Thursday, October 7, 2004

Dreams Found

Lyn Denison
Bella Books
1931513589, $12.95

"Wait on." Cathy held up her hand. "Maggie Easton and Jayne Easton?" She slapped the side of her head and her graying curls bounced. "Jayne's Maggie's daughter and your sister?"

"Ah, no. Jayne's Maggie's husband's daughter from his previous marriage," Riley explained.

"You mean your boss is your mother's stepdaughter?" Lisa laughed. "That makes you stepsisters."

"I think the butler did it," Brenna said dryly and they all laughed. (81)

In Dreams Found, the latest romance from Lyn Denison, an out lesbian and skilled carpenter, Riley has known she was adopted for years. However, Riley recently has taken steps to locate her birth parents. She finds Maggie living in Brisbane with a husband and three stepchildren. Imagine Riley's surprise when she also finds herself attracted to Jayne, a woman who, while not blood related, is her stepsister! The required misunderstandings abound, particularly in regard to secrets. Kept secrets are justified because Maggie wants to tell her husband first about Riley before her stepchildren learn of her. With the convolutions and secrets, the plot could have been for a bit more humorously treated without losing its serious quality. Instead Denison goes for the angst in a way that is not particularly engaging to this reader.

Dreams Found is one of Denison's shortest works and in this reader's mind something is missing. Perhaps it's the way the author deals with family issues. This is a primary issue to the story. Riley is depicted as a woman for whom family is an important support system. It is perhaps for this reason that she decides to reach out to her birth parents. The two negative, if not just dislikable characters in the book, Darren, Jayne's business partner and apparent love interest, as well as Lisa, a lesbian who is attracted to Riley, both belittle family relations. Darren could almost be tossed off as the self-centered, thoughtless male whose disrespectful treatment pushes Jayne to reevaluate her life. (Darren's stereotypically negative male qualities are acceptable in that several other male characters, family members and friends are depicted as caring, intelligent humans.)

However, the author seems to skim over the fact that neither character seems to have enjoyed the family support that Riley or Jayne do. This is particularly troubling of Lisa. Of her family, we're told that her "parents had been through a messy divorce, and Lisa and her three siblings had spent their childhood years swinging between an alcoholic father and his latest partner and their manic-depressive mother. Lisa left home as soon as she was able and she'd never gone back. She hadn't seen either of her parents for years and was happy to maintain that particular status quo." (9) The portrayal of Lisa's inability to bond with family is seen as a serious character flaw for the unsympathetically portrayed Lisa, but with a family like Lisa's, who can blame her?

Lisa's family of origin is almost implied as an excuse for some of her behavior: that of being tactless, blunt to the point of pushiness, and unwilling to accept Riley's declination that their casual relationship be explored in a more serious way. We're told, "Riley's sense of family had been a source of tension between them on a couple of occasions. Lisa couldn't or wouldn't recognize Riley's closeness to her family, the respect and love she had for her parents and older brother." (9)

This simplistic portrayal is particularly annoying when in reality many lesbians, gays and bisexuals have found their families of origin unsupportive in the face of their queerness and have as a consequence worked hard to develop support systems that are based on the love and respect of friends, i.e. "families of choice." A point that is itself personified when Riley hesitates for weeks to tell her newly found birth mother that she is a lesbian. This somehow suggests it is more difficult for Riley to risk Maggie's rejection because family is important to her. Further that Lisa, who did not enjoy that kind of relationship with her family, had it easy and shouldn't be so brusque about the importance of family to Riley. Lisa's point of view does not excuse her rudeness. However, it is Riley's inability to "get" Lisa's issues with family that made Riley, not Lisa, the one needing to work on her compassion. It is possible that Denison did not intend for this presentation. Indeed, given her other works, it is even likely that she did not. However, the impression left a bad taste with this reader.

Lesbian romances are not merely the idealized tales of love that heterosexual romances can be. Lesbian romances hold a much more complex role. They serve as a validating mirror for lesbians and our community. Hot sex is rarely enough for a lesbian romance to be a success. It can be, as it is in classics like Forrest's Curious Wine. While the erotic moments in Dreams Found will hold most reader's attention, they are not enough to be the primary focus. Denison has put the definition of "family" on the table for this novel and since she has only validated families of origin, those readers who have created families of choice may feel left out in the cold.

Dreams Found is a pleasant enough, albeit brief, read for a slow evening. However, overall the novel is predictable, and not particularly interesting, nor funny. Dreams Found does not hold up to the quality of Denison's earlier novels. Hopefully, this is not a trend. In the meantime, Dream Lover, The Wild One, and Gold Fever are all better reading in this reviewer's opinion.

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Caught in the Net

Jessica Thomas
Bella Books
1931513546, $12.95

A new dyke detective for the armchair mystery fan has arrived! Caught in the Net is a first novel from Jessica Thomas and introduces Alex Peres. Alex is a thirty-something dyke who lives (and grew up) in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Arguably, one of the country's most famous resort towns for gays and lesbians, Provincetown is "that strange and beautiful place, where the men are pretty and the women are tough." (1) With its seasonal population tide of tourists Provincetown plays as much of a role in Caught in the Net as many of the characters and Thomas brings the town's New England quirkiness and its queer color to life for her readers.

A thoughtful, self-sufficient, and independent woman, Alex Peres is a wry observer of nature (human and otherwise) who uses that skill to support herself. On the creative side her perceptive eye is expressed by her photography. She creates artistic impressions of the Cape and Provincetown area that are sold at local galleries. Alex's more analytical observation skills go into her work as a private detective. A job, which she explains, is filled with interesting but sometimes tedious work like following a wayward husband.

Fargo, the detective's 90-pound, black lab is as much a star of Caught in the Net as Alex. The details of Alex and Fargo's relationship will bring smiles, chuckles, tail wags, and warm fuzzy feelings, especially to readers with a canine love. Indeed Fargo's companionship is primary to Alex who has had rather bad luck in the love department.

That bad luck has held until a new woman appears in town. Janet Meacham, a beautiful, intelligent, young woman has moved to P'town to start a new chapter in her life. Alex finds herself quite taken with Janet and the attraction appears to be mutual. Alex thinks that this is a relationship that could build in a more positive direction.

Meanwhile the severed human foot that Alex, or rather Fargo, found on the beach during a daily walk is the foundation (as it were) of a series of crimes in the area. Alex's brother, a local cop is looking for a young man who may have known the owner of the foot.

This first novel from Thomas is filled with witty insights regarding human foibles with Alex personifying several endearing qualities. Of herself, Alex claims, "Frankly, I am not a great admirer of children as a species -- the younger ones smell funny and the older ones look as if they know something you don't-- but even I didn't want two young kids stumbling on this piece of flotsam or jetsam or whatever you called a lost/discarded body part". (10) Or regarding her personal habits, "I sat behind the wheel and took a pack of cigarettes off the dashboard and lit one of the five I allow myself each day. I allow myself five. The other eight or ten I smoke are not allowed." (11)

Although an engaging character, Alex does not quite ring true as a typical Gen-Xer, which might annoy some readers. The mystery is a little thin with a plot that is probably predictable for most fans of the genre and a tad irritating in that Alex did not seem to see it coming. However, the lovely writing, quirky characters, charming setting, and wry observations provide a great deal of promise for future Alex Peres mysteries. Many readers will find themselves caught in this net for pleasant evening's reading.