A Guest Review by Aunt Lynn
American expatriate Jack Stoyles, exiled in a distant Atlantic outpost, is suddenly in love with a stranger who kisses him — and then dies. With good reason Jack calls his place “Heartache Café.”
Heartache Café is the first story by J.S. Cook (JoAnne Soper-Cook) I’ve read and the second novella in the fifth Partners in Crime book, Committed to Memory (Don’t Look Back by Josh Lanyon is reviewed here). After some research, I discovered that according to her LJ site, HC is book one of a new series:
My novella Heartache Café serves as an introduction to the Heartache Café series, featuring Jack Stoyles (and his hunky bartender Chris DuBois — oh la la!) the first novel of which (VALLEY OF THE DEAD) is in progress right now.
HC was a really difficult book for me to review for a number of reasons, which I’ll explain in depth later in the posting, and one for which I had mixed feelings.
HC is set in 1941 mostly on the northeastern Canadian island of Newfoundland and is narrated first person by Jack, our tortured hero. The story begins with Jack, not long discharged from the US Army, telling us in a prologue what he remembers — or not — about a hazy, muddled-by-alcohol experience of taking his girlfriend for an abortion in Philadelphia, the traumatic outcome, and the desire to end it all afterward. Saving him is a vision of a sailboat on the Nile in Egypt, a place he has long wanted to visit. We next find Jack arriving at St. John’s on Newfoundland, where he opens a small bar/café, the Heartache Café. Over the course of several months, he makes it into a fairly thriving business, hiring on bartender Chris, to whom he is attracted, and a part-time cook to help ease the load some. Things take a turn when local femme fatale, Julie Fayre, comes walking in to the café stirring up all sorts of trouble, and soon there is a dead engineer, a missing cop, a stabbed vagrant — and they all seemed to be tied together. Inadvertently and reluctantly pulled into a web of attraction, deceit, lies and corruption, he finds himself interacting with just about all involved parties: building contractors and cops and military personnel and foreigners of all different flavors before figuring it all out by the end.
I said above that I had mixed feelings about this story, so I’ll try to explain those now.
I didn’t dislike the book at all; in the contrary, I found it to be generally well-written and -paced, and it is obvious that this author is very talented.
I thought Jack was very sympathetic as a thirty-eight-year-old emotionally-damaged recovering alcoholic, discharged from the Army on a “blue ticket” (which I researched and learned that it was the neutral discharge — neither honorable nor dishonorable — without veterans benefits given to homosexuals between 1916 and 1947). With nightmares of the horrendous experience in Philadelphia haunting him, he often longs for the bottle, but is strong enough to resist. Other recurring dreams are of a man who is often with him on a boat in Egypt, and the Egyptian theme is carried through the book.
I had two problems with the story. First, the mystery element was not explained nearly enough for me and resulted in, even after two readings, confusion over the who/what/where/why. Perhaps part of it is my lack of historical understanding about WWII as there are multiple references to Nazis and Germans and occupation of European countries — especially Greece — and I am guessing that there is a tie in there to the bad guys that I just didn’t get. I read the reveal sections carefully, even re-reading those parts several more times and I still don’t understand the relationships of several secondary characters to each other or to the “crimes.” Jack claims he knew what happened and what happened to Sam, one of the secondary characters, but I don’t feel he let us in on it. Now, it’s quite possible that I am missing something here and I welcome other readers to explain it to me if they get it.
The other issue for me was that there was no clear love interest for Jack until the very end as he has attraction to or relations with several of the male characters throughout the story. Perhaps this was considered a secondary mystery element (who would he end up with)? Every time a new male character was introduced, based on Jack’s reaction and interaction with him, I would say, “okay, this is the other hero,” and it wasn’t until the last chapter that I understood who it would be. To be fair, there are some clues along the way, but because he smexxes it up with at least two other characters, I was thrown off. Perhaps this was the author’s intent? This may not bother other readers, but I admit that in a book with romantic elements, I like to have one clear pairing.
One smaller niggle: I didn’t feel that I got to know any of the secondary cast members well, and I hope as part of a series with planned novels, that changes.
Upon reflection, I think part of my issues was that I didn’t know this novella was to begin a new series, and as such, at least the first time I read it I was left with many questions and more than a bit of confusion. I re-read it with that knowledge and I felt somewhat better about some loose ends, and I rated the story slightly higher than I would have had I walked away without knowing. I can only hope that I will get some answers to the questions I had in future installments.
I would recommend Heartache Café to those interested in the genre with the stipulation that you may need to read the currently unpublished other books in the series to get full answers about this one.