Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Review of No Place Like Home, by Barbara Samuel

I should stick to pencil sketches
Usually, when I select a book to read, it'll be something that's been vaguely within my focus for a while. Often that means it's been sitting on my shelf for years, but maybe I've heard of the author, got a recommendation, read a review, know the genre, or just seen it mentioned everywhere. The hunt for a book for Topazz came with none of those tools, only me and google. Specifically, I was searching for something that got in the head of newly single mother of teenagers, and if it caught Topazz's charm and scandalous wit, then so much the better. (And if, paraphrasing some other amateur reviewer, the character landed a searing hunk of man-meat, then so much the better as well.) Stepping into the divorced-mom neighborhood of the chick-lit* ghetto was a serious liklihood here, and I followed some romance buffs' online conversations to discover there's No Place Like Home. With a protagonist named Jewel (get it?), I felt I had no choice but to step right in. (The second one I looked at actually had a Topaz in it, but not in the right role.)

No Place Like Home was touted as a "genre-blender," and the conservative cover (another reason for my choice) would seem to support this classification. I don't read much in this style, but it seems to this caveman that the only thing that kept Fabio off the cover is fifteen years of gravity audaciously added to subtly drag down the bosoms, and some sentimental familial elements to get that patina of respectability. None of this gets around the way the male lead (improbably named Malachi), is introduced:

" the darkest shade of cinnamon brown, eyes the color of bitter chocolate, skin tanned as dark as Brazil nuts because that's where he'd been, leading an adventure tour down the Amazon. He wore a shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a pair of jeans and heavy boots for riding that motorcycle...".
I try to keep an open mind about genre fiction, especially for something like romance--80% of the novels ever written contain a romance, after all--which to my mind, is only separated from the general fiction shelf by a good review and/or a hunkless cover. What's more, I get it that different writers, writing for different markets, will have their own values of what's noticable and worthy of description, which probably explains why Samuel doesn't let a page slip by without gushing over some aspect of Malachi's hypermasculine phsysique. Hell, I can accept some measure of fantasy wish-fulfillment too, even if we're not talking about my particular brand of fanboy escapism here.

But there is a mighty temptation to sin in any sort of genre writing, and the biggest snare is to let the readers' expectations write your book for you. Down in the genre projects, a lot of the blueprints are already in place, and an imaginative writer can use these to show off some creativity, or to turn the lens on the structural assumptions, or to use the stock outlines as a starting points to go somewhere else entirely. It's not the scaffold itself that's interesting, it's all the stuff that the scaffold holds up. If you just deliver the expectations without testing them, then there doesn't, as they say, end up being a lot of there there, just another McMansion you drive past in Romancetown.

Samuel wanted a there, at least a physical one. No Place Like Home is a story about a woman who followed a band out of her (and the author's) hometown as a teenager, now returning with a teen of her own and a dying friend in tow to rediscover home and family, to find a place in it. Samuel handles some of the interactions with reasonable competence, if not very deeply. The more interesting aspects--her relationship with her Dad, her relationship to a terminal friend, the family's Italian-ness, her son's reticence at encountering a potential new father (and husband) figure--all get shortchanged to extol the indulgent lie of a character that is the male lead. Malachi is a dangerous and preternaturally handsome loner who also manages to be protective, communicative, thoughtful, and committed, needing only the right woman to save him. (It's enough to make me keep holding out for my own sexy green-skinned Martian babe.) He's good match for Jewel the reformed rebel, I suppose, but then this book doesn't attempt to capture rebellion very ambitiously, which, as a consequence, doesn't lend much force to all the wholesome reconciliation happening in between the paeans to Malachi's nut-brown torso. The redemption theme keeps it slightly less fluffy than I expected from this sort of book, but it's still all a little easy, and a little light. In other words, not great literature here, but enough to get your rocks off.


*Sorry. Anyone got a better word?


topazz said...

Loved it, I posted a comment on the forum.

rundeep said...

The only Malachi I ever met was a red-haired, bearded, orthodox Jew who lived in my old 'hood. He had red, painful looking pimples well into his 40s and gold-rimmed aviator glasses. I can't get from there to this Mal, no matter how I try.