043 – Amaretto Flame by Sammie Spencer

Amaretto Flame cover When Olivia Landry screams, people die. No wonder she’s been shunned by humans her whole life. When Olivia makes a huge mistake, she’s banished for a summer to a human town; forced to live as one of them. She’s out for revenge when she discovers the humans are different than she imagined, especially the rugged, sexy guitarist, Jackson Vance.

Pretending to be human isn’t as hard as she thought it would be…until the witch hunters attack. Now Olivia must somehow protect herself, her family, and her new human friends. There’s a problem with that. When you go around screaming, people are bound to learn your secret. Can love really conquer anything?
This book surprised me. By the end of my first reading session, I was prepped for a brain-at-gunpoint read-through. As seems to be the case with most of the indie books we’ve read so far, the first impressions Amaretto Flame made were bad ones: grammatical errors, awkward phrasing, melodrama, weird pacing, and that goddamned telling reared their ugly heads before I made it to the end of chapter one. But as the story progressed, little by little, the makings of an interesting world began to show through the rough exterior.

Amaretto Flame ended up being interesting despite itself. There are flaws, consistent flaws, most of which would probably be deal-breakers for a lot of readers. The writing is undoubtedly the biggest one – it’s often off-putting, a strange patchwork of awkward similies, cliches, bad dialogue (“If you’re anything like me, then I hate you almost as much as I hate myself” – who says something like that?), clunky wording (sometimes the thesaurus just over-complicates things), and random moments of fourth-wall breaking. Can I just say that I really dislike that? I find it incredibly cheesy when a character just randomly interrupts their narration to address the audience, and Olivia does it more than once. Like when she explains the concept of mutants “Wise Ones”:

In what seemed like a cruel cosmic joke, most Wise Ones were born to ordinary human parents. Imagine walking into the room one day to find your young child moving things through the air with his or her mind, or creating a storm in the middle of your living room. I glanced at Everett. Or, what if your child could speak directly into your mind with his mind, excitedly telling you about a bug he’d found on the playground? Imagine that his voice took over all of your thoughts, making it impossible for you to concentrate on anything else.
Distracting. It doesn’t help that we run into this kind of blatant exposition every few paragraphs in the first half of the book, and while I understand the need to fill the reader in on the world and characters, it really needs to be done more naturally here. Olivia’s frequent info-drops have a huge hand in making the narration stilted and awkward. Unfortunately, the first chapter, the part that should be getting us hooked, is like 60% stilted exposition, and for me, at least, it was a huge turn-off.

The other…let’s say 35% of the first chapter (these numbers are SCIENTIFIC AND FACTUAL) was made up of telling, which was my other huge problem with the book. It literally begins with the words “I was angry.” People. LISTEN TO THE ROBOT DEVIL:

But Olivia does this constantly, and it drove me up the wall. She isn’t content with just explaining her own feelings, either – she usually feels the need to “speculate” on those of the characters she’s interacting with or thinking about or in the general area of. In case we couldn’t guess for ourselves, or see it in their behavior. Seriously, this is a book, show us.

Story-wise, Amaretto Flame has two distinct feels. The first third or so is fairly light in tone, and focuses mainly on Olivia’s adjustment to life outside the secluded coven she’s been so wrongfully kicked out of. It reads like a bit of a chick flick, actually, of the “naive small-town girl goes to the big city” variety. For a while, all we really read about is Olivia experiencing her firsts: first job, first carnival, first drunken stupor, and of course, first love. It’s not necessarily bad, it’s just…not exactly what I signed up for?

And honestly, the love story between ~Jackson Vance~ and Olivia is pretty typically chick-flick throughout the book, when there’s not some potentially interesting magical element involved to spice things up. It’s essentially love at first sight; they tingle when they touch one another; he knows nothing about her but he’ll be damned if she isn’t the most intriguing thing he’s ever met; he was a player before he met her, but he was wounded, not a douchebag, okay? But she’s The One, anyway, so he’s instantly reformed…stuff like that. They’re the usual cliches that play more to a fantasy of love than any kind of realistic reflection.

I did, though, appreciate the way Spencer handled Olivia’s reaction to falling in love with Jackson as the book concluded. Though it seemed a bit arbitrary for her to SPOILERS leave him in the first place, I liked that her decision to give the relationship a second try centered more on the realization of her own worth than her inability to live without him. A+ for that, and for (mostly) avoiding the love-triangle trap. Seriously though, that reunion scene was something out of a John Hughes movie.

