciation for her descriptive prowess. The polish and gleam in her lines often shines most brightly when she writes about the sea (which, given the title of the series, might be intentionally done, or not.) For instance, it would be difficult to savour the following:

“The drizzle had stopped, but the light was failing across the restless sea; the smoothed steel swells were growing wind-tipped and wild with hissing spray.”

and then declaim Clement as talentless; quite the contrary. If she were a consistently uninspiring, yawn-soliciting producer of paltry prose, that would render this review short and dismissive. The difficulty lies in aligning her bountiful caverns of gorgeous writing with her other fictive terrain that is decidedly less lush. Much of the dramatically-infused dialogue featured in character altercations is less riveting than it could be; this is not to suggest that the author ought to puppeteer her players into uttering phrases only as she would say them. The beauty of dialogue (and third-person limited narration alike) lies in allowing an imperfect, biased, disjointed accounting of things; yet without authorial polish and poise, neither scenario nor character appears in their intentional (and thus convincing) lack of lustre. Instead, the writing suffers; the writing appears unmade, neglected, merely patched up with good intentions and talented flourishes, not soundly caulked through in an expert’s hand.

I do not suggest that there aren’t gems to be unearthed in this first installment of the On Dark Shores series; there are. Previously mentioned is Clement’s proficient sculpting of the geographical vistas of her story; the land and sea speak to us as convincingly as Scarlock’s residents and visitors, at times, perhaps more so. Among the highlights of narrative lie expository snippets from townsfolk who aren’t crucial to the machinations of the main plotline (or are they?) such as Niccolo, the fisherman who, early on, provides a piece of fateful information, and spends the rest of the story accounting to himself for its unintended results. Another minor character who prompts intrigued speculation is the proprietress of the local brothel, referred to enigmatically as Madam. Her past is storied, checkered with less than savoury happenings, and if she becomes a central figure in the events of the series’ next installment, I sense that it will be all for the good. Do not be surprised if you find yourself yearning for more revelations concerning the mystical mother of the Shantari and her monumental upcoming journey. Hungering for elucidation on the second novel’s skeletal premises, beckoning beyond our reach, is an excellent effect engendered by a first-part installment, but not if it comes at the risk of souring or, worse, sapping our interest in the events of the book currently in our hands.

Clement does a formidable job of constructing a world outside of the primary events of the novel; this holds its own drawbacks as well as delights. Often, the concerns and preoccupations of the fringe characters are more compelling than the principal ones. Nereia herself is the most glaring disappointment. She possesses all the requisite building blocks for Clement to create a rollickingly outstanding heroine. Instead, she wanders through the plot’s progression (which is less haphazard and more sketchily dubious, reading as though telling segments of it had been left on the cutting floor) with spirited gumption, certainly, but without the visible progress necessary to substantiate her full self. By this I mean that she owns enough moxy and fortitude to establish her as a warrioress worth our time, without sufficient context-crafting, without the heady, darkly glowing internal monologues and stream of consciousness narration that would have furnaced her fighter’s tale so convincingly.

On Dark Shores 1: The Lady tips itself out of favour by anchoring its plotline with a forcibly forward slant towards the remaining two books in the series, not allowing for the bountiful breathing space to truly come into its own. Its gracious writing style, dedication to fleshing out particular characters and literarily-cast foundation recommend it; its incoherency, implausibility of certain situations and disjointedness make one hope for a far more spectacular sequel. I do hope for it. There is brilliance in this authoress’ dusky world of wailing wind and water…muted, perhaps, but visibly gleaming all the same.

J.A. Clement’s engaging website, Wandering on Dark Shores, features comprehensive updates on her writing process and plans for the full series, as well as a host of purchase links for the first novel. You can also follow her on Twitter, here.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by J.A. Clement for review. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, and are not influenced by her generous gift of gratuitous literature.

20. And Then Her Mouth by Portia Klee Jordan

[This is a review of an erotica collection. It should not be read by anyone who is too young to read erotica.]

Published in 2010 by Xynobooks.

