Review: “THE DARK WITCH” (Cousins O’Dwyer Trilogy #1) by Nora Roberts

Dark Witch

County Mayo, 1263. Sorcha, the Dark Witch, is being relentlessly pursued for her power by the evil sorcerer, Cabhan. Her husband is off to war, and she’s home with her children: Brannaugh, Eamon, and Teagan. Each of her children has the gift of magick as well, and a special animal guide in their dog, hawk, and horse respectively. She’ll go to any length to protect and defend them, and the magick within her. But in order to vanquish Cabhan, she must harness both her power and that of her children. Sadly, in banishing Cabhan, Sorcha dies, and the legacy of the three who comprise the Dark Witch lives on, as does Cabhan, who will stop at nothing to steal their power.

County Mayo, 2013. Iona Sheehan has sold all of her belongings and left her beloved Nan and neglectful parents to move to Ireland and find her destiny. She’s hoping to meet and make a connection with her cousins, Connor and Branna O’Dwyer. She knows the story of Sorcha and of the magick that lives within her, but she has no idea how to harness it. But she’s hoping that in finding her cousins, they’ll complete the circle of the Dark Witch and she’ll be able to learn to control the power within her.

Of course, Iona’s coming to Ireland revitalizes Cabhan. He wants her power and immediately identifies her as the weak link of the three. Iona must scramble to catch up with her cousins, who have known of their power and how to handle it all their lives. Branna immediately invites Iona to come and live with her and Connor, and to begin training for their fight against Cabhan. Iona readily accepts and finds a job at the local stables working for a man named Boyle McGrath. She had always been an exceptional rider, partly due to her mental connection with horses, but she did not count on falling for her new boss.

The horse, big and beautiful at easily sixteen hands, tested his rider with the occasional buck and dance, and even with the distance, she could see the fierce gleam in his eyes. His smoke gray coat showed some sweat, though the morning stayed cool – and his ears stayed stubbornly back.

But the man, big and beautiful as well, had his measure. Iona heard his voice, the challenge in it if not the words, as he kept the horse at a trot.

And something in her, just at the sounds of his voice, stirred. Nerves, excitement, she told herself, because the man held her happiness in his hands.

But as they drew closer, the stir grew to a flutter. Attraction struck her double blows – heart and belly as, oh, he really was as magnificent as the horse. And every single bit as appealing to her.

Of course, the horse, Alastair, is the modern incarnation of Iona’s guide for her quest. The connection between Boyle and Iona is every bit as strong. However, Boyle, aware of the impropriety of getting involved with someone he just hired, much less a witch, is reluctant to acknowledge their attraction. That being said, he can’t stop himself from sweeping her off her feet and into his arms. Oh well, he’s cranky about it. As the two of them fall for each other, Cabhan’s power grows and the cousins, along with their friends, must join together to again try to vanquish him before he steals the power of the Dark Witch.

It’s been a long time since I read this book for the first time. Paranormal romances are generally my least favourite subgenre, but this book had three things I’ve always loved: Nora Roberts, Ireland, and a strong cast. Her Born In and Sign of the Seven trilogies are some of my favourites, so this series was easy to fall for. The book sets up an interesting mythology by focussing the first three chapters on Sorcha and her battle against Cabhan, raising the stakes and investing the reader in the storyline. By the time we arrive in present-day Ireland, I found myself engrossed in the urgency of the fight to protect the Dark Witch’s power.

I really liked Iona and I’ve always been a fan of Ms. Roberts’ cranky heroes. However, their characterization doesn’t necessarily cover any new ground. That being said, the description of County Mayo is so vividly drawn that you can almost smell the peat moss burning. As always, the relationships between the friends, cousins, and (obviously potential) lovers is supremely entertaining. I also really enjoyed the fact then when Boyle and Iona hit a speed bump (and it’s a pretty legit one, for a change), they handle it in a mature and realistic manner. The final battle in the book is obviously just laying the groundwork for the next two books so I won’t hold that against the story.

To be honest, I’m not completely sure if I enjoyed this book because it was written by Nora Roberts, or because it was a really good. Either way, it got me out of my reviewing slump.

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Review: “THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST” by Mohsin Hamid

Reluctant Fundamentalist

When I was a third of the way through Mohsin Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the narrator, a young Pakistani man named Changez, tells the American stranger about how he first learned of the destruction of the World Trade Center. While on a business trip to Manila, he turned on the television in his room and saw the towers fall.

“I stared as one–and then the other–of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.”

The novel begins a few years after 9/11. Changez happens upon the American in Lahore, invites him to tea and tells him the story of his life in the months just before and after the attacks. That monologue is the substance of Hamid’s elegant and chilling little novel.

In 2001, as he explains, Changez was hardly a radical. Fresh out of Princeton, he was living in New York City and working as a financial analyst. He appears to have been something of an enigma until his reaction to the attacks–a sudden smile–pierces the shell. It seems to have come as a surprise even to himself, and while hardly endearing, it sets his tale in motion.

A less sophisticated author might have told a one-note story in which an immigrant’s experiences of discrimination and ignorance cause his alienation. But Hamid’s novel, while it contains a few such moments, is distinguished by its portrayal of Changez’s class aspirations and inner struggle. His resentment is at least in part self-loathing, directed at the American he’d been on his way to becoming. For to be an American, he declares, is to view the world in a certain way–a perspective he absorbed in his eagerness to join the country’s elite.

However, his indoctrination was never total. Starting with his job interview at Underwood Samson, a small firm that appraises businesses around the world, and a post-graduation trip to Greece with friends from Princeton, Changez maintains an outsider’s double perspective. One the trip he is smitten with Erica, one of the other travelers, but is also bothered by his rich friends’ profligate spending and the condescension with which they give orders to anyone they’ve paid for a service.

