Review: “If We Were Villains” by M.L. Rio

If We Were Villains

If it isn’t glaringly obvious by now, I should tell you guys that I used to read a lot of books when I was a kid. It was mostly fairy tales, Enid Blyton, Beatrix Potter, L.M. Montgomery and the Great Illustrated Classics series. That is until I reached the 3rd grade and was introduced to the literary genius of William Shakespeare. Over the years, as I moved from lapping up the Charles Lamb kiddie version to the unabridged works of the Bard of Avon himself, I realized why this man is considered one of the greatest ever.

If We Were Villains quote

Debut author and a self-described “word nerd”, M.L. Rio, holder of a Master’s degree in Shakespeare Studies, uses her background to write a stunning mystery revolving around a cast of self-absorbed young actors that the Bard himself would be proud of.

The book opens with the protagonist, Oliver Marks, about to be released from prison after serving ten years for murder. The man who put him there is still not convinced that he did it. Oliver agrees to tell him the truth on one condition: that there be no repercussions for the real culprit.

Cut to ten years ago, when Oliver is a theater major in his final year at the elite Dellecher Classical Conservatory. His circle consists of his fellow thespians and housemates, all so deeply entrenched in the Shakespeare-only syllabus of their school that they often have entire conversations in quotes and poetry. Over the course of their last year, as the group performs works as varied as Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet among others, we come to know their insecurities and their motivations. The story comes to a head when an unexpected death exposes the fault lines in an ostensibly tight-knit group and the line between reality and play-acting is truly blurred.

The story is told from the perspective of Oliver Marks, but we get to know his six peers very intimately. Each one is distinctive and memorable, and I honestly can’t decide who my favorite is. I really enjoyed the friendship between the students, individually and as a whole. Each relationship in this book – whether romantic or platonic – is complex and realistic and interesting.

I found the book to be exceedingly clever. Ms Rio does a tremendous job of piecing together the events of ten years ago with the reality of the present. Despite the heavy influences of Shakespeare, the book has a distinct narrative voice. Oliver, James, Wren, Filippa, Richard, Meredith, and Alexander are fully fleshed out and vivid characters, both on and offstage. These characters speak Shakespeare like a language in its own right, with double meanings layered into every sentence. 

If We Were Villains is a love letter to Shakespeare and the theater. Ms Rio’s characters often blur with the characters they play and are affected by the plots they recreate. Shakespeare isn’t just mentioned in this book a lot, his writing is almost a character in an of itself, and it is brilliant! I will say, that Ms Rio definitely has an exhaustive knowledge of Shakespeare (obviously), and someone who isn’t very familiar with his writing may not quite understand some of the subtleties of this book.

That being said, I would recommend this book to all fans of the Bard and anyone who loved The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

Review: “Your Wicked Heart” (Rules for the Reckless #0.5) by Meredith Duran

Your Wicked Heart

All Amanda Thomas ever wanted in life was to travel. Taking up a secretarial job after the death of her parents, she didn’t expect to find herself stood up at the altar in Greece by a viscount. When she goes to confront him, she encounters a dangerously handsome man claiming to be the real Viscount Ripton. While Amanda is still reeling from this shocking development, the man unceremoniously kidnaps her and locks her in a cabin on the next ship back to England.

Spence has been traveling all over Europe looking for his cousin Charles when he hears that a man has been using his name and letters of credit. Following the trail all the way to Greece, he encounters the impossibly pretty Amanda who claims to be affianced to the man who’s stolen his identity and sounds a lot like his missing cousin. Believing her to be a charlatan, he forcibly takes her with him on his search for Charles.

While aboard the ship and sharing a cramped cabin, Amanda realizes that the man she had agreed to marry to flee her cruel employer was an impostor. Spence still thinks of her as a fraud at best and a gold-digger at worst till she honestly tells him that all she intended to offer her husband in return was respect, affection, honesty and support. Ever since the death of his parents while he was young, Spence had grown cynical and world-weary living with his brutish uncles and a slew of wastrel cousins. The story is about how a jaded man falls in love with a steadfast woman who makes him see the world with fresh and hopeful eyes.

