Monday, October 31, 2011

Jericho by Ann McMan

Book:  Jericho
Author:  Ann McMan
Publisher:  Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company

At the risk of sounding like a bad karaoke version of John Mellencamp, I was born in a small town. Because of that, I have a special place in my squishy twitchy little dyke heart for small towns and the people that live there.  

Don't get me wrong, as a card-carrying lesbian; I'll be the first to admit that wide-open spaces almost always give way to narrow minds.

The Public Square
circa 1940

Even in the 21st Century, popular images of small town America are based on stereotypes of rural farming villages. And, whether correct or not, stereotypes exist because of convention, formula, and common conception. The stereotypical small town has been defined by the well-known and familiar written and cinematic forms of Mayberry [The Andy Griffith Show], Bedford Falls [It’s a Wonderful Life/The Greatest Gift], and Maycomb [To Kill a Mockingbird]. 

Sometimes, however, stereotypes hit the mark - just replace the horse and buggy from the photo above with a Ford F-150 pickup truck, and this small town today looks just like it did back in the 1940s.

Still, every place has something that defines it.  New York City has the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street, Broadway, and Ground Zero.  Chicago has the Sears Tower, Wrigley Field, the Billy Goat Tavern, and the El.  Seattle has Pike Place Market, Queen Anne Boulevard, REI, and the Space Needle.  Carlsbad, NM has the Project Gnome, it's expansive caverns, and it's own natty underground transuranic waste disposal site. Even stereotypical small towns have things that define them.  In mine, it is the Moravian church, the water tower, the "Y", the flat-roofed grade school, and the bricks of the old up-town.

It looks a little bit like the drawing above . . . only with more earth tones . . . and tractors . . . lots and lots of tractors. Oh, and pie.

Jericho is the feisty debut novel by author Ann McMan. Librarian Syd Murphy’s life has hit a series of speed bumps, and she takes an eighteen-month position establishing a new library in the small mountain town of Jericho, Virginia. The spunky, petite blonde’s plan makes sense, a new town, a new job, and a whole lot of time to figure out her future. Before she ever sets foot in Jericho, though, the tall, dark-haired, and valiant Maddie Stevenson and her trusty steed, Pete the Golden Retriever, rescue her.

Maddie is an enigma to Syd and most of the residents of Jerico. Educated at Stanford, med school at Penn, and former Assistant ER Chief at Penn Presbyterian, she is one of the locals, but an outsider as well. Maddie spent a large portion of her youth in Jericho, and returned to take over her father’s medical practice after his sudden death two years earlier. Outside of her close friends, David and Michael, Maddie focuses on work and keeps mostly to herself.

However, Syd is a force to be reckoned with – she is sweet, kind, beautiful, smart, irresistible, and has a wicked sense of humor that keeps Maddie on her toes. The two women form a fast friendship, but almost immediately begin to secretly struggle with their mutual attraction. And, if that’s not enough, Syd is straight and going through a divorce, and Maddie somehow forgets to mention her sexuality to her new best friend. Almost everyone who sees these two women together believes it’s only a matter of time until they figure it out. However, even in a bucolic setting like Jericho, things can lurch wildly out of control before you realize anything is happening.

Who among us has not spent many an hour wandering happily through The Royal Academy of Bards?  Well, truth be told, probably a few of us have missed out, but not many.  I know that early on in my Lesfic reading career it was a constant source of stories, inspiration, and information on up and coming authors, as well as established authors that I couldn't find in print.  So, it goes without saying that I was intrigued and a bit giddy to learn that Ann McMan's Jericho was 2011's number one vote getter for The Royal Academy of Bards Hall of Fame.

As a friend from graduate school once said, "Them's some pretty big shoes to fill." She also said, "Them's not spats, them's my thigh highs", but I rarely get a chance to use that wonderfully rich little one-liner.

Jericho is not a quick little love story, it's a fully-involved romance novel clocking in at over 400 well-written, well-conceived pages. From it's opening paragraph, the reader is greeted with rich detail, flowing internal dialogue, witty humor, jagged verbal jousting, and a joyous intellectual tete-a-tete.

The story is based on the simple and familiar premise of straight girl meets gay girl, and after an angsty battle of push and pull, realizes she's not really straight after all. What makes Jericho stand apart from the rest of the pack is the depth of Ms. McMan's main characters, the full flight of supporting characters, and the fresh set of twists and turns along the way.

