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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ashlyn Chase: STRANGE NEIGHBORS Series

Author: Ashlyn Chase
Series: STRANGE NEIGHBORS
Plot Type: CH with a touch of SMR
Ratings : V-1; S-4; H-3
Publisher and Titles: Sourcebooks Casablanca
      Strange Neighbors (2010)
      The Werewolf Upstairs (2011)
      The Vampire Next Door (2011) (FINAL) 


     This blog entry was revised and updated on 12/2/11 to include a review of the third and final book in the series: The Vampire Next Door. That review follows this overview of the series so far: 


     In this lightweight chick lit series, a motley group of supernaturals reside in a small apartment building in Boston. In Strange Neighbors, we meet them all: four shape shifters, two witches, one vampire, and a ghost.

     GENRE: The romantic leads are rather one-dimensional, and their romances have no deep soul-mate moments and not much angst. In the first two books, Merry's girl-friend moments with her friend, Roz, tip this into the chick lit genre. Book 2 has the familiar werewolf "one-true-mate" story line, so I'll admit that there is just a touch of SMR to go with the CH. 

     VOICE: The stories are told mostly in the third person, but the characters' thoughts are written as italicized first-person miniature "thought monologues." Also in italics are all of Chad the ghost's dialogue. This can be quite disconcerting when the reader can't figure out to whom the italicized sections belong. Is it Chad "speaking" or is it one of the other characters "thinking"?  If so, who? This is more of a problem in book 1 than in the rest of the books. WARNING: In an amazon.com review, one reviewer notes that the Kindle version does not show the italics, making the first book almost impossible to understand. If you plan to read this book in electronic form, be sure that your e-reader supports italics. 

   SENSUALITY: Until now, Chase has been primarily a writer of exotic romances, so you'd expect lots of sexuality in this series, and you'd be correct. Bedroom scenes for each romantic couple are frequent and consist of lots of mainstream sexual antics, nothing too hardcore.  

     HUMOR: Chase makes an attempt at humor in the first two books with the escapades of Jason's moronic Aunt Dottie, who expands her duties as building manager by snooping around the building getting into everyone’s personal business and causing no end of trouble for the tenants and sometimes for herself. Unfortunately, Aunt Dottie is way more irritating than funny, particularly in book 1. The witches’ occupation (phone sex operators) provides some R-rated laughs. Most of the rest of the humor is G-rated, except for one scatological bedroom conversation between Jason and Merry (Strange Neighbors, p. 117) that is more crude than amusing.

     BOOK 1: At the beginning of Strange Neighbors, a young and pretty nurse (Merry MacKenzie, a human) moves into the building and is welcomed with open arms by the owner, Jason Falco, a rich, handsome, and famous baseball player for the Boston Bullets who is not at all human. The story follows Jason and Merry's romance, as they fall into bed and in love almost immediately but keep some important secrets from one other (i.e., Jason's shifter genes and the identity and genetics of Merry's biological father). Other story threads involve Merry's quest for independence and the ghostly Chad's search for his murderers. That’s the basic plot.  

     The romantic story told in Strange Neighbors is cute, but it has some weird elements. For example, part of the plot includes a conspiracy theory on the JFK assassination back in 1963 (although the author mistakenly places in 1964). This plot fluff doesn’t really add anything to the story. In fact, it serves only as a distraction from the romance. Another strange piece of action: For absolutely no reason at all, Merry goes out and buys a rabbit. Eventually, it becomes clear that the author is forcing some humor into the story by placing a prey animal in a building full of shifters, but it really doesn’t work at all. Neither does the owl that the witches use as a familiar: a huge wild owl in a tiny, city apartment—not logical, not humane, and not funny. Another distraction—this one a bit more gross—concerns the many bits of more-than-you-want-to-know info about feminine hygiene (from PMS to sexless periods to the praise of new birth control pills that produce quarterly periods). Ewwww! Chick lit is one thing, but a graphic sex education guide is something else. Let’s not mix them up.

