Did you ever bounce off a book when you first picked it up only to discover later that you loved it? Back in high school that happened to me with To Kill A Mockingbird. Really. I’d picked it up during the summer to get a jump on the next semester, but it took until the end of August to force myself to read past the first few pages. Don’t know why. When I finally did, I loved it, of course.
I’m not sure what the problem was, what blocked me in those first pages. Possibly knowing that I had to read it sucked some of the joy out of the process, but hell, I’d made it through Heart of Darkness in the interim even though the book gave me narcolepsy. Nor was it a quality of writing issue. It was just a gut-level resistance that seemed impassable… until it simply vanished, and I discovered something truly wonderful.
I’ve had that same initial resistance on other occasions. Sometimes with an author (in my early teens, that was Jane Austen. I know, right?) Sometimes with a new book by an already known – and loved – quantity, like Sharon Shinn (I fumbled my first attempt at her Mystic and Rider, which is now one of my best-loved comfort books). And most recently, it happened with Susan Sey’s first novel Money, Honey.
I’d picked up Money, Honey on several occasions while browsing. The cover art was bland but inoffensive, a sort of generic ‘contemporary hijinks’ photo. The back cover copy was more detailed and intriguing: a former jewel thief working with the FBI; a counterfeit ring; opposites attracting in a big way. But until last month I never made it past the final test of the first few pages, and I don’t know why I stopped.
I do know why I finally forced myself to read on: because Sey’s second book, Money Shot, hit the shelves this past June. It featured a Secret Service agent and a former Navy SEAL on the trail of a counterfeiter. ‘Ah’ I thought, ‘Counterfeit again. Should probably start with the first one.’
I’m so very glad I did.
Money, Honey is about Patrick O’Connor, a jewel thief who once cut a deal with the FBI to keep his younger sister Mara out of prison. He worked out his contract with Special Agent Elizabeth Brynn, a dedicated, by-the-book officer of the law. They worked together, neither trusting the other, but each understanding that the other had valuable skills. Not to mention the thief and the cop found themselves powerfully attracted to one another.
But that’s all back story. Money, Honey begins several years later. Patrick is now a highly successful crime writer living the Hollywood high life. But when it becomes apparent that his sister’s business has become the target of a counterfeit ring, he comes back to help out. Now he’s working with Liz again, and the stakes are even higher. And the attraction between them is hotter than ever.
I thought I was in for a breezy, contemporary adventure. And I certainly did get that: a counterfeit plot complete with B and E, crawling through ductwork, fist fights: you name it. But I also got so much more on an emotional level. Despite his polished looks and glamorous lifestyle, Patrick is a man damaged by his past. Raised by criminals, he is still struggling to find a moral centre, and to discover that he is worthy of love. His tentative interactions with his young niece were both funny and sad. Another short scene revealed both his lack of education and his real regret on that score in way I found truly moving. For all his flash and charm, Patrick is a real person, which is testament to Sey’s skill.
For her part, Liz slowly comes to realize that her rigid adherence to the law is perhaps more complicated than she’d thought. She spent her childhood in a cult, of which her charismatic father was the leader. And Patrick’s presence begins to make her question whether she truly chose the FBI, or just swapped her loyalty from one false god to another. It is a painful discovery to make, but absolutely necessary.
There’s a lot of pain in Money, Honey There’s also a lot of money. First, there’s all the counterfeit floating around. Next, there’s Patrick. For all his former criminality, his current wealth is legitimately earned. Liz herself inherited a fortune from a grandmother she barely knew, and never understood. Mara, Patrick’s sister, is married to a casino owner. Money permeates many aspects of the book. Lots of high-end labels are name-dropped. That might have been annoying if the attention to fashion wasn’t a stand-in for something else: that sense peace that comes with knowing who you really are, and what you love. Watching Patrick and Liz get to that place was thoroughly satisfying.
I’m more than a little convinced that my initial resistance had to do with the sheer quantity of backstory crammed into the beginning. In order to understand why Liz and Patrick are so combustible now, we have to understand what happened three years ago: Mara was arrested; Patrick stepped in to save her from prison; Patrick and Liz worked together, set sparks off each other, and parted. When Money, Honey begins, Mara is chef, married to a casino owner, and mother of small child. Afterwards I felt that the beginning might have been smoother if Mara had her own book. In fact, she does, though it currently exists only in manuscript form. Back in 2006 Sey was a finalist in the Golden Heart* contest with Mara’s story, called Double or Nothing. The book wasn’t picked up for publication, but Sey has posted the first two chapters on her website.
Thus, in the end, I made it past my silly, self-inflicted reader’s block. And the reward was a book I thoroughly enjoyed. So thoroughly, in fact, that I dove right into Money Shot, Sey’s follow-up. Of which, since I’m running out of room, I’ll say only this: Holy crap, what a great book! I’ll go into a little more detail later, in my final, best-of-the-year column. For now, suffice it to say that when it came to her sophmore effort, Susan Sey is right on the money.
*The Golden Heart is the RWA‘s contest for unpublished writers, the best of whom often cease to be unpublished shortly thereafter.
Chris Szego isn’t always on speaking terms with money, but would like some more now please.