Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Review: One Frosty Night

One Frosty Night by Janice Kay Johnson is the sort of a book that exists to punish me for having a ridiculous TBR pile.  Had I read this book back when it was newly published, I think I would have liked it a lot better.  Don't get me wrong, what Johnson does well (she's dynamite at writing conflict) is on full display here - but it doesn't always mesh well with the romance and quite frankly I found a lot of the secondary characters rather gross.

Olivia Bowen came home to Crescent Creek, Washington to run the family hardware store after Dad's health began to fail.  Shortly before her father finally passed, the body of a young girl was discovered out in the woods.  As if that wasn't shocking enough for the small community, nobody knows who the girl is, how she ended up in the woods, or even how she died.  It's like she just curled up outside in the snow and froze to death. 

Ben Hovik is the high school principal and ever since Jane Doe's body was found, the teenagers in the community have been acting strangely - including his stepson, Carson.  He raises money to give the girl a proper burial, is keeping his ear to the ground, but continues to be distracted by Olivia.  He came home to Crescent Creek after gaining custody of Carson hoping to reunite with his first love - a complicated prospect since it was Ben who broke up with her after he left for college and she was stuck back in Crescent Creek because she was still in high school.  Needless to say, she's not terribly anxious to let him back into her life and besides, she's got problems of her own.  Her relationship with her mother has become incredibly strained since her father died, and the woman just dropped the bomb on her that she plans to sell the family home and business as soon as possible.

If you're familiar with Janice Kay Johnson's work at all, you'll know she doesn't write happy sunshine fluff books.  So I can't help but think that the cozy outdoor sledding scene that screams "meet cute!" on the cover does this book a huge disservice.  Also, I wouldn't go so far as to say the author "struggles" with the tone of this story - but it's easy to get whiplash going from a burgeoning reunion romance to the harsh realities of an unidentified dead teenage girl found out in the woods!

It takes a while for the conflict and plot to gain some forward momentum, and once it does we're then regaled with characters behaving in a gross manner.  Look, is this the author's fault?  No.  I mean, how was she to know when she was writing this book that 2016-2018 was going to happen and I was going to be full-up on gross people always seeming to "fail up" in life.  The high school students were bad enough - but then they're teenagers.  No, it was the adults in this story - specifically Olivia's mother who made me SO VERY ANGRY to the point of seething.  I was so tempted to give up on this story because it was all so unsavory and...well, gross.

But this is Janice Kay Johnson and gods bless her - she can write the hell out of some conflict.  Once everything comes bursting out into the open, I couldn't tear myself away from this story.  I had to keep reading to see how it would all end.  Also, if romance readers are brutally honest with ourselves, we know the genre has a nasty habit of romanticizing (I mean, it's what the genre DOES!).  If you're fed up with idealized small towns, yeah - this is your book.  Johnson does not romanticize Crescent Creek in the slightest.  She writes about all the crap that makes small towns annoying - certain small-minded citizens, everybody all up in your business, the mean-spirited gossip, the obsession with high school sports, the lack of opportunity and dying main streets.  Crescent Creek is not a town with cutesy cupcake shops that somehow miraculously seem to stay in business even though the population is maybe a couple thousand. 

Unfortunately, the good stuff tends to get overshadowed by the bad.  While it's not blatant, I couldn't help but feel that Ben's ex-wife (Carson's Mom) was demonized for her addiction and mental health issues.  Also, there's some veiled slut-shaming of a high school girl that bothered me.  Does all this crap go on in small towns?  Yes (heck, everywhere - small towns don't hold the monopoly) - but again: Wendy Tired of Gross People.

The ending felt lackluster.  Almost like Johnson may possibly have been setting up a series (or at least a book 2) that, from what I can tell, didn't happen.  There's one rather large nugget in particular that doesn't get answered and since it's a BIG DEAL for the majority of the story, it's pretty hard to swallow.

