"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." - John Keats

"You're not allowed to say anything about books because they're books and books are, you know, God." - Nick Hornby

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Review #3: A Land More Kind Than Home, by Wiley Cash

The library bookstore is my secret addiction. I don't get to go often (at least, not in my county, what with the powers that be cutting library hours to a ridiculous degree), but when I do go, I load up. And I would say that of the books I pick up, I have about a 50% success rate. I donate the rest back, which results in a vicious circle where I've been known to re-buy previous rejects. (Yeah, I know.) Anyway, of that 50% success rate, about half of those are guilty pleasure romance novels that are easily read but easily forgotten, and the other half are knock it out of the park fantastic finds. A Land More Kind than Home is one of the latter.

Set in the shadows of the North Carolina mountains in the mid-1980s, the novel is told from three different first-person perspectives: a nine-year-old boy, the town's midwife, and the middle aged county sheriff. It shouldn't work, but it does, and it does so beautifully. Each narrator has a different thread of the same story, and Cash deftly weaves the tale together, sometimes veering off in to the past, but never in a rambling way (I'm looking at you, Richard Russo). Cash allows the climax of the story to begin in the sheriff's voice, and then at the last minute, smoothly hands it over to the young boy, simultaneously softening the blow of the novel's penultimate scene and devastating the reader even more than had the reader witnessed it from the sheriff's perspective.

I want to be careful what I say about the story, because I fear that even a summary will give too many things away, and this is a novel you need to just immerse yourself in and let the words, and the story, wash over you. This is a tale of a small southern town, its residents ripped apart by a young boy's needless death, a nefarious and shady preacher man, a sheriff haunted by twenty-year-old grief, and an old man left with nothing but a second chance. I would compare Cash to Tom Franklin (Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter) or John Hart (The Last Child), and A Land More Kind Than Home is a powerful addition to Southern literature.

I've heard it said before that those who don't learn from the past are bound to repeat it, and I just don't know what I think about that. I figure I don't have too much use for it. The past will just weigh on you if you spend too much time remembering.

Review #2: The Haunting of Josie, by Kay Hooper

I hate it when I read the blurb about a book and I think it's going to be one thing, but then it turns out to be totally different, and totally dull.

According to the back cover, The Haunting of Josie is about a young woman spending a year in a secluded cabin, untangling the threads of a mystery that killed a man she loved. She's unprepared for her sexy and dashing neighbor Marc Westbrook, and doesn't really need the distraction of the tall, dark, and handsome man-next-door, but soon she'll have no choice but to trust him. 

So I go in to this thinking that Josie's got some terrible secret or bad guy that's haunting her, that she lost her first love, that Marc's going to be in danger, that terrible truths are going to come out and Marc and Josie are going to have to rescue each other and live happily ever after together the end.

That's not what happened. The novel opens with a cat. Correction: the novel opens with the cat's point of view. Yeah. Okay, whatever, I can go along with that. But then there's a ghost and a mysterious key that the cat keeps moving around, and an old murder mystery that I really didn't care about at all, and Josie's secret wasn't all that salacious or dangerous, and the damn cat keeps showing up. But the haunting is really the weirdest part. It's Marc's great-great-great uncle or some such nonsense, a writer who committed suicide but was really murdered (I think - I can't remember), but he looks just like Marc. And he likes to appear to Josie when she's half dressed. It's creepy and not in a chills up your spine cause it's cold and dark outside way, but creepy in the way that the guy at the end of the bar might want to stare at you while you shower way.

And then the stupid cat shows back up and we close out with the cat's point of view again.

The whole thing felt weird and disjointed, and frankly, pretty dated, which is surprising since I think it's only about ten years old. Definitely not Hooper's strongest effort.

Disclaimer: this was an audio book, but I don't think it would be any better in print.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Review #1: Turbo Twenty-Three, by Janet Evanovich

Note: Spoilers abound.

Are there really spoilers in a Stephanie Plum book, though? I mean, we know that Lula is going to wear outrageous outfits, that Grandma is going to do something wacky, that Mrs. Plum is going to drink a little bit of Four Roses in her iced tea glass, and that Stephanie is going to have some near-death experiences.

