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REVIEW: Bad Karma by Theresa Weir

Dear Ms. Weir:

I have been slowly working my way through your backlist titles, so when I came across the re-released, reasonably-priced digital edition of Bad Karma at the Kindle store, it shot to the top of my TBR list. I have to admit that I’m not the biggest fan of the “psychic heroine” trope, but the interesting twists in Cleo’s characterization, as well as the undecorated prose style and dark emotional landscape of the book as a whole made me a believer.

Bad Karma	Theresa WeirCleo Tyler fancies herself a fake psychic whose visions have always been frighteningly real. She’s been having dreams, too, which recreate the terror of the Halloween night her fiancé was killed in the car accident that merely threw her from the car, her injuries as yet unseen. In the weeks that followed the accident, the emotional hurt over losing Jordan and their unborn baby made her a virtual prisoner in her apartment, unable to eat or function, spending every moment trying to conjure Jordan’s ghost. After being rescued by her brother, she is finally back among the living, although to say she has recovered would be a massive stretch. Still, some folks have gotten it into their head that she can solve crimes, and after her visions led to the return of a missing child in California, she has garnered a reputation. Which is how she comes to be in Egypt, Missouri, posing as a blind woman so she can keep her dog, Premonition, with her on the train, and willing to do whatever is necessary to secure the money promised for finding the town’s missing master key.

Daniel Sinclair does not believe for a second that Cleo Tyler is psychic, and despite his momentary surprise at meeting an attractive blind woman with her service dog at the train, he is determined not to be taken in by such an obvious scam. He had seen a lot in Los Angeles, before he had to come back to take care of his developmentally challenged adult brother, Beau, following his mother’s death, and there is nothing new about this woman. Daniel is certain that there is no room in Egypt for this “Queen of the Scams.”

Still, Daniel feels a slight twinge when he takes her to the town’s only motel, a disheveled dive that “was like something from a Quentin Tarantino movie.” Maybe it is the way Cleo treats Beau “as an equal,” or the way Beau takes immediately to Cleo and her dog. Or it could be her “tumbling red curls” and “big, sleepy eyes,” and compelling blend of poise and fragility. Regardless, Daniel is certain that it won’t be long before Josephine Bennett, Egypt’s chief of police, realizes that Cleo is a fraud and this whole charade will be over.

Like the other Weir books I have read, Bad Karma is deceptively simple in its prose and profoundly tortured in its emotional substance. Cleo would rather have people believe she is a fraud than deal fully with the import of her involuntary visions. At one point she explains to Daniel that “people need to believe in something…That they have control. Because the alternative, that life is random and nobody is in control, is just not acceptable.” And yet Cleo perpetually struggles to feel in control. For one thing, she’s drifting. She has a linger eating disorder that makes little besides milk palatable to her; the color orange triggers panic attacks; and the chronic dreams of that Halloween accident keep her from sleep. And once she arrives in Egypt, she is also getting visions of something bad in a farmhouse that seem to have nothing to do with the missing master key. Daniel, on the other hand, seems to have everything under control. He feels responsible for his brother; he feels responsible to protect the people of Egypt from Cleo’s fraudulent game; and, once Cleo comes into his life, he even feels responsible for her, despite his bone-deep mistrust of her motives and her character.

I don’t want to give too many plot details away, in part because a large measure of the book’s appeal is in following a number of seemingly mundane details and plot and character threads until they reveal a deeper significance. In fact, Bad Karma is very much a book about facades. Not all facades are dishonest, even as they hide something else. For example, there are the facades of the romantic and suspense elements of the story. Daniel and Cleo must be in close proximity for their attraction to grow, and this is facilitated by a number of seemingly simple devices: Beau takes care of Premonition so he won’t have to live in that awful motel; Cleo has enough at one point and leaves town, forcing Daniel to go after her and bring her back; Cleo finds herself in danger and Daniel has to assist her, etc. Then there are the superficial details that make up the suspense portion of the book: Cleo is brought into town to find the master key but instead stumbles upon something darker; characters appear to be one thing but are really another; Daniel gets reluctantly drawn into the mystery and the tension mounts as he and Cleo move closer to uncovering the truth, etc.