Even though the novella consists of a little over a hundred pages, Ms. Duran has done an admirable job of developing the plot, resulting in a well-fleshed out romance. The banter is witty, the character development is realistic and the sex scene was written in such a reverential tone that it became the highlight of the story for me. Despite the era, Spence was a man who believed in the importance of consent when it came to sexual relations, making him a better protagonist than about 90% of all romance heroes. Amanda managed to come across as a mature woman with a realistic outlook on life despite being a straitlaced virgin. And the story contained enough twists to make the HEA not seem inevitable.

I haven’t read many romance novellas but Your Wicked Heart was an outstanding example of the genre.

Review: “Speed of Life” by Carol Weston

Speed of Life

Fourteen-year-old Sofia Wolfe is still reeling from the sudden death of her beloved mother almost a year ago when her best friend takes her to a talk by an advice columnist called “Dear Kate”. Despite her initial misgivings, a grieving Sofia writes to Kate to fill the absence of a mother figure. Kate is pretty cool for an agony aunt and understands that not all families have two parents. This encourages Sofia to send her father to another Dear Kate talk. Soon, Sofia is regularly corresponding with Kate about grief, puberty, boys and growing pains.

A year after Sofia’s mother’s death, she realizes her father has started seeing someone. On the one hand, she dearly loves her father and wants to see him happy. On the other hand, she feels it’s too soon and Sofia doesn’t want her mother to be replaced. Imagine her surprise when Dad’s new girlfriend turns out to be none other than “Dear Kate”.

Embarrassed beyond belief, Sofia doesn’t know how to tell Kate that she has been corresponding with her for months beforehand. To compound the problem, Kate has a teenage daughter, Alexa, who is not pleased with the sudden onslaught of strangers in her mother’s life, especially seemingly perfect Sofia. Sofia and her father need to vacate the apartment, which leads them to move in with Kate and Alexa. And, at her new school, Sofia falls for a boy who has a complicated history with Alexa. How ever will she survive this year?

Even though the story is geared at children and young adults, Ms Weston has done a marvelous job of describing Sofia’s grief. Devastated by her loss, it is heartbreaking to see Sofia not understand the normal mother-teenage daughter tension between Kate and Alexa. Narrated over the course of a year, it’s heartening to see Sofia stop grieving and accept that the presence of another woman in her father’s life and her family does not mean that her mother won’t always be with her in spirit. Living with “Dear Kate” also makes her see the flawed woman behind the advice columnist persona.

While the story centers around Sofia, Ms. Weston pays a generous amount of attention to the secondary characters. The arc that Sofia’s relationship takes with Alexa was one of my favourites. The narration from Sofia’s point of view lends the story a poignant and simple tone. It is lovely to see her blossom into a happy young woman with a new “family”. Kudos to Ms. Weston for turning the Cinderella trope on its head and writing a heartwarming and touching story about grief, moving on and growing up.

Review: “Left at the Altar” (A Match Made in Texas #1) by Margaret Brownley

Left at the Altar
Feuds don’t need no reason. Or at least none that matter.”
The year is 1880. The place, Two-Time, Texas, a town filled with gun-toting opinionated people with short fuses. In best-selling author Margaret Brownley’s opening book in her A Match Made in Texas series, Romeo and Juliet gets turned on its head and thoroughly (and delightfully) “western”-ized.
Meg Lockwood and Tommy Farrell have been friends all their life. Children of feuding jewelers who seek to control the town by imposing their own time zones, their wedding was supposed to broker a much sought temporal compromise that goes up in flames when Tommy jilts Meg at the altar.
The sole witness to her humiliation, Grant Garrison, an East Coast lawyer who has recently moved to Two-Time after the tragic death of his sister. Enchanted by Meg’s beauty and courage, Grant nonetheless agrees to represent Tommy in a breach of promise suit filed by meg’s furious father.
Despite their constant run-ins and instant mutual attraction, Grant stays away from Meg and is the perfect foil to the crazy Texans he’s surrounded by. Despite his staid demeanour, there are flashes of wit and a wicked sense of humour. Meg, on the other hand, was a romance heroine I had difficulty warming up to. At first, her thinking seemed provincial and mired in outdated societal mores like propriety and obedience. However, as the story progressed, however, and Meg herself started questioning the roles women are required to play throughout their lifetime (and the alternate ways they can wield power in the absence of political rights) gave the novel a much appreciated proto-feminist bent.
I haven’t read a lot of “clean” romances and it took me over 150 pages to realize that Left at the Altar was one of them. Ms Brownley managed to adequately convey the chemistry between the protagonists, though it is my personal belief that romance could have been developed a tad better. There were a lot of parallel story-lines which left little room for the romance to blossom independently.
The breach of promise suit proves to be a very interesting plot device and also ends up being quite educational through the nuanced arguments made in court and the author’s note at the end of the story. The feud angle felt a bit contrived to me in the beginning but the twisted revolution towards the end proved to be a satisfying explanation. Ms Brownley does a marvelous job of fleshing out her secondary characters and many remain memorable.
Ms Brownley’s Left at the Altar is a fun opener for her A Match Made in Texas series, incorporating socially conscious historical fiction with good, clean romance.   

