Review | The Charm Offensive, by Ashley Cochrun

CharmOffensiveThe Charm Offensive is an adorable, feel-good romance that invites us to expand our notions of happily ever after. More, it invites us to dare to dream of achieving it for ourselves, regardless of the cis-heteronormative, conventionally ‘attractive’, and white ‘ideals’ often touted on mainstream media.

Ever since getting hooked on reality dating show Ever After (a very thinly veiled stand-in for The Bachelor) as a child, Dev Deshpande has believed in fairy tale romance. He gets his dream job of actually working on the show, but after breaking up with his boyfriend of six years, Dev has come to accept that a fairy tale romance may not be meant for him. This season’s prince, tech wunderkind Charlie Winshaw, is more anxious and awkward than charming. He joins the show to rehabilitate his professional image, but physically recoils whenever a contestant tries to touch him. As one of the show’s handlers, it’s Dev’s job to turn Charlie into the kind of prince viewers will swoon over.

From the moment Dev opens the door to Charlie’s limo, and Charlie literally comes tumbling out to land at Dev’s feet, it’s obvious where the story is going, and it’s an absolute delight to follow Dev and Charlie on their journey. There’s even a fun meta-wink at the audience when Dev asks his fellow producer Jules to take Charlie on a pretend-date to make him more comfortable around the contestants, and Jules jokes that because she isn’t hot, rom com convention dictates that Charlie will likely fall in love with her instead. To head off that risk, Dev takes Charlie on the pretend date instead, and as they get to know each other over a 1500-piece puzzle and the sci fi show The Expanse, Charlie begins to realize why he isn’t at all attracted to any of the beautiful women vying for his affections.

Dev and Charlie’s romance is tender, slow burn, and filled with all the feels. I absolutely love how their mental health conditions come into play, and how part of their romance involves how much they give each other the space and understanding to be fully themselves. I also love how much they push each other to be better — Dev by encouraging Charlie to step out of his comfort zone and actually let loose once in a while, and Charlie by calling Dev out on how he loves the idea of love but really pushes away the real work and risk of actually being in love. By working with and through each other’s discomfort, they give each other the support they need to grow as individuals. And the ultimate message — that you’re worthy of love no matter how much family, friends, and society may tell you otherwise — is beautiful.

I also appreciate the diversity of approaches to, and experiences of, love represented amongst the side characters. Even purported ‘villains’ like Dev’s ex-boyfriend and the contestant viewers will love to hate are treated sympathetically, and provided with enough complexity in their motivations that they’re not truly evil. That being said, the novel does have its full-out villains — Charlie’s ex-business partner, who stigmatizes Charlie’s mental health needs, and the Ever After showrunner, who takes a narrow, homophobic approach in maintaining a particular version of a happy ending for the show. One can perhaps explore sympathetic motivations for these characters as well, and their need to conform in order to achieve success, but the novel deliberately withholds its sympathy. In doing so, its message is firm: intolerance is intolerable. The ways in which this ultimately plays out, particularly for Ever After, is perhaps fairy tale-ish in its improbability, but it’s certainly a happily ever after to aspire towards, and one can only hope that mainstream media is indeed beginning to catch up.

Overall, this is a beautiful and sweet fairy tale of a love story, that is deliberate about incorporating into the fairy tale realities such as mental health, uncertainty about where one fits on the LGBTQ2SIA+ spectrum, the social stigma that is often encountered with both, and the recognition that such stigma hits particularly hard for women and BIPOC folks.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | False Witness, by Karin Slaughter

FalseWitnessDefense attorney Leigh Collier is hired to defend an alleged rapist. Andrew is white, wealthy, and arrogant that he will be set free despite the overwhelming amount of evidence against him. Worst of all, it turns out that he’s linked to Leigh’s past, and that he may have information about a terrible secret that Leigh and her younger sister Callie have worked their entire adult lives to escape.

False Witness is the kind of thriller you wouldn’t want to put down. It’s tightly plotted, with compelling characters, dark secrets, and a truly heinous villain you wish would get what he deserved.

It also features wonderfully complex heroines who exist in a murky, grey zone of morality. Leigh is a tough, ambitious career woman and fiercely protective mother, and, from the surface, appears to have the perfect life. However, we learn that this perfection is hard-won, and part of it was attained due to a horrific act she did as a teenager. Whether or not her actions were justified is matter for discussion, but it definitely shows a dark side within her, that seems to only be waiting to be unleashed.

In contrast, Callie’s life seems to be falling apart. She’s a drug addict with track marks visible on her arms and legs, and she steals drugs from her kind, elderly veterinarian boss, to sell for profit. But then she’s also clearly very kindhearted. She engages in conversation with people living on the street who say nonsensical things, she cares for the animals at the veterinary clinic, and she’s super sweet with her cat Binx. In many ways, Leigh and Callie’s adult lives seem to be two sides of the same coin, and the novel drew me deep into their stories, and made me wish for them both to just be happy.

