"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Monday, December 27, 2010

Assisted Loving: True Tales of Double Dating with My Dad by Bob Morris

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: A widowed father asks his adult gay son to set him up on dates with women his father might like.

A gay adult son – writer Bob Morris - is asked by his widowed father to set him up on dates with women his father might like. Hard to tell who’s pickier, the father or son. Bob feels burdened by his father's craziness yet offended if women he picks don’t like his father.

But it’s no wonder that Joe is having trouble finding a second wife to spend his golden years with – the son is as picky as the father and won't consider potential women who answer the phone in perky or silly ways.
“I just need someone with a good figure who doesn’t smoke. Preferably Jewish. Republican a plus. I’m going to hold you to your promise to make those calls for me.”
We said goodbye and I hand up the phone. What is going on here? Am I really going to be pimping for my father?
Along the way, we meet some of the women that Bob vets and go on a few of the dates Joe makes with these women. Bob is also struggling to find someone to spend the rest of his life with. Bob resents how much time he has to spend catering to the whims of his demanding father, and wondering how in the world his sainted mother stood living with his father for so long, when Bob finds almost every interaction - from childhood, adolescence and even adulthood - painful.

Bob never recognizes his own selfishness and personality quirks and spends most of the book complaining about his father and wondering why other hot gay men don't want a cuddly overweight graying writer who's perpetually grumpy. Gee, I wonder.

Still the book has a happy ending for both father and son in a rewarding scene that makes up for the whining of the book.
At the end of the book, father and son revisit their childhood home together.
“Why did I dislike it so much?" I ask. "Why was I so unhappy here?”
Dad doesn’t know. And I can’t say I’ll ever know either. I’ve always been insecure, and I’ve always liked to complain. And without anything important to complain about, I guess I needed something, anything, to pick on for all those years. But now I think I’m finally tired of my unhappiness. Maybe all it takes is an adjustment, a decision, like when you stop looking for perfection in a mate and finally fall in love."
I tend not to read blogs or books by or hang around people who complain, so this book required a big effor for me to finish. It was amusing, but not gut-achingly funny.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hidden Wives by Claire Avery

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: Two young sisters in a polygamous community are struggling with the husbands they're assigned by their compound's Prophet. 

Teenaged Rachel and her slightly younger sister Sara have been raised in a fundamental polygamous community in Utah. At 16 and 17, their short-tempered and perpetually angry father takes them to the Prophet to hear who has received “heavenly” testimonies to marry the girls.

Sara has been assigned to her father’s older brother, Sara’s own uncle. Rachel is shocked but believes that the testimony must be correct. Then Rachel is told 16 different men in the community request her hand in marriage. The Prophet must pray on Rachel’s best future husband. According to their father, Rachel is a seductress and a whore and requires the devil to be beat out of her. As Rachel is locked in her room, reflecting on her evil ways, Sara’s former best friend summons Sara to be with her as she gives birth.

Sheltered Sara is shocked by the birthing process and horrified when her friend’s baby is born severely deformed and left to die. The midwife mutters something about inbreeding and Sara, who has never been taught biology in the community’s school, wonders if there are any health risks when you have a child with a relative. What would happen to Sara’s babies if she married her uncle?

Adding to the inner turmoil is the attraction Rachel feels for the son of a wealthy new family who has joined the cult. Rachel and handsome and headstrong Luke feel drawn to each other, but Rachel knows it’s forbidden if Luke doesn’t receive a testimony from God. When Luke tells the Prophet of his testimony, Luke is banished from the compound, gone forever, like so many other boys on the verge of manhood. Only after oh-so-beautiful Rachel is raped by her own father (!) do the girls execute a tense and rapid escape out west.

Sara and Rachel slowly expand their lives, their minds and their choices, experiencing major culture shock and the aftermath of the trauma they survived.

The writing was solid, but the terror of the story would have been just as vivid without the Rachel’s rape by her father. That scene, and its aftermath, put the whole book over the top for me.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Troubled Waters by Sharon Shinn

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Summary: Summoned to be the king's fifth wife, Zoe Ardelay runs away to discover her role in the family she had always believed abandoned her, in this new fantasy novel.

Sharon Shinn is one of the most talented authors I read, since she can create entire new worlds that make sense in a believable way. In Troubled Waters, Shinn creates a new world that fascinated me, based loosely on feng shui principles or perhaps zodiac signs.

Each of us have blessings bestowed upon us at birth which remain with us, and our characteristics are also divided into five categories: hunti (wood/bone); sweela (fire/mind); coru (water/blood);  elay (air/soul); and torz (earth/flesh). At any time you can visit a temple to pick a random blessing to give you divine guidance about a current task, problem or event. It's interesting - do people adopt characteristics of their element and do people treat them like their element, so they become that way, or are people destined to act and behave as their elements?

Inside this new world of Shinn's, we have Zoe - the daughter of a fire (sweela) man and a water (coru) woman. Fire and water don't normally mix, but Zoe is the best and worst of her elements. Flexible and powerful, like water; hot-tempered yet warm and affectionate like fire, Zoe is content to let things happen to her, rather than actively forcing something. Her passivity annoys me, but the story develops around her and she seems strangely reluctant to become the head of her family - the coru prime.

After her father's death in exile,  Zoe is escorted to the capitol to become the king's fifth wife. During a traffic jam, Zoe "escapes" and lives a casual, almost vagrant, life alongside the river. On her way to work one morning, she is robbed and attacked by thugs.  For her safety, she leaps into the river and is carried away underneath the city, protected and nurtured by the water. Realizing that she has an extraordinary connection to water - the trait of her mother's family, Zoe leaves her life at the riverbank to take her place as the prime - the head of the family. Once she's connected with her mother's family, Zoe is summoned to court for her official duties as prime and is mired in court politics and a budding romance with a hunti nobleman.

In typical Sharon Shinn fashion, a restless woman discovers her own strengths in a fish-out-of water situation and romance is secondary to the heroine's growth and the exquisitely executed details of Shinn's fantasy worlds. Troubled Waters is no exception.

If you're not a fan of fantasy fiction, and you think feng shui is baloney, you won't like this book. But I consider it one of Sharon Shinn's best, also reminiscent of the Kristin Cashore novels, where political intrigue could topple a monacrchy.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Keeper and Kid by Edward Hardy

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Summary: James Keeper is stunned to discover he and his ex-wife have fathered a child together and he is the legal guardian of their three-year-old son, after her sudden death. 

Most women have 9 months to adjust to the idea that they will become a parent; James Keeper has one week.

Keeper, as his friends call him, is summoned to the hospital by his ex-mother-in-law. His ex-wife Cynthia had a stroke and wants Keeper to take custody of their dog Arrow, whom Keeper lost in the divorce.

Leah, Keeper's current girlfriend, is reluctant to take on a dog and since they just moved in together, Keeper lets Leah choose all the paint colors in their house to make it up to her about the dog he's planning to go and pick up next week.

But when Keeper arrives to pick up Arrow, his ex-sister-in-law Gracie is sitting on the front steps in tears. Arrow ran away last week and can't be found. Keeper is stunned, angry and a little relieved, and pleased that Gracie is so upset about Arrow. But Gracie isn't crying over Arrow, she's crying because Cynthia is dead.  Dead?!

And then a young child with Cynthia's eyes and Keeper's chin wanders outside. In the span of 15 minutes, Keeper finds out that Cynthia has conceived his child, and kept the baby a secret all these years and made Keeper the guardian, in event of her death. Cynthia always was secretive, but to hide their child?! Keeper is overwhelmed, angry, grieving for Cynthia and mystified about how to care for his three-year-old son, Leo.