Review: “The City of Mirrors” (The Passage #3) by Justin Cronin

City of Mirrors

The night is ours again. The vampire apocalypse is finally over. And I apologise in advance for all the lame vampire jokes I’m about to crack.

As survivors know, the bloodletting started in 2010 with The Passage, an engorged thriller by Justin Cronin. A graduate of Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Cronin had published a couple of literary novels before going to the dark side and selling his projected vampire trilogy for over $3.5 million. Fox 2000 landed the first book — then half-written — for $1.75 million for Scott Free to produce. Originally developed as a feature, the producers eventually determined that the property would be better served as a TV series. Sophisticates may have sucked their fangs, but how electrifying it felt to have a fine writer spread his wings and swoop into this garlic-breath genre. With its blood-slick pacing and sympathetic heroes, The Passage was a killer antidote to the CrossFit vampires colonizing the twilight.

Yes, it’s true: Cronin’s story of a bat virus that destroys human civilization got a bit bogged down in the second volume, The Twelve. But those of us hypnotized by this tale were eagerly awaiting the finale. In The City of Mirrors, we finally find out what happens to the remnant of humanity that survived those decades of terror.

But beware all who enter. This is very much a sequel for the twice-bitten. The uninfected reader will wander around these dark passages entirely lost. The City of Mirrors opens a few years after the cataclysmic confrontation that ended The Twelve. So far as anyone can tell, the vampires were all destroyed. Our modest warrior-hero Peter Jaxon eventually assumes the presidency of a bustling settlement of a hundred thousand souls in Texas. There are now substantial settlements of beleaguered humans, and the real crisis is not shooting a “smoke” or “drac” or “flyer” in the chest, but creating a feasible tax regime. “People had begun to openly talk about moving outside the wall,” Cronin writes. “The age of the viral was over; humankind was finally on the upswing. A continent stood for the taking.”

The epic climax turns out to be bathetic, though the flashback to Patient Zero’s former life as Timothy Fanning is actually rather good. An inset novella, it tells of being a middle-class boy in a prestigious university, beguiled by wealth and crippled by self-doubt. In the intervening century, he’s devolved into some kind of vampiric Miss Havisham, determined to make the whole world pay for his broken heart. Fortunately, one of the emotionally wounded characters from the previous book has found a massive freighter in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s determined to turn it into a latter-day Noah’s Ark — an insurance policy just in case the vamps come leaping back.

The trilogy exemplifies Anthropocene masochism. When humanity has irreversibly changed the nature of the environment, the environment bites back – literally, in this case. Humanity’s ubiquity conjures fantasies of its own extinction. What survives of us is not, despite the book’s sentimentality, love; but bureaucracy. Throughout the trilogy, the central concerns are planning, management, pragmatism and resource allocation.

The Passage focused on the response to the cataclysm and the strict government of the survivors (for example, children are not allowed to know about the disaster until a certain age). The Twelve was less concerned with the serial killer vampires – most of whom were never even fleshed out – than with the totalitarian regime in Iowa that collaborated with them. The City of Mirrors is more thrilling when dealing with the relationship between the black market and the official economy than the boo-hooing of the principal villain. Even the vampires have to deal with a diminishing food supply and the results of their over-plundering. The monster in the first book tried factory farming humans; the Iowan quislings were very keen on biofuels in the second book, and now Zero himself embarks on a proactive rewilding strategy. In the earlier books, the walled townships could be seen as a prophetic parody of Donald Trump’s isolationism. The third book has everyone except the Americans dead, and they are thus charged with making humanity great again. Zero has a great affection for the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Hamlet; the courageous pioneers think Moby-Dick is too difficult, wondering if it is even written in English. The future is delightfully philistine.