I'll readily admit that I'm always a bit leery of "love at first sight", and I'm pretty sure that Syd and Maddie didn't fall in love over the flat tire. However, the quirky thing is that my brain wanted them together, even before the natural blonde in the front seat was introduced. The more I think about it, as the reader, my observations and inclinations were very much in synch with the friends, family, and town folks that witnessed Syd and Maddie together. I love how the author is able to illicit that response in me.

I find it refreshing to see two women who have an immediate attraction take their time to pursue friendship, figure out what it is they are really feeling, war with themselves over what they want verses what is the right thing to do, and eventually have the guts to put everything they hold sacred on the line to win the girl. There was a huge risk that the story could have veered off into the land of buttercream icing and chocolate sprinkles, but it didn't. I appreciate the author's vision and patience with the relationship between these two main characters, and its supporting role within the story as a whole.

There are several wonderful and dynamic supporting characters within Jericho. The fabulous David and Michael are wonderful gays that are both stereotypical and unique. I love that both men play significant roles in the lives of Maddie and Syd, but have lives and minds of their own. Roma Jean is both a Godsend and comic relief. Syd's parents offer support, wisdom, and humor, and her brother wouldn't turn down the opportunity to be a rival for Maddie's affections. Lizzy Mayes adds a delightful little nugget of jealousy into the mix. Celine adds edge and unexpected depth in the end. Pete is handsome, goofy, and loyal to a fault. And, lastly, Jericho itself is a wonderful character through its townspeople, architecture, beautiful mountain vistas, and hidden secrets.

If you are a traditionalist and love a good, old-fashioned lesbian romantic swoon, then Jericho is a must have for your collection. The characters are memorable, the dialogue is fresh and feisty, and the plot is somehow both familiar and all brand spanking new. Ms. McMan throws in snappy shout outs to literature, classical music, local wines, and even small engine repair. There's a beautiful love story, joyous friendships, high drama, a doped-up bad guy, barbecue, and a little old lady with a squirrel gun.

In other words, a little somethin' somethin' for every taste.

Ann McMan's Jericho enchanted me from the opening page until I sat the book down wondering when I'd get the opportunity to read it again. This author and her story are not to be missed if you love a good romance with memorable characters and smart dialogue. I'm giving it a high and tight 5.1 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale, and letting it be known right now that I am anxiously tapping my foot, barely maintaining my composure, as I wait to see what Ms. McMan can come up with for an encore.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Door at the Top of the Stairs by Alison Holt

Book:  The Door at the Top of the Stairs
Author:  Alison Holt
Publisher:, Inc.

“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” 
-- Stephen Biko        

Let’s spend a few minutes discussing the terrible little topic of “torture”, which, not so surprisingly, comes from the Latin torquere, to twist.  When you think of it like that, it doesn’t sound quite so bad.  However, if you consider it as an ideophone, you start to pick up on its dark, insidious, evil nature. 

Torture has been the go-to weapon for physical and psychological punishment and duress as long as mankind has walked the earth.  It’s also been long abused as a tool for sick and sadistic gratification.  Nation states, religious institutions, organized crime, law enforcement, paramilitary organizations, serial killers, kidnappers, and the truly demented have used it for re-education, coercion, punishment, intimidation, sexual indulgence and pure barbarism. 

On rare occasions, seemingly normal people have been pushed too far, had too many switches flipped, or been inundated with unwanted improvements to Facebook, and have inexplicably taken to torture with gusto and relish.

Literature and film have been exploring various aspects of torture and the nature of the torturer and tortured for centuries.  Consider this impressive list and the depravity within it:

  • Room 101 and Winston’s torture by O’Brien and the intellectuals of The Party in the Ministry of Love in Orwell’s 1984
  • Regan and the Duke of Cornwall’s gruesome torture of the Earl of Gloucester at the end of Act III of Shakespeare’s King Lear
  • Nurse Ratched using electro-shock and lobotomy on McMurphy in Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • Patrick Bateman's horrifying decompensation in Ellis’ American Psycho
  • Jack Merridew Lord’s torture of Sam and Eric in Golding’s Lord of the Flies
  • The sinners being tortured in the Nine Circles of Hell in Dante's Inferno
  • Asami’s torture of Aoyama and his dog in Audition by Ruy Murakami
  • The prisoner’s torture by the Spanish Inquisition in Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum
  • The numerous and brutal instances of torture in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians 

I’m sure if you ask any survivor of torture to discuss the various forms of torment inflicted upon them, they would lump it all into one big category - probably called something pithy like “It Sucks”. 

