The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Another great one that threatened to keep me up all night long. Keep ’em coming.

The Sun Is Also a Star is a YA novel of romance, fate, science, race, and more; 98% of it takes place in a single day in New York City. It stars two delightful and very different teenagers. Natasha is a serious science geek and impassioned fan of 90s grunge music, who firmly believes in provable facts and none of that gooey bubblegum stuff about love. She came to the United States when she was eight as an undocumented immigrant, like both her parents; only her little brother was born in the country, and now – thanks to her father’s unbelievable idiocy – the family is just hours away from deportation to Jamaica, a country that definitely does not feel like Natasha’s home.

Daniel is the younger son of Korean immigrants. His high-achieving older brother is their parents’ darling (of course), and a bully, and objectively a serious asshole; he’s just been kicked out of Harvard (Best School), though, so that’s something. Daniel has his Yale interview today (Second Best School), because he’s trying to follow the intended path and become a doctor, but what Daniel really wants to be is a poet. He is all dreams.

You can already see the drama setting up: Natasha and Daniel run into each other on this momentous day, as she attempts a last-minute legal defense against deportation and he approaches the Yale alum he’s meant to impress. They couldn’t be more different, but they’re drawn together nonetheless. Daniel intends that they will fall in love. Natasha, naturally, is having none of it. There are only hours to spare. Chapters shift between the points of view of Natasha and Daniel as well as a handful of others: side characters we’ll see for just glimpses, or a more omniscient view, including ‘future histories’ and etymologies (‘irie’), a ‘history of naming,’ a ‘history of decay.’ The effect is kaleidoscopic, and transcendent. The cumulative tone is frequently hilarious – both teens’ voices are darling, and Daniel especially is a riot; it is poignant in the ways of teenaged love; and, as established by a Carl Sagan-infused prologue, there is an all-encompassing, cosmic-scale sense of gravity and wonder.

This is a pitch-perfect story, lightning-paced as Natasha’s last day in the States and frenzied as young love, but serious as death, too. It’s absorbing, a world to get lost in. On one level it’s very much about race, racism, immigration and culture. Daniel’s father owns a Black beauty shop, like so many Korean-Americans do, and the book pauses to discuss the global forces that have set up this odd truth. Natasha wears her hair natural – which for some is a political statement, but (again the novel pauses to note, in one of those neat asides) it can also be simpler than that. “In the future, she may make it straight again. She does it because she wants to try something new. She does it simply because it looks beautiful.” I love this narrative voice: here is “an African American history” of hair; here is some of the weighty meaning that accrues; and also, here is a young woman who just wears her hair like she likes it. All of these at once.

The romance story that is the heart of this novel is very sweet and engaging. The topical content is well done and not preachy. The conversation between hyperrationality (Natasha) and dreaminess (Daniel) could have been cutesy and pat, but it’s not: it’s thought-provoking, expansive, and smart. I am, again, impressed with what YA can be. And I am therefore now interested in Yoon’s previous novel, Everything, Everything. I really think there’s something in this book for everyone. I am completely charmed. What a beautiful, book-filled world.

Rating: 8 little notebooks.

Into the Heartless Wood by Joanna Ruth Meyer

I don’t think Father’s wall can keep the trees out if they really want to come in.”

What a delightful story. Props to my colleague at Shelf Awareness, Lana Barnes, whose review sold me this book. As I’ve done once before (and with another YA novel!), I’m reposting Barnes’s words here for you.

This dark fairy tale weaves together magic, romance and nature with lyrical words and imagery.

Into the Heartless Wood is an intense and haunting fairy tale tinged with horror, romance and magic, and filled with beautiful imagery of nature and love.

The Gwydden’s Wood is ruled by a witch who uses her eight tree-siren daughters as weapons, “commanding them to sing, to lure men and women into the wood and devour them.” Seventeen-year-old Owen and his sister stumble to the precipice of this fate, but are saved by the Gwydden’s youngest daughter, Seren. After his rescue, Owen–intrigued by the “monster” who defies her purpose of being–visits Seren in the forest every night. Their forbidden friendship blossoms into romance, and Seren’s desire to “be more than the monster [her] mother created” grows. When secrets and an ancient curse drive Owen and Seren apart, they find themselves on opposite sides of a centuries-old feud and must find a way to break the curse to free themselves.

