"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, July 28, 2013

Review #52: Fringe Florida, by Lynn Waddell

Confession: I was born and raised in the weirdest county in the weirdest state in the country. I still live here. That's right - my claim to fame is that I live in the nudist capital of America. (I, however, am not a nudist. Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

As a kid, I never thought my state was weird. Even now, as an adult, I'm not entirely sure everyone else is right. I mean, sure, I suppose we have some crazy stuff: Fantasy Fest, Fetishcon, The Holy Land Experience, Disney World, hanging chads, pirates, sideshow freaks, a month-long pirate invasion, cowboys, acres of oranges, festivals honoring corn, strawberries, pirates, rattlesnakes, and kumquats, the most famous strip club in the world, circus perfomers, six-toed cats, a two week festival honoring an Indian invasion, aliens, sharks, nudists, naturalists, hurricanes, tornadoes, water spouts, sinkholes that swallow homes and people, over-sexed teachers, over-sexed cops, over-sexed retirees (for a time, one of the most popular retirement communities in the state was considered the place where one was most likely to catch an STD), and alligator-eating pythons. We're also home to Travis McGee, Archy McNally, Serge Storms, and Carl Haissen's menagerie of characters. Huh. Okay, well, maybe we are a little different. Must be all the heat and humidity down here.

Fringe Florida takes a tiny bite out of our weirdness. In ten chapters, Lynn Waddell, a former writer for the now-defunct Weekly Planet (the Planet is now Creative Loafing) details just a touch of the fringe of Florida, some of the things that make us who we are down here. She starts off gently, telling us about a big cat rescue in the Tampa Bay area and an exotic animal amnesty program, and then moving just a few miles further in to Tampa to introduce us to Joe Redner, a staple of Tampa Bay history, and the Mons Venus, the strip club that is quite literally the most famous in the world. We drive out to Daytona to meet motorcycle mamas, and here's where I learned that there are actually motorcycle gangs, true bad guys like from the movies. She introduces us to circus performers (Ringling still winters down here), to mud boggers (North Florida is often referred to as the Redneck Riviera), and to aliens (Pensacola used to be a hot bed of sightings). She unironically points out that the Holy Land Experience, where one can see Jesus singing as he is crucified, is located just an hour away from Cassadega, a community of healers and spiritualists. And then she circles back to my stomping grounds, the nudity capital, where the communities range from swinger clubs that hold coleslaw wrestling to country-club like places where they run 5Ks in the nude.

Waddell jumps in to her assignments with gusto. The same cannot always be said of her husband James who accompanies her on a few of her research trips, particularly the ones that involve sex and other potentially sketchy scenarios. But James is a supportive research assistant, even if he clearly finds the whole experience beyond weird. In his defense, I'm not sure there are many husbands who would leap without hesitation when their wives propose a trip to see naked old guys sing karaoke.

Fringe Florida is simultaneously gruesome and fascinating. The small town girl in me loved when I recognized places and yes, even characters. I've seen Peter Pan, and although I've seen photos of The Senator (a man who wanders Ybor City in little more than a thong), I haven't yet had the pleasure of sharing a cocktail with him. The Florida girl in me wanted to stand up and defend my home state, but then I realized that Waddell wasn't making fun of our wackiness, she was celebrating it.

*Note: I read Fringe Florida as an uncorrected proof from NetGalley. For some reason, the file was a little wonky and the pages with the photos wouldn't load, which was disappointing, because I'm sure they were fantastic. The book is due out in September. You'd better believe I'm picking up a copy.

Review #51: Go Ask Alice, Anonymous

Somehow I made it through my teenage years and young adulthood without ever having read Go Ask Alice. I had heard of it, of course, but it never interested me. So when I came across it in a used bookstore, I figured it was worth the fifty cents.

The story goes that Go Ask Alice is a collection of diary entries from a fifteen year old girl who stumbles down the rabbit hole of drug use. No mention is ever made of a year, although from the description of clothes and "Establishment", one could assume the mid to late sixties. She's never named.

