Rating: 3.25 stars
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Length: Novel

Lorraine’s life has somehow strayed from its intended path. Instead of attending college in Duluth, a bigger city (with bigger minds and more freedom), training to be a veterinarian, she’s still living at home with her parents in Bend, Minnesota where she splits her days between attending the Junior College and taking care of her nephew, while her mother attends nursing college and her father works the farm. Raine’s brother-in-law, Little Man’s father, lives with them until he can get back on his own feet. The family is sill recovering from the loss of Lorraine’s twin but … life goes on.

Her mother is far from accepting of Lorraine’s homosexuality (and even less accepting of her relationship with her girlfriend, Charity) and does her best to arrange for eligible young men (and some not-so-young) to come courting her daughter. One of her latest candidates is a young man called Ricky, a homeless boy — homeless until Lorraine’s mother tells him he’s moving in with them — who only wants to make the world beautiful. Then there’s the matter of Addie, a sixteen-year-old young woman staying at the McGerber ranch, who ends up visiting the clinic in the middle of a miscarriage.

Lorraine thought the worst thing that could happen, after her sister’s death, was losing Little Man — the only good thing she still has of her twin — as Kelly, her brother-in-law and Little Man’s father — is starting to date again, looking for a mother for his son. Unfortunately, in a small town weighed down with prejudice and fear, where religion is used as a tool for hatred, there are worse things yet to come as Ricky is the victim of a hate crime and Lorraine may well be next.

Stray is the sequel to the novel Bendwhich I haven’t read, but I had no difficulty getting into the story or making myself comfortable with the characters. There are mentions of a miscarriage, the beating and torture of a young gay man, scenes of animal death, and a lot of homophobia. The word “queer” is also heavily used, both as a slur and an identifier, and some readers may be offended by or uncomfortable with it in this book.

Raine has put everything on hold for her family. Her nephew needs her, her mother needs her, her father needs her, even her brother-in-law (who she’s not that fond of) needs her.  She’s put off college, twice, something she’s worked hard for and risks throwing away because of their needs and her own fears of stepping away from what is safe and familiar. As much as she and her mother fight, there’s honest love between them, and Lorraine shows no surprise when her mother opens her home to strangers simply because they need a place to stay, and has no hesitation in calling Charity her girlfriend in front of her mother. Raine and her parents have some frank conversations on abortion, love, and family. Open and frank talks that show both the distance between them Lorraine’s coming out has caused, and the closeness of a loving family. The author didn’t take advantage of the situation to moralize, which I appreciated. While faith is a strong component of this story and these characters, it’s a gentle and kind faith rather than a heavy-handed religion. Love and acceptance aren’t always approval, and it’s a nuance I was pleased to see explored.

Lorraine’s relationship with Charity is a difficult one, with much of it developing in the previous book. Charity, the older sister of one of Raine’s friends, had come home to Bend to avoid the scandal of her relationship with an adjunct professor at her college. She left that woman for Raine, but Charity is ready to move on — to go back to college and to see the world, while Lorraine is content to be at home with her family, with people she’s convinced can’t get by without her. Charity ignores her calls and her visits, leaving Raine uncertain on whether or not they’re together or not.

While she’s lost in the confusion, Raine meets Marin, Addie’s social worker — and, eventually, Ricky’s as well — who is clearly interested in Raine. Marin is confident, warm, and giving … and out. She makes Lorraine blush, and think thoughts that a woman in a relationship shouldn’t be having. Raine doesn’t want to cheat on Charity, but she doesn’t even know if they’re together or not. Marin, though, is more than willing to flirt in the hopes that a bit of flirtation might lead to something more. She’s also, like Raine, more of a small-town girl.

This story is a bit more of a whodunit than a romance. Ricky, when attacked, is so badly beaten that his jaw is broken and wired shut, and his fingers are too broken to be able to hold a pen. He’s also traumatized and not willing to try to make himself understood enough to tell them who attacked him. Bit by bit, Raine and her family put together what happened and try to figure out who hurt Ricky. Everything is beautifully set up, every part of it (except one) honest and believable. Until, unfortunately, it isn’t.

When Ricky is attacked a second time, this time with Raine at his side, it’s a tense and well put together scene. Words are exchanged, actions taken, and everything very much realistic and in-character. Then the sing-songing, axe-wielding man shows up and it’s all blown to hell. Suddenly we go from a grounded, well-thought out story to a slasher fic. The mysterious axe man wasn’t needed — and from the ending of this book, it seems as if he’s part of a story line taking place in a future book. It reduced what was an interesting and dramatic event into something that felt cheap and tawdry.

If it weren’t for that, this book would have had more stars. Unfortunately, I have to review the whole book and not just two-thirds of it. Faith and love are strong elements in this story and the Tyler family, despite Raine’s mother’s unwillingness to accept her daughter for who she is, are good people. The author captured the snarls and tangles of a small town where families are so intertwined with gossip, friendships, and old relationships that they’re almost kin by default, and the pacing was bright and crisp. The plot, too, worked … until the very end. If it weren’t for Mr. Axe, this would have had four stars. With him, unfortunately, it’s a 3.25, and I regret that.