In installment 23 (are we really up to that number?), we open with Stephanie and Morelli’s relationship status upgraded to engaged to be engaged. Apparently, Joe had some sort of medical thing in the last book which made him feel especially domestic for a short while. Stephanie’s on the hunt for Larry Virgil, who is out on bond for stealing an eighteen-wheeler full of bourbon, and she and Lula catch him stealing another eighteen-wheeler, only this time, it’s full of ice cream and a dead guy covered in chocolate sauce. So, you know, a typical day in Trenton.

In the meantime, Ranger needs Stephanie to go undercover at the ice cream plant, which is sort of related to the stolen truck full of ice cream and dead guy. The B stories this time include Grandma getting engaged to a biker bartender in one of the more delightful Grandma side-stories, and Lula and Randy Briggs (the short guy) filming themselves in their birthday suits wandering about Trenton for an audition tape for “Naked and Afraid”. Think about that visual for just a few seconds.

But what you really need to know, is that Stephanie sleeps with Ranger. At the Contemporary Resort at Disney World. Twice. While wearing Tinkerbell underwear.

The last few Stephanie books have felt pretty formulaic, and they have been, but they’re still fun, and I’m still reading them. Plus, you know, Ranger. It’s hard to give him up.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review #54: Texas! Lucky, by Sandra Brown

From Amazon:
The first book in #1 New York Times bestselling author Sandra Brown’s beloved Texas! trilogy introduces readers to a close-knit family struggling to go on without its patriarch—and to a man in pursuit of an elusive woman who may hold his future in her hands. Charismatic and easy on the eyes, Lucky Tyler is a born rebel. His romantic conquests have earned him his nickname, while his temper gives him his reputation as the family hothead. One night, he gets in a fight over a woman in distress, followed by a night of passion neither of them will soon forget. But the lady in question has a knack for disappearing. When news breaks of a suspicious fire at Tyler Drilling, Lucky is the prime suspect. Now the mystery woman is more than just the object of his obsession. She’s his alibi.  Devon Haines has tried her best to escape Lucky. Yet his bold pursuit and self-assurance are irresistible. In order to clear him of criminal charges, she must reveal her darkest secret; withholding her help could cost him everything he holds dear. Either way, she risks losing him forever.

EXCEPT THAT'S NOT HOW THIS BOOK WENT.

Lucky doesn't get in to a fight over a "woman in distress". What Lucky actually does is go to the local bar, called imaginatively The Place, sulks in his beer for awhile, notices a beautiful woman having a drink alone, questions why she's there since "there's only one reason a woman would be in The Place alone", notices that she's being harassed by a pair of rednecks, has an internal monologue with himself about whether he should rescue her even though she sort of deserves what she's getting for being in a bar alone, and eventually heaves a big sigh and saunters over to rescue her. Except she's doing a pretty fine job of handling things on her own when he steps in and makes it worse. As a result, there's a big fight with Lucky and the two rednecks, the sheriff arrives, and Devon takes off.


AND THEN LUCKY FOLLOWS HER.


For miles down the interstate.


MILES AND MILES AND MILES.


Which happens about fifteen minutes in to this book, and that's the moment when I would have tossed the book across the room except a) it was an audio book, and b) I knew I had to continue to the bitter end so I could review it here for all of you and warn you away from it.


Anyway, after our hero follows her for miles and miles and miles, he sits in the parking lot of a diner where Devon stops for dinner. HE WATCHES HER THROUGH THE WINDOW. When he realizes that Devon's rented a room in the adjacent no-tell motel, he waits in the shadows of the parking lot until she's inside her room, knocks on the door, and FORCES HIS WAY INSIDE AND REFUSES TO LEAVE.


Do you know why? Because she "owes him an apology". An apology for what, you ask? Because she wasn't GRATEFUL ENOUGH that he defended her honor back at the bar, even though he ADMITS TO HER THAT HE KIND OF THINKS SHE DESERVED IT.


Let me repeat that.