So Keeper takes Leo home, somehow forgetting to tell Leah that he's bringing his child home to live with them. When Leah comes back from her business trip, she finds Leo installed in her home office and Keeper distracted with the child of his dead ex-wife. Keepr had all this time to tell her, but never thought to call her about adding a child to their lives.

Dumped, Keeper falls into a strange post-partum depression and Leo struggles with a new home, potty-regression, the loss of his mother, and Keeper's well-intentioned neglect.
On the front steps he said: 
"You're really not taking very good care of me."
"I'm trying, " I said. "I get points for trying."
"What points?"
Slacking at work and losing money, moping over Leah, and constantly sleep-deprived, Keeper falls apart. His friends confront him, knowing how bad he is at asking for help. When he lets people help, life becomes much easier. He introduces Leo to his grandparents, a blessing for all involved, and his friends offer to babysit, help him find a day care and encourage him to move on.

But Keeper is still obsessed with Leah, and embarks on a mission to win her back.
"I can't do this alone, I thought." 
And there is Keeper's major mistake. He even has a one night stand with his ex-sister-in-law Gracie, when she visits to see Leo and help out. He seems to see any and every woman as an acceptable mother substitute so he doesn't have to do the hard work of parenting.

Keeper's love campaign to win Leah back fell on the stalking side of the secret admirer line for me, and I couldn't understand why Keeper refused to acknowledge that some women (and men) are not cut out for parenthood. Despite Leah's fervent declarations that she does not want kids, Keeper brushes that aside, because he so wants Leah back in her life. When someone breaks up with you, they don't want to be with you - and Leah was very clear that she never wanted kids.

While Keeper certainly has the sleep-deprivation, exasperation and pride that all parents do, his blindness to the fact that he can't go back to his old life, yet fully expects that if he works hard enough he can have it ALL just made me angry. Only a male author would think that you can suddenly get a kid (from your ex-wife, no less) and still win back a wife who's never wanted kids. A woman author would never have such an implausible ending. It was tender, but unrealistic.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Perfect Blend by Sue Margolis

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: Single mom Amy finds love and career success while working at a coffee shop. 

Perfect Blend was like a mocha drink - sweet, satisfying, and richer than expected. After an off-putting opening chapter, I stuck with it and this book surprised me, continually. At first, I thought it was a bad-dating Brit-lit book, then a Mommy Wars book, then a dysfunctional family book. But it evolved from all of these things into a realistic romance with a small mystery thrown in.

Amy is a single mom who got pregnant on purpose, and seems to balance her life quite well. Her son Charlie is a normal six-year-old, Amy has great childcare options, and is slowly building a freelance journalism career. Amy's working as a barista at Mozart's Cafe for her friend Brian, a true coffee connoisseur. Sure, Amy's dates aren't really working out, and her sister is a know-it-all, but overall, her life is good.

Amy's both a working mom, since she works at a coffee shop and freelances, and is sometimes a stay-at-home mom. Both types of mothers come into Cafe Mozart and Amy has these styles of mothers pegged:
A stay-at-home mummy - role model: Angelina Jolie, motto: "The best academy, a mother's knee" - believed that by being permanently available, she was raising well adjusted children who would blossom into delightful, angst-free adolescents and emotionally stable adults. So she devoted her time to finger painting and making low-sugar wholemeal cupcakes with her brood. She fed them a careful balance of carbs, protein and vitamins. She was also a firm believer that small children shouldn't become overburdened by too many after-kindergarten activities. Her kids were encouraged to pursue destressing pastimes such as kiddie yoga, Kindermusik, and tending the plants at the Tots Herb Garden. 
An alpha mummy- role model- Cherie Blair (lawyer, author, mother of four), motto: "In it to win it" - believed that by combining motherhood with a high flying career, she was achieving the goals that her teachers and university tutors set down for her. Moreover, she was proving to the next generation that it was possible for women to have it all. "Discipline" and "determination" were her watchwords. The first things an alpha mummy did after giving birth was phone her CEO. 
And then there are "mothers superiors":
For them, motherhood was nothing less than rhapsodic. Mothers superior would never admit that being stuck at home on a wet afternoon building Lego towers with a toddler  who immediately demolished them and then demanded they be rebuilt was a chore. In their view, the mistake other mothers make was failing to see the experience as a truly meaningful step on junior's epic journey toward learning to play and interact with significant others. It was something to be celebrated, not endured.
I know mothers like these - all of these. And while I can roll my eyes at their extreme views, they do exist. And they exist in Amy's life too, as Amy's sister Victoria is a mother superior. So I thought this would be a "struggling mom" book, or a mom who learns how to be happy, single and alone.  Yet...

On an errand to pick up more milk, Amy encounters a handsome man, looking over Bean Machine papers in a new building. If chain coffee shop Bean Machine moves in, there's no way Brian can afford to employ Amy. Bean Machine will get the morning metro traffic, the business lunch crowd and the afternoon mom snacks. Amy has a great work situation and can't afford to find another job. Plus Brian's a good friend and sunk his whole savings into Cafe Mozart. Amy politely thanks the handsome - but obviously evil - Bean Machine man, and hurries back to share the bad news with the Cafe Mozart staff.

When the handsome man buys a cup of coffee a few days later, Amy blasts him - Bean Machine exploits workers and drives small business owners out,  yet he gives as good as he gets, just before he tells Amy that he was only the engineer of the building. Amy's remorseful about her rush to judgment, and when the man - Sam - arrives at Cafe Mozart again - and defuses a tense mommy wars situation - Amy has a chance to apologize. They have a great date, and go on to have a great romance.

And life happens and unfolds in funny, tense and tender ways - her sister Victoria splits from her husband and moves in with Amy and Charlie; Amy's researching a hot story in the coffee business; Amy's divorced parents are each having relationship issues; Brian's having some concerning health issues, and Bean Machine is opening soon.

This book delighted me by defying predictability. It was deeper than I expected, based on the title and opening chapter, and I plan to read more by author Sue Margolis.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: Melinda has told no one about her rape, and can hardly bear to speak in high school. 

The summer before her freshman year starts, Melinda is raped by a popular athlete in high school. Melinda calls the cops, but can't actually say the words. The cops come anyway and break up the party.

Now that the school year has started, Melinda has no friends, and no parental support. Oblivious parents seem to be a common element in Anderson's books.

Melinda functions in high school, just barely saying the minimum, to the frustration of her parents and a bullying teacher. Melinda's only friend is a transfer student, who doesn't know about the party and another student who dislikes the teacher who picks on Melinda. Melinda's parents nag her and blame each other for Melinda's silence. To be fair to her terrible parents, Melinda never confides in any adult, and is unable to seek help.

My book club read Wintergirls and I hated it because I thought the writing was overblown and pretentious.  While I enjoyed Speak much more plot-wise, I still hated the writing.
The noise of four hundred mouths moving, consuming, pulls me away from her. The background pulsing of the dishwashers, the squeal of announcements that no one hears – it is a vespiary, the Hornet haven. I am a small ant crouched by the entrance, with the winter wind at my back. I smother my green beans with mashed potatoes.
Melinda thinks she has survived the rape, until she discovers that her former best friend is dating her rapist. I know it sounds like a Lifetime Movie Network plot, but you can feel Melinda's terror. And so Melinda turns stalker, in order to protect her former friend. Adam, the rapist, is manipulative and menacing - the perfect villain.
I am a deer frozen in the headlights of a tractor trailer. Is he going to hurt me again? He couldn’t, not in school. Could he? Why can’t I scream, say something, do anything?
A haunting story, the author refers to her own novel as "the most important book of the decade." Once again, excessive, although it was memorable.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Poppy Done to Death (Aurora Teagarden Mysteries, Book 8) by Charlaine Harris

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Summary: Part-time librarian Aurora Teagarden solves the murder of her step-father's daughter-in-law.

