REVIEW: Lunch with the Do-Nothings at the Tammy Dinette by Killian B. Brewer

Lunch with the Do Nothings at the Tammy Dinette by Killian B. Brewer (January 12, 2017); 232 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Somehow, this book slipped past me when it was released back in January, and I only came to it in the past few weeks. It was a sort of late blooming, I suppose.
Lunch… is the story of Marcus, who travels to a little (some would say “Podunk”) town when his grandmother—a grandmother he has never met, due in large part to a rootless mother who kept his life moving from town to town when he was a child—dies and leaves him her house. He comes to town, then, with the intention of quickly tying up any death-related loose ends, selling her property and getting the heck out of Dodge and back to Atlanta, where he’s got a life. (Of course, he’s leaving that life, too—his partner, Robert, is a controlling, manipulative jerk who hit Marcus hard enough to blacken his eye, so Marcus has left him behind in Atlanta and is trying to think himself into a new life.) While in town trying to settle his business, Marcus meets a gaggle of his grandmother’s friends (I think “gaggle” might not be the term for groups of people, but I’m not sure “group” really conveys the real Bodysnatchers-like conspiratory power of this bunch), who call themselves The Do-Nothings and hold regular meetings at a local diner, and who decide to sneak together to get him fixed up with a “good man” and make him stay in town. Despite their misguided efforts, Marcus finds Hank, who is, by all accounts, a “good man.” As a consequence of finding what he wants in a place he doesn’t want, Marcus is faced with questions about what to do with his life: where he will live, what he will do for a living (oh, yes, I forgot to mention the career crisis for Marcus that’s throwing a wrench in the works here), how he will be happy. (It’s another sort of late blooming, I suppose.)

There’s the kind of Southern Charm here about which all of us Northerners seem to fantasize—tough, stubborn, a bit weirdly-executed and don’t-mess-with-us-dangerous, but loving, protective and well-meaning—that reminds one a bit of those great woman-focused south-set stories like Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias, but without that icky schlock stories like that seem intent on doling out. (It feels like the author is not a Northern Fantasizer, but Real Life Southerner.) One is in no danger of choking on pink chintz or juleps or too much saccharine, Poor-Fragile-Diabetic-Shelby-Who-Dies-So-We-Learn-a-Lesson oversentiment (I may have an extra bug up my butt about Steel Magnolias, since I am a juvenile diabetic like Shelby, but I think my point still stands). There’s a light-touch comedy, too, that comes from taking delight in irony: tough-as-nails, ostensibly past-prime Southern belles protecting a young gay man by the means with which they’re familiar (socials, gossip, rifle-wielding).

This novel strikes the right balance between danger and quirk, serious and funny, moving speedily through the plot when it needs to, slowing down when there’s a rose to smell or a point to develop. The characters are lovable and relatable, even to a somewhat cynical Northerner like me. The humor is gentle but easy and fun; the comedy comes from strong character development and not situation (which, in my book, is the best kind of humor).

The romance that Marcus finds is, yes, with a charming and attractive man, but this is not the only romance offered—there’s also the romance of Marcus with his past, with the feeling of family and fitting in and care that the Do-Nothings offer, with the open possibilities of his future, his love of cooking (he discovers this here), even the town’s easy charm. Taken together, all these love stories add up to a person figuring out what (and whom) he loves, how he wants to live, who he is at heart. It’s actually a kind of second chance at this since, though Marcus is quite young, he’s already settled into a life in Atlanta, one which is uprooted and shaken about when he meets the Do-Nothings.

I guess you could call it a kind of late blooming.

