"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

Monday, October 16, 2017

Reviews #14 - 17: The Bride Quartet, by Nora Roberts

I've read the Bride Quartet before, but sometimes, you just need a little Nora Roberts escapism. And I had forgotten about this series until that we were talking about that stupid New York Times Review of Books piece, and so I hopped on to the library website, and suddenly, I was back at Vows with Parker, Laurel, Emma, and Mac, dreaming of fairy tale weddings where every bride has a completely unlimited budget and nobody has diabetes from eating too much wedding cake. I swear, if I worked there, I'd be drunk on champagne and weigh a thousand pounds from eating wedding cake for breakfast every day. That might have something to do with my life now, though.

In the first installment, Vision in White, we meet Mackensie, the Vows photographer who lives in the pool house turned photo studio. She's got fiery red hair and a personality to match, with a nightmare of a mother who has just left yet another husband. Her dad is largely absent, but she's got all the family she needs with her three best friends. Enter shy, quiet, klutzy Carter, the high school English teacher, who is standing as groom for a meeting when his sister's fiancé got called in to work. Mac wants to keep it casual, but there's nothing casual about the way she feels about Carter.

Book two, Bed of Roses, brings us to Emma, the official florist of Vows. I want Emma's job, except for that when plants and flowers see me coming, they try to run away as fast as their little roots can take them. I don't exactly have a green thumb. I want to - flowers make me so happy - but I don't make flowers happy. Anyway, Emma is happy and bubbly, and just wants to fall in love. Actually, Emma wants to fall in love with anyone other than Jack, an old family friend whom she is certain views her as a sister. One night, Emma's temper gets the best of her, and she and Jack wind up kissing, and not in a brother/sister way. Emma doesn't want to ruin her friendship with Jack, but she can't stop thinking about the kiss, and neither can Jack, although the thought of commitment makes him itchy all over. 

The third book, Savor the Moment, focuses on Laurel, the talented pastry chef known for her beautiful cake creations. Again, I want Laurel's job but bakers have to get up very early and I like to sleep. Plus, I'm klutzy and I'd drop the cake, which would not be good. Laurel's got the hots for Parker's older brother Del, and has since they were kids. But Del is out of her league, and even though she's a part of a successful business, she doesn't quite feel like she can measure up. Del, for his part, thinks it's weird to have Sexy Times thoughts about a girl he's known from childhood, but that doesn't stop them from skinny dipping in the pond on the Vows estate one night. (As an aside, all I could think of during that scene was EW. In Florida, you a) don't go skinny dipping anywhere other than a pool, b) you definitely don't go skinny dipping in a pond, and c) you definitely don't go underwater in a pond. All we have are snakes and alligators and a horrible bacteria that will make you throw up. Not sexy at all.)

Finally, after all the girls have been paired up, it's Parker's turn in the fourth installment, Happy Ever After. Parker is the buttoned up, serious manager of Vows. She's the one the brides call at 2am when they have a zit, she's the one who recognizes when the best man is getting too handsy with the maid of honor, and she's the one who can successfully negotiate the seating chart for even the most complicated of weddings. Her clothes are impeccable, her hair would never think of straying out of its perfect chignon, and her heels are sky high. Which makes it all the more surprising when Malcolm, the town mechanic, knocks her just a little bit off kilter. Mal is a little rough around the edges and Parker isn't quite sure what to make of him, or his motorcycle. But she's not one to back down from a challenge, so when Mal lets it slip that Parker's brother bet that she wouldn't go out with him, she's on the back of that bike in a flash to show him he should never bet against her.  Except it turns out that she kind of likes that feeling of freedom. and she kind of likes Mal, too.

As a reader, you've got to totally suspend disbelief. Nobody has the budget to have the kinds of weddings described in these books, at least not anyone I know. And Parker's brother Del was a bit of an overprotective jackass, particularly - and weirdly - during Emma's book. The family drama is tied up tidily. But that's the beauty of Nora Roberts; everyone's beautiful, nobody worries about a budget, all the men are friends, all the women get along... it's a utopia akin to that series where the girls run the inn. (Or something. I can't remember. Doesn't someone own a pizza shop?)

These books are like wedding cake: they look pretty, they're sweet enough to rot your teeth out of your head, and you kind of feel bad about doing the Macarena after the open bar, but you had a great time anyway.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Review #13: It Ends With Us, by Colleen Hoover

Warning - there will be spoilers in this review. Like, I'm going to tell you how it ends, because I don't know how else to talk about it. Also, content warning for domestic violence and child abuse.