She is portrayed as a good girl and the beginning part of her diary talks about the usual teenage things: clothes, boys, how annoying her parents are, and what it must be like to kiss someone. And then, about fifty pages in, things take a turn. She is given LSD in her Coca Cola at a party, and has a fantastic trip. Instead of being turned off, she wants more, and soon she is dealing. Her efforts to come clean fail, and she eventually runs away.

A couple of stints in rehab, a few tumbles off the wagon, another lost six months, and the girl winds up back home, determined to stay clean, but her old buddies can't leave her alone. She wakes up in what appears to be an asylum. It's never really explained, but the reader is lead to believe that she was intentionally drugged. Shortly after she leaves rehab, she writes that she's leaving her diary behind. A postscript to the book notes that the author of the diary was found dead. It's not known whether it was an accidental or intentional overdose, but then, as the postscript says, it doesn't really matter, because she's still dead.

Go Ask Alice is chilling, without a doubt, but I can't help but wonder (and here's where I'm showing my age), if the kids these days would see it the same way I did.

Review #50: The Sea of Tranquility, by Katja Millay

I've been reading more YA literature lately, and I've bemoaned the future of it more than once, so I was pleasantly surprised to come across The Sea of Tranquility. Actually, I was thrilled. Not only is the story well done, but the writing is simply exquisite.

The story is told in two different voices - always a risk in my opinion - and moves between Josh Bennett, a young high school senior, and Nastya Kashnikov, the new girl in school who doesn't speak. She's not shy, she literally doesn't speak. Somehow, Josh and Nastya form a strange sort of friendship. She inserts herself in to his world, having Sunday dinners with his best friend and his family and spending long quiet evenings in his woodshop.

There are no vampires in this book. There are no werewolves. There's no insta-love. The male lead isn't a jackass and the female lead isn't a simpering weakling. They are both strong and weak, both perfect and flawed. They are true.

I've struggled with writing this review because I'm terrified of spoiling the story. But I will say this: this book needs to be made in to a movie, but it never can be, because it needs to be directed by John Hughes, and star Lloyd Dobbler and anything less than that will be a travesty.

This is Millay's first novel, and I hope with all my heart that it isn't her last. This book is perfection.

Review #49: Rainshadow Road, by Lisa Kleypas

When Lucy, a glass artist, is dumped by her boyfriend Kevin in favor of her younger sister Alice, she winds up meeting Sam, the local vineyard farmer. Sam's everything Kevin isn't: mainly not a jackass. At least, not for a while. Sam's commitment-phobic, of course, but this doesn't appear to bother Lucy, and they form a tenuous friendship. But then Lucy is struck by a car and left with a broken leg, and no choice but to recuperate temporarily in Sam's home. Sam is reluctant but, ever the good guy, he takes her in. Of course, they tumble in to bed, and begin a sex without strings relationship.

Over time, though, they both start to fall for one another, until Lucy realizes that she has to leave him. Other complications arise: Kevin (the former boyfriend) appears to Lucy and declares his love for her on the eve of his wedding to her sister Alice, Lucy is offered an artist-in-residence year in New York, and Sam winds up falling asleep in Lucy's bed, a crisis which appears to be as big as the whole Kevin-doesn't-love-Alice thing.

Add in to all of this the fact that Lucy evidently can turn glass in to fireflies and Sam can apparently make plants perk up with a wave of his hand, and you've got a normal little romance novel.

Honestly, Kleypas is a little bit like Nora Roberts when she's in her semi-magical trilogy mode. In fact, I think that this book may have actually been the start of a series, or at the very least, a trilogy. It's serviceable, and if another one of her books pops up for 99 cents, I'd probably download it. It's fluff, but it's not terrible fluff.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Review #48: A Will & A Way, by Nora Roberts

Along with Janet Evanovich, Nora Roberts is one of my go-to authors when I want something light and fluffy. She's got four types of books: J.D. Robb, trilogies/series, fat beach reads, and quick romance novels. A Will & A Way is the latter, but it works for a good summer book.

Pandora's favorite uncle, a slightly nutty recluse, dies, and names her and a distant relative Michael as the two major heirs to his estate, including his crazy home named Jolley's Folley. Michael isn't really related - he belongs to the family through an intimate family friend. Not surprisingly, Jolley's other relatives are a little miffed that weird cousin Pandora and interloper Michael get the bulk of the inheritance. Also not surprisingly, Jolley's will stipulates that Michael and Pandora have to live together at the estate for six months in order to inherit.

Michael and Pandora have never gotten along, but they're forced to spend time together in order to honor Jolley's last wishes. And when weird things begin to happen at the estate (remember those jealous relatives?), they're thrown together even more closely. Looks like good old Uncle Jolley was a bit of a matchmaker, too.

This is a pretty predictable novel, but it's a romance. It's going to have a formula, and it's going to have a happily-ever-after ending. Sometimes, you need a little escapism, and Nora's good at doing that for you.

Review #47: Love in a Nutshell, by Janet Evanovich & Dorien Kelly

My favorite thing about Janet Evanovich's books is how nutty the characters are. I'm a bit of a mess in real life, and I love that her characters are a bit of a mess, too.

After Kate Appleton divorces her philandering ex-husband, she moves back to her family's summer home, The Nutshell, to turn it in to a bed and breakfast. The only problem is that she's run out of money and The Nutshell has a zillion and one things wrong with it, so she needs a job. Matt Culhane, owner of the local craft brewery, thinks that someone is deliberately trying to sabotage him, so he hires Kate to spy.

Shenanigans and hilarity ensue, but there's a dark tone underneath it all: it quickly becomes clear that Kate, Matt, and Matt's brewery could be in real danger. And it turns out that Matt owns the mortgage to The Nutshell, something Kate doesn't discover until after she starts to fall for him.

Fans of Evanovich will like Kate's quirkiness and Matt's solid, good guy character. It's a total beach read: fluffy, light, and perfect for the summer.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Review #46: The Dominant, by Tara Sue Me

Once again, Fifty Shades has shone a light on the tons of BDSM fiction out there. And, like any kind of fiction, there's good writing and there's bad writing. The Dominant falls kind of on the bad side.

Nathaniel West is a dominant. He's well-known in "the lifestyle". Abigail King wants to be his submissive and applies for the job. Maybe I'm just a naive, small-town girl, but is this how it really works? There are rich - filthy rich, of course - guys who just spread the word to their friends that they want female submissives. And there are applications? Plus, Nathaniel's butler (? I don't know... bodyguard, maybe, or majordomo) is the one who passes on these applications. How does one list that in the job description?

I don't know as I even need to give a synopsis. I think we all know how this works. Abigail struggles with being a good sub. Nathaniel struggles with being a harsh enough dom. There's conflict. They have sex. There's more conflict. They're sort of in love. The end.

The sex is, sadly, pretty unsexy. Sometimes a girl wants a little trashy psuedo-porn, and this was definitely not it.

Review #45: Stalking Sapphire, by Mia Thompson

At first glance, Sapphire Dubois is like every other spoiled twenty-something living in Beverly Hills off of Daddy's money. But there's more to Sapphire than meets the eye. She hunts serial killers. And she's caught several. She stalks them, catches them, trusses them up, and leaves them like little presents for the police.

But when one of the bad guys turns the tables on Sapphire and starts stalking her - sending her body parts from a missing woman - Sapphire realizes that she may be in over her head. Add to the mix Detective Aston Ridder and Sapphire's in big trouble.

This was an interesting concept. Sapphire was tough without being over the top. Ridder was grizzled and jaded without being a total jackass. And if you can suspend belief long enough to forget that there probably aren't a ton of serial killers in Beverly Hills, then you've got a pretty decent story. I would have liked to see a little more humor and absurdness - a la Janet Evanovich - but I enjoyed it well enough.

