"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, July 25, 2016

Review #31: Dumplin', by Julie Murphy

Dumplin' showed up in a few reviews a few weeks ago and it sounded like something right up my alley, so when it appeared on my library's digital download site, I snapped it up and read it in about two or three days. You guys. It's fantastic. 

In Clover City, Texas, the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant is just about the biggest thing in town. Willowdean's mom, a former Miss Teen Blue Bonnet, is the head of the pageant, and she prides herself on being able to zip herself in to her winning gown each year. Naturally, one would think Will is a shoo-in to be this year's queen, except that Will is fat. We never find out just how fat she is, but it's made clear from the beginning that she is definitely not a size 4. This seems not to bother her, who appears to be pretty at home in her own skin, a feat that most teenage girls, and, let's face it, not a few adult women, struggle with, but it (very obviously) bothers her mother, whose own sister and Will's beloved Aunt Lucy died about six months ago from what is intimated in the book of some sort of obesity-related issue.

But then Will meets a boy, Bo, cute, private school, mysterious, athletic Bo, who gives her her first kiss and red candy suckers and most definitely likes her, even though he is way out of her league. Confusingly, rather than raising her self-confidence, being on Bo's arm has the opposite effect. Her relationship with her best friend Ellen starts to go a little bit sideways when Ellen begins working at the local clothing boutique that caters exclusively to sizes in to which Will will never fit. And suddenly, Will isn't sure she's as comfortable with herself as she professes to be. Rather than allow herself to shrink in to a wallflower, Will does the scariest thing she can think of: she enters the pageant. With her late aunt's friends - Dolly Patron loving drag queens who steal every scene they are in - helping her along the way, Will not only enters the contest, but convinces several other girls to do so as well, girls who are not the traditional blonde haired, blue eyed beauty queens Texas is so well known for. 

Murphy nails every bit of Will's story. From her bravado about being comfortable in her own skin to her burning desire to both be left alone by and loved by her mother to her nervousness about Bo kissing her and her disbelief that he really likes her, Willowdean rings exactly true. Even the romance is perfectly drawn, with all of the nervousness and confusion and butterflies of first love, along with some hidden sweetness from Bo, who could have been too good to be true, but Murphy gets him exactly right, too. I'm not her target audience (by about twenty five years - ack!), but Murphy spoke to me like Judy Blume and Cynthia Voigt did all those years ago.

Turn on Miss Dolly Parton and put Dumplin' in to the hands of every teenage girl you come across.

Review #30: The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan

Both JB and Boss read The Lifeboat and I think that they both liked it more than I did, although I just asked Boss and he said after having been away from it for awhile, he felt it was fine but kind of flat. JB said it was a fascinating look at human behavior, and I suppose he's right, but it just didn't set me on fire the way I think it did him. I think that this is one of those books that you have to be in the right mood to get everything you can out of it, and I suppose I just wasn't in the right mood. Plus, I really hated the main character, which Boss says is a dumb rule, that I have to like the characters, but I can't stand unlikable narrators, and I find that it colors the whole book for me.

It's the summer of 1914. It's been two years since the sinking of the Titanic, and in that time, Archduke Ferdinand has been assassinated, World War I has broken out in Europe, and the Germans have sunk the passenger ship Lusitania. Twenty-two year old Grace and her newly minted husband Henry board the Empress Alexandra for passage across the Atlantic, Henry glad-handing and laying the foundation for some business deals, with Grace reflecting on how lucky she is to have landed such a wealthy husband. When an explosion rocks the ship, Henry presses Grace in to a lifeboat, telling her he'll catch the next one, and before she knows it, she's being lowered in to the cold Atlantic with 38 other people. It quickly becomes evident that the lifeboat is not designed to hold 39 passengers and over the next three weeks, the lifeboat will lose its share of passengers in a variety of ways before they are rescued, and it's these losses that land Grace - and others - on trial for murder. 

Grace is an unreliable - and extraordinarily unlikable - narrator. Everything is told in her voice, through her lenses, and so the reader never feels as though they are getting the real story, only what Grace has concocted (or her lawyer has told her to say), and it goes without saying that she's painting herself in the best light possible. Perhaps that's what was Rogan was going for, but it was a style that left me feeling uneasy. And as Grace told her story so dispassionately, I found myself caring less and less about who survived and under what circumstances the passengers were rescued. (And frankly, a little disappointed that Grace survived when so many others didn't.)

