REVIEW: Strangers on a Train anthology
I was curious how the authors of this anthology came up with the idea for it so I queried Ruthie Knox. Here’s her answer:
Strangers on a Train started on Twitter, of all places. I ran across a Tumblr called “Hot Guys on the Train,” which consists entirely of Instagram-style cell phone pictures taken (presumably) covertly by (presumably) some hot-to-trot young urban commuter. They are the sort of pictures that seem to invite narrative — Who was this woman? Who is this guy? I started chatting with Samantha Hunter, Serena Bell, and Donna Cummings about the pictures and how fun it would be to write stories riffing off them, and the next thing I knew we’d roped in Meg Maguire and planned a story collection. We’d all use the “Strangers on a Train” theme, aim for about twenty-thousand-word contemporary romance stories (with the idea that five stories would make up a book of about three hundred pages), and otherwise the sky’s the limit. We did divvy up locations and types of trains early on, but I don’t recall anyone jockeying for duplicates. Then we wrote, shared drafts, edited communally, and submitted the manuscript to Samhain. It was a really fun project, and a reminder, for me, that stories are like fingerprints, in the sense that two authors CAN’T write the same story, even if they begin in the same place.
I was a little surprised that the genesis for the book came from swapping Tweets, so I asked Ruthie about that too.
Twitter has been a great stomping ground for meeting other romance writers and having a supportive, creative community of people to chat with and write alongside. Meg and Serena are both my critique partners and in-real-life conference pals. Sam has been a mentor to other romance writers — aspiring Harlequin Blaze writers and others — for many years. I think I “met” her on the Harlequin Blaze forums, and then when I joined Twitter (primarily because I was so very interested in Meg, having read and loved her work and then sent her fan mail), Sam was my first follower.
Here at DearAuthor, we decided, in a collaboration of our own, to split up the reviewing for this anthology.
Back on Track by Donna Cummings
I read all five of the works in this collection. Back on Track fell firmly in the middle.
Allie Whittaker has been dragged onto the Napa Valley Wine Train (This really exists and, man, do I wish I could go on it.) by her best friend. Allie has, for too long, been all business and no party. She’s just started her own marketing firm and has been busting her shapely butt to get it off the ground. This particular wine ride has lots of single men on it and, that great social lubricant, unlimited wine. Sandra is determined Allie flirt with someone and break the dating dry spell that’s been Allie’s life for the past year. When Allie worries she won’t be able to come up with any good conversation starters, Sandra tells her to walk up to a cute guy and “Say you’ll tell them three things about you, and one of them is a lie. They have to figure out which one is which.” After a bit of liquid courage, Allie decides to approach a guy wearing a baseball cap pulled low on his head.
The Baseball Cap is none other than three-time Cy Young winner Matt Kearns. Matt’s been having problems with his shoulder, he’s been sent down to Triple A for rehab, and he’s worried about his future. His best friend Troy–they’ve been buds since since Troy threw a sucker punch at a PB&J-eating Matt in first grade–has dragged Matt onto the Wine Train to force Matt to lighten up and have some fun. Matt isn’t having any fun, however, until Allie comes over to him, sits down in the seat across from him and says, “I’m going to tell you three lies about myself.”
The best part about this book is the banter between Allie and Matt. The two decide to play Sandra’s lie game correctly and after Allie tells her three things, Matt takes his turn. He opens with “I’m Matt Kearns.” Allie knows that’s not a lie–she’s figured out who he is–and raises the stakes by replying, “I dated him for a while.”
Matt almost spits out his wine at that whopper but decides to entertain himself by seeing how far this woman–whom he knows he’s never laid eyes on before today–will take her crazy claim. He can’t quite figure out if she really does know him or not, but he’s having fun and so he settles in for what he hopes will be an amusing three hour tour (yes, I know).