However the “experts” generally lump the events [now there's a clinical term for you] into several broad categories: (1) sexual torture; (2) physical torture; (3) psychological manipulations, such as threats of rape or witnessing the torture of others; (4) humiliating treatment, including mockery and verbal abuse; (5) exposure to forced stress positions, such as bondage or other restrictions of movement; (6) loud music, cold showers and other sensory discomforts; and (7) deprivation of food, water or other basic needs.

The Door at the Top of the Stairs is the 2010 debut from up and coming author, Alison Holt. 

Morgan Davis is a farmer, horse and dog trainer, and Master of the Myrina Hunt Club. She’s used to doing things her way, especially on her farm. Against her better judgment, she hires the ill-tempered and insolent Jesse Shaunessy to work her horses. After several near disastrous run-ins, Morgan and her partner, the lovely Dr. Ryland Caldwell, a retired psychologist, begin to realize that Jesse has a past that is hidden deep inside her subconscious.  

Working closely with the often-times unwilling Jesse, Ryland and Morgan learn that the young woman was an undercover narcotics officer that had been kidnapped and brutally tortured, then dismissed as an officer because she was too emotionally damaged to function professionally.  The thing is, Jesse has no memory of the events that happened to her, but day-by-day seemingly random events chink away at her carefully constructed emotional walls.  

Morgan and Jesse have a troubled relationship, but Ryland realizes that the younger woman sees Morgan as a strong, centering force.  Together, Ryland and Morgan begin to slowly work with Jesse to return her to the torture room, address each of the events that happened there, and take away their power, one at a time.  Jesse isn’t always willing, the older women often feel overwhelmed, and a handful of mean-spirited locals try to teach any number of lessons to the damaged young woman.  But, Morgan and Ryland are in it for keeps – they know that once they took the top off the bottle that is Jesse, there is only success or failure.  And, for Jesse, failure will mean the end.

When I first picked up this book last fall, I really wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into.  From the blurb on Amazon, it sounded a bit like a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma on top of a bed of tough and chewy lesbians.  While that vibe wasn’t too far from the truth, it only captures part of what makes The Door at the Top of the Stairs fresh, powerful, and defiant.

For my money, strong, balanced, multi-dimensional characters are key to any successful story.  If you think carefully, few good books in the “by/for/about” Lesfic genre have more than two truly main characters.  This is usually a product of character detailing and plot complexity.

I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, just that it happens that way more often than not.

If I were forced to eeny, meeny, miny, moe only two main characters in The Door at the Top of the Stairs, I’d be inclined to point at Morgan, the tough and chewy farmer with a leather whip, and Jesse the tough and chewy horse wrangler with a twitch.  These two women have striking similarities and glaring differences, but as a reader, their interactions and the battles of will are moments of true character artistry. 

However, Ryland is beautifully intellectual, emotionally present, and aware of her limitations – she also steps up as a major character.  There is magnificence in her softer approach and loving relationship with Morgan that makes each woman stronger.  Similarly, there is a layered intricacy to her relationship with Jesse that goes beyond doctor/patient.  And, while so much of the story is focused on the “sessions” the three women endure on an almost daily basis, the richest parts of the story and the characters are centered on the day-to-day conversations among and between Morgan, Ryland, and Jesse.

As a reader and reviewer, plausibility of the plot and its content are non-negotiable requirements.    There’s often a bit of wiggle room in stories – this tricky little tool is called artistic license. 

Some stories lend themselves to it and some veer off into the land of Are You Kidding Me! 

In a complex and disturbing story like The Door at the Top of the Stairs, it would be easy for the author to find the most troubling, sadistic, and grotesque elements of human nature and thrust each and every one of them into the story for maximum soul-sucking dramatic effect.  The thing is, these elements are all naturally occurring in this story and aren’t given embellishment - that is a testament to Ms. Holt’s vision as a storyteller, patience as a writer, and filter as an author.

