Dream a Little Dream, Susan Elizabeth Phillips

On SEP`s page the blurb starts with: This is not an official Chicago Stars book, but continues the story of the Bonner family.

I have to read books in order, that is a given. So I am not skipping one of the toughest characters and one of the toughest life stories out here.

In Dream a Little Dream Rachel Stone is an outcast—broke, unemployed, with a five-year-old son to raise, and Gabriel Bonner is the hostile black sheep of the town’s most prominent family. They first meet upon Rachel`s return to Salvation, the town she fled after her televangelist husband stole millions out of the pockets of the faithful. G. Dwayne Snopes did not only steal the money. He stole and fled (dying on the way), leaving Rachel to deal with it while trying to raise their son Edward. Gabe was out of town for his own sad reasons. He was running away from the memory of his dead wife and little son. The best description of his state would be this quote:

“… in his chest, his heart seeped. It wasn`t blood that escaped – that had been shed long ago – but a thick, bile-like fluid that ran through veins that had become rivers of pain carrying a bottomless cargo of grief.”

I have read this book for the first time many moons ago, and I have read it several times since, and this still gets me. It is one of the best descriptions of overwhelming emotional pain I have ever read.

His family is what is keeping him alive, or rather his unwillingness to cause them more pain. Reverend Ethan Bonner, his brother, is one of the first among the cast of characters to show dislike and contempt towards Rachel and bubble wrapped care for his brother, which turns out to be modus operandi for the whole town.

Gabe bought Pride of Carolina, an outdoor theater, in his attempt to live an existence as far from his previous life as possible. In a show of pity for Rachel, he hires her to work for him, and help him fix up the place.

Their story starts (and resolves) violently, and as usual, the setup for the actual resolution is over half of the book long. We get the whole package with SEP: the motivation, the history, the character arc, the common sense and actual humanity, and sincere sex.

The side story with Ethan and his assistant Kristy plays wonderfully along with the main storyline. Ethan is almost like a second male lead with the depth he has (nevermind the talking-to-god bit), and him accepting Rachel is connected with him accepting himself.

The party would not be complete without the third brother, Cal and his wife Jane, we met in Nobody’s Baby But Mine. Cal is terribly protective of Gabe so he is inclined to eliminate all perceived or real threats to his brother. He shows up out of the blue so he really doesn`t know what he is talking about or who he is dealing with. But he is forceful and eager, so his methods don`t take long to trigger the culmination.

Gabe`s relationship with Edward brings another dimension to this raw love story. Rachel is a woman with a sickly son, Gabe is a broken man without his robust child. He can`t escape comparisons, and he can`t manage any tender feelings for the boy. But they are making him deal with life.

I could have taken many highlights out of the book or “dwelled” on my reluctance to read about such heavy baggage in romance novels. But I can`t make it about little things or even myself (even though this is supposed to be a review). This book is about empathy. Mountains of it. Empathy and understanding for the person next to you, no matter the qualifications. And that is a beautiful message. The fact that the book is a 10/10 in every other way is jut the cherry on top.


Nobody’s Baby But Mine, Susan Elizabeth Phillips

When you read the blurb for this book you can only think one thing: what a stupid farfetched romance plot. Knowing this was a book by an author I already greatly admire, I gave it a shot.

To be fair, the idea of a smart woman in want of a baby picking an outwardly stupid jock to father said baby could have some hilarious potential until they sort themselves out. But the blurb is deceiving, and SEP is a smart lady. The waters in this book run deep.

When you actually start reading and you figure out this is not the story you were thinking to read, you find yourself facing a choice: do I let it suck me in further or do I stand outraged and close the chapter on this one?

I am here to help you with that choice by providing some more information, and my point of view.

Firstly, this book has a similar setting to others in terms of opposites who figure out they have a lot in common. The writing is great, per usual, and gives us an insight into our characters from the first. It relays enough information that we can make up our own mind on what to think. And the primary story is again backlit by another, happening at the same time.

There is where all similarity with the first two books of the Chicago Stars series ends.

