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

Monday, March 28, 2011

Room For Improvement by Stacey Ballis

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 interior designer finds success as part of a reality show on home improvement.

After reading a series of disappointing books, Room For Improvement was a satisfying chick-lit read, with many of the typical chick-lit elements in place, but with a few refreshing changes.  Instead of being set in New York or Los Angeles, as so many chick-lit novels are, this one was set in Chicago. That alone was appreciated, although I would have liked more scenes where the snow or weather alters their plans, since that is often a factor here in the Midwest.

Lily Allen is a moderately successful interior designer (as opposed to someone struggling) when she is chosen to be on the American version of her favorite BBC reality show Swap/Meet. Two designers and two single guests are chosen to redesign one room in the other single's houses, and then after the reveal, the singles meet and sometimes hook up. This show could launch Lily's career and give her national exposure.

The book opens with Lily escaping after a bad one-night stand with a jerk. The jerk, Ron, says some incredibly sensitive things and then keeps calling Lily. Can't he take a hint? Lily meets her friends and a personal trainer once a week for exercise where they catch up and dish. Hillary is her uber-successful lawyer friend (doesn't every chick-lit book have one of them nowadays?) and there's also a gay friend, except this time, the gay friend is her former roommate Naomi. I was impressed that the gay friend was female instead of male.  Like many chick-lit characters, Lily struggles with her weight, and scarfs down brownies at the show's craft table when she gets her period. In the show, there are carpenters, one a studly annoyance and one a solid friend, two gay stylists, a bimbo presenter and my favorite character, Bob, one of the cameramen. Bob is always asking, "Really with the (crying, sex, fighting, eating... pick your topic), really?" and I would just giggle every time Bob would walk by at some inopportune moment.

I could have done without Lily's Rules. The rules by which a chick-lit character lives or make sense of her life have been done to death (!) and I was disappointed that this creative author used something so cliche, especially when it didn't help or advance the plot any. If anything, Lily's Rules could have been home decorating tips that can apply to real life. Lily's Rule #278: Totally matching is boring; a little contrast makes a more interesting room. See how easy that was? I just made that one up.

Lily's show is a hit and Lily has a steamy romance with one of the guest featured on Swap/Meet. Lily also hooks up with an interim producer on her show and has lots of sex. But she never seems satisfied, always dumping the guy if he likes her too much, and pouting if he doesn't.  The ending is surprising and sweet. I rated this one 4 stars, because it was exactly what I was looking for at the moment.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Love Me Back to Life by Missy Horsfall and Susan Stevens

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 woman painfully struggles to keep her life and marriage together.

Have you seen the movie Fireproof based on the book The Love Dare? It's an overacted movie starring born-again Christian Kirk Cameron. The movie was painful to watch - as if the directors had commanded, "Get mad now!" or "Pretend that you're attracted to your co-worker."

This book is one cliched crisis after another. Mallory is a burnt-out mother with a shopping addiction and massive credit card debt she's trying to hide from her husband. Her husband Jake is off pursuing his photography career and only seems to want sex with Mallory without the hard work of parenting his children. Of course, it doesn't help their sex life that Mallory flinches when Jake touches her.

And Jake and Mallory hardly spend any time together. It's especially telling that Jake won't go to church with Mallory, since God is such a big part of Mallory's life. When Jake gets offered a job away from home, again, Mallory shouts at Jake to leave, instead of sobbing in the kitchen and telling him how close she is to the breaking point. Jake walks out.

Then one day, Mallory's prayer group is asked to pray for a young girl who was raped. Mallory has a psychotic break and trembles in the kitchen, only to be comforted by her friend and her pastor's wife. I was relieved when Yvonne, the pastor wife, suggested a therapist, since child sexual abuse is more than she and her husband are prepared to council.  Mallory is so fragile and I worried she'd drive her minivan into oncoming traffic just to stop the pain.

