What Janine is Reading: Late Summer to Fall of 2013
Killing Sarai by J.A. Redmerski
I’m not sure whether this self-published 400-page romantic suspense novel qualifies for the New Adult category. On the one hand, the heroine and main narrator of the story (at least in the first 38% which I read) is only twenty-three years old, and Redmerski is also the author of the popular New Adult novel The Edge of Never. On the other hand, though, the heroine’s love interest in this story, anti-hero Victor, is around forty.
Killing Sarai has a fresh and compelling premise. Sarai has been held captive against her will by a Mexican drug lord since she was only fourteen, and Victor is the first American she has seen during her nine years in captivity. Victor is a hit man hired by Javier, the aforementioned drug lord, to take out a rival. In order to escape the compound where she’s held, Sarai manages to sneak into Victor’s car with a gun.
Sarai takes Victor hostage at gunpoint and tries to threaten him into helping her escape, but even in this part of the book, Victor is more in control of the situation than she is, and once she tires, he quickly takes charge.
Sarai convinces Victor to use her as leverage against Javier, but what she really needs is to find freedom and bring aid to Lydia, a friend and fellow captive who has remained behind. Victor, meanwhile, remains an enigma. When he’s offered even more moolah to kill Sarai, will Victor, who has begun to admire her, be able to do it?
This novel sounded good on its Amazon page – I was hoping for something like Anne Stuart’s Black Ice, which I adored – but the reality was not as engaging as I had hoped.
Sarai’s narration had some emotional appeal at times, but at other times grammatical missteps and the over-explaining of simple gestures (such as “Niklas nodded in respsonse, understanding my intent”) disconnected me from the author’s voice.
A bigger problem was that the pacing felt slow and the book seemed in need of editing and tightening. Additionally, Victor’s POV was inserted in a way that felt intrusive. Most of the hundred and fifty pages I read were narrated by Sarai in first person. Up until p. 89 we don’t hear from Victor at all, but on p.89 we get a six page scene in Victor’s first person POV, and then we don’t hear from him again for a another long stretch of over fifty pages.
And when his POV does finally resurface, not only is it jarring, but it doesn’t feel true to the character. Up until this part of the story, Victor was largely silent and shut down. Now he’s suddenly empathic and in touch with his and Sarai’s feelings. This was the point at which I lost what patience I had left and quit reading.
I must add also that in the 150 page section I read, all the Mexican characters were stereotyped as criminals in the drug trade and there was considerable violence against women as well. Killing Sarai rates a DNF.
Chalk this up as another read I wanted to love but didn’t, though I did like it. I greatly enjoyed a few of Knox’s earlier works, including How to Misbehave, the first part of Amber and Tony’s story, to which I gave a B+ grade. Making it Last, the sequel, catches up with these characters fourteen years later so we readers can see what marriage has done to their relationship.
I was originally apprehensive that this marriage-in-trouble novella wouldn’t work for me because it was a sequel to a happy ending story. My fear turned out to be groundless in the sense that I absolutely adored the first third of the novella, which set up the problems. As Courtney Milan commented on Willaful’s review, the problems Amber and Tony experienced in their marriage were “problems of too much love.”
With an expensive mortgage and three active boys, Tony, a builder, and Amber, a stay at home mom, were overworked and left with little time for each other at the end of the day. I loved the way the problems, as well as the love, in the marriage came through in the first third. But this section felt so real that once the couple were alone in Jamaica and the novel switched gears to the sexytimes, it happened too fast for me and didn’t feel entirely organic to the story.
And while I like the final third better, the interlude with the amazing sex made it feel wobbly. I needed more time spent on the resolution of the problems, because a years-long pattern of behavior in a relationship is harder to change than can be done in a couple of days alone and a couple of honest conversations.
Making it Last was a too-light treatment of heavy subject matter for me – I feel that his story really needed to be a novel-length work. But as always, I enjoyed Knox’s voice and the way she grounds her stories in specific details.
