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

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Farm Fresh Murder (A Farmers' Market Mystery) by Paige Shelton

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 gardener solves the murder of a coworker at the farmer's market. 

Someone is murdered at the farmer's market where Becca sells her strawberry and pumpkin preserves, also managed by her sister. The reason Becca tells herself she is getting involved is so that her sister doesn't lose her job managing the market, but that's a flimsy excuse to go snooping.

I guess I'm supposed to like Becca Robins and how much she enjoys life. But when she fantasizes about making love to a very likely murder suspect, she turned strange, very quickly.

There are a ton of red herrings in the book, and lots of flirtation. I finished the book only because I had to know who the murderer was, but I am done, done, done with this book and this series.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Pemberley Ranch by Jack Caldwell

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 characters and basic plot of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice are transported to antebellum Texas. 

I have read so many bad adaptations, sequels and "inspired by" books of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice that I didn't expect much of Pemberley Ranch, but it was surprisingly good.

The book was enhanced by my knowledge and love of Jane Austen's novels, but people looking for a post-Civil War fiction novel would appreciate the story, even without the background.

Instead of Lizzie Bennet, we have Beth Bennet. The Bennets sell their farm in Ohio and move to Texas after the Civil War and the death of the oldest Bennet child, Samuel. (Samuel was never a character in P&P.) Will Darcy was an officer in the Confederate Army and is now a rancher in Texas. Instead of Mr. Wickham, we have George Whitehead. Now a carpetbagger, Whitehead violated basic rules of war and oversaw Union war camps, where Confederate prisoners died of dysentery and starvation. I never got the sense from the original P&P that Wickham was truly evil, perhaps just malicious and selfish, but Whitehead is despicable. He's at the center of a convoluted plot to drive free blacks off their own land and profit from a new railroad line coming into town.

The main characters - Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mrs Bennet- are all there, with slightly different motivations.  Collins is the bank manager, and the bank will get the Bennet farm in foreclosure. He's also called Billy Collins, which is the name of a modern famous poet. Lady Catherine is Kate Burroughs and Mrs. Bennet is concerned about the lack of good quality men in Rosings, Texas. In addition to calling Fitzwilliam Darcy Will Darcy, there is also a character named Fitzwilliam. Wha, what? I know. The love story between Darcy and Beth/Lizzie develops along the same line, and that's what made this story work.

Several things bothered me though - The author used characters from other Austen books as characters in Pemberley Ranch: Elton, Mr. Knightly, etc. Instead of Darcy writing a letter to explain his hatred for Whitehead, he gets drunk and rants to Beth and Anne. The slurring and writing in this scene seemed forced. In fact, a lot of the Southern talk/writing seemed cliched and fake. Keeping to the emotions of the original P&P during similar scenes always worked best. You will be surprised about what happens to Lily/Kitty. It's worse than you think.

A line on the back cover reads: "Frankly, Mr. Darcy, I don't give a damn." Any reference or homage to Gone with the Wind is strictly accidental.

Despite the fact that P&P didn't end with a shoot-out, this was a pleasant read, if slow at times. I kept putting this down and picking it up when I thought about it, but it wasn't a book I had to stay up late finishing.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Girl in the Green Raincoat: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman

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 pregnant detective on bedrest solves a mystery from her front porch.

This was my first experience with the delightful Tess Monaghan and I'm so happy to meet her. I had read a previous Laura Lippman novel - Life Sentences - and didn't care for it. But Tess Monaghan is prickly, stubborn and thoughtful and I'm planning to start the series from the beginning.

When we meet Tess, she's in the middle of a high-risk (unplanned) pregnancy and is on forced bed rest. She spends her day in bed on her front porch, looking out on her street and sees a woman in a green raincoat walking a greyhound. The girl in the green raincoat is such a fixture in Tess' daily life that when Tess sees the dog running free off his collar, she knows something is wrong.

Tess starts making phone calls and enlisting the help of her friends and discovers that the dog's owner, Carole, is the missing wife of a man who had been married three times before, each marriage ending in death. Aha! Tess thinks and begins a dangerous campaign of uncovering the truth. This is a very short story, but an enjoyable read.

It's silly but one of the things keeping me from rating this five stars is that the book is very specific that the missing woman wears a celery-colored coat and the cover at is a dark green, closer to kelly green. You'd think someone at the publishing company would notice the difference. Yes, I'm particular.

