Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Strangers by DeJay

The Rainbow Reader Welcomes Special Guest Reviewer
Fellow Lesfic Aficionado and Humorist-In-Training

Book:  Strangers
Author:  DeJay
Publisher:  Regal Crest Enterprises

I have never embraced the phrase “put on your thinking cap.”

Maybe it’s because I grew up in a household where my mother routinely took poetic license when quoting idioms, choosing to spout such gems as “A watched pot never burns”, “Backyard driver” and “From your mouth to God’s eyes.”

While I don't share my mother’s proclivity for mangling idioms, I do share her love of shoes and as much as it pains me to admit, a few of her character traits as well. I chose never to have children, not the two legged kind anyway. I share my home and my heart with my two amazing dogs Lyric and her son Mickey and my quirky cat Bailey, who routinely attempts to defy gravity with limited success.

A "Controlled" Experiment ?
Krakatoa it ain't!
My maternal instincts are satisfied by my work with children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders and time playing with my furry, four-legged kids. Any additional need for things of a maternal nature are satisfied by afternoons spent with the twins of a close friend--which usually happens when she decides that my house is better suited for things like building a working paper mâché volcano which belches raspberry preserves at irregular intervals with greater intensity than anticipated.

Suffice it to say, this was a school project and I had to call the Principal and humbly request that the twins be excused from detention. I took full responsibility for the faulty timing device and offered to pay his dry cleaning bill. As it would have been counterproductive (and a wee bit passive aggressive), I did not point out to Herr Principal that he had failed to maintain the minimum required distance from the volcano during the twin’s demonstration.

For the record, the kids got an “A," but I was banned from attending the school bake sale.

In Dejay’s newest book, Strangers, Justina Murphy, or Murphy as she prefers to be called, is the hard working owner of the Splash and Dash carwash.  Her world is turned upside down when DCS worker Victoria “Vicki” Wainwright makes an unexpected visit with the unfortunate news that Murphy’s sister has recently passed away.  In addition, she tells Murphy that her deceased sister listed her as the next of kin for her two nieces, fifteen-year-old Jessica and twelve year old Brianna.  Murphy is a highly independent woman who hasn’t had any contact with her family in thirty years. She doesn’t feel qualified, nor does she have the desire to take on the responsibility of raising two children. Her own childhood had been marked by years of abuse at the hands of her mother, who kicked her to the curb at age thirteen after learning her daughter was gay. Murphy endured several years as a homeless youth living on the streets, but with hard work and dogged determination, has managed to carve out a successful life. She owns a successful business and is single-minded in her focus, placing all of her time and energy into her work, leaving little room for pleasure, let alone children. Murphy now finds herself facing mounting pressure from Vicki to assume the role of caretaker, a role that is not only incongruent with the life she has created for herself, but also one which terrifies her.

While plagued with anxiety about disrupting her previously well organized life and uncertain if she is equipped to handle the daily responsibilities associated with caring for two children, Murphy eventually relents and assumes custody of Jessica and Brianna. The threesome navigates their way through an emotional obstacle course on the road to developing as a family unit. En route, Murphy faces demons from her past, and when new information is unearthed regarding a 30-year-old suicide, decades old wounds are re-opened. As Murphy’s attraction to Vicki grows, she begins to realize that she is not the only one who has been harboring secrets. Murphy and Vicki are each forced to examine the thick, protective armor they have each developed and determine if it has outlived its purpose. Both women must decide if the benefits outweigh the risks, and if it is indeed safe to love and be loved.
Strangers could have easily gone the way of countless movies on Lifetime, with Dejay taking the easy road, counting on clichéd images of Little Orphan Annie, complete with an equally bedraggled canine companion. Just as easily, she could have relied on overly graphic descriptions to broach the topics of homelessness and abuse, doing so in such a way that the reader would have been sent plunging into the depths of an icy bath of anguish, sputtering and struggling to catch their breath.

She could have, but she didn’t.