I’ve long been of the opinion that there ought to be some measure of subtlety in the writing of sex. A panting slather of erogenous zone names, rubbed together on the page, leaves me distinctly… dry. A preponderance of “bulging, turgid members” meeting “quiveringly helpless mounds” leads to a laziness of craft—just because the parts fit together doesn’t mean a writer need mash them in textually ’til they’re sore, and we’re bored. Portia Klee Jordan’s audacious, poetic and elegantly perverse collection, And Then Her Mouth, works toe-curlingly well for me because it doesn’t aim to evade the subtle artistry of good writing. It dives into it, gaping-mawed, and sucks us in—and we go; willingly, we go.

A principal selling point of this gathering of dirty divulgences is that they’re not a precocious tween’s teeth-cutting panty twisters (though you might stumble across at least one ingenue ripe for the picking among these pages). These are eighteen investigations of a persistently purple desire. The word ‘purple’ comes at us at many a turn in these tales – lurking ’round one too many a corner, for my liking. Still, if it best expresses, for Jordan, a particular aura, a no holds barred zone of throbbing openness, then a few too many purples are a miserly toll, spare change you won’t miss as you speed along this open highway of well-weathered pleasure-seekers. One gets the impression, while reading, of lives dipped deeply in lust and self-examination alike, which flavours each vignette with intensity, fire and fever, meriting belief and arousal.  Whether these dirty stories are drawn from the velvet of the author’s own beaded bag of tricks, or not, she is owed a nod of approval for sparing us staid contrivances and sophomoric storylines.

Moral ambiguity makes the sensory ravaging you’re offered from each tale all the sweeter. You’re liable to find a kink for each sexual bent in Jordan’s repertoire, delivered sans ethical interference. In “Pretty Me”, following a nerve-humming exchange with Marcel the drag queen, formerly staid Patricia wrangles a cross-dressing, gender-torquing fetish out of her husband Gerald, with the aid of electrical tape, fishnets and theatrically imposed cruelty. The entirety of “III. Onomatopeter” is a single wicked sentence in celestially sordid punning. “II. Statutory Grape” plies us with the stream of consciousness hunger of a thirty year old observer for a girl whose “breasts are so new they’re surprised to be there”. Far less is on the menu than one might imagine, in “Eat Me”, the concluding piece of the collection, in which Melanie and the narrator have earned their absent gag reflexes for reasons culinary and otherwise. The author keeps scales of reckoning, blind or otherwise, out of her telling. The result: we get to decide how we feel about each scenario, and the freedom of this safe, sultry space is in itself back-archingly good.

My favourite of the eighteen (eighteen being such a primed number for this collection, in quietly declarative ways: the ‘official’ threshold for sexual release, versus the organic compulsion to explore the body/bodies of others much, much earlier than that) is unabashedly, hands-down, skirts-up, “Summer is Cold Here, Linnea”. Beautiful lesbian Dianna finds ways to thaw the nights of her work-imposed Alaskan chill, and intersperses her anatomical explorations with thoughtful missives to her lover Linnea, who (we assume) languishes for her, back home. The narrative cleaves cleanly down a line of epistolary versus confessional styles, rethreading the chasm between the couple, while emphasizing how much grey space there is between what they know about each other, and what they imagine to be true. As Jordan serves this wryly reflective tale that twists into us by turns both tender and intemperate, we marvel at the supple flow of her prose, the authority of her character construction. The introduction of Dianna establishes a plausible portrait of a flesh and blood Sapphist, not a cardboard and estrogen The L Word placeholder.

“Dianna loved women. She loved them. Her personal attachments, the emotional depth requisite for any long-term, soul-serving relationship, these were always with people of her own gender. She knelt down at the altar of worship and buried her mouth overflowing with the physical manifestation of love and awe in the tufted, fleshy crevices of the sex of the Goddess, the Mother of Us All, with whole-hearted, unshaken devotion. And sometimes she had sex with men.”

