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Sarah Mayberry

REVIEW: Suddenly You by Sarah Mayberry

REVIEW: Suddenly You by Sarah Mayberry

It’s not suddenly you, it’s suddenly me – Suddenly You by Sarah Mayberry

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Suddenly You. The words are arranged on the page in a perfectly reasonable way. Some of them form entertaining or otherwise vivid conjunctions. There are characters, who seem perfectly nice. There is a beginning, a middle and an end that is happy. I suspect, if it’s the sort of thing you like, then it would be a charming example of the thing that you like.

It is not the sort of thing I like.Suddenly You by Sarah Mayberry

Our heroine Pippa is a MILF in vintage glasses. Our hero, Harry, is a man with tattoos who works as a car mechanic. Pippa briefly dated Harry’s mate, Obnoxious Steve (this is not his actual name, I mean, his name is Steve, it’s just not Obnoxious Steve, but it should be) during which time he impregnated her, dumped her and then screwed her out of child support.  Harry and Pippa encounter each other by chance when Pippa’s car breaks down. He fixes her car. She gives him beer. He then fixes her ceiling. So she cooks him dinner. Then they have sex. Then they settle down together.

It’s honestly the first time I’ve read a romance and genuinely felt like the genre wasn’t for me. Even books I haven’t particularly enjoyed, I’ve been able to understand on some level, and I had an idea of what they were doing, or trying to do, and why they were doing it. Even, for that matter, Bared To You. I mean, I totally get the dominant, messed up billionaire fantasy, I just had issues with certain aspects of the execution.  But Suddenly You was completely alien to me, in every conceivable way. My initial thought was actually that it was a gender thing but that just depressed the heck out of me because it’s such a lazy, essentialising explanation. And then I realised that plenty of my dude friends want to settle down and have kids and a picket fence, and plenty of my female ones want to drink, shag and party until the artificial hip gives out … so it’s not actually about gender. It comes down, basically, to values.

I completely respect the right of anybody to read, write, and enjoy books about nice women who meet nice men who fix their ceilings, but there was nowhere for me in Suddenly You.  I mean, Pippa was … well … nice?  I admired her for her commitment to her daughter, her cheerful disposition and her natural kindness. I enjoyed her colourful underwear. I would probably shag her. But, and I feel bad for saying this, she didn’t interest me at all. I vaguely wanted her to be happy but I feel like that about most people, and it’s not really enough motivation to get me through a book about them.

Harry, similarly, seemed like a nice guy. But I don’t really daydream about nice guys coming to, ahem, tweak my motor, and I’m the sort of man who pays other people to fix his car and repair his ceilings. Not because I’m too good to get my hands dirty but because it bores the crap out of me, and I’m happy to have reached a stage in my life where my masculinity, or worth, is no longer directly reflected by my interest in cars or DIY. I do, however, construct furniture like a boss.

The problem is, not really being that interested in the characters, or particularly wanting to bang them, left me with no spaces of either fantasy or identification. And I know settling down together with a kid is kind of the implied endpoint of most romances anyway but there’s a difference between potential future and literal HEA. I think Suddenly You is meant to be a quiet, everyday domestic kind of fantasy, and I can see why that’s appealing. I think most of us have some deep, primal longing for a place and person (or people) to call home. But, for me, it simply can’t be like this, and I’m not sure I’d want it to be. And I know I’m not the target audience, so that’s kind of fine, but at the same time it did mean I spent this novel sitting on the doorstep, looking sad.

There were, however, some aspects of Suddenly You that I sort of enjoyed. I quite liked Pippa – she was clearly admirable, but not implausibly perfect, navigating the treacherous waters of personal pride and financial vulnerability. Harry was, you know, okay too.  I liked his relationship with his father and, for that matter, his relationship with Obnoxious Steve which frays at the edges and almost, but not quite, falls over when they have to have a discussion about something that really matters.  That’s pretty much how friendship goes, for some dudes at least. Obnoxious Steve is, well, obnoxious but it has a vague basis in recognisable human frailty, so he’s not really ever what you’d call a proper villain. I quite like romances without obvious villains, just people in various states of mess, not quite getting past their mess sufficiently to calculate the impact of that mess on the messes of other people. I think there’s often something banally tragic and real in that.

The humour, on the other hand, was pretty hit and miss for me. There’s stuff like this, which frankly just made me a cringe a bit:

“How have you been, Harry? How’s Hogwarts going? Cast any good spells lately?” The Harry Potter/ Porter jokes had gotten old around the time Ms. Rowling had made her second billion […]

“Made some underwear disappear the other night, if that’s what you mean.”

