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

Monday, January 31, 2011

Sidney Sheldon's After the Darkness by Sidney Sheldon and Tilly Bagshawe

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: When her husband's hedge fund collapses after his death, his widow is put on trial for fraud. 

Of all the different books I read, my husband was most contemptuous of this one, probably because Sheldon's novels are beach reading at their best.  Sidney Sheldon's After the Darkness was written after his death, but it still is an authentic Sidney Sheldon novel.

Grace Brookstein is left devastated after her husband Lenny Brookstein drowns at sea one afternoon. Lenny was her much older husband, and treated Grace like a princess. Grace's two older sisters (this felt somewhat like King Lear - two older sisters who had everything and a younger naive sister who believes in love and family) are supposed to support her but feel both glee and malice that Grace's perfect life and adoring husband seem to vanish instantly.

Grieving, Grace is stunned when she finds out that her husband's hedge fund is hiding 70 million dollars, causing thousands of families to lose any retirement savings. Grace's penthouse is sold because there's no money coming in and in the final insult, is charged - and later found guilty - of fraud. Grace can't count on her family for support and turns to her husband's business partner John Merrivale and his sexually cruel wife Caroline. It's John who hired the lawyer, John who advised her on what to wear and how to behave and Caroline who informs Grace that she is forbidden from contacting them ever again after she is sent to prison for life. Grace is entirely alone and abandoned.

Again, Sidney Sheldon loves the idea of women in prison, and yes, there is a lesbian aspect to this story.  Grace is beaten up by her cell mates; Grace attempts suicide; Grace becomes a model inmate  - all the elements of my favorite made for TV movie and Sidney Sheldon novel If Tomorrow Comes.

Grace earns the respect of her cellmates and plans her escape in order to get revenge on all the people who have betrayed her and to clear her husband's name - especially the traitor John Merrivale. The FBI has been spending months trying to find the missing 70 million, and has it out for Grace, including a math savant who has childhood sexual trauma and fantasizes about hurting Grace sexually as she confesses to hiding the money. The wacko was an unnecessary element of the plot.  But after Grace escapes, her case lands in the hands of Mitch Connors, a handsome, lazy and lucky New York City cop. Mitch is after Grace, the FBI is after Grace and nobody wants Grace to learn the truth about what really happened.

But Mitch Connors suspects something is up and starts reviewing the case against Grace, painstakingly doing the job that should have been done in the first place. He's the only person who didn't automatically assume that Grace wasn't guilty right away, even through we all know Grace is innocent. The scene where he visits the Merrivales is pure Sidney Sheldon:
"Mrs Caroline?" Cecelia, the Merrivales' housekeeper, knocked nervously on her employers' bedroom door. "Is a gennelman downstairs to see you."
Caroline turned and glared. Naked from the waist up, with a thick white layer of cream on her face, she looked like a Maori warrior minus the tattoos. "Do I look like I'm ready to receive guests?"
Cecelia tried to avert her gaze from her boss' nipples, large and dark and repellent, like two rotting mushrooms.
Grace's daring prison escape panics nearly everyone who knew the Brooksteins. What will Grace uncover? Will she find out about the affair her sister had with Lenny? Will she find out about the embezzlement? Will she find out about the lies Merrivale has been feeding the FBI? Will she find out who killed Lenny? But nothing is sexier than a woman seeking revenge, and this novel hits this on many levels.

Grace also is aided by a mysterious benefactor once she is on the outside. Who is this person who can just send Grace fake IDs and cash when she requests it through e-mail? And does so? It was a loose end I wanted tied up.

The ending is NOT surprising (yes, what you're thinking is correct) but this book offers light escapism with hints of darkness - a classic Sidney Sheldon, but nothing exceptional. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

If You Could See Me Now by Cecelia Ahern

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 unhappy, busy woman meets her nephew's imaginary friend. 

I didn't care for  Cecelia Ahern's The Gift but a friend convinced me to read another book by her.