Lily leaves behind a difficult childhood and moves to Boston to start her own business. In the opening pages, she meets a man on her rooftop who is clearly angry and upset about something, and even though they have a "moment", they never exchange information. Fast forward a few days, and she runs in to him again when her new employee summons him to check on Lily's injured foot. It turns out her sullen and angry neighbor is Dr. Ryle Kincaid - a surgeon, actually - and he'd lost a patient the night of their rooftop meeting. They are thrown together again and again - her new employee is married to Ryle's brother - and eventually, they begin a romance. And everything is going along swimmingly until Lily's childhood friend Atlas Corrigan reappears, and Lily begins to see a side of Ryle she isn't sure she likes. But then Lily finds herself pregnant, and is torn between forgiving Ryle or stopping a cycle she's all too familiar with.

So that's the book blurb.

The true gist of the story is that Ryle doesn't think he can ever settle down with someone. He's tortured, haunted by the lives he couldn't save. But Lily is everything good in this world, sweet and kind and soft and warm. And so they embark on a love affair, and then when Atlas pops back up - in the form of a well-known chef at the hottest restaurant in town - we get a glimpse of poor Ryle's tortured soul when he gets mad at Lily for...I'm not sure what? Not telling him about a teenage love affair? Not being a virgin even though she's well in to her twenties? It's never made clear, but Ryle's a pretty possessive dude. So Atlas, being a survivor of childhood abuse (Lily, of course, saved him when he was younger), recognizes that Ryle's got a short fuse, and slips Lily his number in case she ever needs him. Lily, not wanting to put the number in to her phone (red flag, there, Lil), slips the paper between her phone and the case, and forgets about it. Fast forward to a night when Lily and Ryle are goofing off in the kitchen, and Ryle accidentally burns his hand. Lily, not realizing the extent of the injuries (remember, he's a neurosurgeon and so therefore his hands are his instruments), is caught up in the moment, still laughing, when Ryle hauls off and backhands her. It's my recollection that she is too stunned, and he's too apologetic, for much to come of it, but then, at some point later, Ryle discovers Atlas' phone number tucked in the phone case, sees red, accuses Lily of infidelity, and things devolve from there. Atlas rescues Lily, who discovers she's pregnant, and of course it's Ryle's baby. And Ryle swears it'll never happen again, but Lily doesn't want to take that chance, and wants to end the cycle, and so she agrees to co-parent but says they can never be together again.

I can list my issues with this novel - there are too many coincidences, too much convenience, too many things neatly wrapped up in bows - but that's not what really bothers me about it. After all, we've all read the tale of the girl who moves to the city and opens a successful business in something like wallpaper hanging; it's the same suspension of disbelief we have to employ with regard to how Monica and Rachel could have possibly afforded their giant purple apartment.  And for awhile, I thought what bothered me about this book was how stereotypically the characters were written. Atlas is the strong, silent, protective type, Lily is the wide-eyed dreamer who desperately wants to fall in love, her employee is a bubbly, well-heeled, well-married, bored socialite looking for a job, and Ryle is the brooding and misunderstood brainiac neurosurgeon. I'm so sick of caricatures of these male characters. It was all just a bit too cookie-cutter. Real life is messier than that, more nuanced than that.

But I've been thinking about it, because that's what I do, I overthink things, and what bothers me the most is the way the decision to end things was handled. From the beginning, there was something about Ryle that didn't sit right with me, something that raised the hair on the back of my neck. And I couldn't quite figure it out until the novel's end, until the scene where Lily decided to end the cycle of abuse, and the catalyst for her doing so was when Ryle struck her. It wasn't when he raised his voice to her, and it wasn't when he accused her - baselessly - of infidelity. Nor was it when he went off and pouted and refused to take her phone calls. Nor was it any of the other moments where he behaved inappropriately. And it certainly wasn't when he was needlessly aggressive the night they met on the rooftop.

