Shelter in Place by Nora Roberts, narrated by January LaVoy

Blue-washed night view of a rocky coastline with a lighthouse off to the right of viewWhy I read it:  I always buy Nora’s stand alone romantic suspense books. This one is from my own TBL.

TW: Mass shooting

What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  It was a typical evening at a mall outside Portland, Maine. Three teenage friends waited for the movie to start. A boy flirted with the girl selling sunglasses. Mothers and children shopped together, and the manager at the video-game store tending to customers. Then the shooters arrived.

The chaos and carnage lasted only eight minutes before the killers were taken down. But for those who lived through it, the effects would last forever. In the years that followed, one would dedicate himself to a law enforcement career. Another would close herself off, trying to bury the memory of huddling in a ladies’ room, hopelessly clutching her cell phone – until she finally found a way to pour her emotions into her art.

But one person wasn’t satisfied with the shockingly high death toll at the DownEast Mall. And as the survivors slowly heal, find shelter, and rebuild, they will discover that another conspirator is lying in wait – and this time, there might be nowhere safe to hide.

What worked for me (and what didn’t): Like The Witness in structure, Shelter in Place tracks the main characters from youth, dipping in and out of their timelines until we reach present day. Unlike The Witness, Shelter in Place follows not only the heroine, but also the hero. It is a long time before Simone Knox and Reed Quartermaine actually meet. Though they are both at the DownEast Mall on the night of the shooting, they don’t know each other and their lives take different trajectories for many years. I’m all about the HEA of course so one could be forgiven for thinking this bothered me. But the story hooked me from the opening seconds and for the most part I was too busy being engrossed in what was happening to be tapping my foot impatiently for the main characters to finally meet. Because Nora Roberts is the just that good, it was about the time that I started to feel a little antsy that my HEA-loving heart was blessed with Reed and Simone in the same room. From there, the romance progressed pretty smoothly – the conflict here is not about the relationship. It is all serial-killer based.

That said, it was precisely because I had spent so much time with both Reed and Simone that I sank into their romance so easily. Both had their own journeys which eventually brought them to a place (physical and metaphorical) where they were ready and able to be each other’s “one”.

Nora Roberts has the ability to make me care about a character in a very few words. It’s one of the things which always hooks me about her In Death books. And it was at play in Shelter in Place. There are quite a few characters who do not survive. Some are in the book for a very short time indeed but Nora makes me care about them. She is able to sketch out a relateable character in less than three sentences and that means when something bad happens to them, I care about it.

The subject matter – a mass shooting – will no doubt be too difficult/too close for some people to read. The shooting itself is described in reasonable detail and will be triggering for some listeners. This book sits somewhere on the scale between using real life events to inspire a story and explore emotions surrounding it and exploitation. I believe that most art that inspires emotion is exploitative, at least a little. It’s what makes us care about it. It’s what hits us in the feels. I think it is a matter for an individual reader to decide exactly where on that scale this book sits. For me, it was away from the exploitation end but I am an Australian and as such, it’s easier for me say that, as we don’t have mass shootings here anymore and in the US it happens all the time (and far too often).

There are problems with the book. There’s questionable representation of fatness (briefly), some appropriation of Native American culture (sage-burning by a non-NA character), at least a little bit of racism (it was completely unnecessary to point out that a Vietnamese-American character spoke English without an accent for example) and a titch too much of #NotAllCops. That said, the narrative is also fairly strongly pro-gun control so I’m not sure if I can fairly criticise the #NotAllCops thing because I don’t quite agree with it but be unbothered the gun control message because I do. Perhaps I’m overthinking this.  Re the #NotAllCops there are a few “asshole” law enforcement officers represented but there was nothing about police violence, #BlackLivesMatter and the other pressing issues which come part and parcel with policing in America right now. There were some black characters in the book – but not all that many and police violence was not really a thing in the story (except for a brief scene where some random jerk makes a lazy – and inaccurate – accusation against Reed of police brutality which was uncomfortable to say the least). Maybe there is some subtext about why the author felt the need to point out that Reed was one of the “good guys” that I’m not seeing. Reed is one of the good guys though and the kind of cop most people would be pretty happy to support I think but police and policing is, at least in the USA, as (or nearly as) prominent an issue as mass shootings so not addressing it felt a little political too.

The biggest issue was the villain. The blurb doesn’t make it clear but it is revealed early enough in the story that I don’t consider it a spoiler to say that the mastermind behind the shooting is a woman. Most mass shootings are by men, white men – white men who hate women. So having the architect of the terrible violence here be a woman felt a little off.

Patricia Hobart is definitely a psychopath though and her trajectory and devolution was a significant part of the story, tracking along with Simon and Reed as they moved from teenagers, into adulthood in the aftermath of the shooting. Patricia is over the top at times but oh so compelling – as is the story in general.

What else? Yes there were some issues with the story. Some people will find those issues more problematic than I did and that’s fair. But for me, I was hooked from the opening and the book basically didn’t let me go until the end. The story takes its time to build – really, the comparison to The Witness is very apt – but held my interest all the way through and the payoff in terms of the romance and the various other character relationships is well worth it. Perhaps the denouement was a little anticlimactic and just a smidgen inconsistent with the Patricia I had come to know – but she clearly was losing her fragile hold on reality so I didn’t get hung up on it.

I adored the relationships between Reed and Essie, between Simone and CiCi (her grandmother) and between Reed and CiCi – Reed threatens often to dump Simone and run away with CiCi if she will only have him (it’s all in good fun and sweetly charming). CiCi is “a little bit psychic” and that was a bit too convenient at times but I am a romance reader and I do like the idea of “meant to be” so I gave it a pass.

The narration is excellent. I’m sure I enjoyed the book even more because of January LaVoy’s performance. She imbued Reed with a charm which felt additional to what was in the text alone and her vast array of character voices was stellar. There is a huge cast in this book which made this a necessity.

Simon’s best friend is Mi. On audio, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between “Mi” and “me” – there being no audible capitalisation of course. So sometimes I had to recast the sentence in my mind from “me and Simone” to “Mi and Simone”.

I loved how both Reed and Simone had full lives, friends, work and family outside of each other. And I loved how they fit together and blended their lives together. The suspense was compelling, the characters charming and relatable and the narration was excellent. Yes the book has issues but it was also a cracker of a story and one I’m likely to queue up on my iPod again. Which reminds me, I really must re-listen to The Witness. Or maybe The Search

Grade: A-

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