Calamity Jayne by Kathleen Bacus

calamityjayne.jpgHelenKay:  Calamity Jayne is billed as a "riotous" romance filled with charm, oddball characters, dead bodies and a mystery or two.  A few of these descriptions are appropriate- romance and riotous are probably not two of them. 

Tressa Jayne Turner has a knack for finding trouble.  Murphy’s Law works overtime in her life.  Her history of job failures, accidents and mistakes have earned her the nickname Calamity Jayne.  This time Tressa falls into trouble by getting into the wrong car after work.  Never mind that her key worked, the car wasn’t hers.  This one had the dead body of a local disgraced attorney in the trunk and an envelope of cash in the glove compartment – nether of which she knew until the car that wasn’t hers developed a flat tire.  Apparently the car heard about her luck too.

Rick Townsend – Ranger Rick – her brother’s good friend and Tressa’s lifetime crush (in a punch-in-the-arm type of way) happens by and sees Tressa running from the car.  He discovers the car isn’t hers and the body and money are gone.  Tressa’s convinced foul play is at work.  The police, Rick and everyone else in town are convinced this is another chapter in the life of Calamity Jayne.  They don’t even believe the attorney is dead. 

With help of Rick’s grandfather, Tressa sets out to unravel the mystery of the missing attorney and the drug-smuggling accusations against him.  She’s threatened, her house is vandalized and dead bodies fall in her path. In the end, the woman who couldn’t figure out how to get through high school or survive a job intact finds the answer and saves the day.

Calamity Jayne does live up to the billing of being cute and charming.  The story is told in first person and Tressa’s voice is at times poignant, like when talking about her life’s failures, and at times funny, like when bantering with other characters.  The result here, despite promises to the contrary, is more smiles than belly laughs.  This book is not filled with laugh-out-loud hilarity.  It is clever, fun, silly and sometimes a bit too slapstick.  Riotous is an overstatement.  If a reader is looking for riotous she may be disappointed.  If she’s looking for a touch of zaniness and a bit of escapism, this book should work.

Tressa’s life is interesting.  The interplay between Tressa and Rick’s grandfather in many ways steals the show.  He is a grandfather of the wears-embarrassing clothes variety.  He is odd but adorable and precocious. In some ways, the chemistry between Tressa and Grandfather Townsend is better than the chemistry between Tressa and Rick.  Their attraction stems from history and is difficult to understand since most of the scenes between them have little to do with romance.  Bacus does serve her characters well in that, after having limited sparks and electricity between Tressa and Rick, she lets them have a realistic and appropriate ending.  There is no rush down the aisle, and that is the right answer here.

The mystery portion of Calamity Jayne strikes a believable balance in that the suspense remains light and true to the overall tone of the book, despite the dropping bodies.  Where the suspense falters is at the unveiling.  The "bad guy" is exposed to Tressa but the reader is left in the dark.  For reasons that aren’t clear Tressa keeps the killer’s identity from the reader by simply calling him "killer" for most of a chapter.  The result is disjointed and frustrating pseudo-suspense.  The added pages serve only to frustrate the reader who, by that point, deserves to know the ending to the whodunit along with Tressa.  From there, the remaining information plays out mostly through a telling by Tressa that reads like an Agatha Christie ending in which Hercule Poirot fills in all the pieces through a long narrative.

Calamity Jayne is fun and sweet.  While not filled with guffaws or a great romance, it does satisfy.  In a time when most romance heroines are perfect or undead or some mixture of the two, Tressa is a welcome change of pace – a flawed underachiever.

Wendy:  American Title, a joint venture between Romantic Times Magazine and Dorchester Publishing, is an American Idol-style multi-round elimination contest that offers a publishing contract to the last author standing.  Not only was RT inspired by American Idol’s name, logo, and judging/fan voting format, the RT website goes so far as to compare their judges to Simon, Randy and Paula.  That can make a person question what sort of originality the organizers are looking for from the entrants when they display so little themselves.  Nonetheless, the purpose of American Title, like all writing contests, is for the aspiring to have a chance to shine.  The final worth of such contests seems dubious as writers who have the ability to stand out, will do so, be they a competition finalist or just another manuscript on the slush pile.  However, in a genre like romance where so much that should be creative is predisposed, a contest that allows fans a direct voice in publication might permit room for an author whose voice is left of center.

In the case of Kathleen Bacus’ debut, Calamity Jayne, an American Title Finalist, it’s easy to imagine publishers passing on this work that flirts with many genres yet refuses neat assignment to one, simply because what makes it unique also makes it difficult to market.  Dorchester labels it a Contemporary Romance, but that isn’t the case.  Tressa “Calamity” Jayne Turner is a small town Iowa girl with a big reputation for being a ditz.  Calamity doesn’t follow in the time honored steps of heroines Too Stupid Too Live, rather she is the victim of a lack of focus and aimlessness that effects people who’ve just not found their niche.  And, at twenty-three, not only is that allowed, it’s more realistic than the ocean of similarly aged heroines out there who act twice as old as their years.  Calamity’s reputation is further fueled by her two great nemeses: coincidence and Ranger Rick.  Rick Townsend, who Calamity believes, “was placed on this earth to be a major irritant to me” has an endless supply of blonde jokes and doesn’t seem to mind setting Calamity up to fulfill the nickname he bestowed upon her.  Coincidence takes a much less personal approach with Calamity, but plays a much larger role in her story.