She laughed appreciatively. “Dirty dog.” (p. 9)

It’s not quite up there (or do I mean down there) with the precum hilarity of Painted Faces but I was still a bit, um, why are you laughing appreciatively Pippa? Does a remark like that really merit it? On the other hand, there’s a bit where Harry apparently gets a raging boner at the top of a ladder while doing his ceiling fixing thing, and it turns out to actually be a tube of filler in his pocket. This just amused the heck out of me because I’m often quite bewildered by the way romance heroes will spring spontaneous and unflagging erections at wildly inconvenient times, just because the heroine is vaguely in their vicinity.

But there were other bits of Suddenly You that just left me completely bewildered and on the borderline of uncomfortable. There’s this, for example:

Unlike many of the women in her mothers’ group, she had been unsuccessful at breast-feeding. A series of infections and an inadequate milk supply led her paediatrician to recommend bottle-feeding Alice when her daughter was barely a month old. Consequently, Pippa wasn’t nearly as casual about flinging her breasts around as some of her friends. To her, they were about sex and intimacy, not sustenance. (p. 42)

Okay, look, I’m not a breastfeeding expert but this strikes me as just plain mean. I’m aware that sexy is not really high on the agenda when you’ve got an infant attached to your nipple but I know plenty of women who have breastfed their children and nevertheless either retained or reclaimed their bodies for sex and intimacy. It’s not an either/or. And breastfeeding sort of requires women to “fling” their breasts around by necessity, so if you didn’t move to a space of feeling relatively casual about it, I suspect you’d get pretty miserable pretty quickly, but this does not de-value the boob. A breast is a breast, you know, it doesn’t matter how many people have seen it, and under what circumstances.

I just felt that this was the text going out of its way to somewhat uncharitably emphasise that Pippa is the hot, bangable sort of mom, not the sort who heaven forefend, ever had stretch marks or leaking nipples.  Let’s face it, there’s not all that much about motherhood that’s conventionally sexy. A lot of the time – as far as I’ve seen – it’s just physically and emotionally demanding, but it doesn’t mean you permanently stop being a sexual, or sexually desirable, person.

And the portrayal of Alice, Pippa’s child, struck me as similarly timorous. I know about as much about children as I do about breast feeding, but I have a goddaughter and, honestly, I love her beyond human reckoning, but there’s no getting away from the fact she was a fucking monster when she was tiny. Babies, when they’re yours, are – as far as I’m concerned – vulnerable and ugly and furious and terrifying and beautiful. They’re a pile of constantly leaking, constantly needy human flesh. With tiny, perfect toenails. We’re told that Alice is occasionally cranky and throws up, but on the page she’s usually desperately, desperately convenient. She’s quiet and smiley, she has a gummy thumb and big eyes, and when she cries it’s only ever after Pippa and Harry have finished having sex. She even facilitates sexual tension by unbuttoning Pippa’s clothes at apposite moments:

Then Harry lifted his gaze to hers and realized he’d been busted. Dull color stained his cheeks. “Sorry. It’s just … your dress …” He gestured toward her chest, his gaze trained resolutely over her shoulder now.

She glanced down and discovered that the top two buttons of her bodice were undone, offering him an untrammeled view of her deep red bra and a whole lot of cleavage. (p.41)

Seriously, if I thought having a kid was even remotely like this, I’d have four or five. And you might say Pippa has just been inordinately fortunate, some children are just angelic and my goddaughter happens to be a goblin changeling but according to her mothers she’s pretty standard for the breed. And, here’s the thing, being a raging wildling has in no way detracted from the fact she’s still the human I love most on the planet. Again, it’s really not my place to judge but I just sort of felt that Suddenly You was presenting me with, well, the child equivalent of margarine: baby-lite, if you will.

And maybe that’s the nature of this fantasy: a child who never gets in the way of your bonking, but, for me, my fantasies need an edge of reality to let me truly lose myself in them. I don’t think children need to be shot in soft-focus to entrance us. I don’t think women are any less desirable, or beautiful, for being mothers. I wouldn’t have thought any less of Pippa if she’d flung her breasts about, or less of Alice if she’d occasionally been arbitrarily monstrous. I think, in all honesty, I’d have liked them more.

