Kim and Kelly’s Dueling Review of Laugh (Burnside #2) by Mary Ann Rivers

lmarIt’s not a surprise that Kelly and I are back, together again, reviewing another Mary Ann Rivers novel. We are both in love with Mary Ann’s characters, stories, and the way there are ALL the feels in her books (you can also read my review of her first novella, The Story Guy, and our review of Heating Up the Holidays.) Kelly and I jumped for joy when Mary Ann announced her Burnside series. We loved the first book in the series, Live, so much that we wrote our review as a love letter to Mary Ann about it. The second book in the series, Laugh, blew us away (as expected). Thus, we are here to fan girl all over it and its main character, Sam.

From Goodreads:

Dr. Sam Burnside is convinced that volunteering at an urban green-space farm in Lakefield, Ohio, is a waste of time—especially with his new health clinic about to open. He only goes to mollify his partner, suspecting she wants him to lighten up. Then Sam catches sight of Nina Paz, a woman who gives off more heat than a scorcher in July. Her easy smile and flirty, sizzling wit has him forgetting his infamous need for control.

Widowed when her husband was killed in Afghanistan, Nina has learned that life exists to take chances. As the daughter of migrant workers turned organic farmers, she’s built an exciting and successful business by valuing new opportunities and working hard to take care of her own. But when Sam pushes for a relationship that goes beyond their hotter-than-fire escapades, Nina ignores her own hard-won wisdom. She isn’t ready for a man who needs saving—even if her heart compels her to take the greatest risk of all: love.

Kim: I need to start off by saying that this book was a balm for my soul. Sam Burnside is in MANY ways an extreme version of myself. We’ve both been diagnosed with ADD and have had it be debilitating for us in some way, shape, or form. We’re both highly obsessed with needing the people around us be happy. This results in us trying to fix all their problems or protect them from hardship. While you may be saying, “Hey! That’s a pretty generous thing to do,” it’s my unfortunate duty to tell you that it often results in animosity from the people we love, much to our chagrin. They perceive us as interfering with their lives. Lives that they need no help with.

I can tell you firsthand it’s really difficult growing up like this. Knowing you’re struggling with concentration issues, hyperactivity (for some ADD people), and a constant sense of letting everyone around you down all the time. It certainly doesn’t help when people tell you that you don’t work hard enough, tell you everything you do is wrong, or tell you that you’re just too _____. A lifetime of feeling this way begins to make you feel less and less adequate of a person until you find people who realize you are filled with an fathomless amount of love.

Kelly: I really wish we’d known each other when we were younger. I would have been OK with a fathomless amount of love. 🙂  [Here’s my own personal rant: I will never understand why people choose to go through life thinking the worst (or, at least, not thinking the best) of the people around them. I don’t understand why it took people so long to figure out that you, Kim, are amazing. And, shifting to the fictional, I don’t understand why Sam’s own family was so perfectly blinded to his sterling qualities. I cannot fathom why anyone would tell him to be anything other than what he is.]

Kim: First, you’re the best. Second, I totally agree with your above statement. Sam is NOT a bad guy. He’s a doctor who wants to open up a clinic in his hometown to help people who are struggling. He wants to help out Nina’s farm and create a lasting partnership for his community. He wants to take care of his sister Sarah, badly injured from her racing accident. He wants to help his sister Des, who is all the way overseas, traveling and falling deeply in love for the first time. His list goes on and on. All he does is care about the people around him, to the detriment of his own self sometimes. His house is an absolute disaster zone, one that reflects how his mind is always jumping to his next task.

Kelly: Laugh is definitely Sam’s book. Sam, through a lifetime of being told what he is, being told that he’s too much this or that and (very much) not enough this or that, is not able to see himself clearly. He believes what he’s been told, and that’s heartbreaking. But let’s think for a second about ourselves: Sam’s not the only one who believes these things that are not true. He’s not the only one who can’t fathom that failure is not (or does not have to be) the motif of his story. We all suffer, to one degree or another, from the terrible messages that surround us, those sent to us by our (if we’re lucky, well-meaning) parents, friends, siblings and those sent by our society and culture. We all see a funhouse-mirror version of ourselves and need to learn how to see the shapes that are really there, learn to love ourselves — our real selves — before we can truly love anyone else. Laugh shows us what that process looks like, and it does it in such a beautiful way. I wish that Nina’s journey towards seeing herself more clearly were given a little more page time, but… I find so much value in Sam’s journey (and Nina’s involvement in it) that I don’t actually care as much about it as my brain tells me I should.

