Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Lifelines and Warning Signs

Barrie Summy's The Book Review Club (March)

I met CJ Lyons at Love Is Murder last month and immediately knew that I wanted to buy her book. She was on a panel with James Strauss, novelist and senior writer for House, M.D. (one of my favorite television shows): House VS Holmes: C.J. Lyons and Jim Strauss spar and chat about these two loveable, drug-addicted misanthropes. Someone asked a question about Lisa Cuddy, which sparked an interesting discussion about the portrayal of women in medical fiction.

We all agreed that Lisa Edelstein's character wears absolutely ridiculous clothes, and her character is not always perfectly . . . believable. "If you want a realistic portrayal of female doctors," Strauss said, "Read CJ's book."

Like a good, self-promoting new author, Lyons took this opportunity to hold up her first novel and introduce it: a behind-the-scenes medical drama set in a major trauma center in Pittsburgh, focusing on the intersecting lives and friendships between an attending physician (Lydia), a resident (Gina), a charge nurse (Nora), and a medical student (Amanda). The mystery in Lifelines, which published last spring, involves gay rights activists and neo-Nazi skinheads. She was also promoting her second novel, a sequel to Lifelines. The mystery in Warning Signs, which just published last month, is much more medical . . . and personal for one of the major characters (looking at you, Amanda!).

I was immediately hooked. I bought Warning Signs the next day (CJ was offering a buy the second book, get the first free deal, which I could not refuse) and started reading right away. I read straight through both books, though not without a hiccup here and there.

First was the cover. When I saw it up close I nearly backed away. "Realistic portrayal of women in medicine," I reminded myself. "Written by an award-winning author and real ER doc."

I picked up the book despite its cover, and wasn't disappointed once I got past the art. I like the layout and design just fine; it's the models that drive me crazy. They look like models. I totally don't buy any of those women as doctors. I sure don't think the very young-looking brunette in the white coat looks like Lydia Fiore, ER attending and former street kid. Maybe the red head could be a nurse, and the blonde a med student. But I sure don't buy the tall African American woman as a tough, assertive, bulimic third year emergency medicine resident. The four women look like . . . models. Young models with professional hair and make-up.

The second hiccup happened on P. 4: Trey Garrison . . . glanced up, revealing a pair of vivid hazel eyes that locked onto Lydia's gaze.

"Ack!" I thought. "I've been tricked into reading a romance novel." I didn't love that style of writing, which happened occasionally through both books, but I was caught by the pace, the mystery, and the lives of the four women. Indeed, Lyons is a member of Romance Writers of America in addition to a few mystery writers' organizations, and describes the series as "Thrillers with Heart." Upon reflection, I feel like the novels fall slightly more on the side of "romantic suspense" than "medical thriller," though there's a lot going on in the stories and only one romance arc completes with each novel. Actually, I keep going back and forth on how I'd categorize this one.

My third hiccup came in Warning Signs, when I decided that the characters were a little too flawed. Lydia's past is . . . intense. Which would be fine, but each of the other main characters is equally damaged. And I really don't like Gina. I'm sure that I'm supposed to, and it looks like Book 3 will be her book, so here's hoping that I start to find her just a touch more sympathetic.

My fourth hiccup came as Nora repeatedly missed the obvious signs of what's going on with her boyfriend. I have strongly suspected that Louis has a particular sleep disorder since early in book one, and I really hope that I'm wrong. I don't like to figure things out too much faster than the main characters, when we're given the same data. It also drives me crazy that Amanda keeps refusing to tell people that there's something physically wrong with her. Again: I know; other characters don't; it's uncomfortable for me. Especially when there's an easy and obvious solution: tell someone!

I really enjoyed reading Lifelines and Warning Signs, and am eagerly awaiting the third installment. But I still don't like the covers.

Mostly, I'm very interested to see where CJ Lyons goes next. There's something very fresh and honest about her, no artifice. I think she's an exciting new author to watch.


  1. You made me laugh, Sarah, about that part on being tricked into reading a romance novel. Alas, that's happened to me before. The genre for my book review today is thriller, so it's probably obvious where my interest lies.

  2. I'll be over to check it out, just as soon as I complete my morning rounds of preschool drop-off and music class attendance!

  3. Yes, I got a chuckle out of the romance comment, too. What I discovered is that I love romance - I'm a romantic - but I usually find it in genres other than romance - especially the ones that are so fantasy-based and not realistic. I guess I like "realistic romance" - sounds like an oxymoron.

  4. Sarahlynn, your title of this post, "Lifelines and Warning Signs", made me think you were working at a suicide hotline, or somebody you know recently attempted.

    Not really very funny, and not quite on your topic, but just thought I would point it out!

  5. Sarahlynn, your title of this post, "Lifelines and Warning Signs", made me think you were working at a suicide hotline, or somebody you know recently attempted.

    Not really very funny, and not quite on your topic, but just thought I would point it out!

  6. Kathy, that's exactly how I feel.

    Flatflo, yikes! Sorry about that. I added italics, and hope that helps.

  7. It makes you wonder about covers, doesn't it? I mean, obviously somebody thought these were the hot ticket. Anyway...your review has me really intrigued. Thank you!

  8. You know, when I think about the cover selection process: meetings with editorial, design, advertising and marketing, sales, etc. . . . a LOT of people had to sign off on this concept. It just baffles me.

    I think I am the target market, here, but the cover just . . . doesn't do it for me. Worse than that - if I hadn't already been captivated by the author herself, the cover would have kept me from buying the book.

  9. Interesting to have a novelist who also writes for TV AND is an ER doctor- wow! I’ve enjoyed the House shows I’ve seen.

    Too bad about the cover, but don’t blame the author. Authors have little sway on cover art, and book jacket designers just get a synopsis. They don’t usually read the book.

    I appreciated the critical style of your review.

  10. Thanks, Sarah! I definitely do not blame the author for her covers . . . I worked in educational publishing for years and we rarely showed a cover to an author before it was finalized.

    Also, I wasn't clear . . . there were two separate novelists on the panel: a writer for House and an ER doc. Very interesting conversations ensued. :)

    I love your gorgeous photos, blog, and website. Thanks for stopping by!