Because of this, I felt a bit dubious of Harry’s conversion to the pleasures of domestic life with Pippa, since the domestic life he’s being offered seems to be nothing remotely like the reality of being responsible for a small human being. I feel bad that I didn’t like Suddenly You more. I got the sense that it was probably a very likeable book. And it’s certainly mostly harmless.  It’s just so completely and utterly not for me that I almost feel writing about it is actively unfair, like asking a non-drinker to review a bottle of wine. So, please, take this piece not as criticism of Suddenly You – or as denigration of particularly fantasies, values or  preferences - but as a reflection of the way our personal tastes, preferences and lifestyle choices inform our responses to texts and, occasionally, exclude us from them.

Everything I learned about Life & Love from reading Suddenly You: babies are lovely human beings who helped you get laid. Shopping trips are less boring if you know your partner is wearing lacy underwear. Just because it’s a tube of filler in his pocket, doesn’t mean he’s not pleased to see you.

Housekeeping: Just to let you all know, I’m off on holiday (yay), so there won’t be any articles for the next two weeks. I’m also going to take this as a small opportunity to take stock of where I am in my reading and indulge myself shamelessly by re-visiting some of my favourite authors while I’m lounging in cafes and dashing between venues up in Edinburgh. So, on my return, there’s going to be a brief flurry of Laura Kinsale, Loretta Chase, JD Robb, Suzanne Brockmann and Nalini Singh. And then normal service will resume with Julie James and Cecilia Grant. Have fun, I’ll miss you and see you on the other side.

What Janine was Reading in October, November, and December of 2012

What Janine was Reading in October, November, and December of 2012

It’s been forever since I did one of these columns, so this will cover a lot of books:

Ride with Me by Ruthie KnoxRide with Me by Ruthie Knox

Ruthie Knox’s About Last Night was my favorite contemporary of 2012. I don’t read many straight contemporaries, because I typically enjoy them more mildly than other genres of romance. About Last Night was a rare exception, and it has led me to try more contemporaries recently (without that much success). I finally decided to read Knox’s first novel, which I’d been holding in reserve.

Ride with Me takes place on a cross country biking trip. Tom doesn’t want a riding partner, but his sister fixes him up with Lexie. Lexie finds Tom surly, and they agree to part company as soon as she can find another riding partner. But a sizzling attraction complicates their cross-country ride. They both have issues, Tom especially, so it takes a while for them to open their hearts to each other.

I didn’t love this quite as much as About Last Night, but it was almost as good. The cross country biking / campground setting was pure genius. I like to feel that books take me places, and that’s one of the reasons I’m not that drawn to books set in contemporary America. I live here, so it’s less exciting to me. But Ride with Me made me feel that I was on a trip, and it was almost as exciting as the London setting of About Last Night.

Lexie was adorable, a combination of openness to adventure and at the same time, insecurity. The more closed Tom had a core of goodness despite his surliness. I liked the way the trip made him realize what he was missing with his retreat from humanity. Most of all, these felt like real people and their story was romantic. It had funny moments (like the hot sauce scene) and emotional ones. I wanted a few more interactions outside the bedroom, and I thought the resolution was rushed and could have been more romantic, but this one charmed me. B/B+

Also reviewed by Jane here.

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The Watchman by Robert CraisThe Watchman by Robert Crais

A post by a friend who listed this book among her favorite romantic books got me to try this 2007 suspense thriller, even though that’s not a genre I read too often. It’s part of a series and I have not read the earlier books, but I was still able to enjoy this one.

Joe Pike, a former marine and policeman turned investigator/gun shop owner has promised a dangerous man a favor, and when the favor is collected it proves to be this: protect Larkin Conner Barkley, a spoiled, wealthy heiress whom someone is trying to kill.

But who is that someone? That’s what Pike must discover while dodging bullets and protecting Larkin who just wants to go home, not lay low in unfamiliar houses and neighborhoods.

This hard-boiled thriller is set in Los Angeles, and for the most part, I thought it captured the feel of the city pretty well. Pike is very much the strong, silent type and not that big on communication, which is what Larkin needs from him.

There is an understated romantic element to their relationship which, along with the suspense of the assassins’ pursuit, and the piecing together of clues to the mystery of why Larkin is being hunted kept me reading. Considering that this isn’t my genre of choice, I still enjoyed the book a lot. B-

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When it Happens to You by Molly RingwaldWhen it Happens to You by Molly Ringwald

What can I say about this collection of interlinked short stories? I have the feeling it won’t appeal to many lovers of lit fic, partly because Ringwald’s metaphors can be a little bit too on the nose, and partly because it isn’t incisive enough. On the other hand, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

I picked this up on a whim – it was on sale at Amazon – and discovered thoughtful, compassionate short stories about a group of people whose paths cross in ways both expected and unexpected.