Aurora Teagarden is prim, reserved, judgmental, extremely wealthy and prissy - and is constantly stumbling into dead bodies. I can't get enough of her.

In one of my on-line book groups, someone mentioned author Charlaine Harris' other series, the Lily Bard mysteries, the Aurora Teagarden mysteries and the Harper Connelly series. You most likely know Charlaine Harris as the author of the Sookie Stackhouse vampire stories, which inspired the True Blood TV show.  I requested every single one from the library and of course read them out of sequence and randomly as each arrived.

Harper Connelly can sense the dead; Lily Bard is a housecleaner in a small town who solves mysteries; and Aurora Teagarden reminds me of Murder She Wrote's Jessica Fletcher, only about 30 years younger.

Aurora is a small-town librarian who has inherited a fortune from her friend. Aurora dates, tries to find a past-time, visits friends, maintains her boring little life and somehow solves murder mysteries. Just like the fictional town of Cabot Cove, Maine, you would be surprised at how many murders occur in small towns.

When her step-sister-in-law Poppy misses an important luncheon, Aurora "Roe" Teagarden drops by to check on her. Roe is dismayed to find Poppy lying dead right inside her kitchen. Since her husband was cheating on Poppy at the time of the murder, Aurora knew someone else not in her family had killed Poppy.
"Poppy had had at least two flings that I knew about, and I would not have been surprised to hear that there had been more. I had tried - real hard - not to judge Poppy, to enjoy the part of her I liked and ignore the part that made me queasy."
But Poppy's promiscuity shouldn't have killed her  so Roe and her other step-sister-in-law Melinda try to keep their family together - finding remnants of Poppy's troubled past and messy, complicated sex life, and trying to uncover who in this small town could have murdered Poppy.
"So, we had a mysterious gas station receipt, a murdered woman, a philandering lawyer, a philandering husband, a past lover or three, a searcher, and a detective who shouldn't be on the case at all."
This was my favorite of all the Teagarden stories, but there were a few continuity issues that only someone who had just read all the books in a short period of time, as I just did, would notice.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Search by Nora Roberts

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Summary: The only surviving victim of a now-jailed serial killer is haunted by a copycat while enjoying her new relationship with an artist.

When a formula works, many authors stick with it. Here's Nora Roberts' formula.  One sexy heroine, who is an expert in her field, -archeology, photography, gardening, glass-blowing, magic (yes, I know), baking, hostage negotiation (yeah, it sound silly)- meets a man and has instant heat with him. They spar verbally, and then have explosive sex. Then the woman analyzes the relationship out loud, usually while shoe shopping or having spa time with her close girlfriend(s) but accepts that if the man doesn't feel the same way, she's okay with that, because she's an independent woman with a career and good friends, and she's just enjoying the sex too much. Then some minor thing occurs - the woman fixes his coffee just right, or rescues a cat - and then the man realizes he's in love too. Oh, and don't forget the moisturizer! Roberts' heroines always use moisturizer, even if they don't always use condoms.

Roberts' books are simplistic, predictable, and usually very enjoyable (Try Vision in White.) But The Search is Nora Roberts' attempt to get her readers to accept the more violent side of her writing, which she had already done in her many futuristic Eve Dallas books, written by her pseudonym J.D. Robb.

Here, Roberts takes her basic formula and adds a copycat serial killer to the mix. Fiona is the only surviving victim of a now-jailed serial killer. Fiona lives on an island now and is a search-and-rescue team leader and dog trainer. She is now being stalked by an acolyte of the killer. She also is having lots of (dining room table) sex with an wood-working artist who is grumpy and untidy. Instead of being heart-poundingly scary, the book felt like too many elements (along with the typical ones) were crammed into one book. I get that people's lives are complicated, but Roberts' books work best when her readers can identify with the main characters, at least a little bit. I imagine that the pool of surviving victims of serial killers is relatively small, and that they may not want to read modern romance novels about themselves.  Disappointing read, compared with early Tami Hoag.

Friday, November 26, 2010

NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: Nurtureshock challenges many accepted modern parenting beliefs by sharing case studies and research.
"Nurtureshock," as the term is generally used, refers to the panic - common among new parents- that the mythical foundation of knowledge is not magically kicking in at all.
I was hoping this book would simply say: Calm down, parents, but instead it actually made me more nervous. (I think I'll have to reread Free-Range Kids, now.) Since Po Bronson is also the author of What Should I do with My Life?, I had hoped that Nurtureshock would end up being more like How Should I Parent My Kid? but it feels scold-y and superior.

Each chapter states a commonly held parenting belief - My kid doesn't lie; PBS television is better than regular TV; Gifted kids always stay gifted; Siblings make for better adults - and tears them down. It opens with the oft-repeated conventional wisdom, then uses a specific case study of one child to disprove that theory. Then comes a fairly obscure and limited research project that invalidates the original (wrong) belief.   The research answers are encouraging, but somehow they just don't make for sexy headlines.

If you're an insecure parent who relies on lots of statistics, this book will appeal to you. If you feel able to buck parenting trends and have one or two parenting books that make sense to you, you can skip this book without feeling like you're missing anything.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Insatiable by Meg Cabot

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Summary: Soap opera writer Meena Harper is sick of vampires, especially when they become an integral part of the plot of her series Insatiable. And when Meena meets a real life vampire who makes all her other dreams come true, Meena is torn. 

Author Meg Cabot, best known for her Princess Diaries, is an underrated writer.  Insatiable has humor, romance, danger and is bitingly appropriate. It's also thoroughly researched and well-written. But I absolutely hated the ending. It made me sick.

My Nook digital reader came with Bram Stoker's Dracula novel, which I immediately archived, since I have no interest in reading that. But Meg Cabot pays chick-lit homage to the novel, recognizing and altering the classic characters and with plot points "ripped from the headlines." It's enough to make me add Dracula back on so I can read it and compare.

Cabot's heroine Meena Harper is a tribute to Mina Harker, wife of Jonathan Harker, from the original Dracula novel. In Insatiable, Jon Harper is Meena's brother, although they do share the same apartment after Jon lost his job. Dracula's Jonathan and Mina Harker try to rescue Lucy, but in 2010 New York, Jon and Meena try to rescue Meena's best friend Leisha. There are other clever wordplays and references to Dracula and the story is linguistically accurate as well. The word Dracul translates to the word dragon.

Meena Harper is psychic. She can tell when someone is going to die. But after years of being ostracized for her gruesome talent, she's isolated herself, living a fulfilling but sometimes frustrating life as head writer for the popular soap opera Insatiable. (Think Liz Lemon writing drama.) Then orders come from on high, telling Meena to introduce vampires to the show or lose her job. Vampires it is.

While Meena is out walking her dog one night (goofily named Jack Bauer), she is attacked by bats and saved by a handsome man. Stunned and scared, Meena hurries back home. The next day at a dinner party, she meets her neighbor's cousin, a Romanian prince named Lucien. And the prince is none other than the man who rescued her the night before.

