Monday, August 27, 2012

Silver Moon by Catherine Lundoff

Book:  Silver Moon
Author:  Catherine Lundoff
Publisher:  Lethe Press

The very real
Miss Annie Jones
The Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian poem dating back to approximately 2,000 B.C., is among the earliest surviving works of literature, and is believed to present the first literary evidence of werewolves.  Yet in 1995, when Clarissa Pinkola Estés penned Women Who Run with the Wolves, female werewolves were scarcely on the mythological radar. When they were, it was most often attributed to witchcraft, being turned by male werewolves, or because the woman was suffering the effects of hirsutism—best exemplified by Barnum & Bailey's Bearded Lady, Miss Annie Jones.

There are a host of theories on why lycanthropes in literature and film are predominately male. However, in general, the prevailing premise is that werewolves, by nature, express characteristics deemed both ‘male’ and ‘masculine.  These attributes include, among others, strength, power, aggression, rage, violence, a preponderance of body hair, and the refusal to stop and ask for directions.

Of course, that also describes more than a few members of the Tea Party.

Alfonsina Storni deemed men
"el enimigo"
In the opening stanzas of La Loba by Argentinean poet, Alfonsina Storni, we are introduced to a female spirit who is undaunted by traditional societal prejudices, and is willing to give free expression to her feminine yearnings and feelings. 

I am like the she-wolf.
I broke with the pack

And fled to the mountains

Tired of the plain….

Poor little tame sheep in a flock!
Don’t fear the she-wolf, she will not harm you.
But also don’t belittle her, her teeth are sharp

And in the forest she learned to be sly.

By choosing the ‘she-wolf’ to symbolize women, the author displays her support of feminism by boasting an independence that, even today, is rarely attributed to females and femininity by patriarchal society. In fact, as the poem plays out, Ms. Storni notes that the narrator is no less capable than a man in defending herself because she has “A hand / that knows how to work and a brain that is healthy.” In other words, the ‘she-wolf’ does not require male protection in any form because she is competently equipped with her own skills, strength, intellect, senses, spirit, socket wrench set, and capacity for devotion.

Okay, my high school Spanish might be a wee bit rusty…

Silver Moon, the full-length novel from award winning author and editor, Catherine Lundoff, offers up an unexpected action-packed, romantic, paranormal coming-of-age tale.  In the bucolic mountain town of Wolf’s Point, Becca Thornton is approaching fifty, coming to terms with her post-divorce life, and trying to reconcile the sudden wave of hot flashes that strike every time her sexy cowgirl-cum-accountant neighbor, Erin offers up a slow, lazy smile.  Well, in truth, the hot flashes and other changes are happening a lot more frequently than just when Erin is around, but Becca’s sexy neighbor certainly has her thinking about switching teams from the beginning.

Before long, Erin shows Becca that there’s more to Wolf’s Point and menopause than she ever imagined.  In particular, some women of a certain age in Wolf’s Point are touched by the valley’s magic and are transformed into werewolves to protect the valley and its people.  While acceptance isn’t easy or natural, Becca finds that she can neither ignore nor deny the changes to her body. As the newest member of the pack, Becca begins spending her nights howling at the moon, chasing rabbits, and protecting townspeople—and her days reconciling menopause, lycanthropy, divorce, burgeoning lesbianism, and a minimum wage job.

However, evil has come to the valley in the form of werewolf hunters, lead by one of their own.  Oya used to be a werewolf, and claims her family was killed by the ones who were supposed to protect them.  She knows too much about pack dynamics, and believes that Becca, as the newest werewolf is vulnerable.  After much circling and heel nipping, Oya and her nasty band of Big Bads kidnap both Becca and the wolf pack’s alpha, and pump them full of chemicals in an attempt to cure them of lycanthropy.  After a daring escape, Becca, along with acting-alpha, Erin, the rest of the pack, and the townspeople who support them have one chance to drive the evil from the valley—they only need to rescue their alpha and find a way to ignite an ancient magic than no one alive has ever used.

Silver Moon is a refreshing feminist retelling of the modern classic werewolf thriller, wrapped in an unexpected coming-of-age romance.  Becca is initially presented to readers as a soft character on the doorstep of menopause who is battling weight issues.  She has tenuous self-esteem, works a job that barely pays the bills, and two years after the fact, is still trying to move beyond a philandering ex-husband.  Her empowerment begins almost immediately in the form of a curious and wholly unexpected sexual attraction to a woman. 

