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REVIEW: The Escort by Gina Robinson

REVIEW: The Escort by Gina Robinson

Dear Ms. Robinson,

It’s like there was a big neon sign on the blurb for this book that flashed “I wrote this just for Kelly.”

The Escort by Gina RobinsonYoung, beautiful Italian mail-order bride Angelina D’Alessandro is married by proxy to an older man she’s never met-her only chance to escape the poverty of Italy for the hope of a new life in America. But to join him in the wilderness of Idaho in 1899 she’s not allowed to travel alone. Now she’s torn between duty and desire as she fights her growing attraction to her handsome and enigmatic escort.

Mine owner and explosives expert Tonio Domani prefers to travel alone. In his line of work he can’t afford distractions. Against his better judgment he’s coerced into playing chaperone to a beautiful and tempting bride. The dangers he faces daily in his mine are real and the increasingly volatile powder keg of North Idaho’s mining country makes his return there even more dangerous. But what scares him most is the rising passion he feels for Angelina and the danger of losing his heart to her.

Or maybe it was subversive subliminal messaging. Either way, it worked, because The Escort scaled Mount TBR in record time.

Throughout the first half of the story, I was wallowing in the goodness: fantastic setting, compelling main characters and a bit of a twist on the mail-order bride trope. I was enjoying the ride, cruising along happily on the train ride west. But when Angelina and Tonio disembarked in Idaho, the story fell apart.

The good stuff first…. I am a sucker for immigrant stories, and both the hero and heroine have believable backstories that set up their prickly banter and relationship-building perfectly.

“You must have left Italy a long time ago. And my guess is that you’ve never been to the South. There are no men. The crop failures have sent them all away. Nearly all the able-bodied men have emigrated to find work. Or they’ve been killed in the wars. Southern women without dowries remain unmarried. And how can they get them when their fathers can’t work?”

“There is always the convent,” he said. “A wise and pristine choice.”

“Filled to capacity.”

Angelina’s transition from Sheltered Italian Virgin to a Confident American Woman in the early chapters was a highlight; I loved that she makes her choices deliberately. The freedom in America both frightens and thrills Angelina, and it’s fascinating to see her struggle with what kind of woman she wants to be. I had issues with some of those choices in the latter part of the story, but by that point, I had bought into her character enough to get annoyed. Which is a good thing. No, really.

The trope twist — Angelina is already married by proxy to a friend of her father’s — is a much-needed extra edge of conflict and angst. That impediment gives the relationship enough tension to prevent it from devolving into a predictable mail-order bride formula.

As a history geek, I’m all about the historical world-building, and the turn-of-the-century New York-to-Idaho journey was spot-on. Tonio and Angelina take advantage of the “Italian Immigrant Network” to make their way across the country, and their shared background and language provides a sense of intimacy even when they’re “chumming” with dozens of other passengers on the train.

And oh lordy, the Total Drama Moment, with rescue-by-explosion and the swoon-worthy aftermath:

He spoke. “I’m alive—”

She couldn’t hear the rest clearly. It muffled as he pressed his lips between her breasts. She thought he said, “For the first time in years.”

I was really looking forward to even more drama when the happy couple reached their destination in the mountainous mining communities of northern Idaho. Unfortunately, this is where the story started caving in on itself. [That was an attempt at a mining metaphor.]

Instead of relevant tidbits that advance the plot and build characters, we get info-dumping. A LOT of info-dumping. Long paragraphs and lengthy dialogues between rarely-seen secondary characters about the politics of violent unionizing. At the 85% mark, when the tension should be at the “omg holy sh*t” level, we get nearly four pages of post-strike details that add nothing to the story.

We also get several extended episodes of unnecessary and intrusive fashion porn, along with some random architectural detail (Hipped roof. Second story bay window above an inset porch. Gabled ells at front and side…) that I seriously doubt the daughter of an impoverished Italian peasant farmer would know.

And that segues into my biggest frustration with the downward slide of the second half.

Early in their journey, Angelina observes her first dice game as Tonio attempts to win enough money to upgrade to first-class accommodations. She instinctively calculates the odds of each throw, and winds up spiking the game by spotting and staring down the cheater sitting across the table. The next evening, she’s whispering betting instructions in Italian in Tonio’s ear. And I’m thinking, “oh, hell yes, I love this woman.”

But then…our strong and capable heroine steps off the train and suddenly becomes a simpering idiot.