The latter half of the book is where we get down to business, although Spencer does a pretty good job of developing this plotline even while the chick flick is the main focus – which is to say, it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Anyway, the gist of it is that the bad witches in Olivia’s world – called Venators (Latin for “hunters”) – are attacking psychics, searching for one “Wise One” in particular that they’re desperate to possess. Spencer gets more points for not going the super-obvious route here.

Once it because the primary focus, I found the supernatural conflict was devoid of any real sense of urgency or suspense, mostly due to a lack of emotional investment, and the obvious impossibility of any kind of unhappy ending. This is clearly not that kind of book. That aside, the story and reasoning behind the conflict were pretty good. The ideas were entertaining and believable and unique, with room for expansion, and I liked that Spencer took a lesser-traveled path than most other YA authors. Actually, the new dimension that it added to Olivia and Jackson’s relationship finally made that whole plotline relevant to my interests. SPOILERS

I liked that Jackson turned out to be a witch – I’m a bit tired of the supernatural-creature-in-love-with-a-human trend, so it’s nice to see a couple on equal footing for once. I also liked the fact that he and Olivia were polar opposites in powers – like winter and summer, according to the book. It gave the relationship a feel of destiny to it, and while I’m typically not a fan of that, at least it could go somewhere more interesting than ~Forever-and-Ever-ville~. Besides, what can I say? I’m a sucker for cosmic balance – sometimes. At any rate, I really hope Spencer develops this idea more in the future.

Similarly, I liked the sliver of ambiguity that Jackson’s plotline introduced to Spencer’s world. Up to that point, Venators had been portrayed as evil, plain and simple. Though Spencer makes an attempt to “tell” her way out of this boring black-and-white conflict by having Olivia play the “cosmic balance” card, then state that Venators could “choose good over evil” at any time, when it comes down to it, Venators are written like straight-up monsters. The kind that take slaves and make trophies out of tattooed skin and necklaces made of human teeth. They’re so de-humanized that even our heroine feels no remorse for not only killing them, but absorbing their souls so that they’re never reincarnated again.

Anyway, when it’s revealed that Jackson and his mother are escaped Venator slaves, she mentions that shortly after she was taken (and her entire coven killed), a Venator told her that she had been taken from “bad people”. Now, this idea that the Venators were rescuing her doesn’t really go far within the context of her story, given that the same man made her a slave and then later forced to her to “marry” him, but the concept is interesting. I like the idea that perhaps the Venators see themselves as rescuers of sorts – that a cultural difference could lead to such a vicious war that each side sees the other as monsters.

But as they are now, the Venator remind me a bit of Vampire Academy‘s Strigoi, and I have the same issue with both of them: who wants such one-dimensional, monsterish villains anymore? Ambiguity and grey area is where it’s at, man!

The characters were another area in which Amaretto Flame was adequate, but I think could have been developed much more. Everyone was very…one-note. The secondary characters were so underdeveloped that it seemed personality was in short supply on the day of their creation, and had to be carefully rationed out – “One character trait for you, that’s all you get, move along.” They’re either perky or smart or commanding or sweet. This isn’t to say that the characters weren’t believable, they just weren’t very complex.

The love interest, Jackson Vance, was snoresville for me. We’re told he’s sexy, with his copper hair and fiery amaretto eyes (yeah, that’s where our title comes from), and funny-ish and an artist ~swoon~ – in this case, a musician. The only musician, in fact, employed at a bar as the resident musician who plays nightly – do they actually do that? Wouldn’t that get extremely boring after a while? I mean, jeeze, a guy can only come up with so much new material a day… Anyway, he’s also a bit of a slut with commitment issues, but that’s nothing that a little love can’t solve. He wasn’t terrible as far as love interests go – he was at least nice and inexplicably patient with Olivia, despite his rep – I just didn’t find him all that interesting. He was, like his counterpart, just a little too perfect.

That was something I couldn’t put my finger on until recently; as a heroine, Olivia sufficed, but there was something about her, something that kept me from connecting with her. She was a relatively well-rounded character, being one of those paranormal romance heroines who initially lives only to protect her family, but Amaretto Flame gives her a chance to broaden her horizons and get a bit of a social life as well. She’s also kick-ass and tough and gorgeous but she doesn’t know it, OF COURSE, and a fiery survivor who’s had it so rough that she supposedly doesn’t trust people anymore, and that’s all well and good, it could even work if some of it were shown to be, I dunno, bad, but instead it all feels like it’s written to make Olivia admirable and noble. It’s more important for her to look good, rather than like a real person, with real flaws, which is a big mistake. It makes Olivia a raging Mary Sue; she’s perfectly tragic, perfectly damaged, unfailingly self-sacrificing, and she never makes mistakes.

