Since I’m always happy to support the growing virtual world of authors I know, I jumped at the chance to review Erica Lucke Dean’s debut novel, To Katie with Love. I’ve followed Dean’s funny exploits via a serendipitous connection on Triberr for the past year and a half, so while we’ve never met IRL, I know the intimate mishaps of her daily life as documented on her blog. From the blurb, I could see the same distinct voice I’ve grown to anticipate from her:
Banker Katie James has a serious thing for romance novels. She’d almost rather settle for a fictional boyfriend than risk her heart on a flesh-and-blood man. Besides, the only real guy she’s remotely interested in is her rich, unattainable client, the mysterious Cooper Maxwell.
Looking less like the ultra-conservative man she knows and more like a drop-dead sexy character from one of her books, Cooper crashes Katie’s 29th birthday party. But one too many drinks lands Katie in uncharted territory… Cooper’s bedroom!
Drunk on love, Katie dives headfirst into the relationship only to discover that Cooper is keeping secrets… dangerous ones. As if things couldn’t get worse, her meddling mother makes a surprise visit, digging up a whole new set of problems.
Who would have guessed having an assassin for a boyfriend would be the least of her worries?
The book more than met my hopes. The pace was fast, the writing smart and true-to-life, and each chapter had at least one moment of laughter. It’s a classic bit of humorous chick lit that plays with tropes and expectations in a very clever way, using language that further supports Dean’s characters’ development:
How excruciatingly embarrassing. Well, at least I didn’t have to go on an expedition to find my clothes in order to sneak out. If I didn’t run across my boots on the way, I would simply hike out in bare feet.
And Monday? Well, I had yet to use a single sick day. I could surely invent some horrible illness to keep me from work for at least one day.
Dean threw me back into that tentative, insecure mental framework of a young woman early in her career and still uncertain about how to define herself, let alone a good, healthy relationship. Her headlong dive into a relationship is both predictable and realistic, but Dean throws in enough twists to make the culmination of the story a unique take on the happily ever after required by the romance genre.
For anyone who enjoys contemporary romances with a hint of mystery and a tongue-in-cheek approach, this book is worth the price of admission. Run and enjoy a fun afternoon read.
About the Author
After walking away from her career as a business banker to pursue writing full-time, Erica Lucke Dean moved from the hustle and bustle of the big city to a small tourist town in the North Georgia Mountains, where she lives in a 90-year-old haunted farmhouse with her workaholic husband, her 180lb lap dog, and at least one ghost.
When she’s not writing or tending to her collection of crazy chickens and diabolical ducks, she’s either reading bad fan fiction or singing karaoke in the local pub. Much like the main character in her newest book, To Katie With Love, Erica is a magnet for disaster, and has been known to trip on air while walking across flat surfaces. How she’s managed to survive this long is one of life’s great mysteries.
Where to Buy:
I’ve been an unabashed Anne McCaffrey fan since I read Dragonflight in 9th grade. I plowed through all the remaining books about Pern as soon as they came out, and wore out the binding on a few of them, I read them so often. It wasn’t until I was halfway through college, though, that I discovered she wrote in an entirely different genre: Romance, my (at the time) secret addiction. I had escaped my college town for a weekend trip to Boston to stay with friends of friends, and had found my way to a Barnes & Noble, where I was looking for the latest McCaffrey offering. Since I was unfamiliar with the store and was wandering aisles, I stumbled across this, described on the back cover this way:
“You’ll want to have a look at this. Here is love, romance, even sex, but the point is the life of Mirelle Martin… who’s making some changes in her life and her feelings… One of the catalysts is the handsome pianist James Howell, a pleasing contrast to her too-often-absent husband; another is the sculpture she’s working on of Lucy – her best friend, now dead. Mirelle risks everything to make her life more meaningful…”
I have to admit part of the reason I bought this was the similarity of the character’s name with one of mine. The book, however, struck a deep chord with me. It was a candid snapshot of what it was like to be a woman constrained in the historical ways we’ve generally been limited – by others’ perceptions, by social expectations, by the roles we’re allowed access to, and by our acceptance of those constraints.
