Whiskey Road by Karen Siplin

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Angie over at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.

Whiskey Road
Karen Siplin

I started reading Whisky Road because it was the latest pick by my readalong buddies Chachic and Holly (of Chachic’s Book Nook and The Book Harbinger respectively). The previous couple of books that we’d chosen for our readathons ended up being a little darker than we were expecting them to be, but we were hoping Whisky Road would buck the trend, especially since it came highly recommended by Angie of Angieville, and has the subtitle, “A Love Story”. Thankfully, we were right.
The Premise: From the back blurb – “After one too many run-ins with irate A-list celebrities and their bodyguards on the streets of Los Angeles, paparazza Jimi Anne Hamilton has decided to throw in the towel. But when she planned to ride her BMW K 1200 motorcycle from California to New York, she didn’t count on having her cross-country adventure interrupted by a motorcycle thief. After the brutal attack, which sees both her motorcycle and camera equipment stolen, she finds herself left with only her helmet, a few clothes, and a bag of money she swiped from her attacker. Disillusioned and hurt, Jimi chooses to recuperate in a nearby town where she meets Caleb Atwood, a local contractor fighting his own demons.
Jimi and Caleb make a mismatched pair: black and white, highbrow and low. But in Caleb, Jimi believes she has found someone who feels as much of an outsider as she is. With Whiskey Road, Karen Siplin again succeeds in giving readers a story about opposites who manage to see what no one else can — that they’re right for each other.”
My Thoughts: When Jimi rolls into the coffee shop Caleb frequents, battered up by some unknown event and dressed in motorcycle leathers but without a bike, most of the people there don’t treat her very nicely. She’s a outsider and a black woman. The only person willing to be helpful is Caleb, but maybe that’s because he’s been treated as a Bad Boy in his hometown long past when he should be. For her part, Jimi’s recent experience on the road makes her wary of a man she sized up as harmless but has traits she associates with racist hillbillies.
Over the next few days, the small town of Frenchman’s Bend gives Jimi and Caleb plenty of opportunities to run into each other, and every time they do, they’re surprised. While they are both as different as two people can be — Jimi being a black city girl from a white-collar family, and Caleb a white country boy from a broken home, they are both so alike. Jimi and Caleb have not been perfect – Jimi questions the lengths she has gone to for a photo, and Caleb, reeling from a failed marriage, sleeps with an older married woman who reminds him of his wife.  Each of them are a little hardened and worn by life, but they quietly see things differently from the people around them, making them outsiders in their own communities, and drawn to each other.
The story flows very simply from there. Caleb and Jimi begin a subtle relationship where the smallest look and gesture holds vast meaning but hesitation and second guessing comes from both sides. The greatest danger to their fragile new connection is the people that surround them. Jimi’s affluent older brother loves living near Frenchman’s Creek but stays apart from the locals. He’s friendly to the contractors that work in his French-style country house, but would frown on one of them dating his little sister. Caleb friends’ problem is not so much about the class difference and more about Jimi’s race and outsider status. And then there are the things in their recent histories that could spell trouble for both of them if they were to mix: the reason behind Jimi’s bruises, and Caleb’s no good older brother, released from prison.
There was a quiet resonance to this story. Fragments stuck in my mind long after reading it: the commentary on racism in little rural towns; how easily one can be sideswiped by that selfish family member; how falling in love is like a beginning. There are some bumps along the way, but was happy when I finished it. The only thing that felt off to me was how abrupt the transition from the climax to the ending was, but I think I was the only one in the readalong that had that quibble, and it was a little one. But then, who hasn’t wanted a bit more time to say goodbye to characters they’ve gotten attached to?
Overall: I was pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up liking this contemporary novel. It’s a story that is deceptively quiet and slow moving at times, tense with the promise of unpleasantness at others. It was gritty and real, with small town flavor. And most of all, it has love story with an unlikely couple. Jimi and Caleb weren’t looking for or expecting each other, but it only made me root more for them that they found a kindred spirit in the unlikeliest package.
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Reviews from my readalong friends:
Chachic’s Book Nook – “an under-the-radar novel that I’ll recommend to readers who like slow burn, complicated romances”
The Book Harbinger – “not-your-average contemporary romance in the best way”
Other reviews:
Angieville– I love what she says about the ending – “Not tied up with a bow, not unrealistic in its perfection, but touched with just the right amount of maturity, rightness, and possibility.”