Cronin picks open the wound with a few unnerving disappearances, but then once the lights go out, he launches breathtaking Homeric battles between viral hordes and soft-bellied humans. Back in New York, the conflict soars from one abandoned skyscraper to another — a spectacular clash that looks ready-made for Ridley Scott. And he’s even more frightening in crowded, locked rooms where sweaty survivors listen to the vamps sniffing under the door. The lucky ones are eaten alive; the others become blood brothers of the nastiest sort.

It’s all deliciously exciting — right up until the epilogue, which zooms ahead 900 years to a world that seems as alien as last Thursday. Inexplicably, the passing of a millennium and the murder of 7 billion people have given birth to a new civilization pretty much like ours. “History teaches us that there are no guarantees,” drones some professor at an academic conference around the year 3000. “We ignore the lessons of the Great Catastrophe at our peril,” he says, which suggests that platitudes, like cockroaches, will survive us all.

What good is immortality, Count Dracula might wonder, if the distant future is so deadeningly familiar?

Review: “A Way Back Into Love” by Veronica Thatcher

Way Back Into Love

I don’t have any particularly strong feelings on plagiarism. I’m from India. Some of our most famous songs and movies have been directly “inspired” from the works of others, to the extent that we just change the names of the characters and the setting to something that is “Indian” and release it. While it is true that it is insanely difficult to be truly original when it comes to artistic endeavours, creators should be aware of the thin line that divides an homage from a rip-off. Sadly, Ms Thatcher, a debut author, and an evident Grey’s Anatomy superfan, was unable to do so in her book, A Way Back Into Love.

Emily Stevens and Derek Thorpe (yes, Derek) have been best friends since childhood and it is blindingly obvious to the reader that they are both madly in love with each other. Of course, neither is sure of the other’s feelings even though they have no trouble in understanding every other innermost desire of their friend. After a drunken night and a busload of misunderstandings, Emily leaves California for Boston, heartbroken. Five years later, she returns to do her internship at the hospital where her parents are big-shots, carve an identity of her own and face Derek again. Derek, in the meantime, is engaged to Emily’s bitchy half-sister, Emma, and there seems to be no love lost between them. The big question is: Will Emily and Derek find their way back into love with each other?

To clarify, I don’t think it’s wrong at all to want the characters you create to resemble the characters you love. Hell, if I ever publish a book, I will strive to ensure that my hero is a mixture of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rhett Butler, Chuck Bass and any Nora Roberts male protagonist. But when the similarities also extend to the family structure (Derek grew up in all-female household), the backstory (Emily’s mother is an accomplished surgeon but a cold mother), the secondary characters (Renee resembling Cristina and the nerdy guy contracting syphilis from a nurse) and an instance where Derek’s womanizing best friend, Carter, is accidentally referred to as Mark, it all becomes a bit too much. In addition, I found the banter between the protagonists very juvenile considering the fact they are surgical interns. The shifting POVs in the midst of the plot and the unconventional story structure that seemed to go on and on after what I thought should have been the Happily Ever After made this a very difficult read for me to like.

I would like to end my post by saying that I don’t hate the book. Despite its many shortcomings, I saw some potential in Ms Thatcher’s writing, especially in the moments when Derek and Emily are finding their way back to each other. I wish her all the best for her future.

I was provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The views expressed are personal and not meant to be derogatory in any respect.

Review: “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain

Paris Wife

The story of The Paris Wife is familiar to anyone who knows A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of “how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy“. Feast was written some 30 years after Hemingway left Hadley for her friend Pauline Pfeiffer, who would become the second of his four wives. McLain retells Feast from Hadley’s perspective, in the tradition of novels such as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, giving voice to a pivotal and yet comparatively silent woman from a classic book. The difference between the two is that the action here is largely seen through Hadley’s eyes; the domestic takes precedence and there are more emotions and exposition than Papa would permit.

Hadley Richardson is 28 when she first meets the glamorous young war hero at a party. Wholesome, a little old-fashioned, she’s resigned to a spinsterish existence, living unmarried and unemployed in the upper floor of her sister’s house. Despite the cobwebs she is, as Ernest quickly spots, “a good clear sort“, and so he marries her and whisks her from St Louis to the whirlwind of 1920s Paris, in part because it was comparatively cheap for expatriates just after the First World War. The young Hemingways were soon befriended by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear, James Joyce, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Modernism was taking flight: in February 1922 Sylvia Beach would publish Joyce’s Ulysses, and in December 1922 T.S. Eliot and Pound published The Waste Land. Hemingway absorbed it all.