Before kids, my husband and I considered moving to Baltimore, but were discouraged by the fact that the show Homicide: Life on the Streets was based in Baltimore. The mayor of Baltimore at the time was Martin O'Malley, and I'm an O'Malley. Reason enough to move, right?  I'm allergic to she-crab, the most popular dish in all of Baltimore, but after this novel, I absolutely want to visit.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Still Missing by Chevy 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 is kidnapped and kept in a cabin in the Canadian woods. Once she's freed, she's never feels safe.

I was hesitant to read this book, simply because the subject is so disturbing. Annie O'Sullivan is kidnapped from work one day, kept in a cabin in the Canadian woods, raped daily and brutalized for over a year. The Freak, as Annie calls her captor, only lets her urinate four times a day. When she tries to go the bathroom at a different time, he punishes her by making her drink the toilet water. That's a small sample of the abuse she suffers, as he lives out some crazy fantasy.

I kept reading because the book opens with Annie free and talking to a therapist, so I knew that somehow she escaped. Annie also becomes pregnant during her captivity and delivers a baby. I wish I had stopped reading soon after the baby's birth because things got even worse. I thought that when Annie delivered the baby that hospital staff helps her escape or something, but Annie delivers the baby in the cabin!

When Annie gets out - I won't tell you how - her life is almost more tense, and she never feels safe. Then, after a second kidnapping attempt, Annie's won't rest until she knows exactly why she was kidnapped and who The Freak was working with, if anybody. The villain of the piece comes as a surprise, but Annie's paranoia makes her doubt almost everyone.

This is a debut novel, and it shows, with uneven, unpolished passages. Annie also uses vulgarity frequently, which is a character choice by the author but also typical of people with underdeveloped vocabulary. I wish I hadn't read this, because it creeped me out, but I finished.  I can't recommend it to people, because it's not my style, but I can see how it would appeal to others. As a story, I did think it was better written than Room.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done by Ian Ayres

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: Why Americans can only delay gratification for so long, and the benefits of the author's website - StickK.com.

The best way to reach your goal is to risk a significant amount of money that will go to a cause or program that disgusts or offends you. There's no need for a 200 page book, when the book can be distilled to this concept.

And that's where the author's website http://www.stickk.com/ comes into play. Post your goal, put up some money, assign a referee, and decide who gets your money if you don't meet your goal every week or at the end of your assigned time period.

While I appreciate the author's enthusiastic attempt to promote his website - admittedly one I had never heard of before - it got tiresome. The entire book could have been one interesting article in The Washington Post, which I would read and re-post on Facebook.  But as a book? Ehh.

My favorite part of the book concerned incentives for employees to remain tobacco free. Apparently smoking is one of the most significant causes of dental decay. In order to reduce the dental bills, certain companies actually administered urine tests to penalize employees who smoked. There is so much social pressure to conform to employees' bad habits that companies have to incentivize good behavior rather than punish bad behavior. I hope companies move towards this trend, but as someone who's married to a labor and employment attorney, I foresee a law suit or two about this issue in the future.

The early parts of the book deal with the psychology of delayed gratification and reasonable goal setting. You have to put up enough money that the failure actually hurts more than success feels great.

Mildly interesting book, once you get past the constant self-promotion.

Friday, April 8, 2011

And One Last Thing ... by Molly Harper

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 humiliating her husband publicly over his affair, an ex-wife learns who she is and what she wants.

Molly Harper is the author of the terribly funny and sassy book about librarian-turned-vampire Jane Jameson. So I picked up her latest book.

Lacey Terwilliger (ridiculous name!) accidentally gets delivered flowers that were meant for her husband's mistress/secretary instead. As revenge, she sends out a scathing e-mail to her husband's client and holiday card list, berating her husband for being spineless and bad in bed. After Lacey becomes late night comic fodder, she retreats to her family cabin, isolated in the woods.

