Review: ARE YOU SLEEPING by Kathleen Barber

Are You Sleeping

Since there is no novel way I can think of to explain what this book is all about, the synopsis is as follows:

Josie Buhrman has spent the last ten years trying to escape her family’s reputation and with good reason. After her father’s murder thirteen years prior, her mother ran away to join a cult and her twin sister Lanie, once Josie’s closest friend and confidant, betrayed her in an unimaginable way. Now, Josie has finally put down roots in New York, settling into domestic life with her partner Caleb, and that’s where she intends to stay. The only problem is that she has lied to Caleb about every detail of her past—starting with her last name.

When investigative reporter Poppy Parnell sets off a media firestorm with a mega-hit podcast that reopens the long-closed case of Josie’s father’s murder, Josie’s world begins to unravel. Meanwhile, the unexpected death of Josie’s long-absent mother forces her to return to her Midwestern hometown where she must confront the demons from her past—and the lies on which she has staked her future.

I was faced with a dilemma when I decided to write about Kathleen Barber’s debut thriller novel, Are You Sleeping. However, I don’t know how to write about it without giving any spoilers. At times, I’m not even sure if this is an actual quandary or some sort of mistake on the part of Ms Barber. If it’s the former, the issue could have been framed in a much better way. If it’s the latter, she really needs to get a better editor.

But then, when it comes to framing plot points, this novel is an extremely subpar example. I get why Josie decided to sever ties with her family. But when she gets the call about her mother’s death from her cousin, their easy bond and love for each other belie the hostility Josie says she feels about everyone back home. If she has been so cut off from her family, why isn’t there more tension when she decides to go back home?

The idea of a podcast based on a previously solved murder is timely, given the popularity of Serial and its ilk, and the idea of a novel about a podcast based on a previously solved murder sounds like publishing gold. The usage of this format at the beginning of some chapters was helpful in contextualizing the plot from the POV of someone who wasn’t the protagonist. The character of podcast host, Poppy Parnell, was extremely under-developed, reverting to the stereotype of a pushy journalist who has no respect for privacy and just shows up at random moments shoving microphones and cameras in the Buhrman family’s faces asking them “how they feel.”

Another major plot point in the story is the relationship Josie has with her twin sister, Lanie. Again, I’m not sure what I can say about this without giving out spoilers. Their characterization, along with that of the rest of the Buhrman family, felt very one-dimensional. Everybody has “explosive” secrets from everybody else at some point, yet no groundwork is laid to justify the actions of said characters.

What the characters lack in depth the book makes up for in pace. Ms Barber cuts in and out of past and present with admirable precision. Transcribed episodes of the “Reconsidered” podcast, along with Twitter and Reddit commentary from listeners, demonstrate how easily we can all get involved with (interfere with?) the lives of others today. For example, at the funeral-home viewing for Josie’s mother, acquaintances tweet out observations about the family. No one is safe from prying eyes.

Except for someone who disappears into a cult that prohibits all contact with the outside world (one of the book’s rare funny moments happens when a Life Force Collective member named Sister Amamus agrees to meet Josie at a Dairy Queen and insists that Josie pay for her Blizzard treat before talking). But as Josie’s renewed contact with Lanie runs the gamut of emotions from quiet sweetness to deep chaos, a box arrives from the Collective containing their mother’s effects, mostly beads and clothing and a few books. It will wind up being a Pandora’s Box for sure, but how and for whom?

All will be revealed — or will it? By the time Josie understands her family’s sad and complicated story, there’s more sadness to come. The twins’ mother suffered throughout their childhood from “melancholy”, and not always able to care for them in a consistent manner. Has her unstable mental health been passed on to her daughters? Which brings me back to that dilemma. If it’s deliberate, it’s one of the most subtle sleights of hand I’ve seen in a novel of suspense and proves that there are some places inside the human mind even social media can’t reach. But if it’s not, this was just a book with some exciting and intriguing aspects, that did not make complete sense to me in the end.

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

 

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Review: DARK IN DEATH (In Death #46) by J.D. Robb

Dark in Death

SHE’S BACK!!!

I have certain unwritten rules when it comes to my reviewing. As I have mentioned earlier, I don’t like reviewing the latest books in a series if I haven’t reviewed the earlier works too because it completely messes with what I plan on writing. However, all my rules go out the window and down the drain when it comes to the inimitable Ms Nora Roberts aka J.D. Robb. And they certainly don’t matter in the least if I love a book as much as I loved the 46th part of the In Death series, Dark In Death.

A woman gets murdered with an icepick in a movie theatre while watching the shower scene in Psycho. When Lieutenant Eve Dallas starts investigating, she is briefly stumped to find no apparent motive or suspects. When crime novelist Blaine DeLano arrives at Cop Central the next day to tell her that someone has been recreating the murder scenes from her bestselling series, Eve understands that she is up against a murderous fan. You would think knowing the profile of the next victim as well as the form taken by the perp to commit the murder should make this case a walk in the park for Lieutenant Eve Dallas and Detective Peabody. But Robb turns the plot into a thrilling chase with exciting subplots and a largely satisfying conclusion.