But despite my intense dislike for Grace, I found the overall theme of The Lifeboat fascinating, even if I didn't necessarily find the actual book all that fantastic. The real story isn't about whether Grace is telling the truth, or whether Mr. Hardy really was hiding something, or whether Mrs. Grant really is guilty of murder. No, the real story is about what happens when we strip away the bonds of human decency and have to fight for our individual survival, even if it means bringing harm to others. We all like to pretend that we'd be the bigger person, the one to jump overboard when the boat becomes too full, the one to give up our ration of food or fish or water to the weaker in the group. But would we really? In the end, aren't we all survivors - animals, really - and wouldn't we, absent any law and order or societal norms, return to that animal-like state and do anything necessary to ensure our own existence?

The Lifeboat was fine. It has the potential to make a great movie (Anne Hathaway is rumored to be playing Grace, although there is no shooting schedule yet), but as a novel, it wasn't as good as I wanted it to be.

Review #29: Commencement, by J. Courtney Sullivan

Celia, Sally, Bree, and April meet their freshman year at Smith College, and the four of them couldn't be more different. Celia is our narrator, a lapsed Catholic who had the foresight to smuggle a bottle of vodka in to her suitcase. Sally is recovering from the loss of her mother just months before, and unsure she is willing - or able - to make friends and enjoy college. Bree has arrived with a diamond ring on her finger and the next fifty years of her life planned. And April is a red-haired, radical feminist who can't fathom that she could ever be friends with the likes of Celia, Sally, and Bree.

But friends they become, however unlikely, and for the next four years they see each other through heartache and heartbreak, love, loss, all night study sessions and skipped classes, too much booze and too much food, and before they realize it, they've graduated and moved on to bigger pastures. But they remain close until an argument on the eve of Sally's wedding threatens to undo the bonds of the past years. And then April disappears, and they aren't sure if they can ever recover from the loss.

To Sullivan's credit, I could see where she was going with this novel, but unfortunately, between the extraordinarily abrupt ending and the lack of character development, she never quite hits the mark. Celia, Sally, Bree, and April are caricatures of themselves, with April being the most confusingly drawn of all four. Sullivan takes what could have been a fantastic strong female lead and simultaneously paints her as (forgive me, Gloria Steinem, but there is no other word I can use here) a femi-nazi and an increasingly weak apologetic little girl. Celia, Sally, and Bree vacillate between having their acts together and behaving like insipid, spoiled little rich girls, but truly, what Sullivan did with April's character was baffling.

I wanted to like this book, but in the end, I found that all I felt was irritation at having invested the time in it.

Review #28: Loves Me, Loves Me Not, by Libby Malin

Is it bad that I can't really remember this book? I had to look up the blurb on Amazon and even after reading some reviews, I can't really put my finger on how I felt about the book.

I do remember the basic plot, though. Amy Sheldon runs a flower shop (sort of; it seems like she just sort of drifts about). Henry Castle orders a lot of flowers for a variety of women. When Amy screws up one of his orders by sending it to the wrong woman, Henry comes in to the shop to read her the riot act. Amy offers to make it up to him, he insists on taking her out, and at some point they fall in to bed together. Amy's still nursing her broken heart from her fiancé Rick's death two years ago and there is some angst when Henry discovers that he works at the same law firm (financial firm? something...I don't think it matters) as Rick. There's more angst when Amy moves in with Henry (and he brings women home because she insists they are just roommates), but eventually they wind up together.

Now that I'm remembering the basic outline, I also remember some other things. One, Amy's a mess, more than is cute. And yes, she lost her fiancĂ©, and yes, she's struggling, but pull yourself together, sister. Amy winds up homeless like, nine times in the course of three weeks in this book. Two, Henry's kiiiiind of a jackass. He's okay, I suppose, but if I'm reading a romance novel, I want the hero to be, you know, heroic and slightly unrealistically amazing. If I dated Henry, my friends would give me some serious side-eye. Henry's pretty shallow. I like my men with a little more depth. And less jerkiness. Three, I get that there has to be a breakup in towards the end of most romance novels, some thing that keeps our hero and heroine apart, but one breakup is enough. Or even two. But I don't need like, five. If I wanted to read about that, I'd read my high school journal. 

I don't really remember the ending, but I do remember feeling kind of meh about it. That might be cause I was pretty meh about Henry though. 

Review #27: Sex, Lies, & Online Dating, by Rachel Gibson

I feel like I've read Rachel Gibson before, but when I looked through her author page, all of the books looked both similar and complete foreign at the same time. I'm sure I've read something; I just can't remember it right now. (Update: I found it. After reading the review, I can say that I have absolutely no memory of reading it.)

