"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, January 31, 2013

Review #9: Crash, by Nicole Williams

When I was younger, reading YA fiction when I was actually, you know, a "young adult", Judy Blume's Forever was the scandal du jour, the book every library needed to ban so that we wouldn't learn about The Sex. Judy and Forever are about as harmless as a puppy when held up against Nicole Williams and her first book in a trilogy about the "good girl" and the "bad boy".

On the surface, it's not a horrible book. Good girl Lucy meets bad boy Jude on the eve of her senior year in high school, and they fall in love as only seventeen-year-olds can. He is inappropriate for her in every single way, and they both know it, but she doesn't care. He has no family - is living in a foster home, in fact - and her family is a ghost of what it once was, tragedy having torn them to bits years earlier. They come together and fall apart a half a dozen times, finally culminating in a cheesy gradution speech that would make John Hughes cringe.

If all this book was was an on-again, off-again teen romance, I would set it aside, sigh a little at the fact that kids these days have crappy books to read, and move on. (And possibly think about my own high school boyfriend a little bit, and the drama we created. I think I may owe my mom some apologies for that.) Dig beneath the surface, though, and you have a romantic lead who is prone to violent outbursts, which Williams shows in a positive light, and a relationship that is so codependant, so disfunctional, Anna and Christian Grey look like the poster children for a healthy marriage. In fact, you know what this book is? It's the YA equivalent of Fifty Shades, only without the sex. That's terrifying to me and this is why: Fifty Shades didn't bother me because of the sex, or the "abuse" or the psuedo-BDSM business; it bothered me because Christian Grey was an obssessed, possessive, scared little boy, and controlled Anna in more ways than just the bedroom. In fact, I'd go so far as to say the bedroom was the only place that Christian didn't control Anna.

Jude is like Christian Grey, only without the handcuffs and grey silk tie. His possessiveness isn't sweet or endearing or romantic - it's scary. It's the prequel to the husband who slowly but surely isolates his wife, who loves her with the kind of obssessive love that makes you wind up a Lifetime movie of the week. And Lucy's determination to save Jude is admirable, but he's not a puppy she can save, and at seventeen, she needs to be more concerned with her own future than his.

As a single mama who is trying my damndest to teach my daughter that she is a strong, independent woman, and, quite frankly, to teach her that I am, too, especially after years of not being one, I'm appalled at the underlying message this book sends. If Jude is the new romantic leading man that we're selling to our daughters, I fear for their future.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Review #8: Savannah Blues, by Mary Kay Andrews

Full disclosure: I feel like I've read this book before. Romance and chick lit is like that, and usually, I figure it out within the first 100 pages. This time, though, I finished the entire book and I still couldn't tell you.

Eloise (Weezie) is a Savannah antique picker, someone who goes around to dumpsters and yard sales and picks the treasures to sell to the antique shops in town. (As someone who dabbles in that, it's not nearly as easy in real life as it is for Weezie.) Weezie lives in the carriage house behind her ex-husband Talmadge Evans III's home, where he is shacking up with Caroline, the woman for whom he left Weezie. Tal is kind of a jackass, and Caroline's kind of a bitch, and when Caroline turns up dead, Weezie's the prime suspect.

Weezie's quickly cleared of the murder charges, but soon discovers there are other shenanigans afoot in her little town, and she's suddenly knee-deep in them. Along the way, there's a super hot restaurant cook, Weezie's uncle James (a priest-turned-lawyer), her mama, who gets in to the bourbon and Xanax every day, and her crazy best friend Bebe.

Andrews' writing and plots are reminiscent of Jennifer Crusie, kind of madcap and adventurous, with a little bit of romance, and a female main character who is kind of a mess. It's not great literature, but it's a fun little diversion.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Review #7: Safe Haven, by Nicholas Sparks

Yeah, I know. Nicholas Sparks. But he wrote The Notebook, and, well, I'm a sucker. And this was a freebie on my Nook.

Safe Haven introduces us to Alex, a young widower with two small children who runs the local small town general store, and Katie, a beautiful girl with a secret to hide. Katie's on the run from her husband Kevin, a detective with the Boston Police Department who has a propensity for beating his wife. Katie (of course) winds up falling for Alex, and their only real struggle is that Kevin finds Katie and goes bananas.

I realize that this is a romance novel, and it's not based in reality. I know that Sparks is not exactly considered high-end literature, but this book irritated the daylights out of me. Sparks kind of tried to delve in to Kevin's crazy side, but not enough. Sparks kind of tried to convey Katie's fear when she was getting ready to run, and later, after she left. Sparks kind of tried to show Alex's reluctance at falling in love again and saddness at the realization that his children were forgetting their mother. But he just...didn't.