I'm glad I did. Now I understand much more about Cecelia Ahern's writing style. Maybe it's an Irish thing, but Ahern writes about modern magic. Not the modern magic that Patricia Briggs does, but special situations that might seem real for a moment.

In If You Could See Me Now, Ivan is the adult imaginary friend suddenly assigned to Elizabeth's nephew Luke. And then Ivan becomes assigned to Elizabeth too. Elizabeth is 34 years old, single, and utterly responsible. Every inch of Elizabeth's house is spotless and perfect; nothing out of place, messy or colorful. Elizabeth has adopted her alcoholic sister's son Luke, and is constantly bailing Saoirse (pronounced Sore-shaw) out of jail, paying her rent, buying her food and clothes, loaning her money and helping her again and again despite Saoirse's theft and insults.
Saoirse and her father knew how to pull those strings and so she remained their puppet. As a result, she was alone, raising a child she never wanted, with the love of her life living in America a married man and father of one.
Poor Elizabeth. And the story unfolds in two parts, we see Elizabeth as a young girl, hoping that if she is just good enough, her mother will come back and stay and that her mother will keep her fanciful promises. So as an adult, Elizabeth is very careful to never use her imagination or encourage Luke too, since dreaming only leads to pain.

Elizabeth is furious when Ivan appears to Luke and Elizabeth won't put up with any nonsense. Yet in a few days, Elizabeth meets a nice looking and care-free young man, also named Ivan. We, the readers, know that Ivan is invisible, but Elizabeth never does.  We find Ivan challenging Elizabeth to be silly, choose color, watch falling stars and play with dandelions. Ivan's presence brings joy and laughter to Elizabeth's life, teaching Elizabeth how to open her heart.

As Elizabeth starts to enjoy life, her painful memories start flooding back. She sees the parallels between Saoirse and their mother, and we understand a little more about how little Lizzie became responsible and repressed Elizabeth.

And yet Ivan and Elizabeth start falling in love. Their relationship is a tender precious thing (yet I never felt manipulated as a reader), but we learn that an adult woman could never have a fulfilling relationship with an imaginary man. In trademark Ahern narrative style:
When you drop a glass or a plate to the ground it makes a loud crashing sound. When a window shatters, a table leg breaks, or a picture falls off the wall, it makes a noise. But as for your heart, when that breaks, it's completely silent.
Enjoyable, modern romance and fantasy, and it felt "Irish."

Sunday, January 23, 2011

And Then There Was One by Patricia Gussin

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 of three nine-year-old triplets are kidnapped from a Detroit suburb.

Don't get me wrong - I love fantasy fiction, but this book was pure fiction. The plot was unoriginal with details that were cliqued and I felt like the author was trying to capitalize on a parent's worst fear, even though it's so unrealistic.

Scott and Karen Monroe are an interracial couple and parents of beautiful nine-year-old triplets: Jackie, Sammie, and Alex.
They lived in Davis Island in Tampa and, to their eternally incredulous delight, were parents of nine year old triplets. Even more incredulous, the triplets were identical. Identical triplets, conceived without the aid of fertility treatments; the chances of that, an astounding one in two hundred million pregnancies.
This unbelievable premise starts on page 17 and the rest of the book is even more implausible. When two of the girls want to see a different movie from their third sister and their older cousin, they split up. When the movie is over, the girls are nowhere to be found. After notifying mall security, it becomes obvious that the girls have been kidnapped. The likelihood of this is so rare, but the author tries to make it seem like IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU! If you've read any of Lenore Skenazy's columns, the actual stranger abduction rate is extremely low.

