>> Friday, January 24, 2014
TITLE: Strangers on a Train
AUTHORS: Samantha Hunter, Serena Bell, Meg Maguire, Donna Cummings, Ruthie Knox
PAGES: Each story about 60-80 pages
PUBLISHER: Samhain Publishing
SETTING: Contemporary US
SERIES: The stories are not related to each other
Over the past few years I've got better at not feeling I have to read every story in an anthology. Sometimes I'll even go straight for the one I bought the book for and not even try the others (see: JD Robb's short stories).
I acted unlike myself with this one. Samhain helpfully offers each of the 5 stories in the collection for separate purchase, but even though I was initially interested in only 2 of the stories, I decided to read them all.
I randomly started with Samantha Hunter's Tight Quarters. The heroine, Brenna, is a travel writer who suffers from claustrophobia after being in a bad car accident. Any enclosed space, even a car, is difficult for her -not good for someone in her job.
For the last few years, Brenna has been trying to get on a train that does a tour through New York State. This year, finally, she's managed to get on, only to find that her carefully chosen berth has been double booked by retired detective Reid Cooper.
What follows is an unconvincing setup of two strangers sharing a berth and a romance developing. It wasn't very good at all. Neither of the characters felt real. Brenna, especially, never really gelled. Her claustrophobia was inconsistent and not particularly interesting. As for the romance, it was much too fast to be remotely believable.
It was a quick read and I did manage to get to the end, but that's as much as I can say in favour of it.
MY GRADE: A C-. It was not-quite-average.
Next came Ticket Home, by Serena Bell, an author whom I haven't read yet, but whose books I'm aware of (in fact, I've a recent one of hers in my TBR).
Amy left Jeff when he showed that in his view, her ambitions and aspirations were clearly less important than his. This only added to the many, many instances of his putting his work before her. Amy moved across the country and, in the months since, has built another life. And then Jeff shows up on Amy's commuter train, clearly determined to win her back.
I really liked this one. It's a story where the 'falling in love' bit has already happened, so the focus is on working out the issues that have made the relationship fail. They are very real issues, too. I thought Bell judged it all exactly right. Amy's doubts and reluctance are very reasonable, and Jeff starts out as clueless, but is determined to understand and fix what's gone wrong. It's not easy, and it's not portrayed as such. By the end of the story, I was satisfied that I was seeing the start of real change, so the HEA ending really worked for me.
In fact, the story worked really well for me on the whole. It felt fresh and different and the author really dug into the characters and their motivations. I'm now really looking forward to trying the book by her in my TBR.
MY GRADE: A B+.
My favourite of all the stories was the one I read third, Thank You For Riding, by Meg Maguire. It's a simple set-up. Caitlin, on the way home after an embarrassing and disappointing break-up at her office's Christmas party, gets talking and flirting with a guy she'd first noticed a few days earlier at the blood bank where they both donate. They're so busy talking that they don't quite realise the station is closing, and things proceed from there.
I adored this story. I tend to find that with short stories it usually works better if the couple are already in love... if it's simply a vignette covering a later stage of their relationship, basically. Maguire proves that a good author can do a "falling in love" short story perfectly well. Caitlin and Mark don’t know each other at all at the start of the story, and yet I was completely convinced by the end that they were perfect for each other and that they were well on their way to falling in love, if not there already.
Seeing Caitlin and Mark interact was a delight. The dialogue was sparkling and the chemistry between them evident. They found each other incredibly charming and hilarious, and so did I! It was completely show, not tell.
Thank You For Riding goes straight on my list of best romance novels of 2013 (which I'll post soon, I promise!). Maguire also writes as Cara McKenna, and her After Hours is also on that list, making her the only author with 2 books there. I think I've found a new favourite author!
MY GRADE: A-.
I then moved on to a story by the second author I hadn't ever heard of, Back On Track, by Donna Cummings. It wasn't good.
The story is set on a train during a wine tour of Napa Valley (that did sound wonderful!). Allie, who's in a dating dry patch, is pushed by a friend to approach a random hot guy. He turns out to be this huge baseball star, whom she just happens to be courting to appear in a charity calendar. She doesn't recognise him initially, and this is very refreshing to him.
This was boring. It's a setup I find annoying, and the story didn't really recover from it (I read over half of it). It was clearly gearing up for a scene with a big reveal in which Matt finds out who Allie is and assumes she only approached him because she wanted something from him. I couldn't be bothered with it.
I think the reason it was boring was because it was exactly the opposite of Thank You For Riding, in that it was all tell, no show. We’re told how much fun they’re having and how their conversation is so incredible, but their interactions read as forced and silly to me.
MY GRADE: This was a DNF.
I left Ruthie Knox's Big Boy for last because it was the one that had received the best reviews.
While looking around after joining and online dating service, Mandy runs across a very odd profile. It's a man dressed in period clothes, who offers the chance for a role-playing date. Something about this appeals to her, and she agrees. When the book starts, she and her stranger have already had a number of dates, all "set" in different time periods and appropriate trains in the train museum, and have become lovers.
The story looks at what happens when Mandy decides she might want more. It's a sweet, quite melancholy story. Mandy is a well-developed character, and though for most of the story her stranger remains a bit of a cypher, Knox does a really good job by the end of making us understand him. She also succeeded in getting me to buy that this was a romance with a real future.
Still, it was a story I admired more than liked, and it didn't give me the visceral enjoyment that others did.
MY GRADE: A B.
No real surprises here. The three authors I already knew, and either knew I liked or suspected I might, wrote stories I enjoyed, while the stories by the two unknown-to-me authors weren't good. Shame, when I do read unknown authors in an anthology I'm always looking for some amazing discovery. Eh, well, the Meg Maguire story alone was worth the price of the 5.