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Susan Elizabeth Phillips

REVIEW:  Heroes Are My Weakness by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

REVIEW: Heroes Are My Weakness by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

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Dear Ms. Phillips,

I tried, I really did, but I just couldn’t get into this book at all. It seems to have been meant as a modern take on Gothic romances, but for me it didn’t work as either a Gothic or a romance.

Annie Hewitt once dreamed of becoming an actress, but ended up becoming a ventriloquist and specializing in educational puppet shows. As the book opens, she is travelling with the puppets in tow to her late mother’s cottage on sparsely populated Peregrine Island, off the coast of Maine. Annie’s mother Mariah recently passed away and left Annie an unspecified legacy at the cottage. Mariah had been heavily involved in the New York art scene during her life and would often host artists at the cottage, so Annie suspects that there could be something very valuable involved, but she’s not sure what. By the terms of Mariah’s divorce settlement, she or her heirs must spend sixty consecutive days at the cottage each year or it will revert back to her ex-husband and his family. Annie is broke and has few job prospects, so she decides to spend a couple of months at the cottage and sort things out.

While travelling by night to the remote location, Annie runs her car off the road while trying to avoid a rider on a black horse. She hikes out to the cottage in the bitter cold only to find it dark and unheated, and collapses there for the night. The next morning, she heads up to Harp House to track down the caretaker who should have had the cottage ready for her, but instead runs into Theo Harp, her former step-brother with whom she had a brief relationship when they were young. Annie is convinced that Theo is a psychopath who tried to kill her when they were both teenagers by drawing her to a cave that gets flooded during high tide. The way his behavior as an adolescent is described suggests that she may very well be correct in her diagnosis. Theo, now a bestselling author of horror novels, has issues and wants Annie to go away. That’s the extent of his characterization for quite some time.

So we have a heroine looking for a mysterious artistic legacy, a widowed novelist hero with a difficult past, and some bad history between the two of them. If this sounds familiar, that’s probably because you used a very similar setup in Ain’t She Sweet, only this time the hero gets both the villainous teenager role and the brooding author one. Annie is no Sugar Beth Carey, though, and while it’s not badly written, the story is far less engaging.

Rather than coming across as quirky and irreverent, which was probably your intention, Annie was simply annoying. She regularly imagines conversations between her puppets (each of whom has its own personality and plenty to say) as an ongoing commentary about her life and behavior. For example:

-You mustn’t keep complaining, Crumpet, Dilly admonished her peevish counterpart. Peregrine Island is a popular summer resort.
-It’s not summer! Crumpet countered. It’s the first week of February, we just drove off a car ferry that made me seasick, and there can’t be more than fifty people left here. Fifty stupid people!
-You know Annie had no choice but to come here, Dilly said.
-Because she’s a big failure, an unpleasant male voice sneered.
-Leo had a bad habit of uttering Annie’s deepest fears, and it was inevitable that he’d intrude into her thoughts. He was her least favorite puppet, but every story needed a villain.
-Very unkind, Leo, Dilly said. Even if it is true.

The puppets are right; Annie’s decision-making really isn’t the best. She decides to come to Peregrine Island in the winter, practically unannounced, having only communicated with the caretaker by email and without waiting for his confirmation that the cottage is ready for her. She believes that Theo is dangerous, but spends her time snapping at him and occasionally trying to persuade him that his house is being haunted. That’s not cute, it’s stupid and childish.

It doesn’t help that the entire beginning, and a large part of the story afterward, is told from Annie’s point of view. As a result, there’s little insight into Theo, his thoughts and his motives, and while “dark, dangerous and brooding” may be classic Gothic material, it wasn’t enough here. There’s more from his perspective later on, but it was too late. It’s not that I can’t enjoy heroine-centric romances – Call Me Irresistible, for instance - but I need to like the heroine better, and for the hero not to be portrayed in such a disturbing way for so long.

As for the plot: someone is clearly trying to drive Annie out of the cottage for unknown reasons – island residents keep telling her that it’s not safe for her to be alone, the cottage is broken into, her grocery order is cancelled (a real problem, since deliveries are made from the mainland only once a week), someone shoots at her, and one of her puppets is left hanging from a noose. That’s actually pretty creepy. Annie first suspects Theo, but the two grow closer as it becomes clear that he wants to help rather than hurt her.

There’s a subplot involving Theo’s housekeeper Jaycie, who saved Annie from the drowning attempt, and her young daughter Livia, who won’t speak. Annie tries to draw Livia out, which involves engaging her with the puppets. I could have dealt with the puppets occasionally, but there were too many of them and their ongoing commentary was a distraction. I guess puppets aren’t my thing unless they’re vampire puppets.

Annie and Theo end up having sex, which seemed kind of out of the blue. I’ll give credit for not making it particularly good for either of them, and for having Annie understandably freak out afterward because they forgot to use protection. I managed to get through a few more chapters after that, then mostly skimmed the rest of the book to get to the ending.

