Editor’s Note: We found out there was at least one factual error in this review. The offending sentence has been removed; the other alleged error is somewhat debatable (because Candy’s a contentious bitch) and stands for now. She’s going to hash it out in the comments. If you want to read more details on the errors, check out Cindy Cruciger’s livejournal.
Revenge Gifts centers around Tara Cole (note slight humor of name if you say it fast: terrible) who runs a web site for, you guessed it, revenge gifts. From pillows stuffed with cat hair to a year’s supply of candy for the weight conscious person you love to hate, her site allows people to mail-order their revenge and never worry about being found out. Tara runs the site out of her bungalow in Islamorada in the Florida Keys, where she lives rent-free in exchange for managing the owner’s bar.
Tara’s partner in romance is Howard Payne (again, check the name. If Tara marries him she’ll be “terrible pain”), who arrived in the Keys tracking Tara down for a business proposal. He wants to create a burial-at-sea business using Tara’s urns, and once he meets Tara, he wants to bury something else with her, too.
Most of the action in the book takes place either at Tara’s bungalow or at the bar, aptly named “Crusty’s,” where someone has been trying to set a curse upon her by leaving gris-gris bags, a black cat, a black rooster, a goat, and a black dog. Tara herself is a relatively flexible, laid back person – as if you can be uptight on the Keys – who has a few close friends, and spends most of her time running her business, tending bar, and trying to placate the myriad ghosts that inhabit her home. There’s the poltergeist who throws food at night, leaving Tara no choice but to keep next to no food items in her fridge, and heaven help her if there’s eggs in the house. There’s also her Great Uncle Les, whose cremated remains she keeps in holiday urns to spite him, as he hated the holidays. Les is prone to turning all the lights on at 4am.
The story is part romance, and part pilot issue of a longer series, so there are short term questions that are answered, and longer term questions that aren’t. I didn’t know it was a series until the author mentioned it in an email after I’d finished reading, and that took a load off my mind because I had a lot of unanswered questions at the end – and that, I suppose, is how a good series is made.
The weekend I moved, you could have visibly seen the yanking grin on one side of my face from where the plot and the character of this book hooked me. This book arrived the day I moved, and I had it sitting in the window seat of my house, literally the only thing unpacked in a house full of boxes. I kept hiding behind the boxes to keep reading it – this book seriously hooks you so bad you’ll have a rictus curl in the side of your face.
Tara is spunky, snarly, sexy and fabulous, and since the book is written in the first-person, you spend a lot of time in her head. I didn’t mind in the slightest being there, as Tara has both a fascinating way of looking at the wack-ass events in her life, and at people’s behavior in general. She’s judgmental and doesn’t pull any punches, and just wants to be left alone. However, the prose, as it is first person, jumps from subject to subject rapidly, much like your brain does when it’s sparking, and sometimes it’s hard to tell ruminations from plot developments. I suppose this is one of the perils of writing in the 1st person.
As for Howard, the reader has to rely on Tara’s impressions of him to get a sense of his character, and this is difficult, since the reader has a much better sense of her friends since she’s known them longer. You know she thinks he’s hot, and you know that he’s persistent, almost to the point of creepyness. But because all the development takes place from her perspective, you aren’t really sure if he’s a character worth trusting or if you can blithely rely on him as the “hero” of the novel.
His character, particularly in the beginning, comes across as a rather weird dude, and my understanding of his personality isn’t quite as developed as I’d like when he starts spilling his guts about his emotional past. What’s supposed to be an personal moment early on between Tara and Howard leaves me feeling like I do when I encounter people who engage too quickly emotionally and tell me things I feel are none of my business. If I had a better idea of him, a more-developed sense of his character and who he is or at least what he looked like, other than that he was hotty mcmuffinstud, the true-confessions moment would have inspired a lot more pity. As it was, he had to fight his way back, in my estimation, from creepy over-divulging guy, to adorably hot man who wants to take care of prickly Tara and her crazy ass universe.
I am, however, glad this is a series because I wasn’t tired of Tara, Howard, or any of the auxilliary characters by the time the book ended. I wanted to know more about them, and about Tara. But more importantly, I wanted to know more about the day to day life Tara leads, especially when someone isn’t trying to throw a curse on her. She runs a revenge website, and sells fascinating products. The reader learns the history of one or two, but not all, or how she came up with the idea in the first place.
The thing about the Keys that makes the story both believable and a total escape is the residents’ acceptance of events, people, and attitudes that are really fucking bizarre. From Miss Good Voodoo to this dark silhouette that watches Tara’s window at night, to the cook at Crusty’s who hates her for reasons relating to ceviche, there are some funky ass people in this story, but Tara isn’t fazed by them at all, or, if she is, she gets over it fast.