The exchanges between Matt and Allie are lot of fun. Matt and Allie are clever and it’s a blast to watch each attempt to outsmart the other. If their relationship had just been about their flirty encounter, I’d have really liked the novella. Unfortunately, however, Ms. Cummings forced her storyline to hew to that of a standard romance. In Back on Track‘s 67 pages, there is the oeuvre’s full arc: meet, fall in like/lust/love, quarrel, part, and reunite. The first four parts of that story take place on the short train ride. I didn’t buy the depth of feeling developed by Matt and Allie. They fell for each other too fast, fell apart too easily, and, once together again (for the first time since the train ride), declared their love for one another too glibly.
Back on Track gets a C. ~Dabney
Ticket Home by Serena Bell
Ticket Home is a debut work by Ms. Bell and it’s damn good. It and Ms. Knox’s Big Boy are my favorites in this collection. Ms. Bell’s tale has heart, heat, and hope. It’s an excellent first try and I look forward to reading more of Ms. Bell’s prose.
The leads in Ticket Home are introduced while riding a train–a commuter headed into Manhattan–but they are anything but strangers. Six months before the novella’s opening scene, Amy Moreland left Seattle and her never-stopped-working-even-while-they-were-in-bed boyfriend Jeff Havers and moved to take her dream job in New York. Now, Jeff wants her back.
From the moment Jeff shows up on Amy’s morning train, Amy begins what I hoped would be a losing battle between her longing for Jeff and her anger at how he placed his job, always, each and every day, above their relationship. It’s clear Jeff is crazy about Amy. It’s clear Amy is crazy about Jeff. As they sit next to each other on the swaying train, all they can think about is how they were together, how incredible the fit of their bodies was, how their minds flew down the same pathways in casual conversation. But, both are still angry; Amy at Jeff for letting his job rule their life and Jeff at Amy for running away rather than staying and fighting for what they had.
Jeff, however, is ready to let go of his anger–one of the reasons it tool six months to come after Amy is that it took him that long to move past his own ire and pain. Amy is not. She rebuffs Jeff the first time he shows up her train, even reports him to the conductor but, that evening, he’s at the station.
He was waiting for her on the platform at the end of the day, leaning on a pillar, a study in male nonchalance.
Her insides got tangled as her heart tried to leap at the same time her stomach tried to sink, and then she knew half of her had hoped he’d go back to Seattle while the other half had been hoping just as hard he’d be here, on the train.
Stupid workaholic Jeff with his stupid phone.
As she stepped through the sliding doors, he pushed himself up off the pillar, an uncoiling of muscle, and closed the distance between them. Aligning himself at her side, matching her stride.
She sped up, ran for the train, and he chased her, bounding on behind her and following her up the aisle.
There was, of course, no place to go. No way to get away from him. Unless—
There was a conductor at the end of the car, and she started toward him, but Jeff caught her wrist again and spun her around to face him. He was very close, so close she could see the circles under his eyes and the brown stubble on his jaw. So close she could remember the exact feel of that well-formed lower lip.
“No more games.”
…..“I’m not playing games,” she said. “I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to fix things up. I want you to get off the train and leave me alone. It’s over.”
“And I want you to come home with me.”
He said it so simply, it stopped her dead. She eyed his soft, wavy hair, the lean strength in his neck, the rough line of his shoulder under his dress shirt, and she couldn’t move.
Just about everything in the brief work works. Ms. Bell is an excellent writer. She’s got mad descriptive powers.
Like here, where she describes what Amy sees as she looks out the window as she rides into the city:
The sky was nearly light, a gleaming pale-blue tribute to morning over the increasingly urban landscape.
Or here where Jeff is thinking about the way Amy sounds when they make love:
He wasn’t sure he’d ever told her this, but it was those noises that made him come, every time. Sure, there was all that heat and friction and wetness, all the grappling and groping, her fingers reaching into the space between where their bodies met to move slickly over his balls, his thumb finding her clit, and all the kissing, endless hot, wet and hungry—but every time, those little whimpers were the final straw, picking him up and hurtling him into mindlessness.
And though the story takes place in less than a week, Ms. Bell gives Amy’s and Jeff’s struggle to find happiness, to change in ways they both must for them to again be together believable heft. Her characters feel emotions deeply be it anger, sadness, awareness, lust, or love. It’s no easy to feat to create intensely sympathetic, utterly real characters in 78 pages. Ms. Bell does so with the panache of a veteran novelist.