“I…found myself wondering by what quirk of human history my companions–many of whom I would have regarded as upstarts in my own country, so devoid of refinement were they–were in a position to conduct themselves in the world as though they were its ruling class.”

Yet even as he recognizes the foibles of that ruling class, Changez, who comes from a high-status but downwardly mobile family, also aspires to join it. Given his oft-mentioned phenomenal aptitude for his new job and a talent for winning over people, that goal seems all but guaranteed.

By the time he reaches Manila, where he is sent to appraise a recording business, Changez finds himself trying to assert his Americanness. Suddenly he is the one ordering around men his father’s age. Unnerved when a jeepney driver gives him a hostile look, Changez puzzles over its significance until he glances at one of his colleagues and feels his own hostility toward the other man’s “oblivious immersion” in his work.

So which is he, the ignorant master or the canny subaltern? And has he sacrificed his identity in pursuit of status? Changez has already begun to ask himself these questions when he sees the towers fall. And in the wake of the attacks, as tensions escalate between India and Pakistan, and the United States is meanwhile caught up in patriotic displays that strike Changez as a dangerous form of nostalgia, he loses interest in his work. Assigned to help appraise a publishing company in Valparaiso, Chile, he spends his time visiting Pablo Neruda’s house and lunching with the publisher, who compares Changez to a janissary–one of the Christian youths captured and then conscripted by the Ottomans, compelled to do battle against their own civilization.

And then there is the matter of Erica, who is friendly with Changez but mourning the death of her former boyfriend, Chris, from lung cancer. Changez is polite and formal; Erica is uninhibited, going topless, for instance, on a beach in Greece. The two become intimate, but she is haunted by Chris, and after 9/11 her sadness mysteriously turns pathological. She lands in an institution, then disappears.

This part of the story seems a bit too convenient–Erica’s obsession with the past engineered to dovetail with America’s nostalgia and with Changez’s yearning for a lost Lahore–while her disappearance neatly parallels his departure from America. (The protagonists’ names get no points for subtlety either.) Hamid, who himself attended Princeton and worked in corporate America, aptly captures the ethos and hypocrisies of the Ivy League meritocracy, but less so its individual members. Throughout the book, secondary characters are sketched rather than distinctively rendered.

We never learn the American man’s identity, yet Changez regularly interrupts the story to address him. Perhaps, it is suggested, he had been pursuing Changez, who has become a leader of anti-American protests. Apparently, the man is “on a mission“–and he may be carrying a weapon. While these interruptions came too frequently for my taste, they do lend the tale an Arabian Nights-style urgency: the end of the story may mean the death of the teller.

It seems that Hamid would have us understand the novel’s title ironically. We are prodded to question whether every critic of America in a Muslim-majority country should be labeled a fundamentalist, or whether the term more accurately describes the capitalists of the American upper class. Yet these queries seem less interesting than the novel itself, in which the fundamentalist, and potential assassin, may be sitting on either side of the table.

 

Review: Luck Be A Lady (Rules for the Reckless #4) by Meredith Duran

Luck Be A Lady

For a good story, an antagonist is important as a protagonist. In Lady Be Good, Meredith Duran made her heroine overcome a greedy crime lord uncle and a snooty boss lady before she got her HEA. In this next book, however, the characters are properly humanized and by the time I finished reading Luck Be A Lady, I was thoroughly enchanted by Mr. Nicholas O’Shea and Ms. Catherine Eversleigh.

Ms. Duran understood that Nick and Catherine might not make the most sympathetic of protagonists so the book starts off with prologues that show us why all that Catherine seems to care about is her family’s auction house and why Nick had to turn to a life of crime. The events of Luck Be A Lady are set in the immediate aftermath of Lady Be Good. Lilah and Christian are off on their honeymoon and Catherine still needs to find a way to save Eversleigh’s from the hands of her crook of a brother. While her father groomed her to take over after his death, his will mandated that she be married before she gets access to her share.  To that end, she turns to Nicholas O’Shea, portrayed here as a benevolent revolutionary who only wants the best for his people. Oh, and he also runs the biggest (illegal) gambling den in all of London.

I was very excited to read this story because I had never read a historical romance where neither the hero nor the heroine was a member of the aristocracy. Catherine proposes a marriage of convenience to the only man she thought could protect her from her asshole brother and still give her a free rein in running her business. She never had any aspirations to be a woman of leisure and is shown as treating her beauty as an inconvenience. Nick accepts her proposal because he has some issues with a local government functionary and he had been fascinated with Catherine ever since his niece had gone to work for her.

To ensure that the marriage can’t be challenged by Catherine’s brother, Ms. Duran writes a very innovative, hilarious and yet sensual “consummation” scene that was a highlight of the book. However, as the story progresses there is still a lot of “will they or won’t they” kind of sexual tension that builds up as Nick and Catherine get to know each other better. Catherine cuts a very sympathetic figure and I really admired her single-minded focus on her business and how she refused to bow to society’s expectations and become just a wife. Nick’s reformation is also very convincing. His past transgressions were watered down to justify his actions, but that was expected.

The ending was very satisfying, poignant yet hilarious, and left me asking questions like “Does a grand gesture count if you have to go point it out?” Nick and Catherine come out as an unlikely match that brought out the best in each other. The fact that neither paid any mind to their class gap or what society would say about it reminded me of Chuck and Blair (one of my all-time favourite couples) and Nick’s arc about going legit was also very reminiscent of Roarke (favourite hero EVER). The story did leave a couple of threads dangling loose and it’s times like these that I wish Ms. Duran would set her sequels in a more interconnected universe. I would love to know more about what happens next in Nick and Catherine’s story.