Of course, the isolated cabin is not so isolated, since there's a hunky man next door. After Lacey's few attempts at friendship, the hunk, Monroe, makes it very clear that he is NOT attracted to Lacey. Their mutual antipathy is predictable. Monroe is a mystery writer, holed up for some peace and quiet and to finish his novel. Lacey is miffed and ignores him, and then suddenly he realizes that Lacey is kinda cute. They become "friends with benefits" and Lacey starts writing her own novel, about a woman who wants to kill her husband. It works as therapy, until Lacey gets a job offer to write angry letters for other women. Monroe scolds Lacey for even considering it and that's when Lacey and Monroe have their first big fight.
"You know, maybe it's not that I don't want to be in a relationship, maybe it's that I don't want to be in relationship with you. You're always pushing and judging and trying to make me into the person that- I don't know - is worthy of you? I mean, you wouldn't even talk to me until I proved that I was low-maintenance enough for you. I don't want to be your pet project. I've already tried living with a man whose standards I couldn't meet and I'm not doing it again."
This was actually a sad book about the decline of a marriage. I felt strange laughing in the funny spots, when the death of this marriage didn't really get as much respect as it deserved. But it is well-written with characters that are nuanced and realistic.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Room by Emma Donoghue

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 boy narrates his life first imprisoned in a room with his mother and then their life on the outside.

I’m giving up on so-called “popular” books. The ones that seem to brush through book clubs and best seller lists seem to have an element of violence and dysfunction that does not bring me pleasure when I read. The exception was The Help. I reluctantly read this book for my book club and shuddered with disgust and disdain for nearly the whole book.

Room was inspired by the true story of Elisabeth Fritzl, an Austrian woman who had been imprisoned in her father’s basement for twenty-four years, during which time he repeatedly assaulted and raped her. She eventually bore him seven children (one miscarriage). Three of her children had been imprisoned with their mother for the whole of their lives until rescue, at ages 19, 17 and 4. Room also references the cases of Jaycee Lee Dugard in California and Natascha Kampusch and Sabine Dardenne in Europe. I don't enjoy rape stories and I knew this was an essential element of the plot. So I had this bias going in.

Room is narrated wholly by a young boy, Jack, who has just celebrated his fifth birthday. Ma and Jack live in an 11x11 room. It’s actually a garden shed fitted with soundproofed cork, lead-lined walls, and a coded metal security door. For the past seven years, Ma has been imprisoned in this room and raped repeatedly by her captor, a man Jack calls Old Nick.  When Old Nick arrives every night or two, Jack is stored safely (?) in Wardrobe and counts the repetitive noises from the bedsprings, sometimes in groups of two or five.  I find it odd that a boy as precocious as Jack, and names his Penis, still doesn't understand what is happening to his mother. All Jack really knows about Old Nick is that he
brings groceries and Sundaytreat and disappears the trash, but he's not human like us. He only happens in the night, like bats.... I think Ma doesn't like to talk about him in case he gets realer.
The secrecy about the rape and Old Nick's brutality is supposed to be a testament to how protective his mother is - that she shelters him from life and its cruelty - but instead becomes another unresolved issue in the book.

Two years into her abduction, Ma gave birth to Jack. We eventually find out later that there was a baby before Jack, who died upon delivery. Ma, we learn, was abducted one night at age nineteen on her way to the school library.

Life is regimented in Room. Ma and Jack exercise, eat balanced meals, sleep, bathe and do chores. They also Scream, their form of therapy. Ma insists that they keep to strict mealtimes, perhaps to give some structure to their days. This is interesting. They are not really paying attention to their hunger cues, but instead eat on the clock, a form of imprisonment that seemed odd to me. If someone else controls your life, I would think you would want more freedom, not less. This was not the only jarring note of the book.

Jack refers all the objects in Room  as though they are real, living personalities. There’s Wardrobe, a Rug, Plant and Meltedy Spoon. It wasn’t cute, but tiresome. It's also unclear whether Ma has decided this or Jack.
We have thousands of things to do every morning, like give Plant a cup of water in Sink for no spilling, then put her back on her saucer on Dresser.... I count one hundred cereal and waterfall the milk that’s nearly the same white as the bowls, no splashing, we thank Baby Jesus.
Why some things were capitalized with personalities and others weren't is never explained. Sink gets a name, but saucer doesn't? C'mon.

What I found most charming was that Jack is still nursing at age 5. In fact, when I first read the line "I had some." I thought there was a typo.  Some is Jack's word for breastmilk. (Why isn't Some capitalized, since it's obviously so important?) Jack, like my youngest daughter Vivien, prefers the left side. (Vivien is not still nursing, but that was my choice, not hers.)