Kim: I agree. As much as I would have liked to see more of Nina’s journey of self-discovery, Sam’s was just perfection. I cared about Nina a lot, especially as she started telling the people around Sam to lighten up on him. Realize that his love for them was endless. Self-less. Pure.

Kelly: Nina’s journey felt very private to me, even though she has more friends and — on the outside, at least — appears that she’s got her shit together. I mean, Sam’s chaos is super obvious. His apartment is a wreck; he’s going through a crisis dealing with the responsibilities associated with opening the clinic; he’s taking extra shifts at the hospital to avoid thinking about it all; he’s not talking to two of his siblings (well, more accurately, they’re not talking to him) and is sending desperate emails to Des; he’s choosing to spend time learning about urban farming to avoid thinking about all the balls in the air that could (and will) come crashing down at any moment. He’s a hot mess. But Nina, who has built a business from the ground up, who has cultivated the earth and the people around her, is just as messed up. She’s an uprooted plant struggling to grow. She’s the other side of Sam’s coin. Where Sam is root bound by his past, Nina is surgically cut off from hers. Where Sam is certain of his ability to love, Nina is certain that she sacrificed her ability to love.

Nina resonated with me… and I know I said before that the story feels like Sam’s story and I almost wish that Nina’s journey had been a little more front and center, but I wonder if Mary Ann Rivers was just giving Nina the space and freedom (and privacy) to live out her grief and learn how to make room for love. Maybe that’s the most generous thing Mary Ann could have done for Nina (and for all of us reading the story) is give us the privacy and respect to let grief fill us up and then let it all flow out. Does that make any damn sense?

Kim:I think you’re absolutely right. Maybe it’s just me, but when I am overwhelmed with grief it all comes out as a huge scream (i.e. pounding on pillows and my bed.) I need to let it all out physically in a cathartic way. I can’t even imagine what Nina would need to do to get all the grief out that she’s felt all those years due to her husband, her dreams, her family, etc. The glimpses of her grief that we’re given are heartbreaking. And as Kelly said above, her inability to see how she can love. How she already does love, but just doesn’t see its value or weight.

I know that those of you reading this review must think this book is such a downer. But it’s really not. It’s beautiful in its honesty. In its realness. It doesn’t even matter if you see yourself as Sam or Nina – there is someone in your life that is like them. Reading this book will have you seeing them in a new light. Maybe realizing you need to be overly compassionate for someone who still grieves, and trying to understand someone like Sam (or me!) that wants the best for you and sometimes may not go about expressing that in the best way. We all have quirks within our personalities that make us puzzles to the people around us. It’s the people like Nina and Sam (and Kelly & I) that work to figure out those puzzles, knowing that once you do the love you’ll receive is boundless.

Kelly: Yes! There are a handful of books that felt very important to me for one reason or another. (I have felt that way about every single piece of writing — novels, novellas, short stories, blog posts, and tweets — I’ve read by Mary Ann, by the way.) I felt that way about Snowfall and The Story Guy and — in a huge way — about Ruthie Knox’s Making it Last. (And Laura Florand’s Snow Kissed, if we’re making a more comprehensive list.) And Laugh is another. It’s an important book. It’s important to me because it says something true that resonates with me, that lifts me up, that reassures me, and that teaches me. It’s important to all of us (if I can make such a pronouncement) because its message is universal. We need more love. We need more acceptance. We need to love and accept ourselves, and we need to love and accept each other. We need to give each other the space to grieve, and we need to step in occasionally to help cultivate the best parts of our loved ones.

Kim: So in closing, as always we’d like to write Mary Ann a letter.

Dear Mary Ann,

THANK YOU for Sam. And for Laugh. And for writing a story that gives voice to people like Sam and Nina. For showing that a disability doesn’t have to be debilitating. Its effects can be disastrous, but they can also have amazing outcomes. The ability to love unconditionally. To care more about others than yourself.

Thank you for showing the world that being “too ____” isn’t always a bad thing. For giving a voice to those of us who are sometimes so burdened with the amount of stress we put on ourselves that we have no voice. For showing that giving “too much” love is never a bad thing. But most importantly for giving me a character that I related to more than any other character I’ve ever read in my entire life. That act alone has shown me I’m not alone in my feelings. For just that, I’ll thank you for a lifetime.