The romance between Meena and Lucien is hot (Meg Cabot writes sexy well) and both Lucien and Meena are excited beyond belief to find someone who accepts them for who they are. The night after their passion, Lucien even send Meena the Marc Jacobs dragon tote she's been eyeing for months. How did he understand her so completely? (I checked, there is no real dragon tote.) Until Meena discovers that Lucien is a vampire. Okay, not only is she surrounded by vampires (which deeply offends feminist Meena), but now her brother and some strange vampire hunter named Alaric are trying to break them up.

Danger and hilarity ensue.

And then we get to the end, which I will NOT reveal. I felt betrayed as a reader and disappointed in Meg Cabot.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Secret of Joy by Melissa Senate

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: Just before her father dies, Rebecca finds out he has fathered a child and abandoned her long ago. Rebecca finds her long-lost sister. 

About to marry her long-time boyfriend and boss, Rebecca is delighted and stunned to discover that she has a sister she's never met. Of course, her father's deathbed confession that he had an affair 26 years ago and fathered a child he's had no contact with since leaves Rebecca reeling, especially since she always thought her parents had the perfect marriage.

I loved this book. The complex and messy emotions contained in the book were perfectly described and understandable. The anger, joy, frustration, confusion and stubbornness of being an adult and recognizing your parents' flaws carry this above and beyond a typical chick-lit novel.

Bereft over the upcoming loss of her father, Rebecca is also angered and confused. How could her father, her loving and attentive father, have abandoned her sister? Was her entire relationship with her father a fantasy? And what was her parents' marriage really like? And why did he tell her now?
"If your dad felt that guilty, he would have tracked her down at some point over the past twenty-six years. It's a deathbed confession, Rebecca. It's to ease his heart. It's so he can die in peace." 
But when she is reprimanded professionally for getting too emotional at work after her father's death, Rebecca takes a leave of absence to track down her sister, Joy. Her boyfriend/boss Michael thinks tracking down her long-lost sister is a terrible idea, but something compels Rebecca north to Maine.
"WELCOME TO MAINE: THE WAY LIFE SHOULD BE. The sign seemed like her fortune, her horoscope, her Magic 8 Ball answer. Her life was not the way it should be, and she knew it, had known it for a while. She liked the idea that simply passing the sign meant she was working on that."
Joy lives in Maine and runs singles tours on the Love Bus. But Joy's own marriage is in trouble and she rejects all of Rebecca's attempts at friendship and connection. Joy was rejected her whole life by Rebecca's father and now, after his death, the only way she can express the pain of that rejection is by rejecting Rebecca. But Joy is the only family Rebecca has left and Rebecca needs something from Joy, just as she simply needs joy.

The characters are well-developed, with human flaws and needs. I cried with the characters and even though this book had an unexpected happy ending, I hope to read more about these people.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Silencing Sam by Julie Kramer

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Summary: A reporter under suspicion of murder must find the real killer to prove her innocence.

I was given a copy of this book by the publisher.

Don’t tell the mayor, but Minneapolis is ‘Murderoplis’ again. Julie Kramer’s newest thriller, Silencing Sam, brings murder to your front door with wit and a fresh take on current events Minnesotans will secretly relish.

Ambitious television reporter Riley Spartz is back in Julie Kramer’s third novel, having moved to Minneapolis after the recent attempts on her life in White Bear Lake. Yet Minneapolis doesn’t seem much safer, once a headless female corpse is found in Theo Wirth Park. Expecting to be assigned the story, Riley’s visible story is usurped by new colleague Clay Burrel, a transplant from Texas, who is almost as ambitious as Riley herself.

His arrogance and smug sexism infuriates Riley but there are bigger problems at work. Riley’s fictional Channel 3 is in trouble, and the ratings chase continues. Her boss advises her,
“I was thinking maybe you should take a look at airbrush make-up now that we’ve gone digital.” 
Ouch. When the station brings in a consultant -

“Your next job review will take into account how many Facebook friends you accumulate, especially in our viewing area.”

In addition to work tension, Riley is struggling on the personal front. Her burgeoning romance with former Minneapolis cop Nick Garnett is hampered by Nick’s assignment working for Homeland Security in D.C. Even worse, her private life has come under the malicious eye of newspaper gossip columnist Sam Pierce.
 “Because Minneapolis has fewer and lower-level celebrities than places like New York or Los Angeles, fairly minor indiscretions by fairly unimportant people that otherwise would be shrugged off get blown into headlines. 
Anybody who complained to Sam’s editors about the coverage went on his sh*t list and got bombed harder the next time. And there was always a next time.”
The day after Riley ignores Sam’s request for insider dirt on new coworker Clay, Sam takes his revenge in print. Sam Pierce insinuates that Riley had cheated on her dead husband with her current lover. Insulted, outraged and defensive, Riley dumps a glass of wine on him. Given the witnesses, and the victim, she is immediately charged with misdemeanor assault. Her charge should be dismissed, but the judge wants to set an example and convicts Riley.

When Sam is murdered a few days later, Riley is the most obvious and best-known suspect. Naturally, Channel 3 has an exclusive with Riley, billing her as the woman accused of murdering a local journalist. When the power of the press is used to investigate anything Riley’s working on, it’s the sword of justice. But when the media attention focuses on her alleged killing of Sam, she complains about accuracy and privacy rights. Annoying as that is, it feels very real.
“What really bothered me was that I was being portrayed as a sociopath…psychopath… even lunatic. Sam was being painted as a victim. And not just a murder victim, either. A First Amendment martyr.” 
In order to clear her name, keep her job, cover a popular story and avoid jail, Riley investigates who in Minneapolis would need to silence Sam once and for all.

The Minnesota references add a layer of delight for local readers. Riley mentions three other citizens who are also likely suspects in Sam’s murder -
“First, a repeat drunk driver who caused a child’s death; next, a Ponzi scheme engineer who cheated dozens; last, a crooked car dealer who’d been a household name.” 
That’s specific enough that Minnesotans know exactly who she’s talking about, but vague enough that readers in other states can enjoy this book without worrying about the details. One of Sam’s other victims is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. What company? And who? What’s the secret worth hiding? The hunky Timberwolves player can’t actually be a Gopher baskeball player, but we know who he’s supposed be. Kramer never names the Star Tribune outright but always refers to it as “the Minneapolis paper”. Instead of making the gossip columnist look like a young, black woman (C.J.), it’s an old white man. Just enough difference so that Kramer is safe, even though C.J.’s the only Minneapolis gossip columnist I know of.

The mystery is bogged down by another story Riley must cover, the bombings of wind turbines in southern Minnesota. While Riley needs something to do when she’s not on camera, it muddled the fast-paced tone of Kramer’s other books. Stalking Susan is her strongest book, amazing for a debut novel. The back-and-forth affection between Riley and ex-cop Nick Garnett are funny and tender. I look forward to having Riley and Nick navigate their relationship and balance the demands of their jobs in future novels.

It’s a pleasure to read books that reflect life as we currently know it, even if it means more murders in Minneapolis this year. Social networking, local politics, white-collar crime and pop culture references make this a delicious summer read for local news fiends and mystery fans.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden by William Alexander

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: A father notes the process of building and growing his ideal garden.

The idea of how delicious a $64 tomato would taste makes me swoon a little in anticipation, so of course I had to read this book.

It’s quite funny. I found myself laughing in almost every chapter, as Alexander shares the joys, triumphs and frustrations of establishing a home garden.