The mystery of who’s tormenting Annie is ultimately resolved; not surprisingly, it also turns out that Theo is true hero material. I found some of the disclosures relating to his past disturbing:

Spoiler: Show

First, Theo tells Annie that his wife had mental health issues, became obsessed that he was cheating, and eventually committed suicide. Later, it also turns out that Theo’s twin sister Regan suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness and couldn’t bear for her brother to become involved with anyone. She would make life miserable for anyone she suspected as being a potential romantic interest of Theo’s and sometimes physically harm them. Theo covered for her because he didn’t want her institutionalized and tried to stay away from anyone he was interested in. Regan was the one who tried to kill Annie, while Theo had only been trying to protect her and to keep Regan under control. Regan ended up committing suicide in her early twenties by going out to sea during a squall, soon after finding Theo with his college girlfriend. Theo believes that Regan was trying to set him free rather than to punish him.
I’ll grant that I may have missed some of the subtleties, but I was uncomfortable with the characterization of both women.

I know from past experience that your books can be very hit or miss for me, but I keep reading because the good ones are wonderful. Unfortunately, Heroes Are My Weakness joins the list of misses. D.

Best regards,
Rose

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REVIEW: Call Me Irresistible by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

REVIEW: Call Me Irresistible by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Dear Ms. Phillips,

With books like Kiss an Angel and Nobody’s Baby But Mine, you were once one of my favorite contemporary authors. That’s actually saying a lot, considering that I’ve always been much more of a historical romance girl. But as time has gone on my tastes have changed, and my reading of your latest books has been spotty – I read Ain’t She Sweet at Janine’s recommendation, and liked it a lot, and I read Match Me If You Can (goodness, was that five years ago?) and thought it was pretty good. But I haven’t felt compelled to read every new book you publish – in fact, your last one is still sitting on my Sony Reader waiting for me. Somehow, though, when Call Me Irresistible landed in my lap, it felt like the right time to try you again. I was quickly reminded of what I like (and what I don’t like) about your writing.

Call Me Irresistible by Susan Elizabeth Phillips Meg Koranda has traveled to the small town of Wynette, Texas to be a bridesmaid in the wedding of one of her closest friends, Lucy Jorik. Lucy is marrying Ted Beaudine, and the marriage is a Big Deal, because of the celebrity connections of both the bride and groom. Ted is the son of a legendary pro golfer. Lucy is the adopted daughter of the former President of the United States. Meg herself has famous parents: an actor/director/screenwriter/plumber/cardiologist (/slight exaggeration) father and an ex-model mother.

These connections bugged me immediately for two reasons. First of all, these characters all come from previous books – not only books in this series but unrelated ones. The famous golfer and his wife are Dallas and Francesca from Fancy Pants. The ex-President and her husband are Cornelia and Matt from First Lady (a book Lucy appears to have debuted in, as well). By my count, characters from no fewer than five previous books appear in Call Me Irresistible. That’s just too many for me, for a number of reasons. One being that it leads to awkwardly shoehorned reminiscences like this one:

"I sure do remember the ugly," Skeet said. "Like the time Dallie and Francie had an altercation in the parking lot. Happened more than 30 years ago, long before they were married, but people still talk about it today."

"That's true," Ted said. "I can't tell you how often I've heard that story. My mother forgot she's half my father's size and tried to take him down."

"Damn near succeeded. She was a wildcat that night, I can tell you," Skeet said. "Me and Dallie's ex-wife couldn't hardly break up that fight.

"It's not exactly the way they're making it sound," Dallie said.

"It's exactly the way it sounded." Kenny pocketed his cell after checking on his wife.

"How would you know?" Dallie grumbled. "You were a kid then, and you weren't even there. Besides, you've got your own history with the Roustabout parking lot. Like the night Lady Emma got upset with you and stole your car. You had to run down the highway after her."

There’s just too much “remember the time…?” exposition in this book for my taste (granted, my taste allows for basically none, at least none written in such an obvious fashion as the passage above is). I’m not sure what the purpose even is. It doesn’t give readers who haven’t read those books any information they really need. Readers who have read those books will either remember those scenes on their own, or they won’t – again, it doesn’t add anything to the story. If it does anything, it points out the the similarities in the h/h relationships in these books (these relationships tend towards the adversarial).

Anyway, Meg and Ted clash immediately, and after Meg questions her about marrying Ted, Lucy does a runner at the wedding, leaving Wynette’s favorite son (and mayor!) standing at the altar, and the entire town blaming Meg. This wouldn’t be too great of a problem, if Meg could just leave town – Meg is quite the world traveler and would be happy to see the back of Wynette. The problem is, Meg’s parents have cut her off, for good this time, and Meg finds that she can’t cover her hotel bill. Meg is forced to work off her debt to the sadistic hotel manager, who, along with everyone else, hates Meg for crushing poor Ted. No one seems to blame Lucy herself nearly as much as they blame Meg, which may just have to do with proximity, Lucy having disappeared entirely. (Presumably getting into hijinks somewhere in her own book, which is supposed to come out next.) Also, no one pays much attention to the fact that Ted certainly doesn’t seem heartbroken (though this does not keep Ted from being angry at and tormenting Meg).