HE THINKS THAT SHE DESERVED TO BE HARASSED AND INTIMIDATED BY TWO STRANGE MEN BECAUSE SHE HAD THE AUDACITY TO HAVE A BEER IN A BAR BY HERSELF. 


Lucky eventually cons his way in to staying, appealing to the Florence Nightingale side of Devon by showing her his stab wound from the bar fight when he was defending her (to him) non-existent honor. She tries to insist that he go to the hospital, but he CONFISCATES HER KEYS and then passes out in the only bed in the room, a combination of the pint of whiskey he downed on the way over and the bleeding from the stab wound. He wakes in the night, discovers Devon sleeping in bed next to him, and they have sleepy, semi-conscious sex. More on that later. The next morning, Devon's gone. Lucky goes home, only to discover that his family's business has literally gone up in smoke and he's the prime suspect in the arson. Devon's his alibi, but he doesn't know how to find her. He doesn't even know her real name. Then there are too many pages devoted to Lucky's hand-wringing about the whole situation and "damning the woman all to hell". Again and again he brings up the fact that this (the fire? his subsequent search for her? the fact that the police think he did it? global warming? the state of affairs in the country today? I'm not sure) never would have happened if she hadn't put herself in the dangerous situation of being in the bar by herself. Eventually, he figures out that Devon isn't her real name when he discovers her picture in the local paper; she's a columnist there. So he goes off half-cocked, racing towards Dallas after breakfast one morning, and shows up at the newspaper and demands that she alibi him. Devon insists that they go to a coffee shop (a public place, so she can ditch him if she begins to feel threatened, which she does when he barges in to her office and shuts the door and physically looms over her), he demands again that she alibi him, she refuses, and leaves him behind and goes back to the office. Security refuses to let him in without her okay, and she won't give it, so he's stuck in the lobby. She goes up to her office and is visibly shaken by the visit.


SO THEN HE FOLLOWS HER HOME.


AGAIN.


Then there's actually a scene where she sits in her car and waits for the garage door to come down before she gets out of the car, so that she can feel safe that he hasn't followed her home and can't get to her when she's most vulnerable.


BUT THEN HE BREAKS IN ANYWAY.


AND WATCHES HER SWIM NAKED. 


AND REFUSES TO LEAVE. 


AGAIN.


EVEN WHEN SHE THREATENS TO CALL THE POLICE.


Instead, he PUTS THE MOVES ON HER. She refuses. AGAIN. He eventually leaves, after much grumbling about the refusal because she was "made for him" and why can't she see that, because after all her body is responding to him, even though her mind is screaming no.


Lather, rinse, repeat for awhile. In the meantime, Lucky's GIRLFRIEND (cause OF COURSE he has a girlfriend) is threatening to make trouble if he doesn't propose, and Lucky discovers that Devon is secretly married to a guy who is in prison for some sort of financial fraud and that's why she won't alibi Lucky; she feels like she cheated on her husband, even though the husband tricked her into marrying him and she doesn't love him and he doesn't love her but she doesn't tell Lucky any of those details. There's more hand-wringing on Lucky's part, because he can't stand that another man touched "his woman" and how will he ever get over this blah blah blah cakes. But wait! It's okay, because then it comes out that Devon and the husband never had sex. The marriage was never consummated. In fact, Devon was a virgin before she and Lucky had not-entirely-consensual sex in the hotel room that he barged in to and refused to leave! This is WONDERFUL NEWS! Now Lucky can marry her! I mean, once he forces her to divorce her first husband (which, in fairness, is a jackass, but still). Which is less important that the fact that Devon is HIS ALL HIS FOREVER AND EVER and he doesn't have to worry about her having been sullied by another man's touch! (By the way, have I mentioned that Lucky got the name Lucky after he supposedly lost his virginity to the town tramp when he was fourteen and she was in her twenties?)


And then, right about the time they get married, Lucky's brother's pregnant wife is killed in a horrific car accident, thereby setting up the next book in the series. The end.


GAH.


