You know in High Fidelity when John Cusack says he’s arranging his music collection autobiographically?
Like music, the books I’ve read provide a sort of context and an accompanying soundtrack to my life. I started thinking about this as I was reading DEADLY VOWS, the latest (and hopefully not the last) in Brenda Joyce’s Francesca Cahill series. Now, I’ll comment a little bit more about the book at the end. Be forewarned this is not a review. It’s an autobiographical slice of my life, scored by a particular series. There’s a reason why I’m not a great reviewer of books. I chat about them. This post will explain a bit why.
To this day – The DEADLY series is the only open-ended series where I’ve read every single book. For the last several years, I periodically checked Brenda Joyce’s website like one of Skinner’s pigeons hoping that there would be a new book in the series after such a long hiatus. This year, I was rewarded when I saw that HQN was re-releasing the last two in January and February and then the next book, DEADLY VOWS, in March.
Let’s go back to the very beginning. Not of the series, but of my relationship to it.
In 2002 I was in Seoul, South Korea for a three month contracting job. This was total immersion into another country and culture and I thought I was doing pretty well: working, learning the language, brave enough to go shopping and even haggling on my own. I had a little tiny shoebox of the apartment that my co-worker Moses Kwon (yeah, there’s a story there) told me was spacious compared to his apartment. I loved the adventure of it, but I did get a little homesick sometimes. There were two channels on TV that had English programming. One was the AFN (Armed Forces Network) and one would show Moonlighting and several other shows in English, but with Korean subtitles.
One of my crowning accomplishments was programming my TV and VCR to record Survivor which played at midnight. I had the Korean instruction manual in front of me, my little dictionary, and a lot of sheer will for that.
Well, during this long stretch, the English channels were showing NASCAR races, which I wasn’t desperate enough to turn to yet. I’d read all the books I’d brought along, so I ventured into the city to search out the few English language bookstores listed in my Lonely Planet: South Korea book. (I didn’t take enough pictures of Seoul, but luckily found a blog post on Buying English Books in South Korea on the FarmBoy and CityGirl blog and they allowed me to borrow their picture. Much thanks!)
At one mall, there was a huge sale with long tables and books laid out across it. Two whole tables of English language novels. I was in HEAVEN. I can see those books now…if you can imagine it. I mean, I’d never been anywhere for a prolonged amount of time where every piece of paper, every menu, every billboard, every show, EVERYTHING was in another language I couldn’t read. In Korea, I really came to understand a small fraction of what it must have been like for my family coming to America. My dear grandmother wandered around southern California just like this, determined to make sense of a culture she didn’t grow up in.
So I spent hours browsing those rows and rows of titles. I really can see those spines right here in my head, the memory is that strong.
I picked up what must have been the third book in the DEADLY series-DEADLY AFFAIRS. Calder Hart has already made his arrival, but Francesca was still smitten with Rick Bragg. I devoured that book. I went back and found as many of the DEADLY books as I could.
I loved the historical New York setting in the early 1900s and Francesca’s impetuousness. Sure the mystery element was a bit light and the final showdowns became formulaic, but I was sucked in by Francesca’s innocent do-good ways and her obviously destructive infatuation with married police commissioner Rick Bragg and her subtle attraction to Calder Hart. Oh my gosh, in those early books it was so well-done and balanced. I want to read them again and again.
I had a small week-long hiatus to go back to the States for my sister’s graduation. Very convenient too, since you have to renew your visa every month. I went to bookstores in California and searched out as many of the books as I could to bring back with me to Korea. I collected and read until I’d filled out the whole series and was caught up. When I pre-ordered Deadly Kisses on Amazon, I was distraught to find it in a bookstore before the pre-order shipped because that would mean I’d have to wait…but I could see RIGHT there!
These books were my companions in a very pivotal time in my life. A period when I was learning so much about the world and about myself in it. I had a lot of time to myself in Seoul, yet it was more crowded than I’d ever experienced in Los Angeles. I’m not even going to draw flimsy parallels between Francesca braving the streets of New York and me braving the streets of Seoul, though they can be made if I really wanted to go there. I just loved the books and all the many little elements that came together in each of them.
So back to DEADLY VOWS:
Obviously I’m a non-objective reader here. Non-objective — Is that a word? A subjective reader? But I’m really a non-objective reader overall. Sure, I try to be objective when I’m critiquing unpublished manuscripts from writing partners, but I’ve never had a problem backing up and reading like a reader and just relaxing into it. I’ve always known this about myself. When I go to movies and when I read books, I let down my guard and I want to be taken away. Many of my cohorts say it’s hard to “just read” books anymore, but I don’t think you need to give that up when you become a writer. The brain is an intricate multi-threaded, parallel-processing machine.
So objectively *tee hee*, I felt there was some catch-up of plotlines and characters in the book that made it a book for fans of the series. But after such a long break, it was necessary. There was a little too much repetition of characters’ feelings from one scene to the next and there was a scene in there that mirrored a scene in a previous book too closely that bothered me because it was such a powerful scene previously. Calder and Fran did acknowledge the similarities, but it bothered me to see it again played out again.
Calder Hart still sweeps me away. The way he masks his darkness and pain with arrogance and confidence is so appealing. And Brenda Joyce revealed him to me a little at a time in each book until I was so thoroughly reeled in. He moved me to tears when he was jilted at the altar. And the scenes with Calder and Fran still sizzle like crazy. I still yell at Francesca–“No, don’t do that!! You’re going to get yourself in trouble…again!” But that’s the point, right? And I’m glad to catch up with the other characters, though there are so many sub-plots and secondary romances now that maybe they deserve separate books? Or more page count in each book? I’d love to see the tortured relationship between Bragg and Leigh Anne develop into more of a romance. I don’t know though — I’d still be hungering for Francesca and Calder since it’s the way this series has been plotted so I don’t think there’s any way to satisfy here — barring five or so more books in the series. 🙂
So there’s my “not a review” of DEADLY VOWS and why this series is so irrevocably intertwined in my memories. Objectively — I think it’s a good book with compelling characters and a few writing quirks that can be distracting. Subjectively — Hook it directly to my vein!