She also throws in a fellow rider, a middle-aged guy from Brooklyn who serves as a savvy, wry Greek chorus. He’s a hoot. Here’s hoping we’ve not seen the last of Brooklyn Guy.
There are two things that kept this novellas from being an A read for me. The first is a symbolic act taken towards the story’s end. It didn’t work for me.
[spoiler]Jeff throws his iPhone off the train. This seems extreme, slightly silly, and, well, it’s littering. Ms. Bell wrote Jeff’s redemption well. There’s no need for him to make such a dramatic gesture.[/spoiler]
The second is the way Jeff’s devotion to his job is presented. Amy asserts repeatedly Jeff is an asshole for not valuing her job as much as he does his and for making his job, not her, the most important thing in his life. I found myself feeling defensive for Jeff. Jeff owns a company he and a friend started. It’s clear he makes more money than Amy–in Seattle, she was a financial aid officer at University of Washington–and has more responsibility for his workplace’s success. I’m not saying that makes his job more important than hers. But I do wonder if they ever talked about their finances while living together. Did they split their cost of living equally or did Jeff contribute more? Did Jeff support the work/life balance Amy chose when they were together?
Jeff is in his early 30’s, a time where many men and women do work long hours, trying to create (if they are lucky) enough financial security to buy a place, have a child, save for the future. Amy loves the job she has now, but it’s clear her work doesn’t define her as Jeff’s does. She’s found a work/life balance she likes. I don’t see her choices, however, as being morally better than Jeff’s. Yes, Jeff needs to make time for Amy if the two of them are going to have a strong, healthy, happy relationship. But caring so much about his job doesn’t make Jeff a jerk.
All in all, however, Ticket Home is a well-done work. It gets a B+. ~Dabney
Big Boy by Ruthie Knox
I heard so many of my kindred-spirit reader friends raving about your book that I couldn’t resist checking it out, especially when I saw that it featured a professor heroine and a history buff hero, and was set in the northern midwest. Big Boy is a short novella (at 18,500 words, it’s closer to a novelette), part of the Strangers on a Train anthology, but it can easily be read as a standalone.
The opening scene immediately drops the reader into the not-a-romance between Amanda, a newly hired assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, and her once-a-month date, whose name changes every month depending on the role he’s chosen. He sends Mandy instructions on the era they’re going to inhabit as characters, she meets him at the Railroad Museum, and they have anonymous but intensely satisfying interludes that take them away from their everyday cares.
And my goodness, does Mandy need that kind of interlude. After her sister, brother-in-law, and niece were killed in an accident she became the sole caregiver for baby Josh, the surviving member of the family. She loves Josh intensely, but his baby neediness overwhelms her most of the time, and combined with the demands of her new position, she feels as if she’s always behind and wholly inadequate. Once a month, anonymous conversation and sex with a handsome, attractive man makes her feel sexy and special.
This is a genre romance, so of course it can’t just be a satisfying, no-strings-attached physical relationship. Mandy lives for these monthly meetings, and soon she (and we) discover that the man she’s meeting is
Tyler[,] the photo archivist at the train museum. I’m the newest Americanist at the university, a specialist in the intersections of US history, literature and culture. In a city as small as Green Bay, we’re supposed to know each other. He’s my peer.
How handy is that? But it’s only the beginning of Chapter Three, so we know it won’t be quite that easy. For one thing, Tyler is seven years younger. And for another, although he has an MA in history, he only has a part-time job and lives with his father. So despite the fact that Mandy is pretty sure she’s falling in love with him, she’s hesitant about pursuing him. Then Tyler makes it clear that he doesn’t want more than the relationship they already have, at which point Mandy decides she really wants him. Does she get what she wants? Well, it’s a romance, so obviously yes, but they way they get there was both more interesting and more annoying to me than the average romantic conflict resolution.