We spend so much time talking to our friends, our sisters, and our daughters about abusive relationships, and you know what we focus on? If he hits you, you need to leave. Because that's clear cut. It's a line in the sand. You know that a boy hitting you is wrong, and you need to leave. We start teaching that long before our daughters are of dating age. But we don't spend much time talking about the other sides of abuse. I mean, we might read Facebook quizzes and Buzzfeed lists about how "you might be in an abusive relationship if", but it certainly doesn't pertain to us. He was just tired, you see, from a long day at work, and you were on his case about something stupid. Of course he's going to lose his temper. And besides, don't all couples fight? And anyway, that list doesn't mean us, because it says that he'd be taking away my money, or not letting me see my friends, and I still have all that. So this is no big deal. Except in some cases, it IS a big deal, and we don't spend enough time talking about the more subtle signs of a troubled relationship. And when a book like this takes on abuse but action is only taken when physical abuse happens, it just reinforces that narrative. 

I almost didn't review this book. Not because it's a tough subject matter, but because it wasn't all that well written, and I don't want to discourage conversations about abuse and stopping the cycle of violence, and I feared that if I said "this book wasn't good", then what will be read is, "this book wasn't good because it was about domestic abuse". That's not why it wasn't good; it just wasn't...good. It's so important to have good fiction that deals with this issue, but unfortunately, this just wasn't it. Yes, in the end, Lily did was she was "supposed to", she left Ryle, she chose not to continue the cycle, but somehow there was still something missing from the whole thing.

Plus, the whole thing was written in present tense, which drives me bananas.

Review #12: The Girls of August, by Anne Rivers Siddons

I thought I had read all of Anne Rivers Siddons but I stumbled across The Girls of August at a tag sale, and the cover didn't look familiar, so I picked it up for about $2. This is a different path than the one Siddons normally takes, and I'm not sure I liked it all that much.

Maddy, Barbara, Melinda, and Rachel meet when their husbands are in medical school, and together, they begin a traditional of going to a beach house for a week every August. No kids, no husbands, no phones, just the four of them, reconnecting and recovering from a crazy year. But when Melinda dies in a car accident - and there are shadowy references to her husband having caused the accident by driving drunk - the foursome becomes a threesome and falls apart. A few years later, Melinda's widower remarries, and his new wife, the unfortunately named Baby, invites the three remaining girls of August to her family's beach house on an island off the coast of South Carolina.

None of the women want to go; at least, they don't want to go with Baby, but seeing as it would be rude to partake in Baby's hospitality and uninvited her at the same time, they all pack up for a week on a mostly deserted island with their husbands' friend's new chippie. On arrival, it quickly becomes apparent that, while Baby may be young, she is not a gold digger; the family estate is quite grand. In keeping with the grand tradition of beach reads, the women each have a life-changing secret - one is pregnant, one is sick, one is having marital issues - and they all threaten to spill over during the climax of the novel when a terrible storm hits the island. Once the storm has passed, the women are "changed in ways they never expected".

Blah blah blah. What this book really is about is three middle-aged mean girls who arrived on this island of chip on their shoulders and who were downright cruel to Baby. Maybe I missed something big, or maybe Siddons wrote a chapter that got cut, but I didn't see what was so terrible about Baby other than the fact that she was younger and definitely out of her depth with these women. Yes, it's tough to be middle-aged and fighting cellulite while you lay on the beach next to a twenty-something tanned and toned goddess. Named BABY for Pete's sake. But Baby couldn't have been nicer, even in the face of the women's horrible treatment of her. And you know, we have enough of this infighting in real life - who is a better parent, who is a better boss, who is a better friend, who is a better employee, who is a better woman. I don't really want to read about it in my down time.

Review #11: Geeks Guide to Unrequited Love, by Sarvenaz Tash

Well, this book was adorable.

Unabashed comic book geek Graham has been in love with his across the alley neighbor Roxana since she moved in when she was eight and asked him which Hogwart's house he belonged to. They've grown up together, they write comics together, and spend almost every waking moment together. But Roxy has no idea how Graham truly feels about her, so Graham cooks up a plan to reveal his feelings at New York Comic Con, and not just at Comic Con, but at the hottest event, a rare appearance by the creator of Roxy's favorite comic creator.

But as anyone who has ever attended an event like this knows, tickets to see someone along the lines of Stan Lee are hard to come by. And so, of course, Graham can't get the tickets, and he worries that his plan will fall apart. What follows is a John Hughes-esque series of events, and this would make the cutest movie, starring, I don't know, John Cusack and maybe a geeky Molly Ringwald, except now all those actors are sadly too old. (Like me.) There's a loyal and nervous best friend (hi, Cameron from Ferris Bueller), a chance meeting with an interesting girl who clearly has eyes for Graham and who is just this side of Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and a tall, dark, and handsome - and way too suave - new guy who catches Roxy's interest and threatens to derail the whole thing.