Luck Be A Lady was a fun, unconventional historical romance that will stay with me because of its innovative handling of the usual tropes of a marriage of convenience and redemption. Nick and Catherine push each other into becoming more fearless and still desirous of the ties that came with marriage in the Victorian age. If that isn’t true love, I don’t know what is. I’m hoping Ms Duran succumbs to the trend and writes them a worthy epilogue!

Review: ‘You Say It First’ (Happily Inc #1) by Susan Mallery

You Say It First

Famous sculptor Nick Mitchell decides to live with his brothers in Happily, Inc, “an entire town devoted to the destination wedding,” for a while before a huge international commission that he is confident he will get (He is a ‘Mitchell’, after all) will whisk him off to Dubai for two years. There, he decides to take up a temporary job with wedding planner Pallas Saunders. Little did he know that his first gig would be to bronze up and carry a palanquin for a ‘Roman-themed’ wedding.

Local girl and newly-minted owner of ‘Weddings in a Box,’ Pallas Saunders is struggling to figure which direction to take her life in after her old boss died and left his wedding planning business to her. The plan was to go to college and work in the bank with her mother. Eight years later, Pallas is armed with a degree in finance but no real desire to follow in her mother’s footsteps. When the sexy and thoughtful Nick focusses his charms her way, she is bewildered by what she feels for a man she has done nothing for.

While Nick and Pallas fall into an easy relationship, both of them come into it with a lot of baggage. Growing with a disapproving mother was very hard for Pallas, who could never understand why she had to earn her only parent’s love. That hole is filled by her circle of supportive friends, who will obviously be protagonists in subsequent books, and her family. Nick grew up in the shadow of a famous and abusive father, which made him swear off passion because he does not “want to destroy someone or be destroyed.” He likes Pallas well enough, but he is sure that there can never be anything long-term for him here. When Nick and Pallas receive some unexpected news that forces them to re-evaluate their long-held beliefs, will they have the courage to make it or not?

From what I gather, Ms. Mallery’s new series is linked to her Fool’s Gold series. However, since I haven’t gotten around to reading those yet, I am sure I missed out on the pleasure that longtime fans will get from the characters that recur. While this book has a lot of elements of contemporary romance, for me it veered more into the “women’s fiction” or “chick lit” genres. Nick and Pallas’s romance, while sweet, was nothing memorable. The best plot development happens when the protagonists are with their friends and family. It was the joy to see the group come together for Pallas every time she had a big event, giving me serious Bride Quartet (Nora Roberts) vibes. Since this is my first Susan Mallery, I can only imagine how she managed to lay out a convincing love story while simultaneously sowing the seeds for another 3-4 books, at least. For me, the best part of the book was watching Pallas become a confident woman who could take on the world with a new kickass business and the hunky Nick by her side.

Though a shaky start to the series, I will definitely read the rest of the books in the Happily Inc universe to see how all the characters I learned of in You Say It First end up.

I was provided an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review: ‘Lady Be Good’ (Rules for the Reckless #3) by Meredith Duran

Lady Be Good

Even though I absolutely adored the last Meredith Duran book I read, my experience with her writing has been pretty erratic to date. Still, I had my finger crossed when I read Lady Be Good and, luckily, I wasn’t disappointed.

London, 1882. Lily Monroe is a precocious thief working for her uncle in return for her sister Fiona’s medical treatment. While she is used to a life of hard knocks and dangerous encounters, she is not prepared for her only sibling’s untimely death. Meanwhile, Major Christian “Kit” Stratton is being tortured by a Russian madman somewhere in the Hindu Kush mountains. The Russian, Bolkhov, blames Kit and his men for the deaths of his family (read: captors he raped and impregnated) and vows to exact revenge by killing everyone Kit holds dear.

The story then takes a four-year leap. Back in London, Christian, now a viscount after the sudden deaths of his father (riding accident) and elder brother (house fire), is a celebrated war hero. Suspecting foul play, he is determined to save the lives of his mother and sister from a megalomaniacal Bolkhov. Christian meets Lily, now calling herself Lilah, at Everleigh’s Auction House. Now a ‘hostess’, Lily gets caught by him as she attempts to steal Peter Everleigh’s correspondence as a last favor for her Godfather/Robin Hood uncle. Instead of ratting her out, Christian decides to use Lily to get to Catherine Everleigh, the beauty co-owner of Everleigh’s who has had contact with a mysterious Russian antique dealer that Christian suspects to be Bolkhov. He blackmails Lily into spying on Catherine, telling her that he just wants help in wooing the icy proprietress. In return, he insists that he will return Peter Everleigh’s letters to Lily when her job is done.

Lily has been trying to fulfill her sister’s dream of living a respectable life. She was living on the straight and narrow when her uncle threatened to expose her sordid past to her new employers if she didn’t steal the letters. Now, she is being blackmailed by two men, and in order to pay the first, she has no choice but to obey the second.

The story then shifts to a country estate that Christian has inherited from a distant cousin. After some expert maneuvering, he has made sure that Catherine, and not her brother, will accompany him to the property to assess the valuables in the house for an auction. Lily is forced to be her assistant-cum-chaperone. Though she hates the fact that she is being blackmailed by Christian, the new job is an opportunity for Lily to learn from Catherine and maybe move up in the world. Unfortunately, Catherine Everleigh is too sharp and exacting in life, making both of Lily’s jobs difficult.