Cal Bonner, the Chicago Stars’ quarterback, has recently lost a sister-in-law and a nephew, and at 36 is facing retirement. He has no clue what to do with himself after that, so he refuses to accept reality and clings to the image of youth. Usually with the help of his young girlfriends. But Cal has not been dating for a while, so his teammates decide to gift him with a woman for his birthday. That is where his path crosses hers.

Genius physics professor Dr. Jane Darlington doesn`t just desperately want a baby. She needs love, more precisely, she needs to give it to someone. Ergo, baby. Being a genius screwed her up as a kid, so she needs a dumb man to help her out with balancing out the IQ. A neighbor decides to help.

I will not get into too much detail, because you get everything set up on the first few pages, but the most important thing is that Jane decides to play a hooker, poke holes into the condom and have sex with Cal. If that is so much not your cup of tea, I suggest you don’t read this one. Because, if you cannot get past that, there is no amount of human in this book that is going to make you like it. So don’t do it.

The plan is sordid, SEP even states so herself, Jane thinks it too, but it is too little too late. In the first few chapters the notions of morally or even politically correct are easily dismissed, and the desperation and need in Jane, and aimlessness in Cal are very apparent.

That leads to their first sexual encounter, a farce so clearly a representation of the moral and personal damage they both are inflicting.

From that point on, we get a clear look at the circumstance of their lives, the fight Jane has to go trough on a daily basis, and the denial Cal is living in. Their worlds collide once Cal finds out what she did, and the consequences of their actions catch up with them.

In order for me to fully express my opinion and emotion regarding this book, I would have to go chapter by chapter, so I am not going to try to condense that into spoiler-freeish sentences.

What I will say (or write) is that this book is very much not what the blurb leads you to believe. It is much more human, much deeper, and deals in emotions that are raw and painful for the characters. The set up leaves you asking how. How do the go from here? How do they live now? How do they get to a happy ending?

It is amazing how well SEP deals with the road she landed herself on. There is no rush, no stone left unturned, no forgetting. Each character has a purpose, a voice, a point for being. The setting holds the mirror up to the events, and the events reflect the inner turmoil of the characters.

They deal with the mess they made and the result is believable. So, five points to Gryffindor.

Heaven, TX, Susan Elizabeth Phillips

I have decided not to care about spoilers in my reviews due to one simple fact: I cannot write one I like without any. So here we go.

Once again SEP reveals what her characters are, on a surface level, on the first few pages. She calls Bobby Tom (our hero) “pro footballs most visible glamour boy”, and then adds some depth to him by rounding it up with a usual thereismoretohimthanmeetstheeye. She also sets him in his proper place in time, forced into retirement at 33 and starting an acting career. Our heroine (Gracie) is a complete 180, a direct opposition to our hero. SEP shows it in her own hilarious way the first time they meet during the party that must have come from a very wry imagination (if an imagination can be wry). Gracie has an open nature, that coupled with 30yearoldvirgin innocence makes for great entertainment. And she is supposed to try to control him. The setting calls for a LOL.

The way SEP describes both of her main characters works as a clue into the way we (and the world) are supposed to look at them. For Bobby Tom she uses sparkling larger than life words, while Gracie comes across as just average (or blah). Bobby Tom seems to be a jock with money, looks and brains, and Gracie has plain looks that are only just compensated with brains. Their mutual relationship is described perfectly with one direct sentence: “He was a glittering superhuman creature who must have been put on earth by a perverse God to remind homely women like herself that some things were unobtainable.”

The first few pages then tell us a bit more about our characters: Bobby Tom makes women play a game for his hand in marriage, he likes having private jokes with himself, he has an ego problem, he is manipulative and very intelligent. Gracie is a closeted sensualist and a peeping tom wannabe, also smart, patient, doesnt look as bad as she thinks, easily distracted with new and shiny. And you adjust your opinion of the two accordingly. The story goes from a duckling and a swan to a much more interesting battle of determinations and minds.

SEP gets you emotionally involved with her characters, using relatable language and descriptions. While placing them on two opposing sides, she also makes you root for them both.