REVIEW: Beneath the Stars by Lynn Charles

Beneath the Stars by Lynn Charles (February 16, 2017); 300 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

 

Beneath the Stars by Lynn Charles tells the romance of Sid, a clothing designer and C-DRT volunteer (those are the folks who support the firefighters and other rescue workers on the scene of a disaster) and Eddie, a firefighter (who is also the fire chief). Playing large parts in this romance are the struggles each character faces with family and loss: Sid’s mother died when he was younger, and his father is in the throes of dementia when the novel begins; Eddie had a baby with his friend Maggie, who died of cancer not many years after, leaving Eddie to raise their now-5-year-old child, Adrian. The two men meet on the scene of a fire and strike up a relationship, but they must figure out how to accommodate their responsibilities to take care of other people and things (Eddie, the fire victims and his son Adrian; Sid, aside from his work as firefighter support, has his suffering father and his fledgling clothing-design business, Bastra).

There is neat symmetry here: though the characters are dealing with very different forms of loss and caretaking, they both do. Negotiating their new relationship together is, in part, about negotiating the difficulties of those pulls in other directions (other people, other cities). Along the way, each becomes imbricated in the other’s concerns (Sid, for instance, becomes attached to Adrian; Eddie… well, I don’t want to give away the ending of the book, but Eddie gets attached, too).

This is a mature romance, in other words. Or, it’s a romance about mature people with mature-people problems: kids, illness, jobs, attachments, and very fully-realized lives outside each other. This is the kind of love story that’s hard to find: one in which the world doesn’t stop and end at the romance. I remember when I was young and fell in love—everything else fell away and was secondary; my life (my desires, my time, my location, everything) fit around my love. When I got older, though, falling in love meant having to figure out how to fit my love around my life instead. When two fully-realized lives come together, there’s fitting to be done, compromising and rethinking, falling in love with (or at least learning to tolerate) everything your lover cares for (family, friends, houses, etc.), figuring out how to share with someone else what’s always been yours alone. Very often, younger love gets to be more selfish; mature love has to learn to compromise.

(Don’t misunderstand: these guys are still pretty young, by my standards, but they’re established in their lives. They’re not Romeo-and-Juliet-aged teens. They’ve got roots and responsibilities. Maturity is about that, not the number of candles you put on your cake.

As a result of all the different kinds of attachment, this is a story of different kinds of love. I may be Greek, but I’ve done my best to forget everything I had to learn in Greek School as a kid (yes, non-Greeks, that’s a thing), so I don’t remember the different kinds of love the Greeks named, but I’m pretty sure they’re all here. There’s romantic love, of course, on center stage, but there’s also the love of children, fathers and mothers, friends… and beyond that, there’s the love that is passion for hobbies or work. All those kinds of love figure prominently here.

The title comes from the story’s theme of stars and constellations, a passion that Sid’s father Lou shares with his son. This connection to something more permanent and bigger-than-people fits, for me, with the story’s concern for maturity: love isn’t fleeting, and it’s not limited to your tiny sphere of concern, burning bright and hot, but igniting and burning out fast (like I remember it did when I was 16); mature love is something larger that shifts the world and gives gravity to all bodies,  a force by which to guide ships (was that Aphrodite?), to mark the seasons and the hours, and one that will outlast any single tiny life.

REVIEW: Storm Season by Pene Henson

REVIEW: Storm Season by Pene Henson (February 2. 2017); 226 pages. Available from Interlude Press here

 

OK, so first off I want to state that if I could have figured out how to print this review upside down, I would have done it, since the narrative in Storm Season takes place in Australia, and I am just that corny.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I can get on with the real business of telling you about this book. Storm Season tells the story of a woman (Lien) who lives in Sidney but goes camping in the relative wilds with her small cadre of friends, gets distracted while taking photographs, and falls down a hole. Or ravine. Chasm. Some nature-y pit. That’s not the point, and neither is my absolute ignorance of outdoorsy stuff. In this way, actually, I am very like Lien—she’s a city girl to her core, and part of the reason she falls is her insistence on wearing inappropriate-but-fashionable shoes. (She’s a journalist who covers fashion and music. In this way, I am nothing like Lien, because nobody should ever read what I have to say about what to wear. It would be wrong.)

The point is she bangs her ankle bad enough that she can’t get out of the pit or move around much, and she’s rescued by a park ranger (Claudie), who—due to flooding—can’t get her back to her campsite and takes her, instead, to stay with her at her own cabin until the roads and driveable again.

