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: 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: YOU DON’T HAVE TO SAY YOU LOVE ME by Sarra Manning

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me looked like a fairly predictable book to me. Even before I cracked open its spine, I knew it was going to be a typical romantic comedy, a prime example of “chick lit”, just like hundreds of books I’d already read, but was always willing to give a try nonetheless. Mostly, I picked it up because a person whose taste in books I trust implicitly told me it was a must-read. Needless to say, she was absolutely right.

Along the lines of the inimitable Bridget Jones, Ms. Manning’s protagonist, Neve Slater, is an intelligent young woman who works at the London Literary Archives, but she’s also a highly insecure person. Since her teenage years, Neve had been teased mercilessly about her weight. Over the last three years, she has taken great pains to lose that weight, but she’s still not happy. For Neve, happiness means a size 10 dress and a happily-ever-after with her intellectual soulmate, William, a friend from university who currently lives in L.A, and will be returning in a few months. Neve is not only physically preparing herself for their reunion but, as a 25-year old virgin, she desperately needs some experience with relationships and romance as well. Thus, after a super bumpy start, she winds up in a “pancake relationship” with her sister’s boss and charismatic womanizer, Max.

To cut a long story short, Max and Neve fall in love, have issues they end up resolving, and readers of the genre can easily predict what happens when Wiliam returns. And still, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is a beautiful book I will read multiple times in the future. What makes it such a page-turner is the endearing way Ms. Manning has fleshed out Neve. From the start, her voice has an authenticity that I instantly related to. Even when it seemed like she was constantly cribbing about her size, her insecurities came across as real and her journey is one many women can identify with.

The manner in which Ms. Manning explored Neve’s world, showing how her issues affected not just every part of her life but also her thought process, and the change that came about in her as her relationship with Max progressed, was delightful yet plagued with the same issues a lot of feminist readers have with the genre of romance. Neve’s sense of happiness was constantly linked with the state of her relationship with Max. While their relationship is shown to progress in a very realistic manner, it was only when Neve was finally sure about her feelings with Max does she stop caring about how she looks. While that’s great for her, it still sends an incredibly problematic yet very common message. You don’t need a man to love you for who you are (as amazing as that is) to feel good about your body. You can be single and still live a happy life without constantly weighing and measuring yourself. That’s not a message this book succeeded in sending because it felt like if Max ever left the picture, Neve would just relapse.

Neve, when the story begins, is just another woman who was been body-shamed by society and its idolization of stick-figure beauty. Her insecurities persist despite having lost over 200 pounds because of the psychological trauma inflicted by her childhood bullies. The worst of the lot is now her sister-in-law, who lives downstairs and still terrorizes the hell out of Neve. An independent and well-educated woman, completely healthy for her size now,  Neve refused to see herself as “fit” or “healthy” or happy till she attained her goal of fitting into a particular dress size. And while this is a very common struggle, Ms. Manning paid scant attention to the body image issues of the other women in the book, like Neve’s younger sister Celia.

And despite the above-mentioned flaws, I really cannot stress how much I loved reading this book. I enjoyed the hilarity and realness of Neve’s narration and her blundering, romantic and utterly sweet relationship with Max. Of course, I love wicked, sexy, and surprisingly sensitive Max. I can’t remember his last name, but I fell hard for him. I feel like Ms. Manning could have told us a lot more about him, but whatever I read, I adored. Despite my problems with the trope, it was amazing to see him deal with Neve’s food issues and accept her for who she was, even at her worst moments. So while Neve’s self-image is linked to her love life, it is also glaringly evident that she has come a long way from the person she was, and like all of us, she has a long way to go.

Ms. Manning has written a compulsively relatable novel that kept me reading and laughing well into the night. Although the book tackled some very real issues, it was still a super-cute contemporary romance. I just wish there was an epilogue so I could read more. 🙂

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: “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: ‘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: ‘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: 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.

 

Review: “It Happened on Love Street” (Everland, Georgia #1) by Lia Riley

It Happened On Love Street

At first glance, it seems too schmaltzy to be true. And in the beginning, it was. The town is called Everland. The address is actually Love Street. The hero is named Rhett Valentine. And, in theory, I should have been gagging and/or derisively snorting while reading this book, but Lia Riley’s small-town contemporary romance is so charmingly adorable that, despite my horrible mood, I couldn’t stop awwing and laughing out loud while reading it.

It Happened on Love Street opens with recent law-school graduate and big city girl, Pepper Knight, relocating to fanciful Everland, Georgia, only to find out that the job she moved halfway across the country for has been given to someone else. Having always been the responsible one in her family, Pepper refuses to ask for help until she bumps into local vet and hottie, Rhett Valentine.

Rhett Valentine, (yes, of course, the name made me swoon) was left at the altar by his first love a few years ago and now he spends his time trying to build a local animal shelter while feuding with his father, and keeping his personal life from again becoming local gossip. When his new sexy, dog-fearing neighbor needs help, he jumps to her rescue and obviously sparks fly and they start a steamy affair.

As I said, it all seems very sweet on the surface, so sweet that it’s cloying. But as I read It Happened on Love Street, I fell in love with the protagonists and the kooky town of Everland, Georgia. While the “Southernness” of it all seemed a bit too much at times, Ms. Riley has peppered (LOL) the story with hilarious dialogue and endearing secondary characters. There are a couple of plotlines that seemed out of place, like a lifelong cynophobe becoming a dog walker overnight just because the cute guy asked her, and the completely unneeded Psycho scenario that popped up in the middle.

But I would recommend It Happened on Love Street to all readers of contemporary romance. It is sexy. It is funny. For some reason, it has a treasure hunt. It is peppered  (I can’t stop!) with hilarious pop culture references. And it has dogs named after authors and a hero named Rhett. If that doesn’t sell it, I don’t know what will.