Charles Sheehan-Miles, A Song for Julia (Cincinnatus Press, 2012)
Full disclosure: I have known Charles Sheehan-Miles, at least via the Internet, for over a decade now.
Charles Sheehan-Miles kicked off his Thompson Sisters series of romance novels with Just Remember to Breathe, and that book is a real humdinger. Well, guess what? The second book in the series, A Song for Julia, sees Just Remember to Breathe and doubles the pot.
Set six years before the events of Just Remember to Breathe, A Song for Julia gives us the oldest Thompson sister, still in college and on the family path towards a career in diplomacy. Julia’s not so sure how she feels about that, especially since her politics are far removed from those of her recently-retired father, but she’s come this far, how can she change paths now? Ask the question, and sometimes the answer presents itself; on a trip to Washington DC to work for a festival, she meets Crank, the vocalist for the headlining band. Crank is the center of a punk band who have been on the verge of stardom for a while now, but haven’t quite found that ineffable something that separates the good from the great. It’s obvious from the start that the two of them are great for one another, but the more entwined they get in each other’s lives, the more external pressures keep them questioning whether what they have can possibly work.
All the hallmarks of Sheehan-Miles’ books are here, and if you’ve read the reviews I’ve been writing for those since 2002’s Prayer at Rumayla, you’ve heard all the basic strengths before, and probably don’t need to hear them again. What I want to focus on here is the improvement. It’s been my experience that Sheehan-Miles has improved one or two facets of his writing with every book, and such is that case here. But the big one is one of those things that can make or break a novel when it’s not quite right—the minor characters. Written incorrectly, they serve as little more than plot advancements, naked cardboard cutouts that might as well have their part in the script tattooed on their foreheads (“I’m the rival for his affections!”). Sheehan-Miles’ minor characters have been taking on lives of their own from book to book, and in Just Remember to Breathe, they were where Crank’s band is at the beginning of this novel—good, three-dimensional, interesting, and almost ready for prime time. The minor characters that show up in A Song for Julia are barnburners. In series fiction, that’s kind of to be expected in the recurring characters (the Thompson family), but the characters related to Crank—his bandmates, his family—are damn near as prominent as our on-again-off-again-happy couple, so much so that I’m guessing if Sheehan-Miles were to create another spinoff series focusing on the Wilsons of Boston, a huge portion of the Thompson Sisters readership would be more than willing to come along for the ride.
We can’t call the book predictable with a straight face; it is, after all, a genre romance, all of which end the same, and we met Crank and Julia in Just Remember to Breathe, so we also have the weight of that book’s dinner scene letting us know exactly how things turn out here. Given this, it is mandatory in A Song for Julia that the journey be more important than the destination. Sheehan-Miles has given us a fine journey indeed, one well worth taking. This is not only a guaranteed player on this year’s Twenty-Five Best Reads of the Year list, it is almost certain to occupy an even higher place on that list than its predecessor did last year. ****