This fourth YA novel by Joanna Ruth Meyer (Echo North) is gorgeously written, deeply intense and emotionally fulfilling. Owen’s and Seren’s story is portrayed vividly through a series of moments of euphoria and heartbreak. Whether it’s a scene of them dancing on a hilltop until dawn or a tree-siren-caused train derailment, Meyer uses poetic language and imagery to ratchet up the intensity. Meyer also uses a blend of prose (Owen) and verse (Seren) to parallel Seren’s transformation. As Seren becomes more humanlike, her short lines and simple sentences become more complex. This all creates an atmospheric fairy tale that is bewitching and unforgettable.

Lana Barnes, freelance reviewer and proofreader

I would add that Seren doesn’t have a name – because monsters don’t – until Owen offers her one. He is the son of a musician (his mother) and an astronomer (his father), both loves he has inherited, but it is astronomy that he excels at and dreams of; the name he offers to his new friend means ‘star.’ Seren’s adoption of that name, offered by her first friend, is meaningful, because names have great power; to name something or someone is to exercise power over it, and imagine the power to name yourself when no one ever has.

The setting is Welsh, or at least Welsh-adjacent: it is just a minor frame, but Owen’s cooking is Welsh, and the character’s names often look it as well. I found this charming, and it added a little bit to the otherworldly feeling of the novel.

I loved the dreaminess of this book, especially in Seren’s sections. I loved the difference in writing (speaking?) style between the two protagonists, as Barnes notes, and how that changed the tone I heard the story told in, and characterized each of them. And I love trees – or leaves – and stars as reference points for worldviews, as symbols. The romance in this book is sweet, innocent, muted – definitely YA – but moving. There really is something about young love, or in this case such youth that it doesn’t even recognize that it is love. The classic narrative trick is to put two people (or beings!) in an attraction but then throw something in their way; the conflict here is across worlds, and with the added challenge of a shared history, Owen and Seren on two sides of an old strife. (I shan’t spoil it, but they are not only opposed in the world-scale struggle between powers but also share a personal connection to certain events.) The obstacles they face are great. But out of great conflicts come great stories. This is a great story: emotionally impactful, heart-wrenching, sweet, beautifully told (with extra points for style, in the two very different voices). I’m charmed. Also bonus points for trees.

Rating: 8 slices of bara brith.

The Happily Ever After: A Memoir of an Unlikely Romance Novelist by Avi Steinberg

A romantically challenged writer treats the romance novel as career aspiration and life coach, with endearing and revealing results.

Following a divorce, Avi Steinberg (Running the Books; The Lost Book of Mormon) enters the realm of the romance novel, hoping to learn how to write a few commercially successful books and, perhaps more importantly, to solve his own real-life romantic challenges. In his quest, Steinberg hangs out with readers, authors, publishers and cover model CJ Hollenbach (so much more than “Ohio’s Response to Fabio”), attends conferences, joins a writing group and eventually lands a multibook contract under the pen name Dana Becker. These adventures he documents in The Happily Ever After: A Memoir of an Unlikely Romance Novelist.

Part personal memoir, part travelogue and part social and literary criticism, The Happily Ever After questions the societal tendency to look down on romance novels (and to apologize for reading them), examines romance’s domination of the commercial book market, reconsiders classics and the author’s own life through a romance lens, and explores the numerous subgenres of this much-loved and much-reviled field. Steinberg makes observations about gender roles and identities not only within romance novels but throughout American society. “The sentimental tropes of romance are so deeply embedded in our culture, we take them for granted,” making his comments relevant for everyone.

Entering as a romance newbie, Steinberg learns (and outlines for readers) the rules of the genre, including the necessity for “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending,” or Happily Ever After (HEA, in Romancelandia parlance). He concludes that “romance is America’s national literature: not because it is universally read or admired but because it is universally obsessed over,” and that Scheherazade was a romance author–bound to the whims of her audience, delivering rapidly and on demand.

