Have to admit it: I only knew author Anne R. Allen through her often-witty and frequently irreverent blog posts. I knew that she wrote novels, but I'm not a follower of that genre known as "chick-lit"... but one should never judge a book by it's cover, or it's title. I enjoyed her blog posts and her viewpoints on everything from social media to her take on the news, along with her comments on reviews and reviewers.
It wasn't until I read How To Be A Writer In The E-Age... And Keep Your E-Sanity!, which Anne co-authored with Catherine Ryan Hyde, that I really began to wonder if these novels that she had written, but I didn't know exactly where to start. A little searching brought me here to The Camilla Randall Mysteries 3-in-1 Box Set, which seemed to be an ideal place.
As it turned out, it was.
The Camilla Randall Mysteries is made up of three of Ms. Allen's previously published stories, and after an introduction by Saffina Desforges, we are taken to the books broken down in this set as three very large chapters.
The Best Revenge is where we first meet protagonist Camilla Randall, who appears in all three of these books. Based in the 1980s, it's also where we're introduced to the author's fast and witty dialogue in this fast-moving romp that takes us from meeting Plantagenet Smith, her gay best friend, to where she's going her best to avoid the lusty Arkansas Chickenburger King (picture a Colonel Sanders type individual here), who has something other than chicken on his mind. We find that debutante "Rosewood girls do not dress like Vestal Virgins in heat" and that our heroine is capable of some pretty wild excursions that take us from coast to coast.
Ghost Writers In the Sky fasts forward to where a more mature Camilla Randall, now a New York etiquette columnist known as the Manners Doctor, accepts an invitation to a Z-list Writers' Conference, thinking that she's going to have an easy ride there. But her life unravels as she deals with a collection of batty writers, tree-hugging protestors, a sharp shooter, an attractive policeman who may be suffering from road rage, a cross-dressing celebrity impersonating transsexual dominatrix, and a dead body in the bedroom. This one is typically fast -paced and hysterically funny.
Sherwood Ltd. takes our heroine Camilla to the England of Robin Hood legend, but Nottingham was never as entertaining as it is with her adventures here. The fashionable, upscale `adult' press, Sherwood Ltd, is seeking for ways to become respectable, and who better to help them than the Manners Doctor? Camilla meets Peter Sherwood, sort of postmodern Robin Hood, and our striving-for-publication author again ends up in the most implausible yet believable circumstances, dealing with a covert smuggling business and a homicidal authoress. This one is an engaging tale, has some adult content, and above all is quite enjoyable.
But it's Anne Allen's humor that jumps out at us, as can be seen especially in Sherwood Ltd. This passage is a perfect example:
"`Yes Peter,' I said. `I can forgive everything. Except maybe the hair.' It really was awful in that Alan Greene rat tail. `I think it's time you let your hair down. Release your inner Fabio.' I reached to pull off the elastic that bound his sun-bleached locks. I fluffed his hair around his shoulders, feeling like a 1950s movie hero romancing the mousy librarian. I giggled. He giggled too, then drew me to him in an intense kiss. With lips locked, we sank onto the futon. His hands moved under my blouse. I let them."
You'll have to read Sherwood Ltd to see how this scene plays out.
Yet if I had to make any criticism, it's based on the concept that I've labeled elsewhere that we're in the depths of "The Summer of the Fifty Shades of You-Fill-in-the-Blanks." I'm not comparing The Camilla Randall Mysteries 3-in-1 Box Set to author E.L. James' wildly bestselling Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy, as to begin with, Anne Allen's offering here is far better written, and by a long shot. The character of Camilla is intelligent (though sometimes a bit naïve), witty, very articulate, and the range of her mental lexicon has to be in the level of a university professor, at about 15,000+ words, whereas the average college grad is about 6,000+ words. In comparison and apart from writing at about a ninth-grade level in the Fifty Shades of Grey series, E.L. James' protagonist Anastasia appears to have a vocabulary limited to about 2378 words, give or take about a dozen. The most frequently used of her exclamations seem to be a lot of "Oh, my!" and "holy crap!" throughout the trilogy, along with "My breathing hitched."
But where I do find a similarity, and please don't shoot the messenger on this, is that there seems to be a regular convention that's used in chick lit novels, and that has to do with brand plugs. There are disturbing parallels in both, almost like product placements. In the Fifty Shades series we hear ad nauseam of Christian Grey's Audi, his BlackBerry and Anastasia's iPad, along with all of that Diet Coke, Pinot Grigio and Bollinger. Only a film or TV producer could dream up this much product placement. And yet we find similar name-dropping throughout all three volumes of the Camilla Randall Mysteries, with product placements poking through, like Louis Vuitton luggage, Wonderbra, Birkin bags and more. Here's an example: "I think I squealed when I saw my favorite things: the Stella boots, Alexander McQueen dress, Burberry suit, and Versace undies."
Yet it's Ms. Allen's often-amazing prose that pops up when least expected, with true gems such as this:
"Maybe it was the pimply kid in the Marilyn Manson tee shirt who had insinuated himself into the already overflowing car at Columbus Circle. He'd pressed in to join the three of us who had already staked claims on the center pole. I jabbed the boy in the ribs with an elbow. He grunted an obscenity."
Of the three books in this set, this reader must admit that my favorite was Sherwood Ltd. Author Allen's ability to keep a reader going, really showed up in this tale, going from page to page, waiting for what was to come next. But personally, I dislike such overdone product placement, as I did in in the Fifty Shades Trilogy, and know that as a writer, Ms. Allen can do better, and for that reason I'm knocking off a half point for these repeated distractions, even if some of them may be tongue in cheek.
All that being said, Anne Allen had me laughing unexpectedly and sometimes out loud with her wonderful crafting of her words into sentences that became alive and three dimensional throughout these stories. Bottom line is that this is a solid 4½-star set of books that are real keepers, and I may have to go to her book The Gatsby Game next.