Ultimately, the story is tight and each of the elements has a realistic edge.  I believe the love/hate relationship between Morgan and Jesse, the homophobic dog handler with a sad excuse for an enabling mother, Pete’s betrayal, the lusty socialite, the sadism, the fear, the anger, and the last second Hail Mary for redemption.

A few months ago I contacted Alison Holt to let her know that I write The Rainbow Reader blog, and told her that I’d like to do a review on her next book whenever that might be.  We had an interesting little conversation related to the fact that she doesn’t write “lesbian books” just books that have lesbians in them.  While not all readers will agree with my position, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter because this story still fits the "by/for/about" criteria. Regardless of the label, I believe she’s one of the best writers emerging onto the overall literary scene, and I love that she has the guts and grit to write the stories she has to tell.

If you’re looking for a classic Lesfic romance or mystery, you’re not going to find it in The Door at the Top of the Stairs.  What you will find is a fresh approach, great characters, strong plots, a slip of humor, and one of the most beautiful writing styles in the game.

The Door at the Top of the Stairs was great when I read it last year, and it was even better the second time through.  It’s artistic, edgy, and will haunt you for weeks to come.  I’m giving this powerhouse story a 5.3 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Short Stories by Diemer & West

One of the joys of blogging is that you get to make up the rules. 

 . . . and go nanny nanny boo-boo to yourself, every now and then.

I write book reviews - I read a book, make notes, sit around staring at a wall for a while, then end up with something that eventually becomes a post on The Rainbow Reader.

It’s scientifically unscientific, kind of like making pudding, only with words and no whip cream.

Back in August, the lovely and talented Sarah Diemer of The Dark Wife fame asked if I’d crack open my rulebook to review a short story of hers.  I kind of wanted to say ‘no’ because I only review books, but she’s just so darn nice and her writing is so lyrically edgy, I found myself saying, “Of course I will.”

Then a month later, the lovely and talented Gabriella West of The Leaving fame reminded me that I had asked her to keep me up to date on her work, which includes the release of a new short story.  I kind of wanted to say ‘no short story review’ because I only do books, but she’s just so darn nice and her writing is so lyrically edgy, I found myself saying, “Of course I will.”

Hmmm.  See the trend here?

Pat yourself on the back, because it took me a few days to realize that these two writers, while so very different, have compatible styles, and the subject matter for their short stories could combine for a really cool and different type of review.

So, I blew the dust off my finest nanny nanny boo-boo, and this post was born.

Short Story:  Far
Author:  Sarah Diemer
Publisher:  Self-Published

Far is the dystopian tale of Mana, who is the best Runner for the dark, oppressed, city without a name.  As a Runner, she uses magic to steal the souls of the recently departed from the purgatory of After, and its sketchy machine known as the Recycler.  Once the souls are returned to the city, she repatriates them with their lifeless bodies.  All is well, until she meets Far, a beautiful woman that makes her feel alive.  But Far is seemingly unimpressed by the love and devotion of Mana, and takes her own life in an attempt to be free.  A completely devastated Mana returns to After to retrieve Far’s soul, so they can be together again.  Far is furious with Mana for making her a Reanima, and refuses her attempts at love.  Mana takes one more job to get money to make a better life for Far, but is consumed by The Prehend.  Far realizes her love for Mana, and follows her into After, but what she finds challenges every notion of life, death, love, and forever.

Ah, I love a good dystopian zombie love story.

Far is available for purchase as a short story at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords, but it will also be included in Ms. Diemer’s Love Devours:  Tales of Monstrous Adoration, a speculative/science fiction lesbian anthology scheduled for release in November 2011.

While deprivation, terror, and oppression are not part of my ‘feel good’ vibe, Far is an amazing little story that makes the dark journey worth while.  The story is beautifully written, and amazingly detailed.  The characters are surprisingly complex for such a short tale, and their relationship has a delicate hint of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi.  But, it is so very much more. 

The more I read of Sarah Diemer, the more I’m mesmerized by her vision and writing style.  I’m giving the short story Far a 5.1 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale – it’s dark but it’s a gorgeous piece of prose.

