"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, September 30, 2013

Review #66: Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil, by John Berendt

I first read Midnight about ten years ago, maybe more, but two recent trips to Savannah prompted a re-read. We're all familiar (either through the book or Clint Eastwood's film) of the story of Jim Williams, Danny Hansford, and the incomparable Lady Chablis, but with each reading (and each visit), I fall in love with this odd little city a bit more.

For the uninitiated, Berendt's tale begins with him meeting Jim Williams, an antique dealer, to interview him for a piece in a magazine. While in Savannah, Berendt becomes intrigued with the city, falling in love with it, and eventually renting a small apartment in the historic district. He meets several of the city's movers and shakers, and quite a few of its less prominent citizens. Fast forward a few years, and Danny Handford is dead, Jim Williams is on trial, and the entire town is abuzz.

Savannah is a strange, beautiful, wonderful place. It's ancient by American standards, settled in 1733, and at times it gives the air that it hasn't changed much. Berendt captures the magic of the city, painting not just each character with perfect, vivid strokes, but painting the town as well.

Lady Astor is rumored to have remarked about Savannah that the city is "like a beautiful woman with a dirty face". I've always thought a little dirt kept things interesting. Berendt captures Savannah, her beauty, and her flaws with simple, lyrical perfection.

(And for those wondering, Lady Chablis is still performing once a month, and she is every bit as fierce and fabulous as she was in the film.)

Review #65: Savannah Breeze, by Mary Kay Andrews

Savannah Breeze is Mary Kay Andrews' follow up to Savannah Blues, and while Blues followed the adventures of Weezie, Breeze is her best friend BeBe Loudermilk's story.

BeBe meets a handsome man at the Telfair Museum gala, and before you know it, she's fallen in lust with him, and he's run away with all her money. She's forced out of her home (he sells it), she loses her business (she has no money), and she is left with nothing but a run down motel out on Tybee Island. The motel comes without furniture or roofs, at least in most rooms, but it also comes with gruffly handsome and mysterious Harry Sorrentino, the manager of sorts.

Harry's not too thrilled with BeBe, BeBe can't stand Harry, and she really can't stand the Breeze Inn. But with no money and no prospects, she has no other choice but to max out her credit cards, fix the place up, and hope for the best. When the handsome cad who stole her money is spotted in Florida, BeBe decides to go after him.

All the old characters from Blues show up here - Weezie, Weezie's bourbon-loving mom, Uncle James - but the man who steals the show is Grandpa Loudermilk. (In fact, if Grandma Loudermilk wasn't still around, I'd suggest a Grandpa Loudermilk and Grandma Mazur spin off.) Grandpa tears himself away from the Weather Channel and his bowls of Cap'n Crunch long enough to join BeBe, Harry, and Weezie on their grand adventure to Fort Lauderdale, and the fearsome foursome devise a plan to get BeBe's money back.

With a nice nod to Travis McGee, Andrews takes the reader on a fun ride. The only things missing were Lula and Grandma.

Review # 64: Dangerous Refuge, by Elizabeth Lowell

Elizabeth Lowell is one of those authors I can rely on. She gives me a pretty good story, a little sex, some romance, and a fairly strong female lead. I hate romance novels with simpering stupid girls.

In Dangerous Refuge, we meet Shaye Townsend, a woman who has moved to the wilds of Nevada to escape her socialite family. Shaye works for a local conservancy, and is the perfect liason between her glittery, fund-raising boss and the crusty old ranchers they're trying to help.

The story opens with Shaye finding one of the ranchers dead. Lorne Davis was in his 80s, and so his death wasn't really a surprise, but something doesn't seem right to Shaye. Something isn't sitting well with Lorne's only nephew, Tanner, either. Tanner's a Los Angeles homicide detective, and he turns up in Nevada to invesigate the death.

Throw in some nefarious dealings within the converancy, some small town government corruption, and some smoldering moments between Shaye and Tanner, and you've got yourself a nice little Saturday afternoon romance. Lowell may be formulaic at times, but she always delivers.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Review #63: Chanel Bonfire, by Wendy Lawless

In this heartbreakingly funny memoir, Wendy Lawless details her childhood with her mother, a woman whose picture belongs in the dictionary next to the word narcissist. And the word addict. And substance abuser. And, quite possibly, the word horrible.