I've been sitting here on my couch trying to figure out why it irritated me so much, and it finally dawned on me: it's like a Lifetime movie. And like a Lifetime movie, the only reason I finished this is because I was hungover this morning.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Review #6: Married in Haste, by Cathy Maxwell

In my defense, the cover on the "under $2.99" section on my Nook did not look like the cover in the picture I have here.

This is a typical vaguely 18th/19th century English romance novel. Here's a question: did other countries exist back there, or only England and her surrounding islands? These books are never set anywhere but London. Sometimes, if the hero or heroine needs to be particularly unsavory, they're from Ireland, or America if they're really unsuitable, but other than that, it's all fog and dampness all the time. Ick.

Anyway, I digress.

Tess is an heiress, a member of the ton (that term has always bothered me), and her brother and his pain in the ass wife are looking to marry her off. (I'm so glad I wasn't alive back then.) Enter the dashing Brenn Owen, the newly installed earl of a village in Wales. (See? Unsavory and from Not London.) Brenn is gorgeous but sullen, Tess is willful and smart, so of course they're going to be thrown together and forced to marry. They both have secrets, though, which come to light after the marriage takes place, and which put the future of Brenn's earldom in danger. Tess is resourceful, though, and she comes up with a plan to save the day.

The book's okay. It's like a million other romance novels, but it's okay enough to download for 99 cents and have on your e-reader while you're waiting at red lights.

Review #5: The Husband List, by Janet Evanovich & Dorien Kelly

Hey, we can't read high literature all the time. Sometimes, you need some fluff. The Husband List is fluff. It's decent fluff, though, and it doesn't pretend that it's anything other than that.

Fans of Evanovich's Stephanie Plum will recognize a tiny bit of her pluck and fiestiness in Caroline Maxwell, an heiress whose mother is hell-bent on marrying her off to a member of the British royalty. Caroline, however, thinks she should marry for love, not for money or title, and therein lies the rub: the love of her life, Jack, is neither British nor royal. In fact, he's Irish, and he's nouveau riche, and this just will not do.

Caroline's mama has her sights set on the evil Lord Bremerton for Caroline's husband, who is creepy in an I'm-going-to-wear-your-skin kind of way. Helping out the creep factor is the rumor that Lord Bremerton's first wife died in a mysterious tragic horse-riding accident, but I definitely got hints that she might be floating in the attic, drugged and hidden away a la Mrs. Rochester.

Caroline's no Stephanie, and Jack is for damn sure no Ranger, but it's a decent story. All the same, check it out from the library or download it once it goes under five bucks. Don't buy the hardback.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Review #4: Some Girls: My Life in a Harem, by Jillian Lauren

Some Girls follows the story of Jill Lauren, a young stripper turned escort turned harem girl. The harem to which she belongs is that of one of the brothers of the Sultan of Brunei, a figure that I know intellectually is real, but one that is also a little mythical in this small town girl's mind.

Lauren spends quite a bit of time going back to her childhood, and some of the stories are a little tired: she felt inadequate, she had angst over her adoption, her father was abusive, she played at sex at an early age. In another author's hands, these stories might have been seen as a plea for sympathy, a poor-little-stripper-girl who couldn't help that she turned out this way because her daddy just didn't love her enough. But Lauren recounts her childhood in a very matter-of-fact way, and moves on to the next chapter. I'd be interested to hear what her relationship is like with her family now, in present day.

The story begins as Lauren drops out of high school, getting her GED to be able to move to New York to begin college, an endeavor that lasts less than a month. She winds up stripping while waiting to break in to acting, meets an escort who brings her in to the business, and suddenly finds herself on an airplane, headed for Borneo, headed to become a harem girl.

The politics of the harem are fascinating. There's a pecking order and there's the usual forming - and breaking - of alliances that goes on whenever women compete for a man's riches and affections. Life in the compound is an endless cycle of sleeping late, diet pills, champagne, and late night parties, where the girls dance for the prince while they wait for him to deign to choose them to pleasure him privately. The unchosen ones stumble home at 4am, only to sleep till noon and begin all over again. The chosen ones live the same life; they just stumble home a little bit later.

Lauren's writing is beautiful and spare, and she peppers her stories with just a touch of sarcastic editorial remarks to make you feel like she's your girlfriend dishing about a bad date. I'm disappointed that I can't hang out on her couch and drink a bottle of wine with her.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Review #3: The Weight of Water, by Anita Shreve

The Weight of Water simultaneously follows the story of a real-life murder in late 1800s New Hampshire and Jean, a photojournalist who is doing a story on the murders. Shreve bounces back and forth between Jean's present-tense narrative of her journey to the island of Smuttynose where the murders took place, and a letter written by Maren, the sole survivor of the brutal killings, on the eve of her death in 1899.