By the time Meg has paid off her hotel bill, she has realized that she kind of likes the unexpected feelings of satisfaction and self-respect that come with working for a living. Plus, she still doesn’t have much money to actually get anywhere, and she’s got a clunker of a car that probably wouldn’t take her far, anyway. So she gets herself a job serving drinks from a cart at the golf course. This allows for frequent clashes with Ted, who is often at the course wooing an investor for his planned golf resort. In spite of their emnity, Ted and Meg just can’t seem to stay away from each other (crazy, isn’t it?).

One of my main issues with the book (other than the sequel-itis I mentioned above) is the over-the-top nature of the characters, which I admit is a personal peeve of mine. I don’t read Jackie Collins or Danielle Steel because I perceive them as writing about the rich, famous and beautiful, and while I don’t necessarily want to read about ordinary people – I get that enough in my daily life – I don’t like it when the characters in the romances I read are what I call “-est” types. Meaning: wealthiest, prettiest, manliest, smartest, etc. All these famous, extraordinary people in one story strains credulity (especially with a number of them living in this small Texas town). The characters that aren’t freakishly good looking and accomplished are just freakish, small-town busybodies and eccentrics, rather broadly drawn.

I think what I find difficult to reconcile myself to is the cartoonish aspect of your books. Some romances are more realistic than others, and for some reason, I always expect an SEP romance to be on the more realistic side. I don’t know why, because they never really are. Not only are the characters usually broadly drawn, but the situations tend to be, too. And strangely, that’s a strength of your writing as well as a weakness, in my opinion.

Let me explain: I’ve always been drawn in my romance reading to sturm und drang, to heightened emotions and angst. This may seem to contradict what I’ve said above, but I think there are specific scenarios in which over-the-top works for me. One is that I prefer it to be over-the-top drama rather than comedy (over-the-top comedy works for me in some mediums, but not in romance). The other is that it has to have some authentic emotional component to it, even if it’s heightened beyond a believable degree.

This brings me to what works for me in many of your books, and worked in Call Me Irresistible: I really like the heroine’s downtrodden outsider status. My romance tastes have changed and matured over the years, but I’m still a sucker for a Cinderella heroine. Meg fits the template of a number of SEP heroines (the heroine of Kiss an Angel comes to mind). This heroine is basically good-hearted but somewhat spoiled and badly in need of something that will shake her up and force her to stand on her own two feet. She finds herself in a situation where her usual resources (money, looks) don’t work, and where seemingly everyone is against her. The heroine is repeatedly humbled (sometimes a bit too repeatedly, in my opinion – I’m not a sadist), but discovers an inner strength and growing self-respect. It’s really a very appealing formula, at least for me. There are some flaws: I often find that the secondary characters who torment the heroine are so insufferably judgmental and nasty that I’m not quite as willing to forgive them in the end as the heroine usually is – Ain’t She Sweet comes to mind. Call Me Irresistible is no exception; the townspeople are supposed to be quirky and fiercely loyal, but I found many of them hateful. I guess it’s a side-effect of creating unnuanced characters. All I know is, I would never want to live in Wynette, Texas.

Ted is an appealing hero – I may have less invested in him than some readers, since I’ve never read Fancy Pants (I did read Lady Be Good, which featured Ted as well). He is freakishly, preternaturally perfect, and that would be super-annoying if it weren’t an actual plot point. I felt a growing anticipation as it became clear that Ted was going to absolutely lose it at some point, and when he did it was indeed enjoyable to read.

Meg is rather likable too, if familiar, in the ways I outlined above. I couldn’t help but root for her even as I realized that she didn’t have that much of an excuse for having been an underachiever and essentially a moocher for all those years – no deep, dark secrets or hidden traumas. She just felt she couldn’t compete with her brilliant family so she chose not to try.

Ted and Meg find themselves pursued by a father-daughter duo – Spence and Sunny Skipjack. Skipjack is an appliance mogul who Ted is courting as an investor in a state-of-the-art golf course and resort that he wants to build in Wynette. The project is badly needed to boost Wynette’s sagging economy. I liked the way that Meg’s environmental concerns about the golf course were addressed – the issue wasn’t just shunted aside or played as a culture-clash joke. Spence is all puffed-up rich guy with a fragile ego, and Sunny is terrifyingly Type A. They provide convenient obstacles in the growing attraction between our hero and heroine.

So, what to grade Call Me Irresistible? I’ve never been able to come up with a perfect grading system – when I try to grade intellectually, I find the grade often doesn’t feel right – it doesn’t reflect how I really felt about the book, which is what’s important to me, anyway. Despite this book’s flaws, I enjoyed it. Rather a lot, actually. So my grade is a B+.

Best regards,

Jennie

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