Is there a way to give a book negative stars?  Cause that's what's happening here. I'm not even giving one star. The writing was fine. There were no editing problems. Technically the book was fine. But that doesn't begin to make up for the HORRIBLE, STALKING, SLUT-SHAMING, PSEUDO-RAPEY STORY.

I swear on all that is holy, you guys, Lucky's biggest issue in the whole book - the whole entire book - was not that his family's business was in jeopardy, not that his brother's wife died, not that his mom might be worried about him, not that he might go to prison for a crime he didn't commit, but that the girl he slept with one night after he followed her for miles and forced his way in to her hotel room might not be VIRTUOUS ENOUGH for him. His relief at finding out that Devon was a virgin was bigger and better news for him than finding out he wasn't going to prison.


WHAT IS EVEN HAPPENING?


And what makes the whole story even more bizarre is that Brown has Devon identify as a feminist. Apparently she was in that bar doing research to write a column on how women are treated differently. Lucky's reaction to this and most other "feminist" things that Devon does is to call it cute and then mansplain that of course women are treated differently in that bar. Don't you see, honey? You shouldn't have been in there in the first place. Only sluts go to that bar, and so of course they treated you that way. What did you expect, darlin'? And aren't you glad that I was there to save the day?


NEWSFLASH, SANDY.

THIS IS NOT A MEET CUTE. A MEET CUTE DOESN'T INVOLVE STALKING. OR BARGING IN TO HOTEL ROOMS. OR REFUSING TO LEAVE. OR THE HEROINE BEING AFRAID OF THE "HERO". 

If I weren't so exhausted with everything else that's happening in the world right now, I'd actually have more to say about this book and delve in to it to see if I can come up with some sort of deeper meaning, but... I can't. 
These two make Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey look like... I don't even know. I'm too tired and mad and frustrated to think of my favorite romance couples. Mainly cause there are all a little dysfunctional. Which may say more about me than I like, and which is a whole other post, if you think about it.


No, wait. I've got it. Devon and Lucky make Anna and Christian look like Eve Dallas and Roarke. 


And I don't want to read books that make me think that.


Review #53: The Almost Archer Sisters, by Lisa Gabriele

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this book. It was...fine? 

From Amazon (cause I'm lazy): Georgia "Peachy" Archer always thought she was happy with her choices in life: quitting college, marrying young, raising two boys in the same small town where she grew up. But just as Peachy's life is beginning to settle into a careful routine, her sister's life begins to dangerously unravel. Beth Archer chose a different life: fancy apartment in Manhattan, fancy friends, making lots of money. She's been on her own since she was a teenager, and she's still on her own, outgrowing dress styles and boyfriends faster than Peachy can inherit them. But on a visit home one weekend, Beth upends everything Peachy thought she knew about being happy. 

There's more, of course. There always is. Warning: spoilers ahead:

Peachy catches her husband with Beth in the pantry one night. And by "with Beth", I mean that Beth is bent over the shelves, hanging on for dear life, with Peachy's husband firmly entrenched behind her, setting the flour sacks a-rattling. There is no doubt in anyone's mind what's going on. So from the beginning, Beth is painted as the bad guy. We're not supposed to like her, and Gabriele does a good job of making that happen. Through flashbacks, we learn how selfish Beth is, going off to meet her destiny in New York as soon as she's old enough to hit the road, allowing Peachy to be the one who discovers their mother's lifeless body in their tree fort when the girls were young. Beth is painted as a tramp, always dating a new guy, always flitting in and out of town, acting as though she's too good for their little one-horse farm. Peachy, on the other hand, is the martyred sister, the one who dropped out of college when she became pregnant with her first son, who stayed behind with their dad (who is a fun character and I wish we had seen more of him). Peachy's days are full of the mind-numbing things that a mother of two young boys must do, complicated by the fact that her eldest son has a form of epilepsy that requires strict record keeping and preparedness for almost any contingency.

Except.

Except things are revealed about Peachy that made her much less of a sympathetic character to me. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but there was something about Peachy that I couldn't stand, and the longer the book went on, the more I disliked her, which made me dislike the book, because I knew Beth was supposed to be the bad guy, but I wasn't feeling anything but sadness and regret for Beth. And I don't want to read a book where I feel sympathy for the woman who is having an affair.

