It's 1851. The Donation Land Claim Act grants white male citizens 320 acres of land in the Oregon Territory—if they can reach it. Before Luke Hamilton leaves from Independence, Missouri, he decides to marry. Enter Nora Macauley, hooker with a heart of gold. Why is Luke marrying a prostitute he just met? Well, Luke was born Lucinda and hopes that having a wife, plus the potency implied by Nora's young child, will prevent discovery on the way to Oregon.
Luke's passing as a man is handled with more realism here than in the other living-as-a-man novel I read recently, Words Heard in Silence by T. Novan and Taylor Rickard. Also, the trials of the Oregon Trail are pleasantly nostalgic for those who played a certain educational computer game. But what I appreciate most is that the romance is built slowly. The conclusion (true love!) is foregone; the pleasure is in the journey. Jae takes her time developing Luke and Nora, and I came to enjoy them, both separately and as a couple, so much that I want to read the sequel, Hidden Truths. Three-and-a-half out of five axles.
"God. What the hell was she thinking? This woman was so out of her league. She needed to stick with the Liz Burkes of the world—women who gave as good as they got, and never looked much beyond the landscape of their own libidos. They were her ilk. Not Julia. Julia was something else. Julia was like a stray truffle, stuck in a steaming pile of shit beneath one of those Kennett Square mushroom tents. She didn't fit." – Ann McMan, Dust
That simile is courtesy of our protagonist, Evan Reed. When Dust opens, Evan agrees to vet a young senator who has ambitions of running for president. Of course, Evan falls deeply in lust with the senator's estranged wife, Julia, and of course the senator is hiding a secret that could scuttle his presidential campaign before it begins. With its swirl of conspiracies and cynicism, Dust could almost be a neo-noir. As with The Big Sleep, the motivations—even the actions—of the shadowy players are unclear; unlike that film, there's no style to compensate for the lack of substance. Also working against the novel's aspirations as a hardboiled thriller is the romance between Evan and Julia, which progresses to undying love in about forty-eight hours, without their—or, sadly, the reader's—knowing why. Caveats aside, this novel is not bad, precisely: a decent three out of five dossiers.