Sunday, April 21, 2002

Deaths of Jocasta

J.M. Redmann
Bella Books

The thirty years old, Barnard educated and underemployed, out lesbian, private investigator, Micky Knight has accepted a job overseeing security for a very exclusive and "festive" annual party hosted by Emma Auerbach. Of an old money New Orleans family, Emma has been a friend and mentor to Mickey for years. Sober and celibate for over six weeks, Micky is beginning to face the demons from which the liquor and sex allowed her to hide for over a decade. Although determined to remain sober, Micky does hope the weekend party brings an end to her loneliness, especially when the good doctor, Cordelia James arrives. Micky lost her heart to Cordelia months ago, during the events of Death by the Riverside. But Emma's annual gay-la ends abruptly when the body of a young woman is found in the woods on her estate and everyone returns to the city.

At loose ends back in New Orleans, Micky goes to the library to check out some Dorothy Sayers books. "Some of her Lord Peter Wimsey books, not so much for detective ideas, but for dating tips." About which Micky concludes, "via Lord Peter, the method for making a woman fall in love with an offbeat detective was to save her from the gallows by proving her innocent. Somehow that didn't seem to have much bearing on Cordelia and myself." (55). Of course, Lord Peter is right!

Life is complicated for Micky and company. More bodies show up near Cordelia's clinic. When they turn out to be young women who were patients at the clinic, the police see Cordelia as the prime suspect. Cordelia decides to hire Micky to investigate. Meanwhile an uncharacteristically restless, NOPD Detective Sgt., Joanne, increasingly angered by these events, is spending more time with Micky. Joanne senses Micky has similar ghosts in her past.

With the same tough, first-person voice of the first Micky Knight novel, Death by the Riverside, Redmann directs the fast paced action of Deaths of Jocasta. Micky tracks down leads connecting the pasts of several characters with the current events. And the truth turns out to involve a dangerous combination of extremists --who justify murder in the name of life-- and people who crave old-fashioned, hateful revenge. Will Micky be able to take Lord Peter's advice?

Redmann presents serious and painful issues without hiding the pain, becoming pedantic, or losing her sense of humor. Her characters are well rounded, interesting women who deal authentically with their problems. One of the most impressive examples of this is Redmann's handling of child sexual abuse. Accurate and realistic, the depictions of the abuse and its ramifications run a spectrum of forms, parental reactions, and consequences from Micky to Joanne to Cordelia. This thread actually evolves throughout the Micky Knight novels as Micky has the opportunity to grow and heal.

This re-release of Deaths of Jocasta by Bella Books is a must for mystery lovers and in this reader's opinion, the covers of Jocasta and Riverside are the best Bella has produced to date. Ten years have passed since Jocasta was originally published. It is pinned to the early 1990s by technology --the lack of cell phones and email via the world wide web-- and Joanne's early adolescence (and rest of the crowd's ages in relation to her) is set prior to the Roe v. Wade decision (1973). However, the issues of the novel are very relevant today and Redmann treats the women struggling to survive them with respect and dignity. Deaths of Jocasta does not answer all the mysteries hovering in Micky's background. For that, readers should look for The Intersection of Law and Desire and Lost Daughters, in order.

Take Micky Knight home with you and laissez les bons temp rouler!

-MJ Lowe

Monday, April 15, 2002

Love's Melody Lost

Shady Ladies Press

Divorced and in the process of redefining her life, Anna Reid, an early 30-something woman in a graduate program for Landscape Design, needs a place to live and, at least, a part time job. She finds both when she answers a classified ad for a housekeeper. She's surprised to find that she will be more of an administrative assistant to the enigmatic Graham Yardley.

The famed master pianist and composer, Graham has locked herself away at Yardley Manor for more than a decade, since a tragic accident took her sight. She bears her blindness as a kind of penance and uses it to keep anyone from coming too close. Graham is not prepared for the energy of life and love of nature that Anna brings to Yardley. Love's Melody Lost is the story of these two women on their path to love each other.

An old fashioned gothic romance of the kind written by the late Victoria Holt, Love's Melody Lost is almost so cliché as to be amusing. -- The beautiful, vibrant, young woman brings life to a fading, historic estate by the sea and sparks the possibility of salvation through love for the mysterious, reclusive, heartbroken estate owner. -- However, Radclyffe gives the cliché a new life. She depicts two interesting and well drawn female leads with unapologetically lesbian content. Her plot is fast paced with several touching moments. And the romantic encounters, when they finally occur are explicit and, to this reader, powerfully erotic.