After work one evening, Calamity hops into, what she believes is, her beat up old white Plymouth Reliant to squire her home.  Along the way, a tire goes flat and a dead attorney turns up in the trunk where the spare tire should be.  Calamity runs from the scene and straight into the arms of Ranger Rick who discounts her dead body story and returns her to her car where, surprise, surprise, the body is gone and the Plymouth Reliant is actually a Chrysler.  With neither Rick, nor the small town police that happen upon the scene, convinced of any crime other than grand theft auto—Calamity did drive off in a car not hers—Calamity is left to wait for a body to surface (preferably that of Peyton Palmer the corpse that was in the trunk) in order to prove her claims.  But, before that can happen, the man who created the dead body and considers the Chrysler—and the wad of cash Calamity found in the glove box—his, arrives to threaten Calamity and destroy her stuff.  “Pay up or else!”  Calamity turns amateur sleuth as fluke after fluke proliferates and Rick is there to see it all.

Calamity and Rick’s adversarial relationship goes back years—Rick and Calamity’s older brother Craig are best friends—and that, it would seem, is reason enough for them to forever be at one another’s throats.  That is an interesting starting point, and the mystery murder/caper keeps them together and keeps them at odds enough to build up their romance.  But, this doesn’t happen.  Rick and Calamity’s relationship—what there is of it—is underdeveloped and sophomoric with its schoolyard taunts and blindsided kisses, as it continues on for three hundred plus pages with little advancement.  That is a great disappointment for anyone expecting a romance from a book marketed as such, but also because the opportunity for something great and unique is there, yet not capitalized on.  Too often romances star heroines who are loved and exalted by heroes for their perfection.  Calamity is far from perfect and Ranger Rick wants something beyond their fight-like-cats-and-dogs confrontations despite the fact that he knows she isn’t perfect.  A hero loving a heroine’s imperfections would be a daring change of pace, one Bacus will, hopefully, exploit when both Calamity and Rick show up her next book.

What Calamity Jayne lacks in romance, it makes up for in humor (the amusing, raise a smile and keep it there versus the roll around on the floor variety).  Calamity’s adventures are pure farce, lighthearted despite the dead bodies (they begin to pile up after Peyton Palmer’s).  Bacus’ style and voice are things distinctive to her, both lack pretension of any sort, and are meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator, more Walmart than Bergdorf.  Writing solely in Calamity’s first person perspective, Bacus often speaks directly to the reader in a folksy style that compels and distracts in turns.

In the end, Calamity Jayne might well be mislabeled as a contemporary romance—though what its correct label should be isn’t clear—above all else, it entertains, contest finalist or not.

HelenKay’s Question:  Our last book featured a heroine with a tortured past.  Romance novels have a tendency to group heroines into spunky virgins or perfect model-like beauties studying to be rocket scientists.  Calamity Jayne takes its heroine in a totally different direction.  She’s a mess.  Could a hero be a mess like this and still work in a romance or is this a chicks-only area? 

Wendy’s Response:  I will admit to not having read Mr. Impossible, but according to Kassia’s review—I’m paraphrasing—the hero, Rupert, would be accused of being a dumb blonde if he were a woman.  So, it would seem, it has been done.  That said, I can’t think of a hero who has been a mess on par with Calamity.  Men in romance novels tend to be messed up in far more—supposedly—masculine ways: drinking, whoring, fighting, etc.

HelenKay’s Final Thoughts:  Cute chick lit mystery with a touch of romance and a little less laughter than promised.

Wendy’s Final Thoughts: Calamity Jayne is light on romance, heavy on farce; its only aim is to entertain and that it does.

You can visit Kathleen Bacus here and buy this book here and here.

4 thoughts on “Calamity Jayne by Kathleen Bacus

  1. I figure every once in awhile you just need to read something fun, and that’s what I thought Calamity Jayne was. I just felt highly entertained throughout it. And it reminded me a lot of small town people I know.

  2. It is fun and funny. Tressa’s voice is easy to read and enjoy. I don’t really think it’s much in the way of a romance, but it works as chick lit. Since this is one in a series (I think), it could be that the romance is developed in subsequent books. We’ll have to wait and see.

  3. I read on another site that Rick was rather an ### to Calamity. Kind of hitting her while she was down, so to speak. I’m guessing however that maybe it was the lack of a romance that colored the opinions of the reviewer on the other site.

  4. I saw something like that too, but Rick never seemed a jerk to me (yeah, he had jerky moments). He doesn’t have a problem telling Calamity that she’s done something stupid and he doesn’t treat her with the kid gloves that heroes in other romances use with heroines, but there again, the romance here was more suggestion than fullblown love story.

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