So yeah. In the end I'm left with a feeling of malaise.  Is this terrible?  No.  I don't think Johnson is capable of writing terrible.  But it's also nowhere near as good as she's capable of.  The darkness of the conflict doesn't really mesh with the romance and Wendy Tired of Gross People made this one hard going in parts.  If it's in your TBR?  Look, you've probably got worse there and this isn't anywhere near a disaster.  But if you don't own it?  I'm not necessarily going to say you need to drop your life and one-click this baby either.

Final Grade = C

7 comments:

azteclady said...

Thank you, Wendy.

See, one of the things I've always liked about JKJ is that she doesn't shy away from conflict, but she doesn't do angsty drama just for the sake of drama. The conflict is rooted in real stakes for the characters, and sometimes the resolutions are slightly messy because her characters are usually well fleshed out people and not sunny idealized versions of the same--and real people are messy with often conflicting feelings.

I don't have this in the digital TBR but I honestly don't know whether it is buried somewhere in the physical one. If it is, I'll try to come back and let you know what I think!

Jill said...

I may have to read this for a not super cutsey small town. I went to a high school in a town of 800 and there were not cupcake shops. Two seedy bars and lots of racism and bigotry though. . .

It wasn't all bad, I just get irritated at how simplistic small towns are in most of these stories.

Unknown said...

Oh boy! I've only read two of Johnson's books (at your suggestion, thank you!!), and I haven't found The One yet, but reading this review and remembering how great of a writer she is makes want to go back out there and try again.

It is too bad that in this particular instance, the romance plot and the suspense plot didn't co-exist perfectly. Also a shame about the open-ended/sequel-baiting conclusion.

But! At least the author has a sizeable backlist for all of us to dig into! :)

Miss Bates said...

Well, I went back and read my own review of this back when it was published. Yup, we pretty thought the same thing of it. JKJ always has my respect, but this was too much of some things and not enough of others. It is, in the professional reviewer's lingo (not me), "uneven". ;-)

Wendy said...

AL: I'm still wrestling with my feelings about this one. I think what mostly is gnawing at me is the "tone." A dead teenage Jane Doe is just...really dark. And the non-dark moments in this book felt a little off-kilter because of the underlying conflict. If you've got it lying around I definitely think it's worth reading! Because, you know, JKJ. She's always an interesting read regardless.

Jill: It didn't really hit me until halfway through and then I was in awe. I grew up in a small town as well and yes, sometimes it's great. But other times? Sweet baby Jesus. I liked that JKJ gave her characters both the good and the bad. Small town contemporaries have a knack for giving me a toothache and this one was like the anti-toothache.

Renae: I have no clue why you're showing up as "Unknown." You must be extra mysterious! I know romance readers are sensitive about authors leaving the genre, but I've always wanted to see JKJ try her hand at women's fiction. Now that SuperRomance is no more (sob!), it looks like she's moving over to Harlequin Intrigue with her next book. She's fond of suspense sub plots, but I admit I'm curious to see how she handles the word count change. Intrigues are really lean compared to Supers!

I think my favorite JKJs that I've read so far are Mommy Said Goodbye and Revelations (it's a duet). MSG has some issues but you need to read it to get to Revelations which I LOVED!

Miss Bates: Uneven is the perfect way to describe it. I was so ticked off with Olivia's mother, I'm not kidding...I almost DNF'ed this. I'm just not in the mood for adults behaving gross right now. But once the cat's out of the bag? I tore through the last 30-40%. Like Renae said, JKJ has a huge backlist and heaven knows I own a big chunk of it in my TBR.

Renae said...

*taps mic*

Testing, testing.

It is I: RENAE, dweller of the great unknown.

Okay. Cool. Apologies for the spam.

Wendy said...

Renae: Bwhahahaha! I knew you weren't a spammer because your comment was entirely too coherent and it didn't contain hyperlinks to phishing sites - so no worries there!