Lawless' mother personifies self-indulgence. She whisks Wendy and her sister from trailer parks to New York City to London and back again, cutting their father out of their lives, and wreaking havoc on two very impressionable teenage girls. Swanning about in her blue pegnoir set (and I could just picture the marabou mules that I'm sure went with it), stinking of cigarettes and too much perfume, her mother tells the girls that if they weren't pretty, she would have left them years ago. Two stories in particular stood out to me. In one, Lawless tells her mother that she has a crush on their lawn boy, and the next day, watches as she dons a halter top and short shorts and seduces the lawn boy in a tent in the back yard. The lawn boy is never heard from again. In another, it is her younger sister's high school graduation day. Lawless receives a phone call from the school principal, asking her to "get down to the school right now". When she arrives, her mother has driven her car across the lawn, up to the stage on the football field, and, dressed in her pale blue nightie, she is stumbling about the school grounds. When Lawless arrives, her mother hops in her car, drives off, and isn't heard from for several days, when she arrives back home as though nothing has happened.

Lawless is a smart, funny writer with a wickedly sharp wit. There's the old adage about how you can either laugh or cry, and she's chosen to laugh, and to make us laugh as well. This memoir is horrifyingly sad, but Lawless never allows you to feel sorry for her. She is a survivor, and she has not only survived, but she has thrived.

Review #62: By Design, by Jayne Denker

Emmie is an interior designer, stuck in a dead end job as the assistant to the town's interior designer, and he keeps Emmie around to pour the coffee and answer the phones. Emmie is frustrated with her life, and on a whim, looks up old classmates on line. Which, of course, leads to some awkward reunions, but along the way, she winds up meeting The Man of Her Dreams, Graham Cooper, a widowed father and local contractor.

The only problem is Graham is otherwise engaged, and it turns out that he's involved with a former classmate of Emmie's named Juliet. Juliet, however, needs to keep her relationship with Graham under wraps because she's not quite divorced, and her husband thinks they're working on things. So Graham and Emmie begin a relationship, only they keep theirs quiet, too, because Juliet is "too unstable" for Graham to break things off with her. Add to that the fact that Graham drops everything and runs every time Juliet calls, and I was ready to throw the book across the room.

Of course there's a happily ever after ending, complete with Juliet reconciling with her husband, and Graham and his motherless child falling in love with Emmie, and Emmie striking out on her own business-wise, but I couldn't help wondering when Graham's head was going to be turned by the next Juliet to come down the road.

Full disclosure that I read this book while my kid was getting her tonsils out, so I was sitting in a hospital waiting room (and those consultation rooms aren't exactly big) with my former husband, a man who shares more than one trait with Juilet and Graham. Probably not my wisest choice, and I'm sure that's coloring my review, but for a "romantic comedy" or "chick lit" book, all I could think was that Graham was a big fat jerk and Juliet was not a friend I'd want to have.

Review #61: Big Girl Panties, by Stephanie Evanovich

Holly, a young widower, meets Logan, a too-good-to-be-real trainer to the sports stars, on a flight back from some sort of business relating to her late husband's estate. Holly is overweight, having turned to food to dull the loneliness of widowhood. She makes a self-deprecating remark about squashing Logan, and before you know it, Logan is offering his trainer services to Holly.

To Holly's surprise - and Logan's - she shows up. And she continues to show up and do the work, and the weight starts to come off. Along the way, Holly and Logan form a pretty tight friendship, and they both begin to fall for the other. Holly is all too aware that she's not Logan's usual type, and Logan, who runs in the circle of the Beautiful People, is all too aware that Holly isn't beautiful enough.

There's also a weird B story that felt like Evanovich was trying to cash in on the 50 Shades hoopla. Logan's best friend Chase, a star baseball player, and his wife Amanda befriend Holly, and through the course of the story, we discover that when Amanda "acts out", Chase spanks her. It turns out that this was captured on surveillance video early in the relationship, which was then made public, which of course embarassed the daylights out of Amanda. Amanda uses this story to make Holly feel better about the possibility that she may be embarrased in the tabloids because of her weight.