So the two women are forced by circumstance to spend a handful of days together, alone with each other, in a cabin in the wilderness, while kookaburras…make whatever noise they usually do… outside the windows. A few things happen here: first, Lien discovers that Claudie is that Claudie, an ex-indie rock darling, and she’s fascinated. (Why did Claudie quit the band and stop performing to hide in a cabin and be a park ranger? Lien’s Spidey—no, Clark Kent—senses are tingling for the story.) Second, Lien discovers that Claudie, while her polar opposite in most ways (Claudie’s fashion sense seems to be about the practical and bush-ready), is fascinating. And attractive. And, well, stuff happens, and it’s everything you’d hope from a trapped-in-a-cabin-with-a-love-interest narrative.

Eventually, as all storms seem to do, the storm passes, the roads clear, and Claudie can take Lien back to her campsite and her friends. But since Claudie lives in the bush and Lien lives in Sidney, taking her back means letting her go, and paradise is, indeed, Mr. Milton, apparently lost. Of course, that can’t be how it ends, can it? (Hint: it can’t.)

Storm Season is a romance and, like a good real romance, it’s part mystery and part adventure, but with a good soundtrack (if you could hear Claudie’s music, at least). It’s got the inward spiraling focus of strangers-to-friends-to-lovers intensity, without ever feeling claustrophobic. Both characters have connections outside their world together, and there are narratives outside their love story which come to matter (intrigue among Lien’s friends, the story of why Claudie quit making music).

It strikes me that this is a novel about trying to get away but then trying to find your way back. Lien absconds to the bush for a vacay, but hurts herself and can’t get home again. Claudie leaves music, leaves hope, leaves love, but Lien shows her she must figure out a way back into those things. I don’t want to give away more of the novel, but much of its plot and character development are about this going-away-and-returning.

In fact, this kind of form—a run away from the norm, and then a return, slightly different, but still familiar—has a long history in art. In music, it might be the fugue (a form whose name translates as “flight”). In psychology, too, it’s a “fugue state.” In nature, it’s the echo. In literature, I can’t help but think of Boccaccio’s Decameron (great for those who want dirty short stories), in which the unifying tale is one of a handful of friends who escape to the country to avoid the ravages of the Plague, and pass the time telling stories. It’s also the history of the topsy-turvey festival (most notably nowadays, Carnavale in Rio or Mardi Gras in New Orleans) in which revelers turn every societal norm on its head (traditionally paupers dress like kings, men dress as women, fish fly, etc., but nowadays it translates into breaking from “good” behavior and getting drunk and running around half-naked while you’re having sex and cussing a lot, I imagine), but for only a limited amount of time to let off the pressure of being normal, like a steam valve that lets the pot go on cooking.

Storm Season is in this tradition, albeit with a lot less naked running around and more intelligence and feeling. What’s interesting is that it not only revels in the topsey-turvey love-affair-in-a-remote-cabin narrative, but also explores the flip side, what happens when Carnavale is over and somebody has to sweep the streets, when Lien must go back to Sydney and Claudie must stay in her remote cabin and paradise goes slipping away, or falls, maybe, into one of those chasms.

REVIEW: The King and the Criminal by Charlotte Ashe

The King and Criminal by Charlotte Ashe (December 8. 2016); 325 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

The King and the Criminal is the second book in the Heart of All Worlds series by Charlotte Ashe, and features much the same cast of characters as appeared in the first book, The Sidhe, with some focus shifts. Central are still Sehrys, who is a Sidhe of royal birth, and his betrothed, Brieden, who is a human. Along with them are royal humans Brissa Keshell and her sister Cliope; the Sidhe Tash, a former Sidhe slave trader-turned-good guy; and Firae, another Sidhe royal and the one to whom Sehrys had once been engaged.  There’s a breach of the protective border around the lands of Khryslee (which could only have been brought about deliberately, probably by a Sidhe), a war-mongering rival kingdom and several folks to be rescued from their clutches. I’m making it sound much more complicated than it really is: a cast of humans and Sidhe must band together despite their differences (some royal, some not, some actual convicted criminals) to stop the evil attempts of an evil opposing government. Unfortunately, for an American, this is starting to sound all too real.