Even stripped to the core, the story possesses a classically tragic arc, and it’s not hard to see its appeal to a novelist bent on re-fleshing bare bones. Ernest and Hadley – Tatie, as they call each other – begin their expat life in a flush of love. He writes, she cooks, and they drink away the evenings “until we were beautifully blurred and happy to be there together“. The first ripple of disharmony comes when Hadley decides to bring all Ernest’s manuscripts – three years of work, copies included – with her in a valise to a rendezvous in Switzerland. Of course, the case is lost, and the disaster exposes a fault line between the pair that’s only further strained when Hadley discovers she’s pregnant.

McLain atmospherically evokes the garret apartments in which they lived; the notorious trip to Lausanne during which Hadley lost all of Hemingway’s drafts; the outings to the Paris races, skiing in Austria and bullfighting in Pamplona – the trips that would inspire The Sun Also Rises. It was an era of “open” marriages, although the openness was often one-sided, as McLain pointedly shows male artists such as Pound, Ford and, eventually, Hemingway, trying (often successfully) to install their mistresses in the same home as their wives. McLain resists the facile idea that such ménages were a jolly party in the first era of free love: as Hadley gradually becomes aware that Hemingway might be unfaithful, first with Lady Duff Twysden, the inspiration for Brett Ashley, and later, much more seriously, with her friend Pauline, she must decide how “modern” she’s prepared to be.

Hadley is a deeply touching character, dignified even as she loses almost everything she’s loved, and making her goodness both convincing and interesting is an impressive feat. McLain captures Hemingway’s legendary charisma and his fatal tendencies toward bullying and boastfulness. She also manages to evoke his hypnotic, infectious cadences in her own prose without straying into parody: Hadley remembers “The wine and the sunshine and the warm stones under our feet. He wanted everything there was to have, and more than that.” Some might wish McLain had given Hadley a voice more distinct from the highly stylised prose of Feast – but for anyone steeped in that book its idiom is an undeniably effective way of making the story feel good and simple and true.

McLain writes with vivid, memorable touches: the pregnant Hadley, game to the last, sewing baby blankets between bullfights; Hemingway declaring that Pound can’t be “the devil”, because “I’ve met the devil . . . and he doesn’t give a damn about art“. Fitzgerald assures Hadley the first time they meet that he’ll write something new if she will “promise to admire every word extravagantly“; McLain has a similarly good ear for Zelda’s famously imagistic language, having her describe a flapper as “decorative and unfathomable and all made of silver“. The Paris Wife sings with such pitch-perfect renderings of famous voices, grounded in a tale made all the more poignant for our knowledge of how sad all the young men and women will turn out to be, how the bright young things will tarnish and disintegrate. In drafts cut from the first edition of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway explains: “This is about the first part of Paris . . . That Paris you could never put into a single book.” Maybe not – but Paula McLain has come impressively close.

Review: “Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty

big-little-lies

When I picked up my first Liane Moriarty at an airport a couple of years ago, I had to choose between an exploding rose and an exploding lollipop. From what little I could gather from the cover, The Husband’s Secret, my alternative, was about women with ethical and emotional issues, men with possibly criminal ones, and contentious goings-on at a school. If you’ve read Big Little Lies, or seen the Reese Witherspoon-Nicole Kidman-Shailene Woodley drama now on HBO, you’ll know it has more of the same.

I have always found Ms. Moriarty’s books to be long and gossipy as if she’s using stalling as a literary device. She introduces several sets of major characters, cutting back and forth among them, and scatters the narrative with foreshadowing about the terrible, terrible night — on which something terrible happened. The book is peppered with parents’ voices commenting cryptically and amusingly about whatever it was. Was the root cause a French nanny? An erotic book club? Head lice? Seeing how its predecessor was a #1 New York Times bestseller, Ms. Moriarty seems assured that her readers will happily plow through countless minor incidents to find out.

