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REVIEW:  When Falcone’s World Stops Turning by Abby Green

REVIEW: When Falcone’s World Stops Turning by Abby Green

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Dear Ms. Green:

When I’m in the mood for an archtypical Harlequin Presents story — here taking the form of cynical Italian tycoon + secret baby + punishing kisses = angsty-goodness — I look for Abby Green. Originally I decided against reviewing this for Dear Author, because, well, it’s a formula, and you like it or you don’t, and unless you want to do a critique of the entire genre there’s not a whole lot new to say. But then I was interested to notice some small signs here and there of the more modern spirit that’s been popping out in the Presents line lately.

(I go pretty thoroughly into the plot — there are no major spoilers, but if you really like to be surprised, you might not want to read on.)

The story opens with a bang, as Rafaele Falcone and his half brother discover the existence of another previously unsuspected half-brother, at their mother’s funeral. Disappointingly, this mostly sets up the series and doesn’t play into the plot much. Shortly afterwards, researcher Samantha Rourke is horrified to receive a phone call from her former boss and lover Rafaele, asking her to come work for him again. This inevitably leads to Rafaele discovering the existence of their young son, Milo.

The first intriguing thing I noticed was how much the plot is convoluted to make the secret baby aspects more palatable. Rafaele had thought Sam had miscarried, and his reaction to her pregnancy was so negative — the stress even bringing on more dangerous cramps! — that she allowed him to continue believing that. She’s not entirely comfortable with her decision though, and later admits that a desire to punish him for dumping her (and apparently immediately taking up with another woman) might have influenced her. Sympathetic but not blameless — it’s a delicate balance that’s more complicated than we normally see in a short category. Rafaele’s reaction is far more conventional: although he’d been horrified by Sam’s pregnancy, when he discovers he actually has a child he instantly wants full-time fatherhood. I suppose this is intended to make his side of the story more palatable as well, but given that he has Major Issues around parents and children, it would have been good to see him process some.

Another small but significant point: Sam didn’t become downtrodden and poverty stricken after their relationship ended (despite having been dumped by her boss, a point which is not addressed.) With the help of excellent childcare, she went on to earn her doctorate, and she works in a male dominated field, auto engineering. (The coolness of this is somewhat mitigated by Sam having become a tomboy to please her father; she loves how Rafaele makes her feel feminine.)

The main way this story differs from its brethren is… wait for it… Sam actually had sex with someone else while they were separated. It was only one time and God forbid she should enjoy it, but still, this is huge; I’ve encountered only two other instances in Presents. (Even when the heroine actually marries someone else, it’s still pretty damn rare!) Rafaele is also much less of a horn dog than he’d appeared; he was never able to forget Sam. It’s not a complete overhaul of the sexual double standard, but baby steps! (It’s kind of hilarious, in an awful way, to see the response to this plot point on GoodReads — Sam is characterized as a slut and a terrible mom, having sex with strangers “like a hooker.” One time, with a man she’d been dating, makes her into that. No wonder Presents have been resistant to change.)

As for enjoyment value… this didn’t hit the ball out of the park for me as much as usual. It may be because this particular one isn’t really my formula, but even with the updated elements, it felt a little tired. I’m not sure it’s the formula that needs refreshing as much as the language, or perhaps it’s the combination of the two: Rafaele’s desperate exhortations to himself to keep control, Sam’s weak limbs whenever he’s near, even his unbearably attractive stubble — all this is very familiar.  It was entertaining enough, and I’ll hope for a stronger twist to the gut in the next book. C

Sincerely,

Willaful

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REVIEW:  Going Rogue by Robin Benway

REVIEW: Going Rogue by Robin Benway

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Dear Ms. Benway,

Your previous novel, Also Known As, was one of my favorite novels last year. I was charmed by prodigy safecracker Maggie and her family of spies. In that novel, Maggie and her parents are sent to New York to stop a journalist from exposing the secrets of the organization they work for. To do so, she had to get close to the journalist’s son, inadvertantly falling in love with him — and the idea of a normal life — along the way. I thought Also Known As stood well as a standalone and didn’t need any sequels but unlike many other cases, I was delighted when I discovered there was another book about Maggie and her friends.

It’s been a year since the events of Also Known As. Senior year is rapidly approaching, which means college applications and graduation. Or it would, if you were a normal high school student. And while Maggie has been pretending to be just that, there’s no escaping who, and what, she truly is.

When her parents are framed for stealing some priceless coins, Maggie is determined to prove their innocence. After all, she strongly suspects her parents are merely collateral from the Collective’s anger with her. But the more she tries to keep her family safe, the more she realizes the Collective is trouble. Other agents have left, driven away by circumstances similar to the one now plaguing her parents. There are rumors of agents who’ve gone bad. Worse yet, Maggie learns a painful lesson: sometimes you can’t keep your professional life and your personal one separate.

This is a difficult novel to discuss. While reading it, I really enjoyed. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. It sucked me in and kept me engaged. But now that I’ve spent some time away from the book, I can see that it has one very noticeable flaw.

The novel almost tries to do too much. There’s the plot involving Maggie’s parents and the Collective. There’s the plot involving Maggie and Roux’s strained relationship once it becomes apparent Maggie’s gone active again and has to keep secrets from her best friend. There’s the plot involving Maggie and Jesse, who she also has to keep secrets from and if this sat poorly with Roux, it sits even worse with her boyfriend. There’s the fact that Maggie’s attempts to clear her parents’ name has to remain secret from them, thereby straining their relationship.

Don’t get me wrong. I like these plotlines. They’re all interesting areas that I’d like to see explored. But to do so well, there need more space. Going Rogue is just a little too short to do them all justice. But by trying to include all of them in the novel, they all get short-changed. I’m still not sure I completely understand what Dominic was trying to do.

On the other hand, I liked that Going Rogue addressed the “I just want to be normal” trope that is so prevalent in many novels. Maggie comes from a family of spies. She is a genius safecracker. She loves it. But she wanted to be a normal girl who stayed in one place and got a boyfriend too. She got but a year into that life and she’s bored. When given the opportunity to return to the spy life, she jumps at the chance. Maggie’s boredom and repeated denials of being bored rang very true to me. A normal life sounds good and all but if you’re a teenager with an amazing talent and a chance at a more exciting life, wouldn’t it be more believable to jump at that opportunity?

I still love Roux and her friendship with Maggie. In many ways, my wanting to see more of that relationship is what led to my disappointment at how underdeveloped the conflict between Maggie and Roux was. Things haven’t changed. She’s still a social pariah and Maggie is her only friend. The idea of Maggie leaving is too much for her to bear so their friendship breaks and Roux starts avoiding Maggie. This is an angle that just needed more page-time.

The same can be said for the time devoted to Maggie and Jesse. Early in the novel, much is made of Jesse and the return of his mother into his life. Maggie subsequently makes a mistake that could jeopardize everything and while her error in judgment leads to trouble in their relationship, the mother is barely mentioned again. Huh?

Despite these flaws, I still really liked Going Rogue. It’s over the top and fun, and sometimes I need that. I especially recommend this to fans of Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girl series, who might be looking for something similar now that series is completed. B-

My regards,
Jia

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