I’m probably the only reviewer you’ll see grading Making it Last lower than How to Misbehave, but I feel that while Knox has mastered the more traditional romance plots like those of About Last Night and How to Misbehave, her projects that take on more serious subjects like those in this novella and in Big Boy show their seams to a greater degree. I give Making it Last a B-.
Small Town Girl by LaVyrle Spencer
I’ve been waiting for LaVyrle Spencer’s digitized books to come down to reasonable prices with little luck, and so I finally reached a point to which I rarely resort nowadays, and took this book off my paperback TBR shelf.
I have read a number of Spencer’s romances, both historical and contemporaries, in the past, but this 1997 contemporary romance was one I hadn’t tried before. It begins with country music star Tess McPhail returning to her small hometown in Missouri after eighteen years away. Tess has come home because her sisters insisted it was her turn to care for their elderly mother while she recovers from a hip replacement surgery. Tess has reluctantly agreed, although her mom’s unchanging ways drive her crazy.
Another thing that drives Tess crazy is her mother’s affection for Kenny Kroneck, a helpful neighbor who as a boy had a crush on Tess and whom Tess and her friends mocked for it in high school. Kenny is now the divorced, good looking dad of a teenager who is not only Tess’s biggest fan, but a musical prodigy herself.
It is Kenny’s daughter Casey who brings Kenny and Tess together despite their initial animosity. But standing in their way is Tess’s boyfriend-of-four-dates, Hank, now on tour with his own band, and Kenny’s girlfriend of eight years, Faith.
The descriptions of small town life, Tess’s relationship with her mother, and her connection to Kenny’s daughter Casey were conveyed with warmth and attention to detail. Tess’s budding attraction to Kenny was also appealing, but only up to a point.
My stumbling block was the handling of Kenny’s breakup with Faith. Hank and Tess did not have much of relationship, but Kenny and Faith had dated for eight years, and Kenny had even asked Faith to marry him more than once. Faith turned him down because she did not want to leave her church for him (she was Catholic and he was not) but they continued to see each other.
It is true that Kenny had never fully gotten over his high school crush on Tess and that Faith seemed like someone who didn’t know how to enjoy sex, but after eight years with him, I thought Faith deserved better than she got from Kenny, who didn’t break up with her until he was sure of Tess.
Also, Kenny’s daughter Casey encouraged Tess and Kenny’s affair despite the fact that Faith had been something of mother figure to her for eight years. That struck me as contrived and difficult to credit.
An additional problem for me with the story was the fat-shaming portrayal of Tess’s older sister Judy. Judy was rude and sullen around Tess, resentful of Tess’s success, but the story pinned this on Judy’s weight issues. Judy’s walk was described as a waddle, and Tess and her other sister shared the opinion that if only Judy joined Weight Watchers and lost some weight, her rudeness to Tess would cease.
Between the treatment Judy’s character received in the narrative and the treatment Faith got, I found I couldn’t really enjoy Small Town Girl as much as I wanted to, despite the high quality of Spencer’s prose. C/C+.
I haven’t read this Knox novella, but I’m interested in your comments about “showing its seams.” I find this isn’t uncommon for romance fiction I read that takes on serious subjects (I mean outside of love itself, because I wouldn’t want to call that unserious, but issues in the characters’ lives that are not easily or at all resolvable); I think it can be hard to make those work with an HEA, especially in the scope of a novella, without the treatment of the serious bits seeming undeveloped, dismissive, or too easily resolved. I loved Big Boy when I read it, but I did see the seams, more so in retrospect.
I want romance writers to tackle subjects the genre doesn’t usually include, I think it can be done well, and I tend to cut writers slack for taking risks–but I’ve read enough uneven or problematic books that sometimes I find myself wishing they just wouldn’t bother.
@Janine, I wish I still had a rash of Spencer novels unread on my bookshelf, but alas that ship has sailed (though I am parsing out my Sherry Thomas’). Small Town Girl was sort of based on REBA! McEntire, I remember reading at the time. Not one of my favorites, you’re right about the sister being treated pretty shabbily.
