Reviews and updates from Amber Foxx, author of the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series
I don’t mean my love life, but my reading life. I recently read two romances, one of which had a comic flair, the most original plot premise I’ve ever come across in the genre and a fascinating setting. The other book had none of the above, but began with some of the most polished, tightly crafted writing I’ve seen in an indie novel. Ah, love. After the charming first impression fades, sometimes it lets you down.
Loosely Translated: A Diamond in the Rough
I enjoyed the character of Mike Grey, a diamond in the rough as both a man and a writer, and his relationship with his translator Maria, who attempts to polish both Mike and his books, but I was frustrated that the book itself was also an unpolished gem.
The plot idea is wonderfully original. Maria is a flower in the bud, as a woman and as a writer and her connection with Mike is the beginning of her blossoming. The contrast between the characters, their development of as individuals, writers, and potential partners in life and art, makes a delightful tale. The exploration of Spanish culture is a pleasure. The low humor scenes that work, such as Mike’s various contemplations in the loo, his damp encounter with a small dog, and his colorful language lesson with a Spanish barber, are part of the story and part of Mike being Mike, and made me laugh. (The humor that didn’t work is discussed later.)
This book’s flaws didn’t ruin the read for me, but they do make me stop short of recommending it without reservation. It’s good, but not as good as it could be, and it could have been one of the best if it had been revised and edited more thoroughly. That made it far more frustrating to read than if a mediocre idea had been given the same treatment, or if a less capable author had done it.
If you’re satisfied with that assessment, you can stop reading here. If you want some explanation, read on. There are semi-spoilers in some of these details.
1. I begin to think that point of view must be the hardest part of writing fiction. Attempts to convey one character’s assumptions about another’s inner state, if not written clearly, can become unintentional head-hopping. This author spends most of time in the close third person, but occasionally head-hops in mid-scene. He even slips into the point of view of a couple of dogs briefly. The reader is jarred from the intimate inner world of one person into that of another for a line or two, and then back.
2. For me, it took a while for the characters to gel—they seemed fragmented. People are complex, but their various facets interact within a whole, integrated personality. Mike and Maria come across as whole people by the end, but at first some of their extremes seem like plot points rather than the actions of believable people. Maria in moments of solitary distress early in the book never reads for comfort and peace. She acts as if books don’t matter in her life and yet later we see how much they do.
3. I disliked the scene where Mike runs into a shrieking, enthusiastic gay fan in a men’s room. The gay man struck me as stereotyped. (Other initially stereotyped characters such as Maria's aunt are given depths that take them beyond shallow caricatures. This man is not.) If it was supposed to be funny, it missed the mark for my sense of humor. Nothing was added to the plot by that scene. Nothing would be lost if it, or the whole bit about Maria’s translation on adding a gay character to Mike’s series, were cut. Insight into Mike’s character on this topic doesn’t show up for another hundred pages or so, and without it, this section comes across as homophobic, and I don’t think that was what the author intended.
4. The body cavity searches at the airport seemed, to me, to have been put in the book for no reason other than to get a cheap laugh, not that I laughed. I found it hard to believe that Maria would be amused—that kind of meanness seemed out of character for her. Like the scene above they added nothing to plot or character development as well as not being, for me anyway, funny.
5. The author uses the same English slang in the narration in both Mike’s and Maria’s POV—crap, cool, etc. This may not bother other readers, but it bothered me. Maria’s slang when speaking English occasionally surprised me. She’s fluent, but would she really say grotty? (I admit, I didn’t think anyone still said grotty.)
6. A challenge any author faces when writing in a bilingual context is how to convey the words of the non-English speakers in English when in fact they are communicating in—in the case of this book—Spanish. Slip in Spanish phrases? Make the dialog slightly different from that of the English speakers? Write it wholly in the conversational idiom of the reader’s language? Wheeler handles these decisions inconsistently. If he’d picked one approach and stuck with it, it would have flowed better, for me.
7. I was confused as to the timeline in the latter part of the story. Mike goes through some believable and appealing changes that take an unstated length of time. Many months, presumably. More confusing is the history and development of a book. I think of at least a year at the very minimum, and probably longer, especially if that book is written by an unknown author with an eccentric attachment to using a manual typewriter. I wouldn’t find it to be a stretch in terms of believability in other aspects of the plot if that much time did elapse but I didn’t notice an indication of seasons changing or anything else that clarified the passage of time. The only time duration I noticed was the length of Mike’s vacation. (If this is my oversight as a reader, disregard.) If a year or two passes, or eighteen months, and the reader knows it, the intensity of the relationship and impact of the reunion would be strengthened.
8. The peculiar ending steps out of the story, breaking the proscenium. If the book were more polished I would have liked that ending, because it would have shown the characters to have become the writers they had the potential to be. Since the book had these rough spots, I didn’t feel as if the characters had achieved what the author wanted to suggest they had, so the ending didn’t have the effect it could have, for this reader.
