Book Review

Once Upon a Couch by Kristine Overbrook


Title: Once Upon a Couch
Author: Kristine Overbrook
Publication Info: Crimson Romance 2012
ISBN: 9781440560538
Genre: Paranormal

Once Upon a Couch Before I get started on the more intricate parts of the review, there are two things I need to tell you.

First, I was reading an uncorrected proof, and the errors drove me batty. Changes in point of view happened mid-paragraph – third to first and back again – and there were comma splices everywhere.  I really, really hope the errors I noticed, and there were many, are corrected for the final version. If they are not, I'm sorry. And I only mention it because, sadly, in my experience when there are that many in an uncorrected proof, the corrected proof doesn't always catch them all.

Second, I was annoyed with this book, even though I kept reading to see what was going to happen. I grew impatient with the heroine's monotony. The reader is included in every step of her day. She does paperwork. She cleans. She writes things. She does a LOT of Sudoku. There are some details that feed into larger pieces of the storyline, but a lot of it was just too much mundanity for me.

This book was like a really promising idea, a superb premise, stuck in a mediocre pilot for a tv series. There's potential for many interesting things and wonderful characters, but the success of it rests on the writing and on future installments, and I'm not entirely confident in either one.

Josie is a young newly-graduated psychologist who received a scholarship to graduate school. Part of the conditions of her scholarship require that she live in Villa Hollow in a house that's owned by the same estate which manages the scholarship. She also has to open her psychology practice in Villa Hollow for one year. She's fine with that – who says no to free schooling when it comes with housing and a job afterward? – but her mother is not pleased with the idea and tries to convince her to give up and move.

When Josie moves in, she's happy to find that the house works well as a combination office/home, and sets up her practice. She does not want for clients, either. After she hangs a sign and then goes to introduce herself to the three general practitioners in town, clients show up daily, some looking for a therapy session right then and there.

On her first day in town, Josie sees the town sheriff, Alex Holmes, helping a neighbor with her runaway dogs, and thinks how hot he is. Somehow, her staring at him gets his attention, and he stops to introduce himself the next day.

But if you read the back cover copy, you know why Alex is aware of Josie:

Alex Holmes is the sheriff of Villa Hollow. His town, his world, is normally rather quiet, until Dr. Lester moves in. Soon, he can’t go an hour without the tendrils of her thoughts intruding in his mind. He even has to perform meditative exercise to keep from knowing when she’s hungry. Added to that, the Coalition has taken her in their sights. He has every reason to keep his distance, but will listen to none of them.

Dr. Josephine Lester moves into the town of Villa Hollow to open her psychiatric practice. In her line of work, she expects odd. She expects disturbed. What she doesn’t expect is a sleepwalking vampire, a haunted house, or a coalition of people working against the paranormal element to try to run her out of town.If she leaves, where does the vegetarian werewolf go when she is distraught over eating meat? To whom does the poor housewife seeing little green men turn?

If she stays, will the handsome telepathic sheriff help her keep her sanity?

Here's the thing about that copy; it seems to imply that ALEX is the focus of the story. He's not. It's all Josie. Alex is almost ancillary to the story itself, and their romance, muted and feeble as it is, has few obstacles except her patients, his busy job, and the pace of the story, which barely gets them past the first date in this book. This is not a HEA romance.

The cover copy has this part right: Alex can hear all of Josie's thoughts, including all the ones about him and how hot he is, and he can't turn off his access to her inner monologue. But we don't hear much about how bothered Alex is except when he talks about meditation exercises — without specifying what they are, just that he did them. It has about the same impact as, “I had a gaping wound but I used SuperGlue and a Band Aid and now it's all good.” Problem solved!

But as I said, much of the focus of the book is on Josie. I was frustrated with the narration of Josie's task list each and every freaking day. That narration made me feel even more sorry for Alex. If I had her thoughts in my head I'd be taking enough sedatives to put oxen to sleep. But Alex is charmed by Josie, and knows there is something particularly special about the fact that she's yammering in his head all the time. That Something Particularly Special is hinted at, then later spelled out by his mom. No surprise there, either.

Josie's daily adventures build through the story, and really, this is much more of a tv pilot novel than a stand alone novel. Several major plot threads are left unfinished, tasks that Josie begins (including a Sudoku, I think) are not complete, and the major questions that are answered set up the rest of the season – sorry, series: why is Josie really in Villa Hollow, who is she really, and what's the secret of Villa Hollow? And who else lives there? 

