Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Anthology Review: Sidecar by Ann McMan

Sidecar is a collection of four short stories by Ann McMan, of Jericho fame (one of my favourite books of the year so far, which I reviewed back in January).

Sidecar contains four stories of varying length and a nice introduction by reviewer (and wife of the author) Salem West of The Rainbow Reader which discusses the type of writing you can expect from Ann McMan, and quickly introduces the stories. While obviously written by the same person, there's a nice variety in mood and characters and settings. They're all romances and feature Ann McMan's apparently trademark elements of witty dialog and fine wine. The longest and best is the hilarious "Bottle Rocket", a parody on lesbian publishing. The others are less comic and more romantic, but each seems to indulge a particular theme or impulse in the conversations, from parody to romance to rudeness, but always staying on the sweet side of interesting. I'd read at least one before, and I suspect a couple of the others may also be available to read for free online, but "Bottle Rocket" is brand new and exclusive to the collection.

There are some common themes; all our characters are reasonably literary and intellectual. Even the more backcountry, or stereotypically lower class ones turn out to be well able to hold their own. All but one of them is something of a wine lover. These are all romances, and generally involve a lot of punning, arguing and witty dialogue between the lovers. We don't get any sex scenes. While there's some kissing and groping and we're told that Sex Happened, it's a very non- explicit collection of stories. Entirely safe for work and children. Well, as long as they don't understand some of the references in "Bottle Rocket".

Like Jericho, the writing is elegant, intellectual (that means 'wordy but I like it'), and excellently edited. Finding a single missing quote mark in the third story felt like managing to pick the one piece of sky out of a pile of near identical jigsaw puzzle pieces. I wanted to photograph it and send it in to the author for a prize.

1. "V1: A Valentine's Day Oddysey"
The first story is actually the one I liked least, and left me fairly disappointed. It's a follow up to Syd and Maddie of Jericho, a nice little Valentine's story peeking into their life a few months (or so?) later. Unfortunately, it comes with little context or introduction to the characters and not having read Jericho recently, it took me half the story to really remember which one was which (I always got the names mixed up) and what each woman was like. If you've just finished Jericho, that wouldn't be a problem. If you've never read Jericho, then it may stand alone perfectly well. But half-remembering the characters meant that I knew I was missing out on a lot, and it was frustrating.
Actually, it was a perfectly decent story, following an ambitious attempt on Maddie's part to cook Syd a proper Valentine's Day dinner, complete with fancy courses. Coming in the context of Jericho, in which Syd lived on takeaways and scandalously ignored her glorious kitchen until Maddie turned up to make use of it, it makes sense. This turns into a dramatic labour of love, a weeks long cooking course, complicated enormously by Maddie's determination to keep it completely secret until the big reveal. Cue understandable suspicion, comic misunderstandings and avoidable tensions, until both women take a step back and realise that they're acting like idiots (which was a lovely switch up from the so-typical increasing drama until both sides are dramatically revealed and fall swooning into each others arms). But overall, the pacing felt off - it felt like a nice ramble that should have been a part of a much longer story, it lacked enough introduction to the characters themselves, as people, to be a successful stand alone story and there just wasn't much of the sparklingly witty or ridiculous dialogue that I loved so much in Jericho. Or rather, I felt thrown into it and unable to enjoy it because I was scrambling to remember what the characters were like.

2. "Bottle Rocket"

"Bottle Rocket" is a snigger inducing story of the lesbian publishing industry that most lesfic authors, editors (the few that exist), publishers and reviewers will recognise far, far too well. From the low sales of a niche genre, to the stereotypical bodice ripper plots and covers (complete with a feature of Jericho, dismissed along with all the far more cliched books), to the so terribly true cry of 'where are all the editors?' anyone with a passing stake in the world of lesfic will recognise most of the cameos, themes and plot elements. It's a very contemporary story, liberally mixing real names such as After Ellen and Ellen Degeneres in with the many big and small name probably-fictional writers, commentators and reviewers. 
The premise of the plot will appeal to all in the publishing industry, not just lesfic people, and it is, essentially, what happens when a reviewer gives your book a negative review? We get to watch the drama explode from both sides, as first novelist Shawn reacts by publically calling out big name critic Kate Winston for her excessively harsh review of Shawn's popular best seller. The internet explodes in all the same predictable ways, from fans raging on the review to an influx of poor ratings on Amazon. A disaster for both sides, Shawn's publisher decides to ride the notoriety and have the two face off at a lesbian writing convention, where our two leading ladies predictably meet up before hand, are forced into close contact and end up debating and in bed, amongst the riot of rather terrifying stereotypes of the lesfic genre (with poor Kate ending up flat on her back across the erotic author table, served up quite mercilessly by an author spotting an unmissable opportunity for puns). 
As the convention gets increasingly out of hand, the relationship between the two leading women swerves out of the headlong collision path and into a newfound romance, complete with pet names and a need to hide their newfound mutual adoration club from everyone around them. We don't get a sex scene. We do get reams of delightfully caustic dialogue, and two highly literary people relishing the chance to unleash as many references to literary conventions on each other as possible. I think the trade off was worth it.
This was a fantastic parody and actually had me laughing out loud - the final dreadful pun about thirteen women was just the last straw and I had to stop and snicker for a while before reading the next story. Not found elsewhere, this story is definitely worth buying the book for. My only reservation is that it may be a little niche for some readers (although that is the very thing that makes it so brilliant).
Worth checking out: the fictional interviews with lesbian erotica author V. Jay-Jay Singh and other authors from the story. and Ann McMan's reading of the beginning of the story on YouTube.

