Many years ago, Abi Bishop was a fellow AAR reviewer whose voice I particularly liked. Turns out, she has since become a novelist whose voice I like even more. Soft Barracuda, her début novel, is a contemporary romance that mixes the exotic – a Trinidad setting – with a likeable hero and heroine and some unexpected turns.
Fay Gordon is quite unhappy. An architect, she has recently moved back home to Trinidad from the United States, and so far her career there has not gotten much of a start. Her beloved younger sister Zahra has embarked on a career as a dancing video starlet, her mother drinks too much during the party said sister throws at Fay’s house, and two of the other guests are her smarmy ex and Christian Quintero, a friend of her cousin’s for whom she had the hots as a teenager. If she is honest with herself, she still does.
Fay, or Féyi, as she calls herself, is in the unenviable position of being the sensible woman in the family. Her mother left her and Zahra behind when she went to the States as an illegal immigrant, and although the girls were raised by a loving aunt and uncle, Féyi feels responsible for Zahra. Their third sister is a rebellious teenager who also turns to Féyi for assistance. She is prickly and aggressive to hide her vulnerability, and it took me a while to warm to her.
Christian, on the other hand, is a charmer from the first. He draws cartoons for a living, and his strips have won him great acclaim. Unfortunately, he has angered a number of people with his most recent work, which is awkward, because they were never meant for publication and have only used now in order to cover up for the fact that Christian has been suffering from writer’s block for months. His move back to Trinidad is supposed to help him find new inspiration. If that gives him the opportunity to make a move on his old flame Fay as well… so much the better.
So the set-up is this. Hero and heroine have known each other for years, always rubbing each other the wrong way, and while the heroine shies away from making her feelings known in any way, the hero is quite open about his pursuit of her. As a first step, he hires her to design a house for him, an offer she just can’t refuse.
What I absolutely loved about the novel is the exotic setting and the moods that Abi Dore creates. Her characters may be volatile at times, but they are never boring. I also loved the way that she describes Féyi’s various layers. She can be annoying, and extremely single-minded, but she felt like a person.
I cannot say quite the same about Christian. He is charming, and funny, and at the start we get some scenes with his family, and then there is the issue with his writer’s block. But these matters are resolved comparatively quickly, and after that Christian, although still immensely likeable, could have done with a tad more depth.
The plot takes some unexpected twists, some of them excellent, some of them just a bit forced, but still, I couldn’t put the novel down. As for the love scenes, I thought them both hot and emotionally satisfying. One of the strengths of this book is the ways that Féyi’s attractiveness is created: we never get a truly objective description of her looks. In her own eyes, she is just ordinary. In Christian’s eyes, she is exactly what he admires most. I thought this wonderfully romantic.
So while Soft Barracuda is not perfect, it is highly enjoyable, and I definitely plan to reread it. I hope we will see more novels by Abi Dore.