And that's where I started to get really angry. Evanovich describes Holly, but never describes her in a way that makes me think she's morbidly obese. Holly seems a little chubby to me, but nothing that could be considered freakishly large. And yes, good for Holly for wanting to lose weight, for wanting to be healthy, but Holly seemed even more miserable after the weight loss than before. But the final blow for me came when Logan came to the realization that even though Holly was never going to be a size two, skinny little blonde supermodel, he supposed that she was good enough for him.

Quite frankly, Holly, you're too good for a jackass like Logan.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Review #60: Last Night at Chateau Marmont, by Lauren Weisberger

From the author of The Devil Wears Prada comes the story of Brooke and Julian Alter. Brooke is a nutrionist working two jobs to support Julian, a better-than-average musician who is hoping to make it big. When Julian is discovered, he rockets to fame, and Brooke feels as though she's left in the dust.

Brooke struggles with being supportive of Julian while she continues to maintain her career. She is enchanted with the sudden glamour of her husband's new life, but feels completely out of place among the glitterati. Things become tense when Julian begins appearing in the tabloids, and even more tense when Brooke is seemingly left behind to clean up the messes Julian is leaving.

The story wasn't horrible, and Weisberger did a nice job of commenting on how quickly we elevate our celebrities to hero status, and how quickly we help them fall. But I disliked every character. I found Brooke whiny and irritating and Julian was an overgrown boy in a man's body. And I didn't think it was possible for characters in a book to not have any chemistry, but these two had less than zero.

Unfortunately, Chateau Marmont was no Devil.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Review #59: Attachments, by Rainbow Rowell

Read this book. Stop what you're doing, right now, and go to the library/bookstore/Amazon/interwebs and get your hands on this. Stop reading whatever you're reading right now, and go read this.

I read Fangirl quite by accident, stumbling across it on Netgalley, and I picked up Attachments at the library on Saturday. I started it a Sunday afternoon. I finished it Monday night. The only reason I didn't finish is Sunday night is because I'm a mom and first-day-of-school, last minute sewing had to take precedence.

Attachments is Rowell's first novel, and it's unlike anything I've ever read. Half the book is nothing but emails between Beth, a movie reviewer at the local paper, and her friend Jennifer, one of the newspaper's copy editors. The other half is the story of Lincoln, the night IT guy, hired mainly to help the paper limp through Y2K. As we all know, Y2K turned out to be a whole lot of nothing, and Lincoln finds himself reading Beth and Jennifer's emails. He becomes, well, attached to Beth, to her stories and her life, and finds himself falling in love with her sight unseen.

Rowell is a clever, smart writer. Her prose is simple but beautiful and her story is perfect. I'm a little mad at myself that I didn't listen to all the Cannonballers who were gushing over her, and that I waited as long as I did to read her work. And I'm a little more mad that I've already blown through all three of her novels and I have to wait like everyone else to see what she's going to write next.

Review #58: Keep No Secrets, by Julie Compton

The mark of a good sequel is that it can be read on its own, and Keep No Secrets is a good sequel. I didn't know that the first book - Tell No Lies - existed until I hopped on Amazon, and now I wish I had read that first.

Secrets picks up four years after Lies ended, with District Attorney Jack Hilliard continuing to repair his professional and personal life after the discovery of a brief extra-marital affair nearly derailed his career and marriage. In the opening pages, the other woman - Jenny Dodson - reappears, and his eldest son's girlfriend Celeste accuses him of sexual assault. With his reputation already damaged by the affair with Jenny, he knows that his claims of innocence aren't believable, but he has no choice but to let the legal system work itself out.

The did he or didn't he storyline involving Celeste is interesting, and the effect it has on his relationship with his son - who hasn't broken up with Celeste but who doesn't exactly believe her either - is heartbreaking. But what really got to me was watching Jack's relationship with his wife disintegrate.