Appropriately, Steinberg’s memoir has a generally upbeat cast, even during low points and through the narrator’s struggles with sincere emotions (“you go for a laugh when you could say something real,” one of his writing groupmates tells him; he calls himself “a depressed person who is an optimist at heart”). Also appropriately, the book concludes with the author’s own romance and bona fide HEA.

By no means is this memoir just for fans of the romance genre, although those readers will of course be tickled by his appreciative study. Steinberg’s personal story will suit any reader curious about the book industry, or who simply appreciates quirky personalities. Aspiring writers may find tips and tricks of special interest, but this is no how-to; rather, it’s an endearingly candid exploration of books, subculture and love itself.

This review originally ran in the July 24, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 aliases.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

“This book is very close to perfect,” says the front-cover blurb by Seanan McGuire, and I confess I raised my eyebrows. But I just finished this book, and I agree.

I’m going to take an unusual step and repost my colleague’s review of this book as published by Shelf Awareness (on March 2, 2020), because I think it’s an excellent review and it’s why I purchased this book. (Which is not my typical fare.) My comments follow. Thanks, Jaclyn, for your good work!

A repressed orphanage inspector takes a stand for six magical children and their charismatic caretaker in this humorous, inclusive love story.

In this sparkling romantic fantasy, TJ Klune pits a mild-mannered paper pusher against the forces of discrimination, inhumane bureaucracy and precocious children, with hilarious and inspiring results.

“Make sure the children are safe… from each other, and themselves,” Extremely Upper Management of the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY) instructs 40-year-old Linus Baker. Linus’s thankless task is inspecting orphanages that house magical children. He blanches at the children’s powers but treats them kindly and believes his work supports their welfare. His quiet life with his old Victrola and “thing of evil” cat Calliope gets interrupted when administration dispatches him to remote Marsyus Island Orphanage, home of six especially unusual children.

Though no stranger to telekinesis or witchcraft, Linus balks at the group: a distrustful forest sprite, a button-hoarding wyvern, a female garden gnome who swings a mean shovel, a boy who turns into a Pomeranian when frightened, a green blob who likes to play bellhop and “Lucy,” the six-year-old son of the Devil. However, their gentle, unflappable caretaker, Arthur Parnassus, unsettles Linus most of all. He exhibits no intimidation at parenting the magical equivalent of a nuclear warhead, and Linus, “a consummate professional,” finds himself attracted to the orphanage’s master in a most unprofessional manner.

However, his reservations about the children fade as Linus gets to know them and sees Arthur’s commitment to giving them a thoughtful, loving upbringing. The intention of remaining detached and going home in one piece evaporates when Linus learns that the island’s non-magical inhabitants have threatened the children. Nevertheless, Arthur Parnassus is more than he seems and, sooner or later, Linus will have to choose between remaining safe but complicit in an oppressive system or standing up for the people he has come to love.

Stuffed with quirky characters and frequently hilarious, this inclusive fantasy is quite possibly the greatest feel-good story ever to involve the Antichrist. Klune, who has previously won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Romance (Into this River I Drown), constructs a tender, slow-burn love story between two endearingly flawed but noble men who help each other find the courage to show their true selves. Charged with optimism and the assertion that labels do not define people or their potential, The House in the Cerulean Sea will delight fans of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series and any reader looking for a burst of humor and hope.

Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

It started just a hair slow for me, perhaps because the style and genre weren’t what I’d been involved with lately (or much ever), but soon the magnetism of the story took hold. Linus is frustratingly meek; it took me a minute to get invested in his future. But there is certainly magic here, not only in the fun, quirky, vulnerable children, but in Klune’s imagination and the lovely house in the sea. By the end, I cried. This book is just deeply sweet, and sometimes we need that. It’s also got some powerful messages about acceptance, authenticity, honesty, and the value of a built or chosen family; and those messages are nicely couched in a story that is sweet but not precious. I found it most moving; TJ Klune has a new fan. I’m so glad I stepped away from my standard reading material. We all need that sometimes.

Rating: 9 buttons.

