Book review: ‘Someone Else’s Love Story’ by Joshilyn Jackson

Someone Else's Love StorySometimes I can’t think about a book — much less review it — without remembering the setting in which I was introduced to its characters.

When it comes to Joshilyn Jackson’s Someone Else’s Love Story, I devoured most of the novel in one sitting on an unusually chilly summer morning in Virginia. I’d been up since 3 a.m. to escort my guy to an amateur radio event (Awesome Fiance Award, party of one) and, if I didn’t have this novel to keep me company, I probably would have fallen asleep in a camp chair and wasted an entire morning — like, five hours — of uninterrupted reading time.

Plus, I might not have gotten so invested in this story.

But I did.

“At twenty-one, Shandi Pierce is juggling finishing college, raising her delightful three-year-old genius son Natty, and keeping the peace between her eternally warring, long-divorced Catholic mother and Jewish father. She’s got enough complications without getting caught in the middle of a stick-up in a gas station mini-mart and falling in love with a great wall of a man named William Ashe, who willingly steps between the armed robber and her son.

Shandi doesn’t know that her blond god Thor has his own complications. When he looked down the barrel of that gun he believed it was destiny: It’s been one year to the day since a tragic act of physics shattered his universe. But William doesn’t define destiny the way other people do. A brilliant geneticist who believes in science and numbers, destiny to him is about choice.

Now, he and Shandi are about to meet their so-called destinies head on in a funny, charming, and poignant novel about science and miracles, secrets and truths, faith and forgiveness; about a virgin birth, a sacrifice, and a resurrection; about falling in love, and learning that things aren’t always what they seem — or what we hope they will be. It’s a novel about discovering what we want and ultimately finding what we need.” (Goodreads)

So we have two sets of principle players in this court of Jackson’s making: Shandi and Natty, her whip-smart and innocent son born after a very dubious beginning; and heartbroken, rational geneticist William Ashe, a scientist with a dark and twisty past.

Shandi and William collide at a Georgia gas station when they’re unexpectedly thrust into a life-or-death situation. Only after the smoke clears does young Shandi realize William could be the answer to her mixed-up prayers — but she has no clue that William may not be in a position to love anybody back.

I’ll be upfront by stating I’m a total Joshilyn Jackson fangirl. Girlfriend can write like nobody’s business and create realistic, unique and multifaceted characters — most of them Southern — unlike any author I’ve read. I am simply in awe of her ability to craft stories that simultaneously entertain and smash your little heart, and Someone Else’s Love Story was no exception.

Because William? Awesome. I unintentionally went through a spate of reading this summer featuring characters on the autism spectrum, and Jackson’s novel was the last in a trio of books with autistic main characters. The best part of each story was, undoubtedly, that the men in these novels weren’t simply “quirky” background characters; they were leading men. Leading men in love, and with plenty of love to give.

I’m going to show my ignorance here and admit I have little personal experience with autism or Asperger syndrome, but I appreciated getting a glimpse into other minds through “the Aut-astic Dr. Ashe” and the gentlemen in my other reading. I feel a tiny bit more understanding, a little more open and influenced. And that’s a good thing.

For much of the novel, William himself is an enigma wrapped in a mystery. I don’t want to give anything away here, but there was a giant BOOM! somewhere in this novel that seriously threw me for a loop but absolutely delighted me. Like, seriously delighted me. Big-soppy-grin-on-my-face delighted me, and all because I totally did not see it coming. I spent so much time wondering about the fate of Shandi and the resolution to her secrets that I wasn’t putting together other little clues throughout the text.

And the clues were awesome.

So, you know, this isn’t a perfect book. I had some issues with how certain threads from the past were presented and would have liked to better understand Walcott, himself an interesting (and poetic!) character . . . but these are minor quibbles in an otherwise enjoyable story. Fans of Southern fiction and Jackson’s unique brand of storytelling will find another winner in their hands as her latest releases this fall.

4 out of 5!

Pub: Nov. 19, 2013 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Between, Georgia’ by Joshilyn Jackson

Oh, Joshilyn Jackson. How do you craft such intriguing, lovable characters? And create a menagerie of love and amusement out of such weird, dysfunctional people? And because I loved this book so much and the description itself is funny and awesome, here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Nonny Frett understands the meaning of the phrase “in between a rock and a hard place” better than any woman alive. She’s got two mothers, “one deaf-blind and the other four baby steps from flat crazy.” She’s got two men: a husband who’s easing out the back door; and a best friend, who’s laying siege to her heart in her front yard. And she has two families: the Fretts, who stole her and raised her right; and the Crabtrees, who won’t forget how they were done wrong.