The blurb on Amazon says that The Almost Archer Sisters is a refreshingly honest portrait of sisterhood, motherhood, and female mayhem. In the first place, "female mayhem"? What the hell is that? I'm not even addressing that. Secondly, I don't think this was an honest portrait - refreshing or not - of anything other than two very selfish women.

Review #52: I Know This Much Is True, by Wally Lamb


Many, many years ago, I read Wally Lamb's first book She's Come Undone. I can honestly say that the only thing I remember about that book is that the main character's mother is killed when a tractor trailer crashes in to her tollbooth. Consequently, I think about that every time I drive through a toll booth. Anyway, when I read it, I happened to live with two other girls, one of whom had had the pleasure of knowing Wally Lamb as a teacher in her hometown, and so for Christmas one year she gave the two of us autographed copies of his newest book at the time, I Know This Much Is True. But I was about 23 years old, heavy in to reading bodice rippers and other light fare, and certainly wasn't interested in 900 plus pages about a paranoid schizophrenic and his forty-something-year-old twin brother.

In other words, I wasn't exactly the target audience.

But since I never get rid of books, I still have it, and a few months ago, JB was perusing my shelves and saw it, and asked what I thought. When I confessed that I'd never read it, he was horrified at the lapse in my bibliography and said it was one of his favorites. He has yet to steer me wrong, so I gave Wally another shot, and I'm so glad that I did.

Dominick Birdsey is a forty-something-year-old housepainter, who frankly isn't very good at or motivated about his job. A former teacher, he gave up the profession after losing his baby to SIDS. A divorce soon followed, although he is clearly still hopelessly in love with his ex-wife, despite being involved with another woman. Dominick's twin, Thomas, is a paranoid schizophrenic, and the novel opens with Thomas cutting off his hand in the public library in an act of political defiance. That sets off Dominick's fight to keep Thomas safe and sane, which appears more and more impossible the deeper Dominick goes in to the world of mental health care. Along the way, Dominick is forced to confront his past, his own mental health issues, and some pretty horrific family secrets. 

The novel is supposed to be Dominick's story, and Lamb deftly weaves the tale. From his earliest memories of his mother to the moment he realized that Thomas was different, from falling in love with his former wife to his tenuous relationship with his abusive stepfather, from his guilt over being "the normal twin" to his relief at being "the normal twin", there isn't anything about Dominick that the reader doesn't learn. And sometimes, the reader learns it before Dominick himself does in his reluctant therapy sessions with the doctor who is also treating Thomas.

But it was Thomas who captured me. Many of us here are affected by mental health issues - whether it's our own battle to fight or we are fighting beside someone (or someones) we love - and watching Thomas tore at my heart in a very real and unexpected way. Reading about Dominick's struggle to help his brother was difficult, and Lamb perfectly captured the feelings of guilt and love and helplessness and resentment and all the other emotions that boil to the surface in these situations, but there was something about Thomas - more than Dominick - that I couldn't get out of my head. Dominick would eventually be fine, I knew, or at least some semblance of fine, but I worried about Thomas. I fretted over him and his situation, and wanted to reach through the pages and call the doctors in the mental hospital and give them suggestions. I wanted to say, "But he doesn't like it when you do that. Have you tried this?" I wanted to tell them that I knew it was against the rules but he needed Dominick today. And SPOILER: I can't remember the last time I cried as hard at a character's death as I did when Thomas died. It was a strange mixture of pain and relief and sadness and joy that left me uncomfortable with my own feelings about it for longer than I think is probably healthy. 

This is not an easy book to read. It's long. It's cumbersome to carry; it doesn't exactly fit in my purse. And the print is tiny, which my old eyes do not appreciate, especially as the hour grows late. There are long, meandering chapters written in italics, the translation of Dominick and Thomas' grandfather's diary, which I admit I skimmed but then went back and read again, sure that there were clues hidden in those pages. The subject matter is daunting and scary and not a little bit challenging to tackle. There are triggers for many readers here: assault, abuse, death, divorce, infidelity. But it's a necessary book to read. It's the book you haul around with you for two weeks, even though it's heavy and the print is tiny, and even though you have to read the next two chapters in sixty second snippets because the kids just won't leave you alone. It's a book that won't let you leave it behind.