@Liz Mc2: Yeah. Speaking with my writer hat on, something I learned the hard way is that it’s not only the HEA that makes it hard to do justice to other issues, but also the fact that the other issues have to be explored through the romance. If they are decoupled from the romance, then the reader has to turn their attention away from the romantic relationship in order to read and think about the other issues, and if what’s at stake in the other issues doesn’t really pertain to the romantic relationship, then the reader may not want to do that.
I think too (also with my writer hat on) that novellas can present a particular temptation to writers. They are a shorter investment of writing time, so it is easier to take on riskier subject matter or to take other chances with them. It’s a smaller expenditure so if a novella doesn’t sell well, it is not as big a loss, from a business standpoint, as it would be if a novel did not sell well. It’s too bad (now switching back to my reader hat) because a lot of these serious subject matter novellas could benefit from being longer, and Making It Last falls into that category for me.
I also feel, as I hinted at above, that any plot which involves a years-long pattern of behavior in a marriage or living together relationship is especially tough to pull off. Anyone who has lived for years with another person and had a problem in the relationship which persisted for those years — not years apart but years together — knows how hard set patterns of behavior can be to tackle. It’s all well and good to resolve to do things differently, but to convince me that that’s enough– well, that’s not easy to pull off.
LOL! I only have a handful, not a rash, and they aren’t on my shelf — I’d have to purchase or check out of the library.
Here are the ones I haven’t read. I’d love to hear what are the best books on this list:
Forsaking All Others
A Promise to Cherish
That Camden Summer
Then Came Heaven
I preferred How to Misbehave over Making It Last also. I’ve loved all of Knox’s other novellas, which have dealt with tough issues, so I think she excels at the format no matter what the subject matter. But this story had big issues *and* a shorter time frame. Big Boy and Room at the Inn both took place over a period of months, I believe. That makes a difference. I agree with you about the first and last third of MIL. Amber’s struggle really hit home for me, but I was frustrated by her lack of communication. I felt that she was passive and Tony rescued her emotionally. In my experience, waiting for your husband to figure out what’s wrong on his own is not a recipe for success. ;)
@Jill Sorenson: I had problems with Big Boy and Room at the Inn also. Room at the Inn (my least favorite Knox of the ones I’ve read) was even worse IMO in regard to the heroine waiting for the hero to change the situation/resolve the conflict. I thought it was disturbing and even borderline creepy that she took on his mother’s role in the town. Amber at least resolved to start the communications process with Tony.
With that said, I couldn’t agree more with what you said about the short time frame of Making it Last. You’re absolutely right, had it taken place over months it would have had more of a chance of working for me. Although I feel it might have also needed for the time frame of the problems between them to be shorter. And based on my track record with Knox’s novellas (except for How to Misbehave), I still say it should have been extended into a novel-length work.
@Janine: I didn’t see the heroine in Room at the Inn as waiting for the hero. I thought she was dating other people and doing what she liked, which included being part of the community.
@Jill Sorenson: I thought Julie waiting for Carson was the subtext of the whole novella. I just paged though it and I see it was even stated or indicated a bunch of times in Julie’s POV:
From Kindle location 834:
“In his room, his backpack leaned against the wall, the top an open mouth from which he retrieved things as he needed them. He’d been around for half of December, and his dresser sat empty.
When the time came for him to leave, he’d be fast about it.
She wanted him to stay. She had always wanted him to stay.”
From kindle location 948 (during a sex scene):
“In the middle of her, that deep ache. That wet heat of intrusion. She loved it so much. She’d missed it in a way she never admitted to herself.
She was a goner, lost in a terrifying impulse. Too late to turn back. Impossible not to admit that this was what she’d wanted, what she always wanted from him.
Impossible to pretend she hadn’t loved him all this time.”
From Kindle location 1210:
“She crossed her arms. As usual, her body had caught on before her rain. He was talking about staying. The man who’d run countless Foreign Service construction projects and whipped contractors into shape in half a dozen different languages.