To evaluate this book, I have to ask myself, did I like it? I sure did. But is this a romance? Or a ghost story? Or a paranormal mystery series? I don’t honestly know. There’s definitely a breaking-through-the-armor moment with Tara, and there’s definitely some romance going on, but unlike many a romance I’ve read, aside from admitting that she checks out his buns, there’s no internal ruminations as to how Tara feels about Howard. I don’t honestly know that it is part of her character – she’s more of a “he’s got to prove he’s worth my time before I go pondering the fineness of his eyebrows” kinda gal – or if romance is meant to be the main element of the story.
I look at this novel as the pilot episode of a really fucking awesome tv series, where there’s a lot of initial construction to do, and after you’ve watched awhile, you realize the pilot doesn’t necessarily reflect the entirety of the series’ tone and style. However, if the series goes where I hope it will, the pilot will have launched something very interesting.
Sarah’s Grade: B-
Hey, if Chuck Palahniuk can do it in Haunted, then Cindy Cruciger can do it in Revenge Gifts, too.
What am I talking about?
Tense changes, people.
The books switches dizzyingly from past to present and back to past again. The tense changes oftentimes happen within the same paragraph, and in at least one spectacular instance, within the same sentence. And there’s no discernible reason nor pattern to these tense changes. Tara walks into the sushi restaurant in present tense, sees Howard in the past tense, eats lunch with him in the past, then leaves the restaurant in the present.
I know. I have the same problem too. Takes one to know one, right? But oh my, reading it was exhausting because every time the tense changed, I mentally switched gears. By the end of the book, I felt kind of numb.
Distracting tense changes aside, however, I agree with a lot of what Sarah says: this book is pretty entertaining, and the narrator, Tara, is truly refreshing, especially for a romance heroine. She’s no shrinking violet, that’s fer damn sure, and lord knows I’m tired of shrinking violets in romance novels.
But. Butbutbut. She hasn’t had an orgasm before.
No, she’s no virgin, but apparently she’s had nothing but lousy lovers all her her life.
With Howard, though? Screaming bliss within minutes. I shit you not. Sigh. This romance stereotype seriously needs to die, die, die.
But here’s a puzzling thing: Tara, while basking in the afterglow, muses on how much she misses ruthlessly using a man’s body for her selfish pleasure, which leads one to the bizarre conclusion that orgasmless, unfulfilling sex with clueless lovers is selfishly pleasurable for Tara Cole.
—-Please note, there’s been a bit of debate about how accurate the paragraph below is. Check the comments for more details—-
That’s not the only inconsistency, either. One of her friends, Sam, is gay (or at least presented as such) in the beginning of the book. Some time later, and without any explanation or signs of bewilderment on the part of the narrator, Sam is straight and seriously hitting on Tara. Perhaps this can be attributed to an unreliable narrator, but even unreliable narrators are surprised, and Sam’s sudden orientation switch doesn’t give Tara pause. Me? I paused, actually said out loud “Hang on minute, I thought the dude was gay!” and spent five minutes riffling through the first 100 pages of the book looking for references to Sam’s homogaiety.
And while the narrative voice is fresh, different, quirky and very, very entertaining, the non-stop vignettes and snarky remarks eventually wear thin. Yes, I get that Tara is cynical. Yes, I get that she has an evil sense of humor. I like her for that. WHY is she constantly pointing this out to me, though? The story and her actions already show this to me in ample detail, and the endless internal quipping slows the pace of the story quite significantly in some spots.
I’m also not sure I buy into the love story. I’m with Sarah on that, too: Howard is very attractive, but other than that, he’s a cipher, and the speed with which the romance happens can give you whiplash if you’re not careful. Part of this is because of the amount of space taken up by the snarking; instead of viewing the relationship develop in more detail, you’re treated to yet another off-center observation from Tara, which, by the end of the book, tends to be a variant on previous observations she’s made earlier in the story.
The pacing overall is uneven. The book starts out at a fairly leisurely pace, with weirdness building on weirdness. The last 70-80 pages of the book, though… Woo damn. The book isn’t so much kicked into high gear as launched into Mach 3 with no warning. Characters who were peripheral to the story are all of a sudden introduced willy-nilly, mayhem and magic galore happen, and the resolution of the story? Fun, but a bit too pat and convenient for my tastes, especially after all the build-up in the first parts of the book.
Candy’s Grade: C