The secret of Villa Hollow is that there are many paranormal creatures living alongside the humans, and sometimes they get along fine. But there is a growing collection of angry, hostile people who want the paranormal people to leave. They consider the paranormal folks to be a danger to the morality of the community, and are not above pranks, vandalism, or bribing officials to make life hard for the paranormal folk. They are about as subtle as unseated oxen, and their political parallel is not difficult to identify.

The paranormals vs the hostile people represent the larger story that builds in the background of this book – I'm not kidding that there are a lot of threads. It really is like a tv pilot. For Josie, the plot focuses on her setting up her practice, and helping her patients, who include a sleepwalking vampire who keeps burning himself in his sleep as he walks around during the day, a woman plagued by little green men in her garden and a family that doesn't believe that she sees them, a man who is visited by the dead every night and tries to help them resolve unfinished business – which keeps his wife awake and makes them both irritable, and a man who is miserable and doesn't fit in with his family at all. Part of Josie's challenge is accepting that her patients aren't necessarily having hallucinations or a psychotic break, but are indeed troubled by real paranormal things. And they're all alive and well in Villa Hollow, all those paranormal things. There's a mixture of many different mythologies and types of creatures, and most of the time, the characters are aware of who and what they are, and are happy to explain their type and history to a sympathetic person. Once they realize that Josie is there to help them, they, and I'm not being metaphoric here, come out of the woodwork to get help from her.

What frustrated me most with this book was that I really, really liked the idea of the story. Smalltown paranormal psychologist going “WTF?” – awesome. I liked all the characters … except for Josie and Alex, who were wan and uninteresting by comparison. I wanted the writing of it to be stronger, better, more lively and less mundane. I didn't need to know how Josie was going to organize her desk or what paper products she stocked her assistant's workstation with. I got so freaking frustrated with the unnecessary details – especially when there were some smaller details that were important to the story. They got lost amid Josie's eighth or ninth Sudoku. NB: it wasn't as if the reader was part of her navigation of the puzzle, but at least once a chapter she grabbed a Sudoku book, because that's what she did when she had to wait. Josie, in every respect, is good at solving puzzles, whether it's math puzzles or the puzzle of what's bothering her clients. But like Alex, we're part of every moment and every thought Josie has. (I wonder if the book was originally written in first person, give the amount of inner rumination that goes on, and the errors of switching tenses I noticed in later chapters.)

Even though I was frustrated with the book, if I think of it as a television pilot, I have to ask myself if I want to continue with the series. Which begs the question: should the first book of a series be a good stand alone with enough unfinished, or should it leave a lot unfinished to tempt readers further? I've seen pilots of both types, and I'm not sure which is better. Usually the level of “do I care about these people or these stories” dictates whether I continue to follow the story. If another book in this series came out soon, I'd probably try it, in hopes that the idea became better developed and the writing was strengthened, though I'm not enormously optimistic.

I think this is the kind of pilot where, in a few months' time, if the show turns out to be good, you'd rewatch the pilot and be amused and half horrified at how disorganized and different from the show it is. A lot of hour-long episodic shows that turn out to be rather great start off by throwing every possible story line and quirky character into the first episode, and looking back the pilot can seem almost unrelated to the rest of the show. This book seems like one of those pilots. If the series becomes pretty strong and follows the characters with Josie as the gathering point where they all meet the reader, and focuses more on the stories of the other characters alongside Josie, the books could be a lot of fun. Characters like sleepwalking vampires and ghost-seeing attorney problem solvers could make for entertaining stories: interesting people with problems that can be solved in one book/episode, plus the larger story arc? I'd totally read that.

But if the series focuses on Josie and Alex to the degree this book did, it could get boring in a hurry, especially if Josie and Alex don't reveal more conflict, inner or outer, and change a bit. I found Josie and Alex to be the least interesting part of this book. Josie was monotonous, and Alex was a source of information, but not part of any major conflict himself. He has some Things he's not telling Josie, but he's also the person who informs Josie of a lot of the strangeness of Villa Hollow once she's aware of the variations of paranormal reality that populate the town. Their conflict is not nearly enough to sustain a series. Everything going on around them would make for interestingness, though.

So I'm cautiously optimistic about the potential of the “Paranormal Practice Series” in this book, but on its own, it's lukewarm at best.

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  1. 1
    Carol says:

    Why is this filed under Grade A?

  2. 2
    KimD says:

    Reminds me of the TV show Northern Exposure.

  3. 3
    SB Sarah says:

    Oops. Because I goofed – thanks!

