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: “Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects

If you have read Gone Girl or even seen the movie, you know Gillian Flynn is a genius. Or maybe absolutely disturbed. Either way, the products of her mind continue to fascinate me. Gone Girl was the perfect story for those of us who are somewhat put off by the extreme sappiness that is Nicholas Sparks, yet aren’t quite ready for the horror of Stephen King. While tying in an unconventional yet sexy relationship with a shocking mystery, it went from a random grab off the shelf to a favorite book. When I picked up Sharp Objects a few years later, I knew it wouldn’t disappoint.

Camille Preaker, our sardonic anti-heroine, is a journalist for the Daily Post , the “fourth-largest in Chicago,”  a newspaper with its head barely above water, and whose editor, Frank Curry, mines the cold-case files for the next human interest tale sure to snag a Pulitzer. When the disappearance of a second girl occurs in the town of Wind Gap, Missouri, he dispatches the reluctant Camille at once to get the scoop.

There’s only one problem: Wind Gap is Camille’s hometown. Wind Gap hasn’t been good to Camille, a place she has shunned for eight years. A place she describes as “one of those crummy towns prone to misery.” She says this not from dread, but from a quietly haunting intimacy with torment. At the start of the novel, we learn that Camille’s been freshly released into the world after spending several months under psychiatric care. She’s a cutter. Her body is a monument to insecurity and anger, starting at the age of thirteen with Wicked carved into her left hip, and stopping at twenty-nine with Vanish. The only unmarred spot on her body is a circle of perfect skin the size of a fist, on the small of her back which she could never reach.

As with most self-mutilation, it’s but the physical manifestation of deeper emotional traumas, in Camille’s case prompted by the death of her younger sister, Marian, from an ambiguous illness. The tension surrounding this mysterious passing serves as a lynchpin for her strained relationship with her mother, Adora, Wind Gap’s unspoken matriarch and Amma, her sexually hyper-developed thirteen-year-old half-sister who heads a clique of equally spiteful girls, and who in many ways is her mother’s equal in cruelty and malice.

Rattling between the warring factions of her mother and sister, Camille attempts to investigate the abduction-murders in Wind Gap. When the missing girl, Ann Nash, turns up dead not long after her arrival in town—found strangled within a cleft between two buildings, her teeth yanked out (a virtual carbon-copy of the first victim, Natalie Keene)—Camille finds little help from the male authorities. Men view her as suspicious, an outsider with a dubious agenda, yet the scorn doesn’t surprise or upset Camille. She’s used to it. Other than her boss, Frank, who’s a well-meaning but scattershot father-figure, men are often portrayed as dichotomies rather than with any subtlety or depth. They’re afterthoughts, fleeting, a part of the scenery. This isn’t a detriment to the book; they are as Camille sees them based on her experiences.

It isn’t long though before Camille realizes that her best chance to secure clues or leads resides within the secretive cliques of female enmity prevalent in Wind Gap. It is a private world where women hurt each other both overtly and passively, even at funerals. Where gossip is both weapon and shield, wielded for social advancement. This antagonism lies at the core of Sharp Objects. The book is less murder mystery and more an exploration of the cruelty that women inflict upon one another, be it a friend to another friend, classmate to classmate, sister to sister, or mother to daughter—all of which play a role, often spanning multiple generations.

This book is not an easy read. The prose is well written, although not quite yet developed to Flynn’s later flawless standard, and the pace is good, but the subject matter quite simply makes you squirm. That is, however, the intention. This book was not written to be enjoyed. It is about some deeply serious psychoses and the ways in which mental illness affects not only the people who suffer from a condition but also those around them. Camille, we discover early on, is a cutter (hence the title). Yet Flynn is not simply portraying this aspect of her character as it has so often been seen in the past – an almost childish cry for attention, or a result of extreme depression – she has truly explored the root causes of Camille’s condition and fully demonstrated just how destructive it is to every aspect of her life.

The plot may not be scintillating, in places it is downright predictable, the prose might not be perfect, the characters may be inordinately unpleasant, and the topic may be brutal, but the story is brave. It is a subject that many skirt and most will balk at; Flynn, however, has explored it to its outer reaches and revealed not only the ugly truth of it but also the depths to which most people remain ignorant of that truth.

Although I would love to enthusiastically recommend this novel to every single person I meet, unfortunately, I can’t do this – for quite a few reasons. The most obvious of these reasons is there are certain people who just won’t be able to digest the kind of darkness and gore that the author adds in generous helpings to her work. Many murder mystery and thriller novels have perfectly normal, well-functioning people who are thrust into not–so–normal situations as a result of a psychopathic antagonist or a villain along those lines. Here, the protagonist herself is enough of a mess before this even messier, more frightening series of events begins to occur.

There are vivid descriptions of self-harm, substance overdose and animal abuse. Death and terror are elements of the novel discussed in a nonchalant, matter of fact tone. The relationships between people are satirical, almost as if happy, well–settled people were being made fun of. For these reasons, readers who want happy endings and a story that ends in hope and the promise of a better future for the protagonists, this isn’t one for you. However, if you do decide to take the plunge, you’re in for a journey like no other – icy, eye-opening and unforgettable.