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REVIEW: For the Love of Pete by Julia Harper

Dear Ms. Harper:

cover3I am a big fan of the Elizabeth Hoyt historicals. They are richly detailed with full bodied emotional depth. They are sometimes dark but have always delivered a satisfying read. I can see where writing fun contemporary romps would serve as a nice relief as well as allowing an author to stretch the boundaries of her writing repertoire.

Unfortunately this book with its frivolity and humor didn’t translate well. Poetess Zoey Adler, who works at a health food store but gulps down Culver Butterburgers like they were manna from heaven, was stunned to see some burly guy run out of her apartment building with her baby niece, Pete, in tow. Zoey had been in an argument over a parking space with Mr. Lips of Sin, a handsome but non talkative, tenant of her apartment complex, when she was shot at, bowled over, and caught up in a road race before she knows it.

Mr. Lips of Sin is Dante Torelli, undercover FBI agent, working to ferret out a rogue agent working in the Chicago office. Zoey climbs into Dante’s Beemer as he is about to give chase for baby Pete is the son of a mobster who is ready to flip on a Chicago mob boss. He knows that without the baby, the likelihood of the father testifying is close to zero. Dante makes a half hearted attempt to shake Zoey but she won’t leave. She wants Pete back too.

In a comedy of errors, Pete is left in a Humvee which is then stolen by the sisters who are chasing after a cachet of stolen saffron. Pete is later stolen by someone else who takes another vehicle. All these kids left in cars by themselves in the dead of winter . . . .Anyway, the chase is on to find baby Pete, prevent anyone from getting killed, clear Dante’s name, and find the two of them happy at the end of the book.

This book read like a screenplay full of inept burglars, the obligatory minority group mined for laughs, and the opposites attract pairing of the uptight FBI agent and the free spirit. Even the mob boss is cliched. (At one point, he has a cookie and says ominously “That’s how the cookie crumbles”). There are 60 some chapters to the book and each chapter contains a different POV prefaced with a time stamp. My linear abilities are fairly weak and after about the 13th chapter, I gave up trying to figure out if I was two minutes beyond the last chapter, the same time, or minutes behind. I just went with it but I do wonder whether its reasonable for readers to keep track 65 time stamps in one book. On top of that, there were seven points of view represented: Zoey, Dante, the two sisters, Tony the inept mobster, Rutgar the very bad mobster, and the rogue FBI agent.

Dante isn’t even a very gruff FBI agent. He’s actually pretty loquacious spilling the details of his top secret agenda to Zoey without even a hint of a struggle. But because he had to play the straight man to Zoey’s fresh and modern part, he’s given old man music taste, folds his clothes, drives a Beemer convertible (sorry, don’t believe a 50s guy who folds his dress pants and puts them in the drawer at night is going to drive a sporty Beemer), isn’t really thrilled with eating messy Butterburgers, and so forth. Weirdly he begins talking about relationships with Zoey not less than 24 hours after meeting her. Maybe because he’s so uptight, the zing of Zoey hits him harder than most.

While I don’t want to belabor the point, I was uncomfortable with the portrayal of the two Indian women who were trying to open up a fantastic resturant in Chicago and their secret ingredient was “Grade 1A Very, Very Fine Mongra Kesar”. Their speech patterns are peppered with “very, very” and “indeed.”

Mongra kesar was fantastically expensive, legendarily flavorsome, and very, very illegal indeed.
***
It would make them famous and ensure their restaurant’s success, thus making them very, very rich indeed.
***
“Yes, of course I am right,” Savita-di said. “Was I not right in saying that That Terrible Man would still have our Grade 1A Very, Very Fine Mongra Kesar in his yellow Humvee truck?”
“Yes, indeed.”
***
Savita-di must be frightened indeed to bring it up now.
***
At least Pratima hoped they were on highway 57, for Savita-di’s ability to read maps was quite poor indeed,

It sounded like they were patterned after the Simpson’s Apu. After all, isn’t it kind of funny that these Indian women say “very, very” all the time. It was similar to writing about two Japanese women, opening up a Sushi restaurant, and chasing after their stolen secret ginseng recipe but jumping out and taking pictures of each other every two miles at gas stations and road signs

It would be one thing if the characters were inviting you to snigger at the generalizations, but instead it was like they were being laughed at. You can say that I’m overly sensitive and I’ll accept that criticism. Maybe I am. Obviously the story was meant as to be an homage, of sorts, to the Indian culture which was portrayed lovingly in other sections of the book. In fact, it was this careful attention to detail that made the constant usage of the words “indeed” and “very, very” so jarring. Wasn’t the fact that they were chasing after a contraband SPICE and stealing a yellow Humvee from a mobster and ending up with not one, but two kidnapped babies funny enough?