There is, to be sure, some political intrigue here, and there’s some fantasy-magic mythology of which one must keep track (there’s a helpful summary of past politics, map and glossary of terms that makes this easier), but this is not the focus of the book. This is, I think, part picaresque and part western.

A picaresque is a serial adventure focusing (by some accounts) on an unlikely hero (usually a rogue or a criminal) or (by other accounts) on a young hero who matures through the adventure. This is true of different characters in this novel—the first describes Tash, the criminal-turned-ally, and the second describes either Brissa (the young human queen learning to be a queen) or Brieden (the human fumbling his way into love and adulthood) or even Sehrys (the young-ish Sidhe learning how to balance his personal and political responsibilities and allegiances). A western, lots of people will tell you, is set in the American west, but having taught film genres, I’d disagree. (Many people, for instance, consider Star Wars a “space western.”) By my lights, and very basically speaking, a western is a kind of romance in which good guys oppose bad guys against a backdrop of nearly boundless territory in contest. So The Heart of All Worlds series might be a fantasy western picaresque.

All that is to say (in far too fancy a way) that there is adventure, political conflict and romance centering around territory and white hat-black hat rivalries.

As with the first novel in this series, the plot is woven so well and the characters so nicely drawn that readers will be sucked in quickly and held until the end, then wait impatiently for the next book in the series to resolve what this one leaves in the air. Also as with the first novel, The King/Criminal is set in very unfamiliar worlds and thus contains a large new mythology of beings, territory, politics, religion and powers, but requires little of the reader to understand it and be swallowed by it. I think that’s the mark of really well-written sci-fi and fantasy: one gets so pulled in, and is so seduced by the world created there, that what often seems like bells and whistles in lesser books just seems a natural, real part of the world of the novel. The point is, I think, whether or not the details of the world are in service of the plot and characters, or are superfluous embroidery upon their surface. In a good fantasy or sci-fi novel like this one, the details aren’t the point, they just help you see the point.

REVIEW: Idlewild by Jude Sierra

Idlewild by Jude Sierra (December 1, 2016); 250 pages. Available from Interlude Press at http://store.interludepress.com/products/idlewild-print-edition

Idlewild is the story of a Detroit restauranteur/widower who figures out how to rescue himself from isolation and loss after the tragedy of his husband’s death. (If that sounds like a metaphor for Detroit itself, well, maybe it is.) It’s also the story of a young guy trying to find himself, working his butt off to become someone he likes, and figuring out who he is. (If that also sounds like a metaphor for Detroit, so be it.) It’s the story of very different worlds meeting and working together, trying to resolve differences and make something great. And it’s kind of literally the story of Detroit itself, too, at least as a backdrop.

Asher and his partner John had opened Idlewild, a restaurant in the heart of Detroit, as their dream. But when John died suddenly, Asher wound up digging himself into Idlewild and losing almost everything—he’s since become estranged from John’s family and almost never leaves Idlewild (he lives above the restaurant, and when he’s not upstairs, he’s downstairs). He mourns alone, and works alone, even though there are lots of people around; as a result, he loses almost the entire staff who’d worked for him when John was alive, and must start fresh. He hires a new staff, which includes Tyler, a young guy from Detroit who’s trying to figure out his own direction. With Tyler comes renewal in all forms—both the restaurant and Asher are revitalized. Tyler goes through his own sort of revival when his life turns in directions different from what he’d originally planned. Though it only serves as a backdrop, Idlewild itself seems to be the key to all this change: it’s place where things happen, where new beginnings are possible.

What’s lovely in this novel is its care: both Asher and Tyler are drawn so sympathetically (a middle-aged man who’s grown prematurely old from tragically losing a man he loved, Asher struggles between past and future; Tyler is a younger guy trying to figure out where he stands between the privileged-but-sincere Asher and his justifiably-angry-and-less-privileged ex). Such great attention is given to their characters and histories. These guys make sense, and the reader can understand why they think the way they do.