Such a Girl by Karen Siplin


Such a Girl
Karen Siplin

As a lover of Jane Austen retellings, I HAD to read this book when I heard that it was a retelling of Persuasion. Unfortunately I was disappointed in this one, and I think the big issue I had has to do with my personal aversion to angst in the books I read.
The Premise: Kendall Stark is a phone operator in a well-known New York City hotel. Nine years ago, she left the love of her life, Jack Sullivan, because her college friends didn’t think he was going anywhere. Now he’s a successful owner of a brewery who is visiting Kendall’s hotel, and Kendall is stuck in a lowly job and in an unfulfilling relationship with a married man.
My thoughts: When I began Such A Girl, expected it to be a light story based on the other modern-day Austen retellings I’ve read, but this story isn’t quite that. It begins with Kendall taking a smoke break and seeing her ex, Jack Sullivan crossing the street towards her. There is an awkward exchange as Kendall realizes that while Jack has done well for himself as the owner of a brewery, she’s still stuck where she is. In the hotel hierarchy, a job as a phone operator is low on the totem pole, and from Kendall’s descriptions of it, it’s a job with backstabbing co-workers, a micromanaging boss, and lots of angry guests screaming in your ear.
Kendall’s life of listening in on the hotel guests, hating her job, and her relationship with a man who was married was a big downer. Instead of amusing anecdotes from working at the hotel there is nothing but negative stories about the place.  I hoped that the tone would change as the story progressed, especially when Jack reenters her life, but this was not so. Instead Jack stays at Kendall’s hotel and begins to pay visits to her friend’s dinner parties, as a way of showing off his success. As a result there are arguments between the two (usually when Jack puts his foot in his mouth), that are really uncomfortable to read. Kendall seemed to divide people into those who are like her — living paycheck to paycheck but not looking to do more, and people who do have money, like the guests in her hotel. Jack did not help. I found Jack’s behavior passive aggressive, and Kendall’s reaction defensive. After these fights (which were frankly not sexy at all), I could believe that these two dated nine years ago, but that there was anything still there was harder to buy. Either way, neither Jack nor Kendall acted particularly likable and I had a hard time buying any chemistry between their characters.
At this point I figured out that: this is a really loose retelling of Persuasion. The only thing it takes from it is the story of two lovers who are separated and reunite years later, but all the side plots and side characters from that story are not here. Instead of the Elliot family, Kendall has her friends, Amy, Nick, and Gary, who didn’t think Jack’s antisocial and unambitious personality was right for Kendall, who was a sunny girl with goals in college (something she is not now). The rest of it isn’t there. Instead it’s replaced by numerous stories of hotel guests treating employees badly and conflicts with management, or Kendall and Jack’s repetitive fights that go no where.
Outside of Kendall’s life at the hotel and dealing with Jack’s return, are her home and love lives, and neither are tranquil. Her home is an apartment she and Gary rent, but a disruptive neighbor moves into the apartment upstairs making Kendall’s life even more miserable. I think I was supposed to side with Kendall, but frankly, I thought she was just as much in the wrong as her neighbor. Their conflicts just made me feel secondary rage. And as for her romantic relationships, Kendall has a casual relationship with Sage, a married man that she doesn’t love. Basically there was no where in Kendall’s life where she wasn’t unhappy or doing something self-destructive.  Things ultimately work out for her at the end of this story, but the ride was not easy.
Overall: This is a very readable story but at the same time it is very real.  I think it is best not to approach Such a Girl expecting a light-hearted retelling of Persuasion, because that’s not what this is. I really wanted to like this one because of the promise of a retelling, but every facet of Kendall’s life felt dreary to me.  I couldn’t connect to it.
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository