4.5 stars - I’m going to start by explaining why this book has been on my TBR pile since June 2012. The thing is, I’ve read other works by Tamara Allen…and I’ve LOVED THEM. To pieces. With immense and overflowing joy that makes me want to go outside and sing (badly) to my poor neighbors and to the café downstairs and to the overworked clerks at the drug store across the street. “There she goes again...reading Tamara Allen,” they’ll say as I serenade in the paper towel section to the handsome Brawny mascot about Allen’s rich prose and witty dialogue.
I loved The Only Gold and Downtime--they are awesome historicals, so having an “Allen in my pocket” as it were with Whistling in the Dark was like having one last piece of chocolate that you were saving for a rainy day, or a bad day, or the last day on earth. Something to treasure and hold on to, because at only a handful of books, Allen’s backlist isn’t huge, and I wanted to hold on as long as possible to a book of hers I haven’t read yet.
But it’s Spring Cleaning Week at Boys in Our Books, so I picked it up, ready to move forward.
So, after all that, how did it go?
I loved it.
Allen is refreshingly consistent with her writing and characters—they are solid and real and sympathetic. She has this ability to drop the reader back in time, so everything--from Jack’s cluttered Emporium, filled with novelties and exotic treasures, to his messy apartment upstairs with his bare larder, to the jolting New York subway--all feel vibrant and realized, like you’re sitting across from the characters, watching them slowly and cautiously reach out beyond their battle scars to find each other.
And find each other they do. Two war-torn souls—impetuous Jack who is juggling his struggling shop, his loan shark shadows, and the night terrors that sometimes take over his body during the day, and Sutton, once richly privileged but scandal, loss, and memories from battle have pushed him to try his luck alone in the wilds of New York. And one bad night, when things look most dire for young, beaten Sutton, Jack’s kindred soul finds him, and takes him home, like one more strange, stray treasure found in the back shelves of his shop.
But it’s not just Jack who finds Sutton—dreams once thought lost are found as Sutton’s musical talent breathes back to life, and he and Jack quickly find that even their little grimy corner of the city can bring joy and light and song to citizens ravaged by war, illness, and loss.
Reading Whistling in the Dark is like watching an awesome old black-and-white movie. The dialogue feels placed in that time, with great tempo and funny lines. (Especially when saucy Gert comes on the scene. She’s a riot!) And speaking of Gert, it’s once again evident that Allen is very skilled at developing and juggling multiple characters and giving them distinct voices and lives, from protective Harry, to flamboyant Theo, to grouchy, suspicious Ida, to lovelorn Ox.
And Sutton and Jack’s relationship is a nice slow build, and very representative of Allen’s style of having two very different characters meet (like Jonah and Reid in The Only Gold and Ezra and Morgan in Downtime), not exactly hit it off, but gradually (and sometimes begrudgingly) circle around their commonalities, until finally they realize how fiercely important this once agitating presence has become to them.
If I had one downside for this volume, it would be that I felt the pacing slip a bit during the last 20% or so, and it felt a little bogged down during character emo-time. (I’m never a fan when the “I’m not good enough for you” conflict swings in.) But the rest of the work is such an overflowing joy, that it is still very easy to love this book, just like the others.
And I can write love letters to Allen and sing inappropriately in the drug store all day about how much I enjoy her writing. For those who haven’t read her yet, I highly recommend her work, especially if you like historicals, slow burns, enemies-to-lovers, thoughtful and rich characterization, and a strong sense of place and time.
I think Allen is one of the best (and very underrated) authors in the m/m genre. For those who enjoy historicals, her work is a true treasure.
Reviewed first for Boys In Our Books.