The complexities these characters face are real, and extend beyond the personal. Or, rather, the complexities weave together the personal and the social/political, which is what makes them complexities in the first place. It also makes them good problems for narrative, since they’re not immediately and easily solved.

 

 

 

 

REVIEW: Sideshow by Amy Stilgenbauer

Sideshow by Amy Stilgebauer (August 25, 2016); 192 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Abby Amaro does what everyone threatens to do at some point in life: she runs away with the circus. But unlike most of us (okay, well, at least unlike me), she doesn’t have many other options. She’s stuck with Frank, an emotionally-abusive and violent jerk who proposes marriage and doesn’t take it very well when she refuses. She’s a woman, an opera singer, in the 1950s. So she must leave her family behind, and her brother helps her abscond with a travelling circus.

She falls in with the sideshow carnies, and eventually meets the strong woman Suprema, and the two strike up a tentative, quiet romance. There are, of course, hurdles: she can’t quite connect up with her family from the road until it’s too late, she’s stuck rooming with a hostile burlesque performer, and even Frank rears his ugly head at one point. Troubles notwithstanding, Abby finds her sea legs (her trailer legs, anyway) and finds new connections and a new home.

On some level, this is about being Good by the standards of the moment. Good isn’t the same as good-to-yourself: Good for women at the time is forgetting your career, marrying the appropriate person and washing his socks without complaint for the rest of your life. Abby isn’t, apparently, such a good girl. I mean, she’s good, she’s just not Marry-a-Man-Even-though-He-Cheats-and-Have-No-Life-of-Your-Own-Because-Men-Are-Hard-to-Get-and-More-Valuable-than-You Good.

The characters here are well drawn—sympathetic or hateful (or sometimes a combination of both) without being too simple. The situation is the same—the novel takes the old “running away with the circus” trope and gives it real life. There’s lots to like here—not the least of which is a compelling situation and engaging plot.

This is a seamless story: believable, well-paced and involving. It’s about Abby finding a way to be happy, to do what she loves, even if it’s singing from the bally box instead of La Scala, or falling in love with a muscled woman instead of a philandering man. It’s about being strong and creative enough to do that.

Reading to make the world go away

Upon waking today, I read that the Resident of the United States just issued sexist dress codes for “men” and “women,” and that “women” feel pressured to wear a skirt/dress. (I assume this is meant to make pussy-grabbing easier and more convenient.)  I’m not exactly sure how he intends to determine who fits into which category and who gets the privilege of wearing pants (actually, I can’t imagine a genderqueer person being allowed to work there anyway). I actually want him to try to enforce this so that someone can sue the white house for gender discrimination.

So I’ve curled myself up with a mug of Earl Gray and Certainly, Possibly You, the second book in the Sucre Coeur series. It’s a much happier world. And all the skirts that get worn are done so with full consent.

Review to come in a couple days. Because I’m working. I swear I’m wearing a dress, even though I’m working. Just in case you felt threatened.

REVIEW: Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee

Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee (September 8, 2016); 296 pages. Available from Interlude Press/Duet Books here.

I keep wanting to call this book “plucky.” I think that’s because it manages to balance itself nicely between pessimism about the future (or perhaps it’s skepticism about our vision of the future) and optimism about, well, being alive, love, goodness, all that. Optimism wins, but not without a hard fight.

Not Your Sidekick is a fun adventure set in a post WWIII future, in which a small percentage of the population is born with powers-beyond-average. Those people register with the government, and are subsequently permitted entry into the Heroes League of Heroes (and oh, goodness, but I get happy giggles at the ridiculous bureaucracy suggested by the redundancy of that name), take on a “super” alter ego and live kind of like Superman in the comics: a mundane life as an average person, and a secret life as a hero, roaming the streets, performing rescues, thwarting evil, and doing general good. The government assigns a certain percentage of these “super” people to become villains, so there’s a good-evil balance, and there’s consistent work for everyone.