In addition to the rare kidnapping scenario, the woman who kidnaps them, Marge Spansky, has a freak tragedy of her own. In her second marriage, she and her second husband had two beautiful twin girls, Jennie and Jessie. Then during a family day at the lake, the girls' stroller is pushed into the water by her seven-year-old son Spanky. The girls were eight months old. But Spanky was seven and police were sure it was an accident.
Truly, Marge tried her best to raise her troubled son, now a two-hundred-forty-pound hulk of a man with a protruding beer belly, a shaved head, and a mean temperament, but underneath she knew that Spanky's shortcomings were all her fault. She should have known something was not right with Spanky when he started torturing those frogs at the lake and chopping heads off turtles.
But in the privacy of her heart, Marge had to admit her horrible, secret suspicions. Over the years, child molestation cases had been reported in Oakland County, all involving little girls. Marge was pretty sure that nobody else connected her son with these sordid reports, but she knew about the little panties he kept hidden in the small chest under his bed. The chest he took with him on the road. Whenever there'd been a report, she knew that Spanky had been in the vicinity. The last time she secretly checked his box, panties stained with something brownish on a Mickey Mouse pattern had been added.
Marge used the oldest trick in the book to kidnap the girls. She overheard their conversation and went in to the movie to get the girls, telling them that their other sister Jackie had been hurt. The girls willingly get in the car, believing that Marge, a perfect stranger, is taking them to the hospital. After a while, it dawns on them that they are being kidnapped, but by then it's too late.

Meanwhile, Jackie collapses in a coma under both survivor's guilt and stress, while Scott and Karen and the FBI use all their resources to find the girls, including offering a $100,000 reward. That's when the kooks come out.

Marge brings Alex and Sammie back to her house. The girls are valiantly resisting, shouting, banging on pipes, refusing to eat, until Marge hits them and shoves them in the basement. Marge starts calling the girls Jennie and Jessie, after her long-dead daughters. Spanky comes home and realizes that his mother is the one who has taken the two missing triplets. Marge thinks she has her daughters back but Spanky immediately realizes that his mother has given him the gift of two little girls to molest. When Marge tries to prevent such an incident, Sammie escapes and runs into the woods. After a terrifying search, Spanky gives up and decides to run away with his mother and the last remaining girl, whom he has nicknamed Precious, and whom Marge has named Jennie, but who is actually named Alex.

As we come to find out, Alex is actually the compliant, obedient one, a ideal molestation and brainwashing victim. Sammie, the defiant one, is the one who ran away. She is found later by FBI agents doing a canvas of the neighborhood after a neighbor reported an older woman buying twin beds at a garage sale. But hidden in isolation along the Great Lakes, Alex is actually molested by Spanky and Marge walks in on the situation. Thankfully, Marge realizes that in order to keep her Jennie (Alex) safe, she and Jennie (Alex) must run away from Spanky. FBI agents are looking for Alex, Spanky is looking for Alex and Marge, who are hiding from everyone.

Through a combination of aggressive investigation, helpful witnesses, and sheer luck, the FBI rescues Alex and reunites her safely with her family. I expected the reunion to be tearful and touching but I wasn't impressed at all.

Everything about this book seemed excessive and calculated to strike fear in readers. The writing style wasn't terrible, but wasn't great. Harlan Coben's Caught is a far more realistic and terrifying book.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Flirt Club by Cathleen Daly

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!

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

Summary: Middle school girls form a Flirt Club to gain more confidence in talking and flirting with boys. 

When I first noticed the book “Flirt Club,” I wrote: First rule of Flirt Club: Don’t talk about flirt club!”

But in this delightful young adult novel of friendship and angst, the first rule of Flirt Club really is “Don’t talk about flirt club.”

Annie (Bean) and Izzy (Cisco) have been friends forever. But as eighth-graders, their goal this year is not necessarily to get boyfriends, although that is the ultimate goal, but to learn how to flirt and talk to boys.

The entire young adult novel is written in notes or journal entries – a writing gimmick I normally despise – but no other format could so clearly tell the story.

Annie has a crush on Enrique, or at least his gorgeous ear, since that’s the part of his body she can freely gaze at lovingly, since they are lab partners and he frequently checks the microscope in front of her. Annie fully admits she’s a drama geek and is proud of it.

Izzy doesn’t really have a crush, but is secretly convinced she could be one of the popular crowd, since she’s cute and doesn’t have a specialty.