Short Story:  The Doge’s Daughter
Author:  Gabriella West
Publisher:  Self-Published

The Doge’s Daughter non-too-politely grabs the reader by the hand and drags us into the heart of 17th Century Vienna. Piero is a young boy from a poor family who is chosen by the priests of the Doge’s court to become a castrato singer in their choir.  For years he toils as a singer, maturing into a serious young man.  Because of the castration, he remains almost girlish in appearance.  One day, Elisabetta, the teenage daughter of the Doge, singles him out for special games.  Piero is surprised, but knows his place when summoned.  Elisabetta marries the handsome young Prince Michele, who embraces an open relationship with his new wife as a way to sustain their passion.  Of course, Prince Michele is as taken by the young Piero as Elisabetta.

As someone who reviews Lesbian Literature, I was so not prepared for a piece of erotic historical fiction that included castration, pedophilia, oral and anal sex, and a lusty bisexual menage-a-trois.  Nope, totally not prepared.

But, you know what?  This is a well written sort-of love story.  The kind of well written story that deposits the reader into the very heart of it.  Ms. West told a dark and gritty tale that addressed several taboo topics and a handful of others that aren’t mentioned in polite company, but she did it in a beautiful, lyrical style.  Ms. West is masterful at strong first-person narrative, and the reader is easily able to step into the shoes of Piero, and embrace his moments of joy, beauty, and discovery. 

One of the fun elements of this story is figuring out the roles.  Piero and Prince Michele are men, and Elisabetta is a woman.  Yet, Piero is a eunuch, and so many elements of attraction for Michele and Elisabetta are tied to his more girlish aspects.  Many, but not all. 

My tastes run strongly toward lesbian literature, so this short story wasn’t really in my wheelhouse.  Still, as a reviewer, I can’t deny that it is a brilliant piece of writing that deserves to be embraced by it’s intended audience.  I’m giving The Doge’s Daughter a 5.0 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale – as a lesfic reviewer, it’s not every day I get to use the words “eunuch” and “castrato”.

The Doge’s Daughter is available for purchase at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Waiting by Q. Kelly

Book:  Waiting
Author:  Q. Kelly
Publisher:  Ride The Rainbow Books

When I was a kid, my mom used to put a pork roast in the oven and slow cook it all day long.  About suppertime, she’d pull the roast of the oven, transfer it to a serving plate, and put the pan on top of the stove to boil.  She’d take eggs and flour and make a dry, crumbly dough, drop it into the boiling roast drippings, and then cook it for a few minutes.  The result was the most amazing, mouth-watering, artery-clogging dish imaginable, called Rivels.

And it was worth every milligram of Lipitor I take today to counteract the damage . . . 

My mom is one of those women that cooks through pure instinct.  She doesn’t use recipes, but always seems to know what ingredients compliment one another, and what proportions will give her the right result, every time.

Me?  My culinary instinct tells me what setting to toast my pop-tarts on to maximize browning.

Writing is like cooking in many ways.  Even though there is a treasure trove of books and piles of advice on how to do it, some people are just better at it than others.  Let’s face it, there’s really no strict guideline on what makes a good book.  At a minimum, I believe a good book needs memorable, multi-dimensional characters; deep, plausible emotions; a clever, compelling plot; and at least two fingers of magic elixir.

And, even then, there’s some debate as to whether the magic elixir goes into the story or down the gullet of the author.

Waiting by Q. Kelly tells the story of Caris Ismay, who’s just given birth to her newly estranged wife’s son.  Her stepdaughter, Lena, is forced to tell Caris that the baby’s other mother, Dale, has been in a horrific accident, and may not live through the night.  Caris believes that Lena dislikes and distrusts her, but instead, Lena has always harbored a secret love for her stepmother.  As Dale, survives the night, and then days and weeks, Caris and Lena test a tentative friendship, then attraction.  Each believes that their feelings of love are not initially reciprocated, so they push and pull, and then push and pull some more.  This situation is awkward, and potentially explosive, and they each must wade through a mire of other complicated conflicts, emotions, and relationships before they can even really consider being anything more than extended family. 

First and foremost, Q. Kelly is not a typical author, and she doesn’t construct everyday romances - she does however, cook the Hell out of her stories.  Her books are complex, breathing organisms with convoluted [in a good way] layers of depth, and they don’t always do what they’re supposed to, at least in terms of the recipe for romance writing.  She’s not afraid to expose the dark and selfish side of her characters, sometimes making them cold, uncaring, self-centered, and seemingly unrepentant. 

Sometimes, being the operative word.