From there, the lupine characteristics begin to present themselves, and Becca finds herself transforming into a strong, sleek, powerful, and vibrant creature—not just a werewolf, but a woman who is increasingly comfortable in the shifting sands of her life.  Don’t get me wrong, the themes of coming out, menopause, divorce, and shape shifting are strong metaphors for this personal transformation—and Becca cycles through each of them with varying degrees of theoretical and practical rationality.  

Beyond that, Ms. Lundoff subtly hints throughout the story that Becca’s lupine abilities, while surprisingly advanced for someone so newly touched by the magic, stand to make her much more powerful within the pack than anyone realizes.  Likewise, the reader sees flashes of Becca’s unexpected personal growth and development as both a woman and a sexual being.

Ultimately, Silver Moon is a hard book to categorize—being equal parts paranormal, romance, action, thriller, and intrigue.  Becca’s character is amazingly complex and well developed, however the reader is left to wonder who Erin, Lizzie, and Shelly really are as characters, what really happened to Oya’s family, and why the evil scientist was perfecting an anti-werewolf serum for the Big Bads.

We’re also left wondering what Mrs. Hui has up her decidedly tasteful yet furry sleeve.

Silver Moon is a fresh, fun, and engaging slant on the tired and traditional werewolf genre, and it succeeds in empowering women at a time when so much of who they are is taken from them. And, while the romance barely makes it past indecent thought, the Big Bads are well funded but pitifully trained, and the werewolves are benevolent creatures touched by magic—there is a bounty of riches that make the book a solid read.  As an added bonus, the editing is crisp and generally free of errors, and the cover art is noteworthy in that it is simple, playful, and attractive.

The bottom line is that if you’re looking for a good, old-fashioned lesfic romance, searching for a literary booty call, or prefer traditional, patriarchal werewolf fiction, then Silver Moon decidedly isn’t the book for you.  However, if you’re looking for a story that celebrates feminism and independence, and is full of women with skills, strength, intellect, sense, spirit, sexuality, and a capacity for devotion, then it is a novel that will surprise and captivate you. 

While there were a slew of unanswered questions and unresolved conflicts littering the story, I’m betting there will be a sequel.  I’m giving Silver Moon a 4.9 out of 6.0 on the Rainbow Scale with an added bonus of 0.1 because it made me feel powerful and strong as a graying 45-year old woman. 

The final rating is a solid 5.0.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Being the Steel Drummer by Liz Bradbury

Book:  Being the Steel Drummer
Author:  Liz Bradbury
Publisher:  Lesbian Mystery Books (an imprint of Boudica Publishing, Inc.)

Back during the mid-nineties, I worked for a Beltway Bandit.  If you’re not from the Washington, D.C. area, you may not be familiar with this particular term.  In essence, a Beltway Bandit is any of the myriad consulting companies located in or around the Capitol Beltway, the twelve-lane ring road that surrounds Washington and many of its suburban communities.  Since time immemorial, the press and politicians have demonized Beltway Bandits for preying on the largesse of the U.S. government.  And, while there are more than enough examples of corporate greed and gluttony to warrant this label, people often forget that the Beltway Bandits are staffed by honest, hardworking, underpaid staff who buy into mottos like “better, faster, cheaper,” “doing things that count,” and “we do what we say.”

And, if they’re lucky, they buy into the proffered corporate stock purchase plans, which split repeatedly before being gobbled up by deep-pocketed monopolistic gargantuans like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Halliburton.

But I digress. 

During the mid-nineties, Corporate America jumped on the Diversity Bandwagon.  My particular company established Diversity Counsels at each of its major offices.   These Diversity Counsels looked at each of the employees in the office, and set up education and outreach programs that all staff members could participate in to learn more about the range of differences, and similarities, of the group as a whole.  One of these programs, in particular, stands out for me: The Diversity Potluck. 

The theory was simple: bring something to lunch that somehow represents you.  One of my closest friends was a black man from South Carolina who brought shrimp and grits.  Another coworker, a young woman named Hendricksen, brought a platter of marzipan.  The token flaming queen of the office sashayed in with a quiche and a wire bound history of gay men and their fascination with savory custards.  Me, being a corn-fed, twitchy little dyke, brought a covered dish full of steaming corn casserole. 