In the length of time it takes to share a clove cigarette with a dark-eyed stranger, “Summer is Cold Here, Linnea” breathes potent draughts of queer identity interrogation into us, and sweetens their consideration with two artfully lubricated sexual forays. A tour de force in miniature, it’ll leave you just as reflective as ravaged, and solicit many a damp-fingered reread. If you deem the last line of the story to be anything other than the epitome of tongue in cheek wordcrafting, plotwrangling excellence, then let me know—we’re ripe for a debate.

The poetics of Jordan’s pornography establish her as a sensual raconteuse well worth the consideration of the refined reader, the one who’s bookmarked special tracts in his sexual textbooks, the one who’d wager that she knows a thing or three thousand about fiction that enlivens, thickens the breathing, alerts the pulse. These lines from ‘Manipulation, Retribution’ display evidence of how beauteously the author connects our excursions into eros with her deft mappings of human emotion.

“The sounds coming out of my mouth aren’t conscious, aren’t really my own; they are from some other place, some Lovecraftian pit of tentacled grief. I give voice to a sorrow so great it has no name, to a feeling of loss so yawning and empty that from the first it sent us back shaking and looking over our shoulders to the warm cave fire, to rub shoulders with the others of our kind and turn our backs on our understanding of mortality.”

We glean these grief-soaked revelations from the story’s protagonist as he lies across his homemade sawhorse, abandoning his body to a brutal cropping from two courtesans, in the dungeon he and his late lover Martika made, together. ‘Manipulation, Retribution’ is as much a submissive’s playground of utter delight as it is a wise, emotionally spent man’s retrospective on all the things he’s hewn, and all the losses he’s incurred, through living and loving, and the well-stretched canvas he’s made of his life, in the name of non-conventional lust.

If And Then Her Mouth swiftly becomes your 2011 Bible for all things decidedly non-chaste, do let me know. If you’ve been reading those colour-by-numbers guides to literary kinkiness, consider this study in sex and the human psyche your graduation certificate… but please, try not to smear it. Unless, of course, that’s your thing. Portia Klee Jordan wouldn’t judge, I daresay, and neither will I.

You can purchase And Then Her Mouth directly from Portia Klee Jordan’s publisher, Xynobooks, as well as peruse their collection of archived and forthcoming titles.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by Nick Maloich at Xynobooks for review. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, and are not influenced by his generous gift of gratuitous literature.

19. Thalo Blue by Jason McIntyre

Published in 2011 by Jason McIntyre.

“The wash turned from yellow to a concentrated orange, one that screamed inside his head. He screamed too, at least he tried to. It came out of the base of his throat more like a stifled call in a windstorm with gravel and dust kicking at the words. It was the staggered, helpless plea of a man who did not know what was going to happen to him, and it ended in a gagging, choking sound as pressure from the stranger’s hands intensified.”

Sebastion Redfield is terrified. If you were embroiled in the precarious circumstances that surround him at the novel’s inception, you would be, too. Ensconced in the quiet lull of a neighbourhood defined by its lack of fanfare, at rest in his parents’ house (in which neither of his parents reside, any longer, for reasons both distinct and conjoined), Sebastion’s equanimity is shattered by the intrusion of a stranger who wants to steal something far more precious than the good china. In the aftermath of the attack, Sebastion aligns himself with the unlikely company of the psychiatrist assigned to his case, Malin Holmsund, in an effort to piece together the shreds of what they know about his assailant. While struggling to connect the identity dots of his mystery marauder, our protagonist learns in startling increments of just how much he stands to lose…and of just how little he can afford to stay still.

I’d wager that Sebastion, or Zeb, which he prefers, isn’t quite like any other leading literary man I’ve read, which I count as a reinforcing strength of this work. Even (or especially) among his peers, he both suffers and benefits from perceiving the world through a synaesthete’s eyes. His sensory and colour-coded interpretation of his natural environment makes for illuminating, oft-revealing reading. As we consider shapes and scenarios in shades and hues through Zeb’s visage, we are often called on to realign our paradigms for basic sight. A man on the cusp of maturity, we witness Zeb’s formation as he grows, through the author’s use of well-placed flashbacks.  Nothing Zeb does or says in his journey towards self-preservation and self-discovery feels off-kilter, perhaps because we have been allowed to take the mark of him at every significant stage of his being. The impression of a life fully formed is what remains, once the last page of the novel has been turned. We feel that we have lived with our leading man, observing the peculiar palette that has been his life up until that very moment, and our reading is all the richer for the sense of this credible roundedness.