Radclyffe uses sight and the lack thereof, in an interesting manner. Previously heterosexually experienced, Anna is aware of Graham's physical attractiveness from their first encounter. She describes the appearance of the tall, dark haired, musician with increasing detail as she falls in love with Graham. Yet, the reader is not given a description of Anna until Graham, in a very touching scene, asks the housekeeper, Helen what Anna looks like.

There are a few mildly annoying inconsistencies in the story. The setting's time frame and age for both lead characters seems to change. Anna's height also appears to fluctuate. Radclyffe glosses over Anna's coming out process as well as the question of Graham's being out professionally. And finally the angst is almost too much. "Pig-headed" is one of the nicest ways to describe Graham, exceptional talent notwithstanding. Having said this, Love's Melody Lost is a charming gothic lavender romance.

Other readers have compared this novel to those of the wonderful romance writer, Karin Kallmaker. This reader feels a comparison to Chris Anne Wolfe's romantic fantasies is more accurate. Or perhaps, specifically, it is more like early Kallmaker novels. Love's Melody Lost provides more than enough promise for this reader to look for other Radclyffe titles and will be curious to see how Radclyffe continues to develop her craft.

-MJ Lowe

BN: Love's Melody Lost was re-released by Bold Strokes Books in 2004, ISBN 978-1933110004, $14.95

Friday, April 12, 2002

Slay Me Tender: a mystery

Jenny Scholten
New Victoria Publishers
1892281155, $ 11.95

Twenty five years old, Aubrey is worried about how much longer she can work as an exotic dancer. Her knees are aching and her breasts are sagging. Actually, Aubrey claims they've always sagged. Nevertheless, this awareness of the vulnerability of her likelihood to her physique and the extreme measures other dancers go to, particularly in regard to breast enhancements, are central themes to Slay Me Tender. The novel opens with Naughtylands weekly feature dancer (usually porn stars from out of town), Plushious Velvett, complaining to Aubrey about the hardening the stars very large breast implants. When Plushious disappears, leaving part of her wardrobe and fails to appear at her next scheduled club, Aubrey's natural curiosity gets peaked. Then she finds a gun, dark poems written by Plushious and what appears to be a bloody breast implant in the building where Plushious was staying, Aubrey can't help but start looking into the disappearance.

Scholten portrays the colorful and seamy aspects of the housing shortage in San Francisco and the gentrification of the infamous Tenderloin district with amusing detail. Her strengths are her characters and sense of humor, particularly irony. Aubrey shares a flat with four other people. Its a wonderful, motley group. There's Vivian who is working on her thesis and exploring non-monogamy much to the strain of her relationship with the quiet Zan. There's the beautiful and vibrant artist, Geoffrey who is "tri-sexual" (as in he'll try anything sexual) as well as his current, and frequently present, boyfriend, Gregor-with-the-red-Renault-convertible. And finally, there is shy, neurotic and modest Hugh. With his photographic memory Hugh provides most of the roommates with some fashion accessories from thrift store where he works and looks after everyone including Aubrey's cat, Hodge. Added to Aubrey's regular roommates are the feature dancers who are temporarily staying at Aubrey's place (along with their manager or body guard or girlfriend, etc.). These are just a few of the amusing, yet realistic and compassionately drawn characters in Slay Me Tender.

A fiercely independent young woman of Southern white trash ancestry, Aubrey continues to be ambivalent about her job. She defends the choice of employment. "With what other job could a history major without computer skills make three hundred dollars a day?" (26) When a roommate makes disparaging comments about "those women," she points out that she is a worker in the sex industry. Yet Aubrey is realistic about the potential problems of the job. She worries about how long much longer her body will be "profitable" as a dancer, and the possible dangers of overly friendly customers. She carefully avoids being in debt to the older police officer who is a regular at Naughtyland. Yet she is a constant witness to the victims of the industry's "victimless crimes."

At one point, Aubrey is surprised at her own stereotyping of customers' wives. She realizes that her assumptions are a "buying into the systems" view of these women. Aubreys willingness to self examine, makes her character more attractive. Scholten's sardonic humor takes the bitter edge off the futility of the situation for the residents and workers of the Tenderloin. Despite a range of offers, Aubrey, ironically continues her life of celibacy, futher disrupting those annoying stereotypes of exotic dancers.

This second Aubrey Lyle mystery is better than the first, Day Stripper. The plot flows more smoothly. Scholten creates an interesting hybrid mystery. Her characters and plots have a very traditional amateur sleuth mystery quality. However, her focus on the sex industry and related organized crime are subject matter that is far more typical of "hard boiled" noir detective mysteries. She even manages to incorporate an almost slapstick car chase scene. This combination works for Scholten and makes for often amusing and occasionally provocative reading. I will be looking forward to further developments in Aubrey's world.

-MJ Lowe
BN: New Vic titles are currently available via