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.

 

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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: “Blue-Eyed Devil” (Travises #2) by Lisa Kleypas

blue-eyed-devil

Haven Travis thought she was in love. Not even a passionate makeout session with a stranger in the wine cellar at her brother’s wedding could stop her from marrying Nick Tanner, the boyfriend her overprotective family strongly disapproved of. Two years later, after having endured the worst kind of hell in her abusive marriage, Haven returns to Houston to rebuild her life. As she tries to work in her brother’s property management company, start therapy and get a divorce, Haven runs right into Hardy Cates, her sister-in-law’s trailer park teenage crush and now a wealthy Houston oil tycoon. Her body still recovering from Nick’s last beating, Haven is still drawn to Hardy, just as she was when she kissed him two years ago.

Hardy, intent on pursuing Haven, has no idea about the trauma she has suffered. In fact, he still sees her as a spoiled college girl whose apparent liberalism was more intellectual snobbery than authentic sentiment. So when Haven tends to act a bit standoffish in response to his assertive, even aggressive pursuit, Hardy isn’t sure she’s merely skittish or a tease, and he tries even harder to win her over, purchasing a condo in the Travis building where Haven works, buying her a gift that brings back memories of Haven’s childhood, and inviting her to a dance with him in front of her family, who see him as a no good, lying jerk who will take advantage of Haven if given half a chance.

One complaint that I have with some romance novels is how some heroines who are recovering from abusive relationships somehow subconsciously recognize the hero as “safe” and have little to no compunction about jumping into a relationship–and in bed–with him. What I liked about Blue-Eyed Devil the most is that it did not follow this cliched path. From Sugar Daddy, we know that Hardy has a dark past, and Haven, who had no sexual experience before Nick, was at a double disadvantage, leading to some scenes where there is a realistic sense of conflict between the protagonists, showcasing their vulnerabilities. Hardy has his own demons from his trailer-park childhood, which makes his attraction to Haven very believable in a way that it wasn’t with Liberty, in the same way that Haven’s attraction to a man who reminds her of her approval-withholding father seems kind of logical. For many readers, this kind of psychological layering makes Blue-Eyed Devil an “issue book,” but for me, it’s really a book about people who have issues that make them good for each other but in ways that are really complicated and not instantly negotiable.

Still, the story is a romance at heart, and there is a certain amount of tension between the way the book tries to show Haven’s emotional journey in an authentic way and the almost fairy tale level of happiness we know Haven and Hardy will ultimately enjoy. On the one hand, I was really moved by Hardy’s reaction when he finally learns about Haven’s past and starts putting all the mixed signals in order. On the other hand, it is obvious that the scene was set up to push Hardy and Haven into physical intimacy so that their romance arc could progress. So, while we see Haven struggling to move forward from her abuse by dealing with a sociopathic boss and freaking out about Hardy in therapy, there is also a sense of her recovery being rushed so that Haven can have a healthy romantic relationship as soon as possible.

Plus, it’s not like Hardy is without his flaws, even though we know that he is supposed to be The One for Haven.But his missteps give his character some much-needed depth and let us see that this is a man who understands how vicious families can be, especially when he has his own self-destructive streak to manage. In Sugar Daddy, he was shown to be ruthless, selfish and willing to betray a trust to get what he wanted. But by Blue-Eyed Devil, we are supposed to be able to trust him as an appropriate partner for a largely fragile Haven, which means we have to believe he is fundamentally a decent guy. It might not be a problem for people who haven’t read  Sugar Daddy, but to me, his rehabilitation seemed quite artificial. It was a lot more believable to see what Haven gives to Hardy than to see Hardy as the guy who “saves” Haven.

In the end, though, Blue-Eyed Devil is as misleading a title for what was mainly Haven’s story as Sugar Daddy was for Liberty’s story. It’s not that the romance was an unimportant or peripheral aspect, or that the men were forgettable characters, but that the plot had a lot more substance by being about a woman’s journey to being able to trust and accept herself again. Overall, it was an engaging, emotionally fulfilling and psychologically satisfying read despite its many flaws and inconsistencies.

Review: “Tiger, Tiger” by Margaux Fragoso

Tiger Tiger

Who might know a paedophile better than the child on whom he (it’s usually a he) has lavished his attention, sometimes for years? Who has studied him as intimately, allowing him his humanity as most of us refuse to do?

Child molesters, reviled even within prison caste systems, receive little sympathy from the adult world–so little it’s hard for most of us to imagine how long-term sexual abuse can not only be facilitated but also perpetuated by a victim’s loyalty to his or her abuser. Children on whom paedophiles prey, often neglected and needy, advertise hearts as well as bodies to be plundered; for the child who loves his or her abuser, the sexual price exacted for what is offered as affection represents a betrayal from which not every child recovers. The lesson learned–that to be loved one must endure violation–sows a lasting tolerance, even desire, for injury and subjugation.

Spending time with a paedophile can be like a drug high,” Margaux Fragoso observes in her first book, Tiger, Tiger, a memoir of her 15-year relationship with Peter Curran, whom she met at a public pool in Union City, New Jersey, when she was 7 and he was 51. He “can make the child’s world…ecstatic somehow.” Fragoso’s response to Curran, whose genuinely inventive distractions tear her away from the protection of other adults, will continue to mimic the course of addiction, inevitably delivering her to a desperate, entrenched craving for what threatens to destroy her life.