After a calamity has been established, we jump back to a chapter called “Six Months Before the Trivia Night.” And the book establishes what a power-crazed group parents of kindergarteners can be. The book is set on a scenic peninsula outside Sydney, Australia, near a beautiful beach, where there is only one school, which must accommodate children of very different backgrounds. So there are rich, bossy power moms and mousy stay-at-home types. One of the mice is the literally plain Jane, a single mother trying to make ends meet. New to the area, she gets into trouble before school has even started. At the end of orientation day, a hotshot mother with a high-powered job accuses Jane’s son, Ziggy, of having tried to hurt her daughter. Ziggy becomes a pariah, and Jane becomes a victim.

Two other moms come to Jane’s rescue. One is Celeste, who is impossibly perfect and beautiful — impossibly because, in Ms. Moriarty’s literary universe, everybody is hiding something awful. The other is Madeline Martha Mackenzie, for whom the wearing of spike heels is a main character trait and who tends to get outraged at the drop of a hat. Despite her apparent bubbly nature, Madeline was abandoned by a husband who now has a New Age-y wife and a young daughter who is in the same class with Madeline’s daughter with her second husband. And on and on it goes.

As the book proceeds and the schadenfreude kicks in, we discover just how secretly miserable these women are. Suffice it to say that bullying and cruelty were major themes throughout, with some well-researched parts about domestic violence thrown in. As for the question of whether Ziggy, who turns out to be the product of a one-night stand, really is a vicious boy at heart, the book traces a long strand of DNA right into one of the other kindergarten families.

Ms. Moriarty writes all this in an easy, girlfriend-y style that occasionally sounds flat. And a low-level bitchiness thrums throughout the narrative, becoming one of its indispensable pleasures. The witnesses’ descriptions of whatever happened are usually comically distorted, as in a game of telephone, so that everyone’s understanding of what happened at Trivia Night is at best half-wrong. The Australian busybody is a type very much in evidence here, and if there’s one trait all the mothers share, it’s wanting to bad-mouth all the other ones.

Ms. Moriarty also sends up the kinds of crises that rise to epic proportions in the hothouse of a contentious kindergarten. Woe betide the mother who loses Harry the Hippo, the official class toy. Here’s what she gets for trying to make reparations: “That cheap synthetic toy she replaced it with smelled just terrible. Made in China. The hippo’s face wasn’t even friendly.” Then there are the opposing forces that face off over a petition to ban birthday cupcakes. (“It’s so adversarial. Why can’t you just make a suggestion?”) But by the time the teacher insists that the kids make posters illustrating their family trees, real harm is being done over a supposedly innocent matter. Ziggy doesn’t even know his father’s name. And all hell will break loose if Jane reveals it.

The ferocity that Ms. Moriarty brings to scenes of masculine sadism really is shocking. A seemingly fluffy book suddenly touches base with vicious reality, in ways that gives Big Little Lies a definite edge over her earlier works. She’s done her homework well in describing the uh-oh moments, the tiny slights, the faint changes in the atmosphere around a charming, loving Dr. Jekyll who is about to turn into Mr. Hyde, and the battered woman who has learned to live with this and make excuses for it. Big Little Lies isn’t likely to attract much of a male readership, aside from the demographic of guys who enjoy being demonized. But it champions its women with a handy, all-purpose rationale: Sometimes doing the wrong thing is also right.

Review: “A Window Opens” by Elisabeth Egan

a-window-opens

There was this article in The New York Times a couple of years ago about Amazon, which sparked a larger debate about work culture at tech companies, that kept flashing in my head as I read Elisabeth Egan’s A Window Opens. Although the debut novelist sends her protagonist to work at a company called Scroll, the similarities between the two retail giants are fairly obvious. Both start off selling books and quickly expand to include anything a customer might want. Both make use of computer-generated data for a laser-like focus on commercial success. And both, apparently–if the Times report is to be believed–expect nothing less than complete, servile allegiance from their employees.

As A Window Opens begins, Alice is a part-time books columnist and a full-time mother of three. A New Jersey suburbanite, she enjoys spending time with her best friend, who owns an independent bookstore, her lawyer husband, and their extended family. The only disruption in her merry life is her father’s cancer, which has robbed him of his voice but appears to be in remission. All that changes when her husband’s career goes off the rails, and Alice is forced to seek a full-time job.

At first, the position at Scroll sounds ideal. Although Alice doesn’t understand much of the jargon of her new workplace, she is thrilled to be “Content Manager-slash-Industry Liaison,” or, as she is told by her chummy supervisor Genevieve, “an arbiter of impeccable taste,” collecting titles to sell in upscale Scroll “lounges.” She learns to call printed books “carbon based” and to mouth tenets like “we don’t sell merchandise, we sell the future.”

Although the job quickly becomes more than full-time and Alice misses “the kindergarten ice cream social, the first day of school, a PTA meeting,” she is content. Only just as Alice is almost accustomed to both the new grind and the loss of family time, her father’s health takes a turn for the worse. And then her bosses begin to ask for more, pushing Alice into a new position that targets her sensitivities both as a longtime bibliophile and as a mother.

That’s where Ms Egan, currently the books editor at Glamour magazine after a brief stint at Amazon Publishing, falters. Although the “pivot,” to use a Scroll word, isn’t that far-fetched, it is one step too far. It’s all a little too perfectly horrid, just as Genevieve is a little too duplicitous, bonding with Alice over House Hunters before firing off denigrating emails to Alice’s work account.

Likewise, her colleagues–all younger and apparently childless–are a little too clueless. Not one seems to have any understanding of how cancer affects a family, as if illness were only confined to the over-35 crowd, and when, on a visit to corporate headquarters, Alice overhears the line “What can I say? She’s a mom,” she recognizes it as an insult.

 With its sharp, perceptive humour, this novel plays like The Devil Wears Prada for the online giant, poking fun at the kind of ridiculous situations that anyone who has worked with a start-up will recognize. But A Window Opens lacks The Devil Wears Prada‘s moment of realization–that is, any revelation about the awful boss’s humanity. While we do get to see the toll of the stress on Genevieve–“her nails were dull, bitten to the quick. There was a greenish cast to her skin“–we never learn what motivated her. Without more understanding of how she became the “befriend then berate” leader who so disappointed Alice, Genevieve remains one-dimensional, as do too many of the supporting characters in this book.

Ms Egan obviously tapped into the zeitgeist with her debut, capturing not only the craziness of an Amazon-like company but also the debate over the “Lean In” philosophy that would have women, even mothers of three, commit to their jobs at any cost. She does so with wit, weaving the family stories into the workplace saga. But at almost-400 pages, A Window Opens is a little too long for what is simply a humourous, topical novel. The Scroll jargon must have been great fun to write, but replacing some of that with more fully realized characters would have made this book better.

Exposed in Darkness (In Darkness #1) by Heather Sunseri

exposed-in-darkness

I am a Nora Roberts superfan. I have read and reread every one of her books and the woman redefined the genre of romance for me, whether it was between vampires and witches, or a super badass cop with a charming Irish billionaire. Right after I finished her latest, Echoes In Death,  I was left wanting more. Thankfully, I had a copy of Heather Sunseri’s foray into romantic suspense, Exposed in Darkness, and I am so happy to have found a new favourite author in the genre.

Brooke Fairfax left the FBI after the tragic death of her husband in an op that went south. Overpowered by grief and guilt, she cut off all ties with the Bureau until a message from her Confidential Human Source (CHS), Romeo, shows her the poisoning of Kentucky’s Lt. Governor. Believing the Governor, her ex-brother-in-law, to be the actual target, Brooke heads to Lexington to stop the threat.

Suspect number one: Declan O’Roark. Charming Irish billionaire with a passion for great bourbon and thoroughbreds. Despite being pursued by the feds, all Declan wants is to unravel the mystery that is Brooke and take away the pain she seems determined not to share with anyone. When a second attack results in the death of another innocent man, Declan and Brooke race to figure out who the mastermind is and how to stop him from committing an act of terrorism at the Bluegrass Derby.

At first glance, there are an awful lot of similarities between the iconic In Death series by Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb and Ms Sunseri’s new In Darkness series. But what sets this book apart is Ms Sunseri’s strong and complex sense of storytelling. Unlike Robb, Ms Sunseri gives us a peek into Declan’s mind and I loved it.  The location and history of the small Kentucky town truly make it a character of its own. The characters are motivated by a complicated web of culture, political, and socio-economic factors. In other words, Exposed in Darkness is both timely and realistic.

There is a really interesting climax scene that juxtaposes the Derby race with the final threat. While I found the big reveal to be slightly predictable, there were a lot of questions left unanswered and I, for one, am eagerly waiting for Ms Sunseri’s next book in the series. I would recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of the romantic suspense genre but especially to my fellow In Death superfans.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.