In the meanwhile, Christian and Lily are attracted to each other despite the many reasons they shouldn’t be. For all their differences, they have both lost an older sibling and in some ways are living the lives those people were meant to lead. Christian has no desire to be a peer of the realm; Fiona dreamed of becoming an Everleigh hostess while Lily trained as a typist.

There is nothing stellar about Lady Be Good. As with most Meredith Duran books, its strength lies in its execution, through strong prose and extensive characterization, leading Christian and Lily to emerge as more than stereotypes. Sure, he’s ruthless, but Christian is also deeply conflicted. He feels like he’s playing a role–‘the hero of Bekhole’ to an adoring British public–but it’s not really him. He was once the carefree spare heir, then the disciplined military man, but neither of these labels fit him anymore. As for Lily, she has tried really tried to shake off her past, but not without regret. Her cunning uncle and her other friends and family from the London underworld make her feel ashamed of wanting to be something different, someone more respectable. And she can never quite the lose the fear that one day the truth about her past will come out and her carefully constructed new world will come crashing down.

Lily and Christian’s relationship develops slowly and gradually–from intrigue and attraction to respect and liking and then to love. There were times when I felt that the characters could have overcome the mental constraints imposed on them by their antiquated time period. Also, Bolkhov was woefully underdeveloped as a villain. He maintains a menacing background presence for most of the book, but the actual confrontation with him was rather anti-climactic.

Lastly, Lady Be Good left me very eager to start its sequel Luck Be A Lady, which pairs Lily’s uncle Nick O’Shea with Miss Catherine Everleigh. It will be interesting to see how Ms. Duran manages to redeem him. (Catherine’s a piece of work, too, but she softens considerably in this book.) Another fun read by Meredith Duran.

Review: ‘Do Not Become Alarmed’ by Maile Meloy

Do Not Become Alarmed

When I read the description of Maile Meloy’s Do Not Become Alarmed, I was expecting quite a lot from the book. Her previous books have been received positively and this one had a strong premise. When things go wrong for three rich families somewhere in Central America, lots of questions are raised about money, race, and privilege. The plotlines involve high stakes, kidnapping. Its characters are granted space to change and grow — something we demand very strictly of fictional people, if less often of real ones. Its writing is uniformly excellent. But I didn’t like the book.

Liv and Nora, thirtysomething cousins from LA, book themselves, husbands and kids onto a two-week cruise down the coast of Mexico and Central America. Once on board, they hook up with another family, wealthy Argentinians with two long-limbed, sporty teenagers. When the husbands go golfing for the day, the mothers take all six kids, aged six to 15, on an excursion. “This is a good country for us to go ashore in,” Liv says. “They call it the Switzerland of Latin America.”

And yes, alarm bells are already ringing. For the unnamed country turns out to be not very Swiss at all, but frighteningly chaotic and sinisterly foreign; you read on with mounting dread, as well as excitement, for it’s impossible not to relish the skill with which Meloy ratchets up the tension.

First, Pedro the well-meaning but lamentably chilled tour guide crashes the car, leaving his charges shaken and marooned without a bus in sight. Next, shepherding them to a pretty little beach at the mouth of a river, where he assures them it’s safe for the children to cool off in the water, he passes round frozen rum and openly flirts with Nora. As the children shriek and splash, Liv and Camila, the Argentinian mother, doze off in the sun, while Nora heads off into the trees for “a little no-strings attention” from Pedro. A few moments later, all six children are gone.

All credit to Meloy’s glistening prose that every detail of this grisly scene is shudderingly convincing. The sultry afternoon, the beautiful, sheltered Americans knocked off course by a routine accident but left with no choice but to trust in the local, the faint moments of comedy, the momentary lapses of attention – all of it rings uneasily true. Once the children are gone, everything accelerates and the plot unfurls swiftly and sleekly with chapters moving back and forth between adults and children with barely a viewpoint left unturned. As one queasy event follows another, it becomes clear that Meloy is not going to spare us – the children are alive, but for how long? – and there is no question of not reading on. I can’t remember the last time I gobbled a novel down so fast. Sadly, it wasn’t long before I realised I did not like the taste it was leaving.

The problem can be identified in one word: tone. Given the sometimes graphically unpleasant nature of the events she describes, Meloy’s writing begins to lack scope, sensitivity and even, sometimes, heart. It’s almost as if, having decided to explore a subject with such viscerally dark and dramatic potential, she can’t quite trust to the subtlety of her prose and allow less to be more: instead, she loses her nerve, retreating into quips and platitudes. Although we are told that the parents are distraught at having lost their children to this land of hungry crocodiles and ruthless criminals, we never quite feel it. Conversations seem oddly banal and lacking in any real urgency or despair. Yes, the grown-ups bicker and blame themselves and each other, but only in the way you might if your luggage or your iPad had gone missing.

At its best moments, Do Not Become Alarmed captures the anxiety of being the kind of parent with the least right to be anxious, a rich American one, the feeling that even our best efforts (the most enormous, cocooning cruise ship!) cannot safeguard us from danger. It’s an interesting notion, but because Meloy ventures half-heartedly into her ambitious themes, it barely emerges. “Their parents are American,” one local character thinks. “They don’t know anything.” This book is supposed to be a sally against that blindness. It only seems like proof of it.

I was provided an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review: ‘Me Before You’ & ‘After You’ by Jojo Moyes

Romance novels have happy endings. The hero and heroine kiss and/or marry and/or ride into the sunset. They live happily ever after, or in the genre shorthand, HEA. Having grown up reading romance novels, I used to believe love was the most important thing. But no major literary critic has ever treated romance as a serious genre. Happiness is a frivolous dream; reality is harsh and serious, like a Dickensian novel. As a skeptical Harper’s article puts it, “Bad Romance: One genre and a billion happy endings.”

(WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)

Me Before You

If happy endings define crappy romance for critics, the Jojo Moyes’ now-a-major-motion-picture best-seller Me Before You poses an interesting case. The novel is about the relationship between Will Traynor–a former high-powered executive put in a wheelchair by a motorcycle accident–and his caregiver, Louisa Clark. The two do fall in love, but they don’t live happily ever after. Will, paralyzed from the neck down, is miserable, and even Louisa’s love can’t reconcile him to the limitations of his wheelchair. At the book’s conclusion, he goes to Dignitas, the assisted dying organization in Switzerland, and ends his life. as Louisa, grief-stricken, looks on.

Not the upbeat love-and-marriage ending you expect from a romance. And yet, putting the ending aside, Me Before You has almost all the characteristics of a romance novel. As with most heroes in romance novels, Will is wealthy, powerful, controlling, and emotionally distant. Even beyond the damaged hero, though, Me Before You functions as a romance because it’s about two people falling in love, and becoming more complete, and more themselves, while doing so.

Louisa, at the start of the novel, is a lower-middle-class woman afraid to dream beyond her small English town and bland, exercise-crazed boyfriend. Will, before his accident, was, in his own words, a self-centered “arse” and a callous womanizer; after his accident, he is consumed with bitterness. Over the course of the book, Will broadens Louisa’s horizons. He introduces her to opera (very Pretty Woman), travel, and her own potential. Louisa, for her part, helps Will overcome his self-centeredness, his bitterness, and even his depression. “I watched you these six months becoming a whole different person,” he tells Louisa, “someone who is only just beginning to see her possibilities. You have no idea how happy that has made me.” Will wants to die not because he is sad, but because he won’t accept the limited life he has, and the prospect of things getting worse. He even asks Louisa to help him die. “Give me the ending I’m hoping for,” he says.

The novel is heartbreaking because the HEA is right there, tantalizingly within reach. As I read the novel, I saw how it could work and how they could be happy together. At Will’s ex’s wedding, they share a dance together, Louisa sitting on Will’s lap in his motorized wheelchair, spinning together on the dance floor. Louisa, formerly a timid underachiever, transforms into a compulsive researcher who organizes a complicated last-minute trip to a seaside resort with Will. “I have learned so much, so much about how to make this work,” she says, “so I can do that and just be with you.”

But that’s not enough. “This could be a good life,” Will says when Louisa declares her love. “But it’s not my life.”Louisa professes her love in true romance novel fashion, and the hero not only rejects her, he decides to commit suicide. A more thorough refutation of the romance novel tropes is hard to imagine.

But, at the same time, the tropes are fulfilled. Because Will stays with her–in Louisa’s memory of him, and in the changes she has made in herself: her determination to go to school, to leave her tiny hometown, and to live a larger life. At the book’s end, as she reads his last words to her in a Paris cafe he asked her to visit for him, the two are together on the page. Which is, after all, where all romance novel happy endings live.

After You

I assume the unfulfilled romance of Me Before You irked a lot of readers who pestered Ms. Moyes about Louisa’s fate. She wrote a sequel, After You. Louisa, struggling with her own grief, tries to move on with her life in London, in part through a new relationship with Sam, and in part through a new job prospect in New York.

After You is a more conventional romance than Me Before You–which is to say, it has a happy ending. But just as the painful end of Me Before You is shadowed by the almost-happy conclusion, the happiness of After You is reached only after multiple suggested tragedies.

The first of these comes right at the beginning of the novel. Louisa accidentally falls off her roof and for a moment thinks she is paralyzed, like Will before her. The parallel is very direct: Louisa’s accident is recounted in a foreword, just as Will’s is. And Louisa herself asks the paramedic if she paralyzed. After You explicitly toys with the idea that it is the same sad story as Me Before You–and explicitly rejects it.

After You offers other wrong turns and unhappy, or mixed, endings, though. In fact, in some ways, the whole novel is a failed HEA. “Man dies, everyone learns something, moves on, creates something wonderful out of his death,” Louisa bitterly tells her grief-support group. “But that’s just a fairy-tale ending, isn’t it?” After You is about the way that the first book’s version of a happy ending failed–not just in that Will died, but in the sense that Louisa didn’t grow and change as Will, and the book’s readers, thought she would. Will’s death was supposed to leave her with a bigger life; instead, it turns out, it diminished her.

The HEA for After You is complicated, too. This is especially the case because the most resonant relationship in the novel, in many ways, is not Louisa and Sam, but Louisa and Will’s troubled teenage daughter, Lily. Lily, deeply unhappy, is desperately in need of love. Louisa needs her in return, both for herself and in order to stay true to Will. But caring for Lily interferes with both Louisa’s job prospects and her new romance. Would caring for Lily be a sad ending? Or is being a foster mother a happy enough ending to count in a romance? “That’s life,” Sam tells her. “We don’t know what will happen. Which is why we have to take our chances while we can. And…I think this might be yours.”

What chance is Sam referring to there? Part of what’s delightful, and pointed, about Ms. Moyes’ novels is that you’re not sure until the very end. After You isn’t as ruthless as Me Before You, but Ms. Moyes is a master of the wavering possibilities of good enough and is always aware of the limits that sometimes make even good enough impossible. Her other books suggest that acute awareness of failure is linked to her sensitivity to class and working-class British life. Ms. Moyes book The One Plus One is a harrowing record of the drip-drip-drip slow-motion desperation of poverty, a chronicle of how life at the bottom of the class ladder is a constant reiteration of ‘you can do neither.’ Happiness teeters over a precipice, and when it’s snatched from the edge, it’s almost a physical relief, not least because unhappiness is such a vividly presented option.

