Mr. Real: A Recipe for Surprise

I was trying to write a post connecting up a number of links and thoughts about reading and writing I have been mulling and discussing with people lately. But I am over-tired, over-caffeinated, and over-anxious, and it isn’t going to happen yet. I have the deepest respect for single parents (and, in fact, single people). I don’t think it’s a role I could fill with any grace or patience. I hope I survive another week of it.

From that post, while it’s still timely: as a follow-up to our discussion of poet-soldiers, check out this moving New York Times article on songwriting retreats for soldiers suffering from PTSD.

And now, here are a few quick thoughts on a book I really enjoyed, Carolyn Crane’s Mr. Real.  The book takes a spoonful of this genre, a cup of that, and mixes them into something that surprised me. [You guys, I was trying to come up with a catchy post title and then justify it. Sorry. Gag]. The author describes it as “a paranormal romantic suspense spy mashup” but I’d call it “fantasy” rather than “paranormal.” There’s magic and another dimension (of sorts) but no vampires, werewolves, fae, or assorted other paraphernalia of paranormal romance. There is just a tinge of kink, too.

Here’s the official blurb, because I am lazy:

The woman of his dreams…with the secret agent of his nightmares

Alix Gordon is a woman who doesn’t take life too seriously. What’s the fun in that? So when she stumbles across occult software that can bring any computer image to life, she conjures up lots of awesome outfits and accessories. And then, on one drunken, horny night, she conjures up Sir Kendall, the sexy TV ad spy . . . who looks exactly like Paul Reinhardt, the hot martial arts teacher who kicked her out of class a few years ago.

Fighter Paul Reinhardt has good reason to hate Sir Kendall, the character he brought to life to land a part in a TV ad; he’d do anything to forget him. A cross country road trip seems just the thing . . . until Paul finds himself inexplicably drawn to Minnesota and is shocked to discover Sir Kendall – in the flesh – with the girl he’d once loved from afar. He barges into Alix and Sir Kendall’s love nest, determined to stop the madness – somehow.

But is super spy Sir Kendall transforming into something more dangerous anyone can imagine? And what will Sir Kendall do when Paul and Alix finally give into their mad lust for each other?

I don’t really want to say more about the plot, because for me a lot the pleasure came in not knowing what to expect, and in the fact that I really did not know what Sir Kendall’s fate was going to be, or what I thought it should be.

What I Liked (Besides Surprises):

  • Crane’s world-building is, as ever, rich and imaginative, whether the world is  Minnesota or magic. (Oh man, the supper club.)
  • While you might expect a love triangle from the blurb, it isn’t one. On the other hand, it istriangle, and for me the fraught tangle (tri-tangle?) among Sir Kendall, Alix, and Paul was the most interesting part of the book. Love, hate, lust, fear, indebtedness, responsibility, guilt. It’s quite the stew. This made the story more thematically complex than a straight-up couple vs. villain romantic suspense plot usually manages to be.
  • I love the echoes of classic fantasy I saw here. The links between Paul and Sir Kendall, and the way Sir Kendall is brought into a world where he has no place, made me think of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea. Sir Kendall isn’t as Jungian as Ged’s Shadow, but there are elements of that relationship. Alix, in particular, is also a flawed underdog, as many of the best fantasy heroes are.
  • The ending (not to mention the label Code of Shadows #1) leaves clear room for a sequel but it’s open in other ways, too. The heroes save the world (this really isn’t a spoiler for a fantasy novel, is it?) and it works for now, but the full impact of their actions is unclear and unknowable to them. They’ve tried to do right, but can’t be entirely sure they’ve succeeded. I thought of the end of Middlemarch and Dorothea’s “incalculably diffusive” effect on the people around her when she wanted to do some grand, good, world-saving act. Alix is nothing like Dorothea, and Crane’s book is nothing like Eliot’s, certainly, but in both there is a sympathy for human flaws and fallibility and an acknowledgement that calculating the moral value of an action is difficult to do.
  • It’s funny.
  • Here are a couple of reviews from Goodreads friends who also enjoyed it.

What I Didn’t Like So Much:

  • I thought it dragged a bit in the second half and then the ending was rushed.
  • Sometimes it felt heavy-handed or obvious. A lot of the characters’ moments of epiphany or self-understanding were spelled out very explicitly (or sometimes even embedded in a lecture from another character). I felt at times that Crane didn’t trust the reader enough to draw conclusions. On the other hand, plenty of good books spell it out for us (um, Middlemarch? and I never thought, say, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was light-handed either).
  • Though the writing is good, there were a surprising number of copy-editing errors. Several handfuls. This was true in the last hardcover I read too, lest I seem to be picking on the self-published.

I am very glad I read this. If the mixture of these genres appeals to you, I highly recommend it.

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4 Responses to Mr. Real: A Recipe for Surprise

  1. Natalie L. says:

    Sadly, I can never read this book because I used to know someone with the same name as the hero. Otherwise it sounds like a lot of fun. (Also, I am giggling over the whole occult computer program thing because my avatar in Second Life’s first name is Alix.)

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It’s funny how sometimes you can’t see past that. It’s the bane of my romance-reading life that my son’s name has recently become popular for heroes. Sometimes I can turn off the association with him and read anyway, but erotica with it is right out. Oddly, I don’t have the same problem with my daughter’s name, probably because it is more common IRL and I don’t see it as “hers” in quite the same way. And once I was halfway through a Mary Balogh before I even noticed the couple had the same names as my in-laws.

  2. How similar is this book to the Disillusionists series? I loved Crane’s voice and world building in the first book in that series, but the pacing and some character issues gave me mixed feelings about it. I’m very curious about Mr. Real, but hoping to hear from someone who didn’t love Mind Games to whom this new book still appealed.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Hmm. I hope someone else will come along to answer better than I can. I liked Mind Games but haven’t read more of the series yet and read that one a while ago. I would say this book is lighter in tone, and although I can see ways Alix is like Justine, the characters in this book are less morally ambiguous. Or ambivalent. It’s more that they sometimes make mistakes or misjudgments.

      I know some readers didn’t like Alix, but I did. She doesn’t think much of herself and she uses humor to deflect emotion–she deliberately plays the role of the screw-up clown her family has cast her as. But she wants to get past that, too.

      Don’t know if that helps.

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