McCaffrey does a great job chronicling how Mirelle grows up as a mother, wife, and artist over the course of a year, starting from this already somewhat unconventional standpoint:
Easy, gal, she cautioned herself. Forgetting the husband to lunch with another man? She snorted at the whimsy, impatient as the cross-highway light held her up. As if Howell were that type. He was only interested in her work and that part of herself was completely divorced from her family or her marriage, for all the overlapping. It was the as yet unhampered, unpossessed soul of her that she had refused to relinquish to Steve’s possessiveness. She had told him, early in their marriage, that she had given him her body, her worldly possessions, obedience and loyalty: she had given him all her love and devotion but that inner part of her that was unalterably Mary Ellen LeBoyne was not his. By the same token, she did not expect to possess his innermost secrets and soul. She doubted if Steve had any conception of such basic privacy. Very often he acted as if that final reserve were an offense against him, instead of her defense against the world. He was always striving for complete capitulation.
It’s considered romance, but I’d say it’s also chick lit, since the way Mirelle navigates through her circumstances brings her face to face with quite a bit of drama and other concerns. It’s a story that doesn’t shy away from the dark underbelly of life and it was startling to consider her perspective as a collegian with optimistic, romantic goggles on about how my life might evolve.
In the end, Mirelle’s self-empowerment and the place she carves out for herself in the standard 50s/60s housewife role make her compelling. I read the novel in an afternoon, and then eagerly followed up with McCaffrey’s other books in the same cross-over market. Not everything in these worlds comes up roses, and it’s worth revisiting these books for their perspective on how far women have come in just 50 years. I can highly recommend this one (or any of the others, really) to anyone who wants to revisit how hard it was for a female to find her individuality in that context.
I wanted to like this; it was the first invitation I’ve received via my blog to review a new, unknown (and indie!) author’s work. But it took me at least until 3/4ths the way through before the pay-off of dealing with characters who embody all that annoys me about the current crop of 20-somethings came my way. Top that with a bunch of missed editing opportunities (despite crediting four editors at the outset), and the passive voice and typos made it very difficult for me to finish this to honor my commitment.
All that said, though, they pay-off did eventually come. On page 143, Sarah said something that spoke to a part of myself I face each time I return to the town where I graduated high school:
“I’m not like this at home. I’m like this whole other person who belongs somewhere, who makes sense and actually has something to say. And then I come here, and this whole other person takes over. This insipid loser who just wants to be anywhere else in the world. I come here and I’m supposed to be all sweet and damaged because that’s what’s expected of me. I’m here, but not here. It’s like I could kind of forget about it back then, and I try to now, but something always happens to remind me that I don’t belong here. … Isn’t that ridiculous? It’s like the person I was in high school is trapped here, and there’s no place for anyone else.”
In her press materials, Ms. Larter says:
“There are no last names or town names. I didn’t forget to put them in. I left them out because I hope that Coffee at Little Angels will be the kind of novel that absolutely anyone can pick up and feel like they understand it. I hope that you will pick it up and feel like it could be about you.”
This could be true, but it is definitely written from the South African perspective: There were a few times her references to the sequence of schooling went over my head and I lost the train of the tale. And, strangely, some of her most poignant scenes and dialogue dealt not with the Phillip’s death, but with the township’s segregation, mostly ignored by the people in the no-name town in which the story is set.
Given that the whole story takes place over the course over a Thursday to Sunday span, the primary sense of character development comes through memories shared as the group reconnects during the funeral. Finding their internal footing is as fraught as it aught to be, and figuring out how to mourn appropriately as difficult as it is at any age. Their decision to honor the death of their friend, then, by reconfiguring their relationships in the present conveys as both logical and honest.
So while I had significant doubts about the book even at the halfway point, I can recommend it for those who like stories along the lines of the movie “The Big Chill“. My word of warning: As with most chick lit, there are some significantly maudlin passages in the first half, while immature characters waffle on about what they “should” be feeling; persevere, though, and find hope that even those kinds of people can mature enough to grow beyond their limitations.