McIntyre’s other characters, those who are both pivotal and secondary to the successful engineering of the novel, are laudably represented. Not one of them is delivered gracelessly; not one is packaged without attention to detail. If you find yourself feeling tender stirrings of sympathy for someone in these pages who ought, logically, to defy them, be not alarmed. Villainous hearts are susceptible to tenderness and contrition. Quietly submissive souls spark forth in episodes of rage. Reading Thalo Blue is a timely reminder of the complexity of even those dramatis personae whom we’d like to easily slot into pre-ordered roles.

Good writing does not necessarily a good novel make, but Jason McIntyre is a good writer. When we read, we allow the author an unshakeable level of dominion over our senses—if the writer does his work well, we won’t want to be shaken. It took me no more than a handful of chapters to feel confident that I was in no danger of decrying foul fiction, and knowing this holds its own kind of quiet reassurance. What I loved best about McIntyre’s prose were moments when it lent itself to a sage series of omniscient narrative contemplations, such as this one, in which Zeb has an illuminating early conversation with his lover, Caeli.

“They talked about bigger things mostly, things beyond themselves but instead within the scope of the world at large. And amongst those monstrous topics, they talked about the little things, like the skin on the tops of their coffees, and the sound the soles of their shoes made on gravel as they walked. The hours were consumed.”

Anyone who’s traded silence for the earnestly raging river of this brand of discussion will instantly nod with acknowledgement, and appreciation of the skill with which it’s transcribed. I paused the longest to think of the following offering, which, in the interest of maintaining intrigue, may or may not be about Caeli, too.

“Friends and lovers speak in tongues. They use a language that no one else knows, one that they have invented for themselves only. It’s a secret handshake that either lives forever–or dies, carried off when one of its creators leaves for good.”

In the margins of my notebook, there’s a scribbled thought about this, written moments after I read those lines for the first time. “I know this,” it says. “I’ve lived it. I’ve been the one to take the language away, and I’ve had it taken from me, too.”

I do not suggest that all of McIntyre’s prose moved me equally, but it would be injurious to a writer, I think, if you demanded that each of their lines made you weep at its beauty. Some of the expository paragraphs hold a certain staid predictability, and some of the dialogue, particularly the interchanges surrounding criminal investigations, gave me, I confess, less pleasurable pause. Nonetheless, the overall effect is one of respectable, considered writing, and there is nothing to lament, stylistically speaking.

Opponents of a non-linear plot construction will find Thalo Blue nauseating. As a proponent of experimentation in all areas of literary craft, I was pleased to entangle myself in the meandering, converging threads of Zeb’s life. The reader will find herself thrust a decade backwards, sitting with Zeb and his father on the latter’s sickbed, yanked to the cosily clandestine scene of quite a different boudoir that Zeb shares with Caeli, pushed through the swinging doors on an ice-slicked collision. If the deciphering of which events fit where, and how, makes one tetchy, then I propose more careful reading. The ways in which the novel proceeds will reward a sensitive reader, and stymie one accustomed to a ‘colour by numbers’ approach to their fiction.

This novel earns its chops based on a neat list of accomplishments. Principal among these is its sophisticated residence in a genre of writing about which I am typically leery. Its discernible nicks in an otherwise glowing patina are happily worth the price of admission. A suspense thriller edged with nuances of psychological investigation, Thalo Blue is as much an examination of human behaviour beneath pressure as it is a bildungsroman with bite. If reading it prompts you to search out more of McIntyre’s work, then we’re in the same synaesthete’s landscape of brightly-hued anticipation.

Details on Jason McIntyre’s publications, including Thalo Blue, as well as direct purchase links are accessible from his Amazon.com author page, here. You can also peruse his personal website, The Farthest Reaches, here, where there are links to his Twitter and Facebook pages.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by Jason McIntyre for review. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, and are not influenced by his generous gift of gratuitous literature.