I'm not a comic book person - in fact, I've only ever seen one Batman movie and one Ironman movie, although I have seen Deadpool - and so I don't know who is DC and who is Marvel or even that the two worlds, apparently, can't mix together. (Boy, did I get an education about that. Not really. I kind of tuned out.) But I got the sense that Tash knows comics and knows that world, and the reviews I've read say that she nailed it. 

I do know what it's like to be sixteen and want to be in love, though, and I can tell you she also perfectly captures that age, and what it's like to be so in love with your best friend that you can't see straight. All the angst, all the uncertainty, all the feelings that seem so overwhelming at that age - she gets it just right. Graham's discovering what it's like to be in love, and all the exquisite pain and happiness that goes along with it.

It's about the cutest - and most honest - thing I've read all year.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Review #10: Kill the Boy Band, by Goldy Moldavsky

When I was twelve and thirteen, I loved New Kids on the Block. Specifically, I loved Donnie Wahlberg. Like, with a passion that only thirteen year old girls harbor. I wasn't as bad as my friend Heather, who loved Jordan Knight so much that the had the sheets and pillowcases and sleeping bag and shoestrings, but I loved him exactly as much as my parents (and their budget) would allow. I saw them in concert three times (my father is a SAINT; he's the one who took my friends and me all three times), and specifically chose my outfit based on the colors that Teen Bop told me were Donnie's favorites. Because, you know, he'd notice me out of a crowd of 20,000 other girls. Of course, he did not notice me, and instead went on to marry Jenny McCarthy, a terrible transgression for which I'm not sure I can forgive him.

I tell you all this because while I wouldn't have kidnapped Donnie (or the others), some of my friends *cough*Heather*cough* may have. I also probably wouldn't have gone along with the kidnapping out of fear of getting grounded like I did when I got caught sleeping out for tickets, but man, I'd have been super jealous. But our protagonist in Kill The Boy Band - alternately known as Sloane Peterson or Diane Court - has no such parental fear, and goes along with it. Along with three friends, she rents a room at the very same Manhattan hotel where their favorite band, The Ruperts - clearly a One Direction knock off - is staying. Through a convoluted series of events, they wind up kidnapping "the most useless" Rupert, Rupert K, whose talent lies not in singing or boy band dancing but in juggling. 

So the girls have Rupert K tied up in their hotel room while the other Ruperts are waiting for him at the television station; they're set to do a live gig on national tv. Isabel has tweeted from Rupert K's phone that he's quitting, Apple has taken selfies with a tied-up (and now un-blindfolded) Rupert K, Erin is determined to out him, and our still unnamed heroine is realizing that things are beginning to go off the rails. She escapes down to the hotel bar and later the roof, where her plan to get the girls out of the room so she can set Rupert free is momentarily forgotten when she meets her own favorite Rupert and has a moment with him. When she returns to the room, Rupert K's girlfriend has shown up and they can't seem to shake her, and then things start to take a very dark turn.

Kill the Boy Band is Heathers meets Jawbreaker meets Very Bad Things set to an 'NSYNC and BSB soundtrack. It's definitely for a very specific niche audience, although I think that any former boy band lover will appreciate the way Moldavksy captured the fervor of fan girls.

Also, I want to put a post script on this review and tell you all that I saw New Kids on the Block a couple of weekends ago, along with Paula Abdul and Boyz II Men and I'm not even a little bit ashamed about that. I didn't wear Donnie's favorite colors (black and gold!), but I for damn sure squealed and clutched at my sister's arm when I saw him posing for selfies with the bitches who got floor seats.

Also also, gratuitous concert photo, cause I'm a big dork.

Review #9: Your Beauty Mark: The Ultimate Guide to Eccentric Glamour, by Dita von Teese

I snapped this up for $1.99 on Kindle a few weeks ago. I don't know a whole lot about Dita von Teese other than she was once married to Marilyn Manson and she has a great sense of style. I figured, being a woman of a certain age, maybe I should start, you know, wearing something other than the Cover Girl and Maybelline I've been buying since 1989, and maybe Miss Dita would be kind enough to give me pointers on the benefit of the perfect red lipstick or how to get a cat eye without looking like a 70s reject.
But I've got to say, I was disappointed.