The story of the murders is set against the backdrop of the Isles of Shoals, an outcropping of stark, windswept islands off the coast of New Hampshire. Maren lives on Smuttynose with her husband John and later, her surly sister Karen, her beloved brother Evan, Evan's lovely young wife Anethe, and an occasional boarder. The men make their living by the sea, the women staying behind on their lonely island, and Shreve's description of the cold, the damp, the endless boredom, and the skull-crushing isolation made me physically uncomfortable. I purposely tried to distance myself from becoming too involved in Maren's story; I was not often successful.

The killings are brutal - Karen and Anethe are found hacked to death with an axe, and Maren is discovered hiding in a cave - and as you read Maren's memories of the time leading up to that fateful night, you cringe, knowing that what's coming will change things forever. But I found myself cringing just as much for Jean. Her alcoholic-poet husband Thomas, their young daughter, her solid brother in law Rich, and his beautiful but cold Irish girlfriend are along for the ride on Jean's journey to discover what really happened all those years ago. Watching her watch her husband drift in and out of their life, watching him blossom in the presence of the younger woman, watching him shut down when she appears...it's beautifully painful.

This is a quiet book, one to be read on a rainy Saturday afternoon without interruption. Maren's quiet struggles, Jean's quiet fears, Thomas' quiet drinking, even Rich's quiet solidarity all come together to reach a stunning and elegantly written conclusion.

*As an aside, this was made in to a movie in 2003, starring Catherine Bigelow and Sean Penn, featuring Elizabeth Hurley, and directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Review #2: The Irresistible Henry House, by Lisa Grunwald

Before free range parenting, before attachment parenting, before Dr. Sears, there was Martha Gaines. Martha runs the practice house at Wilton College in post-World War II Pennsylvania, a small, two-story home - complete with a practice baby - where young girls learn to become wives and mothers and housewives.

Every two years, Martha brings home a new practice baby from the local orphanage, and, using that baby, teaches a small group of girls how to become mothers. The girls rotate in and out each week, and as a result, the young baby gets a new mom every week. Practice babies are in high demand; babies who are raised in the practice house are considered the cream of the crop, and there is always a waiting list at the orphanage for those babies.

In the fall of 1946, Martha brings home Henry (all practice babies' names start with H), and in the spring of 1948, Martha refuses to let him go back to the orphanage, and so begins Henry's life as Martha's not-quite-son. Henry is raised in the practice house, with a revolving door of practice mothers and practice siblings. The story follows Henry's life through his first years with Martha to boarding school, to running away to New York, California, and even farther to London, and finally, his return home.

Henry isn't the most sympathetic character, but I knew I was supposed to care for him, and I did, but surprisingly, Martha - painted very much the villain - was the character I worried the most about. Watching Martha watch her practice house die as feminism pushed the program to extinction was heartbreaking, and in the end, I wanted what Martha wanted most: for Henry to love her and forgive her. But Henry, raised to expect the women in his life to cycle in and out, seemed incapable of doing that.

*Spoiler alert: What absolutely blew me out of the water with this story was the epilogue. All along, I'd been reading this book, thinking what an unusual concept this practice baby concept was, and then I got to the epilogue, which had a small black and white photo of a chubby, grinning, dark-haired baby. The baby's name was Bobby Domecon, the last name being short for "Domestic Economics", a class offered at Cornell University, and one that continued until 1969.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Review #1: From Notting Hill with Love...Actually, by Ali McNamara

First review! Here's hoping I make it past the second!

I really wanted to like this book. I tried really, really, really hard. But...I couldn't.

Scarlett (yes, as in Rhett and) is obsessed with movies. She lives in Stratford, owns a company that repairs popcorn machines with her father, is engaged to what is possibly the most boring man alive, and through a convoluted series of events, winds up house-sitting for friends of a friend in Notting Hill for a month. Of course, she stops at the Travel Bookshop (of Notting Hill fame), quite literally bumps in to a gorgeous yet crusty man, and befriends the owner of the boutique next door, who just happens to know the gorgeous yet crusty man.

The book kind of wanders, much like Scarlett's mind. She's determined to show her father and fiance that life really does imitate the movies, and in the process, she irritates the ever living crap out of the reader. Luckily, Scarlett leans more towards Hugh Grant and Colin Firth, and leaves the "life is like a box of chocolates" nonsense out of her chapters, or else I would have had to throw the book across the room.

There's a trip to Glasgow, a wedding at Sleeping Beauty's palace at Disneyland Paris (where they actually close the park), a quest to find Scarlett's long-lost mother, cameos by Kate Winslet, Johnny Depp, and Hugh Grant, and enough movie references to fill a jumbo popcorn bucket. Scarlett tries too hard throughout the entire book to make real life match up with her movie dreams, and I feel like that's what this book did, too: it tried too hard.