They do have a TV, which causes a real problem when Ma tries to tell Jack that Outside is real. Yet Ma's protection of Jack doesn't extend to the television. She limits his TV watching in quantity only, certainly not quality. Jack can sing along to Eminem and Woody Guthrie music videos. He knows the latest dances. He listens to people speak on TV. His own mother, the only person with whom he talks, speaks normally. He uses words like “rappelling” and “hippopotami”  and then randomly reverts to baby talk.

Some people say Donoghue amazingly captures the narrative voice of a young child. Puh-leeze. I have a 5-year-old son who’s very verbal, very physical and very affectionate, much like Jack. I also have an almost-five year old girl (adopted) who had very little stimulation or affection for the first sixteen months of her life. Jack doesn’t talk like either of them.  Even if the writing was realistic, any book either of my children wrote would be ridiculous and mind-numbingly boring, although as their mother, I'd adore it.

The story of Room is split into two parts, the first part occurring in Room and the second part occurring Outside after Ma and Jack escape. It's unclear to me at least, exactly what prompts Ma's sudden urge to escape now. Is it that her rotting tooth is incredibly painful? Is it that Jack might come to see Old Nick as something good, who brings lollipops, instead of something unreal? Is it because Old Nick has lost his job and might leave them to die alone in Room when power is cut off?

The escape is ridiculous. For a child who doesn’t even believe the outside world exists, to do what Jack did is beggars belief. It seemed illogical to me that Old Nick would fall for the final escape plan - why would he not check the rug, and how could he be so easily convinced to take the "corpse" away so quickly?

C'mon, Emma! (Since Ma is never referred to by her real name, I named her Emma, after the author.) Why not escape by figuring out the combination on the lock? With seven years in captivity, Ma could have figured out some sort of mathematical system of trying thousands of combinations. Or maybe save up dust (or something sticky) and brush the dust on the buttons to see which were touched. Or memorize the sounds of the buttons. It seemed unrealistic that she would have only come up with the "corpse" plan at the last minute. With all those years, a last minute desperate plan should have had more thought.

Ma's reaction when she's finally Outside also seems odd. She rejects everything about Room and seems to have no problems adjusting to her new life, while Jack struggles with depth perception, sunlight and the new sensations. Ma also doesn't seem as clingy once Outside, which troubles Jack deeply.

I felt like this book capitalizes on our secret glee and horror in the many real life cases that have made the news recently. And having it from a five-year-old’s perspective exclusively felt gimmicky. This will be a polarizing book – people will probably either love it or hate it.

Friday, April 1, 2011

March Rejects

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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 March:

Exit Strategy by Kelley Armstrong
Summary: A ex-cop turned assassin tracks down a serial killer.
This book was so disappointing. I adore Kelley Armstrong and could have sworn that I would love anything she wrote. This book (apparently first of a series) was slow, with cliched characters and no plot impetus. The trainee assassin falls in love with her mentor, aging mafia men send out a hit on them, red herrings here and there. I kept trying, but couldn't stick with it.

Waiting for White Horses by Nathan Jorgenson
Summary: The long friendship between two Minnesota men is tested and strengthened.
The woman who lasers my bikini line recommended this book to me, but reading this book was like getting zapped in my brain instead. It's a novel about the friendship between two men who met in dental school. It's based in Minnesota and I hoped I could appreciate it for that. I've also been looking for a novel that my husband and I could read together and both enjoy. This is NOT it. There are many scenes about duck hunting, with very specific references to blinds, decoys, equipment and breeds of ducks. The characters seem so similar despite the author's valiant attempt to make them unique from each other. Perhaps that was because the writing is full of pronouns and I never knew which character he was referencing within the same paragraph. Their lives change when one of them gets a phone call from the President of the United States. I didn't care enough about the characters to read beyond that.

The Seven Year Bitch by Jennifer Belle
Summary: A unhappy stay-at home mother hires a nanny, has an affair and gets pregnant.
Enough already with the married moms who have affairs! I'm so sick of this as a theme. While it's true that a majority of women file for divorce first, it's the men who have the affairs. So in some sort of twisted version of feminism, women authors think it's okay for their women characters to have affairs - as if it will make them equal to men.  The character's name is Isolde Brilliant. Puh-leeze. A tragic old-fashioned first name and a sparkling last name do NOT an enjoyable book make.