The conference room was packed with more than fifty people—everyone brought something to the table, except one man—a delightful scientist with a fascinating accent from Trinidad, named Ramesh.  He simply sat at the back of the room with a plate of grits, a hunk of quiche, and a big smile on his face.  Midway through the lunch, his wife poked her head into the conference room, and we all assumed she was delivering his contribution to our lunch.  He just smiled at her, and nodded as she disappeared the way she had come.  Within seconds, Ramesh’s young son and daughter came marching into the conference room serenading the diverse, marzipan-eating lot of us with a bouncy and melodic steel drum version of “Forged from the Love of Liberty.”  After a solitary lap around the room, the young musicians exited through the door they had entered, and the stunned lot of us blinked a few times, and then thumped Ramesh on the back as we tucked back in to our borscht. 

Note: much to the dismay of young Earc Flannagan, the Scottish nuclear physicist, someone wearing a Tyvek suit, gloves, full mask air purifying respirator, and chemical resistant boot covers, removed his haggis from both the buffet table and the building in an unceremonious fashion.

Detective Maggie Gale is back in Liz Bradbury’s Being the Steel Drummer.  Set a mere two months after the action-packed events of Angle Food and Devil Dogs, Maggie Gale and her intrepid band of Fenchester Lesbyterians find themselves firmly rooted in a mystery that involves greed, murder, ghosts, neighborhood politics, lost treasure, bawdy sex, middle-age stalkers, Shakespearian verse, and a love affair for the ages.  Through it all, Maggie and her new lover navigate the unfamiliar waters of their relationship, as they test a long-term future thinly veiled as a trial professional partnership.

Being the Steel Drummer is a textbook whodunit, surprisingly wrapped in a rich, lusty romance.  The story is plot-driven and complex, and is focused on a puzzle that spans more than 140 years. Like the classics of the genre, it contains a closed and diverse circle of suspects with means, motive and opportunity for the crime—and a detective, her sidekick, and a loveable Great Dane who come to investigate and, with the help of clues and the power of deduction, discover the real perpetrator, who is rapidly brought to justice after a suspense filled chase.

In fact, it had everything but the line, “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling lesbians and your stupid dog!”

In all seriousness, Being the Steel Drummer is a compelling read, and Liz Bradbury is a master at tweaking the clichés within the genre to produce a novel that fires on all cylinders.  She manages to create a central crime that is the literary equivalent of an M.C. Escher drawing, complete with intricate algorithms and tessellation patterns.  The big bad is introduced early and the plot devices, clues, and red herrings are almost impossible to differentiate until all the pieces began sliding into place as Maggie Gale explains how she solved the crime.  Most pleasing is how the author resolves the myriad subplots by the end of the novel, and nothing is left hanging.

Beyond the classic whodunit, Ms. Bradbury also treats readers to a gripping and sensual love story between two women in post Civil War America.  This story line is equal parts sweet, savory, sexy, and heartbreaking—and includes its own mini mystery that, true to form, is solved by the irrepressible Maggie Gale.  The more modern love story between Maggie and her inamorata, Dr. Kathryn Anthony, cleverly and keenly illustrates the similarities and differences between sex and sexuality across the ages. 

If there is any one place I would make a red mark on Being the Steel Drummer—it’s in the grammatically correct but overly formal dialogue.  Don’t get me wrong, Maggie Gale, for the most part, talks like an ex-cop-cum-private dick.  But occasionally, and I mean occasionally, she throws out lines over morning coffee like, “But shall we call it tenaciousness?  Then it’s more of a virtue.”  And, during what can arguably be described as one of the most well written bondage scenes in all of lesbian literature, the intrepid Ms. Gale “shalls” her way into infamy and near exhaustion.

For the record, “shall” is not sexy.  Ever. Okay, maybe if Elizabeth Bennet says it….

Be that as it may, Being the Steel Drummer is one of the very best whodunits to hit the bookshelves this year.  It’s well written, well plotted, intricate, and inventive, and it makes you anxious to read the next work-in-progress in the Maggie Gale Series—C-Notes and Ski Nose.  If you’re a fan of mysteries or you love solving puzzles, this is one book you won’t want to miss. Liz Bradbury is a talented author and a driven activist, and I salute her occasional shout-outs to GLBT rights within the pages of Being the Steel Drummer.  

I’m giving this crafty little whodunit a 5.0 out of 6.0 on the Rainbow Scale, with an additional 0.1 because I waited four long years for the follow up to Angel Food and Devil Dogs. 

That’s an overall rating of 5.1.