Mostly this book is frothy and without substance. The plot doesn’t really hold up to inspection, from the botched FBI witness protection program to the way that the covert op to dig out a rogue agent to the inadvertent kidnapping of the babies. It requires a large suspension of disbelief and I just have a hard time exerting that in a contemporary setting even though I know that it’s purposely unrealistic at some points. The relationship between Dante and Zoey isn’t really well developed mostly because half the book is told from the point of view of someone other than the two of them. Why the Speed formula doesn’t work for me in a book, I’ll never know. C-

Best regards,

Jane

This book can be purchased in mass market from Amazon or ebook format from the Sony Store and other etailers.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

16 Comments

  1. Keishon
    Jan 22, 2009 @ 12:28:29

    Not surprised at the grade. I didn’t really enjoy the first book in this series, HOT. All froth but no substance but that might be all some readers really want.

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  2. Lorelie
    Jan 22, 2009 @ 12:37:54

    Wait, so Julia Harper and Elizabeth Hoyt are one in the same? How did I not know this?

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  3. RachaelfromNJ
    Jan 22, 2009 @ 14:23:13

    I reviewed the first book Hot and while the beginning was slow I did end up really liking it alot. I’ve been looking forward to reading For the Love of Pete for some time now. Sorry to hear that it wasn’t that good.

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  4. Kristen
    Jan 22, 2009 @ 20:41:39

    I read Hot and liked it. This book lost my interest early on. The beginning of the book includes 3 murders and then it switched to slapstick comedy. The comedy was too over-the-top. It didn’t succeed as froth for me.

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  5. Kristen
    Jan 22, 2009 @ 20:42:42

    I read Hot and liked it. This book lost my interest early on. The beginning of the book included 3 murders and then it switched to slapstick comedy. The comedy was too over-the-top. It didn’t succeed as froth for me.

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  6. Sunita
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 17:38:36

    I’m bummed by this. I never got through the first Prince book under her Hoyt name because it felt too wallpapery to me, but I liked her voice and hoped that the contemporaries might work better. Now I don’t know whether to buy the book and be annoyed and disappointed, or skip it. I trust your judgment, and just reading the excerpt on the Indian women raises red flags.

    And for the record, I *like* Apu; I once showed the episode where he gets married in a class because it was a pretty accurate depiction of (some) arranged marriages and (some) Hindu wedding ceremonies. He’s a caricature, but the depiction is inaccurate primarily in the way that caricatures tend to be, not because the writers have a tin ear for the culture. (Except for his first name, and that is entirely forgivable because it’s an homage to Satyajit Ray.)

    For the further record, India banned the export of mongra kesar (AKA Kashmiri saffron), but I don’t know if that includes taking it out of the country for personal consumption. And it’s not illegal to possess it in the US, so it wouldn’t be a problem here anyway. You can buy it on the internet. Maybe in the novel Harper/Hoyt means it as a joke, part of the slapstick, but it makes the sisters seem less than bright, in a way they wouldn’t be IRL; I’ve had extensive conversations with my female relatives in India concerning the quality of Indian spices and the problems of adulteration. They had me bringing Spanish saffron to them for a while because the Indian saffron was so unreliable.

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  7. Jane
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 17:55:49

    @Sunita It’s not that I think Harper has a tin ear for culture. She did portray some other Indian characters favorably and without the caricature tics. I think she meant it to be a loving portrayal of the Indian culture. It just didn’t work out for me. The saffron was an illegal importation of a major amount of Saffron meant to provide the secret ingredient behind their fabulous dishes.