What I think I wanted was a how to guide, maybe with steps and pictures and a "here's how to put on eyeshadow you big dummy" chapter. Or tips for how to take your existing wardrobe and add just a few vintage pieces to it without looking costume-y. (Believe me, it's not as easy as going to the local Goodwill; there's a lot of searching for those things, and it's time consuming.) I'd even have settled for lots of pretty pictures that I could pore over and be jealous of. But this contained very little of that.  Maybe the hardback version has all that but the Kindle version decidedly did not. At least, not the first 75%, because that's when I stopped reading.

Instead what I got was an entire chapter devoted to how to take a bath (seriously). My bath might only happen once a year with Mr. Bubble and a seven year old shower curtain that has a few suspicious hair dye spots on it, but as long as I have hot water and a door I can shut, a bath is a bath, right? And while I agree on principle with the point that wearing a silky peignoir while lounging at home will make you feel better than, say, ratty yoga pants and a Loretta Lynn t-shirt, it's not a very practical wardrobe choice when it's 9:30pm and your kid's science project has exploded all over the living room. Again. And it's due tomorrow. And even though you've known it was due and she's known it was due and you had a plan to get it done in plenty of time, somehow, it's the night before and it's panic time. (Not that I have any personal experience with that. Ahem) And I know - we ALL know - that no cream or potion is ever going to replace what eight hours of uninterrupted sleep looks like, but I haven't slept through the night since before I got pregnant, and that was 14 years ago. And eight hours? Interrupted or not? That feels positively decadent.

And look, I admire Dita. She's a young girl who has managed to turn what she loves doing in to her career, and she makes a decent living at it, too. That's not easy to do, and she clearly works very hard at it. I've often heard that modeling is not exactly tough, but I disagree. When your body and your image are what you sell, you have to work your ass off. You don't get to skip the morning run if you're tired, you can't eat that extra (box of) Girl Scout cookie(s) just cause you want to, you can't hide under the covers all day because you have PMS. And Dita has certainly put in the effort. She's gorgeous, and talented, and comes across as a very intelligent young woman and I admire that. And her take away message is absolutely on point: love yourself, be true to yourself, be kind to yourself, and none of the rest of it matters. But the book just missed the mark for me.

Review #8: Three Wishes, by Liane Moriarty

Lyn, Cat, and Gemma Kettle, beautiful thirty-three-year-old triplets, seem to attract attention everywhere they go. Together, laughter, drama, and mayhem seem to follow them. But apart, each is dealing with her own share of ups and downs. Lyn has organized her life into one big checklist, Cat has just learned a startling secret about her marriage, and Gemma, who bolts every time a relationship hits the six-month mark, holds out hope for lasting love. In this wise, witty, and hilarious novel, we follow the Kettle sisters through their tumultuous thirty-third year as they deal with sibling rivalry and secrets, revelations and relationships, unfaithful husbands and unthinkable decisions, and the fabulous, frustrating life of forever being part of a trio.
Three Wishes is Cannonball favorite Liane Moriarty's debut novel. It follows the Kettle triplets - Lyn, Cat, and Gemma - over the course of one year. In true Moriarty fashion, she begins with the trio having their birthday dinner, laughing and drinking and clinking champagne, until one is stabbed in the belly with a fork. Then we spin backwards, and enter in to their lives. 

Lyn is the super OCD triplet: everything in her life is just so. She's a "woman who works", she has children, she has a loving but sometimes forgetful husband, and she's struggling to keep it all together, even though her outward appearance shows that nothing is wrong. Cat is the triplet who is desperate to have a baby, who has literally put all her eggs in one basket, and when she becomes pregnant, she finally has everything she ever wanted...until she loses that and her husband in one fell sweep. And Gemma is the wild child, the free spirit who runs every time a relationship turns serious, who is so adrift she doesn't even have a permanent address. Toss in a divorced mother and father who are having a clandestine affair, an unexpected pregnancy, some infidelity, some sister fighting, and you have the makings of a good beach read.

And that's just what this is: a beach read. It's a perfectly serviceable novel to have with you on vacation, at the beach or on the plane, easy to pick up and put down. There aren't any big overarching themes or giant secrets... this is just a nice, frothy novel, and a pretty decent debut. Moriarty has made a name for herself, and so readers who go back to this first effort may be a little disappointed, but it's enjoyable enough.