Instead, DeJay chose to forge a different path. I applaud the author’s decision to flex her considerable skills as a talented wordsmith, carefully crafting a story that develops slowly and grows in intensity with each passing chapter. In doing so, Dejay deftly circumvents a path strewn with feelings of pity and instead, allows the reader to empathize with the characters and celebrate their transformative growth as the storyline progresses.
As I read any new book, my level of enjoyment is impacted by how the storyline is introduced, and it’s evolution with regards to pacing and believability, character development and the overall writing style. The writing in Strangers is crisp and clean, with a touch of mystery and romance intertwined in such a way that it enhances the storyline and the powerful message the book clearly communicates. Dejay’s characterization of Murphy, Vicki, Jessica and Rachel were all well developed. Secondary characters were included appropriately, nicely rounding out the cast and serving to add additional depth to the storyline.

This is the part where the reviewer takes a deep breath, a swig of her now cold coffee and exhales before continuing.

I’m not an author, I’m a reader. Therefore I will not even begin to try and comprehend the arduous task that an author undertakes when writing a book. That being said, I am an avid reader, one who easily plows through several books in a week. I appreciate the amount of time that authors spend doing research before even starting to write a book. Some books require the author to complete considerable in-depth research in order to create a plausible storyline—Strangers is one such book. It is quite evident that Dejay spent quite a bit of time researching both the topics of homelessness and abuse. However, her treatment of the relationship between Murphy and Fran, a Psychiatrist, troubled me. Fran is repeatedly referred to as Murphy’s friend and therapist. At one point, Murphy states, “Fran is an old friend, we’ve known each other twenty years, but more to the point, she is my therapist.” I am a mental health professional, and this statement raised a red flag for me in that it revealed the presence of a dual relationship.

A dual relationship is one in which the therapist maintains two roles with an individual, such as friend and therapist.

Such relationships are frowned upon in the profession and in some cases, they are a violation of the professional code of ethics to which all mental health professionals must subscribe. It was the treatment of the relationship between Murphy and Fran that slightly marred for me an otherwise superbly written book.

I will admit that due to the subject matter, this is not a book I might have chosen to read had Salem not asked if I’d be interested penning a review. I will also admit that Salem’s choice clearly indicates that she is far wiser than I am (her unquestionable lack of taste with regards to gnawing on spurious vegetables notwithstanding). Seriously, I have joked with Salem about starting a self help group whose goal would be to help readers like myself recover from tendonitis resulting from the repeated tapping of the Remove From Device button on their Kindle—this ailment being the consequence of reading yet another book that had the depth of a petri dish, and rendered feelings of satisfaction equal to a meal of three gummy worms with a side of Tic Tacs.

That being said, I am deliriously happy to report that my Remove From Device trigger finger did not twitch even once during the course of reading this book. Dejay’s Strangers is not your usual fare, but don’t let the difficult subject matter lead you to pass by this book. It’s far from the typical tale of homelessness and abuse that leaves you heavy hearted; rather, it is a beautifully told story that reminds us that our past does not always dictate our future, and that the scars we bear serve as testament to the fact that we are stronger than that which strives to destroy us.

I’m giving Strangers a solid 5.1 out of 6.0 on the Rainbow Scale.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Rhapsody by KG MacGregor

Book:  Rhapsody
Author:  KG MacGregor
Publisher:  Bella Books

While often dismissed by the tony hair salons under the bright lights of the big cities, the Midwestern is a fringe hairstyle sported by sensible women in sweater sets and comfortable shoes all across the Corn Belt. It generally incorporates a range of style tricks from a decade or two earlier, including angled overgrown sideburns in front of the ears, a spiky top with shorter sides, and the ubiquitous color, perm, cut, and comb out. 

On the most rare of occasions, it evokes that wonderful example of onomatopoeia, “shellac.”

All this and a latte too!
My mom has a Midwestern and has gone to the Fresh As A Daisy Hair Salon to have her hair set every Thursday morning for the better part of thirty years.  The Fresh As A Daisy is a one-stop shop—you can get your hair and nails done, tan, discuss state and local politics, pay your water bill, and order a venti, non-fat, no foam, no water, 6 pump, extra hot, chai tea latte to go.