I've read a lot of books where the collapse of a marriage is a central theme, but rarely have I come across an author who can so clearly articulate what it feels like to have your marriage fall apart. Compton competently captures the feeling of hopelessness, of slowly realizing you're married to a stranger, of still wanting comfort from the very person who is huting you most. And she understands, in a way that few people do, that the affair is not the end of the marriage. It's a symptom, definitely, but it's not the disease.

Keep No Secrets was not an easy read. It was uncomfortable, and at times it was unbearably sad, but it kept me guessing until the end. Highly recommended.

Review #57: Someday, Someday, Maybe, by Lauren Graham

Someday, Someday, Maybe has been reviewed quite a bit on Cannonball, and that's the reason I picked it up. I never got in to Gilmore Girls, and only barely knew who Lauren Graham was, other than I think she looks fun whenever I see commercials for Gilmore Girls on Soapnet. Based on the other reviews I read, I wasn't surprised I liked Someday, Someday, Maybe, but I was surprised at how much I liked it.

The brief summary is that Franny has six months left to go on her self-imposed deadline of three years to make it in New York. She's got a fantastic best friend, a slightly weird roommate, a jackass-y boyfriend (and we've all dated that guy, the one that we know is a jackass, but we can't admit that we didn't see it before we started dating him), and a wonderfully funny father. Franny jumps from crappy waitressing job to crappier waitressing job, all while auditioning for anything she can get her hands on and taking as many acting classes as she can.

While I liked the story, and Graham's writing style was excellent, what I loved most about this novel were the characters. Franny was delightfully neurotic and insecure, and instead of being frustrated at her feelings of inadequecy, I complely understood where she was coming from.

Graham has a BA in English Lit from Barnard and it shows. I hope she continues to write, because she has an excellent voice.

(Oh, and Lauren? I really, really loved the ending!)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Review #56: Tampa, by Alissa Nutting

I've sat on this review for a couple of weeks, hoping that I would know how I felt about this book after stewing about it for awhile. I'm still not sure. I don't know if Alissa Nutting is a fantastic writer, or if she's a total sociopath. Either way, I honestly don't know if I can recommend Tampa.

Told in first person, which only makes the whole thing a little crazier, Tampa tells the story of Celeste Price, an eighth grade English teacher in suburban Tampa. Her police officer husband is depicted as a buffoon, and as long as Celeste wears tight yoga pants and bends over once in a while to show him her ass, he leaves her alone, and she's free to secretly pursue thirteen year old boys.

And yes, you read that correctly.

Celeste is a pedophile. She's not a young math teacher in her early twenties, just out of college, falling in love with the high school senior who is days away from 18. She's a creepy, oversexed predator who deliberately chose middle school so she could be closer to young teenage boys. She seduces them deliberately, destroys their lives, and walks away without so much as a second glance. She's "too pretty" to go to jail, you see (Debra LaFave, anyone?), and who cares if what's she's doing is illegal; this is what she wants, and she's going after it.

Celeste is a horrible person. I like a good bad guy, but she takes the cake. She has no redeeming qualities. If this were a movie, they'd have to show Celeste playing with puppies to make her seem human. But Nutting does none of that. She portrays Celeste as a completely one-note character, with a singular desire to seek out young boys and seduce them. There is nothing about Celeste to like, and I tried really hard to find something good. She's not even misunderstood; she's just plain awful. Nutting could have made her slightly human, and I think it would have given the character some depth, and perhaps even transformed the book.

But my big beef with Nutting is that she named this book Tampa. Alissa, if you're going to name a book about a city, that city should be, you know, a character in the book. It doesn't need to be a big character, but it needs to have a presence. It would have taken three or four throwaway sentences to set this book properly in Florida, but the closest she came was a brief reference to mangroves. Just a mention of the drive in, or the beach, or any of the millions of bridges we have... that would have made me happy. As written, Tampa could have just as easily been set in Des Moines. I'm sure teachers have sex with students there, too. (Also? Not to pick nits, but Corvettes don't have backseats. No matter how limber your nutter butter main character is, she can't get it on in the backseat of a two seater car, let alone kneel in this imaginary backseat.)

I'll give this one three stars, I suppose. Nutting's writing is decent, but I think I just couldn't handle the storyline.