“I’ll put on my Italian accent and smile just so. I’ll flirt but only in an innocent, friendly way. The men love that. We’ll sell all the more cookies.”

And later….

“She used her foreign accent on them to such effect that they were overwhelmed by her charm. After a few days, she suspected that they bought cookies almost more for her smiles and small flirtations than for her culinary talents. That fact didn’t bother her at all. She brought a small bit of sunshine to their day, she reasoned.”

I’m sorry, but – oh, BARF. It’s great that Angelina finds a way to use her experience as a cook to make her own way in a foreign land. But she decides, because she’s a “natural flirt,” to use her feminine wiles and her exoticness to tease the rough and dirty miners into buying her profiteroles (which are “…exactly like a woman’s bosom – soft, creamy and ever so inviting.”) Yes, she chooses that approach deliberately, but I really really really wanted to see more of her steel-trap brain and not her batting eyelashes.

And one final hissy fit: They let the bad guy go. They had him at gunpoint AND knifepoint, and instead of tying him up and clobbering him with a shovel, they LET HIM GO. And then they whined in the next chapter that he’s “on the loose.” Oy. Uff da. WTF.

At the risk of instigating yet another flail over self-publishing, I think The Escort is an example of both good and bad. It stood out above thousands of other historical romances, it kept me reading, the copyediting and ebook formatting were flawless, and I am definitely going to consider reading upcoming titles. However, it is in dire need of a hard-ass editor to (1) address the pacing and character arc problems, (2) kill clichés like “not a classic beauty” and purple prose like the fir tree that “emitted its life’s essence,” and (3) bring out the authorial “voice” that I sense is in there somewhere.

After dithering quite angstily over the letter grade, I settled on a C — I can’t really recommend this title, but going by the overuse of italics in this review, I obviously felt strongly about it.

~ Kelly

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REVIEW:  Reach For the Moon by Val Kovalin

REVIEW: Reach For the Moon by Val Kovalin

Christmas vacation 1984 is far from festive at the house of eighteen year-old Alejo Sandoval. His parents teeter on the verge of divorce. His final semester of high school looms ahead. He has just found out that his trickster cousin Martin has vanished, leaving no traces behind. And he keeps a secret that could destroy his place within his religious Hispanic world—he and his best friend Bobby Gallegos are lovers.

Independent and exasperating, Bobby is the love of his life. There is no one Alejo would rather have at his side when his mother and aunt send him on a road trip to unravel his cousin’s mysterious disappearance. But what starts as an excuse to get out of Albuquerque and enjoy a romantic road trip soon takes on serious overtones. Martin might have endangered his life by coming out as gay.

Their short fact-finding mission turns into a quest for Martin’s whereabouts through the secretive small towns of New Mexico. Stress and speculation have set Alejo’s eccentric relatives against each other, and Alejo and Bobby are about to walk into the crossfire.

Note: Reach For the Moon (a gay romance) is listed as a prequel to Fall Into the Sun, but only in the sense of having the same characters at a younger age. Think of Fall Into the Sun as what might have occurred on an alternate timeline. Meanwhile, Reach For the Moon is what really happened on the main timeline. The events of Reach For the Moon do not fit into the backstory of Fall Into the Sun, and can be read as a stand-alone novel.

Disclosure first – Val Kovalin and I have both reviewed for” Reviews by Jessewave.” We are not friends, but we had some off-list conversations about other books (not hers).

WARNING – THE BOOK CONTAINS TWO ATTEMPTED RAPES. IF IT IS TRIGGERING FOR YOU STAY AWAY.

Dear Val Kovalin,

As blurb tells you this book features the same characters as your book “Fall Into the Sun”, only on a different timeline. Now because the characters in “Fall Into the Sun” are good two decades older and different things happened to them I would argue that they are not quite the same Alejo and Bobby as in this book. If you asked me why the same guys are placed on the different timeline, I would tell I really have no idea. I wonder why the author did not come up with completely new characters for this book, but I am not an author, so all I can do is speculate.

Reach For the Moon by Val KovalinI have to admit that while I think that Kovalin is a very good writer, it took me several tries to proceed past first few chapters of the book. I had to put it down several times. The overall atmosphere of the book was just too suffocating for me and because the imagery that author was portraying with words was so vivid it was even worse.

I was glad I continued reading, though, because this book is so different (in a good way) from many others that I have read. You can see from the blurb that it is first and foremost a coming of age story for Bobby and Alejo, so if you read stories featuring main characters at this age you will know that it also often means them coming to terms with who they are, with their sexual identities, with their place in the world.
This is a familiar subject, but to me the execution was so original that I have no doubt that I will remember this one for a long time.