Jennifer, Mallory's therapist, seems comforting and supportive and helps Mallory remember that Mallory was raped as a child. We then uncover that Mallory was raped by her older brother Eric as a child. Further shocking us is that Mallory told her father about the rape and he did nothing to stop it.
According to Yvonne, Mallory had a strong foundation. That was a good start; faith in God was a stronger remedy than all the counseling Jennifer could give. 
That was hard to read, since Mallory has had God in her life for so long, but wasn't moved to seek help before now. Then Mallory is challenged to tell her parents. Her mother scolds her for saying such a terrible thing. Her father says nothing. We can't tell if they believe her. Then she confronts the brother who raped her. He never admits his crime, which felt authentic yet was unfulfilling as a book. I do recognize that many rape victims do not get closure.

Once Jake walked out, he had a crisis of his own and then literally has a "come to Jesus" moment. Mallory and Jake are reunited with the help of their pastor, and Mallory stopped shopping. Crises solved!

This book is what would happen if two pastors' wives wrote a book - and they did. Easy to solve ending, help from a pastor, stereotypical problems (busy parenting, busy husband, missed opportunities for sex, etc). I know the authors wanted Mallory to have the kind of problems that people could relate to, but I just wasn't impressed.  It started off as a story of a woman experiencing great personal pain, but ended up as a lecture.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Kissing Babies at the Piggly Wiggly by Robert Dalby

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 grocery store owner runs for mayor, with the help of the NitWitts.

Reading the prequel to this book would NOT have helped. When Hale "Mr. Choppy" Dunbar decides to run for mayor of Second Creek, Mississippi, he enlists the help of Laurie Lepanto and her new husband Powell Hampton. Laurie and Powell's romance must have featured prominently in the Waltzing at the Piggly Wiggly, but I didn't miss anything by not reading that book.

This book was a combination of small town politics, an evil man who is reformed in the end, and senior romance. The widows of Second Creek, the NitWitts, run radio ads showing support for Mr. Dunbar. There are random surprises and a death as well. It's not that this book was bad - it's just written for a very specialized audience, and I'm not it. I at least finished the book, but should have spent that time reading some thing else.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Stork Raving Mad by Donna Andrews

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 due date with twins, Meg must solve the mystery of a murdered dean since her house is the crime scene.

I've read mysteries where caterers, dry cleaners, realtors, teachers, stay-at-home moms, librarians, reporters and private detectives solve mysteries. But this was my first with an eight-and-a-half pregnant woman solving a mystery. I simply loved the title, too. To make it even rarer, Meg Langslow Waterston is also a blacksmith. Wha, what? Not only pregnant, but a blacksmith, too? This is part of a series, but my first time experiencing this author and her characters.

At 38 weeks pregnant with twins, Meg takes the arrival of notorious avant-garde Spanish playwright Señor Mendoza in stride. What's one more guest in a house overflowing with displaced drama students, her eccentric cousin Rose Noire, her wealthy grandfather and frequent visits from her physician father and busy-body mother? The two academic deans who appear in her front door not only will be the ones to decide her husband's tenure, but they are threatening to cancel the performance of Señor Mendoza's play, which is the dissertation of one of her husband's students.

When Jean Wright, the academic dean and malicious head of the department, is found murdered in Meg's library, Meg is determined to solve the mystery, if only to be able to come home to a police-free house after the birth of her twins. The entire book, including the solving of the case, takes place in one day.

It's almost a locked-room mystery, and the murderer wasn't who I suspected. I am new to this series, and found the flood of characters almost overwhelming. Context helped a bit in determining exactly who was who, but I felt like the people overshadowed a decent-but-not-great mystery. I would read the next in this series by Donna Andrews, but won't go back and read past books.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Luxe by Anna Godbersen

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 teenaged sisters find romance in turn-of-the-century New York high society. 

Luxe has been called the Gossip Girl of the 1890s and that's the most apt description ever. Two sisters, the beautiful and calm Elizabeth and the wild and rumpled younger Diana, have re-entered New York high society after the death of the father almost a year ago.

Isabelle, Elizabeth's frenemy, is hosting a grand ball to show off her new house. Isabelle is so busy playing hostess that she doesn't have time to tell Elizabeth about her exciting new lover, Henry Schoonmaker. Henry seems drawn to Isabelle's contrasts - the society darling, who likes to be naughty. Smoking in public? Gasp!