Madeleine’s War by Peter Watson

A nuanced marriage of military history and romance, set in a secret British resistance unit during World War II.


Peter Watson (who wrote Gifts of War under the pen name Mackenzie Ford) entertains with Madeleine’s War, a novel of World War II romance and intrigue starring fictional characters but with a historically accurate background.

Matthew fought on the ground in France with a secret British resistance unit until he suffered a severe injury. In his new role training fresh recruits, he meets Madeleine, a beautiful, talented French-Canadian woman determined to contribute to the war effort. Matthew’s job is to train Madeleine for intelligence and sabotage before she parachutes behind enemy lines. Her superior officer, he is not supposed to fall in love with her, but the two nonetheless embark upon a passionate, short-lived affair, before she is sent to France and disappears.

Despite its title, Madeleine’s War is told from Matthew’s perspective, leaving the reader as in the dark as he is after Madeleine vanishes in Nazi territory. He is then left to track her down–out of both love and duty, which sometimes conflict. The plot then twists again as Matthew is given an uncomfortable mission of his own to carry out.

Watson’s expertise as a historian lends credibility to the context of this story: in his afterword he states that the geography, training procedures, technologies and secrecy he portrays are all based on fact. Matthew and Madeleine and their colleagues are Watson’s own creations, painted with a rosy, romantic glow but also exposed to the glaring realities of war. Romance fans and war buffs will be equally pleased with the result.

This review originally ran in the June 23, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 cigarettes.

Girl in the Moonlight by Charles Dubow

A lifetime of love and lust, with a backdrop of fine art, vast wealth and high society.


In Girl in the Moonlight by Charles Dubow (Indiscretion), Wylie Rose has known the Bonet siblings since he was 10, when he fell out of a tree and broke his arm at a party on their massive estate. He studies painting with the elder son, who becomes a dear friend; he admires the younger twins and the rest of the family, who are all brilliant, luminous, talented, beautiful and tremendously rich. But it is Cesca, two years older than Wylie, who hypnotizes him, and ruins him for any other woman or any other life than self-destructive devotion to her.

From a distance of decades, adult Wylie reflects on that life–always coming when Cesca called, from their first sexual encounter when he was a teen through her unpredictable comings and goings over the years, and the apparently mature and healthy relationships he throws aside for her in Manhattan, Paris and Barcelona. She seemingly can’t help her flirtations, manipulations and self-destructive behaviors. Wylie feels for her like “an exile misses his homeland or an old man misses his youth.”

Dubow’s writing is a bit uneven, but often inspired in its phrasing, evoking a mystical atmosphere around Cesca’s mesmerizing power and the rarefied world she travels in: extraordinary wealth, titles and estates around the world, artistic success and broken hearts. Wylie and Cesca see tempestuous years pass in struggling to define the magnetism they feel for one another, and readers will be spellbound by the process.

This review originally ran in the May 26, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 5 martinis.

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O’Connor McNees (audio)

louisaThis is a fictionalization of one season in the life of Louisa May Alcott, author most famously of Little Women. Louisa and her family are very like her famous fictional creations in many ways. The eldest daughter, Anna, clearly models for Meg of LW; then there’s Louisa/Jo, then Lizzie/Beth, and then Amy/May. Louisa’s mother Abba does go by Marmee, as in the book; the first glaring departure from Alcott’s novel in her real life is that her father, Bronson, is not away at war. Instead, Bronson was a transcendentalist scholar and friend to the likes of Thoreau and Emerson, disinclined to work for a living (being principally opposed, you see); he founded a Utopian commune in which his family lived for a time, and otherwise they scrimped, borrowed, and got by how they could. [I know this is confusing: I am writing a review of a fictional book, about a real-life woman, who wrote a fictional book, about her real-life family. So far, in these bare details I’ve named, I am referring to the real-life Alcotts as well as the Alcotts represented in Kelly O’Connor McNees’ novel.]

In The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, McNees sets the six Alcotts in Walpole, New Hampshire, living for the summer in a home that belongs to relatives, because they are poor and hungry and have to go where they can. The premise is that Louisa May Alcott – in real-life a confirmed spinster – had a brief love affair that summer that informed the rest of her life. History yields no indication that such an affair took place, so this is where the fiction begins.