The man who never stuck around.
The man she loved.”
Kindle location 1224:
“A couple of days ago, he’d made love to her with an intensity that left her breathless and on the verge of tears.
A couple of days ago, she’d admitted to herself that not only was she in love with him again but that maybe, just possibly, some part of her had always been in love with him. That her feelings for Carson had torpedoed every attempt she’d ever made at an adult relationship.”
Kindle location 1238:
“Her eyes filled with tears. She thought she made a difference, too. The kind of difference Glory made. That the smell of sweet rolls mattered, and the fate of the factory building. The rescue of a stately mansion. Ordinary, everyday kindness.
He made her feel so small sometimes. Judged and found wanting. Diminished.
And he didn’t even know it.”
Kindle location 1272 (Carson is going to the basement to check the wiring in her house):
“Her heart lurched. It always did when he walked away from her. She hated it when he walked away from her.”
Kindle location 1277:
“She wanted to put him at ease. To placate him. But everything about him was so precious to her, so dangerously precious, and she worried she couldn’t do this much longer.”
Location 1345 (Carson getting ready to leave the town. My quote starts with Julie’s internal thoughts):
I’m sorry I told you to make up your mind.
I’ll be here whenever you want me.
Her weakness disgusted her, and she said nothing.”
“‘I’ll be back in a few months, Jules.’
She couldn’t wait for him anymore.”
Location 1550 (during Carson’s proposal in the church).
“‘String him along, Julie,’ a voice hollered from the other side of the church. He’s made you wait long enough.'”
I think this last quote sum it up. The voice in the church encourages Julie to turn the tables on Carson, string him along as he has done to her, make him wait as he has done to her. Her dating didn’t seem like moving on to me because she herself admits that “her feelings for Carson had torpedoed every attempt she’d ever made at an adult relationship.”
As for her doing what she liked…don’t get me started. I found Julie’s portrayal cognitively dissonant. Her taking on Carson’s mother clubs, activities, and baking, giving the mom a kidney, moving to Carson’s town and purchasing Carson’s dream house to renovate as Carson had dreamed of doing, all because it just happened to be what she enjoyed, was too great a coincidence for me to swallow. These things reminded me of this movie trailer.
One of the many reasons I love romance novellas is that they challenge a structural issue in romance that I’ve always found problematic. If the heroine’s central conflict is entwined with her relationship to the hero, and that conflict resolves completely at the end of the story/romantic resolution with the hero, it implies that a relationship with a man is the solution to the problem, and that’s the end of it. That always felt dangerous to me. The novella format does not require a total resolution of the conflict. In a novella, the camera can drop down at one moment in time, stay for a while, and then lift up. We can see rich aspects of the conflict within a confined space, time or cast of characters. The heroine and hero move forward and change/grow, but the reader has to fill in the blanks and draw her own conclusions throughout.
What I appreciate about Ruthie Knox’s novellas is that they stick in your craw and bother you a little, long after they’re done. Realistic conflicts should do this. They’re challenging and provoking. In general, the structure of the novella lends itself more to this sort of realism and provocation. Which I love.
@Rebecca Rogers Maher:
I don’t see why it has to resolve completely at the end of a novel-length work though. When I think of my favorite romance novels, many of them leave me feeling that the relationship is a work-in-progress, and effort on the characters’ part will continue in the future. I find that very romantic because real life relationships require ongoing effort, and the investment of work in a relationship is the truest sign of love.
With regard to entwining the other issues with the relationship, I think that the hero and heroine’s willingness to grow and change in order to function better in a relationship (for the other’s sake, yes, but also for their own sake) is part of what makes those characters’ heroic. That growth may mean dealing with past baggage, not just events within the relationship, but if that growth has no impact whatsoever on the romantic relationship, makes no difference to the loved one, then why should I care?