That night, after the ball, Elizabeth and Diana's mother summons them to the parlor and tells them that there is absolutely no money left from their father's bad investments and that Elizabeth must marry for money, and quickly, or they will be ostracized forever. Diana thinks their poverty is wonderful and dramatic, but has no idea of the realities. Elizabeth is crushed, because she has just resumed her romance with the handsome coachman who works for them. If Elizabeth must marry for money, what will become of her relationship with Will?

On the other side of town, Henry Schoonmaker is commanded by his father to marry a girl of impeccable breeding and class, and soon, just in time for his father's run for office. The very next day, Henry proposes to Elizabeth, and Elizabeth accepts but with a sick feeling in her stomach. As Henry leaves the house, knowing that his life will be a series of dull and exceedingly proper events, he meets a charming flirt with laughing eyes and kisses her. It's only the next day that Henry realizes he has kissed his fiancé's sister. Isabelle's shock and jealousy create a minor scandal as well.

The story unfolds much as you would expect, with a small mystery left unexplained to pave the way for a sequel or two. All along, I kept hoping that somebody would tell the truth and that Diana and Henry could and would get married. It would seem to solve so many problems. This is exactly the kind of book I would have loved in high school. There is implied sex, but it's not explicit and tricky social situations as well. Enjoyable and light historical reading. I'm unsure about whether or not I'll read the next book in the series but don't regret reading this one at all.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Matched by Ally Condie

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: Cassie is assigned to marry her best friend, but suddenly imagines her life with someone else. 

I love dystopian fiction. I love young adult novels. I love strong female characters. This book had all of it, but I didn't love this book. It was only okay.

Cassie is excited to learn that her government-approved Match is none other than her best friend Xander. But when Cassie takes the data box home, she sees another boy's face inside - that of Ky Markham, also a school friend from her neighborhood.

Cassie's life is so carefully monitored that she is relieved when an Official comes to talk to her about the mix-up with her Matching box. Then Cassie and Ky are assigned to exercise together, and they start a romance. Cassie is torn between the expected duty of marrying Xander, her dear friend, and the excitement of kissing Ky, the man she actually got to choose.

Then we come to find out that Cassie was deliberately thrown together with Ky as a test. Could she follow the rules or was she dangerous to Society?

The Society was reminiscent of 1984, with bits of The Declaration and some of Gattaca. Every action in life is governed, with sleep tags, exercise tags, meals carefully monitored to provide optimum nutrition for people. The Society had Officials choose the 100 Paintings, 100 Songs, 100 Poems worth saving, since too many choices made people upset. People are also assigned to die at age eighty, since that was determined to be the optimum age.

I was disappointed in this book, likely because so many people recommended it so highly. This is definitely a typical Young Adult novel, but it spent too much time on explanations and took too long to get to the plot. That Cassie and Ky's love was engineered by Officials was also predictable. To be fair, there were some interesting questions in here: If you're allowed to choose who you love, can you ever have love in an arranged marriage? Or maybe scientists do have a point when they make Matches for optimum health and smooth running of Society.  I would and could discuss the Society with others since it does present some interesting moral and health issues. The author deliberately left the ending open for a sequel, so I expect others will read this series as well, but I'm done.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Killing Bridezilla (Jaine Austen Mysteries) by Laura Levine

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: Author Jaine Austen solves the murder of one of her clients, a woman who tormented her in high school.

I am so excited! I found a new murder mysteries series that I love. Of course, I picked this book up randomly, amused by the title. I never expected to find another series and a character to adore. Jaine Austen is an under-employed free-lance writer living in Los Angeles.  Calling your character Jane Austen - modernized for L.A - cracks me up - and Jaine's narration is sharp and sassy.

Jaine Austen is fat and broke - two qualities that mean she is never quite accepted in L.A. society. Her clothes are sloppy, she eats McDonald's daily and her largest client is Toiletmasters. The two men in her life are Ben & Jerry. So when Jaine is contacted by an old high school classmate for a writing job, Jaine's first instinct is to run, far away. But the $3,000 she is promised would go a long way towards paying bills, so Jaine agrees to "rewrite the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, but without that bummer ending" as part of Patti's wedding day vows. Jaine somehow finds herself bragging about her rich talented fiancé to her old high school classmates, trying to prove that she is not the loser they think she is. She is tricked into bringing that (imaginary) fiancé to the wedding, leaving her in a bind. Her best friend suggests an escort service.
Well, dear reader, if you think I was about to degrade myself by paying for a date with a guy who was just one step up from a male hooker, all I can say is - you're a very perceptive reader. 
When the bride - Jaine's old high school classmate who has remained a rich bitch - is murdered on her wedding day, Jaine is determined to solve the crime. The suspect list was ever changing and the murderer came as a surprise to me, which made it even more enjoyable.

