This is the second instalment of Helen Cox's humorous and entertaining series set in a vintage style diner in the 1990s in New York City. The first, "Milkshakes and Heartbreak at the Starlight Diner" introduced us to Esther, an English girl on the run from her life in England, who falls into the diner, lands a job as a waitress there and then continues to face her secrets, her past and her heartbreak with the help of the friendly, warm, quirky cast of characters who have all found a home at the Starlight Diner. It ended with the cliffhanger of another lost soul entering the diner looking for Esther.
And so "Secrets and Fries" picks up from exactly this moment. Written with the same lively, fresh, vivid energy of Book One, it takes up the story of Bonnie, a singer who seeks out the only friend she feels she has as she tries to out run the dangerous and threatening situation she has unwillingly become entangled with. Although this is a sequel, there is enough recap when necessary and as this book focuses on Bonnie and her story, it is completely possible to read the novel as a stand alone (but I would highly recommend checking out "Milkshakes and Heartbreak at the Starlight Diner" if you have not yet discovered it!).
What brings Bonnie Brooks to The Starlight Diner? And why is she on the run?
As the front-woman in a band, Bonnie is used to being in the spotlight, but now she must hide in the shadows.
Bonnie only has one person who she can turn to: her friend Esther Knight, who waitresses at the Fifties-themed diner. There, retro songs play on the jukebox as fries and sundaes are served to satisfied customers. But where has Esther gone?
Alone in New York City, Bonnie breaks down in front of arrogant news reporter, and diner regular, Jimmy Boyle. Jimmy offers to help her. Can she trust him?
When the kindly owner of the Starlight Diner offers Bonnie work, and she meets charming security officer Nick Moloney, she dares to hope that her luck has changed. Is there a blossoming romance on the cards? And can Bonnie rebuild her life with the help of her Starlight Diner friends?"Milkshakes and Heartbreak at the Starlight Diner" was narrated by Esther and Cox now hands on the narrative to Bonnie. Bonnie is an appealing character; relatable, flawed, a little lost and a little prone to making the wrong decision but ultimately a good person who is only trying to find love, friendship and a home. Having got to know Esther so well in the first book and feeling very attached to her story, I was initially a little thrown not to be reunited with her but actually it works to see this new story from Bonnie's point of view and very quickly I felt I had formed a relationship with her, cared about her and related to her in the same way I had Esther. And Esther is still there, still in the story and still an important member of the cast, it's just not her story anymore. Again, this puts Cox in the great position of creating a series of novels that has limitless potential and for this, I am excited!
"Secrets and Fries at the Starlight Diner" opens by once again establishing the setting and location and firmly settling us down in a comfy seat at the back of the diner, ready to watch the action unfold.
"Of course, when your doors are open, anyone can walk into your life - someone besides the local cops on their lunch break or the old lady who always asks for the corner table and orders ice cream in December and soup in August. The next person could just as easy be a stranger with a story you'll never get to hear and secrets best left unsaid."
Quickly Cox paints an enticing and vivid picture of the diner; it's colour, its style, its atmosphere- all of which is integral to the appeal of these novels.
"The place was painted in a blinding shade of red and had vintage signs hanging around the walls advertising sodas and milkshakes, each one complete with some sickly-sweet slogan like 'Put a cherry on top of your day'. The smells left behind from the cooking of hotdogs, omelettes, grilled cheese sandwiches and French fries all lingered, creating their own unique, sweaty perfume."
The Starlight Diner is a "magnet for lost souls". It is a place where anyone is welcome, anyone can walk in and order a drink, anyone can sit and dwell on their day - although chances are Mona will soon interrupt you to take your order and then get you disclosing all that you were trying to keep hidden while journalist Jimmy's pen and paper are twitching under the table next to you as he tries to capture the next big news item!
And this of course is why a diner is such an excellent setting for a fast paced story of drama, danger, secrets and lies.
But let's get back to Bonnie and her sense of trepidation as she enters the diner and seeks out Esther - unannounced, unexpected and with something unknown gnawing away at her.
"I didn't know what kind of reception I'd get from Esther, not after what had happened between us. When she found out what was going on, the parts it was safe to tell, I'd at least be subjected to a tut and an eyebrow raise. That much was certain......Still I needed a friendly face and she was the closest thing I had."