The central character of the first story, “The Harvest Moon,” is Greta, a woman who sacrificed her professional ambitions to marry and have a family. Greta and her husband Phillip have one daughter, Charlotte, and Greta she is undergoing fertility treatments in the hopes of giving Charlotte a sibling.

In “The Harvest Moon”, it is clear Phillip is cheating on Greta with their daughter’s violin teacher, something Greta blinds herself to because she is not ready for her life to fall apart.

The next story, “Redbud,” follows Greta’s mother, Ilse, as she struggles to bridge the distance between Greta and herself. Ilse does not understand the choices Greta has made, from choosing not to pursue a career in order to be a stay at home wife and mother to hiring an expensive landscaper when Ilse has expertise in gardening and would have been happy to help.

The third story, “My Olivia,” introduces us to single mom Marina and her only child, Oliver. Oliver is the beautiful and beloved outcome of a brief fling on a Caribbean island. Marina, who never intended to have children, fell in love with her son and is a deeply devoted mother. But when Oliver demands to wear dresses, Marina does not know how to cope with her child’s gender identity.

As this “novel in stories” moves on to other characters and their stories, we glimpse people from earlier stories, sometimes as central characters, and sometimes peripherally. A protagonist for the entire collection eventually emerges but I won’t say who it is so as not to spoil it for readers.

Although this collection was a departure from my usual reading fare, I enjoyed it despite its occasional heavy-handedness. What I appreciated most was the compassion Ringwald has toward her characters. She sees their failings clearly, but she also sees their vulnerabilities and their humanity. There’s a focus on mother-daughter relationships and on the theme of betrayal. I loved that both the betrayed and the betrayers were portrayed with empathy.

Like The Watchman, When It Happens to You is set in Los Angeles. It captures the feel of the city even better. I was disappointed in the final story of the collection and in the direction it took the main character, but still, I’d rate this a B-/B.

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Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini TaylorDays of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor

Like its prequel, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Days of Blood and Starlight was exceptionally well-crafted. It had beautiful prose, terrific world-building, a tense, suspenseful plot, and Karou remained a sympathetic and appealing protagonist. The one significant flaw that kept this book from getting an A range grade from me is that it was so dark, intense and suspenseful that it did not provide as much of a tension valve as I needed.

The darkness was fitting, since the book deals with the aftermath of genocide, and yet, there were times when I felt like I could hardly breathe. Karou and Akiva begin the book on opposite sides, with Akiva believing Karou is dead (something I thought a little contrived) and Karou resurrecting the chimera soldiers in monstrous bodies at Thiago’s behest.

Both, but especially Karou, suffered much in this story, yet there were also rays of hope and moments of lightness. Not as many as I needed, but enough that I will be reading the next book in this series. This book made #5 on my top ten of the year list and as I said there, Taylor’s craftsmanship awes me. B+. Jia’s B+ review is here.

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Wool by Hugh HoweyWool by Hugh Howey

This novella, the first in Howey’s acclaimed Wool series, was a suspenseful little mystery. Set in a silo to which the remnants of humanity have retreated in the wake of an environmental disaster, the novella does a great job of making readers feel the claustrophobia of such a life.

The story begins with the terrific opening line “The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do” and soon makes it clear that only children can be truly happy in this world.

Holston has volunteered to go outside and clean the camera screens that allow the people inside the silo to see outside, even though being the cleaner means certain death. Or does it? Holston’s reasons for volunteering are revealed in flashbacks, and the novella kept me turning the pages to find out more about them and to learn Holston’s ultimate fate. The novella was a downer but Howey’s clear prose, firm command of suspense, and the sympathetic Holston and Allison compensated. B.

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The Haunting of Maddy Clare by Simone St. JamesThe Haunting of Maddy Clare by Simone St. James

This was a genre-bender, a ghost story/mystery/romance set in post-World War I England.

As far as the mystery goes, I figured out the identity of the villains early on (there weren’t many red herrings) and the romance, although nice, was more of a subplot and therefore underdeveloped. Where this novel really shines is as ghost story.

I liked the author’s voice, even though gothics rarely appeal to me and this book had a somewhat gothic style. I also liked that the narrator/main character starts out feeling drab and invisible and then finds her strength over the course of the story.

Sarah Piper, the narrator, is hired by a Alistair Gellis, an eccentric intellectual and wealthy writer, to help him research a ghost, and at first I thought Alistair would be Sarah’s love interest. I was a little disappointed when he turned out not to be because I’d love to read a romance with an intellectual type in the leading man role (I wonder why we never see that?).

