The Cultural Gutter

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Second Place Ain’t Second Best

Chris Szego
Posted January 20, 2011

weestarr.JPGPreviously, I wrote a column about
Meredith Duran, who got her start in publishing when her first novel,
the astonishingly good Duke of Shadows, won the Gather.com
First Chapters Romance Writing Competition. I liked the interesting
and collaborative nature of the online contest. Entrants posted
their first chapters on the Gather.com site for the community to read
and vote on. The top-ranked authors moved up to the next round,
posted another excerpt, and so on, right up to the final round, which
was judged by professional editors.

The grand prize for the contest was a
publishing contract from Simon & Schuster. Originally, there was
to be only one prize awarded. But the quality of the entries really
impressed the final judges, who, in fact, awarded two. The second
prize, which was another publishing contract with a slightly smaller
advance, went to Starr Ambrose.

Though I was busy researching (and
reading) Meredith Duran at the time, the story of the surprise
second-place finisher intrigued me. So after a little digging, I
found that second place prize-winning book, Lie to Me, and
immediately understood why the judges couldn’t let it go
unrewarded.

Released in late 2008, Lie to Me
was an excellent read. Contemporary and fast-paced, it’s the story
of Ellie, who sneaks into a wealthy home, and of Jack, who catches
her red-handed. Ellie wants to find her best friend, who has
mysteriously gone missing. Jack, betrayed in the past by his own
brother, the missing friend’s husband, is doing some digging of his
own. When they decide to work together, things start to get
interesting.

With its betrayals, family secrets,
ex-cons, and criminal masterminds, Lie to Me could have been a
melodramatic mess. Instead, it was well-plotted and well-written,
with real emotional depth and just the right touch of humour.
Released a year later, Ambrose’s second novel, Our Little
Secret
, was set amidst the power-brokers of Washington D.C., and
had many of the same elements: sleuthing, skull-duggery, and the
need to navigate carefully through the sharp ends of difficult family
relationships.

thieves 250.jpgHer third novel came out just before
Christmas, and I think it’s my favourite thus far. Thieves Like
Us
is a direct sequel to Lie to Me. Janet, the missing
friend from the first book, has survived her former husband’s
attempt to kill her, and is moving on with her life. Unfortunately,
when she tries to sell a tacky necklace he once gave her, she finds
out it was stolen. Worse, it was part of a set, a set that her ex’s
criminal cronies think she has. Enter Rocky Hernandez, Jack’s best
friend. Rocky is now Ellie’s partner in a security company, though
he was formerly a jewel thief. Both careers make him a good choice
to help Janet out of the latest fiasco her criminal ex has caused.

Janet’s first husband was rich,
urbane, and polished. Then he tried to kill her for her aviation
company. Understandably, she’s wary of making another bad choice. Despite her reluctance to get involved with anyone again, she’s drawn to Rocky. Much of the attraction is physical, but
some of it is to Rocky’s honesty. He’s up front about his past,
and he doesn’t regret it… at least not until some of the nastier
elements of his former life leak into his new one.

Ambrose balances the caper plot with
the emotional arc extremely well. Each is dependent on the other.
Rocky hates the idea that his own past choices might affect Janet’s
life. But while having a murderous ex-husband left Janet doubting her
own judgment, outwitting him and putting him in jail has left her
with a clear sense of her own strength. She won’t accept anything
less than all of Rocky’s life: the good and bad together. Thieves Like Us was
another fast, fun read, with enough emotional depth to give it oomph.

Ambrose has said in interviews that she
found the writing of Thieves Like Us to be fast and easy. It helped,
she said, to have written about the characters before. She already
know who they were, and how they would react. For my part, I was
glad she had a second, completely different book in between. It gave
Janet some very real time to come to grips with her past, to put
distance between who she used to be and who she was becoming. I
don’t know if that was intentional or not; I just think it worked
out well.

I’m looking forward to her next
novel, set in Colorado among the vacationing Hollywood glitterati.
It’s funny: though her characters come from all levels of society,
Ambrose’s plots tend play out against a background of wealth and
privilege. Which is all the more delicious as Ambrose herself is far
removed from that scene. In fact, she’s a farmer in rural
Michigan, who came to writing in her 50s. She blogs about the
realities of her life at www.dirtroaddiaries.blogspot.com
. I find it fascinating reading. All the animals (dogs, cats,
chickens, horses), and the sheer scope of the unending labour: it’s
another world to this urbanite, and one I should have more
familiarity with. Perhaps it’s that connection to the beginnings
of things that makes Ambrose’s books so enjoyable. With one foot
firmly on the ground (in tough, manure-proof boots, no less), the
other foot can reach as high as it wants.

~~~

Chris Szego did learn to drive a tractor once.  She only ran over one person’s foot.

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