Friday, June 25, 2004

Once upon a Dyke: New Exploits of Fairy Tale Lesbians

Barbara Johnson
Karin Kallmaker
Therese Szymanski
Julia Watts

Bella Books
1931513716, $12.95

Once upon a Dyke: New Exploits of Fairy Tale Lesbians is an amusing and arousing quartet of novellas from four well-known lesbian writers. Culturally speaking, fairy tales were created for several reasons; community identity, teaching morality, and of course, as entertainment. Thus it is fitting for a group of lesbian authors to reconsider fairy tales and ask in their introduction, "Why were the heroines always pretty, pure, passive little things who needed rescuing? .... What was so charming about Prince Charming anyway?"(viii)

Julia Watts pens an interesting retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in the rural South roughly 100 years ago. "La Belle Rose" questions the nature and quality of "otherness." Everyone sees Rosie as "normal" and yet this "pretty" young woman has always felt the different-ness of her internal self. Rosie escapes the expectations of others by joining a carnival show, and finds that her views of what is proper and normal resonate with the show's company more than with her family. When Rosie finds love with a "beast" many expect that it is only a temporary amusement because Rosie is "normal" and could return to the "normal world."

Watts challenges readers to look beyond the surface and our assumptions. "La Belle Rose" is a parable for many gender issues, including the ability for more traditionally "feminine" lesbians or bisexual women to "pass" in the "normal" world. She points out that these women who have a "choice" about their role and place in society suffer pressure from both the "normal" and "other" world. Rosie's solution to this quandary is a very touching one. For fans of Watts' novels, the tone of "La Belle Rose" is recognizably hers with its engaging characters, empathetic presentation of heartache, the rural southern setting, and the touching, unexpected, resolution.

Therese Szymanski takes her readers on a witty little romp in "A Butch in Fairy Tale Land." This trip through several fairy tales is a kind of "Queer Eye meets Quantum Leap." Cody is a sweet (but don't call her that), sexy, well-meaning, romantic butch who likes to rescue fair maidens, or meddle in the lives of friends, depending upon one's point of view. Thus, when she stumbles into an enchanted forest and runs into Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and a range of princesses, Cody finds she HAS to solve their problems. (This, despite the fact that the characters are rescued in the stories that come down to us.) The action grows erotic as Cody discovers Rapunzel in her tower, not to mention a totally new slant on Snow White and the seven ... dwarves. Cody's wry observations prompt several laughs. For example in this little bit when she evaluates her decision to kill the witch that Hansel and Gretel have met in the forest:

"The point I was struggling with was, what if this was a misunderstood good witch, a victim of patriarchal mistrust of feminine nature and oppression of old womyn and their unusual abodes? What if I chopped up a good Crone? How would I ever go [to the Michigan Music festival] topless and share tofu again? Well, now that I thought about it ... maybe the key was to just get it over quickly. Trust the fairy tale. Next time I was passing the talking stick around the bonfire, I just wouldn't mention this little episode." (820 Most contemporary fairy tale reinterpretations attempt to flesh out the stereotype or symbolic characters of the story. However, in this satirical survey of fairy tales, Cody is the opposite. She becomes "The Butch" a new queer fairy tale persona for the 21st century. Overall this characterization works as a way to keep the humors, as it were, flowing.

Barbara Johnson's "Charlotte of Hessen" is a sweet retelling of Cinderella with a sprinkle of "fairy dust." An orphaned Charlotte finds herself at the mercy of an unpleasant step-mother and two step-sisters. Charlotte takes solace in the animals of her woodland retreat and in Mina, a striking young woman sporting men's clothing. Mina's love makes her life worth living. Little does Charlotte know how true that will be! This charming story is after a fashion the most "traditional" retelling of the four. However, the erotic moments and amusing double lavender twist ending will please readers.

Karin Kallmaker's "A Fish Out of Water" turns "The Little Mermaid" on her tail and creates a "Mer" culture that is complex, magical, sensual and perhaps not as superior as it first appears. Ariel is the seventy-seventh daughter -- Not the most advantageous of birth order -- of the Queen of the Mer. When Ariel and some of her Mer friends go "hunting" for "human song" one night, Ariel accidentally breaks an edict from the queen and is punished for it. In a complicated twist, her sentence holds the possibility of a "cure" which is heavily laced with its own punishment.