Jess Tran is born into a family of supers in the area of what used to be Nevada; her parents are—by day—a mild-mannered pair of Happy Middle-Class Suburbanites with 3 kids and—by…other day—Smasher and Shockwave, a dynamic crime-fighting duo. Jess’ brother Brendan is some sort of Super Science Nerd-Genius who cavorts with beakers and safety goggles in his free time. Her sister Claudia is a new hero, recently graduated from the Meta-Human Training Program and off being super somewhere, usually with Jess’ idol, the bright-toothed and model-flashy heroine Captain Orion. Jess has not developed any noticeable super powers (which she must discover before she turns 17 or she won’t be allowed to register as a Meta-Human—and thus, a hero—with the state). She lives with the disappointment and shame of being different from her family and rather un-special, until she takes an internship with the robotics company run by one of her parents’ arch nemeses, Master Mischief. There, Jess strikes up a friendship with the object of her Big Ole Crush, Abby, who’s working as some sort of secretary; Jess also struggles to keep up her friendships with Bells, her FTM bestie, and Emma, her cis-femme friend who has a painful crush on Bells, and tries to please her boss—or, at least, his representative, a mysterious person who wears a Master Mischief super suit, but is clearly not Him.

There’s twists here I’m trying not to give away: secret identities and secret feelings, plot twists and character 180s abound, like literary bumper cars. Suffice it to say, there’s lots of action, and Jess finds herself in the position of teaming up with her crush to save people she’s spent her life distrusting, loving someone she’d never expect, seeing her family and her heroes from a different perspective, and uncovering her own power (be it super or non-).

She does all this in the absence of her parents, with her friends—and her own intuition—to guide her.  In this way, the novel strikes me as the quintessential coming-of-age story, though the details may look very different from what we, in contemporary America/Europe, expect. But the heart is the same: young woman has to figure out her abilities, has to find her purpose, discovers desire and falls in love, then begins to drop her childhood illusions and see people for who they “really” are.

The protagonist, Jess, is compellingly sympathetic for almost anyone who has been a teenager (particularly a queer one); she’s awkward, unsure, fumbling through failures and the occasional hard-won success, full of longing. But I make the novel sound more heavy than it should—it’s fun, too. It’s set in an interesting future world, part Jetsons (a smooth, silver, automated fantasy) and part Brazil (a janky, steam-punk, be-tubed future bureaucracy.) (The best example of this is Jess’ family MonRobot, an older model who (that?) is charmingly inept and clunky, who vaccuums itself in circles and gets stuck in places and, though mostly a glorified Roomba, is still a wonderfully lovable little guy.) Jess is actually a pretty happy, driven character. Her friends are awesome. Her life, even without powers or a love affair, is pretty good. There’s love and intrigue, secrets and adventure to be had.

There’s also a really lovely aspect to this book that deserves its own mention: Jess is first-generation American (her parents emigrated to the North American Collective from somewhere in the former Asia), and though the novel doesn’t ever hammer this point at the reader, one can easily read the Discovering-One’s-Super-Difference and the Growing-Up-First-Gen-and-Not-White-in-America as parallel—or at least related—story lines about defining oneself, discovering one’s power, making an identity. There’s also the quiet little factor (again, not surfaced, but present enough to color the narrative) of an ethnically-Asian girl in a largely-Caucasian culture discovering her abilities and worth, despite that dominant culture often interpreting her as lesser–it rings relevant here. Of course, there’s also the parallel with queerness: a difference that’s both relevant and irrelevant, something one discovers about oneself, something that has the potential to change the way everyone else looks at you, something that often involves a secret identity or hidden life. I think of parallels with the lives of many women, too, and how they (okay, we) had to work hard to recognize our own abilities and value and place in the world.