I am not a smart man, particularly, but one day, at long last, I stumbled from the dark woods of my own, and my family's, and my country's past, holding in my hands these truths: that love grows from the rich loam of forgiveness; that mongrels make good dogs; that the evidence of God exists in the roundness of things. This much, at least, I've figured out. I know this much is true.

Review #51: Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes

I've been sitting on this review for awhile now, and not just because I procrastinate with the best of them when it comes to my reviews, but because I honestly do not know how I feel about this book. I think I know how I'm supposed to feel about it, but I'm not even a hundred percent sure of that.

I'm sure you know the story, especially since the movie came out a few months ago. Quiet, shy, relatively poor Louisa loses her job at the local diner, and finds herself answering a help wanted ad for a companion for a quadriplegic. Will Traynor, former Master of the Universe, is the man in need of companionship, having been relegated to a wheelchair after a freak car accident stole the use of most of his body. They could not be more different - where Lou is sweet, Will is acerbic; where Lou's family struggles to make ends meet, Will's family has enough money to buy the town - and yet, somehow, magically, they find themselves falling in love. But Will wants to kill himself, and that's where the conflict comes in.

On the surface, the novel is fine. It's an interesting premise - what happens when or if love isn't enough - and Moyes has a perfectly serviceable writing style. I think that most of the backlash from this book (and movie) has been about Will's ultimate choice: his decision to end his life because he's a paraplegic. The argument is that Moyes paints the paraplegia as life-ending, that someone in a wheelchair can't live a full and happy life. But I don't think that's what Moyes intended for the reader to think. I don't think that's why Will wants to kill himself. Above and beyond the wheelchair and the paralysis, Will is suffering, and he's suffering greatly. Imagine that every movement is steeped in pain, that every meal is a battle, that just going to the bathroom, let alone out to dinner or the store, is a challenge of epic proportions and requires more planning and baggage than most people's weekend trips to the beach. Will is tired, tired down to his very bones, and no amount of starry-eyed love is going to make that better. Is his desire to end his life any different from the woman who is suffering from terminal cancer and doesn't want to live trapped in a body that no longer works? Or the man who lays down after his wife of sixty years dies and wills himself to join her in death? Would we condemn them as so many have condemned Will? 

My issues with the book are focused on other things. I have some nits to pick with some of the secondary characters and I felt like Moyes needed to spend some more time on them, making them a little bit less heavy handed and perhaps more nuanced. I couldn't stand Lou's boyfriend Patrick; he was all wrong for Lou, it made no sense that they were even together in the first place, and I had nothing invested in them as a couple. I wanted Patrick to go away. He was simultaneously dull and the character who made me the most angry. He was, basically, a controlling, selfish, self-centered bore. Lou's parents and sister were fine, but they were not well-fleshed out and I wished we had had some more scenes with them. There was opportunity there, especially with Lou's sister, to build some good relationships, but Moyes let the pitch go by. The secondary characters in Will's life, though - his parents and his nurse - were more finely drawn and I felt like the reader had a much better understanding of their motives. 

But mainly, I kind of didn't like Will. Like Patrick, I found him to be controlling and selfish and self-centered. I love a good alpha male as much as the next girl, but this went beyond that. Even in death, it felt like he still controlled Lou. And this was only exacerbated by Moyes' decision to make Lou extraordinarily meek and mild throughout most of the book, even going so far as to give Lou a backstory involving a sexual assault that in a weird way took me out of the story. I couldn't tell if that was in there to explain Lou's reluctance to leave the village or if Moyes felt like she needed more pages, but it seemed incongruous with the rest of the novel. 

Having said all of this, I still cried like a baby at the final scenes between Will and Lou, even though I nearly tossed the book across the room when I got to the epilogue and realized that Will was still calling all the shots.

So I don't know. All this, and I still don't know how I feel about the book.

I think I'll skip the sequel though.