Having grown up gardening and growing my own (award-winning) food as a child, I now find gardening books about as interesting as a book on dental work. Been there, done that and now will you please shut up about it since I had the sense to stop and you didn’t? I know how obsessive people get about their gardens, but hearing people talk about their gardens is, for me, like hearing old people talk about their ailments. They find it interesting but don’t know when to stop.
“People – all people, including me – have no objectivity when it comes to their driving, their cooking, or their gardens.”
Yet, despite their obliviousness, there is something special about a garden.

Alexander calls it correctly when he says,
“It seemed to say, “Come, bring me your seeds and water, and I will reward you.” And it would. And also humble me, and teach me, and become a place of solace, a battleground, a source of pride, a source of frustration, a time sink, a respite.”
Alexander chronicles his struggles with growing apples:
“Not only was I still trying to live up to the exemplar of my father’s organic apple orchard, but I am a natural-fibers, NPR-supporting, recycling, compost-making, left-of-center environmentalist, and I put my money where my mouth is, supporting local groups like Scenic Hudson to clean our rivers and curb development. Yet I was an environmentalist with a problem: I wanted to grow apples.
So when the serpent offered me the pesticide-sprayed apple,… I accepted it.”
Roses, herbs, his battles with a groundhog he calls Superchuck (think Caddyshack) and his beautiful $64 Brandywine tomatoes.

Way better than Coop but not as good as Animal Vegetable Miracle, this book is a nice companion for people who still wistfully look over the Burpee seed catalog, but sigh and instead head to the co-op or their CSA pick-up.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Small Change by Sheila Roberts

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: Three neighbors with financial difficulties decide to work together to solve their problems.

I was given a copy of this book by the publisher.

When you laugh by the second page, that’s a good sign that you’ll enjoy the book. But I was also wincing in sympathy by the end of the first chapter.  If you liked the Shopaholic series, then this is the updated realistic version: Frugalistas or Recessionistas.

Tiffany has been struggling with infertility and is a compulsive bargain hunter.
“As far as Tiffany was concerned, the three sexiest words in the English language were fifty percent off. She was a world-class bargain hunter (not surprising, since she’d sat at the feet of an expert- her mom), and she could smell a sale a mile away.
Good as she was at ferreting out a bargain, she wasn’t good with credit cards. It hadn’t taken Tiffany long to snarl her finances to the point where she and Brian had to sue their small, start-a-family savings and Brian’s car fund to bail her out.”
Jess and her husband chose to stay in Heart Lake after he lost his job and now Jess has to find a job at age 44 after being out of the work force for years. Her wardrobe is sparkly pink tank tops and flip-flops and her typing skills are abysmal.
“She thought of having to face that one-hour commute on a regular basis and shuddered. You don’t have to find full-time employment, she reminded herself, something part time will do. Nothing at all would do better. She really wasn’t cut out to be an office drone.”
And Rachel is a newly-divorced mother, scared to say no to her kids’ constant demand for stuff after the divorce.
“She needed another prince like she needed a third boob. She already had her hands full with Aaron, who was as lousy an ex as he once was a husband – always late with his child support payments, but still managing to come up with money for presents for the kids and frequent trips to Pizza Heaven to ensure his status as the favorite parents. She’d been coping with all of that, pretty much, but now she’d been set adrift in a leaky raft on a stormy financial sea. Was she a survivor?”
So these three neighbors, who are all struggling financially, change their Friday night craft nights into the Small Change club, determined to improve that small financial changes can make a big difference. Tiffany starts a small e-Bay business, with delightfully funny results, Rachel starts a popular blog with real recipes I plan to use, and Jess always reminds herself (and us) what is most important – a loving family, health and togetherness.

Easy to read, well-researched, and authentic, this book has something for everyone, even some solid financial advice. But you’ll have to read the book yourself to get those gems.

What I especially liked is that while this book had an essentially happy ending, it was not a typical story-book ending. The problems were solved in a realistic way that, while not ideal, certainly made sense. It’s not as fluffy as typical chick-lit, not as righteous as the Christian fiction I read but instead was a story of solid friendship in the middle of financial hardships.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Passage by Justin Cronin

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: An apocalyptic vision of the future after a government plan to manufacture vampires goes terribly wrong. 

The Passage was unlike any book I've ever read before, yet it reminded me of many books I've read before. And I almost didn't make it past page 30.

The book opens with a depressing story of a single mother who loses her home to poverty and turns to prostitution to feed herself and her daughter Amy, set in 2016. Mood-wise, the writing reminded me of Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife, since it was a casual stream of consciousness writing with tender terrible moments just tossed in. The sadness was so disturbing I almost didn't keep reading, especially when six-year-old Amy is abandoned at a convent without a goodbye from her mother.

Then a new section opens with one-sided e-mails from a scientist working in the jungles of Bolivia. This seem ripped from Michael Crichton's Congo. Lots of mystery, strange noises and disappearances and the natives won't go any further, but the crew, which now is taken over by the U.S. Army, continues on to the jungle despite all their instincts. I despise epistolary books, and I resented that the vague e-mail hints are supposed to keep us readers intrigued. I was determined to give this book my mandatory 50 pages.

And then before the 50 pages were up, we meet Special Agent Brad Wolgast. Since I do love law enforcement characters, I kept reading about the tired, resigned, lonely man who is searching for a cause to make his life meaningful again. Unfortunately, Agent Wolgast is assigned to ask death row inmates with no family to sign up for a secret government medical experiment.

Can you guess the experiment? Vampires!

Yes, somehow the government has been injecting death row inmates (who are murderers and rapists) with a serum that makes them age slowly, lose their minds and humanity, and crave human blood.  The scientist who wrote those earlier e-mails has figured out a way to inject people with the same blood that caused a massacre in the Bolivian jungle.

And Agent Wolgast has to bring six-year-old Amy (who also now has no family) to a hidden medical lab in the mountains of Colorado for a treatment that has affected grown men in disturbing ways. During a bloody shoot-out, Amy and Special Agent Wolgast escape and hide in the mountains of Montana as the now-free and enraged vampires savage the rest of the United States.  The sparseness will remind readers of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

In yet another section, we have diary entries from a child who describes the isolation trains and the process of quarantining cities. She also notes that California has seceded from the United States.  This part of the book seemed very Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower.

And all of this plot takes up only a third of the book.

The rest of the book focuses on a community of settlers who live in isolation in California, fending off daily attacks by the now dominant vampires, nearly 100 years after the vampires first escape. They have only known the strict and insular life inside the fort. But the batteries that power the lights and their community are dying and they must journey to find either a rumored colony of other survivors or unused batteries. It's better to die in the attempt to prolong life than stay waiting. Their journey is more about the mental challenges than physical dangers though there are both. And you make it through a 766-page hard cover book only to have an enraging, frustrating ending.

I recognize that Justin Cronin is not a new author, however, this book felt like a creative writing class assignment. Okay, Class. The topic is vampires. Now write a book written from the perspective of these 4 random authors you pick from my bag. The plot had a few holes, and the writing needed a strong editor and a distinctive style. But this indeed was one of the most unique books I've read.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Blue Diablo: A Corine Solomon Novel by Ann Aguirre

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: A psychic tracks down her ex’s missing mother.

Corine Solomon has a gift. Or maybe it’s a curse. She can tell the history of an object by holding it in her palm. That’s the reason why her hands are so scarred and burnt and also why she’s been hiding in Mexico for the past two years.