The plot is simple and uninteresting, certainly not the strength of this book. The family is new to Walpole; Anna has recently decided that she is interested in getting married (as any good girl of her era would be) and works to make herself presentable to the town’s young men. Louisa is, as ever, hot-headed, passionate, interested mostly in her writing, and does not intend to marry because it would disrupt her freedom (to write, and otherwise). She is firmly a feminist, and deeply interested in her father’s friends Emerson and Thoreau, and in a new book of poetry called Leaves of Grass by somebody named Walt Whitman. Lizzie is sickly and fussed over. May is obnoxiously free from the privation that the rest of the family feels; Marmee is rather frustrated with her lot in life; and Bronson is thoroughly exasperating in his refusal to get realistic and provide for his family. Anna meets a boy. And Louisa meets a boy, and in stock romance-novel style, finds him unbearable right up until she falls in love with him. They are thwarted.

The strengths of The Lost Summer are in its subjects: lovers of Little Women will be charmed by the fictional-real-life models for Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. The setting is rather charming, as well, and Joseph Singer (Louisa’s love interest) is likeable. But unlike the characters in Little Women, Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and May are underdeveloped. To be fair, it is a shorter book, and spans a much briefer time than its more famous model, so perhaps this should be excused. But I’m not really that forgiving, as I’ve seen masterful character development in mere pages (see: short story masters like Hemingway and de Maupassant). To be further fair, I’m not a fan of romance novels. (Maybe I should never have picked this book up?) That said, I was impatient with the plot line that had Louisa grumpy toward this man she simultaneously felt pulled towards – she went weak in the knees, etc., etc. – and then suddenly sick with love. It’s just too familiar, ho hum. And finally, too many of these characters were unlikeable (May, Bronson, even Marmee; Louisa for her bullheadedness; minor characters Margaret and Catherine, ugh!) for my tastes. I sort of felt that this story had misplaced its heroine.

Of some interest was the opportunity that McNees took to outline Louisa’s feminism and her limited options. I confess I did buy into the romance enough to wish that Joseph and Louisa could be together – could marry, or simply cohabitat – which latter option I realize is my modern-woman’s solution, and wasn’t really available to Louisa at all. Louisa talks and thinks through their options and what they would mean to her: how, for example, marriage would mean endless drudgery and housework for her, and the loss of her ability to write. This is a message that needed communicating, and I found it interesting and instructive to consider the limited options of a woman of this era. So a few points were regained here. However, these musings were only thinly veiled as dialogue or internal thoughts of the characters; I felt I could see McNees holding the strings.

For a quick, superficial, comfortable visit with the beloved Alcotts, come on in to Lost Summer; but if you’re looking for more, look elsewhere.

Audio edition was fine but unremarkable.

Rating: 4 oh-so-important ribbons.

Released by Amber Polo

Full disclosure: This book was sent to me by the author, who very astutely offered me dog treats with it for my two babes and therefore got in the door easily. Great trick, Amber!

releasedLiberty Cutter is a librarian recently returned to her hometown of Shipsfeather, Ohio, having taken the position of public library Director. She’s there to learn more about her own history and that of the town; ever since her mother abandoned her at age 5 in the children’s section of the local library, she’s had precious little information about her background and family. (She was raised by four law librarian aunts who apparently lacked any sense of fun.) Shipsfeather is a strange place: no one in town wants to talk about the past. As the book opens, Liberty dashes off to a massive fire that destroys her library. City officials are less than helpful, but she ends up reopening in an beautiful old school building, with the help of the friendly townspeople and her excellent staff. It turns out that her new library building was already occupied! Underground from the old Academy lives a pack of dogshifters, who it turns out are humankind’s original librarians, and are pleasantly disposed towards Liberty. And it’s a good thing, because the werewolves are the enemies of librarians everywhere – book burners, no less! I’ll mostly quit here for the sake of spoilers, but: Liberty makes new friends, and the library gets a fresh and healthier new start.

