"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

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Review #26: Grey, by E. L. James

I've decided to half cannonball on this, the worst of all the books I've read this year. Mainly because that's how it's come up in my giant back log of reviews, but also because it somehow feels fitting after the way this year has gone.
I read the originals a year or so after they came out. They read like what they are: poorly written fan fiction based on a not particularly good original story. They're problematic for all the reasons that have been discussed in zillions of online forums and think pieces. They're also problematic for all the grammatical errors, the amount of suspension of disbelief that the reader needs to employ,  the truly atrocious writing, and the fact that the reader is expected to believe that a college student in the year 2011 does not own a computer or a cell phone.

Grey is problematic for all the same reasons, but it's also problematic because it's extra rapey and stalkery, which I know are not actual words, but whatever. Language evolves. Although I'm not sure that E. L. James knows that, because she only knows about a dozen words. (Hmm, sound like someone we all know?)

Summary: Christian Grey is a tortured kazillionaire of indeterminate age, but I'm guessing mid- to late-twenties. Like all millennials, he owns, among other things, a penthouse apartment in the sky, a helicopter, and a fleet of vehicles.(Note to Chris: you aren't Ranger, so stop it.) Also like all millennials, he has made all his money in some mysterious company called GreyEnterprisesHoldingsCompanyLLCIncorporated. (Note to Chris: you also aren't Roarke , so stop it.) Chris meets Ana, the dull-looking, brown haired, twenty one year old college student virgin who doesn't own any technology but does own a vintage VW bug, and wants to boff her. Actually, scratch that. He wants to tie her up, humiliate her, torture her, and then boff her. And then, and this is the most important part, he wants to discard her. Christian has Mommy Issues. So after much hand wringing and temper tantrum throwing and stalking and food policing and birth control controlling, they do those things. And then Ana freaks and goes to Savannah to see her mom, and Christian follows her, and then aoidjnwmfslkkjfpo;lawr.d

Sorry. I fell asleep. I don't care any more. You don't care any more either. You know the story. The story sucks. The story is boring.

Anyway, I know that the originals are rapey and stalkery and not at all representative of a healthy BDSM relationship, but I either forgot how bad it was, or, and I think this is more likely, Grey is actually WORSE than the originals.  And then it just...ENDS. Like, practically in the middle of a word. Which made me CRAZY because the part of me that hates to leave things unfinished really wants to read the second installment, Grey-er, or whatever it's called. But part of me is scared to do that, because  


Review #25: Tricky Twenty-Two, by Janet Evanovich

Somewhere on my Stephanie Plum journey, I missed number 22. And I have to be honest, I don't quite remember what happened. Wacky shenanigans, Bob pooping everywhere, Lula, Grandma, Mrs. Plum ironing, Morelli being a cop, Ranger hotly being hot... it's all the same, just with a different bad guy.

There's something about a fraternity (is there a college in Trenton?), a murder of a guy nobody liked, and I kind of remember some sort of radioactive bug or some other kind of weird bioterrorism in the basement of either the college or the fraternity. Which begs the question: is Stephanie really the gal we want protecting us from this? This seems like a bad idea. Thank goodness for Morelli and Ranger. 

I also remember Lula going for a gun and instead pulling out a vibrator, which is just about the most Lula thing ever written. I'm sure that Stephanie got the bad guy through no fault of her own, I'm sure she danced the no underpants dance with Morelli once or twice, and I'm sure Ranger thoroughly kissed her and called her Babe a few times.

I'm also sure that Ranger didn't sleep with Stephanie in this episode, because I'd remember that. For. Sure. Which, is it time for me to admit that maybe I'm just reading these cause I want Ranger to be naked?

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Reviews #20 - 24: The Ivy Years series, by Sabrina Bowen

About two months ago, which tells you how far behind I am on my reviews, Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida. Each day we watched the cone move further and further west, until it looked like it was going to come right up the west coast and in to Tampa Bay. And each day, I packed more things into bags and suitcases, until finally, on Friday afternoon, they declared a mandatory evacuation of my entire town. I went home to collect my kid and the last of my important things, filmed the interior of my house, and got the heck out of dodge. We went to JB's, he of all the good books, but I knew that being cooped up with four surly teenagers for the next few days was not going to lend itself to reading great literature, and so I asked the fine ladies of CBR if anyone had any suggestions of light romance, and scootsa100 graciously offered to lend me her set of Sabrina Bowen's The Ivy Years series. And thank god she did, because I needed to be able to escape to Harkness College and hockey rinks instead of worrying about whether there was a tree through my roof. And it allowed me to ignore the fights over who was hogging the X-box and ignore the fact that they ate 90% of our hurricane food in the first day. Kids are like locusts. 


