Miss Bates lauded Kelley’s first book in the “Country Roads” series and this, her second, had the potential to be even better. The first half was wondrously good and Miss Bates excited to have landed a keeper. “Best laid plans” and all that and the second half, except for one or two scenes, fell apart (which is not to say that MissB’d discourage anyone from reading it.) Au contraire, the parts that are good are worth enduring the cringey bits, but let Miss Bates say that the cringey bits are pretty seriously messed up and dominate the second half. There is much to like about The Place I Belong: the initially nuanced hero and heroine, a role for religion that is NOT inspirational and sufficiently ambivalent to make it interesting, the requisite rift between hero and heroine is ideological instead of circumstantial, and the descriptions of the beauty of West Virginia’s mountains are loving. What goes terribly wrong in the second half, so much that it possibly negates the terrific first?
If the first novel in the series, Take Me Home (which Miss Bates reviewed) was reminiscent of John Denver’s song (deliberately echoed in the title of the series and individual novels), then The Place I Belong brings to mind Covington’s well-known study of Appalachian snake-handling culture, Salvation On Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption In Southern Appalachia. Intriguing? Yes, there’s masterful snake-handling and it’s one of the best scenes in a romance novel that Miss Bates has read.
Jonah Alcott, PR director of logging company Hawkins Hardware, is in charge of working with the park manager of Black Cherry Falls State Park, Zury Castellano. Hawkins Hardware is putting a logging operation into effect, the Black Cherry Canyon Project. When we first meet Jonah and Zury, they are locked into antagonistic interactions. Zury is convinced the Hawkins’ project jeopardizes the park’s scenic views, disturbs wildlife, drives away tourism and, with it, the opportunity to educate people in the ways of protecting West Virginia’s beauty and heritage. Jonah, on the other hand, tries to convince Zury that Hawkins’ logging methods are safe, respectful of the environment, improve the vibrancy of the trees, and enhance their beauty by pruning modestly and cutting with an eye to preserving the resource for generations … and, they provide badly-needed jobs. Miss Bates loved the ideological differences between the protagonists and appreciated that they obviously were attracted, but didn’t act on it because of their professionalism. Tension was great and banter delightful; or, as Jonah says of Zury, ” … smack dab in the middle of over a million dollars of prime timber was a scenic paradise state park, currently under the management of a beautiful pain in the ass … he’d never had an opponent so drop-dead gorgeous or mule-headed stubborn.” Fun, no?
Zury and Jonah spend a week-end together in the state park in an attempt to come to a consensus. He hopes to convince her that Hawkins’ operations will be good for the forest, good for the people, and make her park all the more beautiful. She wants to convince him otherwise. They set off at loggerheads, but shared time, banter, shared lives beyond what sets them apart in the midst of such beauty brings them close and rubs away the ragged edges of animosity. Jonah and Zury are, in turn, honest about their desires. Unlike the insta-lust of Take Me Home, Kelley cleverly delays consummation. Jonah and Zury spar and kiss and the amorous tension that Kelley sustains is good. They go into the mountains to argue and share touch; go to dinner and, because Jonah travels to D.C. for work-related projects, talk on the phone. They establish a relationship, a fun one.
Miss Bates loved the Biblical imagery of an incident that occurs when Zury and Jonah hike in the forest. They stop for rest and canoodling, but a rattlesnake disturbs their paradise. Jonah’s instinct to protect Zury (though he’s not a commitment kind of guy, we know from hereon he’s fallen hard, even when he doesn’t) turns him into a “snake whisperer”: ” … Jonah was talking. Soft, almost seductively … ‘Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.’ … The words fell from his lips in an unceasing cadence. The snake’s head bopped in time, its tongue flicking faster and faster as if trying to catch each note. Jonah’s hand curled around the snake … ” This is a goose-bumpily good scene, so tightly written, mystical in Jonah and the power he wields over the serpent. It serves as an adept and subtle foreshadowing in filling in Jonah’s story. As wondrously good as this scene is, it’s also the moment when the narrative flips and slips into a different mode. It spells the beginning of the end.
The spark and zing of the narrative are snuffed. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, early in the narrative, Kelley introduces a villain who is worthy of Shannon McKenna, a creepy-loner type, a caricature. Equally unappealing was what happens to the heroine and, to a certain extent, the hero. Zury loses her personality, forgets her convictions and turns into a hero-adoring, self-emptying, one-dimensional madonna. Jonah reverts to Kelley-type, Miss Bates would say, which is the hero we meet in Sweet As Sin, a romance Miss Bates loved at the time of reading. To give credit where it’s due, however, the love scenes are wonderful and the hero-weeping is some of the best Miss Bates has read. Unfortunately, there are scenes of disturbing violence. Miss Bates had trouble getting through them. Be warned, dear reader.
One interesting aspect to the novel that was sustained throughout is the variety of characters with gradations of faith and non-faith. Though Jonah is not a Christian believer, and his reasons are fascinating (but would entail “spoilers”), his diction is permeated with Biblical references, including his avowal of love in the HEA, which is wondrously good (and yet another reason to forgo the nasty bits and read the novel). Noah, Jonah’s brother, a nicely-drawn secondary character, portrays a reasonable, loving version of Protestant Christianity. Another character is fundamentalist, rigid, harsh, and unforgiving. Zury’s non-faith is a bit of a failure in Miss Bates’ estimation. As a Puerto-Rican American, one would think she’d be knowledgeable about Roman Catholicism. She didn’t have to be a practicing Catholic, but she should at least have had knowledge to what Jonah often refers. Or, she might have originated from left-leaning parents, in which case, rightly so, she may have been less knowledgeable. Either way, it seems an oversight to Miss Bates, maybe because she is hyper-alert for these elements in romance fiction. It certainly wouldn’t be what would deter a reader from enjoying the novel, however.
It is difficult for Miss Bates to offer a final verdict on Kelley’s The Place I Belong. How to say the first half is indicative of “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma, while the second half is rife with “rubs and disappointments,” Mansfield Park? Miss Bates will leave it at that and up to the reader to decide whether her curiosity will be piqued enough to read, or discouraged to avoid. What Miss Bates will say is that she doesn’t regret reading it.
Inez Kelley’s The Place I Belong, published by Carina Press, has been available in e-format at the usual vendors since February 24th.
Miss Bates is grateful to Carina Press for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in exchange for this honest review.
Romance readers certainly consume many a “meh” read. These novels are not regretted, but they are forgotten. What have you read lately that was not forgettable, didn’t fall into “meh” territory, that you found interesting, maybe troubling, definitely flawed?