The first in a series, Released is great fun, if you’re a fan of books, dogs, or libraries (preferably all three). It does rely heavily on the reader’s appreciation of these framing elements, but this doesn’t concern me overmuch, because I doubt many people pick up such a book who aren’t. Shipsfeather is full of library references: “thank Dewey,” Liberty thinks, when things go right; certain characters talk in “Dewey-speak” (substituting Dewey numbers for nouns). This idyllic small town has far more enthusiastic librarians and library patrons than seems realistic, but again, we’re happy to forgive. The dogshifters in the basement are named and described by breed (and their country of origin plays an important role, too), in another instance of casual indulgence in our mutual interests. The chihuahua is, of course, my favorite character (and he shares a name with a major Mexican beer!).

There is plenty to like: the fantasy is clever and cute, the characters are likeable in their eccentricities, and again, there’s plenty of dog- and library-play. There is some romance, of the swooning and weak-kneed, he’s-so-handsome-and-strong variety. It’s all “clean.” I could make a few criticisms, too. The plot and fantasy realm is not terribly complex; this is a light-hearted romp, not a world-building feat. The dialogue can be a little tedious and unreal. Phrases like “even so” don’t feel right in dialogue, and likewise the lack of contractions: “I will do everything I can” in informal speech. The humor is heavy on the puns – not a problem for every reader, but noteworthy.

Released is easy-reading fun, not crafted in high literary style but a worthwhile jaunt. I enjoyed it, despite a few stylistic flaws, and found myself thinking about the sweet characters and the sweet little world of Shipsfeather as I fell asleep one night this week; and they made me smile. And that’s always worth a few points.

Rating: 5 liver treats.

Thanks, Amber, for sending me a copy of your book.

movie: The First Time (2012)

More airplane movie-watching here, and I’m a little embarrassed, because it’s “just” a teeny-bopper romantic comedy. But I am here to report to you on my reading & movie-watching, and I am faithfully reporting.

firsttimeThe First Time is a new (2012) movie about two teens. Dave has been pining for his “just a friend” Jane, and is working on getting up the courage to say something to her, but viewers will note that he is firmly in the friend zone with her and things don’t look good. Aubrey has an older (out of high school) boyfriend, but he’s a self-centered, immature jerk who doesn’t seem to notice her creative side. They meet at a party and are clearly drawn to each other. They do some dating. And they have sex. For the first time.

It’s rather pat, and mostly something I’ve seen before, but it’s very sweet. And its teenage interactions are pretty accurate, actually. I couldn’t decide if the philosophizing was accurately teenaged in its grandiosity, or just overdone, but I suspect it might have been fairly authentic, too. I doubt I have any teen readers who will let me know. 🙂 It was only airplane fodder, but I have to admit, I enjoyed it. And I found myself thinking about those cute kids a day or two later, so touché, teeny-bopper romantic comedy, you have gotten inside my head.

Finally, I can definitely understand the kids getting excited over those two darling actors! This is exactly the kind of thing that would have captured my heart in middle school – I would have crushed on that actor (his name is Dylan O’Brien, as it turns out). Better than it might have been.

Rating: 5 nervous glances.

Juliet by Anne Fortier (audio)

Juliet is a fanciful play on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with a modern-day romance and a historical mystery. Julie Jacobs of today’s Virginia is a little bit aimless and drifting at 25, when her beloved great-aunt Rose dies and leaves her a mysterious set of instructions: Julie is to go to Italy, where she was born, even though Rose had always refused to discuss her childhood there. She has a key to what appears to be a safe-deposit box at a bank, and not much more. There is some connection to Romeo and Juliet, a play Julie has always been a little bit obsessed with. Her twin sister Janice is cut out of the Italian connection – a relief to Julie, since Janice has always been the evil twin.