But when her ex-boyfriend Chance tracks her down and begs her to save his mother, who was the primary mother figure in Corine’s short, rough life, Corine knows it will hurt her both physically and emotionally. She agrees to use her powers as long as Chance helps her hunt down the people who killed her mother. A spell cast at the moment of Corine’s mother’s death actually gave Corrine her powers. Corine grew up in isolation and loneliness until Chance and his mother became the closest thing Corine had to a family, after years of abuse in foster care.

Chance and Corine once made a great psychic team, but Corine left after feeling used by Chance’s greed. He would take lucrative cases using their talents, but Corine would be traumatized physically and emotionally. After one particularly tough case (where they didn’t find the missing girl’s body), Corine runs away. She’s made a pretty nice, if boring, life for herself in Mexico. Until Chance comes walking back in. When he offers her revenge, Corine can’t refuse.

The writing in this book was sometimes laugh out loud funny and sometimes just quirky and crude:
“What he would have said, I’ll never know because his cell rang. Looking apologetic, he answered (he’d once taken a call while receiving a particularly artful blow job). That too was vintage Chance and I scurried like a nervous gerbil back to the kitchen, where I occupied myself washing up the few dishes I dirtied."
“Nice face, I decided, if scruffy and unshaven. Frosting the hunk cake was a tousled mess of tawny sun streaked hair.”
I just like the sound of a frosted hunk cake.

During the investigation, Corine starts to meet people with extra talents and you’ll feel encouraged when you feel like she won’t be alone anymore. But when their friends’ bodies are taken over by some mind control trick and they are helped by a wheel-chair bound psychic in Britain, I just lost interest.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Desirable Residence by Madeleine Wickham

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: Since they can't sell their house, they rent it out to a couple that seriously complicates their lives.

Note: I was given a copy of this book by the publisher. 

In direct contrast to the decadence of the Shopaholic series, author Madeleine Wickham (who also writes as Sophie Kinsella) has written a surprisingly deep and relevant book about finances, love and marriage, struggles and pride.

The pride aspect of this book is important, because I think pride (or image) must be even more important to the British than it is to Americans.

Pride keeps Liz from selling her house, even at a loss. Jonathan and Liz had one buyer interested, but delayed and lost their only sale in almost a year. Meanwhile, they are carrying TWO mortgages, that of their new business and their old house, while their teen daughter sneaks back into their old garage to have an occasional cigarette.

Marcus, their estate agent (realtor to us Yanks), wants to prove to his stuffy cousin and co-owner that he can still wheel and deal with the best of them. Marcus' wife, Anthea, is worse than a helicopter parent - she's like a hummingbird parent, constantly droning in her sons ears about how academically successful they might be. She even has her son apply for a scholarship, when they absolutely don't need the money.

But Liz and Jonathan do get a renter, and instead of it being the solution, it causes more problems.

I won't give away much more, but this book is a perfect example of Brit Lit (as opposed to Chick Lit). The dialogue, the thinking, character development and setting really fit the Brit Lit niche. It doesn't have the giggly silliness even though there are funny moments.

*** Please note: This book was originally published in 1996 - a whole 14 years ago - yet the strained finances are more topical than they would be even 5 years ago and the book has not been Americanized. Idioms and phrases are kept as authentic.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May, & June by Robin Benway

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: Three teenaged sisters discover they have magical powers. 

April, May and June are three sisters who suddenly discover they have magical powers one day.

The girls have enough normal stresses – their parents recently divorced and the girls had to leave their home, school and old friends. And their dad is moving to Houston and took their TV!
“”It’ll be like an adventure,” my mom had said when we moved in, and she smiled so hard that my sisters and I just smiled back, like we hadn’t already spent the past three months on an adventure, watching our family reshape itself.”
The tone of sadness adds a depth of seriousness to a light Young Adult novel. Each sister is narrated in first person by each chapter and while I like the writing style, often it was also difficult to tell the voices apart without the name header each time.

Junior April is the eldest and her talent is telling the future. She is the typical big sister – devoted to her sisters, burdened by the weight of the responsibility and mature than she appears. April is also witty and can recognize her own faults with humor.
 “Teasing May will never not be fun.”
Sophomore May is the middle child and can turn invisible. There is something apt about the cliché of the middle child disappearing. May can sometimes control her invisibility and sometimes she can’t. There seems to be no reason why May can or can’t control it. May’s tough exterior covers up a dream of life in Paris and a very tender heart. May was by far my favorite character, because of her smart ass-ery.
“Maaaaaaay,” Mr. Corday said in his best I-may-be-in-a-position-of-not-entirely-deserved-authority-but-let’s-be-friends-anyway voice. “Let’s talk. I heard you might need some extra help in one of your classes.
“Do you have a reliable source?” I asked him. “Signed affidavits? Eyewitness accounts?”
“Your initial test score.” He raised his big bushy eyebrows. It’s gross how old dudes’ eyebrows get all gray and long.
“Oh.” I said. "The test score. Maybe I’m being framed.”
Freshman June serves as comic relief but she’s also obsessed with appearances and being part of the in crowd. When she gets her sisiters to acknowledge that they all have powers, June suggests:
"Maybe we should make, like, a secret facebook group or something.”

One day, April sees a vision of a car crash, red lights, her sister June standing in headlights and the face of Julian, the boy next to April’s locker. April knows the vision will occur and keeps trying to change the course of events so that the accident won’t happen.

In typical YA novel fashion, the parents aren’t really involved in their kids' lives so the girl are having morally dubious decisions all by themselves. Their arguments for the “right way” to use their powers would make a neat discussion for a book club. But it also mean that three teenagers are having screaming door-slamming fights.
“If you needed a serving of repressed crazy, you could definitely swing by our house and pick up a slice, is what I’m saying.”

A fun novel with a surprising ending and enjoyable characters I'd love to read about again.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: A white woman in 1960s Mississippi secretly documents the lives of the black maids in her town.

I avoided this book because I thought nothing really fresh or new could be added to the civil rights struggle. It seems as if I've read all the good books and the only stories left would offer nothing very interesting. Boy, was I wrong! And I'm so glad I read this book.

Skeeter, a white college graduate, returns to her home town of Jackson, Mississippi, and all of her journalistic ambitions are funneled into writing for the Junior League's Newsletter. On an impulse, she sends her articles to a New York publisher, who encourages her to write about something that is fresh and new, and hasn't been covered before. The publisher advises her:
"Get going. Before this civil rights thing blows over." 
Skeeter decides to interview and write about the black maids in Jackson, and their relationships with their white employers. To Skeeter it is worth the risk, and it just may be her ticket out of Jackson and off to New York City if she succeeds.

Meanwhile, Skeeter's mother is busy helping Skeeter find a rich husband from a good Southern family. Skeeter has a tender, tentative relationship with a man who seems to appreciate her for who she is, or maybe he just enjoys her thumbing her nose at the small-town traditions.

Skeeter gets lots of heat from her friends in the Junior League, especially the queen bee, Hilly.
“’I am about to be a politician’s wife, unless you have anything to do with it. How is William ever going to get elected in Washington, D.C. one day if we have integrational friends in our closet?’ ”
The racism is prevalent but Skeeter is in awe of the maids' bravery in telling the truth about their lives and the love they have for their careless employers. What's surprising is how much the white employees seem to rely on their servants, despite the way they treat them. Skeeter's mother says:
“They say it’s like true love, good help. You only get one in a lifetime.”