When the girls get chorus parts in the school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat they become friends with Ariane, Myrna and Lisa. Annie then breaks the first (and only) rule of flirt club and invites them to Flirt Club. The new girls bring a host of new techniques and strategies to Flirt Club. The school-wide musical is a great opportunity to practice their flirting techniques

Throwing food (French fries, good; hamburgers, bad) or paper, winking, and asking leading questions are all fun to practice on boys at the mall. Hair twirling or flipping is also advised. Also, laugh and giggle a lot.

And then Izzy’s practice flirting catches the attention of Michael Maddix, aka the Stone Fox.

This brings me to one of only two complaints I had about the book. It’s unclear in exactly what time period the book takes place. The girls reference The Monkees, and Get Smart, hardly normal fare for a modern teen. I would expect Vampire Diaries or American Idol. Nope, not a mention. And so I thought the book took place in the 80s, when I was in middle school. I then got really into the book, picturing myself as Ariane, and wondering which of my then middle school friends would have been other characters. Cyrus Hammond, he was the Stone Fox of my middle school. So I was later confused when the girls mention cell phones for the first time near the end of the book. To have a book entirely of letters and then not include a single text – which you know the girls would send… it makes me think it was edited by two different people, who had read only the first or last part of the book. The disconnect there was disconcerting.

The second complaint is that Annie gets constipated when she gets nervous and then shares her “movements” or lack thereof with Cisco. Only Annie refers to it as “Elvis has not left the building.” I don’t ever remember talking this much about my bowel movements with anyone at any time in my life. And since there are three plays during the school year, Annie talks about this issue far too frequently for me.

Izzy starts dating Michael Maddix and is expected to hang out at his lunch table with the popular kids. Izzy is torn between her loyalty to her single friends and the delight of having a boyfriend who drags her over to sit with him. Annie is hurt at Izzy’s silence, but is understanding and flexible. We should all be as lucky as Izzy is to have a friend like Annie.

The addition of Ariane, Myrna and Lisa to the book broadened the appeal for me and their notes to Izzy were among the funniest parts. Lisa is blunt and uninspired and her notes made me giggle. I found myself laughing aloud at the antics and the true angst the girls encounter when they get (and possibly lose) boyfriends. Their break-up revenge plan is enviable, as is the response.

I’d normally pass along books, but if I store this one for just 8 short years, I’d gladly give this to my daughter to read.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Fortunate Harbor (A Happiness Key novel) by Emilie Richards

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: Neighbors in a small Florida town deal have their friendship to support them through job loss, infertility issues, dating problems, and the return of their landlady's ex-con ex-husband. 

It's delightful to pick up a book in the middle of a series and have the story feel complete without having read the previous novel (Happiness Key) and I will likely read the upcoming novel, out later this year.

Tracy's relationship with Marsh is just taking off when his ex-wife Sylvia comes to Palmetto Grove to stay, and to be a mother to their ten-year-old son Bay. Tracy feels secure enough to wait for Marsh to sort out his feelings, until she thinks she sees CJ, her ex-con of an ex-husband snooping around her property. She comes to discover that it is CJ and he has big plans to prove himself innocent of the embezzlement and fraud charges and win Tracy back.

Sassy, colorful Wanda is fired from her job as a waitress for looking too old. After moping around for a few days, she decides to open up a pie shop, baking her fabulous pies. But the bakery down the street is doing everything possible to ensure Wanda fails.

Janya wants children, and thinks that her new husband Rishi does too. But Rishi is never home, and rebuffs all Janya's attempts at seduction and sex.

Elderly Alice, who I suspect has aphasia, is trying to raise her granddaughter Olivia, after Olivia's father murdered Alice's daughter, Olivia's mother.

And Dana, a friend of Wanda's from the restaurant, is trying to make a home for herself and her daughter Lizzie, without anyone discovering Dana's secret. When Dana rents one of the Tracy's cottages, she has no idea that  she is enmeshing herself in the lives and hearts of these women. After Dana finds herself falling in love with a cop, she is torn between her heart and her daughter's safety.