The ties between the “superhero” narrative and the narrative of a non-white queer girl coming of age are there, certainly, but not the point—the point is a superhero story, and one that needn’t be qualified as a superhero story about a first-gen queer Asian girl. It’s just that readers often think of that kind of story as a qualified hero story (a hero story about…), rather than just a hero story. It’s a political decision to normalize her narrative, not make it all about her differences (her ethnicity, her gender, her sexuality). It’s a political decision that strikes me as really refreshing (we need both kinds of stories–those which insist on difference and those which insist on sameness–to be told). White, straight male heroes get to have narratives that don’t center on their identities, so why shouldn’t Jess?

This book is a bit of a departure in tone and style  from Lee’s first book, Seven Tears at High Tide, which I might call a supernatural romantic fairy tale (this book is quirky and bright, where the former book is mystical and almost mournful), but readers will notice a similar optimism, faith in friendship/love, and a dip into the unreal that manages to seem plausible even as it’s far from the details of the mundanity we know.

REVIEW: Burning Tracks by Lilah Suzanne

Burning Tracks by Lilah Suzanne (August 11, 2016); 224 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

This is the second book in the Spotlight series (the first is Broken Records), which follows the lives of a quartet of people: Nico, the stylist to the stars, his business partner-stylist Gwen, Gwen’s wife Flora, and Nico’s love Grady, who just happens to be a big country music star.

While Broken Records focused mainly on Nico and his courtship with Grady, Burning Tracks is centered around Gwen and Flora’s lives. Nico and Grady are still around, and they get important story developments, but this is not their novel. The primary story—and the reader’s heart—belongs to Flora and Gwen as they navigate their new lives in a new town, pull apart and pull together and pull other folks into their circle.

When Nico and Gwen become business partners and take their star-styling business from LA to Nashville, Gwen and Flora need to make a new life for themselves in a new place. While Nico navigates a new and coltish relationship with Grady, Gwen and Flora are doing the hard work of staying together, weathering the long haul—it’s lovely balance: both couples are unsteadily trying to figure out how to live in new conditions, both literally (Nashville) and figuratively (new stages of lives and relationships, new pressures and possibilities). While Nico and Grady are stumblingly trying to figure out how to be in love, Gwen and Flora are trying to figure out how to stay in love—I don’t mean that they’re in constant danger of falling out of love, but that they’re trying to understand how to maintain their lives, keep beauty alive for each other, simply be in love without all the bang and fuss and glory that newness brings.

There’s heartache and drinking, of course (I mean, there are country music stars in this, so it would disappoint if it didn’t happen), but there is also contentment and joy… and some kittens at one point, too. I admit I’m not a big country music aficionado, but I can’t think of a single country song about the joys of living with kittens—this novel goes well beyond the clichés, in other words, to give a real picture of real lives happening.

They’re great characters, all four of them: loving, but not saccharine; interesting, but believable; complex, but still relatable; just stupid enough to make them real (I hate the sexism of “Mary Sue” labels, but because most people understand that term, I’ll use it: there are none here).

In this second novel, the group grows a little bigger to include Clementine (another country music star/Nico client), a couple kittens, and an endearing little guy named Cayo—but I won’t talk about how he figures into the story, because I don’t want to give anything away. Instead, I’ll say that Clementine is a fun and interesting character: she’s a shining penny of a woman, with the sleek sheen that money and fame seem to give, and she comes across as a bit vain, a bit too big for her britches, and yet still very endearing and well-meaning. She’s the kind of girl who gets her hair colored and calls people “Sugar,” but she isn’t one-dimensional—she gets a moment of awkward redemption, plus she hides a kitten in her coat like a crazy lady, so I think she’s tops.

The book’s paced just right—one is pulled along without any dragging, and the prose is efficient but loving (if you can say that about prose; I mean it feels neither self-indulgent nor too airy and speedy). It’s one of those books I could have easily (had I the time and no other stupid life obligations) read in one sitting, though knowing it was waiting for me to pick it back up again each evening was a good motivation to get through the daily mire.

While Broken Records never felt unresolved to me, Burning Tracks feels like it resolves some of what got knotted up in Broken Records, and leaves off at the top of a cliff—all the characters are just starting big new life adventures (I won’t say what, and you can’t make me). It felt quite nicely resolved, but still leaves room for more to happen in a future third book. Which I’m hoping Suzanne has in the works.