In Me Before You, and in her other romances, Ms. Moyes layers defeat over victory. But in that, she’s not somehow subverting romance. That’s what romance is.

Romance novels always have sad endings before their happy endings. There’s always a moment, or a lot more than a moment, of despair—a recognition that things could go horribly wrong, and probably did, or would. Ian McEwan’s Atonement is notorious for providing two endings, only one of them “real,” and only one with an HEA for the couple at its center. That’s supposed to make it tricky literary fiction. But really it just makes it an unusually meta romance. Everybody has imagined Romeo and Juliet happy; everyone who reads Pride and Prejudice gets through the bit where Elizabeth’s refusal of Darcy stands. And to read Me Before You is to imagine a shadow fiction next to the real fiction, where Will, instead of saying, “It’s not enough,” says, “Yes, it’s enough. I love you; let’s live.”

In fact, those happy endings and sad endings only have meaning because they exist together. The HEA (or even the happy for now) takes on moral and emotional force because it insists that happiness is deserved, in the full knowledge that often it isn’t possible. And those sad endings are heartbreaking because happiness is fully imagined, and sometimes attainable. Ms. Moyes’ novels, and romance novels in general, don’t gloss over despair, or pain, or sadness. Rather, they take happiness seriously precisely because they know heartbreak is always a possibility when you turn the page.

 

Review: ‘Fool Me Twice’ (Rules for the Reckless #2) by Meredith Duran

Fool Me Twice

I don’t know why I’ve been so bipolar when it comes to Meredith Duran’s books. I absolutely adored her novella Your Wicked Heart. And then I really didn’t like That Scandalous Summer. With Fool Me Twice, I am happily back in the “Love Her” camp. Probably because it has a tortured hero and a redheaded heroine, but moving on. For fans of Ms. Duran, the title makes it obvious that this story is about Alastair de Grey, the Duke of Marwick, who spectacularly lost the plot after news of his late wife’s betrayal hit him. Of course, he had to be paired with the mysterious Ms. Olivia ‘Mather’.

Olivia Holladay is the proverbial damsel in distress. A powerful man wants her dead and while she may not know why, she knows who he is (Cabinet Minister Baron Bertram), and how to make him pay for it. Sick of looking over her shoulder, Olivia decides to protect herself. To that end, she gains employment in the Duke of Marwick’s household, hoping to find something that she can use to blackmail the baron. The Duke’s reputation as a political mover and shaker is well-known, but, as only Olivia knows, he also has a good reason to hate Bertram.

While her plan may have been to deceive and steal from the man, Olivia is a punctilious person at heart and she is shocked at the state of disarray she finds in the duke’s house. Marwick hasn’t left his suite in months. Things are so bad that a desperate butler hires her as the temporary housekeeper. And although she’s supposed to be concentrating on her search, Olivia finds herself at the mercy of her worst flaw, a need to “interfere and manage and fix things.” Not just the state of the house and the insolent servants, but the master of the house too.

Alastair’s state of mind is extremely dark, especially when we discover that his agoraphobia is based on the fear that if he goes anywhere near the people who helped his wife betray him,  he’ll kill them. As he becomes more rational, it is also obvious that he is a self-involved asshole. Ironically, Marwick’s thwarted pride and legitimate pain combine to make him simultaneously both infuriating and sympathetic. It is dishonest to pretend that mental illness provokes only kindness and understanding in those who deal with its victims, so kudos to Ms. Duran for striking that delicate balance. Besides, butt-headedness makes a character seem more real than pathos does.

The interactions between Marwick and Olivia begin as hostile confrontations and evolve into convoluted negotiations often prefaced by him asking “Didn’t I sack you?”  Their relationship is complicated and subtly hilarious. Olivia’s campaign to roust Marwick consists of serial invasions of his space, each more entertaining than the last. Whether she is rescuing his books, critiquing his grooming, or admiring a nipple, Olivia is a hoot. Marwick’s responses range from rage to incredulity as he resists the change that Olivia impels.

Yet, change is inevitable. I love this trope and the way Ms. Duran employs it here. The give and take between Olivia and Marwick is pivotal to the plot and enables a slow reveal of their checkered pasts. But there is far more going on than lively banter and extended internal monologues. There is a point in the story when the action shifts from private to public in a way that almost draws a line through the middle of the narrative. Here is the point where Marwick evolves into Alastair for me. This dichotomy isn’t necessarily a flaw but it is very strongly defined. Edgy banter gives way to darker themes, and the emphasis shifts from Marwick’s emotional health to his moral choices just as Olivia’s situation is further imperiled. The danger to Olivia is real as is Marwick’s fear of disgrace, and there are a number of twists before the story winds to a close. However, emotional and intellectual sparring take center stage through most of the novel, and the usual quick shedding of clothes and inhibitions is replaced by welcome restraint. The only striptease is of the soul-baring sort that builds the very best kind of tension.

In spite of her cleverness and down-to-earth pragmatism, Olivia is an innocent, and the author conveys the normalcy of this state by making it something Olivia herself is indifferent to. After all, she is fighting for her life. Virginity is just the default position, so to speak, and we only become aware of it when Alastair does. When the Duke recognizes her innocence, it pleases him but it doesn’t really affect her value to him. Virginity is more an incidental attribute than virtue incarnate. Ultimately, it is Olivia’s utter isolation and her ability to maintain her self-respect in the face of real danger that moves and impresses Alastair. Although their attraction is undeniable, it is never separated from their emotions.

