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Monday, July 27, 2015

Mini-Reviews: RITA Winners and Comfort Reads

I had a long flight on my way to RWA in NYC, in which time I managed to finish two books.  One of them, His Road Home by Anna Richland, then turned around and won the RITA for Best Novella on Saturday night.  For once, my timing didn't stink.

Rey Cruz is a Special Forces medic over in Afghanistan and has just told an Afghan warlord that he must regretfully decline his generous offer of the man's daughter to marry because well - Rey already has a fiancée.  OK, not really. As proof that he has a beloved waiting for him back home, he hits upon Grace Kim, a girl who went to school with Rey's sister and is now a biologist working in Seattle.  Grace is perfect fiancée material, so Rey prints up her photo off the ol' Interwebs, writes a touching endearment on it and viola!  Instant fiancée!  Until Rey almost gets blown to kingdom come and is rushed back to Walter Reed to learn to live without his legs.

Grace finds out she has a fiancé after Rey arrives at Walter Reed (with that photo) and word gets back to her small hometown in the Pacific Northwest. Needless to say, her family is a little concerned she failed to mention she got engaged! Grace's supportive boss is giving her time off and a plane ticket he purchased with his airline miles so she can be with her beloved. So Grace goes - if only to find out why a stranger claims they are a couple.

The set-up of this novella is just implausible enough to sound completely plausible.  Definitely one of the more interesting meet-cutes I've come across in a long while. I also liked that while Rey and Grace legitimately "like" each other, it's not instantaneous fireworks when they lock eyes for the first time. Besides losing his legs, Rey has a traumatic brain injury, but they soon discover that through text messages he can effectively communicate - which is how they get to know each other better.  I also LOVED that Rey isn't your standard issue "wounded hero."  Yes, he lost his legs.  Yes, he's learning to function with prosthetic limbs.  But he's not suicidal, he's not wringing his hands thinking his life is over, that no one will ever love him, and Grace isn't a heroine put on the page to "teach" him that life is still worth living.  Rey is, quite simply, getting on with his life.  Yeah, it sucks he lost his legs, but the man is still alive.

What didn't work as well for me was the writing style - and I can't quite put my finger on why that is. The dialogue didn't flow for me, and maybe that can be attributed to Rey's brain injury?  I'm not sure. But I had a hard time sinking into this novella and zipping through it.  In other words, I was able to put it down and walk away from it for long stretches at a time.  Take all this with the usual grain of salt.  However, there is a lot to recommend it. It's emotional. The author avoids common pitfalls of the Wounded Hero trope, and the characters aren't Midwestern White Bread.  Worth a look.

Final Grade = B-

Romance readers talk about "comfort reads" and Cheryl St. John is mine.  She writes historical westerns (which I love!) and there's something about her writing style that just flows for me. I don't mean this in a bad way, but it's simple. St. John writes straight-forward, clean and simple. She's not flowery. She doesn't toss in $25 word, and she tells a good story.  After a bit of a hiatus, she's back with Sequins and Spurs, which I liked, but didn't love.

Her Daddy abandoning their family hit Rudy Dearing so hard that at 16 she ran away from home to make her way in the world. She became a performer, singing, dancing and acting her way across the US. Now, after years away, she decides to come home to her mother and sister.  She wanted to come home before now but didn't quite know how, and now it's too late. She finds a man living in her mother's house who turns out to be her sister's husband.  Mama and younger sister are both dead.  One from illness, the latter from an accident. Ruby has come home looking for a second chance only to find out that she's too late to mend those fences with her family.

Nash Sommerton didn't know Ruby but heard plenty about her. While his wife and mother-in-law never said an unkind word about her, Nash can't help but be bitter.  His mother-in-law's illness, his wife's accident, Ruby should have been there to help....and she wasn't.  Now she's back and Nash has no idea what to think of her.

St. John's westerns have a similar feel to Americana and come across as more "homespun" than "gritty."  It's why I think I classify her books as "comforting." I sank right into this story and zipped through it on the plane to New York without coming up for air. Nash and Ruby are two characters who bristled against family expectations and therefore do have quite a bit in common.  And while it's kind of "icky" that Nash moves on to the other sister?  While he cared for his wife, it wasn't a love match. He had hoped it would eventually generate into one, over time, but they never got the chance.

My issues with this story are conflict related.  The author throws in plenty of conflict, both internal and external road-blocks to the happy ending, but they lacked urgency.  The best way to describe it is that while the conflict exists, the characters didn't have to work very hard to move past it. I normally like this about St. John's characters.  She writes exceedingly practical characters who aren't prone to dramatics or flightiness, but here the conflict fell flat.  That being said, St. John has a way of conveying so much with a few well chosen words. Here was one of my favorite moments, Ruby is talking to Nate about her father leaving them and Ruby's hesitancy in attending Sunday church services.
She pursed her lips before speaking. "Mama acted like nothing had happened. She believed God was taking care of us." 
"She had a strong faith, your mother." 
"God didn't pull weeds from the garden or gather us hand-me-down clothes from the church storeroom.  God didn't send money home to Mama all those years. That was me."
No, I didn't love it - but I'm not sorry I spent time reading it.  Of course I'm rarely sorry after spending time in the worlds that St. John creates.

Final Grade = C+


Kristie (J) said...

And I plan on getting both of these books. They both sound wonderful.

Wendy said...

Kristie: I think you'll like both of these. The St. John is good, but like I said - it won't replace Joe's Wife in your heart ;)

Unknown said...

I enjoyed His Road Him too. I didn't love it - I don't remember exactly why not, but I was also glad to read it. I thought it was an incredibly refreshing take on a lot of common tropes. I think it was the only RITA winner that I actually read.

Wendy said...

Cleo: That's where I was. I liked it, but it didn't blow my skirt up - which is weird since, like you mentioned, she does some really intriguing things with tropes we've seem a million times before. I don't know if it was her voice, or my head wasn't in the right space, or what....

But definitely one I'll recommend because there's a lot of good in it.

It was the only RITA winner I'd read as well. I've got the Tessa Dare in the TBR (because, of course I do)- but I don't think I have any of the other winners....