During a family tragedy in the house where fat and sassy Minny works, the husband says:
“You’ll always have a job here with us, Minny. For the rest of your life if you want.”
“Thank you sir,” I say and I mean it. Those are the best words I could hear today.
I reach for the door but Miss Celia says, real soft, “Stay in here awhile. Will you, Minny?”
So I lean my hand on the sideboard because the baby’s getting heavy on me. And I wonder how it is that I have so much when she doesn’t have any. He’s crying. She’s crying. We are three fools in the dining room crying.”
A tender touching story. The only reason why I gave it four stars instead of five is because I thought a few scenes were cliched and predictable, but others were deliciously dark and appealing.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Forget You by Jennifer Echols

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: After a car accident, teen Zoey struggles to control a life that is spinning radically our of control after her parents' divorce and her mother's suicide attempt. 

It’s been a hell of a week.

Zoey finds her mom in the middle of her suicide attempt. The cop who picks up her mom in time to save her life just happened to be the older brother of Doug Fox, a member of her swim team and the smoldering, brooding (and gorgeous) teen who also spent time in juvie. Zoey is terrified that Doug will tell people, her classmates, her Coach, since Doug also seems to hate her.

That same night, her father insists that she move in with him and Ashley, the 24-year-old pregnant HR employee he knocked up.
“Whether you got any or not, Slide with Clyde sold sex.” 
And everybody hooked up this past summer, including her father Clyde. Since the divorce, Zoey and her mom have been living by themselves and Zoey is helpless in the face of her dad’s anger. He’s angry that he now has his privacy impeded and that something might happen to prevent his honeymoon trip to marry his pregnant employee.

Zoey can’t go back to her house and she’s going crazy in her father’s house. She tells him that if he wants her to act normal, she has to go to this party at the beach. Far more concerned about what other people think, he encourages her to attend. That night, Zoey needs to escape her life, her stress, the expectation. She drags her friend Brandon, who has been sharing his romantic sexual exploits with her all summer and asking for her advice on juggling women, to his car. Zoey grabs a condom and asks Brandon to have sex with her. She expects something good, since Brandon has been having sex with girls all summer. In fact, Zoey needs to escape and hope that Brandon will give her an transcendental experience. Just before they have sex, Zoey is convinced of the rightness of her decision, but in the middle of sex and afterwards, it feels wrong, strange, not like she expected.

Perfectionist, anal Zoey is convinced she can make everything right by just willing it so, killing herself at school and trying to be the perfect girlfriend. That whole next week, everyone is shocked that Brandon and Zoey are a couple but Zoey is too worried about everybody finding out about her mom that she is micromanaging all she can.
'Since my mom tried to kill herself, routine reassured me that my life was still perfectly normal.'
A week later, Doug is shaking her awake. Zoey’s trapped behind the wheel of her Bug and Doug drags her free with his broken leg. Zoey must have fallen asleep waiting for the ambulance because she wakes up cuddled next to Doug and his smell – the ocean and warmth. Zoey falls back asleep because, for the first time in weeks, she can relax. I love this book because I found the writing extremely sexy.

But Zoey wakes up the next morning and can’t remember the crash, even though she looks and feels like she was in a bad car accident. Who was driving which direction? How did it happen? What was going on? Why does Doug act like they’re a couple now?
"No wonder Doug thought we were together now and I would break up with Brandon for him. What had I done? Had I freaking humped Doug Fox in the ER?"
And why is Brandon avoiding her? I loved that the mystery of what happened the night of the crash is unknown to us, the reader, and also unknown to Zoey.

As Zoey struggles to regain her memory and physically recover from the crash, Brandon is unavailable and Doug is always there. And Brandon doesn’t even want to have sex.
"It crossed my mind that he was lying about something. I knew he lied. He’d lied to every single girl he’d had sex with over the summer. But I was the one he told about the lies. I wasn’t the one he lied to."
Doug’s story unfolds too and you can’t help falling for this responsible, charming, teasing hunk. I couldn’t resist him but Zoey fights her feelings and Doug every step of the way. Instead of me being angry about Zoey being so clueless about the wrong and right guy for her, I enjoyed this Young Adult mystery romance. And did I mention the writing is HOT?
“His mouth took the back of my neck, kissed it like it was my mouth or my ear or my breast. I wasn’t sure where these ideas came from. A boy had never put his mouth on my breast before. The thought frightened me and I loved it.”
Zoey’s transformation from spoiled brat and queen bee to someone I want to be friends with unfolds delightfully in this novel. I am off to read Jennifer Echols' latest.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

You Can’t Drink All Day If You Don’t Start in The Morning by Celia Rivenbark

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: A series of comedic newspaper articles about life, kids and marriage by a Southern columnist. 

“Coupled with the sad fact that I’m not Really Nice at all is this awful personality defect that makes me crack a joke at the worst possible time.” Me too, hons, me too.

I just discovered Celia Rivenbark, my newest favorite humorist. Maybe I was in the right mood, or maybe I just started with her best book, but I found You Can’t Drink All Day If You Don’t Start in The Morning to be the funniest of the many books she has out.

Celia Rivenbark, who often refers to herself as Mama Celia, likes TV, likes to eat cheese, and she’s a bit of a princess, with a low tolerance for morons – just like me. Of course, she’s Southern and I am not.
With regards to camping:
“Then there was the “urgent media advisory” from the makers of a handheld bug-repelling device that 'efficiently repels black flies, mosquitoes, and no-see-ums.' You know what else repels those insects? Hotel rooms.”
And her fitness level mirrors mine.
"I have several close friends who have run marathons, a word that is actually derived from two Swahili words: mara, which means “to die a horrible death,” and thon, which means “for a stupid t-shirt.” Look it up."
Every time she cracks an insensitive joke, I howl with laughter and wonder if I'm a meaner person than I thought.
"What is it with men, anyway?
Hons, I have to tell you that I was crushed at the revelations that my former political crush, John Edwards, had strayed.
My attractive single friend Susie quipped over a glass of wine when the news leaked that she was upset about Edwards’ cheating heart for two reasons.
“On the one hand, it’s just so horribly disappointing that he's that kind of man,” se said, “but on the other hand, I’m upset because all this time I didn’t know he was available."
If you take yourself seriously, this will NOT be the book for you.

I didn’t enjoy Belle Weather: Mostly Sunny with a Chance of Scattered Hissy Fits, simply because most of her stories revolve around construction and home repair. That’s simply not interesting to me. Stuck in the middle of stories about varmint capture and trips to Home depot is an open letter to Britney Spears, whom Mama Celia wants to love and protect.
“Brit, the problem, as I see it, is that you had two babies in twelve months. This has caused you to go astronaut-lady-in-diapers level of crazy and nobody seems to understand that.”

In Bless Your Heart, Tramp, and other Southern Endearments, Rivenbark asks:
“Why not a bumper sticker for the unlucky parents, something like: My fifteen-year-old’s in Detox and Not Speaking To Any of Us” or “My Kid Robbed a 7-Eleven and is in a Center for Youthful Offenders.”
This reminds of a bumper sticker I saw that read: My Kid Knocked Up Your Honor Student.

Life is funny and Rivenbark takes it to the absurd and beyond. You Can’t Drink All Day If You Don’t Start in The Morning is my favorite of all her novels. And yes, I have read them all.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough by Lori Gottlieb

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: A 42-year-old unmarried journalist researches the dating market with the goal of finding a husband who meets every requirement on her Husband List.

Get over yourself!

That’s basically the advice that 41-year-old Lori Gottleib gives single women over 35. No other book I’ve read lately (or at least in the past 5 years) has made me so glad and grateful to be married.