Now, in Between, Georgia, a feud that began the night Nonny was born is escalating and threatening to expose family secrets. Ironically, it might be just what the town needs… if only Nonny weren’t stuck in between.

To say I raced through this book is an understatement. As I borrowed an audio version from the library (time crunch!), I found myself prolonging errands so I could spend just a little more time in Between. I loved that Jackson incorporated completely out-of-the-box characters like Stasia Frett, a blind and deaf woman who felt compelled to become Nonny’s mother when her biological mess of a teenage birth mother couldn’t care for her.

As Between is such a small town, the Fretts and Crabtrees no each other very well. Tthe Crabtrees might be hardscrabble poor and vicious, but that doesn’t mean they take kindly to their own flesh and blood being taken in by a holier-than-thou Frett.

Sometimes it’s hard to articulate why you mesh so well with a story, but I’ve quickly become enamored with Jackson and find myself savoring each and every one of her words like an expensive truffle. Though Nonny could be boneheaded at times, I thought she was a wonderful and caring person — a truly great daughter — and couldn’t help but laugh at the Frett sisters, all of whom were good-hearted but more than a little eccentric. Bernese was probably my favorite. Jackson always has at least one character that brings the zingers, making you laugh or cry at the most unexpected moments. That was definitely Bernese for me.

Entertaining and heartwarming by the close, I wanted to drive my own self down to share a glass of tea with the ladies of Between, Georgia. Nonny’s struggles with family — those who gave you life versus those with whom you make a life — will ring true for many. Fans of Southern fiction and Jackson’s exquisite storytelling will find plenty to love here, and I can’t wait to pick up her newest novel: A Grown-Up Kind Of Pretty.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0446699454 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal audio book borrowed from my local library

My thoughts on the narration: As with Backseat Saints, my first experience with Jackson, Between, Georgia was narrated by the author herself. She has impeccable timing and a warm, pleasant voice. I thought her take on Henry, Nonny’s unlikely love interest, was a little exaggerated — he sounded like a Creole caricature, really — but loved everything else about her sweet Southern lilt. She’s awesome.

Book review: ‘gods in Alabama’ by Joshilyn Jackson

When Arlene Fleet fled small-town Possett, Alabama, she made a pact with God: in exchange for his help in keeping a murder quiet, she would stop sleeping around and telling lies — and flee, never returning to Possett again. Rebuilding a life in Chicago built around academia, Lena convinces herself that her torrid, unpleasant past is nothing but a memory. Life in Chicago is good. Life in Chicago is calm and quiet, void of the chaos that swept through her formative years.

But everything changes when high school classmate Rose Mae Lolley darkens her doorstep, asking too many questions Lena doesn’t want to answer. Her presence disrupts the carefully-created facade Lena has cultivated in Illinois and manages to throw her lawyer boyfriend on red alert, too. Burr is successful, handsome, supportive — and black. Deeply in love with her but frustrated by their stagnant relationship, Burr keeps asking to be introduced to her family. Lena can’t fathom bringing an African-American man to meet her conservative, religious Southern brethren, but forces conspire to draw her back to Possett for the first time in more than a decade. And it doesn’t seem like some remains can stay buried forever.

Joshilyn Jackson’s gods in Alabama is a sweeping, emotional and evocative story of love, redemption and family. If I was utterly absorbed in Rose Mae’s saga in Backseat Saints, a parallel piece to this one, then gods in Alabama totally blew me away.

What impresses me most about Jackson’s characters is their immediate way of burrowing into my heart. While I didn’t feel as though I knew Lena well in Backseat Saints, I knew enough of her past to feel somewhat wary of her at the start of this narrative. But her unique voice and humor definitely won out; like Rose Mae, I really felt for her. Wanting to protect and support Lena was effortless.

Being so swept up in Lena’s history with Jim Beverly, Rose’s high school love and star quarterback, I almost forgot to follow up on what was happening in the here and now. Burr was impossible not to love, being so patient and kind. You’d be hard-pressed to find a man willing to date such a damaged, skittish woman for years at a time . . . especially when their relationship could never progress beyond the passionate-kissing stage. When Lena promised God to stop sinning and “fornicating” with boys, she meant it. And after 10 years, she still means it . . . meaning Burr, already a sweetheart of a guy, had to have the patience of a saint.

As Lena makes her sojourn back to Alabama, I was on the defensive; Lena was fragile, I knew, and I didn’t want anyone criticizing her relationship with Burr. Furthermore, I was terrified of what her return to Possett would mean for the murder mystery that surrounded the story. But Lena’s obvious tie to Clarice, her cousin, was heartwarming; I loved how, despite many years and great distance between them, Lena was still so protective of Clarice. Their family history was heartbreaking and very telling of her Aunt Florence’s future actions. But despite her erratic and judgmental behavior, I couldn’t fault Aunt Flo for the things she did and didn’t do.