Bonnie is a flawed character. She knows she has got herself in to a serious scrape, she knows that she has made the wrong choices and she knows that turning up at the diner is a risk. The reader doesn't know what it is she is running from, how precarious her position is or what reception Esther might give her but we are intrigued. We have got to know enough of Bonnie in these few opening pages to want to find out more, to feel that she is a character we are going to want to care for and stick with through her trails and tribulations. Bonnie is perhaps a bit more edgy and risqué than Esther and her dry wit, quick quips and wry self deprecation add a good dollop of humour to the appetising recipe.
"If there were two choice in any given situation, I'd choose the wrong one. Guaranteed."
The title of the book is "Secrets and Lies" and secrets and lies is indeed what it is all about, so we are not surprised to discover that Bonnie is being rather economical with the truth. I really liked the way Cox handled her protagonist's duplicity.
"'So what brings you to New York?'
Ok. Straight down to business. I can do that. I've rehearsed my little speech. It'll sound natural enough, it's pretty much the truth. Like ninety-eight percent of it, so I'm not telling any out-and-out lies. I just need to breath, and talk."
As the novel progresses Cox introduces the love triangle between Jimmy, Nick and Bonnie. Bonnie finds herself weaving an even more complex web of 'white lies' and again, I really enjoyed the way she talked herself through her selectiveness and justified what she shared. Cox makes sure the reader stills feels sympathetic towards Bonnie despite her lack of transparency and although Bonnie is involved in something dangerous and serious, we always feel that she is not to blame for anything dishonest or illegal. The first person narrative and her chaotic, blunt humour helps maintain this.
"'Well, I appreciate an honest woman,' Nick said, edging his feet closer to me, while I wondered how honest we were talking here. A pang of guilt churned in my stomach but tried to shake it off. You don't have to be one hundred per cent honest on a second meeting, Bonnie. Besides, not disclosing something is not lying, it's just being select with the truth - or that's what I tried to convince myself."
I've already said that Bonnie is flawed and perhaps more fragile than she appears. As a singer in a band she is used to performing, creating a story, taking on a role so it was great to see this facade crack as the story continues and Bonnie's situation becomes more threatening. The warmth and friendliness of the diner also forces her on an emotional journey as what she really wants is the love and acceptance from these people.
"take me out of my costume, let me come up with my own words, and I didn't know who I was or what to say. Off stage, I wasn't anybody at all. Other than a person nobody really wanted around."
It's impossible not to like Bonnie. She reminded me of lots of my favourite characters that I have met in this genre, and perhaps also aspects of myself. She's a realistic, authentic and relatable character. We enjoy the exciting drama of secrets, lies, crime and justice as Bonnie tries to resolve the physical challenges that are threatening her, and then we also enjoy the emotional drama as Bonnie comes to term with who she is, what she wants and how she is going to move forward.
"'But I'm going to change that,' I said to her, quick as I could, before she turned on the waterworks. 'It is going to change, Bonnie.' the woman in the mirror flinched at the sound of me speaking her name out loud. 'Something has to. You deserve better that what you've had.'......Neat. Talking to yourself in the mirror. That's always a sign of spectacular mental health."
Bonnie's description that she had been acting "under the heady drug of impulse" captures her character really well and I loved this phrase as it is true for many of us- or people we have known- at certain times of our lives.
The middle part of the novel centres around the criminal event with which Bonnie is embroiled and this part of the book felt very different from "Milkshakes" which is more of a romance. In this part of the book, Cox shows how well she can integrate a police procedural angle and gripping scenes from the court room. It shows Cox's versatility and potential and hints at how much more she has to offer as a novelist.
Ultimately though, Cox's skill is inventing a world that every reader wants to go to; creating characters that intrigue us, make us smile, make us frown, make us want to pull up a stool at the counter and share a burger with them. She makes us want to discuss them, wonder about them and spy on them from the comfort of the diner as we watch their lives play out before us. Mona, Bernie, Jimmy, Esther and Jack continue to grow as characters in this sequel and I am becoming more and more attached to them the more I read about them. And now Bonnie has discovered them too.
"funny how you can interact with some people your whole life and never truly know them, while others make you feel as though you've always known them after five minutes. That's how it was for me with staff at the Strlight Diner. They'd let me in on their jokes, told me their life stories and listened to mine. Though I'd only been working there for one week, I didn't want to remember a time when I'd lived without them."
This is a fun, witty, easy read full of engaging characters and a plot that gallops along at a good pace. I really like the brand and buzz Cox has created around the Starlight Diner too and always enjoy her posts on Twitter for glimpses of life in a New York Diner!
"Secrets and Fries at the Starlight Diner" publishes on 16th December.
For more about Helen Cox you can follow her on Twitter @helenography or visit her website helencoxauthor.wordpress.com
For more recommendations and reviews you can follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)