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  8. Sunita
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 18:20:19

    @Jane:
    It sounds as if the slapstick just wound up making the sisters look stupid in some instances rather than endearing (which is more or less what you were saying, I think). I can understand making saffron a plot point, since Indians do get kind of obsessive about it (hence the importation requests) and it *is* extremely expensive and yet critical in many dishes.

    Sigh. I guess I’ll have to read the book and satisfy my curiosity. Even if it’s less than successful as a novel, there are so few that incorporate Asian characters. Damn, I hate when I can’t just jump to conclusions and sit there comfortably!

    ETA: And Harper definitely deserves props for getting the Bengali honorific right, rather than using a generic Hindi “ji,” assuming the sisters are Bengali.

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  9. Jane
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 18:42:00

    @Sunita Read it and come back and let me know what you thought. Maybe I was being over sensitive.

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  10. Sunita
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 19:11:50

    @Jane:
    (Off to Sony bookstore)

    I shall return.

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  11. KristieJ
    Jan 23, 2009 @ 22:20:57

    While I was slightly uncomfortable by the apparent stereotyping of the two Indian woman – and thus that knocked it down a bit – I did really like the rest of the book. Light and frothy and at times; downright silly I will give you. But sometimes one is just in the mood for this type of book – as I was when I read it. I know the plot was implausible, but when I finished it and closed the cover, I had a smile on my face – as I did quite a bit throughout – and sometimes that’s all you need from a book :-)

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  12. Sunita
    Jan 24, 2009 @ 17:29:37

    Okay, I’m back.

    Jane, I don’t think you were overreacting, but I think the problem was less the verbal tics than the fact that the cartoonish behavior didn’t really make sense culturally, and that the slapstick was not well executed. If Harper had used the same type of slapstick but with behavior that reflected more accurate stereotypes, it might not have bothered you as much. The language is annoying, but all the characters except Dante and Zoey have stereotypical ways of thinking and speaking (the mobsters are just as bad as the Indian sisters). In other words, because the characters were acting in ways that felt inauthentic, the cultural signals felt cartoonish and exploitative rather than sympathetic.

    If you’re going to send up Indian stereotypes, why on earth would you do it by giving sweet little old ladies families who don’t want them around? And since when would Indian grandmothers prefer working themselves to death running a restaurant over spoiling their grandchildren and bossing their daughters-in-law? Come to think of it, though, all the characters had problematic family relations, which seems odd in a lighthearted romp.

    In addition to the inadequate characterizations and the overly complicated plot, the balance between the humor and the violence didn’t really work for me. It’s a shame, because once again, I really liked the voice, and the southern Illinois setting felt dead on. And while the Indian sisters-in-law struck the wrong note, I really appreciated the non-demeaning portrayal of the motel family, which could have so easily been teed up for cheap laughs.

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  13. Jane
    Jan 24, 2009 @ 17:42:48

    @Sunita I agree that the mobsters were very formulaic or cliched. The cookie crumble line made my eyes roll to the very back of my head. I felt like there was an invitation to laugh at that, though, when Dante thought to himself that the mobsters sounded like they came from a bad movie.

    There was a disconnect between the violence (and the careless handling of the babies) and the lighthearted tone of the story.

    Maybe Harper/Hoyt is just trying to find her feet in the contemporary genre.

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  14. Sunita
    Jan 24, 2009 @ 18:29:47

    @Jane:
    You’re right about the mobsters. I also think we’re used to laughing at those stereotypes, so it’s easier to accept (although people could still be insulted). We don’t have the same shared cultural stereotypes about newer immigrant minorities. I do agree with your point that it was similar to having Japanese women run around with a ginseng recipe or something. Or maybe noodles, a la Tampopo.

    I hope she does find a balance, because occasionally there would be a scene or a turn of phrase that I really liked. And she started off so well, with the fight over the cleared parking space; I remember those from my Chicago winters!

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  15. Jane
    Jan 24, 2009 @ 19:03:01

    @Sunita I wonder if she is just trying too hard to be funny. I mean, the search for the spice was kind of amusing but what about making the two leads hot Indian women who are fairly normal but for their contraband spice and their random car stealing?

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