Love,

Kim

Kelly: Dear Mary Ann,

Thank you for Nina, for her background, her grief, her hangups, and her strengths. Thank you for her friends (and for writing a book that passes the Bechdel Test. Seriously… thank you so much for that.). Thank you for showing her full life (alongside Sam’s full life) and for writing her so generously that I was free to accept her generously (and to accept myself generously as well). Thank you for loving Nina and for allowing Nina to love Sam, to see him clearly, and to fight for him. And also to fight for herself.

Love,

Kelly

Laugh by Mary Ann Rivers
Random House – Loveswept (2014)
eBook: 288 pages
ISBN: 9780804178228

Special thanks to Loveswept for our review copies via Netgalley!

Kim and Kelly’s Review of Heating Up The Holidays by Lisa Renee Jones, Mary Ann Rivers, & Serena Bell

huthWith the holidays quickly approaching, what better kind of anthology to read than one about romances during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years?  The holiday season is the perfect setting for romances; it is a time where we are surrounded by loved ones and good cheer.  In the Heating Up The Holidays anthology, authors Lisa Renee Jones, Mary Ann Rivers, and Serena Bell celebrate the spirit of the holidays with some good old-fashioned romance. Reading bestie Kelly (of Reading With Analysisjoined me for another of our dueling reviews!

From Goodreads:

As leftover turkey and stuffing give way to stockings and little black dresses, this tantalizingly sexy eBook bundle offers up holiday-themed novellas from a trio of beloved romance authors. Lisa Renee Jones gives a dedicated reporter and a powerful businessman a chance to count their Thanksgiving blessings in Play with Me; Mary Ann Rivers presents Snowfall, the story of a woman who confronts a life-changing event—hopefully with a special man by her side—just in time for Christmas; and in Serena Bell’s After Midnight, an explosive New Year’s kiss leaves two strangers wondering whether they’ll ever see each other again.

PLAY WITH ME by Lisa Renee Jones

Kali Miller has spent three years reporting fluff stories, waiting for the article that will launch her career to new heights. When she suddenly finds herself forced to take a job as an executive secretary at a Vegas casino, Kali meets the subject of what will surely be a shocking exposé: her boss, Damion Ward, the arrogant and undeniably sexy CEO. But after Damion invites her to help him plan a Thanksgiving charity event, Kali begins to see another side of the man. And when she surrenders to the exhilarating tension simmering between them, Kali hopes her story will have a happy ending.

SNOWFALL by Mary Ann Rivers

Jenny Wright can’t get enough of her erotic conversations with someone she knows only as “C.” Flirting online helps Jenny temporarily escape confronting the changes to her life as she slowly loses her vision. Jenny’s occupational therapist, Evan Carlisle-Ford, is helping her prepare for the challenges ahead, but the forthright, trustworthy man can no longer ignore his growing attraction to his fiercely intelligent client. Now Jenny must choose between the safe, anonymous “C”—or the flesh-and-blood Evan, whose heated kisses can melt snow faster than it can fall.

AFTER MIDNIGHT by Serena Bell

The clock is ticking down to midnight on New Year’s Eve, and all Nora Hart and Miles Shephard can think about is kissing each other—even though they met just minutes before. Then, as fast as Miles enters Nora’s life, he’s gone . . . and she never even gets the name of the man she thinks might just be “the one.” One year later, Nora and Miles are reunited. The chemistry between them is just as strong as they remember. But Miles broke her heart once before—and this time around, Nora’s not sure whether she can give love a second chance.

Play With Me:

Kim: Almost as soon as I started reading Play With Me I got a funny feeling I wasn’t going to like the story.  The interactions between the two main characters, Kali and Damion, were strange and honestly never gelled.  Even after I finished the story I asked myself, “What attracted them to each other?”

Kelly: I think the writing contributes to the strangeness.  The story is told in a funky first-person, present tense narrative that just feels awkward.  From the first page: “‘Ms. Williams’ charges down a narrow hallway and I chase after her, just as I did for the reporting job at the Vegas Heat that fell through before I ever started to work. She disappears into an office and I follow, swiping at a strand of my long blond hair, which suddenly feels as disheveled as the new life I’ve gambled on.” Maybe it’s the infodumping — I don’t know — but the narrative feels about as comfortable as a pair of burlap yoga pants.