Kallmaker reflects the original story's themes of love, redemption and self-sacrifice; poses questions about the nature of desire and obsession; and tweaks the reader's point of view in what is considered "perverted." As a tale about magic and fantastic beings, "Fish Out of Water" is more typical of her Laura Adams' fantasy novels than Kallmaker's contemporary romances. The story also carries Adam's lyrical writing voice with the Mer "song" imagery, dark mystic elements, and use of symbolism. This thoughtful, bittersweet story is a vast improvement over Andersen's original. Yes, it is definitely a fairy tale for this century.

Finally, Once upon a Dyke is a title in Bella Books, "Bella After Dark" imprint or as the editors say in their introduction, "Fairy Tales are about sex, and we're not shy."(viii) The sex gets steamy and sometimes may challenge readers. The novella formats make for a nice change of pace in reading. Once upon a Dyke is romantic, funny, thoughtful, and hot. Buy a copy and live happily ever after, for a while.
-MJ Lowe

Monday, June 14, 2004

Packing Mrs. Phipps: A Jo Jacuzzo Mystery

Anne Seale
Alyson Books
1555838375, $13.95

This first novel from Anne Seale introduces readers to a new lesbian mystery series. Jo Jacuzzo, a 27-year-old, shy, intelligent (if not the most educated), softhearted butch finds herself thrown into a series of unexpected, complicated, and even life-threatening events. Jo's first person narrative is often amusing and her view of the world has a sweet, almost childlike innocence that is charming without being saccharine. While touchingly neurotic and somewhat naive, Jo is also loyal and a bit stubborn with a definite moral core.
Until the last few weeks, Jo has worked as a homecare-nursing aide. However, an accusation and complaint from the family of one of her clients has resulted in unemployment for Jo.

Although she still lives with her mother and her mother's partner, Rose, Jo has been paying her part of the household expenses for years and her unemployment is a hardship for all. Soon her mother pushes Jo to accept a temporary job. That "errand" is to go to Tampa, Florida, and help pack up the snowbird mother of a friend for her summer return to Buffalo.

Of this mother-daughter talk, Jo comments, "I knew I was in for a deep discussion. [Mom]'d said, "So, Jo" when explaining what Kotex was for and before telling me that Daddy had left us, among other depressing things. (Having Daddy leave was depressing only because we didn't leave him first.)" (9)

The road trip begins safely enough. Jo stops to visit her Uncle Dom in Cincinnati to help him with some chores. She gets the low-down on him from the neighborhood kids including, "The best bit, however, was that he pushed an evangelist off his porch last year and had to do community service. That's my family, heathenish to a fault." (15)

When Jo's beloved Toyota truck has a break down in rural Georgia, she finds herself accepting a detour to Arizona to help the beautiful if enigmatic heiress, Charity Redmun, drive a motor home across country. The complications from here on are exponential.

Packing Mrs. Phipps is a very funny novel and Jo's observations are wonderfully droll at times. For example, this exchange with a woman who befriends Jo: "I guess people name their kids Faith and Hope, so why not [Charity]? Sonny and Cher even named their daughter Chastity. How'd you like to go though life with a name like that? What guy would want to have sex with a girl called Chastity?" [Jo's response] "I'm guessing that doesn't bother her too much." (184)

The mystery's plot has several unexpected twists, not the least of which is Jo deciding to go undercover to try to find a killer, and dressing as a high femme named "Sheridan" to infiltrate a right-wing militia group near the Mexican Border. Few things are quite as they appear to be in this suspenseful little tale. There are one or two incongruencies uncaught in the editing process -- like the change of a meeting time from afternoon to morning within three pages and without the implied change of that time. -- Nevertheless, Jo Jacuzzo is one of most charming reluctant detectives since Sarah Dreher's Stoner McTavish series. This entertaining and promising first novel will have this reader looking for Jo's future adventures.
-MJ Lowe