First of all the settings – both boys are Latino/Hispanic. While I did not grow up within that culture and cannot testify as to the authenticity, I can certainly testify as to the depth of the portrayal. Their cultural identities are a huge part of who they are, their family backgrounds, and how and why they do things, react to things. That does not mean of course that Bobby and Alejo have similar personalities; in fact, they could not be any more different, and I thought it was very well done. Alejo, for example, is a devoted Catholic, and he has no desire to part ways with his religion. At one point in the book he muses that if he is ever able to find a way to assert independence from his parents, he will not do it by abandoning his religion. I thought this was very refreshing, because there are gay people who are Christians (I know I am stating the obvious here). And despite being a devout Catholic, Alejo did not think that he and Bobby were going to hell for being together.

Bobby, by contrast, felt more like an Agnostic to me (although when he was in trouble he still asked for God’s help).

We can see from their actions how these two guys are so different and how their family lives have shaped their personalities. I may have raised an eyebrow about Bobby being able to read people so well at first, but then I thought about it and realized that yes, after growing up with the brothers like he had, he really may have developed the skill of reading them so fast in order to protect himself. Basically he needed to be able to predict what his bullying brothers will do to him next in order to stay safe.
Despite all their differences Alejo and Bobby love each other with such strength, with such overpowering depth that I was swept away. Be mindful, however, that these guys have been best friends since they were little and lovers since they were fourteen – if that makes you uncomfortable, then this book is probably not for you. I cannot say that I always buy “childhood deep friendship turning into love” in the books, but I had to remind myself that I come from a country where (at least when I left the country in the late 1990s to come live in the US) if you weren’t married in your early twenties you were pretty much considered an old maid. Plenty of people I know met their future husbands and wives when they were seventeen (my brother met his wife when they were sixteen-seventeen), so I have to remind myself that Bobby and Alejo figuring out what they want at eighteen does not have to be looked at as extraordinary.

“Joy flooded through Bobby as heavy, rich sunlight. Almost every happy memory he had involved Alejo, but this topped everything that went before. Never had he felt so intensely alive. Their surroundings had a larger-than-life clarity. The gas station, its colors faded from sun and sand-scoured by the wind. The cracked asphalt. The sun tipping below the edge of Socorro Peak. The sky streaked with deep violet shadow. Everything glittered like a holy revelation. Alejo loves me. He wants to spend his life with me. Bobby could not stop smiling and blinking back tears of happiness”.

Bobby and Alejo are worried and scared about how people around them will react to the news that they are together. The culture they grew up with was not depicted as being accepting of two men wanting to be together, and I did not like several of the secondary characters who reflected these negative attitudes. At the same time I want to give the author some kudos for portraying people, not caricatures and for not demonizing anybody in the book. Some people surprise the main characters by accepting the news relatively well, while other people react in predictably homophobic ways, but I was pleased that several people surprised them. And I cheered because it felt like overall the women in the story were more accepting of Boby and Alejo as a couple – at least as much as their upbringing would allow them. Nobody was jumping from joy, but I was still pleased. It was a very welcome difference from many stories I have read, believe me. For me it did not diminish the realism of the story at all (and there were men who took the news as well as they could have), but as I said, I have encountered the opposite so often that I was happy just for the fact that it was different

“She accepts us.” Alejo tried to keep his voice from wobbling. “She quoted the Gospel of Saint John. “This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you”

While I thought that trying to survive in the overall suffocating surroundings, trying to be honest about who they were and hoping that their loved ones would not abandon them was a plenty of struggle for these young men, I appreciated that Alejo was also trying to come to terms with the realization that he was bisexual. The author showed him thinking about what he would be giving up in terms of societal approval and how much Bobby’s love was worth to him. I thought it was beautifully handled and this quote pretty much summarized how he felt.

“How could he say he was attracted to Eugenia but more attracted to Bobby? That he wanted them both but Bobby owned his heart?”

Despite the heavy subjects the story tackles and despite a somewhat depressing atmosphere for a large part of it, the story did not feel that angsty to me. If you are willing to brave it, I can promise you that the surroundings feel very realistic, and the book offers in depth portrayal of the main characters and quite a few secondary characters as well. Overall this was a memorable reading experience.
Recommended.

Grade B.

~Sirius

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