Of course, it is exactly those unconventional traits that add the strength and richness to her characters, and even if we don’t fall in love with them, we find things we do like about them, and we understand them at some deep, base, instinctual level.  For instance, I find that I really like Caris and Lena, but Dale is in this persistent vegetative state because of a life-long, soul-deep pain, loneliness, confusion, and desperation.   I want Caris and Lena to get together, but I don’t like that it is happening because Dale felt there was no other option.  Even more so when we find that the people that love Dale would have understood.  As a reader, I can’t think of many authors that can so expertly balance the like and dislike response to their main characters.

One thing that makes Q. Kelly different is that she builds fully developed, well-rounded, multi-dimensional characters and she takes on tough subjects.  In Waiting, we see emotional abuse and abandonment, teen pregnancy, adoption, transgender conflict and success, multi-racial issues, healthcare considerations, and conflict over life and death. Waiting has an abundance of side-stories that are interesting and add to the character depth, but didn’t really advance the plot in proportion to the time we spent with them.  Would the burgeoning and taboo relationship between Caris and Lena been radically different if there was no newborn son, multi-racial twins born out of wedlock thirteen years ago, Betty at Almond’s, an art show? 

I know, easy for me to say, right?

There still would have been the turmoil and dynamics with learning about Dale and what may or may not have been behind the accident; the conflict and desire between stepmother and stepdaughter; maintaining a caring relationship with the parents-in-law; dealing with the emotional toll and long-term care of someone you love, in whatever way you still love them; and trying to figure out when it is appropriate to go on with your life.  In fact, we might have even gotten to explore these issues and the character reactions on a much deeper level.

Be that as it may, Waiting is an emotional tilt-a-whirl for readers and characters alike. 

I have read both Strange Bedfellows and Waiting, and I find I have similar comments for both stories.  However, I believe it's important to note that Q. Kelly is just getting her 'published author' legs under her, and she has an undeniably bright future as she matures as an writer, editor, publisher, and publicist.

And, in case you're wondering, she succeeds in giving us memorable, multi-dimensional characters; deep, plausible emotions; a clever, compelling plot; and those two all-important fingers of magic elixir.  

I’m giving Waiting a 4.9 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale – Q. Kelly is doing something bold, different, and interesting with her stories, she's taking on the challenge of self-publishing, and she's self-promoting the heck out of her very fine work.

Let’s face it, Q. Kelly is absofreakinlutely fearless.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Wedding Party by Tracey Richardson

Book:  The Wedding Party
Author:  Tracey Richardson
Publisher: Bella Books

Any time two people make the lip-smacking, life-affirming decision to forge forward and formally unite into one all-encompassing matrimonial unit henceforth known as ‘us’, the Cosmic Comediennes begin to dance gaily, open their bedazzled bags of entropic chaos, and wantonly sprinkle handfuls of magic faerie mayhem upon each and every person, thing, and weather system involved. 

Seriously, make a quick checklist of every wedding you been to or taken part in: 

  • A pesky and persistent low-pressure system parks itself directly over the tent of your long-planned outdoor wedding.
  • The stoner that delivers the flowers gets the noon wedding confused with the 1 o’clock funeral across town, and the bride has to carry a hastily redesigned "So Long Uncle Morty” bouquet.
  • The adorable twin 4 year-old flower girls share an entire bag of Skittles for breakfast, and then barf a glorious double rainbow on the minister’s white patent leather loafers. 
  • The caterer is arrested by the ATF for using homemade Sterno in his chafing dishes just about the time the happy couple utters ‘I do’. 

And, yes, I have been witness to these very examples.

Weddings never go off as planned.  Ever.  It has nothing to do with love, commitment, planning, or the naughty officer that shows up at the bachelorette party with furry handcuffs.   No, it has everything to do with good, old-fashioned Fate.

The Wedding Party by Tracey Richardson proves, once again, that the Wedding Fates are cheeky little bitches.  Dani and Shannon have a special love, and they’ve decided to formalize their relationship.  The perfect wedding is planned, and the happy couple is taking their best friends Jordan and Claire, and Shannon’s niece Amanda to Las Vegas to bond, have some fun, and prepare for the wedding to end all weddings. 

Ah, but the Fates have been busy, and everything starts to list wildly out of control before any of their bags are even packed. 