He grabbed her wrists and bowed his head to kiss each one, like a vassal paying tribute. She watched him do so and felt, for a dizzying moment, taller than him, a presence larger and grander than her flesh could contain. By his own account, he had seen her, recognized her, as brave, intelligent, resourceful. And he wanted her, against his will. Yes, let him bow his head; let him admit to being conquered.  

When Olivia and Alastair finally have sex, the act is deeply passionate and convincingly unique to them. In a relationship characterized by intermittent bullying and an often brutal frankness, they are honest when it counts the most. Ms. Duran writes a gorgeous sex scene that is beautifully integrated into the story, and then follows it up with some sparkling humour.

She felt a glimmer of mischief.

“You’re not feeling shy, are you?” To her amazement–and, yes, her delight–the color rose in his face.

“Shy, by God–”

“You’re avoiding my eyes,” she said. “You could not have hustled me out of that flat more quickly this morning. And now you’re refusing to have a conversation. Are you afraid that you disappointed me? For I assure you, it wouldn’t have been possible. I wasn’t expecting much-”

He made a choking sound.

“Oh dear.” She reached for her discarded cup of tea, brought an hour ago by the obsequious conductor. “Would you like some of this? And don’t misunderstand me; it was quite nice. Last night, I mean.”

  And that is one of the reasons why I absolutely adore Fool Me Twice. The preceding story in this series painted Alastair in a very negative light, so it was a bit weird to accept him as a hero in the next book. Olivia, however, runs completely true to form. While I suppose each of the three Meredith Duran novels I’ve read so far more than stands alone, Fool Me Twice is my absolute favourite of the lot.

I would recommend it to avid fans of historical romance who enjoy complicated relationships with a lot of edgy banter, who aren’t nit-picky about the level of historical detail in the story but still expect a sense of authenticity and good writing.

 

Review: ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a World War II novel about children, the kind of undertaking that requires a lot of work to rise above emotional manipulation. For the first hundred or so pages, the book seems to rely on ready signifiers of heartbreak and grandeur: a motherless blind girl, a white-haired orphan boy, a cursed diamond, lots and lots of bombs.

But once he hits his stride, Anthony Doerr takes these loud parts and builds a beautiful, expansive tale, woven with thoughtful reflections on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

Marie-Laure LeBlanc (introduced as “the girl”) is the daughter of a master locksmith for the Museum of Natural History in Paris. She loses her vision at 6 years old and spends the rest of her childhood studying mollusks, reading Jules Verne novels in Braille, and navigating her neighbourhood with the help of a faithful wooden model built by her loving, storybook-wonderful father.

When she is 12, the Germans occupy Paris, and she and her father flee to Saint-Malo, a walled city on the Brittany coast, where her great-uncle owns a six-story home he hasn’t left since the last World War. They carry with them a 133-carat stone that is either the Sea of Flames, the museum’s most valuable diamond, or one of three convincing replicas. The stone attracts the attention of the novel’s primary antagonist, Nazi Sergeant Major van Rumpel, a treasure collector for the Third Reich. Van Rumpel, who is dying of cancer, becomes fixated with the Sea of Flames, which is rumoured to protect its owner from death while drawing disaster on his or her loved ones.

Werner Pfennig serves as the corresponding boy to Marie-Laure’s girl–a young orphan with a scientist’s mind and all the grim opportunities available to a brilliant youth in Nazi Germany. He grows up with his little sister in the orphanage of Zollverein, a 4000-acre coal-mining complex, where their father died in an accident underground.

The orphanage boys have one known destiny–to go straight to the mines when they turn 15. Werner lives in claustrophobic fear of his fated existence, and when he sees a ticket out, he seizes it. His talent for radio repair attracts attention to his genius, and he leaves Zollverein for a Hitler Youth academy, then for a special assignment that uses mathematical methods to track and destroy the Resistance.

The bulk of the novel takes place between 1934 and 1945, with a particular focus on the siege of Saint-Malo in August 1944, where the two stories finally converge. Despite the time frame, Doerr largely avoids the topic of the Holocaust, focussing more on warfare than on genocide. We are meant to identify with Werner as he slips into his useful role within the Wehrmacht, and perhaps it was better to have him take out enemy combatants than innocent Jewish children.

That said, Doerr never lets Werner off the hook, and Werner’s arc–his increasing tolerance for ugliness and violence, “his ten thousand small betrayals,” his struggle to find volition and redemption in a life that offers few apparent choices–is the most compelling part of the book. The other characters are easier to qualify as good or evil. Marie-Laure’s struggle for survival is captivating, but her journey is more external than Werner’s–we are never forced to doubt the purity of her heart.

Werner and Marie-Laure are the focal points for not only the war but the whole of human existence. Throughout the novel, Doerr draws attention to all that is fine-grained and infinite in the world: barnacles, snowflakes, “the filaments of a spiderweb,” “many thousands of freckles,” “a million droplets of fog,”; even a network of trenches like “the circuitry of an enormous radio, each soldier down there an electron flowing single file down his own electrical path, with no more say in the matter than the electron has.”

The title refers to the endless run of the electromagnetic spectrum, a scale so large that “mathematically, all of light is invisible.” This motif runs through the whole novel, imparting texture and rhythm as well as a thematic tension, between the insignificant and miraculous natures of mankind and all the immeasurable components that make up our lives.

The characters are constantly searching–for forbidden radio transmissions, for the Sea of Flames, for each other–locating tiny points in the chaos of the universe. (“Needles in the haystack. Thorns in the paw of the lion.”) They look for meaning while facing the vastness and “the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world,” and their fates hinge on their ability to act when everything seems to be determined they can only imagine.