Upon arriving in Italy, the sheltered and naive Julie is accosted by whirling, complicated forces. Apparently she is descended from the ancient Tolomei family, in fact from Giulietta Tolomei, who seems to have been the real-life inspiration for Shakespeare’s play, whose romantic drama played out in 1340 Sienna. The Tolomeis have had a centuries-old rivalry with the Salimbeni family, and today’s Salimbeni matriarch befriends Julie – who we now know as Giulietta – with suspicious eagerness. There is an antagonistic Siennese man lurking around right from the start – and pardon my spoiler (because I don’t really think it is one), but you know how these mysterious antagonists are apt to turn into romantic interests…

Soon Julie/Giulietta is being stalked by faceless motorcycle riders, befriended or harassed by ancient cults, discovering centuries-old artifacts, and searching for a nameless treasure she thinks her mother – who she can’t really remember – has left for her in Sienna. She gradually learns that she is the modern-day Juliet, and only finding her Romeo will save the day, ending an ancient “curse on both your houses.” And, of course, the bitchy-to-the-point-of-caricature Janice shows up to muck up her adventures.

I was conflicted for most of this book. Often I was fascinated, or at least invested in the characters and wanting to know what happened. I was curious about the question of whether Julie was a little nuts – imagining things – and living out the ancestor-worship of beautiful, historic Sienna, or if there was an actual metaphysical/ghost story element to the book. In other words, would the mystery turn out to have supernatural causes, or were there merely real-life villains behind the smoke and mirrors? This question I will not answer for you, as it was one of the only sources of real suspense for me.

The biggest problem for me was some of the overwrought language Fortier employs. See my recent Teaser Tuesday for an especially ridiculous turn of phrase; and see also “…a wave of warm oblivion rolled onto the shore of my consciousness” or “…I wished more than ever that I could conk out just like her and fly away in a hazelnut shell, leaving behind my heavy heart” or “…the clues I needed were somehow bobbing around aloft, like newborn balloons trapped by a ceiling high, high over my head.” Newborn balloons? Really?? There was something else about her slipping through a doorway like a dryad between the cracks of time or something (I can’t find the passage right now). This style got in the way of my ability to focus on the story.

And the story was mostly good, but not always. For one thing, as alluded to above, certain elements of the romance were predictable. As I understand it, readers of typical romance novels do not care to be surprised; it’s okay if we know all along that Jack and Jill will end up together. But this, trying to be a little more of a suspense, was a touch predictable for my tastes (considering, too, that I’m not a reader of typical romance novels). There were definitely some moments when the characters left something to be desired, too. For example, the heroine realizes, when her inheritance turns out to be a dud at her beloved great aunt’s funeral, that maybe she was unwise to run up $20,000 in credit card debt while relying upon the expected inheritance. Her reaction does not seem to be that running up that kind of debt was unwise, but that it has turned out to be unwise in light of the absent inheritance. I have to say that this is not the most sympathetic quality to give your heroine if you want me to like her. She’s a little flimsy for my tastes. In addition, the pathetic nature of her self-loathing, and the supreme bitchiness of her infinitely more glamorous twin sister Janice, were too superlative to feel real. These are archetypes, not people.

But the characters grow and develop some, to be fair. Janice and Julie are both bigger, better people by the end, the romance is fairly satisfying, and the mystery is fairly well-resolved. This is not the most literary book you’ll find, nor the most deeply-felt or fully-wrought mystery or romance. But there is some suspense, and some enjoyable history and appreciation of Sienna – a lovely place I now want to see for myself. The characters are quirky and grew on me despite my protests. And even in my occasional frustration, I couldn’t put it down, so that’s a vote in favor.

Cassandra Campbell’s narration also gets a mixed review. Julie’s voice, with Southern twang, got on my nerves a little but also felt very realistic; the Italian accents I cannot judge for authenticity, but they felt right to my ignorant ear, and Alessandro the handsome Siennese antagonist came off as appropriately smoldering. Janice was almost intolerable – just as she was supposed to be. Both the twins’ voices were immature and verging on the Valley girl (in Southern translation) when they bickered: again, this was faithful to the story, but sometimes grating. In the end I give Campbell good marks; I was often bothered by the voices she played, but I think that was just her faithful portrayal of those in the book.

My final judgment seems to be that this was a fairly satisfactory book in the end, but I had my reservations throughout. It might work better for a lover of “pure” romance than it did for me, and I know it has its fans out there. Have you read this book? Please share your thoughts. I’m always interested in how these things grasp us differently.

Rating: 3 conifers.
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