Friday, June 4, 2010

Review: Only the Lonely

Only the Lonely by Susan Gabriel

Black Velvet Seductions, 2010

In my humble opinion, the literary landscape these days features far too many vampires. It's not that I don't appreciate a skillfully crafted blood-drinker. I'm just frustrated by both the lack of originality and the lack of depth that I see in most vampire-themed romance and erotica.

Susan Gabriel's Only the Lonely caught my attention when the author posted a chapter on her blog. That first chapter was dark as espresso and smooth as jazz. It really drew me in.

Summer Solstice makes her living as the witty, sympathetic and seductive host of the late night radio talk show “Only the Lonely”. Monday through Friday nights she invites all the sad and solitary folk in the city to call and share their stories. Summer's good at her job, partially because she understands what it's like to be alone. She has no family and few friends other than her tattooed and pierced sound engineer Melody. In her thirty years, she has taken lovers, but she has never been in love.

Summer is a Perceiver, a mortal with the ability to recognize the vampires who walk among the human population. One night she receives two disturbing calls: one from a fellow Perceiver, distraught at the notion that he is going insane, the other from an eloquent, refined man who claims to have been alone for three centuries. The latter turns out to be Lucien du Charmont, one of the oldest and most powerful vampires in St. Louis. Lucien triggers feelings and emotions that Summer has never experienced. A complex mix of curiosity, lust and love pull her ever deeper into Lucien's world. Then Summer's listeners start to turn up murdered, wearing “Only the Lonely” tee shirts, and Summer is forced to face the distinct possibility that the charming and arousing Lucien might be responsible.

There were many things I liked about Only the Lonely. Summer is distinctive, appealing and believable. From her sharp tongue to her chain smoking, she feels real. Her initial reactions to Lucien are far more nuanced than is typical in vampire erotic romance. The mortal and the vampire are drawn together by their common loneliness. It's not a simple case of irresistible vamp allure. Summer's intelligence and skepticism are a welcome change from the typical vampire romance heroine, who is bamboozled by preternatural lust and surrenders without a struggle.

The sexual alchemy that occurs when Lucien and Summer connect took my breath away, at least in the first half of the book. I particularly admired Ms. Gabriel's decision to postpone their first sexual encounter despite their mutual attraction. Lucien wants more than just a human who has succumbed to a vampire's sexual glamor. He longs for someone who will know him and understand him as an individual. He senses that Summer may be more capable than the typical mortal of comprehending his desperation and guilt. The deliberately aborted sex scene deepens the characterization as well as building the sexual tension. The scene in the two characters do finally have sex (in a thunderstorm, under a bridge over the Mississippi) feels more intense and extreme as a result.

Speaking of the Mississippi, I liked Ms. Gabriel's attention to her setting. I don't know St. Louis, but she brings the city to life: the brick industrial alleys, the touristy waterfront, the elegant nineteenth century mansions of Lafayette Square. As I've noted in previous posts, I tend to use place to accentuate mood in my own fiction. Ms. Gabriel does the same. Summer belongs to the city; both its bright and dark aspects reflect her character.

The writing is generally competent and occasionally inspired, though Ms. Gabriel has a tendency to concoct extravagant similes that sometimes get out of hand.

I have two main complaints about the book.

First, although the general tone of the novel is dark, taut and serious, several scenes struck discordant notes, most notably a playful sex scene involving butter, honey and strawberries. The actions and emotions in this scene seemed totally inappropriate to the characters as previously drawn. In another troublesome scene, Summer visits a vampire nightclub looking for clues about the murders. She uses sexual innuendo to captivate a group of younger vampires (“The Vicious Ones”) who have previously threatened her. Although entertaining when considered on its own, this felt like a scene from a totally different book. It undermined Ms. Gabriel's earlier efforts to paint vampires as mysterious and potentially dangerous.

The final chapters of the book recapture the moody edginess of the initial chapters, but the scenes mentioned above as well as few less egregious instances seriously detract from the unity of the novel.

My second complaint regards the editing. The further I got into the book, the more misspellings, grammar errors and formatting problems I found. In one case, the word “viscous” had been rendered as “Vicious” (as in the name of the vampire gang). Lines broke in the middle of sentences to begin new indented paragraphs—not just once, but several times on a page. Summer's name appeared in lower case. Perhaps I'm just being picky but this sort of sloppiness detracts both from my enjoyment of a book and my opinions of the publisher. Ms. Gabriel is a talented writer; I hope that she'll submit to another publisher that will do her work justice.

All in all, though, I enjoyed Only the Lonely. If you're looking for vampire romance that's a cut above the usual fare, I recommend it.

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