It was interesting because I liked the way the age difference was handled, and I liked the fact that Mandy knew she was trangressing the rules she’d agree to by trying to take the relationship to another level. But it was also annoying because what started as an unconventional, somewhat unromantic but definitely sexy story about a relatively unlikable heroine and a mysterious hero turned into a lasting relationship for two people who were perfect for each other in every conventional way except the age difference. They even had symmetrical, difficult constraints on their independence and autonomy. I felt let down. Did Tyler have to be her peer? Couldn’t he have just had a BA, or (horrors) no college degree but a self-taught expertise on railroads, jazz, and 20th-century American history?
I also had problems with the characterizations. Mandy presented herself as inadequate, irresponsible, and miserable from the second scene of the book. In some ways that makes her very relatable: who hasn’t felt that way, especially new mothers and people embarking on long-awaited but demanding careers? (And if you haven’t, I don’t think I want to know about you.) Most of the mothers I know worry about being bad mothers, and most of them are (from my outsider perspective) really good mothers. Mandy struck me as embodying this contradiction.
But there’s a difference between feeling inadequate and nasty and being inadequate and nasty, and in other areas Mandy crossed that line for me. With some effort, I could give her displaced frustration at her babysitter a pass (I have a knee-jerk reaction to the assumption that women who do low-paid emotion work are always looking for ways to shirk). But I never saw her deriving any enjoyment from her job. She shirked on class prep even though she knew she was on probation, the few comments she made about her students were derogatory (and contradicted my own experience teaching the same subjects to undergraduates), and neither of those conditions were different at the end of the story. I didn’t want Mandy to have a big revelation or get her comeuppance, but I wanted a better sense when I finished that her earlier misery was contextual rather than endemic to her personality, that she understood this distinction, and that she now liked her life for reasons other than the HEA with Tyler.
Tyler is pretty much a cipher until the last section of the book, when the revelations about his life choices make him the furthest thing he could be from the slacker Mandy was imagining. His greatest sins are having mildly rough sex with Mandy one time and fearing a committed relationship because his responsibilities are already so onerous. For me, this is the equivalent of a heroine who thinks no one will find her attractive because she has an hourglass figure in an era of lollipop celebrities; in other words, not remotely believable. It’s not a dealbreaker for me, though, because the book is really about Mandy (the narration is 1st POV, present tense).
There is some really lovely writing and imagery in the story, and even when I was ready to ditch Mandy, the narrative kept me going. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that the reason I got fed up with Mandy was because the writing made her so vivid. And there is a heartbreaking scene near the end, when Mandy is visiting Tyler at his home and he shows her something he’s built which provides him with a temporary mental and physical escape from his responsibilities. Even in his fantasy world, he constructs something that keeps him close to the ground rather than reaching for the stars. It was such a poignant insight into his character.
One warning to readers: I bought this book from Amazon and the font was almost unreadably small. I had to blow it up several levels, and I like small print. Samhain, please fix this!
I’m glad I read this story, despite my mixed feelings about it, and I can better understand why Ruthie Knox an autobuy reader for so many. Grade: B- ~ Sunita
Tight Quarters by Samantha Hunter
I’d never read anything by Ms. Hunter but this novella from the anthology looked like a good place to start.
Brenna Burke has a reason to want to force herself to take a slow weekend train tour through New York state. After surviving a horrific car crash as a teenager, she’s battle multiple phobias which have affected her life since then. With a shot at getting a job as a travel writer, she’s decided to try and overcome her last, lingering
fear of small, enclosed spaces and has been working up to the trip in stages. This short journey is to be her first attempt at actually going somewhere. Her efforts look like they might be overturned before the train even leaves the station when she discovers that a glitch has led her spacious berth to be double booked. Sure, the guy is cute but Brenna almost panics at the thought of sharing her space with anyone.
Reid Cooper has his own demons to face in the form of nightmares that stem from the almost fatal shooting that has lead him to retire from the NYPD. Since he comes from a family with a long history of being cops, he’s had to deal with their unspoken disappointment at his actions but Reid knew it was time to turn in his badge and move on to something else. He’s initially a little pissed at Brenna’s prickliness and insistence on berth rules but quickly realizes that she’s got a reason for her issues.