All of these facades work simultaneously to hide and reveal deeper truths. For example, Cleo gives the superficial impression of aloof disdain for those who believe in her abilities, while underneath she is emotionally traumatized and volatile. Still, there are layers beneath that truth, as well, a deeper strength and perceptive intelligence that have made her more survivor than victim. Daniel, beneath the surface control, has his own emotional trauma from years as a California cop and coping strategies that tend toward smoking and drinking. As much as he fancies himself caretaker of his brother, in reality Beau is more suited to that role, and not only with Daniel. And like Cleo, Daniel’s own skepticism is more a scar over a broken heart than a true cynicism, and every encounter they have picks away at them:

He pressed her down until she was lying on her back, the fog swirling around them, enveloping them. At one point, he laughed, a low sound, full of wonder and delight, that filled her head, that melded perfectly with the tone of their coming together.

This time there was no anger. No resentment. No holding back. It was all sweet, open, aching vulnerability, a hoping, a wanting, a dreaming in a dark room with no walls, in a dark room with no color, with magic swirling about them.

Having a scar picked at is painful, though, and it makes the healing process more difficult and yet more urgent, as well. The challenge is to heal without just superficially covering up the hurt, and this process is complicated by all the ways in which the world is an insecure place, full of facades: a bucolic looking barn can hide all sorts of darkness; people leave; children are kidnapped, women are tortured and murdered. The world of this book is one in which love is not enough, but surviving without it seems impossible.

Bad Karma is not a light book, despite the wry humor that permeates the writing. Daniel and Cleo are damaged in real ways, and Cleo’s emotional injuries are especially deep and abiding. The only things that marred my enjoyment were the clichés that I never felt the narrative successfully rehabilitates, especially the use of Daniel’s brother Beau to reveal Daniel’s character and accelerate his emotional growth and the revelation of the true mystery Cleo’s visions uncover. Still, despite some of that narrative heavy-handedness, Bad Karma turned out to be good luck for me, breaking a small Romance reading slump. B+

~ Janet

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isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

10 Comments

  1. Chelsea
    Oct 31, 2011 @ 11:32:23

    I’m very intrigued by this book, despite the fact that I’m also not a huge fan of psychic powers.

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  2. Kristie (J)
    Oct 31, 2011 @ 12:01:08

    I just got this one myself in eform though I also have it in print. I read it a few years ago and quite enjoyed it. Ms. Weir’s books are just so outside the usual romance style and I love them for that reason. This book was no exception.

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  3. Jayne
    Oct 31, 2011 @ 18:32:25

    “Master key?” Does the town not have a locksmith? A lock picker?

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  4. Sunita
    Oct 31, 2011 @ 18:32:51

    Thanks for this review, Robin! I didn’t know Weir had any books coming out through Samhain. This sounds fascinating. AND it’s set in Missouri!

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  5. Statch
    Oct 31, 2011 @ 19:48:31

    I bought Bad Karma because the review of her memoir The Orchard made me want to read something by her, but thought the memoir would be too intense. I really enjoyed this book. It was quirky and well written, and I came to care about the characters. I definitely want to read more by her.

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  6. Robin/Janet
    Nov 01, 2011 @ 20:48:25

    @Chelsea: The fact that Cleo’s “gift” (it’s more like a curse to her most of the time) is both unwelcome to her and questioned by many in the novel definitely took some of the edge off, IMO.

    @Jayne: LOL — to be honest, I thought the chief of police was basically looking for an excuse to call Cleo in. She’s a True Believer in psychic phenomenon and wanted a “famous” psychic to be in her town, IMO.

    @Kristie (J): What are your other favorites? I just read Loving Jenny and that was a wonderful, quiet, disquieting book, as well.

    @Sunita: I think most, if not all, of her books are set in the Midwest.

    @Statch: While The Orchard was a more devastating (and more beautiful) read for me, Bad Karma includes a lot more bad stuff, so it’s sort of a trade off, IMO. Although I am a little afraid to read Weir/Frasier’s straight suspense books, lol.