Review #44: No Tan Lines, by Kate Angell

Shaye Cates is from the wrong side of the beach, at least in Trace Saunders' eye. Shaye and her family own and run Barefoot William Beach, and Trace and his family own the fancy-pants hotel on the other side of the sand. When Shaye's famous volleyball-player brother offers to headline a pro-am tournament, Shaye sees the economic boost the event could give her struggling little village. The only problem is she has to ask Trace to borrow a few hundred feet of his beach. And Trace isn't exactly willing to share.

Shaye talks him in to it, but Trace has his own caveats and sticks his nose in, convinced that Shaye's not going to be able to pull this off on her own. In a B story, Trace's former lover starts her own jewelry shop and falls in love with Shaye's brother. And in a C story, a random beach resident sort of falls in love with a volleyball player, but it's a story that just sort of gets forgotten. Honestly, I think I was more interested in the volleyball player than the other two stories.

Trace is kind of a jerk, and Shaye, for all her supposed toughness, lets him walk all over her. I never felt that their relationship was equal, and I never really cared whether it worked out for them. Angell would have been better off leaving the sub-plots out and concentrating more on developing Shaye and Trace in to more likeable characters.

Review #43: Rescue Me, by Rachel Gibson

I downloaded Rescue Me because it was highly recommended on the Nook list, and because the review said if you were a fan of Jennifer Crusie or Nora Roberts, you'd like Rachel Gibson. And I feel like I've read Gibson before, but I can't remember. Honestly, sometimes these kinds of books sort of blend together.

Rescue Me starts with Sadie Hollowell returning to Lovett, Texas, for her cousin Tally Lynn's wedding. Sadie hasn't been back in years, and the first person she runs in to is Vincent James, a super hot former Navy SEAL who is visiting his aunt Luraleen. Vince's truck has broken down and his cell phone is dead, so she gives him a lift in to town. When she asks him to return the favor and come as her date to the wedding, though, he turns her down, only to show up later at the reception, just in time to rescue her (get it) from her crazy old aunts. And then, he rescues her again minutes later in the bride's room, giving her an orgasm in the bride's room. Sadie freaks out and runs off, leaving Vince...ahem...high and dry.

Later, of course, Sadie and Vince run in to each other at the Founder's Day picnic and wind up going home together, and this time they both come away satisfied. They have a little friends-with-benefits thing going on, till Sadie's dad gets sick and Vince's PTSD sets in and they're both stubborn and stupid and won't admit that they love each other.

I'm not going to spoil the ending, but it's a romance novel, so duh, of course it's going to work out.

Rescue Me was okay. It's a romance novel. And maybe Gibson's other books are on par with Nora Roberts or Jennifer Crusie, but not this one.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Review #42: Girls in Trucks, by Katie Crouch

I have rarely come across a novel that I enjoyed while strongly (very, very strongly) disliking the main character. In fact, I think that Girls in Trucks may be my first.

Sarah Walters is a reluctant member of Charleston society, forced to dance at Cotillion and encouraged to date the right boys. Sarah's a bit of a rebel, though, and doesn't want to grow up like her mama and the other Camelias, marrying the high school football star and popping out a few kids. So she sets her sights on college and New York, dates the wrong guys, and begins to lose her way.

And that's when the book lost me. Crouch's writing is excellent, and the story is well-done, but I began to dislike Sarah - really, really hate her, actually - and try as I might, I couldn't muster up any sympathy for her. (And I even felt a little sympathy for Daisy Buchanan.) Sarah seemed selfish and self-absorbed, and I found myself grateful that she wasn't one of my friends.

But on the flip side, I'm not sure this novel would have been anywhere near the same story had Sarah touched me in any way. I think Crouch intentionally made Sarah unlikable. which is an unusual choice for a main character, and one that makes this book stand out.