I think this might be an appropriate moment to mention that I really really wanted to like Bobby Tom, Gracie seemed like a character that deserves a good man, not to mention I liked him from the first Stars book. But he started of as a bored boohoo playboy who couldnt play football anymore, and was feeling bad for himself. OK, I dont like jocks, I admit. BUT. He kept Gracie with him on the trip to Texas for entertainment. Dude. His ohyouaretheclownIneed smirking attitude towards Gracie pissed me of.

Yes, there is more to him than all that, he isan easy mark”, very private, feels like he owes something for his success, and at the bottom of it all a decent human. But I just had a problem with the whole patpat on the head he gave Gracie. Then again, she showed some teeth soon enough, not to mention turned him on. Which he refused to admit.

ALSO, a thing I had a problem with. Through the whole book Bobby Tom fights and then makes excuses as to why he is attracted to Gracie, the whole time labeling her as less, or worse, or a charity case, because she doesnt have DD breasts. Dude needed the biggest reality check and an attitude adjustment from beginning to end. His refusal to cope with his own life made me maaaad. Made the whole painful groveling at the end all the more enjoyable though.

But I digress.

Once their entertaining road trip to film location ends, Gracie ends up on the bottom, gripped by despair that she still wont manage to live. That is where the part that makes you understand the two humans trying to cope with their new reality starts.

We also get a nice side story involving Bobby Toms mom. The best part is that the side story does not seem like an addon. It flows and contributes to the greater scheme of things.

As the story moved on, so did I. Bobby Tom started making sense, and mostly didnt anger me to the point of frustration. The way I got to experience him was more along the lines of growing up alongside him, or diving deeper into who he is. The more is revealed to Gracie, the more we all figure out. Most frustrating part of the book I must say is the fact that we get a full on insight into the heads of our characters, and we feel the refusal Bobby Tom has for his changed circumstance, we feel the way Gracie opens up her inexperienced heart, and we most definitely cheer on. Only to have it all go down the drain with a resolved flush.

SEP leaves bits and pieces of our characters on the pages for us to find, she fits in the details that make them who they are like an offhand comment that flows with the arc, is a part of narration, makes sense and doesnt serve just one purpose. She uses those little fillers as much as she uses the big events that drive the story forward. She also uses dialogue, the characters voices and makes them more human, relatable, understandable, through their every word and interaction. One other thing she does in all her books is not letting us know all at once. As our hero and heroine get to know each other, we get to know them to.

The way SEP structured this book you were driven to get the happy ending, to want them to be uncomplicated and happy, to cheer for some kind of clarity. That is what makes the end, the situation where our heroes are forced to figure out who they are and what they want, and they refuse to do so, all the more sad. And frustrating. The tension is at an all time high two pages until THE END. And the book doesnt have an epilogue. No way for you to feel that nice calm after a good tumble.

This is one of those books that got me involved, and then left me wondering what to do with the rest of my life.

It Had to Be You, Susan Elizabeth Phillips

So, my first ever review of my favorite author. SEP is not my first romance novelist, but she is the one everyone else has to measure up to. The quality of her writing sets the bar high.

I hope this will be informative enough while still being somewhat vague, not just a retelling of events (or a blurb). I know I will not do the book justice, but I have a lot more SEP to improve my writing on.

I would also like to point out that I am going to fill this post with spoilers and some curse words, so be warned.

Comparing our heroine Phoebe with Marilyn Monroe in one of the first sentences of the book sets the tone for her and her interactions throughout. Susan’s point is even more exaggerated with “it was a bimbos body” and clearly painted in “(she) was the sort of woman who was seldom judged by anything except appearances”. And doesn`t that say it all. Susan gives us exactly what we need in order to know Phoebe in this time and place, and setting her relationships with her sister Molly and her cousin Reed “the bully” up front end center manages to paint a picture of Phoebe’s lot in life in the first chapter.

When we meet Phoebe she is making “a spectacle” at her fathers funeral, and this being a romance novel we get to meet Dan in that first chapter too. Her freshly deceased father is described trough a fitting character assassination, and Phoebe’s unease around big men is used to bring out her “hot” persona. Dan being a “big, bad lion who carried himself with the authority of someone who had no patience for self-doubt” draws out the worst in Phoebe, naturally. So she takes out the big guns and messes up. Well her dog makes a mess, but that`s the same thing.