“A vid comes to you, even at you. It’s visual, it’s auditory, and can, of course, pull you in. Its purpose is to do just that, draw you into the world you see and hear. But a book? You go into it. There’s no visual or auditory other than what forms in your own mind. You visualize the characters, the scene, through the words. You, as reader, interpret the tone of voice, the colors, the movement as you physically turn the pages. Now you have a killer not just experiencing the story, not just replicating it, but living it. So you have to do the same, and that’s frustrating for a woman as reality-based as you. “And more,” he added, “with each killing she becomes a different character with a different motive, a different psyche.”

If it’s not glaringly obvious, I am a huge fan of the series. However, the last few books had majorly disappointed me. I felt like the plot was stuck and Ms Roberts seemed reluctant to take big risks when it came to the stakes involved in each case. I wouldn’t say that Dark In Death was a superb work of crime fiction. But it hit all the right chords with me, kept me up till 4 AM, laughing and reading as fast I could to find out who the killer was, and now writing this post, so I’m just delighted that the J.D. Robb I absolutely love is back. 😀

The plot, with its similarities to the pilot episode of Castle, had me hooked from the beginning. And the truth bombs Robb kept dropping about being a writer had me in splits and nodding my head as I recalled a post of hers I’d read recently. In it, Ms Roberts talks about writing from within a bubble, with no regard for the “chatter” she received from her readers on her work. It annoyed me initially but having made my own little forays into writing a book, I now completely get where she comes from.

She started to say she’d take coffee, then he distracted her. Just loosening his tie as he walked across the room to a fancy cabinet. Why was that sexy? she wondered. She didn’t even get why men insisted on wearing ties—and don’t get her started on Jenkinson. But the way Roarke loosened that knot, flipped open a couple buttons on the shirt? It was kick-in-the-guts sexy.

Now, what did I love the most? Eve and Roarke are ambitiously trying to have sex in every room of the house while Summerset’s on vacation. And they sit and read murder mysteries together in front of a fire in their home library! If it wasn’t for another one of those pesky rules, I would flood this post with all my highlighted quotes about their marriage and their chemistry. Roarke is a GOD among fictional men. Almost all of my favourite secondary characters make an appearance, and a new character is introduced that I hope to see a lot more of. Dark In Death was a delightful whodunit with a compelling and believable killer that made me ultra glad for having stuck with the series. As if I would have ever stopped.  😛

Lastly, I’m just gonna reiterate how effing happy I am to have fallen back in love with the In Death series. I can’t believe I have to wait until September for the next book.

Review: SHADOW SPELL (Cousins O’Dwyer Trilogy #2) by Nora Roberts

Shadow Spell

If you’re like me, a longtime fan of Nora Roberts, it will be nearly impossible for you to not compare Cousins O’Dwyer series with her other (read: better) paranormal romance trilogies. Sadly, making such comparisons can end only badly for Shadow Spell. Much like The Dark Witch, it had a fairly predictable storyline and an average-at-best romance.

As I read Shadow Spell, I couldn’t help comparing it to one of Ms. Roberts’ older books in a similar setting, Tears of the Moon. I absolutely loved that book. Shadow Spell follows the same plot of friends falling in love with each other and the same Nora Roberts’ brand of easy Irish charm. The difference is that Connor and Meara lack the chemistry and genuine conflict that made me enjoy reading these stories. The protagonists have been friends their whole lives and, although they were each other’s first kiss, they never had any romantic feelings towards each other. Until, one fine day, the adrenaline rush from an encounter with an ancient evil sorcerer drives them into each other’s arms.

It was very hard for me to buy Connor and Meara’s transition from friends to lovers. The whole thing happened out of the blue and they were both very accepting of this drastic change in their dynamic. In contrast, Tears of the Moon was so great because of how genuinely shocked Shawn was over Brenna’s sexual interest in him. I mean, if the idea of becoming lovers was so easy for Connor and Meara, why hadn’t they done it already? They were both unattached adults with no overt issues to a relationship. The lack of conflict in their story just made me lose interest in it. Then, the whole thing just seems overly evident that the timing of their relationship is totally contrived to fill in the gap between Boyle and Iona’s and Fin and Branna’s stories.

The dream scenes when Connor meets his ancestor, Eamon, are some of my favorites. Family is the running theme throughout the story, something Cabhan will never understand, and watching those two come together to share ideas and memories is heartwarming. Other favorite scenes are those of the gang around the kitchen table spread with a meal lovingly prepared by Branna. They theorize, strategize, argue, laugh, and just be a family at that table. The teasing and playfulness they all share is wonderfully done.

The biggest plus I can give this book is that at least Connor and Meara were interesting characters. Conner is kind of charming and fun to read. Also, we got a little more interaction between Branna and Fin. Of the three, theirs is the story I actually want to read. They have some built-in tension to work through thanks to their past and Fin’s relation to Cabhan. I am holding out hope that Ms. Roberts makes the best out of that in the next book and doesn’t resolve things too easily.

I think one of the biggest complaints longtime fans will have with Shadow Spell is that it really is nothing new. It seems obvious that Ms. Roberts’ trilogies have gotten formulaic, which may be all that can be expected from someone writing two-hundred plus books in roughly the same category. This new trilogy is much like the Gallaghers of Ardmore and the Key trilogies, although probably not as well written. I am really holding out hope for the last book, Blood Magick, but they’re not high hopes. As for the first two books, maybe just skip them and read one of her better trilogies that will give you the same magical or Irish feel.

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.

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.