Dueling Review, Rant

Dueling Review: Love’s Serenade by Sheryl Lister (2018)

Decades: A Journey of African American Romance, Book #3

Holly’s Take

Heat Factor: Some cursory details.

Character Chemistry: They seem to have a chemical attraction that supersedes all of Miles’ bad behavior.

Plot: Miles woos Leigh, plus they write a song together.

Overall: The music details were fun, but that’s the only nice thing I can say.

Erin’s Take

Heat Factor: Nothing too involved – it’s kinda lavender

Character Chemistry: Ugh

Plot: Miles abandons Leigh then changes his mind 3 years later and that’s just supposed to be fine

Overall: DNF at 45%

What’s one key piece of information you think a reader should know before getting Love’s Serenade?

Holly: Not gonna lie, I never recovered from Miles’ bad behavior in the prologue. It was really hard for me to root for these two.

Erin: The writing is extremely expository, so it’s not super attention-grabbing, and that’s not helped by the fact that Miles is terrible.

H: I guess some important background is that this book is part of a project where different authors write romances featuring Black love through the different decades of the 20th century.

Does Leigh’s friend Liz think that any man is better than no man?

E: Look, all I’m saying is that if my friend were abandoned by a man who had been making promises to her, who then came back around all schmoozy schmoozy, I would say, “Don’t you dare let that down dirty scoundrel anywhere near you.” Maybe in a slightly more supportive way. I would not say, “Aww, he’s so sexy, maybe give him a chance because even though I have absolutely no basis for making the argument, I think he’ll actually decide to stick around this time.”

H: This didn’t particularly stand out to me one way or the other while I was reading, but now that Erin mentions it…

Thoughts on Miles’s excuse for leaving?

H: Sorry, but it’s nonsense. 

His excuse was that he had wandering feet and couldn’t stay put—not even long enough to literally travel with Leigh to NYC instead of leaving her in a hotel in Alabama so she could travel to NYC by herself. After he convinced her to run away from home because they were going to NYC together. Given the time period and her background, he put her in an incredibly dangerous situation—and it never occurs to him that maybe she wouldn’t make it to New York without him, that after he left she would get hurt or that the driver wouldn’t be trustworthy or that she’d get harassed on the train or even that she give up her dream and keep on being a teacher and live a small life in Alabama. 

E: Yeah, I thought maybe he would have a better reason for leaving that would be revealed, but no, he just peaced out with absolutely no explanation to Leigh for no better reason than he didn’t want to stay. And he took her music, to boot. What utter garbage.

If we agree that Miles is a snake, is that a deal-breaker for this book as a romance novel?

H: Erin started reading this book first, and texted the team that Miles was terrible. Before I read the book, I was like, “Oh, of course, in theory a romance can work if the love interest is terrible.” I love grey characters, and sometimes a good morality chain with a villain just hits the spot. 

But actually, the answer is no. If one protagonist does something irredeemable to the other protagonist and is meant to be a good person who the reader is rooting for, that absolutely kills the romance for me.

E: If Miles had had some reasonable explanation for leaving or even had acknowledged that he was young and made bad decisions a la Teddy in I Think I Might Need You by Christina C. Jones, he might have been a redeemable protagonist. But (at least as far as I read, and Holly looped me in that it didn’t really change later on) he only ever expresses his regret mixed with excuses—he doesn’t really own his mistake or even properly apologize. He doesn’t grovel or take time to atone. He just swoops in with a steamrolling seduction that was, frankly, repellent. So yes. Dealbreaker.

H: Erin makes a good point—it’s not just that he does something bad, but that he never apologizes, and his further actions (“steamrolling seduction” is exactly the right phrase) reinforced my first impression of him.

Leigh’s living that Harlem jazz singer life, but she’s also “not that kind of girl.” How did you read the purity culture elements of this book?

E: Setting aside arguments about whether or not it makes sense in context that Leigh has only ever had sex with Miles, there were moments of value judgement about what women do with their time and bodies that made me wrinkle my nose. Is it just Leigh being part of the period and coming from a religious southern family, or is it a value judgment about women on the whole? And I think that, er, ambiguity is what makes readers seek out more sex-positive, body-positive, inclusive books. 

Reading stuff like, “Women were doing more than just sitting at home,” or “She’d given him her most precious gift” (meaning her virginity), is just UGH. Maybe it would have been a sentiment of the time, but this is fiction and we don’t have to be completely tied to misogynistic ideas just because we’re doing historical romance. It is possible to write about a woman reaching for her dreams and living the life she wants without putting down the lives of other women.

H: There’s also an Evil Other Woman villainess whose bad behavior is predicated on her sexual availability. Just sayin’.

Let’s talk about the writing style.

E: It is possible that I would have been motivated to finish this book if the writing had not been quite so expository. The additional fact that Miles was terrible had me dragging my feet until Holly reminded me that I don’t have to feel bad about DNFing. (Even for a buddy read.) (Thanks, Holly.) 

What do I mean? Take the following paragraph:

When the song ended, Frank resumed his place at the piano. She finished her set and retreated to the dressing room. She scrubbed a hand across her forehead. Why in the world was Miles here? It had taken her months to forget about him and now he had the nerve to reappear. As far as she was concerned, he could go back to wherever he came from because she had no intention of starting up with him again. Leigh stayed in the room until the club closed thirty minutes later, confident that he would be gone.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this paragraph, but it also has no drama. This is a pitfall of past tense, and third past in particular—all of the tension is removed when it’s simply an explanation of what happened. In this scene, Leigh has just been unwillingly surprised into singing a duet that she wrote with Miles before he abandoned her. He sneaked onto the stage and simply started playing, forcing her into the position he wanted her to be in. There’s a ton of room for drama in this one paragraph. If there had been some dialogue, an argument, some way that Leigh interacted with her environment, or even words—similes or metaphors, adjectives or adverbs—that created big feelings, this text would hit much differently. 

H: I would add that there are a lot of details. There are many passages that give information to indicate that some time passed, and it is simultaneously too much and not enough. For example:

Leigh spent the balance of the afternoon reading portions of The New Negro by Alain Locke. She especially enjoyed the writings of Zora Neale Hurston and the poetry by Anne Spencer and Langston Hughes. After a dinner of collards, yams and ham, she dressed for the evening. She wanted to go down a little early to talk to Liz. 

I get that Lister wanted to show the time period, especially since the Harlem Renaissance is not a popular setting for romance novels (but it should be!!!). But I don’t need to know what Leigh eats for every meal. And if you’re going to drop some names of the authors she’s reading, give them some context! What about the poetry of Anne Spencer speaks to Leigh?

Final Thoughts:

E: I had really high hopes. This series is such a cool and interesting idea, and the blurb for this 20s decade in particular intrigued me. But there is no way on earth that I’d get behind Miles as a romantic hero.

H: The setting is so cool, and I did like the later storyline of them writing a song together, but Miles’ aggressive pursuit of Leigh when she clearly didn’t want it was a real turn-off.

Buy Now: Amazon

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