I planned to review these books separately, but then it occurred to me that they’re basically the same story. So I decided to do a comparison review. Both books can be categorized as supernatural romances/mysteries, with the focus more on the romance and/or mystery and less on the supernatural.
The books in question are Revenge Gifts by Cindy Cruciger and Dead Case in Deadwood by Ann Charles. Cruciger is a first-time author, while Charles has a number of books under her belt (Dead Case is #3 in the Deadwood series). The gap in experience is obvious: Revenge Gifts is a morass of typos and grammatical errors, inconsistent text and page formatting, and rookie mistakes. Dead Case has obviously seen an editor and a proper layout artist, although I found the (few) illustrations irrelevant, amateur and distracting; the text conveyed its imagery far better than the actual pictures.
I read these two back-to-back, not realizing how similar they were until well into the second book. Given that Dead Case is the third book in the series, and I’ve read the first two, one might think I’d catch on quicker, but it’s been about a year since I read the last one. The details are vastly different, but they’re both riffing off the same basic trope, and there’s only so far one can go while maintaining said trope.
Revenge Gifts stars Tara Cole as a web entrepreneur who runs a website that sends twisted gifts dedicated to, well, petty revenge. Pillows filled with allergens, chainmail-lined boxers, weekly chocolates (to known food addicts), that kind of stuff. She’s also haunted, and targeted by a voodoo witch. This could be the stuff of a great book, but it falls flat; the author simply doesn’t know how to construct a detailed plot from great ideas. Nor does she have a great grasp of tense: the narration should be present tense, as near as I could tell, but it wanders a fair amount.
The main love interest essentially falls in her lap, begging for sex immediately after admitting he’s still depressed from the tragic death of his wife and son (which is barely mentioned again and never dealt with). The fantastic job concept is barely background material, mostly serving to give a reason for the nosy UPS guy to show up. There’s talk of a business merger with loverboy and another guy, which is played up as suspicious for all of one scene and then becomes irrelevant until the end when it’s used for the denouement, of all things. The voodoo would be more interesting if there was actually a reason for it that made sense, and there’s not one, but two stalker storylines that come out of nowhere and turn into nothing. Oh, and it’s set in the Florida Keys, so there’s sun, fun, fishing and a ton of drinking. Everything is either instantaneously resolved or left hanging.
Dead Case, on the other hand, has pretty solid characters; they’re mostly eccentric in the way of gimmick characters in humorous mysteries, but their eccentricities are part of their charm and not their entire characterization. It brings in the hanging threads from the last book (yes, this is a cliffhanger series) and begins the new plot in context. Our heroine, Violet Parker, has the usual tangle of financial, romantic, and familial entanglements as well as her supernatural woes. She’s single, which seems to be a requirement for Plucky Girls anyway, but she’s also got a pair of ten-year-old twins and at least one relative who is, pardon the pun, relatively sensible.
She’s also haunted, or at least very good at tripping into haunted houses. There’s an overarching metaplot involving a demon, which I am not sure I trust (the plot, not the demon) as it – or the demon, at least – seemed to come out of left field in this book despite the buildup of previous books. The author’s got a good handle on ghosts, and the Black Hills, South Dakota, setting is rife with potential, but I’m not sure there’s enough supernatural depth in the books to accomodate jumping into demon territory. Or I may need to re-read the preceding novels to see if there were hooks I missed.
Both books mostly fulfill the Plucky Girls trope expectations: they’re independent, financially and otherwise, they go barging into things without really thinking, they have multiple hot guys with the hots for them, they ignore commonsense advice (and their own common sense) and they’re magnets for trouble. They both have quasi-random chickens. (I say quasi- because both chickens have purpose, but the confluence amused me.) Their supporting characters are all quirky or eccentric. Oh, and they’re both self-deprecating to the point of needing treatment.
Tara spends most of her book telling us how bad a person she is, despite the evidence of those around her – telling her directly and showing indirectly that they don’t believe her. Violet is a bit more directly neurotic, and tends to lean a bit closer to sensible, but she still spends the majority of the book berating herself for being a bad friend and for her lying and sidestepping and other issues. To be fair, she does bring this on herself, but between the repeated mantras of self-hatred and her inability to take responsibility for her actions (also a requirement these days) it… well, it gets tiresome.
Now, you could say I’m being oversensitive, and it’s true to a point, but I’ve noticed this is a trend in these kinds of books of late. The inner monologues often go way too far, and it’s always the women. Usually in books written by women, for women. I get the angst fetish, but let’s try not to glorify it, please? There’s angst, and then there’s “requires serious help and possibly hospitalization.” Quirky is not equivalent to mental instability. If these are our heroines, our escape fantasies, why are they so depressed all the time? Or at least, why are authors using depression as an unacknowledged requirement in defining these characters? Depression is not heroic nor should it be portrayed as a “normal” mentality. Either acknowledge it and utilise it properly as a plot point or stop unintentionally reinforcing negative stereotypes by pretending it’s “just” guilt or angst.
::puts away soapbox::
As for plot, Dead Case includes a satisfying mystery, whereas Revenge Gifts merely meanders through its many plot threads without much coherence. The romances mirror the rest of their books: Violet’s love interest situation is evolving from the previous books, and has depth, whereas Tara’s turns into random sexcapades that further distract from the already thin plot. Perhaps the author should refile it under pornfic and be done with it. I have no problem with sex scenes, provided they are done well and situationally appropriate, and that they don’t get in the way of the actual story. I know where to find erotica if I want that, otherwise plot is required.
I will give Revenge Gifts bonus points for attempting a nonstandard relationship, with a secondary love interest remaining an interest and a friend, neither ignoring nor glossing over either aspect, and not engendering any jealousy subplots.
Dead Case doesn’t push any boundaries, but I give the series so far a bonus for allowing Violet to evolve from “doesn’t believe in ghosts” to “reserving judgement” in a relatively natural manner. She doesn’t switch from her initial beliefs, but she’s willing to admit that circumstances warrant an open mind and perhaps a change of opinion.
If this were a contest, Dead Case would win, with a rating of 4 stars vs. Revenge Gift’s 2.5 (the half-star goes to the nonstandard relationship and chainmail boxers, which are a stroke of genius). I got both books (and the earlier Deadwood books) through the freebie channels, and I’m relatively sure I’ve seen both on multiple occasions. I will most likely continue the Deadwood series, but I suspect I’m leaving the rest of the Revenge Gifts series behind.