3. "Falling From Grace"
Much more sober than "Bottle Rocket", this is mostly a standard story of a one night stand turned inevitable awkward as the two womens' paths cross afterwards. Grace is on a plane heading for a friend's celebration when Abbie sits down next to her and the two women hit it off with an instant urge to get the last word in, make dreadful puns, and (in Grace's case) self-deprecate. Probably in that order. The trademark wine shows up in the form of drinks from an air hostess, and then - of course - the two end up at the same party, in bed, and much later, in the same workplace. 
Like the first story in the collection, I feel that this one should have been a longer novel. Or should have been viciously cut off while it was still a short story, after the one night stand, before it started an awkward upward straggle into 'novella'. The writing is still lovely, but once you've passed into predictable and the intiial relationships have been established... well, one area this author both shines and falls down in is the establishing and development of fantastic characters and relationships over a long period of time. Still, it's a perfectly good story, just 'not as good' as her best work, so I may simply be suffering from unreasonably high expectations. The women were both touchingly real, vulnerable characters, and Abbie's possible bisexuality (she's a recent widow) is a nice angle. 
Note: while this story is found online, the book version has a fair bit of new content. 

4. "Nevermore"
A Christmas story, this was a fairly fun romp following the awkward courtship of Diz and Clarissa. It's made awkward by the fact that Diz doesn't realise that Clarissa is attainable (being betrothed to a fellow scion of a rich industry family), much less interested in Diz of the vodka and red suspenders and Rachel Maddow looks. The two women work together in the basement of a publishing company, but the glorious Clarissa is rich and perfect and only there until she moves up in her family business. Diz is there until she finishes her thesis (detective literature through the ages),a dn gets... well, hopefully gets some kind of job. The two attend the work Christmas party, where poor Diz' emotions are rollercoasted all over the place and she ends up stunningly drunk. Clarissa takes her home, looks after her - despite the drunken groping - and sticks around to bat her eyelashes at poor confused Diz the next day. The two are fairly steadily headed towards a confirmed romantic entanglement, but I'm afraid we're left hanging on an actual conclusion.
I had actually read this one online and enjoyed it. A second reading didn't hurt the story at all, though I am again frustrated at it cutting off when it did. Frustrated, but not overly critical, as there were plenty of hints as to what would happen next and - as I mentioned already - the relationship development over time thing is something best left for a proper novel, so cutting it off a clearly defined point was a good idea.

So in summary? 
A nice collection, and if you appreciate the author's writing style then you'll find a few nice surprises and more of the same. I don't think short stories are really her forte; the best one was also the longest and more of a novella. I do think that she should write more comedy!

You can buy Sidecar from Amazon in both Kindle eBook and paperback. You can read "Falling From Grace" (shorter version), "A Valentine's Day Oddysey" and "Nevermore" for free at her Academy of Bards page.

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  1. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and write such a thoughtful review of my story collection, SIDECAR. I know how many new books are constantly vying for attention, so I'm especially grateful for the nod.

    And, I have to confess (because admitting it is the first step), that I DO have verbal diarrhea. Or rather, my characters do. Once I get them talking, they never seem to stop. So if you genuinely enjoyed the collection's novella "Bottle Rocket," you'll probably be glad to know that I'm working on a full-length novel featuring all thirteen of the rather eclectic "Con" authors -- and their group foray into the exotic world of tournament bass fishing.

    I'm not kidding.

    I am gratified that you mentioned the Academy of Bards. I am proud to have many of my stories continue to be available there. If any of your followers are among the legion of readers who first read "Falling from Grace" online -- and who subsequently begged me to continue the story -- the published version includes a whopping chunk of brand new content.

    Once again, thanks for this review, and for the great service you provide to lesbian readers and writers everywhere.

    Very sincerely,

    Ann McMan

    1. Oh, you're very welcome! I'll admit that your publisher sent us this book, but I bought Dust all of my own accord and we'll be reviewing that at some point soon. Hopefully soon. And I'll be very interested in a sequel to "Bottle Rocket", if only to see how far you can stretch a comic commentary :D

      And I'm glad you don't mind the 'free' links, we always try and round up everything relevant for readers. I'll mention that "Falling From Grace" is different in the review.