In the first book, The Year We Fell Down, Bowen introduces us to Harkness College, a small New England college with a strong hockey team. Corey was supposed to start as a freshman player on the girls' team, but an accident in her senior year of high school left her permanently in a wheelchair and unable to play. She meets Adam, the star of the boys' team, who is also in a wheelchair, although his is temporary; he broke his leg before school started. A friendship blossoms, and for Corey, it's more than that, although she knows she can't act on it because Adam is with a beautiful - but nasty - co-ed. Bonding over video games (hockey, natch), and how to negotiate a campus that isn't always wheelchair friendly, Corey and Adam grow closer and closer until one night, they act on their feelings. Of course, they can't get out of their own way, and so misunderstandings ensue. Will they find their way back together?

The Year We Hid Away introduces us to Scarlet, a freshman who is hiding a terrible story back at home. Her father is under investigation for some sort of child abuse a la Joe Paterno and she's tired of the news trucks on her front lawn every day, so she leaves town and changes her name, dropping her spot on the hockey team in the process. Bridger drops his spot on the team, too, but for very different reasons: he's discovered that his mother has fallen in with the wrong crowd and worries that his little sister may be in danger. So he secrets her away to his dorm room, hoping against hope that the dean doesn't discover her. With both Scarlet and Bridger hiding such big secrets, it's inevitable that the truth will come out, and if they can't learn to trust each other, Scarlet will lose her place in school and Bridger could lose his sister.

The Understatement of the Year brings us a transfer student named John Rikker, who is joining the hockey team after being outed - and subsequently ostracized - at his previous college. Rikker's been out in one way or the other since an incident five years earlier, when he was attacked while out with his boyfriend, Michael Graham, who just so happens to be on the hockey team as well. Graham, who is definitely IN the closet, feels awful for leaving Rikker after that, and has done his best to forget the whole thing, and Rikker tries to play it cool, but when Graham is knocked out cold during a game, his feelings bubble to the surface and he can't hide it any longer. Bonus points here for a really fun grandma.

The fourth book, The Shameless Hour, is about the hockey team's manager Bella. Bella loves hockey and loves boys, sometimes in that order and sometimes not. She meets Rafe through his hockey playing roommate, and one night after too many drinks, and Rafe's discovery that his girlfriend had been unfaithful, she sleeps with him, unknowingly relieving him of his virginity. Bella understands post-one night stand behavior, but Rafe is feeling guilty; his Catholic upbringing has him turned upside down about casual sex. Then Bella is drugged and accosted, and Rafe wants to help put her back together, but Bella is through with all men.

The final installment, The Fifteenth Minute, has freshman Lianne meeting DJ, the, well, DJ for the hockey games through her across the hall neighbor Bella. Lianne isn't sure how to make friends or flirt with boys; she's been acting in a Harry Potter-style movie franchise since she was little. And DJ is under weird sort of house arrest - he's not allowed in the dorms - because a girl has accused him of sexual assault, and even though he knows he's done nothing wrong, he doesn't want to tell Lianne, or any of his other friends, either. But secrets never stay secret for long, and soon Lianne has discovered what's been haunting DJ all year, and she goes all out to prove his innocence.

These can all be read as stand alone, but work best as a series. Bowen sets the scene well and the characters all kind of drift in and out of each other's stories, but unlike other authors who write series (I'm looking at you Nora Roberts), she doesn't telegraph the future hook ups. And they weren't formulaic either; sometimes a series can feel very much like a fill in the blank or mad lib (ahem, SEP).