  4. 4
    SB Sarah says:

    You know, I think that’s what I was expecting, somewhat. Only with Northern Exposure, Joel was interesting in his own right, and had his own issues. Josie is much less developed and I wanted more. Just not more sudoku.

  5. 5
    Katherine says:

    When you said “They are about as subtle as unseated oxen” did you mean “unsedated”? You had mentioned sedating oxen and the autocorrect seems to like unseated better :)

  6. 6
    Anna says:

    As a psychologist I cant help but consider the ethical dilemma that all that mind-reading would create. It would make the informed consent process a bit tricky, “everything we discuss here today will be confidential, unless you disclose any intent to harm yourself or someone else or any incidences of child abuse… oh, and the sheriff can read my thoughts.”

  7. 7

    Anna, she doesn’t know he can in the beginning.  And as soon as she does, she takes steps to block her thoughts…about halfway through the book.

  8. 8

    This sounds a little bit like the t.v. show Haven in which a young woman ends up living in a cute little town in Maine where a lot of crazy shit happens and half of the town wants to get rid of the other half because they’re the reason for all the crazy shit.

  9. 9
    SB Sarah says:

    Actually, that sounds a LOT like this. I may have to watch that show.

  10. 10
    Shelley says:

    Well, just read the opening on Amazon and Just from that short sample I had a few issues.  The writing itself seemed very juvenile in some of the wording and structure with not much in the way of adjectives or adverbs.  Also, was confused about why she moved to that particular town.  She mentioned only that her friend from college was from there.  I wasn’t really sure if her friend lived there or not as not a thing was said after that one sentence.  Of course, it’s learned later that, yes, the friend does live there.  Last thing that really bugs me is the fact that she is a psychologist but the blurb on the back describes her opening a PSYCHIATRY practice.  A psychiatrist is an MD who completes a 4 year residency.  Not the same thing at all and usually, unless a psychologist has obtained a PhD, she is not called “Dr.”.  I’ve actually got a question into a psychologist friend of mine to make sure, but I’m pretty sure she didn’t start using “Dr.” until after she obtained her PhD.

  11. 11

    It is really good, but it is in the 3rd season on SYFY, which means it probably only has 2 more seasons before it gets yanked since that is SYFY’s MO.  The series is based on The Colorado Kid by Stephen King, but you don’t have to have read the book to watch the series.  There is a 3rd season marathon on some time next week (possibly Thursday) ahead of the last two episodes of the season, which were delayed because of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting (the penultimate episode was supposed to air the day of the shooting, but because parts of it dealt with violence at the local high school it was taken from the schedule for that night).

  12. 12
    Rebecca says:

    Yes, I wondered about the psychologist/psychiatrist thing too.  A psychologist would definitely only be called “Dr” with a PhD.  (Even then, it’s iffy, as it can imply medical training that psychologists don’t have.)  On the other hand, authors have no control over the blurbs in their books, which are generally written by people who haven’t read the manuscript, so I was trying to overlook the error. 

    I assume that the main character here MUST be a psychologist, because it’s pretty ludicrous that a recent MD would go practice psychiatry in a tiny town that probably wouldn’t support a private practice, when the normal thing would be to become staff at a hospital, and build up a practice through referrals (like any other medical specialty).

  13. 13
    Shelley says:

    Rebecca:  You’re absolutely right about moving to a small town to practice psychiatry.  I don’t know too many who would or even could do that with all the student loans they’re paying off. :O)  And yes, my psychologist friend did not start to use “Dr.” until she received her PhD.  I don’t know how blurbs are written (does the author provide a basic summary?) but you would think major facts like that would be correct.

  14. 14
    Rebecca says:

    I speak from sad experience about blurbs – my first novel had a blurb where a date was carelessly one year off, which (since it takes place at a VERY specific time in history) would have changed the entire tone of the story.  I caught it in the ARC, but the first edition of the hardcover dust jacket, AND any number of print reviews based off the ARC still say “Madrid 1938” instead of “Madrid 1939.”  I cringe whenever I see them, and wish I could run around explaining to everyone who reads it that I’m really not that big an ignoramous.  So don’t hold authors responsible for blurbs.  Even when we TRY to correct them sometimes we can’t.

  15. 15
    Allison says:

    Psychiatrists are not psychologists.  Optometrists are not ophthalmologists. This ALWAYS drags me right out of a story and personally drives me crazy (hah).  Seriously—it may just be the book jacket, but it shows a shocking lack of care.  These things are pretty easy to figure out.  Some people have nitpicks about time period—and I have this! 

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