     BOOK 2: The Werewolf Upstairs tells the romantic story of Merry’s BFF, Roz Wells, and Konrad Wolfensen, the titular werewolf. In this ill-conceived story, Roz (a lawyer) and Konrad (a con man and felon) are dissatisfied with their jobs. Konrad specializes in breaking into businesses and then selling them security systems after they realize how vulnerable they are. The couple gets together after Konrad is caught during one of his break-ins and Roz defends him in court. Because Roz is a lawyer and Konrad has been a teacher, you'd think that they would go after jobs that in some way use their skill set. But...you'd be wrong. Here are the jobs they investigate: ballroom dance instructor, sky diver, and chef. Of course, they have absolutely no experience in any of these jobs and nothing goes right during their try outs (e.g., broken ankle, burnt hair, unconscious flight instructor). These little accidents are, I imagine, supposed to be hilarious, but...not! Just silly.

     Along with their job search, the couple also gets involved with an attempt to solve the decades-old theft of valuable paintings from a Boston museum. This plot thread is filled with implausibility. For example, Morgaine, the neighboring witch who is leading the investigation, is so agoraphobic that she can't even leave her apartment to go to the grocery store, but she manages to make multiple trips across town to the museum all by herself. Her agoraphobia only seems to click in when Chase needs it to move her story line forward. Another implausibility: A ghost in the museum takes an instant dislike to Konrad and plants evidence (decades after the fact) to frame him for the robbery. I don't think so!

     Dialogue continues to be stilted and unrealistic, and Chase salts the story with unnecessary details and superfluous scenes. For example, the whole story line about Joe the detective and his crush on Gwyneth the witch goes absolutely nowhere and has no relation to the main plot. The same goes for the introduction of Roz’s villainous stepfather. He appears, hovers threateningly, does nothing, and then disappears completely.

     The Vampire Next Door tells the love story of Sly the vampire and Morgaine the witchy, agoraphobic phone sex operator. The couple's romance develops very slowly, beginning with moments of mutual, but unacknowledged, attraction and moving on to graphic sex scenes and finally to their immortal bonding. Unfortunately, the romance is interrupted by many (way too many!) sub-plots, like these: Sly's evil bisexual maker shows up and commands Sly to become his lover. Gwyneth tries to seduce Sly, is rejected, pouts a bit, and then finds true love with another resident. Gwyneth takes a trip to Salem, Massachusetts, to meet with a famous witch and get a spell that will keep Sly's maker from entering their building. Merry and Jason's baby is born during a howling blizzard. Jules, the new building superintendent, turns out to have a phony resume. As it turns out, Jules is a shapeshifter, but of an entirely different kind than Jason, Nathan, and Konrad. A new tenant is a shape-shifting dragon who nearly sets her apartment ablaze because she can't get enough sex to put out her fiery breath. Morgaine and Sly head off to New York City so that Morgaine can cast a spell for a friend who knows a magical secret for a wine that gets rid of a vampire's bloodlust and sun sensitivity. Morgaine tries to fight off her agoraphobia and panic attacks both at home and in New York City. Morgaine, Gwyneth, and Sly set up a still in the building's basement to try to duplicate the magical wine. The trio also gets rid of Sly's villainous maker, whose death scene is one of the most anti-climactic that I've ever read. One of the final scenes has Morgaine and Gwyneth stomping grapes in a huge wooden tub in the basement. Shades of I Love Lucy (episode 150)! For me, this is definitely the weakest book in an already mediocre series. 

     CONCLUSIONS: The cute cover art and the central idea for this book are both terrific, and I was really looking forward to the series. Unfortunately, I have to say that I'm disappointed. With its flat characters, lame dialogue, awkward attempts at humor, and whisper-thin plots, the series is only mediocre. Too bad. In the hands of an author like MaryJanice Davidson or Katie MacAlister, this could have been a great series.

     According to her web site, Ashlyn Chase is currently writing a new three-book series called FLIRTING WITH FANGS, which will be a spin-off of STRANGE NEIGHBORS.

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