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  7. Maili
    Nov 02, 2011 @ 09:08:10

    Oh, I didn’t realise there was a review of a Weir book! I have no shame in admitting I’m a fangirl of Weir’s books. (Yes, you may call me a fan in this case! :D) Excuse my cheekiness, I’ll re-direct your question for KristieJ to me:

    In order of likes:

    Loving Jenny (1989) – always will remain at top. It’s the first Weir book I read.
    Iguana Bay (1990) – similar to Linda Howard’s Diamond Bay yet wholly different. I really liked it, if I remember rightly.
    Some Kind of Magic (1998) – an odd mixture of romantic comedy and angst. Carjacked, then trapped in a cabin during a snow storm. Hero is a former child prodigy in chess and heroine has a very messy life. Not many readers liked this, but it worked for me. I think it was Weir’s portrayal of Dylan – and some touches of dry-as-hell hilarity – that won me over.
    Amazon Lily (1988) – the jungle, musician hero, missionary’s daughter heroine. Very bluesy. Hard to explain, really. I think it’s this one that attracted a lot of attention from Romancelandia. This and Cool Shade.
    Bad Karma (2010)
    Cool Shade (1998) – Quite similar to Bad Karma (you’ll know what I mean when you read this as well). Quirky and a bit gritty. I admit it never makes sense when I describe it as “David Lynch meets Ruth Wind” but it does make sense in my head.
    American Dreamer (1997) – sets in a farm. It’s been so long that I can’t remember the details now, but I remember enjoying it a lot. Similar to Loving Jenny, I think.
    Last Summer (1992) – I didn’t like it at the first try, but liked it after a re-read. I still don’t *love* it, though. Hero is a Hollywood bad-boy actor whom small-town heroine condemns because she believes he has a drug problem. Heroine is judgemental as hell, but learns from her mistakes.
    One Fine Day (1994) – KristieJ loved this, but I can’t stand Austin. A troubled marriage. Heroine returns to her estranged difficult-to-like husband to nurse him through the aftermath of his stroke. I think I was too emotionally immature to appreciate it (I was roughly 20 when I read it), but I’m still resisting to re-read it. Maybe someday.
    Long Night Moon (1995) – a trash-tabloid journalist investigates a high society chap whom he believes is dirty and subsequently discovers that the chap’s wife is not all she seems. He resists being her knight because he believes his armour is too tarnished. For reasons I can’t remember why, it largely didn’t work for me. I think it seems more like a women’s fiction novel than a romance? I’m not sure, to be honest. FWIW, it features domestic violence.
    Pictures of Emily (1990) – DNF. I simply didn’t like it and have no interest to give it another try.

    Still unread: The Forever Man (1988) and Forever (1991) (saving them for the day before the world ends)

    Like the other Weir books I have read, Bad Karma is deceptively simple in its prose and profoundly tortured in its emotional substance.

    Amen.

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  8. Statch
    Nov 02, 2011 @ 16:28:41

    @Robin/Janet, I think that Bad Karma was easier to read for me than The Orchard because I knew it was fiction.

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  9. Statch
    Nov 02, 2011 @ 16:57:58

    @Maili, thanks so much for posting those reviews! I was hoping to find one of the first three in ebook format but didn’t. I did find Cool Shade and Amazon Lily at Amazon for $3.99 each so got them.

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  10. Robin/Janet
    Nov 03, 2011 @ 23:36:40

    Thanks for the list, Maili! One thing I noticed reading Loving Jenny and Bad Karma back to back was that the two heroines had both endured being buried underground for prolonged periods. I thought that was fascinating and it sounds like maybe Some Kind of Magic has a similar issue. I’m kind of curious now to see if there’s any more of that in Weir’s fiction, beyond the general ethos of claustrophobia I’ve felt in all of her books that I’ve read so far.

    @Statch: Weir commented on Twitter recently that she’s trying to get more of her backlist into digital, but obviously it’s a big project. Hopefully it will happen soon, though.

    ReplyReply

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