The actual love interest is Alistair’s friend/fellow ghost researcher Matthew, a handsome war veteran with burn scars on his body. I liked him too. One plus with this book is that both the Sarah and Matthew were normal people, not wealthy or titled.

The ghost was a compelling character as well, a young servant girl who hanged herself after a trauma which included a sexual assault. This was one spooky ghost, scary but not terrifying which is exactly how I like my ghost stories. I don’t read horror because I don’t enjoy being scared out of my wits and Maddy (the ghost) was just the right amount of eerie/spooky for me.

There were also some atmospheric setting details and a few moving references to World War I. I think as long as the reader goes in expecting the ghost story to be the main focus and not the romance, it’s a good read for that kind of book. B-.

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Motorcycle Man by Kristen AshleyMotorcycle Man by Kristen Ashley
I got stuck about halfway through this story of a rather adorable fortysomething office manager who falls in love with her boss, who runs the motorcycle club which owns the repair shop where she works. After a one night stand with Tack, Tyra finds herself kicked to the curb the next morning. When she reports for work, they argue over whether she can work there. Tyra stands up for herself and Tack realizes he wants her.

Tack is ridiculously bossy on the outside considering what a marshmallow he is on the inside. I found his whole character absurd. I understand that bossiness can be sexy, and soft-heartedness can be loveable, but the two are conflicting character traits so in this case, the whole didn’t mesh for me. I couldn’t buy into Tack as a real human being rather than a cartoon. He reminded me a bit of JR Ward’s vampires but without the aid of a paranormal world to help me rationalize his existence.

Tyra on the other hand is very funny and I really enjoyed her sassiness with Tack. There were times when I felt she caved to him too easily but most of the time she had enough backbone that I was convinced she did exactly what she wanted to do.

The Motorcycle Club milieu was also fun and different. I think I would have finished Motorcycle Man despite the ridiculous hero if the book hadn’t been so lengthy. A lot of the length comes from Ashley’s long-winded writing voice. It’s a voice that drives some readers crazy and I understand why many feel she needs more editing.

At the same time, I also think the voice is part of the reason her books are such huge hits. Tyra’s narration is chatty, quirky and humorous, and because it’s not same old-same old, I can understand the appeal to other readers, even though for me it was just too long-winded and after a while I lost all patience.

I was 42% of the way through the book when I hit the wall. The story was taking too long to get where it was going and between that and the cartoonish hero, I was feeling too satiated to read any further. Here’s Kati’s A- review, but as for me, I’m giving it a DNF.*

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The Other Side of Us by Sarah MayberryThe Other Side of Us by Sarah Mayberry
I got this book via Netgalley after Brie from Romance Around the Corner recommended it to me on Twitter. I’ve read two other Mayberrys which seemed promising but I didn’t love either one. Still, I picked this one up with high hopes. There was a lot to like here including a nice reversal of gender roles and two loveable dogs, but also some flaws.

Oliver, whose wife had cheated on him, encountered Mackenzie while organizing his late aunt’s place. Mackenzie was also recovering from a trauma – in her case, a bad car accident which injured her and derailed her career. When they first meet, Mackenzie is in so much physical pain that she is curt and rude, but later she gets an opportunity to be kinder, and she makes up for her initial abrasiveness by cooking Oliver dinner.

The two are attracted to each other but Mackenzie has to figure out some things – how to act on the attraction, as well as how take life at her own pace, and what kind of career goals she should set for herself. Oliver falls into the more nurturing role, and sublimates his own issues until quite late in the book.

This story had a lot of potential, but I felt that the pacing was a bit on the slow side, and I also had problems with the way Mackenzie’s former life as an ambitious career woman was depicted. I didn’t like that her career was cast in a negative light. Mackenzie was also said to have been hard-edged, and seemed from all accounts like an entirely different woman than she was post-accident. It was hard to reconcile the two sides of Mackenzie into one believable whole.

In addition, I felt that for much of the book, the focus was on Mackenzie’s issues and that came at the expense of Oliver’s. The book felt a little lopsided in that regard. For a long time, Oliver was a total sweetheart, seemed almost too perfect. Toward the end, he showed his armor chinks, but the conflict that surfaced at that time was given short shrift rather than resolved on page in a meaningful way.

I did like the characters (especially Oliver) and I thought their dogs, who had a romance of their own, were also adorable. This book was a nice way to pass the time but didn’t wow me the way it seems to have done for so many readers. I’m still waiting to fall in love with one of Mayberry’s books. C/C+.

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A few other books I read during this time period:

*Since I wrote this post, Robin convinced me to give Motorcyle Man another try. If I manage to finish it, I will report back.