REVIEW: With or Without You by Zane Riley

With or Without You by Zane Riley (July 21, 2016); 348 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

So, ever since I reviewed Go Your Own Way by Zane Riley (here), I have been waiting for the release of the sequel, With or Without You, and guess what? It’s here!

If you’ve not read my review of GYOW, pop over there and do that first, or be, at least, forewarned: I’m going to talk about this like a sequel, as if these characters and this situation are familiar because, to me, they are. And I’m happy to see them get more book space.

(Oh, and probably: spoiler alert for book 1.)

With or Without You picks up where Go Your Own Way left off: Lennox McAvoy—a nominally homeless, rather crass high school senior—is living with (and falling for) the relatively-privileged Will Osborne. Lennox was living in a residence motel after being dumped there by an uncaring grandfather and The System (which, after releasing him from a pretty abusive juvie situation, slapped an ankle monitor on him and told him to go be successful… without going too far). Will’s family has taken him in, but they discover that keeping him safe and well-behaved and at “home” is a bit like trying to hold on to a wisp of smoke with nothing but a tissue and a rubber band; Lennox just won’t be contained that way.

Lennox has a dirty mouth and no filter, and absolutely no tolerance for folks (like Will’s dad) who neither trust nor particularly like him. Like a good Harvard Business School grad, he’s proactive: when he senses someone’s not going to treat him with the respect or understanding he needs, he acts like a jerk and pushes them away before they get the chance to hurt him.

Ironically (in the O. Henry sense, not the Alanis Morissette sense), the people Lennox trusts least (Will, Will’s dad and Will’s stepmom) are the most likely to help him stay safe and get him through high school and into college. Ironically (in the O. Henry sense, but maybe a little in the Morissette sense here, too), those folks are so wrapped up in their own ideas of what’s right and good that they do a bit of metaphorical foot-shooting and end up suffocating the kid with their good intentions.

Will pushes Lennox to apply for college at a very expensive, very exclusive music school (Lennox plays several instruments and composes music and is an incredible musician, after all, and Will… really, really isn’t), and it brings out the fear that underlies Lennox’s bravado. What if he bombs the interview or the audition? What if he doesn’t even get that far? What if Will goes away to college in New York as planned, and Lennox is left alone with nothing, holding his… gonads… and has to join the army?

Or what if he gets in after all, but can’t afford to go?

While Will’s in this up to his eyeballs, and has a lot of figuring out to do (how do you support someone without imposing your own values on them?), this book feels like Lennox’s story. Lennox has to learn to trust everything: Will’s dad, his stepmom Karen, Will, and even himself and his own abilities. He also has to learn to let go (his best friend Lucy is leaving him behind, moving to Boston with her new girlfriend). Finally, he has to learn to settle down into happiness and not screw it up just because he’s afraid and wants to ruin stuff before something or someone else does it for him. He is, in the classic sense of irony (and, okay, in Morisette’s sense, too) his own worst enemy.

Not that there aren’t enough really bad enemies out there for him anyway. His own grandparents reject him and keep him from seeing his little sister (his grandparents are white and he’s the child of a Black woman and a white man); the authorities don’t really care who or what he is, as long as his ankle monitor doesn’t indicate he’s gone outside his permitted zone; the racist homophobes at the motel where he was living just want to beat on somebody (he’ll do); Will’s dad kind of thinks he’s a punk, an opinion which may or may not be driven by some privileged racism.

This is a smart and compelling follow-up to Go Your Own Way. (It’s great as a sequel, but can also be read on its own, without having read the first book.) Lennox is tough to love; Will, though his motivations are probably more familiar to most middle-class readers than those of Lennox, is also tough to love much of the time. In fact, almost everybody in this novel (I’m giving Karen a pass) is a well-meaning jerk of one sort or another. (Okay, and the racist homophobes don’t get passes, but they also don’t get to be included here… they’re just jerks, not at all well-meaning.) All of them are interesting and compelling, complex enough as characters to pull you in and make you care what happens to them.