While Tracy is the main character of the novel, I also was hungry to discover Dana's secret in this delightful easy read. The writing is realistic and flows. Tracy longs for the good times with CJ and wants to trust him. Tracy struggles with her weight and takes herself far too seriously. Wanda serves as comic foil and is both nosy and bossy. After reading about so many of Wanda's pies, I kept hoping the author would include at least one pie recipe, but she didn't. Janya assumes the best of everyone's motives but finally learns the truth about her husband, which is sad but also a relief. Alice plays less of a role, and I can't help wondering if perhaps she had a larger part in a previous novel. Enjoy this lighthearted novel of friendship. It also reminded me of Small Change. If you liked that novel, you'll probably like this one.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Me, Myself and Why? by MaryJanice Davidson

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 FBI agent with Multiple Personality Disorder tries to track down a serial killer in Minneapolis, while dealing with the challenges of dating someone who isn't scared off by her MPD. 

Sometimes, when you start a book, you just have to commit to the rules that the author has laid out, no matter how silly they seem. (See J.R. Ward, Laurell K. Hamilton, Cassandra Clare.)

In Me, Myself, and Why, author MaryJanice Davidson takes a welcomed break from her Elizabeth Taylor, the Vampire Queen series, and introduces us to Cadence Jones, a member of the FBI's BOFFO team. BOFFO (real definition: a person who has extensive skill or knowledge in a particular field) is titled the Buerea of False Flag Ops, a name which doesn't really make sense as a title, but fills in the letters. But I can sum it up - it takes a crazy to catch a crazy.

Agent Cadence Jones and her partner George - a sociopath - are assigned to the ThreeFer serial killer case. An unsub has been killing exactly three people and leaving them to be found together. But now the killer has hit their hometown of Minneapolis. Cadence works well with the local police, especially Lynn, who knows about Cadence's special issues.
Lynn was a rare creature - she thought an entire department of armed, crazy federal agents was a fine plan. Congress, by contrast, didn't always get on board. Most people didn't, in fact. It was almost like they felt the disadvantages of putting schizophrenic kleptomaniac sociopathic multiple personality depressives in the field outweighed the benefits. Which only proves that many people have no imagination.
Cadence's secret, and her advantage, is that she is actually three agents in one. Cadence Jones is tall, thin and blonde. She's also polite, charming, gentle and a virgin. Her "sister" or alter personality Shiro is a short Asian woman, in addition to being tough, no nonsense and very smart. Their last sister, Adrienne, is crazy. By that I mean she is excessively violent, sings "The wheels on the bus" out loud, is sexually adventuresome, and a muscular leggy redhead.

Now do you get the situation? As a reader, the only way we know which sister is present is that Cadence's text will stop abruptly, and we go to an entirely new chapter. The people who work with Cadence/Shiro/Adrienne seems to know exactly when Shiro makes an appearance. It must be some expression on her face. We also know when Adrienne is around, because her text appears in italics or caps and looks like bad poetry. Shiro appears whenever she thinks Cadence is in danger, but it's unclear exactly what triggers Adrienne's appearance. Perhaps some sort of violence that Shiro can't quite handle?

In addition to tracking down a serial killer who has hit Minneapolis, Cadence was set up with her best friend's brother, Patrick. On one date, all three personalities come out and when Cadence comes to and sees Patrick covered in syrup, she knows that Adrienne must have freaked out. Expecting to slink away mortified, Cadence is alarmed when Patrick confesses that he's intrigued by all three sisters and would like to see them all again. What kind of sicko wants to date a woman with multiple personality disorder? If he has sex with one sister, is he cheating on the other two?  And surprisingly, all three sisters are attracted to Patrick. What can they all be thinking? All sorts of things to think about.

And the dates are disturbing. A nice dinner with Cadence at a fancy restaurant turns into a parking lot brawl after Shiro is approached by some hoodlums, and then they drive away with Adrienne at the wheel commanding Patrick not to remove his hand from whatever it's doing. Cadence wakes up from her black-out with her panties around her knees, driving a car going 60 miles per hour on side streets. That Adrienne!