New Adult is a genre that sometimes gets a bad rap, and I have railed against it in the past. But this series was what New Adult should be. Books three and four are the most sex-positive books I think I've ever read, and they both explore sexuality in very real, honest ways. Rikker and Graham's story is the first M/M romance I've read, and I thought it was quite well done. And I liked the way that Bowen handled Bella's story for the most part, although I was troubled by a few things in it, mainly having to do with the incident at the fraternity and the "revenge" scenes. There was just something about that whole thing that felt...I'm not sure what. Dangerous? Silly? Hard to believe? I wish that Bowen had explored a little bit why Bella wasn't willing to go to the authorities, which I think is a very real and natural reaction. But it felt almost like the attack was downplayed by what happened later at the football game, and I wonder what message it sends to girls and women who have experienced the same sort of thing. If we aren't willing or able to pull a stunt like Bella did, does it mean we're weak or somehow less than she is? And by pulling that prank, does it diminish the severity of the attack? And while the fraternity was humiliated, and rightly so, I'm not so sure that Bella didn't just escalate things and put herself - and her friends - in more danger. I don't know; maybe I'm overthinking it. I did enjoy her frank discussions of sex and her very unapologetic view of it, and I loved her budding friendship with Lianne. 

All in all, a very nice diversion from a very long and stressful weekend. Thanks, scootsa1000!

Review #19: Dating You / Hating You, by Christina Lauren

Christina Lauren is pretty popular around these parts, and Dating You / Hating You seems to top most lists. The only book I've read from the collection is the one that started it all, Beautiful Bastard, and let's just say I wasn't a fan. So I broke up with CL and the Beautiful series, and didn't give it another thought, until Dating You / Hating You was free on the library website, and since all of you guys seemed to like it, I thought I'd give it another shot.

And it wasn't too awful.

Carter and Evie are both talent agents at rival companies, and after they have an extremely awkward meeting at a mutual friend's Halloween party, they decide to give dating a chance, even though they are rivals in the same cut-throat profession. But before they can have date number two (and before they can have full on sexy times together), they discover that their agencies have merged, and now they're both fighting for the same job.

Evie is very good at her job. Carter is also very good. He's five years younger and has less connections, but since he's got out outdoor plumbing while Evie has indoor, he's naturally a shoo-in for the position because Evie's boss is a big fat corrupt jackass. He pits Evie and Carter against one another, and shenanigans of the mad-cap, screwball, 1940s comedy varieties ensue. In the meantime, their feelings for one another are growing stronger and harder to resist.

Amid the pranks and sabotage, Evie begins to realize, with the help of her friends, that Bossman is embezzling funds, and she - without Carter - sets a trap for him. Of course there's a happy ever after ending and all that jazz, but what I liked the best about this book was that Evie took down her corrupt boss without Carter coming in to save the day. In fact, there's a snippet of dialogue between Evie and her friends where they specifically ask whether she's looped Carter in on the plan, and she says no, that she's going to do it on her own. And in 2017, that sounds just about right to me. 

Review #18: Pretty Face, by Lucy Parker

From the author of Act Like It comes another Cannonball favorite, Pretty Face. And while, if I remember right, Pretty Face wasn't as strongly loved as Act Like It, I definitely enjoyed it more. Act Like It was just okay in my book; this one gets an additional two stars.

Grumpy director Luc Savage is reviving a classic West End theatre, and needs a new star. Enter Lily Lamprey, clearly the best actress for the job, even if she doesn't have the resume. Lily is a soap star, low man on the theatre totem pole, and is "too sexy" for the Elizabethean drama they are staging, but she's a good actress, and Luc takes a chance on her. Of course, sparks fly, and even though they try to fight it and definitely try to hide it, word gets out and the rumors start to fly as well, painting Lily as just another actress sleeping her way to the top, and jeopardizing Luc's career as well.

One thing I really enjoyed about this installment was the way Parker addressed the very real threat to both careers. So often, we devour Hollywood gossip as just good juicy stories, but we forget that the salacious things we read about actually affect real people. Lily's reputation is on the line - sleeping with the director, whether it's true love or not, is often frowned upon, and can truly damage one's career - and I liked that Parker included some pretty serious handwringing about that. And Luc rightly doesn't want to be known as a director who takes advantage of his new starlet, and so they both resist as long as they can, but, as is so often the case, their passion for each other overcomes their sensibilities. Another interesting angle is that Luc is some years older than Lily, and that's not glossed over in the book; Parker deals with it head on, with both characters addressing the situation with varying degrees of seriousness. 

I think what I liked best about Pretty Face is that it felt real. There was no instant love connection (although maybe a bit of instant lust), the characters felt real and measured, Parker allowed us to see their flaws, and even the ending felt real. Kind of a "we love each other and we're going to try to make this work but we know it's not always easy". That's the kind of happily ever after I can get behind.

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.