I think that might be the key to it; Olivia isn’t ever really allowed to err or learn or be fallible, and so she never felt like a real person. The so-called “mistake” that she makes in the beginning of the book that gets her booted out of the coven in the first place wasn’t made out of arrogance or recklessness, but compassion, and it’s rather obvious even before the plot twist towards the end that she was never in the wrong, yet her choice is still vindicated by the end of the book. She’s super-powerful, the future high priestess of the coven, she knows better than everyone, her anger is always justified, and she even single-handedly comes up with the plan (in which she naturally plays a pivotal role) that saves them all from the big bads, even though there are several wiser, more experienced characters who probably should have contributed more.

She isn’t even allowed to be a rookie witch or spellcaster, which is like the single easiest way to let your audience relate to your protagonist ever. We can’t really relate to her lack of social experience, because, well, what person reading this novel would ever be that sheltered? So that just comes off as a pseudo-flaw, there to entertain and make her seem like less of a Mary Sue, as is her so-called “mistrust” of other people. They’re endearing defects that serve as a convenient source of conflict.

It’s not that Olivia is the kind of character who wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, be scared of getting close to people, given all she’s been through. And it’s not that any of these traits on their own can’t or shouldn’t work. The problem is in they aren’t shown to cause her much suffering. Her relationships with her coven members seems adequately close, and she very easily makes kind, accepting friends on her Wiccan Rumspringa. In fact, she benefits from these so-called flaws, because her “mistrust” keeps her from being affected by other witches’ magic. Sure, it also means she can’t be healed, but we never see this since being with Jackson “brings her walls down”. Really, the only evidence we have of any of Olivia’s damage is what she tells us she feels, instead of in the way she behaves.

And honestly, that’s Amaretto Flame in a nutshell: there are a lot of good ideas, good character concepts, and good world concepts, but we’re told so much about them, rather than shown, that it doesn’t make much of an impact.

I think with some revision and development, this could be a really good book, but Spencer really needs to refine her writing skill before Amaretto Flame could ever make it to that point. And I don’t say that to be cruel; there are some published authors that I don’t think should ever pick up a goddamn pen again, but Spencer isn’t one of them. Eagleton Coven could be a good series, and it’s one I’ll keep up with. The spark is there, it just needs some nurturing.

two stars

Thanks to author Sammie Spencer for the review copy.


6 Responses

  1. Jessie

    July 5, 2011 1:47 pm, Reply

    excellent review. I had wanted to read this but I think I will hold of and try Before I Fall instead. Thanks for the great review!

  2. LupLun

    July 5, 2011 6:13 pm, Reply

    Depending on when and where the story is set, yes, some bars do have regular musicians. Billy Joel’s signature song “Piano Man” is about one, and I think Bruce Springsteen worked as one before he made it big. Basically, they’re like a human jukebox — they have a selection of songs they know, and for a small contribution to the tip jar will take requests. When noone has a request, they’ll just play what they feel. Whether or not they’re common these days, I don’t know, since I don’t drink and bars aren’t my hangout of choice.

    Lupines and Lunatics

  3. Kayla + Cyna

    July 5, 2011 8:15 pm, Reply

    @Jessie – thanks! And it’d worth a go if you have it already, so I hope you do read it eventually šŸ™‚

    @Lup – hmm, you have a point, I didn’t think of that. It just seemed weird he’d be there every day, but he’s also the DJ, so eh.

  4. Barbara

    July 19, 2011 12:40 pm, Reply

    All that repetition of the word Amaretto makes me want to get some creme de cacao and make a Pink Squirrel. Or lick that guy’s eyeballs.

    This is one of the reasons I’m so leery about reading a lot of self-pubbed work lately. I just can’t deal with all of the editing, grammatical and spelling mistakes let alone the the whole telling vs. showing and the rest all in one book. Not that those things are unique to self-pubs, but it seems like every one I’m getting lately is like that.

    Very nice review – I definitely get why the characters didn’t work. I think witches may be the new angels who were the new vampires. Or something like that. šŸ˜‰

  5. Kayla + Cyna

    July 27, 2011 6:12 am, Reply

    @Barb – x3 yeah, the alchohol eyes are a bit cheesy. We’ve had decent luck with self-pubs, a couple have been pretty bad, but the rest have had at least something redeemable about them, and one was outright excellent, so eh, I think they’re worth reading.

    And thanks šŸ˜€ I think everything in paranormal romance is the vampire, lol.

    @Fiction fairy – We hope you do, it’s pretty good. And thanks šŸ™‚

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