Jaine's love life is as much of a disaster as her finances, and she goes on one of the worst dates ever. Seriously, you should read this book just so you can cringe at the horror of this date.

The only off-note for me are the e-mails that Jaine gets from her parents. Every few chapters, we read the e-mails that Jaine's parents send her, explaining some nonsense or project Jaine's father is involved in. In this book, he sues the library board over $.18 in late fees. I felt the e-mails were silly, and don't really relate to the current mystery. It's the author's attempt to  make this series even funnier, but personally, I could have done without the extra plot line. I put up with them, because I am devouring this series, but you could skip every e-mail and still enjoy the book. I'm off to read my next one - don't bother me!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sh*t My Dad Says Justin Halpern

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 he moves back home, a grown son shares his father's comments with the Twitter community.

The actual blog Sh*t My Dad Says is far too vulgar for me, but the book is much better than I expected.

Justin Halpern moves back home with his parents after breaking up with his girlfriend and losing his apartment. His father has now retired and Justin starts posting his dad's comments on his Facebook page.

The book is like a mini-memoir of Justin's, interspersed with his father's quotes. But to me, the quotes only enhanced the story and the character of Sam Halpern, Justin's dad. Sam is a no-nonsense (or no-b*llsh*t) kind of guy with limited patience. In that way, he reminds me of my husband.

Each chapter focuses on a childhood or adult memory of Justin's, with some quotes that make sense in the context and some that are funny for their absurdity. Most stories focus on insecure Justin, but there are both tender and cringe-worthy moments.

Sam Halpern is an old-fashioned guy, who's utterly loyal to his wife, his kids, and his family with a strong sense of work ethic. He's a charmer, too, and a good tipper, which makes me like him more. He says to his son when Justin gets this book deal,
"Maybe I'm not the warmest human being on the f*cking planet, but I love the sh*t out of you."
Surprisingly good, but maybe that's because I had such low expectations.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The February Rejects

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I've been reading - and discarding - a bunch of books lately. I try to give each book at least 50 pages, but with so many great books out there (and two book clubs a month), I want to spend my time reading books I actually enjoy. I'd rather not spend time writing full reviews on books I Did Not Finish. This list includes the books I picked up and rejected in February:

The Pumpkin Muffin Murder: A Fresh-Baked Mystery: by Livia J. Washburn
Summary: Retired school teacher Phyllis Newsom solves another murder, this time based around her pumpkin muffins.
I just couldn't connect with the characters, and the squabbling and rivalry between Phyllis and her boarder Carolyn comes off as tiresome. The recipes - with the exception of Mocha Pecan Pie - didn't seem special either.

Chocolate, Please: My Adventures in Food, Fat, and Freaks by Lisa Lampanelli
Summary: A comic shares her memoirs and jokes.
It started out as a funny comic memoir, but was too crude and insulting for me. She calls herself the "Queen of Mean" and it's true, amongst all the vulgarity. Not an enjoyable read.

Chocolate Secrets by Zelda Benjamin
Summary: A romance between a nurse and a fire fighter is guided by their horoscopes.
Bored me to tears. Immature writing and characters who seemed caricatures. But I'm sure you noticed the chocolate theme here. Too bad they were both disappointing.

The False Friend by Myla Goldberg
Summary: A married woman tracks down the girls she bullied as a pre-teen.
I've read books with unsympathetic lead characters, but this one was the worst! Celia came off as a sociopath, in that she seemed to have no emotional connection to people around her. And then to have a missing girl be part of the plot? I just got disgusted. Girls do go missing, but not frequently enough to base a book around it.

The Darling Dahlias and the Cucumber Tree by Susan Wittig Albert
Summary: Who cares?
The writing style seems old-fashioned and affected. Couldn't get into the Miss Havisham-type characters and fussy writing. Really don't understand why this is a series.