The prose is lovely, with the sort of wondrous, magical, humour-free tone that could be cheesy in the wrong hands. Doerr’s novel is ambitious and majestic without bluntness or overdependence on heartbreak–which is not to say it won’t jerk those tears right out of your head.

 

Review: Come Sundown by Nora Roberts

Come Sundown

As a rule, I had decided never to review books by authors that have been lifelong favourites. This was mostly because I often found my choices not holding up under any sort of critical scrutiny, Also, I believe that overthinking why you like something a lot just takes away from the simple joy of it. I broke that rule when I reviewed a few Judith McNaught books and was pleasantly surprised by the positive response. But I still never thought of reviewing a Nora Roberts romance until last week when I picked Come Sundown as a holiday read/to celebrate 11 years of reading NR. If this post comes across as too restrained considering how I am obsessed with the woman, please know I would write a 10-star review in all caps if I wasn’t worried about losing all but two of my readers.

Come Sundown opens in 1992 with a disheartened 21-year old Alice Bodine hitchhiking her way back home after a runaway bid for independence three years ago ended in shattered dreams and disillusionment. Unsure of whether she will be welcomed back, she hitches a ride from a nice-looking middle-aged man just miles outside her family ranch, unaware of just how much this action will change her life.

The story then takes a 25-year leap and we find ourselves in present-day Montana. Bodine Longbow, the niece of the long-lost Alice, is the manager and boss of her family’s upscale resort. The latest in a long line of entrepreneurial bad-ass women who get shit done, Bodine is smart, self-reliant and loyal to her amazing and loving family. Her two brothers, her loving parents, and kickass grandma and great-grandma are all secondary characters I fell in love with instantly and was only slightly disappointed at Come Sundown not being Book 1 of a trilogy.

When Bo’s childhood crush and her brother’s best friend, Callen Skinner, comes back into town to work at the ranch after making a name for himself in Hollywood, she is surprised by the instant attraction that flares up between them. Being a consummate professional and his boss, she tries to push her feelings for Cal aside as circumstances keep forcing them together.

It’s not my fault you grew up so damn pretty. How about this: You and me make a date. First of May, that’s a good day. Spring’s come around, and you won’t be my boss anymore. I’ll take you dancing, Bodine.”

The fire crackled in the old potbelly, a reminder of heat and flame. 

“You know, Callen, if you’d given me that flirtatious look and that smooth talk when I was twelve going on thirteen, my heart would’ve just stumbled right out of my chest. I had such a crush on you.”

Now his grin didn’t flash. The smile came slow and silky. “Is that so?”

“Oh my, yes. You with your skinny build, half-wild ways, and broody eyes were the object of my desperate affection and awakening hormones for weeks. Maybe even a few months, though at the time it seemed like years.”

Callen Skinner, like almost every Nora Roberts hero,  is a walking feminist dreamboat. He left home shortly after his father gambled away his birthright and killed himself. When he returns to work the land his family once owned, he holds no resentment toward the Longbows. Growing up, he was considered an honorary son by them and they were the only family he had outside of his mother and sister. Most importantly, Cal respects Bo’s authority as his boss and doesn’t try to undermine her just to show that he is the hero in the equation. This, the way her protagonists always have relationships where they view the other as a true equal, is why I love Nora Roberts. And the fact that the banter is top-notch doesn’t hurt a bit.

“You ought to have your eyes on a woman.”

“As they keep roaming your way, are you offering, Miss Fancy?”

She let out a hoot. “It’s a damn shame you were born fifty–oh, hell, sixty years too late.”

“But I am an old soul.”

She laughed agin, patted his cheek. “I always did have that soft spot for you.”

“Miss Fancy.” He took her hand, kissed it. “I’ve been in love with you all my life.”

The women rode through, a sedate walk. Then Miss Fancy looked back, sent him a wink. And leaped into a gallop.

“That’s all right,” Cal mumbled. “I didn’t need that year of my life.”

Things take a sinister turn when two women are found dead not far from the Bodine property, and it becomes obvious that a serial killer is loose in the Montana countryside. A police deputy with a long-held grudge casts suspicion Cal’s way, but Bo and her family remain steadfastly loyal to him. I really loved the way the characters pull together here, rather than allowing mistrust to get in the way of what they know is right. And then, a link is found to Alice’s disappearance, plunging the family into a web of darkness that will threaten everything they hold dear.

Most of the story takes place in the present, but flashbacks offer some insight into Alice’s plight. Eventually, the two storylines merge, and this is where the novel really starts to shine. Come Sundown contains a darkness and intensity that isn’t present in all of Ms. Roberts’ books. She doesn’t shy away from exploring the darker side of humanity here, and, while some readers might find this off-putting, I loved it. I like my suspense on the gritty side, and Ms. Roberts definitely delivers.

Perhaps this novel’s greatest strength is its characters. Most of them, especially the grandmas, are the kind of people I’d love to hang out with in real life and the author’s depiction of family life is heart-warming and authentic. These are not the kind of people who let silly miscommunications and misunderstandings get in the way of their love for one another. They argue sometimes, as all families do, but the reader never doubts they’ll be there for one another when the going gets rough.

The writing is so lush and atmospheric, I felt like I was right there in the story. Ranches have played prominent roles in a few of Ms. Roberts’ other books, and it seems she must have quite a bit of first-hand experience with ranch life because she always brings them to life beautifully.

A word of caution, though. If you’re someone who is troubled by graphic violence, you might want to give this a pass, as a large part of the story is spent detailing the horrific abuse that Alice suffered for over 25 years.  But whether you’re already a mega fan of Nora Roberts’ writing, or someone picking up one of her books for the first time, I can’t recommend Come Sundown highly enough. The suspense is engrossing, the romance is delightful, and the characterization is superb.