Some of the biggest hair of my life came courtesy of Mary at the Fresh As A Daisy Hair Salon. 

Mind you, it was the halcyon days of the 80s, and big hair was the height of fashion, even for twitchy little dykes.  Of course, back in those days, Nancy Reagan was President [sic], Murder, She Wrote, Matlock, and Golden Girls were the top shows on television, and the little known 8888 Uprising made what would soon be known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre look like child’s play.

But I digress; we were talking about hair.

I, personally, discovered the Fresh As A Daisy as a traumatized teenager­­. By that time, my older cousin, Glenda Sue, had graduated from cosmetology school and was using me as her personal crash test dummy. Since my freshman year of high school, I had suffered through a storied range of hair disasters that included, among others, a botched color job that rendered my hair a lovely shade of pond water gray, an epic failure of a haircut that Jaromir Jagr adopted as his very own a mere decade later, and a haunting perm that was eerily reminiscent of the one Phil Spector sported at his murder trial. 

Suffice it to say, finding a hairdresser who understood the unique elements of my husky hair changed my life for the better—draw your own conclusions below.

My big Fresh As A Daisy hair
In KG MacGregor’s newest release, Rhapsody, TV4 anchorwoman Ashley Giraud has worked hard to become Tampa’s most beloved and recognizable personality.  She’s smart, beautiful, and has an easy style that makes coworkers and viewers trust and adore her.  But, beneath the public persona, Ashley fights a brutal battle against a raging torrent of demons.  When she finds herself in need of a new stylist, her coworker Robin suggests Rhapsody, a small salon owned by Julia Whitethorn.  Julia and Ashley strike up an easy but arm's length camaraderie, until slowly Ashley allows herself to open up to invitations from Julia and her eclectic group of friends.  

While Ashley begins to appreciate the way her new world is opening up, she continues to hide her secrets and fight her torments, taking one step back to every two steps forward.  It doesn’t take long for Julia and Ashley to admit feelings and a growing sexual attraction to one another.  But despite Ashley’s best efforts to purge her demons, and Julia’s best efforts to understand and support the woman she loves, there is no quick fix for either.  When the story of her career breaks on the one day she’s out of town, what’s left of Ashley’s world begins to crumble at an accelerated pace.   There’s no doubt that Ashley and Julia love each other, but is that love big enough and strong enough to withstand the rest of their journey?

KG MacGregor’s Rhapsody is a well-written story populated by keenly-developed characters.  The tempo is apropos to the story, at times lento, presto, or allegro, and the bits of wit and drama are balanced and timely.  The relationship between Julia and Ashley is believable, and the pacing of their attraction adds credibility to their actions.  The supporting cast of characters is multi-dimensional, and they each add depth and value to the greater story. 

Ms. MacGregor skillfully writes Ashley Giraud such that the reader develops a peculiar para-social relationship with the character—much like the anchorwoman’s daily viewers. In fact, we know little more than the public aspects of the anchorwoman's life without Julia as a conduit.  Likewise, Julia’s character is kind to a fault, and pays attention to the world around her, yet Ms. MacGregor nimbly and quietly slips her into patterns of romantic relationships where her needs are only partially met.

The novel is a heady mix of literary contradictions—at turns edgy and austere, then sweet and playful. While it is a classic love story, it’s not another run-of-the-mill romance.  In truth, Rhapsody is the fractured fairytale of two women falling in love, and emerging stronger for it. And, while there is the requisite “happy ending,” it’s a happy ending with a caveat: Ashley hasn’t vanquished the bête noire from the depths of her soul, and Julia may never have all of her needs met by the woman she loves.

During last year's GCLS Keynote Address, Ms. MacGregor pointedly challenged writers to address dark themes such as rape, incest, exploitation, manipulation, and violence because these sadly are as much a part of our lesbian community as romance and first love. In this novel, KG MacGregor has managed to walk the talk—Rhapsody is a story that stays with you long after you close the book, not so much because of the sweet romance or the enviable friendships, but because of the specter of darkness that lingers.

I’m giving Rhapsody a solid 5.2 out of 6.0 on the Rainbow Scale for all that, and a good read to boot.