I don’t find her novellas challenging and provoking. Most of them have left me feeling that the serious stuff has been glossed over, fixed at the end with the wave of a magic wand. So it sounds like our experiences of them are very different.
I also just don’t agree that the structure of a novella lends itself more to realism and provocation, except in the sense I described earlier, that novellas are a smaller investment of time and effort for the author than novels, and therefore it is somewhat less risky to write one that might not sell well.
I actually think that novels can have just as much realism and provocation, if not more, than novellas, if only authors would be willing to take bigger chances with the novels.
We only have to look to the past, and novels like Rosenthal’s The Slightest Provocation (ha!), Kinsale’s Seize the Fire, Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s Till the Stars Fall, Mary Balogh’s Dancing with Clara, Megan Chance’s A Candle in the Dark or Fall from Grace, to name some that jump to the top of my head, to see that novels can be just as realistic and provocative as novellas, and with less likelihood of giving short shrift to the character’s issues the way novellas sometimes do.
I agree with most of what you’re saying here. The relationship between the hero and heroine (or hero/hero, or heroine/heroine) gets right up inside a good conflict and MOVES it. That’s what’s so wonderful about love in both books and real life – it reveals, opens, challenges and changes you. Of course this can and does happen in novel-length stories. You offer excellent examples. I can think of hundreds more.
But for every novella that gives short shrift to a conflict, there’s a novel that resolves the ever-loving crap out of every single aspect of a conflict by way of excessive monologue, repetitive dialogue, and pat conclusions. I think that’s in part because it’s hard to sustain real tension between two people for 80,000 words or more. The structural pressure of meeting the word count often leads to over-resolution and over-explaining, which dilutes the tension and undermines the realism of the conflict. Again, this doesn’t happen in every novel. But it does happen. To me, novels that do things like assemble a large cast of characters, span a long period of time, or involve journeys are more successful because they truly require that many words to wrestle with a larger story.
What I like about novellas is that they’re often contained by time, space or number of characters. That’s an interesting way to look at a conflict. It’s brief and intense, like flashes of light in a dark room. You have to really boil a story down to its essence. Structurally, and in the right hands, that can lend itself to provocative material. Personally, I don’t write novellas because they take less time and effort. In fact, I give them the same amount of time I would give a novel, because they need to be so tight and powerful. Every word has to be absolutely necessary and meaningful. That takes a lot of craftsmanship and strong editing. And it lends itself to realism, because it’s so raw and immediate, and there’s no room for filler. It’s not the only way to tackle realistic conflict, but it’s one legitimate way to do it. Whereas you can write a beautiful novel with a paintbrush, a good novella is written with a knife.
Sign me +1 to this comment. That’s so true, but I think it also has something to do with risk aversion, don’t you?
For me it also has to do with the depth of conflict. To sustain tension and realism in a novel-length work, I need a conflict that provides a deep enough chasm between the characters. In novellas, I frequently prefer an easier to resolve conflict, not one that is too easy and has an obvious solution, but one that doesn’t require 80,000+ words to work out.
I haven’t yet read your novellas but your description of your writing process with them makes me want to.
I think we also need to acknowledge that writers have different bents. A short story is even more concentrated than a novella, and a poem is the most concentrated form of all, the most time-consuming per word. Wasn’t it Faulkner who said he would have killed his grandmother to have written “Ode on a Grecian Urn”? But for all his genius, he couldn’t write anything like it.
We all have the skills and bents that we have. Some people write stronger short stories than novels. In a recent televised interview, George Saunders admitted that all his novel-writing attempts petered out after nine or ten pages, and hence he remains a short story writer — and a brilliant one IMO. Other people are better at the novel form.
@Janine: Sorry it took so long! As I remember, That Camden Summer was good, and Then Came Heaven is the….nun story. Sweet Memories is very light, and I don’t remember the other two at all. Which is why I should have saved all my Spencer hardcovers so I could reread them 20 years down the line, but what do we know when we’re young? ;-)
@Tanya: Thanks. Sounds like That Camden Summer is the first of these that I should try.