I'm interested to see what Crouch does next.

Review #41: The Florabama Ladies' Auxiliary and Sewing Circle, by Lois Battle

Told over the course of one year, The Florabama Ladies' Auxiliary and Sewing Circle details the lives of the displaced women of the now-shuttered Cherished Lady mill and how they intersect with the story of Bonnie Duke Cullman, a former deb turned Atlanta society wife whose husband has bankrupted them right out of their marriage. Bonnie finds a job heading up the "Displaced Homemakers Program" at the community college in Florabama, and is charged with helping the former mill workers start over.

Bonnie, lost, overwhelmed, and woefully underqualified, isn't sure she can handle her new position, both in her professional and personal life. Her daughter is appearing to side with her ex-husband, her son is dating a vegetarian and wants to work at a garlic farm, her father is aging rapidly, and her sex life is non-existent.

The ladies of the mill aren't sure they can handle their new positions, either. They're suddenly out of work, out of money, and out of options. But together, Bonnie and the women learn that change isn't always a bad thing, and that we are far stronger and far smarter than we think.

Battle's writing wandered a bit, kind of like a stroll down a garden path, but after having sat on the review for a couple of weeks, I've come to see that this quiet little story has spoken to me more than I originally realized.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Review #40: The Heist, by Janet Evanovich & Lee Goldberg

Confession: I love Stephanie Plum. Actually, I love Ranger. I love Grandma Mazur, too, but it's a different feeling than the feeling I have for Ranger. I want him to break in to my house, call me babe, and leave behind his Bulgari shower gel. I just want to go for cocktails and shenanigans with Grandma. My feelings for Janet Evanovich's new character, con artist Nick Fox, lie somewhere in between Ranger and Grandma.

Kate O'Hare is a former Navy SEAL turned FBI agent (and yes, Evanovich addresses the fact that there are no female SEALs in real life) whose career has been largely about trying to capture the elusive and very handsome Nicholas Fox, a master con man. Kate gets her man, only to have him escape, and then discovers that he's actually working for the FBI, and she's been chosen as his wingman. Together, they're tasked with bringing down one of the world's largest swindlers, a bad guy who pulled off a Bernie Madoff-style and ran off with a half billion dollars of other people's money.

To pull of the con, Nick gathers a new crew together, and Kate enlists her dad as a back up. Together they travel to Indonesia to recover the stolen half billion dollars, dodging pirates and other bad guys.

Evanovich is always a fun read, in large part because of her characters. Kate is a bit of a stick in the mud, and I hope that we get another installment of Nick getting under her skin.

Review #39: A Summer Affair, by Elin Hilderbrand

A Summer Affair is the story of Claire Crispin, a wife and mother of four, who embarks on a year-long affair with Lock Dixon, the millionaire head of the local children's charity. Claire is vaguely acquainted with Lock - she was friendly with his wife Daphne before a devastating car accident changed Daphne's personality - when he asks her to not only co-chair the Nantucket Children's Summer Gala, but to provide the auction item, a blown glass chandelier. Claire hasn't been in her glass studio in over year, since a fall caused her to go in to premature labor with her youngest son, and she surprises everyone, including herself, by agreeing.

To plan the gala, Claire begins spending evenings with Lock, and it isn't long before they begin an affair. As their relationship becomes more serious, Claire pulls away from her husband, her family, her friends. She struggles with guilt and jealously, and goes so far as to accuse her husband of having an affair. Eventually, things come to a head at the gala, and Claire realizes she must end the game of limbo and make a decision.

This novel left me feeling a little flat. I never really sympathized with any of the characters, and struggled to find redeeming qualities in any of them. I wanted to either root for Claire and Lock to beat the odds and find a way to be together, or be angry at them for breaking their marriage vows, but I honestly couldn't care enough about them to feel one way or the other.

I've read other books from Hilderbrand, and this was definitely not my favorite.