As with all good stories conflict helps us along, and at the beginning the biggest opposition to our heroine is her dead father. So he gives her his pro football team for a while to “teach her responsibility”. Something Phoebe sees as an attempt to control her life from beyond the grave. You can understand her reluctance to comply, which leads us to conflict number two. Phoebe vs. Dan, two apparent opposites.

Susan puts Phoebe in a situation where she is forced to deal with the kind of man she is most afraid of where Dan is pushed to deal with the kind of woman he most despises. If that is the place they have to start from in this endeavor, how do they get to happy ending?

Therein lies the brilliance of Susan Elizabeth. She knows her characters and she builds them up before making them share the stage. Or page, as the case may be. You get the feeling that she has gone trough each (and I mean each) character`s history, motivations and reasoning with a fine tooth comb so she can let them drive the story. Also, she treats them as people subject to change trough experience. How often do you run over a character who manages to stay the same exact mess beginning trough end? You know, the one that makes you scream “how have you not learned yet!!!” There is no such mess with Susan, even with the “sidekicks”. Each individual is important, just as each sentence is important. That is another brilliant thing about her writing. She will not hold your hand and there will be no picture painting for you to figure it out. You have to pay attention to what is going on in order to get why some thing happen. Just like you do in life.

One thing that happened, that some seemed to have a problem with is Dan and minor sex. He is a Ferrari driving douche, yet there is a page full of his reasoning and charity donations. He seems to be misogynistic, yet he clearly judges people by their actions (and you have to admit, Phoebe didn’t do so well). His dialog proves him to be a reasonable individual and his stated desire for a baby mama is in complete conflict with him picking up a teenager for sex. How do you not see something is not quite right with that one. Not to mention all you have to do is go back a few pages to have an aha! moment. Because all the characters Susan mentions, all the events that happen, all the attention she gives to something is important. Her books require some thought, she doesn`t write porn.

What didn`t make all the sense for me was a love interest for Dan, or should I say a potential baby mama. That part made me angry. My hero is clueless about romance. Oh the horror. I got over it quickly, we all know men tend to actually be like that. Points for Susan. Meanwhile, Phoebe gets to build a relationship with Ron, the GM of her “Chicago Stars”, revisits some old wounds with her slimy cousin and tries to be a big sister to Molly. Something is not equal there.

All is getting on when actual sexual sparks get acknowledged by both sides, and another incident reveals a lot more of Dan and Phoebe to one another. Which in turn leads to one of the most sincere sex scenes ever, eventually. I am used to fun sex scenes, but this one takes a somewhat violent turn at first. I was annoyed by that more than the fact that the first sex scene in the book does not include one of our main characters. But then I thought about it (as you must) and realized there is no way it could have turned out differently. On one side you have Phoebe, unused to enjoyment in sex, closed of and more afraid than anything, looking and acting like she has three different men each day. On the other side there is Dan, used to all kinds of games and sexual scenarios looking to rid himself of the sexual charge they produce together. Miscommunication happens.

Lucky for us, there is no diffusion of the sexual charge. Tensions get high and Dan acts like a dick again, but I forgive his lost soul for not knowing what he wants at this point.

So the story progresses, lots of other things (like life) happen and our characters change. They get to know each other, they figure themselves out, and Dan finally stops fooling himself during one of the most satisfying moments of the book. Phoebe takes her bimbo persona to the highest heights and wows the crowd. I don`t want to get into the details because it is one of my favorites to reread. If you read any of this book at all, these are the pages. Just look for the new stadium contract deal.

From this point the narrative speeds up a bit, which is logical because there is no more discovery to be made. Phoebe tells Dan about her awful experiences and then looses all faith upon meeting Sharon, the potential baby mama. Cue the post bliss conflict and final set change! Something all the writers seem to follow, on purpose or unintentionally.

