Charles Sheehan-Miles, Just Remember to Breathe (Cincinnatus Press, 2012)
There were two points while I was reading Just Remember to Breathe where I had to put the book down in a place that made me think “this story can go two ways from here. And if it goes way A, I’m going to be very, very frustrated with this book.” When I ended up getting back to the book (the first time took two days, the second only a few hours), he went with path B both times. It should probably go without saying that “path A” was “this is how the majority of other romance novels do it.” I’ll give you as much as I can about the first of those times below, though try to keep it as non-spoilery as possible, to give you an example of what I’m talking about.
Plot: In the first of (presumably, given that there are five sisters in the family) the five Thompson Sisters books (as I write this, the second, A Song for Julia, and the third, The Last Hour, have been published so far), we focus on Alex. She’s finally out of the house and going to college as far away from her controlling parents as possible—Columbia University, in the middle of New York City. She’s also struggling to get over the brutal breakup of a long-distance high school relationship. At the last minute, her work-study program is cancelled, leaving her unable to pay for college unless something comes up as a replacement. Her advisor finds her work as the assistant for a visiting writer-in-residence. But when she shows up at the guy’s office on the first day, she finds that she isn’t alone…and that the ex-boyfriend is the guy’s other research assistant. Cue sparks.
Okay, if you’ve read half a dozen romance novels, you can probably fill in the blanks below. Girl is at party in the kitchen. Boyfriend is in the other room. Other guy she has a history with stumbles into the kitchen, drunk, and proceeds to paw her. Girl screams. Boyfriend goes into the kitchen and…. Now, with the majority of other romance novels, I would say (and I expected here until I got back to the novel) that the author would use this as a cheap way to throw in one of those “wow, here’s a misunderstanding that will drive a wedge between these two for a hundred pages when a five-second conversation or a little observation on the part of one of the characters would solve the entire mess!” But Charles Sheehan-Miles is not just any romance novelist. (For one thing, he’s a he. I am not one to have ever believed that every novelist in the Harlequin roster was female—Harlequin had a well-known clause in the author’s contract that no author could publish with them using his or her real name for decades, so you got a book from Alexandra Nomdeplume whatever the sex of the author—but male romance authors are still reasonably rare.) Instead, boyfriend charges into the kitchen and hey, wow, gets the right idea about what’s going on. Intelligence in a genre romance? SHOCKFACE. But it keeps happening, and every time I came across a scene where the characters rose to the occasion, I kept being impressed.
Granted, the book’s not perfect. I just realized earlier that one minor plot point disappeared into thin air. (I stopped writing this review for two minutes to go over to CSM’s facebook page and give him guff about it.) There were also a few minor characters who existed solely to advance the plot. (And oh, lord, we have to get Charles some new music; the playlist at the end of this book made me despair even more than the ones Katie McGarry is putting at the ends of the books in her romance series.) But I’m more forgiving about stuff like that in genre fiction than I otherwise would be; I was far more impressed with the intelligence of the characters and the writing than I was annoyed with the minor peccadilloes that surfaced every now and then. Good characters, solid pace, satisfying resolution (and again, this is a romance novel, so you know what happens on page 337 before you even start page 1, but the journey’s the thing here, not the destination, right?), and more than enough chances to empathize with these folks? I will definitely be continuing on with the series. In fact, A Song for Julia, the second book, is sitting on the shelf next to me as I write this. How much more of a recommendation can I give than that? ****