Believe me, I’m not interested in dating anyone else but this book gave me a kick in the pants to stop complaining about my husband. I always thought I got a pretty good deal but now I’m realizing that by marrying young, I got a great deal.
Says Gottlieb: “What I didn’t realize when I chose to date only men who excited me from the get-go (without considering the practical side of things), is that what makes for a good marriage isn’t necessarily what makes for a good romantic relationship. According to my married friends, once you’re married, it’s not so much about who you want to go on a tropical vacation with; it’s about who you want to run a household with. Marriage isn’t a constant passion-fest; it’s more like a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane nonprofit business.” 
Gottlieb is also a single mother by choice, having chosen artificial insemination because she wanted a kid far more than she wanted to “settle” with any of the men in her life. And from what she shared, some of the men she dated would have made terrible fathers. Gottleib’s Husband List of the qualities she needs in a husband is so long and so specific that you can’t help but realize that Gottlieb has been way too picky, esp. since she says she wants to get married, but won’t consider anyone under 5’5”.

This book was an easy-to-read mix of the author’s personal experience, case studies from friends and colleagues, professionals in the dating and marriage business and science. She reviews marriage expectations with people who divorced, people in arranged marriages, people who “settled” and are happy over it, and women who wouldn’t settle and are still alone. Many divorce experts say that marrying the wrong guy for a fleeting sensation like excitement instead of stability feels like settling but really leads to unhappiness down the road.

And she talks about maximizers versus satisfiers, one of my favorite topics. I’m trying to change my own shopping habits from being a maximizer to a satisfier. I always wonder if I could get a better deal on that pair of black pants, and go from store to store looking for the perfect pair. What I should have done is bought the pair of black pants that I originally thought were too expensive but that I ended up buying anyway after I bought two other disappointing pair for $30 each. So I ended up spending $160 for a pair of black pants that really only cost everybody else $100 and made a second trip out to the fancy mall.

When you look at your life, or your man, or your job for that matter, you will always make yourself unhappy, especially if you’re a maximizer, if you ask, “How does this compare to what I though I wanted? But if you ask yourself, “Do I like this?” then you have a better perspective and a better chance for happiness. Just as you shouldn’t settle for someone who treats you badly, if you and your beloved don’t share a love of college football, in general, do you like him?

Know what you want, know what a good value is, and when you find it – stop looking!

So that same advice goes for women looking for a husband. Don’t think that perfect guy is out there – 6’1”, green eyes, dimples, high earner, exciting, passionate, understanding, good listener. Pick your 5 needs (loyal, smart, responsible, affectionate and tolerant) and separate them from your wants (world-traveler, funny-but-not-funnier-than-me, well-read, must love dogs and good dancer.)

Once you know what you need, you open up your choices and find a way to look at people with new eyes. This is terribly hard for Gottleib, as she still doesn’t want to settle. And when her friends, or the matchmakers or the online dating sites convince her to look deeper or at least go out on one date with someone she wouldn’t consider, that man is often unavailable by the time she changes her mind. That happened several times in the book and while I would be feeling desperate, Gottleib still seems to think she’s some smoking hot 25-year-old. With a kid.

She doesn’t realize that she has to settle for someone who would actually want to date her. The dawning of this insight is a lowering experience to read about and will make you hug your husband even tighter.
“Women under 30 might be dating a great guy, but there’s this one thing they think he’s lacking. They’re with an 8 but they ant a 10. Then they’re 40 and they can only get a 5! So they gave up the 8 in order to hold out for the 10, only to end up with a 5 – or nothing.” 
In the end, Gottlieb tells about her encounters with the 5s and 6s she’s met and checks back in with the happily married 7s, 8s, and 9s she passed by. This was an enjoyable book and one I’d love to give to my single friends, if only they wouldn’t be offended by it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

O, Juliet by Robin Maxwell

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: A retelling of the romance between Romeo and Juliet, focusing on their shared love of the poetry of Dante. 

O, Juliet makes the love story of Romeo and Juliet far more believable and touching than any other version. Yes, I include Shakespeare in that. Shakespeare had Romeo and Juliet marrying at 14, which although that did occur in Elizabethan England, was far rarer in Renaissance Italy. 

The actual writing was a little difficult for me, as I was not captivated by the poetry of Dante the way the author and Romeo and Juliet  were. I found this book a little slow, but well-researched and definitely full of life, joy, romance. While Juliet falls in love with Romeo the minute he quotes Dante to her in public, I fell in love with Romeo here:
"But the sight of my beloved alone with my mother at our table, and in such a state of easy grace, took my breath away.
He was listening. A man listening earnestly to a woman speaking. It shook me to the core."
Okay, I love Romeo too.

The plot unfolds in amazing ways and I would recommend this retelling to anyone who enjoys the story.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: A twelve-year-old girl finds a new family in 1960s Savannah after the death of her mother.

Twelve-year-old Cecelia “CeeCee” Honeycutt is responsible for taking care of her manic mentally ill mother, while her father is out making sales and cheating on his crazy wife. CeeCee’s mother doesn’t fit in in Ohio, which she refers to as the North.

During one of her manic episodes, CeeCee’s mother dresses in a Goodwill prom gown and believes she is in a beauty pageant. While she’s twirling in the middle of the road, a semi-truck hits her. CeeCee, of course, is witness to the whole scene.

After the funeral, her father ships her off to live with Aunt Tootie in 1960s Savannah. Her father loves her but is casually neglectful and detached, like many fathers in the 1960s. CeeCee is welcomed and wanted by Tootie, which makes a delightful, but unnerving, change for her.

Here CeeCee befriends - or more accurately is embraced and befriended by - her Aunt Tootie, Auntie Tootie’s black housekeeper Oletta and Oletta’s black friends Nadine and Chessie. I do mention the race because it is important to plot.

This book was deeply similar to The Secret Life of Bees. Young white girl finds a new family with black women in the South. But Saving CeeCee Honeycutt was much lighter in tone and mood, although there are moments of racial tension in SCH.
“As I watched all the comings and goings and listened to the charming “Welcome to Savannah’s” and the heartfelt ”I’m so pleased to meet you’s” that dripped like honey from these women’s’ lips, I realized that Southern hospitality not only came from the heart but was a practiced social art that had been passed down from one generation to the next – like fine silverware or china. Southerners had a way of doing things that made you feel special and Mrs. Odell soaked in every drop of the kindness.”
It’s odd to me that a culture and locale that places so much emphasis on the social niceties isn’t completely embarrassed about the obvious and subtle racism that occurred as part of everyday life.

Mrs. Odell, her aged Ohio neighbor, is visiting them while on her way to retire in Florida. When her retirement plans fall through in a big way, Mrs. Odell is invited to live and retire with Tootie, Oletta and CeeCee. Tootie shares stories of her mother as a young girl, while Mrs. Odell can share memories of her mother in the later stages of her illness. With both women loving and supporting CeeCee, she begins to heal, and makes a friend her own age for the first time in a long while.
“I had been ashamed of her for so long that any good memories had been distorted and smudged by her illness.”
CeeCee narrates the story and of course is far more mature for her age. She’s not naïve in the way that Lily from SLOB was, but because there was such a lack of dramatic tragedy in this book, it was difficult for me to evaluate the quality of the writing, despite similar plot lines. I do think that one line from SCH will stay with me longer than the image of Lily kneeling on the grits. Tootie is passionate about old buildings – the history, the décor, the beauty. It’s her fire; what keeps her going. And she asks CeeCee (and also the readers) “What’s your fire? What’s your passion?” Because when you find your fire, you find happiness.