An attempt at sharing the space for a few days soon progresses to a hot sexual encounter which Brenna finds allows her to feel normal for the first time in years while Reid enjoys the end to a sexual drought following his injury. But with so much baggage for each overcome, there’s a lot more resolution needed before The End.
The novella has a believable set up. A computer snafu leads to a double booking. A heroine with claustrophobia who needs to be able to exist in small spaces is facing up to and trying to conquer her fears. A hero looking for something to do following a life changing event discovers that his training as a police officer allows him to help her diffuse her anxiety. They’re bristly at first but willing to compromise and act as adults. One night their remembered fears leads to mutual comfort – okay, this is adrenalin speaking but at least when they get their sex on it’s not while running for their lives. This is what works for me in this novella.
Brenna’s fears raise their heads when she’s confronted with moving past letting her phobias define her but she’s inspired by the need to see Reid again which gives her the needed push to finally overcome them. Meanwhile in her absence Reid discovers that he is mopey and miserable without her. A too quick reconciliation and we’re at the end of the story. The HFN is the limit of what I can believe at this point for these two. And while the set up requires that each person have some fairly serious backstory problems, there’s almost too much that is packed into such a short word count. More space to expand or fewer things which needed expanding on would have made the story work better for me. Grade C ~Jayne
Thank You for Riding by Meg Maguire
This is the second story I’ve read by Maguire and it kept me laughing almost the entire time – Caitlin’s inner musings and “willings” are hilarious. It starts with a delightful meet-cute when hardworking account manager Caitlin is donating plasma during a little of her downtime as her busiest time of the year wraps up. She spies a cute guy and they have a little fun pantomime flirting. But Caitlin’s got a boyfriend and so smiles at him but leaves looking forward to the company Christmas – oops that should be nondenominational holidays – party when she can dress up in a short dress and killer heels then anticipate having Kevin delighfully manhandle her lady bits.
‘She’d give him his gift early and set the tone for the entire break, tell him, Yes, we’re an item and I like you and here’s some shiny, monogrammed, nonrefundable proof of what a great catch I am. Now sully me, you fool!‘
Kevin has other ideas and dumps Caitlin between the laser printer and the neglected office ficus tree with nary any ravishing having taken place first.
After drowning her sorrows with a few drinks, Caitlin clop clop clops her way on her 3 inch heels to the train home – 5 stops on the Red Line and 2 on the Orange – through the sub freezing Boston cold. And then who should she run into but Mr Meet Cute. Their introductions and verbal flirting are a breath of fresh air. Here are two people who come off sounding reasonably intelligent who are attracted to each other without it sounding sleazy or forced.
She started, blinking to bring his face into focus.
“Sorry. You said your name’s Caitlin, right?”
“Yeah. Oh, yes. Sorry, the time must be catching up with me.” Pardon me while I redress you in my mind. And…there we go. Now I can form words.
“I asked if you got time off for the holidays,” Mark prompted.
“Yeah, I do. My company’s year-end craziness wrapped up this week. Me and most of the people in my department are taking the week after next off, through New Year’s.”
“Doing anything special?” he asked as the doors opened at Chinatown.
Are you thinking of asking me out? If so, will I look cooler if I say I’m busy or if I say I’m doing absolutely jack shit? Oh, well. Let’s be honest. “I’m doing jack shit. I can’t wait.”
He laughed, and his smile made her lady-region twitchy and demanding.’
The dialog is fun as well as funny and the way they get stuck in their stop as the final train leaves and the system shuts down for the night sounds like it could happen though I feel I have to ask can people really can get stuck in a MBTA tunnel all night in the freezing cold? It’s a good thing Caitlin and Mark have a bottle of bubbly and something to do to keep themselves warm as well as someone nice to do it with.
The story is well constructed and complete to get to the HFN ending. Caitlin and Mark both seem realistic as 30-somethings living in Boston with normal jobs, normal coworkers and the inference of normal families. And Caitlin is a cat slave. That always earns points from me. This is a sweet, lite, happy novella and functions well as one. Grade B+