Kim: Not only is the writing strange, but the entire timeline of the book is completely unbelievable.  We’re expected to believe that Damion, who is dealing with a massive cyber threat to his company, knows after 5 minutes of meeting Kali that she has no part in it?  (Even though we find out ::SPOILER ALERT:: later that it’s people who have been with his company for years. And that he considers to be good friends with? It’s obvious from THAT that he doesn’t have the best judgement of people.)

Not even that, but how is there some weird storyline about the mob and homeless shelters that gets shoved into this love story that goes from first introductions to marriage proposals in less than a week? Oh did I mention that they started living together less than a week after their initial introduction?

Kelly: Wait. I’m just going to butt in for a moment.  Full disclosure: I didn’t finish this story.  On the first go, I got to the beginning of chapter four and just dropped it with an eyeroll.  But, just now, I started reading again where I’d left off, and… UGG.  So it’s our intrepid heroine’s first day on the job, and she spends the morning stuck in HR.  At some point, she gets rescued from ignominy by a phone call from Damion, who then yells at the HR lady and forces her to explain herself to Kali: it’s just that time of the month.

UGGGGGGG.  I dunno, Kim. Are you ready for final thoughts?

Kim: Hell yes.  Having finished the whole book, it’s sad that this was the story chosen to open it up.  The other two stories in the anthology don’t even belong in the same stratosphere as this one.  The other two authors and stories completely blow this out of the water.

Kelly: Ain’t that the truth.  I stopped reading this book because I got a weird sexual harassment vibe from it, and I just didn’t feel like taking the time away from the other two stories.  It’s possible I’ve never made a better decision in my entire life.

Snowfall:

Kelly: I’m having a difficult time corralling my thoughts about this story.  I mean, the bottom line is that I loved it more than peanut butter, but my thoughts and my feels are still all mixed up.  I should start with the writing, though, because this book immediately follows Play With Me and because it’s also written in a first person present-tense narrative.  In Snowfall, however, that narrative works (as opposed to Play With Me) and it really feels like Jenny is telling the story.

Kim: I completely agree with you about how difficult it is to put thoughts and feels on paper for Snowfall.  Let me say this at least: Mary Ann Rivers was put on this Earth to be a writer.  She is a writer that possesses the rare skill of making their storytelling seem effortless.  Kelly will tell you that after we finished her debut novella, The Story Guy, we were ruined trying to write our thoughts about it, let alone read anything else.  There weren’t words to express our feelings and nobody else could match up to the beauty present in her story.  Snowfall is that all over again.

Kelly: I described The Story Guy as effortlessly deliberate, and Snowfall is, too.  With so much of the story focusing on Jenny’s narrowing field of vision, it was lovely how Rivers used such vibrant language, rich with imagery, to develop Jenny’s world and to demonstrate just how much Jenny is losing with her sight.  For this story, the first person narrative is perfect, because it enables the reader to get deeply involved with Jenny, to feel emotionally invested in her struggle, and to enjoy the mystery of the story.

Kim: I remember when I finished I said, “For a character going blind, her vision and sense of the world around her is stronger and more poignant than most.” Like sighted people – she sees and senses everything despite her disability. This is a person who is truly absorbing the world around her.

Kelly: It’s often difficult (apparently) for writers to craft believably brilliant characters, but Jenny is exactly that.  Rivers doesn’t have to tell us that Jenny is a smarty mcsmarty pants; it’s obvious from the turn of Jenny’s mind and the amount of perception and observation Jenny employs (and her stories about stressed out e. coli help, too.)  Further, while Jenny’s off-the-charts intelligent, she’s still accessible — certainly emotionally accessible — as a character.  Her intelligence is a facet of her character, not a trait that renders her an otherworldly being (in contrast to our common perception of geniuses in general and scientists in particular).  I loved that Jenny could be all these things: a scientist, a woman, a daughter, a difficult patient, an anonymous Internet acquaintance, a fuckup, and a person dealing with grief and fear and change.

And Evan? Wow.  Sometimes it’s difficult in a first-person narrative to connect with the other characters because readers are shown only one POV, but Evan manages to shine through.

Kim: Her characters completely speak for themselves.  Between their conversations and actions they become real people.  There is no question whatsoever at you (the reader) getting attached and invested in their lives.  Rivers’ characters are some of the most beautifully complex creations I’ve ever read.  If she wrote a story about two characters reading a grocery list I’d read it. Because somehow, while those characters were reading that grocery list, we’d be treated to an amazing story about two people and their way of finding beauty in the world, themselves, and each other.