The story was intriguing and I do like FBI procedural mysteries, but the absolute silliness of the book left me uncertain on how to approach the book. There's Cadence's stereotypical Midwestern demeanor. She swears furiously at Patrick -  "Darn it all to hippy-skip!"  Shiro is no-nonsense and the best detective of the three, taking over Cadence's mind for three days (!?) while she complies research. But Shiro also likes to smoke cigarettes, because she knows it will piss off Cadence. And then there's Adrienne, who rips the spine out of three guard dogs when Cadence goes to interview a witness.

And Cadence absolutely refuses to deal with the trauma that created the personality split in the first place.  When her work-mandated therapist suggests integration of the personalities, Cadence rebels.
I'd been this way as long as I could remember. Shiro and Adrienne had always been there. We were a family. A screwed-up murderously nutty family with government benefits and great parking spots. 
If this book had been a little less silly and/or ridiculous, I would have given it a higher rating. I would like to read more about Cadence, and Shiro, but maybe it would take another book to explain the purpose of Adrienne and what she brings.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Mountain of Crumbs: A Memoir by Elena Gorokhova

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: The memoir of a young girl growing up in World War II Russia. 

Memoirs always fascinate me, sometimes because I can't ever imagine my life being the way the author describes, and sometimes because I wonder if I could describe all the intricacies, rituals and secret pains of my own childhood as well as the author.

Elena Gorokhova begins her memoir the way many memoirists do, writing about her mother's early childhood and life. The 'mountain of crumbs' refers to a trick Elena's grandmother played on Elena's uncle as a child. During the food shortages in 1920, Elena's grandmother would crumble a slice of bread or a lump of sugar into small bits, piling it high on the table and then challenging her son to eat that entire mountain of crumbs. He was fooled into thinking himself blessed with bounty, and eating each crumb one by one also took time, as well.

Elena then goes on to describe her mother's first jobs as a doctor and then an obstetrician, and her three marriages. Unfortunately, once Elena starts describing her own life and childhood, I was bored. Elena has the typical childhood selfishness and nightmares, and I wished the book had shared more of her mother's life.

The most fascinating scene of Elena's life comes when she is studying English and comes across the following sentence:
"Helen and her new husband lost their privacy when her mother moved across the street." After consulting my English-Russian dictionary, I figured out that it had to do with the word "private," as in the "private property" that plagues all capitalist countries, according to our third-grade history book. Perhaps they lost some money, I thought, some essential part of their private property, but it was still unclear how it was caused by the mother's move. 
After struggling with the dictionary, Elena and her tutor decide that "privacy" is a word that doesn't exist in Russian. More fun with the Russian language comes when her class is sent into the dentist in alphabetical order:
My name is at the front of the alphabet, G being the fourth letter, after A, B and V.
This book offered amusing glimpses into Russian life and culture - once people see a line, they get in it, because at the end must be something worth waiting for - but the poverty, deprivation, and opposite world view still didn't make this memoir memorable.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Small Acts of Sex and Electricity by Lise Haines

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: When her best friend Jane runs away, Mattie steps into her life.

Mattie is left to tell Jane's family that Jane has driven off in her dead grandmother's Jaguar. So she walks into her best friend's house early in the morning and observes her best friend's husband sleeping in the nude.
I made a ring out of my left thumb and forefinger and fitted it around his penis.
What? Gack! Gag!

Mattie had always been jealous of Jane's life: her wealthy, adoring grandmother; her handsome husband, her two daughters, and Jane's easy, care-free life. And while Mattie feels overwhelmed trying to explain to Jane's girls that their mom is just taking some time off, Mattie is secretly thrilled to be living with Mike, the long-lusted-after fantasy husband. And Mike and Mattie actually start having sex.

Normally I adore switcheroo books, but this one struck me as creepy and disturbing, which is why I couldn't finish it. The sex scenes were not sexy, but instead clinical and overly-detailed, so that when combined with the adultery, just really soured. So many other better books to enjoy.