Story Rating: 3.5 stars
Audio Rating: 4.5 stars
Narrator: Kirt Graves
Length: 9 hours, 20 minutes
Redmond “Red” Ridley is a small-town guy who loves his small-town life (for the most part), and isn’t looking to change it. He may not know exactly what he wants to study in college, what he wants to “be when he grows up” or, for that matter, if he wants to go to college at all. The two things he is certain of are that 1) he could be perfectly happy staying in Ever After, NY, waiting tables at Mom and Pop’s Restaurant and keeping their books for the rest of his life, and 2) he would offer up all the goodies in his basket to the taciturn mechanic, Mark Woods, if he asked. Unfortunately for Red, his uniquely beautiful face, lithe frame, and natural charm make him a target for the town bully, as well as his grandmother’s big modeling dreams for him.
When Red is spotted by Brock Wolfe, CEO of an elite talent agency, turning down the chance to go to New York and at least see what a modeling career could do for him is not an option…for Nora “Gran” Ridley. For Red, it’s not so simple. While leaving would get him away from an increasingly violent, homophobic stalker and let him travel the world, it would also take him away from his budding romance with Mark and place him firmly into the hands of unnervingly, charismatic Wolfe (who rouses almost equal tendrils of desire and foreboding in Red). When Gran is threatened with eviction from her family home, Red is forced to choose between the man he loves and the only mother he’s ever known. Will his woodsman be able to save Red and his grandmother from the belly of the wolf in designer clothes or will Red get lost in the woods forever?
Better Red is the first in Tara Lain’s Ever After, New York series and sets up an interesting world that melds a contemporary take on fairy tales with a bit of the paranormal/fantastical. For those who aren’t that fond of fantasy, no worries, because these elements are only hinted at in order to evoke an air of mystery in the narrative. For the most part, Red is your typical high school graduate—unable to answer the BIG LIFE QUESTIONS of impending adulthood and wishing he had a clear goal, while also desperately trying to figure himself out. Red is a sweetheart who desperately wishes that his looks didn’t set him apart so much, or barring that, that he shared his grandmother’s aspirations. Red’s willing to do anything he can to make her happy even if it means being miserable himself. Although Red has a big heart and is a bit shy, he has some bite to his personality, which works nicely with Mark’s character, as he is even more selfless and altruistic than Red (and there’s only so much sweet I can handle!). As the majority of the story is told from Red’s POV, there is a bit more depth to his personality, especially as Mark is as mysterious to Red as he is to the reader for a while; however, there is enough in the snippets from Mark’s perspective to keep him from coming across as flat or one-dimensional. And while their romance is actually a smaller part of the story, it’s pretty well-paced and realistic.
As much as I enjoyed the MCs, the story is a bit uneven in its storytelling and pacing. Some of this comes from the hints of the paranormal that popped up occasionally. I actually went to Lain’s website to see how the book was categorized, which is as “contemporary fantasy.” For the most part, Lain utilizes the tantalizing suggestion of the fantastic in enigmatic scenes/descriptors well—it keeps the reader slightly off balance and makes the story feel familiar and real, yet slightly mystical as well. The overall tone of the story reminds me of the show “Once Upon a Time,” where fairy tale characters are transported to and live normal lives in the real world. However, there are times when the intriguing and ambiguous atmosphere Lain creates is shattered when she leans too hard into the paranormal elements, creating baffling rather than mysterious moments or even dismay when people’s humanness becomes obvious after Lain strongly hints otherwise.
Other flow issues are caused by Red’s dithering about his future and his interactions with a classmate stalker named Phil. For all Red claims to not know what he wants or begins to question being “too set in his ways” (after much prodding from Gran), he exhibits no real interest in modeling or much temptation to join that crowd, so the back and forth becomes repetitive after a point. Also, Phil shows up in the book far more than seems necessary and in ways that don’t further the plot or Red’s storyline. I’m guessing his extra visibility stems from an upcoming MC role later in the series. Another awkward element is the inconsistent, slightly dodgy portrayal of Gran—alternately sweet, yet manipulative, seen as giving and kind by Red, but written as basically a liar willing to sacrifice her grandson on the altar of her own thwarted ambitions. I honestly can’t tell if Gran fell victim to the Lain’s desire for ambiguity or simply that writer’s trap of thinking the goodness/good intentions of a character will shine through even though their actions are a bit trash. All these factors combined to create too many wolves after Red with too little movemnet in the plot.
Just as the narrative tone covers a variety of ground—swinging from down to earth, to mystical, to urbane—so do the character voices Kirt Graves uses in his performance. To me, Graves is one of those narrators who, while having a distinctive exposition/reading voice, has a broad roster of character voices. I’m always curious to see what he chooses to do, and Better Red lets him showcase this variety. From Woods’ deliberate, contained cadence that somehow conveys country (NOT Southern) charm and quiet dignity, to an oracle-esque enigma/scatterbrained old woman, Graves employs his skills to embody many of the characters’ main traits verbally. Lain populates Ever After and NYC with a myriad of characters and Graves does an excellent job of bringing them, as well as the settings, to life.
While some of the fantasy-lite elements and character/plot beats didn’t always gel for me, Better Red is decent story with likable, enigmatic, and delightfully devious characters, and will probably be a big hit amongst Tara Lain fans. Paired with Kirt Graves estimable narration, you get a fun, enjoyable listen.