Kelly: I want to talk about the contrasts between the first and second stories.  Both use the same narrative format but to very different ends.  Both feature seemingly difficult relationships that push the bounds of what’s appropriate… Boss and employee… occupational therapist and patient… (!!!)  But the difference seems to be that Rivers actually thought through those things and anticipated the reactions of reasonable readers.  Also, her writing is a thing of beauty.

Kim: I totally agree with you.  Evan goes through a whole inner conflict about what’s appropriate in his feelings for Jenny as her OT.  That’s actually a major part of the story and the way that Rivers chose to deal with that issue shows both professionalism and poise.

Kelly and I think she’s a great lady, so we wrote her a note to share our affection.

Kelly: Dear Mary Ann, please publish a novella anthology in which you are the sole author.

Kim: Because there is no way on Earth anyone else’s stories can even compare to yours. Also, you write so well that we literally cannot speak about your works appropriately.

Love,

Kelly and Kim

Kelly: P.S. Please write all the things.

After Midnight:

Kim: So this was my first Serena Bell read and I have to say I was super impressed.  The romance genre is so large that I find it hard to find those “gem” authors.  These authors write romances, but underneath the romance teach us about life, relationships, and ourselves in the process.  In After Midnight we get to see two people who are filled with self-doubt and confidence issues stemming from previous breakups.

Kelly: I loved how Bell turned a rebound romance story into something more.  I’ll admit, when I read about these characters fresh from disastrous breakups, I was a little concerned about how it was all going to play out, especially when I considered the extent of Miles’ issues.  But this character-driven story shows — rather concisely — these two characters healing from the past and learning to embrace a future.

Kim: I felt that their individual journeys were completely realistic.  I did an air fist bump to Bell for making them deal with their shit on their own.  So many times authors write romances where everything is magically ok once a character finds love.  Unfortunately real life doesn’t work like that.  If you’re not “together” as an individual, you aren’t going to be “together” in a relationship. The inner journeys that Miles and Nora take are completely necessary for their individual happiness.

Kelly: The first scene with Miles and Nora does an excellent job of establishing their characters and hinting at where they’ll go, but then they part ways and there’s a time-lapse.  You know, time lapses can be rough, and I worried that the characters’ development towards each other would seem choppy or badly paced, but it never felt that way.  I think that’s because the story covers pretty much all the time that the characters are interacting and lapses only when they’re not in contact.  It gives the story an episodic feel — in a good way — and enables the characters to get to know one another again and again and to note how they’ve changed.

Kim: Can I also say how much I loved that Bell made their first interactions after a year a bit awkward?  Again, realistic.  You meet someone for the first time ever, never catch their name, yet have strong feelings for them.  A year later you reconnect.  Wouldn’t you be slightly nervous and awkward too? I know I would.  That’s probably my biggest compliment to give Bell’s writing.  Her story is based in a realistic world, with realistic people, realistic problems, and realistic solutions.  It’s refreshing to have characters that aren’t developed by using tragic pasts of abuse or rape.  They’re developed with everyday situations and issues.

Kelly: Tangent: isn’t it sad that it’s refreshing to have an author take the trouble to create character development apart from tragedy and violence?  I’m with you… I loved this story all the better because of its reality and accessibility.

:Spoiler alert: One thing that ever so slightly bothered me about this story is that Nora was set up almost from the beginning to be the one to make geographical concessions, and the gravity of those concessions was never mentioned in the story.  It’s a big deal to move all your things and find a new job in a new city just to be closer to someone, and I really wanted the narrative to acknowledge that sacrifice.  Instead, it felt like the narrative downplayed it by making Nora less tied to any geographical area.

Kim: Final thoughts on the story? Great introduction to Bell’s writing.  She’s definitely an author I’m going to start following for new releases (especially since she wrote about New Haven pizza in After Midnight.  Clearly the girl’s got some awesome taste when it comes to picking places to write about!)

Kelly: I loved this story, and I’m glad it introduced me to Serena Bell’s writing.  I’m looking forward to more great stories from her.

Kelly’s Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Kim’s Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Heating Up The Holidays by Lisa Renee Jones, Mary Ann Rivers, & Serena Bell
Loveswept (2013)
eBook: 378 pages
ISBN: 9780804178402

Special thanks to Loveswept for our review copies via Netgalley!