Three stars. Any one of the issues listed above, if it had been the only one, or one of two, would not have mattered much to me (except for the gay-man-in-restroom scene). The eight or nine typos wouldn’t have mattered, either. A number of minor problems added up, though, to a book that was not quite as good I hoped it would be.
Meetings of Chance: Five… no, Four … no, Three Stars.
I wanted to like this book. There were no flaws in style at first, a strong hook at beginning, and good sense of relationships. No clutter. Surprises in the plot came naturally, and I was curious what would happen next. It looked like it was going to be perfect and I looked forward to turning each page. I thought I’d be giving it a five star review.
Then, the protagonist Megan began to get on my nerves. She’s indirect. She never asks Tom outright all the things she wants to know about his agricultural research project next door, and yet he’s so friendly there doesn’t seem to be a reason not to. Her suspiciousness is unattractive. She assumes the worst, jumps to conclusions, and yet avoids learning the facts concerning what she’s worried about, except for digging into the questions about Amanda Baker—something she can do without talking to anyone for a while. She does passive things like expecting calls for three days from her sister and from Tom, and yet she doesn’t call them—her own sister, and a very pleasant, approachable man who is obviously interested in her. When she stands up to Nancy, it looks like Megan may be growing and getting stronger, but it’s a random outburst. Fairly late in the book, Megan once again jumps to the most negative possible conclusion about Tom’s motives even after she knows and loves him.
Tom is evasive at first, but for better reasons. Overall, he was attractive and real, sympathetic and interesting. His personality was a welcome change from the typical male lead in a romance. Because I liked him, I found myself rooting for his relationship with Megan to fail. He could do better. What could he see in her aside from her looks?
Some of the better scenes are those where Megan’s father Rick is the point of view character. The emotions are deeper and more subtle. His encounter with Annette is genuine, and this episode is mature, not only because of the characters’ ages but the way it works out without a cliché.
The location of Meadowbrook and Archer was unclear until the very end. There was no regional flavor until the wine country scenes, when I finally figured out this was set California. One of the things I often enjoy in romances is the setting—learning about something new and exciting as the background of the story, since I know the couple will get together in the end. I would have liked more of a sense of place rather than generic, overly wholesome Small Town America.
The book would is well plotted for at least two thirds of the way through. If the reader likes Megan these later shortcomings might flow past unnoticed. If a reader enjoys a setting where all the characters are prosperous, have Anglo last names and are by default presumably white, and have no major quirks, deep conflicts or psychological complexity, then this romance is what they are looking for. This may be one those cases where the very thing that a reviewer disliked is what someone else will see in the review and say, “I want to read that.”
Warning. Semi-spoilers below. Skip the next few paragraphs if you don’t want even a hint of how events turn out.
The plot weakens toward the end. Random bad stuff caused by external factors forces the characters to come together and resolve their issues: the arrival of a bad guy wanted for some unspecified crime, and the death of a never-before-mentioned character whose demise seems to cause less grief than inconvenience. If the existence of the dangerous person had been built into the background, and Megan’s tendency to assume the worst had made her say, “What if he shows up in Meadowbrook?” and everyone had teased her about this her inclination to imagine bad motives and outcomes, this trait could have been openly acknowledged and made into a humorous, even likeable, weakness. Then it would have given the plot symmetry and realism when this habit of mind finally served a good purpose and saved her. As written, though, the terrifying event is an out-of the-blue damsel-in-distress scene pressed into service to get Megan and Tom together.
Likewise if the man who dies had been mentioned earlier—“You know his health isn’t good, he’s the best man for the job but he may want to retire early and take this post temporarily”—and if he quit due to bad health and didn’t die, this could have been integrated so his departure is not an obvious plot point but a natural event in the life of Tom’s family’s business. It could even have been set up as a looming complication in the background, with Tom knowing Phil might not stay on as his replacement. Sudden disasters feel forced as they pile up at the end of a plot without any preparation. The resolution of the main romance plot is pushed more by outer forces than the characters’ growth and insights.
I know that chance meetings are a running thread in the story but it seems as if everything in Megan’s life within this story is controlled by someone or something other than Megan—and I don’t mean chance, or God.(She goes to church but doesn’t seem religious.) Nancy is the only ongoing antagonist, and she is central for one subplot. While Megan initiates the conflict, Paul and Rick resolve it.
End of semi-spoilers.
The conventions of the romance genre challenge an author to make every moment compelling in spite of the known nature of the ending. Both these authors have that gift. Deluca in Meetings of Chance even makes the construction of bridal bouquets in a florist’s’ shop suspenseful, and that’s an achievement. Both, however, have yet to master their craft. Would I read either of them again? I’d give Wheeler another shot, but not Deluca. Even though she is technically a better writer, he made me care about all his characters and want to explore his settings, and she did not. The lesser of two letdowns in the world of love.