Our hero and heroine are at the lowest point they have been and a fight gets them even lower. Susan Elizabeth creates a lovely contrast with their lives and relationship. All is going in the best possible direction except for the two of them as a couple, and you start clamoring for the grand finale just so you can breathe with ease.

And what a finale it is.

The time is so drawn out and(!) condensed, each tense minute described in detail, the unravel of the crescendo so fast that it snowballs and you can actually feel your heartbeat. Susan Elizabeth Phillips makes you feel things. She is a master of human nature and it shows trough her expert manipulation of the scene. She knows the effect she is going for and how to achieve it. In the end, she doesn`t leave you with questions and holes in the narrative while wrapping it up without it feeling rushed or staged.

It is very nice to read something and not feel frustrated when you get to the end.


Why I looooove SEP

So by now you can guess who is one of my favorite writers, and if you are here you probably love her too. Or you are willing to experiment. And seeing how we`ll have a new Chicago Stars Book (!!!!!!!) by the end of August, I thought Susan is the perfect author to start my book loving blog with.

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SEP is a writer who can make the world go round in the most wonderful way. With her characters. To me, that is what makes a book, drives the story, gives you dialog. Her characters are all flawed human beings, intelligent and loyal, open to the road of self discovery they find themselves on. That is actually the best part of it all. She makes them go trough things to figure themselves out. She makes them work for what they want without help, and sometimes without support. The characters are never what they seem, and they end up loving what they never thought possible. The couples have nothing in common at a surface level, once you think about it you figure out it is just “the face of things”, something SEP likes to play with. She also has a serious liking for people with issues, but that is another post.
Even though her characters may or my not be strong at the start they end up a better version of themselves, for themselves. Their romantic other half only jumpstarts the process. In a hilarious manner, more often than not. Which is a HUGE realism plus in my book.

Ok, that might have been jumbled thought up there. Lets start again.

Her characters. They are funny, intelligent, flawed, real. And ridiculous.

Phoebe Somerville outraged everyone by bringing a French poodle and a Hungarian lover to her father’s funeral. She sat at the gravesite like a fifties movie queen with the small white poodle perched in her lap and a pair of rhinestone-studded cat’s-eye sunglasses shielding her eyes.  –SEP, It Had To Be You

The story. Is one of self discovery first, good people second, relationships third, and romance throughout.

Nobody else can demean me. I can only demean myself. –SEP, Kiss an Angel

The romance. It is funny!! It feels like it could actually happen! And even though you know who are your main characters, who will end up together, the road to the end game is long and curvy. It demands attention end effort. Just like the real deal.

“You know that we’ve got a few problems we need to talk through before we get married.”
“I’m not getting rid of Pooh.”
“See, there you go being antagonistic. Marriage means learning to compromise.”
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t compromise. I promise to take the ribbon out of her topknot before you walk her.”  -SEP, It Had to Be You

The setting. Mostly small towns (or big towns with small town vibes), mostly groups of people who know who they are. You can tell SEP appreciates good character development. And I love her for it.

“He sounds like Jesus. Except rich and sexy.”
“Watch it, Meg. In this town joking about Jesus could get you shot. You’ve never seen so many of the faithful who’re armed.” -SEP, Call Me Irresistible

The humor. Oh the humor! Well written, doesn`t feel forced, everyone has their own brand of it.

“We’re only human.”
“One of us, anyway. The other’s a reptile.”
“Harsh, Annabelle. Very harsh.”  –SEP, Match Me If You Can

“Just out of curiosity, sweetheart; did you ever talk to your doctor about givin’ you some tranquilizers?”  -SEP, Heaven, Texas

“If you were a sane woman, I would, of course, behave in a more rational fashion. Since you are a lunatic, however, this is the only way.” -SEP, Ain`t She Sweet 

I could go on like this forever, but I’ll mention one more thing. Her voice. It is distinctive and effortless, it reads like a tall glass of water, doesn`t snag or catch, everything is in its place. There is no jumble, no useless adverbs, no unnecessary embellishments. It makes “my heart sing”.

She makes this quote seem very true.

Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words. –Mark Twain