When it comes to winning books, I must admit I seem to live a charmed life. I've won numerous copies of new releases by members from my local RWA chapter, including the book I'll be reviewing for next week's Thursday Thirteen.
This wonderful trend continued when I became a blogger. I've won several promo contests, including this one for You Had Me at Halo, a recent release by New Zealand author Amanda Ashby. Her debut novel has been nominated for a Romantic Times Reviewer's Choice Award, and I was only into the first 50 pages when it became obvious as to why .
1 - You Had Me at Halo is a New American Library release. I'd read an excerpt from it on Amanda's blog and was instantaneously hooked. Here's the part that snared me (as main character Holly looks down upon her own funeral):
"That was the problem with an open casket. It meant everyone’s last memories of her would be with a white puffy face, the wrong color lipstick and a dreadful polyester dress. They always said the camera added five pounds to you, but no one ever talked about how fattening embalming fluid was, did they?"
2 - Once I had the whole book to read, I had to stop reading it on the bus or else burst out in tears of laughter.
3 - Ms. Ashby's novel is part of NAL's 18 and Up Paranormal Romance category. We meet the heroine just after she's died, as she tries to adjust to her unexpected transition. The hero is one of her alive-and-well co-workers at Baker Colwell.
4 - Holly Evans had everything going for her. Recently promoted at 'the eleventh-most-benefit-friendly employer in the country', she'd been anxiously awaiting her fiance Todd's proposal after finding her honking big engagement ring in his closet. But slipping unconscious beneath the water while taking a bath threw a serious wrench into those plans.
5 - Vince Murphy works in the tech support department at Baker Colwell. Attending Holly's wedding would have been painful, since he always had a thing for her. But surviving her funeral is even more excruciating. Especially since he fainted. Now he could swear he hears Holly's voice in his head.
6 - Holly and Vince take 'mismatched couple' to a new level. Co-operation goes beyond critical when they find they're not merely in close quarters - but in a shared body.
7 - Holly's heavenly spiritual realigner gives her the chance to go back to earth to sort out her most pressing unresolved issues. He thinks he's found the perfect body to borrow for a two-day interval - Vince Murphy, who's due to depart for the afterlife himself. Holly's not thrilled with the gender switch but will make do out of desperation. What she's not prepared for is her discovery that the premises were not exactly vacated after all.
8 - The sexual tension builds slowly and steadily between the guffaws. Holly hasn't lost her feelings for her fiance at the story's beginning, and our knowledge of Vince's unrequited attraction for her gives a tugging bittersweetness to their romance.
9 - I really, really love Ms. Ashby's razor-sharp zingers, peppered throughout Holly's POV. She recalls first meeting her best friend Gemma: "They'd been friends ever since they'd both turned up on the first day at Baker Colwell wearing identical suits and black stilettos complete with little bow detailing."
10 - Ms. Ashby really knows how to end each chapter with a hook. Like this, for example:
" 'Are you okay?'
'I think so.' She gulped. 'I guess we just have to work on the assumption that nothing else could possibly go wrong?'
'Whenever they say that in the movies, it's just a link to the next disaster.'
'This is hardly a movie,' Holly reminded him as Vince dug into his pocket and paid the driver before opening the back door and getting out. 'And it's true. The day's almost over and we're back at the beginning, so how on earth could things possibly get worse?'
'Well, since that spiritual realigner guy of yours seems to be walking towards us, I'd say that was a good indication. I sure know my life takes a dive every time he's around.'
Holly felt sick as she realized Vince was right: here came Dr. Hill. Oh, great."
11 - The writing style is filled with dark humor, which I love. Wonderfully specific detail not only grounds the story in the setting but reveals Holly's character as she observes and passes judgment on the people and things around her.
12 - There is never a question as to who's speaking - Holly or Vince - even as they share a body. Vince's POV is another character reveal, in obvious contrast to the Vince we've already been led to expect through Holly's previous arms' length opinions. His own observations of Holly's former fiance Todd act as a tonic for her starry-eyed perception of Baker Colwell's star associate.
13 - I leave you with an excerpt. Enjoy!
"Holly was perfectly still as she realized she had just figured out who had slipped her the pills. Good-bye, earthly issues and Level One. She knew all it would take was a little application and organization. Wait until she told Gemma about it.
Oh, and it made even more sense, because she specifically recalled that the morning she died - on the pretense of being nice - Tina had given Holly a cup of coffee when they'd been in the staff room. Even though at the time it had tasted perfectly normal, it was now obvious Tina had laced it with pills so Holly would be forced to cancel her presentation and perhaps risk getting demoted. It all added up so nicely.
She turned off her computer, tidied up her desk, and, out of habit, reached into the bottom drawer to grab her latest Bride and Beauty magazine (in case she had problems sleeping) and headed for the elevator.
It wasn't until she was outside the building that she congratulated herself on being such a genius in working it out. Of course, she had always been clever. She thought back to The Rich and the Restless, her favorite soap opera, where everyone was convinced Joanne and Carlos were going to get together, but Holly had been adamant Lee would win out in the end. And she had been right.
Being right was such a nice feeling, and she was still basking in it as she sat down at the nearby bus stop and searched Vince's pockets to find a cell phone to call Gemma.
It didn't take long to stab in her friend's number, but there was no answer, and Holly cursed. The sooner she got Tina's address, the sooner she could confront the girl and put a stop to the suicide rumors. Then tomorrow she could concentrate on clearing the air with Todd. Well, it wasn't her typical to-do list, but then, it wasn't a typical day.
'In fact, it's probably been the weirdest day of my life,' she muttered to herself as she drummed her fingers on the magazine.
'I'll say,' a disembodied voice replied.
'What? Who said that?' Holly jumped back to her feet again and spun around, only to see nothing except an empty street and a candy wrapper blowing in the breeze. Well, that was strange. And why did she suddenly feel so...weird?
'What's going on?' the same voice demanded.
'That's what I'd like to know.' Holly tried to stay calm. After all, she was dead. Technically nothing bad could happen to her. Could it?
'Ideas would be welcome,' the voice continued with a hint of impatience.
'Who are you?' Holly croaked as she clutched at her throat. It almost sounded like the words were coming from inside her. But that was just impossible.
'I'm Vince; who are you? And more important, what the hell are you doing in my body?'
- Amanda Ashby, 2007
Join me next week when I review Cathryn Fox's The Hot Line. The following week I'll review Stephen Kimber's non-fiction book Loyalists and Layabouts.