It begins innocently, almost. Under-supervised by her guileless, mentally-ill mother and lacking the well-loved child’s reflexive suspicion of strangers, Fragoso finds a playmate with “bowl-cut, sandy-silver hair,” who “didn’t even seem adult in the sense of that natural separateness adults have from children.” Once she’s crossed the length of the pool to approach him, she asks if she can join him in splashing with his two stepsons. Seven, eight (“the most beautiful age” in Curran’s estimation), twelve, fifteen–as a girl, Fragoso never perceives Curran as he appears to those outside the magic circle he draws around the two of them, can’t see the man her adult self exposes to her readers: by turns pathetic and repellent.

Having binge-watched hundreds of episodes of Law & Order SVU in the past six months, it was incredibly creepy to see how Curran outfitted his home with purple-painted shingles; year-round Christmas decorations; an indoor swing; and a menagerie of reptiles, rodents and birds flying (and excreting) freely inside to demonstrate that in his private Neverland the usual rules don’t apply. Invited to his home with her mother–who, having been sexually abused herself, cannot even in her lucid moments recognise the danger her daughter is in–Fragoso is instantly smitten by the endlessly indulgent Curran. “I want you,” she tells him at the end of their first visit, “to make a schedule of days when we can visit your house.”

It’s testimony to Fragoso’s narrative ability that she can render both her own and Curran’s points of view convincingly, as different–opposed–as they are. Written without self-pity, rancour or even judgement, Tiger, Tiger forces readers to experience Curran simultaneously as the object of a little girl’s love and fascination and as a calculated sex offender who cultivates her dependence on him while contriving to separate her from anyone who might prevent his molesting her. Balanced uncomfortably between these antipodes, Tiger, Tiger is the portrait of a man who will disgust and alienated readers by a writer too honest to repudiate her love for him. There’s little suspense, as we know from the first sentence that Curran has committed suicide and that Fragoso remains sufficiently intact to explain what–who–destroyed her childhood. And while some readers whose appetite for a memoir may excuse the inaccuracies inherent to so subjective a genre, others may require a leap of faith to accept that a detailed account of early youth, including lengthy adult dialogue, could be reconstructed accurately.

So who–other than voyeurs looking for a sustained close-up of a paedophile in action–will want to read this book? To bear witness to a numbingly long series of violations of a child by a man who has honed his wickedness for decades is not more pleasant than it sounds. As a society we energetically oppose sexual abuse; as individuals most of us shy away from investigating a relationship characterised by creepy kisses and inappropriate fondling. Worse, we defend cowardice by calling it discretion–minding our own business. Maybe a book like Tiger, Tiger can help us be a little braver. Certainly, it took courage to write.

WARNING: These extended observations contains spoilers and sexually graphic descriptions.

What begins with mutual intoxication follows a slippery trajectory familiar to victims of long-term abuse: orgies of tickling, hide-and-seek played in the nude, pretending to be “real” and therefore necessarily naked “animals in the jungle,” “Bazooka Joe” kisses requiring two tongues to pass a chewed wad of gum back and forth. An experienced hunter, Curran knows when to watch, when to make a move and what to say. “Only if you want to, sweetheart. No pressure.”

There’s no need to apply any. As Curran well knows, Fragoso’s home life is so punishing she’ll do anything to secure the love and protection of the man her mother has decided “was Jesus in another life.” Once he’s lured Fragoso into his basement lair, Curran explains it is her “great power” that summons the erection of his “magic wand.”  Is it instinct or practice that suggests the perfect words to seduce a child whose father’s alcoholic rages and mother’s frequent institutionalisations have made her feel helpless, without any agency to alter her circumstances? As it happens, the act of fellatio that Fragoso offers Curran as a birthday present inspires her with dissociation rather than sense of potency.

Soon, what appeared a child’s paradise becomes claustrophobic. He can’t live without her, Curran tells Fragoso; if separation didn’t kill him outright, he’d take his own life. When she resists his tightening embrace, he cries. Tears are his currency, as well as praise, gifts and adventures: Curran tries to give Fragoso whatever she demands, telling her nothing can adequately demonstrate a love so absolute it makes its own laws. How can he help doing what love drives him to do? Fragoso, already the victim of her parents’ instability, doesn’t understand that love doesn’t excuse Curran’s molesting her because love would never permit, let alone inspire, such an act.

Nor would love insist she use a razor to remove her pubic hair, or say her vagina began to smell when she started to menstruate. Love wouldn’t work to undermine Fragoso’s connection to her family and friends, cultivating the conceit of an us-against-the-world romance to escape culpability for brutally violating her.

The real cost of a broken taboo is that the revulsion it awakens allows predators freedom to claim one victim after another: because we glance away from crimes–abominations–prevented only by vigilance, the most disheartening aspect of this story is sickeningly familiar. Years before meeting Fragoso, Curran forged papers to marry a 15-year-old; he “hurt” his daughters from a second marriage by “being sexual with” them; during the two years Fragoso’s parents were sufficiently responsible to keep their daughter separated from him, Curran was accused of molesting one of the children he fostered for the state of New Jersey. Tiger, Tiger is an opportunity for its readers to open their eyes and redeem themselves.