Having read Backseat Saints before gods in Alabama, I didn’t know what had become of Jim Beverly. When Rose leaves her abusive husband and goes on a search to uncover what happened with her first love, a man she once trusted more than anyone, I had no idea what had actually happened to him. The unraveling of Jim’s fate was riveting. Like its sequel, I listened to this one on audio — and more than once I found myself sitting in the work parking lot just to listen to a bit more before ending my lunch break. Errands became a welcome chance to reunite with Lena, Burr, Clarice and the family. And the story was anything but predictable.

If you’ve never read Jackson and love Southern fiction, especially when combined with mystery and family dynamics, I highly recommend both gods in Alabama and Backseat Saints. An infectious blend of love, intrigue, humor and tenderness, both novels bowled me over. They’re everything I love in storytelling: novels that make me chuckle, tear up, squirm, cringe, shift to the edge of my seat and back again. Don’t miss out.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0446178160 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audiobook borrowed from my local library

Book review: ‘Backseat Saints’ by Joshilyn Jackson

Ro Grandee has been running from her ghost of a past for years now — but not even her husband’s unforgiving hands can shed her of her old life. Rose Mae Lolley — the hardscrabble girl she was in Alabama — still simmers beneath Ro’s perfect housewife persona. Now settled in Texas with Thom, her brute of a husband, Ro tries to make peace with the unpleasant hand life has dealt her — and keep her abusive spouse as calm as possible.

When a gypsy catches Ro’s attention at a nearby airport, she begins to question the many choices leading to her violent small-town life. At the top of her list is the sudden flight of her mother, who left her in her father’s drunken hands when Rose was young. When she searches her heart, Rose can’t help but also think of her first love, Jim Beverly. Jim swore he’d always protect her, but he disappeared just when she needed him most. Now determined to save herself before Thom changes everything irrevocably, Rose hatches a plan that may finally give her peace — and room to seal the past forever.

Joshilyn Jackson’s Backseat Saints is an emotional, disturbing and incredibly well-written novel centering around one of the most unique characters I’ve ever encountered. Throughout this compelling novel, Rose is Ro Grandee, Rose Mae Lolley and Ivy Wheeler, filling out each woman completely and in a different way. Her many incarnations are fascinating, and Jackson did a remarkable job of crafting an unexpected, believable tale.

To start, it’s impossible to discuss Backseat Saints without delving into domestic violence. Rose — temperamental, damaged, beautiful Rose — is a battered woman. Thom is a terrible, frightening brute — a man I wanted to come to a violent end almost from the beginning. There were parts of this book that were almost impossible to get through. I listened to this one on audio over the course of a week and, though I was desperate to know what would happen, my stomach often ached with anxiety. If I’d been reading a physical copy, I’m sure I would have skipped large passages.

Despite its disturbing subject matter, Backseat Saints was utterly absorbing. Jackson based a multi-layered tale on a broken narrator I cared for deeply, choosing to trust her despite her bad decisions. Each unexpected plot twist brought us closer to understanding how Rose became Ro, and I spent most of the story waiting for her to finally break free of Thom’s terrible bonds. All I wanted was for her to taste sweet freedom. But I knew that freedom had a price.

I loved Jackson’s peripheral characters, too, especially the kindhearted old dear Mrs. Fancy. Parker was a nice parallel to the horrible force that was Thom, and even Jim Beverly had a certain appeal through Rose’s eyes. After finishing Backseat Saints, I learned this book is a companion novel to Gods In Alabama. The latter explores the history of a sidebar character and greatly explores the fate of Jim Beverly, a character that fascinated me in Backseat Saints. I’m glad I didn’t know what became of him as I was reading. Everything about this book was a total surprise to me.

Listening to Backseat Saints on audio was a pleasure. Jackson herself narrated this strong Southern fiction, and her lilting twang was both comforting and engaging. Rose was brought to life by Jackson’s pitch-perfect narration. She did a wonderful job of differentiating between characters, too — even if her male voices sounded a bit hokey. Having Jackson read her story aloud was like Rose climbing into the car with me, vowing to fill me in from the beginning.

Fans of Southern fiction, women’s fiction and family dynamics will find a unique, unforgettable tale in Backseat Saints. The role of Rose’s Catholic faith in her decision-making was fascinating, too, and I felt like I’d been on an epic journey with her by the close of the novel. I’ll be backtracking to read Gods In Alabama next, and I have a feeling I’ll love it just as much. Jackson has an enthusiastic new fan.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0446582379 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy won from Chick Lit Is Not Dead