Friday, March 11, 2011

Mad Hero Pick of the Week: Sweet as Sin by Inez Kelley

It's Five Umbrella Friday, and I have a very special pick to finish off Mad Heroes week. Murphy is now one of my all-time favorite "Mad" heroes, and he's brought to us by author who's not afraid to go super-dark with him to chase down all his demons. Like the Serpent Prince and other "mad" hero tales, Murphy tries to cast Livvy as his "angel," but Livvy refuses to serve as his ideal, settling for nothing less than true partnership. This book is a monsoon-must keeper for me.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kelley delivers what so many contemporaries fall far short of. One of the reasons why I have preferred historicals in recent years is the inability of many contemporaries to sustain believable conflict and to achieve deep emotional impact. Romantic suspense has the advantage of serial killers and baddies running around, but straight up contemporaries often end up relying on misunderstandings and secrets in place of real barriers keeping hero and heroine apart. Kelley deftly avoids these common traps, and Sweet as Sin is a rare gem--a sexy, weepy, funny, gut wrenching, intense read. If it were a baked good, it would be front and center in heroine Livvy's bakery, The Sugar Shack. Readers of Jodi Picoult and Anita Shreve who usually stick to deep women's fiction will find plenty to enjoy here, as well as Contemporary fans starving for something a little meatier.

At first glance, Sweet as Sin is your basic oil-and-water Neighbors-to-lovers story. Sunny, upbeat, bakery owner Livvy meets her new neighbor, the dark and broodingly handsome, "Master of Monsters," YA author, John Murphy, in one of the best meet-cute and opening hooks ever. However, thanks to a deeply tortured hero, it transcends the basic neighbors trope to achieve something far deeper. Like another great neighbor story, Susan Kay Law's incredible The Paper Marriage, a seemingly insurmountable barrier to HEA suffuses the novel with a near-palpable sense of longing.

The first half of the novel slowly builds this up as we peel away the layers of mystery surrounding Murphy. Even if, like me, you generally prefer a faster pace, stick with it as Kelley makes sure that every single scene has a reason and purpose that is revealed in the second half of the book--even quiet little scenes have huge impact later on, leading up to one of the most devastating black moments ever.

The "villains" of the story are Murphy's considerable personal demons. Murphy doesn't just write about Monsters--he lives with them in his head, and Kelley navigates a delicate path between mental illness and deeply tortured eccentric with creative coping skills. Without giving away any spoilers, I love that Kelley never gives him an easy way out, even in the end--there's no magic bullet solution for Murphy and his problems don't miraculously disappear just because he gets some ridiculously hot lovin' from Livvy.

As is common for heroes this tortured and slightly "mad," Murphy casts Livvy as his angel, someone too good for his dark soul. For her part, however, Livvy refuses to be reduced to an ideal. She's not without her own issues (and has a nice character growth arc), but this is really Murphy's book. The excerpts from the book that Murphy is working on add something really special to the novel. The book-within-the-book ply doesn't always work as well as it does here, but Kelley manages to achieve a unique voice for the monsters that truly seems to come from Murphy, not her.

There are probably some readers who might tire of the food metaphors and imagery that Kelley carries through the novel, but I felt that really added to the lyrical feel of the book and very much fit Livvy's personality--her identity as a Baker is her whole life until Murphy shows up, and she makes sense of him and what she feels using the language she is most comfortable with.

Kelley manages to lighten up what could be an even darker tale with little touches of humor. The secondary characters help balance out Murphy and Livvy and several interesting subplots. Several smoking hot love scenes are also lightened with a little humor, and the emotions infusing these scenes tremendously added to their impact (and also give them broader appeal as nothing is gratuitous).

This book represents everything that's been missing from the contemporary genre, and Kelley is a remarkable talent, one who is certainly on my auto-buy list now. Kelley seems to write from deep in her heart, and this will resonate with a broad spectrum of readers. I simply could not let go of this story--I immediately read it cover to cover a second time, and Murphy is going to stick with me for a very long time.

P.S. SMALL SPOILER--Sticking this at the end so that the spoiler-phobic can avoid it all together, but I have to give Kelley a HUGE round of applause for mentioning the tools Murphy has available to help him with his demons. Very few authors would take the risk of mentioning medication and therapy, but acknowledging the possible benefits of these tools makes the story more believable and adds to Murphy's strength rather than detracting from it.

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