Unfortunately, their happiness is endangered by Andrew’s court case, and the hints he drops at how much he knows about their pasts. As Leigh examines the evidence against him, she realizes how tough her job will be. All rape is violent, but the one in this book is especially so — when Leigh asks if the victim was unconscious during the rape, her colleague’s response was that they hoped so, given what was done to her. And when Leigh advises Andrew not to take the stand, it’s easy to see why — even on the page, Andrew gives me the creeps. The lead-up to the court case is both thrilling and maddening, and the ending takes a somewhat darker, and sadder, turn than I anticipated. Part of me wishes that the ending had been more rainbows-and-sunshine happily ever after, but mostly, I thought the ending felt right, and gave closure to the various plot threads.

I also think that False Witness may be the first novel I’ve read that actually talks about life during the COVID-19 era. I’ve read a pandemic thriller, Lost Immunity by Daniel Kalla, but that was a fictionalized pandemic in a post-COVID world. Most novels I’ve read recently seem to take place in a vague present-day or an alternate reality where the pandemic isn’t a factor, and to be honest, during most of the past year and a half, that was exactly the kind of literary escape I wanted.

But then False Witness begins in the spring of 2021, where Leigh and her estranged husband are at their teenage daughter’s drama production, and everyone’s wearing masks. There are the now-common observations about men who keep their masks dangling on their chins and how they’re probably equally lax about condom use, the somewhat wistful comments about how intermission used to mean going out into the lobby to chat over snacks, and the somewhat throwaway detail about ‘non-compliant’ parents who refused to wear masks being given the option to watch the performance over Zoom. Leigh also makes a wry comment about how the school put on the performance over five Sunday evenings, to give all the parents a chance to attend. It’s a minor joke about how that measure just took away parents’ excuse to get out of having to attend, but it’s also a somewhat sad reminder of how much live theatre and other similar venues have had to adapt during the pandemic.

Perhaps it’s because I’m fortunate enough to be in a country where vaccinations are now easily accessed, but I actually liked these little details about pandemic life. So much of the past year and a half has been about changes to the way we live that it’s almost a comfort to read about how a regular thriller, with all the usual conventions of the genre, can still play out within the restrictions of pandemic life. Slaughter even uses the pandemic to deepen the relationship between the sisters, with Leigh having contracted COVID in 2020, and feeling guilty about infecting her sister to the point that Callie still seems to sometimes have difficulty breathing. It’s both a jarring reminder of how much COVID has impacted people’s lives, and an oddly comforting assurance that real life does continue around and alongside the pandemic.

I don’t think I’ll quite go around looking for stories set in contemporary pandemic times, but, at least for this novel, Slaughter shows how to do it well.

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Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for an egalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Promise, by Lucy Diamond

ThePromiseCoverFilled with guilt over the argument they’d had on the night of his brother’s death, Dan is determined to fill the hole left by Patrick’s absence. He helps his sister-in-law Zoe with childcare and chores, drops by his parents’ home more often, and takes over the management of Patrick’s finances and rental properties. Doing so reveals a secret that Patrick’s kept from his loved ones for years, and Dan is torn. How can he best honour his brother’s legacy and care for the family he left behind, while still pursuing his own chance at happiness?

The Promise is a moving, heartwarming story of love, loss, and, most of all, family. Patrick’s secret isn’t all that shocking, and as events unfold, nor is the eventual resolution to Dan’s dilemma. But the ways in which Dan and Zoe work through their grief, and figure out how to move on with their lives, is very relatable. There’s a tendency, when someone dies, to remember only the good stuff about them. But part of moving on means coming to terms with the full complexity of their human-ness, warts and shortcomings and all, and in Dan and Zoe’s journeys, Lucy Diamond explores that part of grief in beautiful, textured, and multilayered ways.

I love how this plays out even in the smallest details. There’s Zoe’s search for a sign from Patrick — a butterfly or a car honking at a particular moment. At one point, even she has to laugh at her own absurdity in wondering if a dog walking by may be that sign. The sign doesn’t appear until the last few pages, but when it does, it’s a gut-punch of a moment, made all the more impactful by the narrative distance with which it was written. More prosaically, there’s a photograph of Patrick and Dan on their parents’ mantle, which Dan has always hated. He and his mother chat about it at a couple of points in the novel, and each chat reveals a new facet in the relationship between the brothers. It’s a lovely demonstration of how we can still learn about our loved ones, and our relationships with them, even after they’re gone.

Patrick’s secret, and the way Dan chooses to deal with it, form the crux of the conflict in the novel, and while some of the events in the fallout are pretty dramatic, Lucy Diamond chooses to handle this part of the narrative in a quiet, almost reflective, way. We feel Dan’s confusion and fear as he tries to deal with the fallout without hurting anyone, and we feel Zoe’s pain as she is forced to come to terms with some uncomfortable truths. The consequences of Patrick’s actions leave long-lasting marks on the lives of several characters, but the way Diamond presents it, we can see how each character deals with the impact on a day-to-day basis. Ultimately, all these characters are just doing the best they can, both for themselves and their loved ones, and Diamond does a good job in taking us deep into their lives.

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Thank you to Publishers Group Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.