Dani lost her high paying job weeks ago, and hasn’t told her bride-to-be; Shannon is scared to tell Dani that she’s infertile and can’t give her the baby she desperately wants; Jordan’s playgirl days suddenly catch up to her in humiliating fashion; Claire is unwilling to move past the painful loss of her longtime partner; and, little Amanda is all grown up, but working her way out of an impulsive, ill-advised decision.

It seems like everyone is hiding a little somethin’ somethin’ . . .

We’re all familiar with the old adage “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” and I’m sure there are plenty of tattoos out there to prove it.  However, The Wedding Party shows us that what happens in Chicago, bitch slaps everyone equally in Las Vegas.

Dani and Shannon both struggle mightily over going into the wedding with devastating secrets stuffed in every pocket.  But, why ruin the day for the other by telling the truth?  Claire, whose libido has been pretty much moth balled since her partner’s death, suddenly finds that young Amanda has the power to turn on a cascading waterfall of tingles deep inside her not-so-withered places.  Sweet little Amanda has an older soul than her physical age suggests, and she falls hopelessly in love with her Aunt’s butchy best friend at first sight.  And Jordan, who has left a lifelong trail of broken but sexually satisfied hearts is gobsmacked when she realizes she’s fallen head over heals for a Jazz singing angel with a painfully similar past. 

On the upside, everyone drinks way too much and one way or the other has lots of mind-blowing sex.

And, since Tracey Richardson is a romance writer’s romance writer, the femmes buy shoes, have massages, and confess almost everything to each other over their pedicures.  But, the studly butches smoke cigars, gamble, and find innovative ways to not have heart-to-heart talks while having heart-to-heart talks.

In my last two reviews, I’ve been on a soapbox about how authors and publishers need to push themselves into new directions.  Of course, I also said that sometimes a reader just needs what feels familiar.  Over the last few years, I’ve read a handful of Tracey Richardson’s books, and it’s crystal clear that she has a homing device for the familiar.  And, by ‘familiar’, I mean she writes beautiful, well-formed characters and strong, clever plots that are sprinkled with liberal does of angst and redemption.  We read them because they take us to a place we want to be.

And like those other books, there are so many delightful elements to The Wedding Party.

From the first time we’re introduced to them, the women of The Wedding Party come to life, and we are invested – hook, line, and sinker.  Each of characters makes a painful personal sacrifice in the name of love, but the love goes beyond the expected romance and touches on platonic and familial love.   There are myriad relationships in the story – some old, some new, and some redefined.  Each is different, but equal - sometimes romantic, sometimes confusing, and sometimes, even, borderline pejorative.   It all combines into a well-conceived, well-balanced, and well-written tale of love, trust, and risking everything.

I truly appreciate the way Ms. Richardson constructs the flash flood of angst and libidos by showing each character’s perspective through chapters dedicated to their experiences.  For instance, the first chapter is Dani, the second is Claire, the third is Shannon, the fourth is Jordan, the fifth is Amanda, and the sixth is back to Dani.  This continues on, so that our time with each of the main characters and their journey is balanced and complete. A brilliant approach to managing five women and three romances.

As a reader, one of the most consistent complaints I have is that an author plops too many characters into a story.  In The Wedding Party, we have five main female characters, two important secondary characters, and a smattering of unimportant one-scene wonders.  The probability of things getting confusing quickly was certainly high, but I must commend Ms. Richardson for wrangling the potential mayhem with supreme skill and panache.  Each of her characters has a unique voice and personality, and I never once had to flip back a few pages or chapters to remind myself who was speaking.

If I have one complaint with the storyline, it’s that I don’t feel we really had enough time with Jordan and Dez to fully appreciate what they saw and felt with each other, and how powerful it was for both of them when they were together.  I’ll admit that my natural cynicism towards love at first sight is probably more at fault than anything the author did or didn’t do, but in the end, I needed a bit more emotional connection from these two women.

Tracey Richardson is a stellar, engaging writer and The Wedding Party is another solid, well-written winner for my bookshelf.  I’m giving it a 5.0 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale – I’d originally considered giving it a 4.9, but the lady reading Ecclesiastes in the airplane seat next to me choked on a honey-roasted peanut when Dez took Jordan, in very graphic style, in the hallway. 

That right there, my friends, is a case for extra credit.

Heh, heh, heh . . .