Lucy Rothschild is a mystery novelist who is researching for her next novel. Quinn McIntyre is a local homicide detective with a potential female serial killer on the loose. Lucy goes undercover to some online dating sites, looking for the next victim for her book, and Quinn is also undercover online, searching out his murderer. So when "nurse" Lucy and "plumber" Quinn meet, neither of them knows the true story, but they both know the other is lying. Of course, Lucy fits the profile, so Quinn starts digging a bit, but then Lucy acquires a stalker of her own, and Quinn realizes that not only is Lucy not the killer, she's also in danger. Hijnks ensue, scary things happen, Lucy has lots of margaritas with her three author friends (perhaps a set up for three more books?), and finally she and Quinn pull their heads out of their rear ends and realize they belong together.

This was an enjoyable read on a rainy Saturday. It's not great literature, but it's okay, and the characters were pretty likable. And Lucy has some good points about internet dating; specifically the aging, balding, overweight, unemployed men who are only looking for women who are under 27 with the "sorry, no fatties!" added to the end of their profile. And I'm not saying that aging, balding, overweight, unemployed men can't achieve that goal of dating the perfectly young, perfectly healthy, perfectly proportioned beautiful woman, but generally, they need to bring lots of "roses" to that date. Lots and lots.

My favorite part of the whole book, though, is this snippet that I found when I went to Amazon to pull the link for the review: Rachel's storytelling career began at the age of sixteen when she ran her Chevy Vega into the side of a hill, retrieved the bumper and broken glass from the ground, and drove to her high school parking lot. With the help of her friend, she strategically scattered the broken pieces and told her parents she'd been the victim of a hit and run. They believed her, and she's been telling stories ever since.

I kind of want to be friends with her now.

Review #26: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin

I downloaded Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter on a whim from the library's website, mainly because I liked the cover, but I'm also a sucker for anything set in the South, and this novel didn't disappoint. After having finished it, I found a paperback copy at the library bookshop and picked it up for JB, who not only really enjoyed it, but passed it off to his dad, which is just about the highest praise a book can receive. 
Twenty-five years ago, Silas ("32") Jones and Larry Ott were the best of friends, despite one being the black son of a single mother, and the other being the white son of a lower-middle class family in 1970s Mississippi, a time and place not conducive to interracial friendships. Unable to be public about their friendship either at school or at home, they formed a secret bond, meeting in the woods that connected their homes to fish, hunt, and teach each other about girls. In their senior year, Larry takes a girl on a date to a drive in movie - his first date - and she disappears later that night, with Larry having been seen with her last. But Larry denies any involvement, and the sheriff is unable to prove a connection, so the case goes cold, with Larry being ostracized from the community, and Silas breaking their friendship and leaving town soon after graduation.

Fast forward two and a half decades, and Larry is a mechanic in his late father's shop, but his existence is solitary, having never been able to quite shake the suspicions of the past. Silas is back as the town's sheriff, dating a lovely young EMT and keeping an eye on the citizens of his small town. He and Larry have never spoken after the night the young girl disappeared; they've had no reason to. Except now another young girl has gone missing, and all eyes turn to Larry again.

This is not a pulpy paperback mystery that you pick up at the airport and leave at the gate when you land. This is true Southern literature on par with Ferrol Sams and Conroy and Grisham's early works, and Franklin immerses the reader in the oppressive heat of Mississippi, where Confederate flags still wave proudly and Budweiser and Marlboros are the way of life. It's a bit of a languid novel; it moves much like all things do in the South, so don't expect action-packed scenes or shootouts. Instead, allow Franklin to bring you in to this sleepy, dying Mississippi town and slowly reveal the monsters - and beauty - living within it.

Review #25: The Sweet Spot, by Stephanie Evanovich

I remembered reading another of Stephanie Evanovich's books (Big Girl Panties) awhile ago, but didn't remember too much about it, other than it was kind of a serviceable romance, and I needed something to listen to on my commute, so I downloaded The Sweet Spot from the library's website. 

And then I remembered that I didn't much like Big Girl Panties.

And then I remembered why.

The Sweet Spot was written after Big Girl Panties, but is set a couple of years before it, chronicling the story of a baseball player named Chase, and Amanda, the woman he's set his sights on. Amanda is a buttoned-up young restaurateur - she owns the hottest place in town - and Chase spots her while at dinner with his agent one night. Amanda intrigues him, but she's not interested, and so he sets about chasing after her.

Chase is a little bit stalker-y, but that's a common theme in a lot of romance (why, I have no idea, but it is), and Amanda eventually caves because she secretly loves him. And all is well for a little while, until the night that they're alone in a hallway at the baseball stadium and Chase is caught on security video spanking Amanda, which of course, hits the national news. Humiliated, certain she'll be responsible for the death of his career, Amanda takes off and disappears to the beach to hide, befriending an older woman, and takes the time to figure herself out. Spoiler alert (not): they end up together and live happily ever after, making an appearance in Big Girl Panties, which, to be honest, I'd completely forgotten about until I went to find my review to link back to it.

So why didn't I like The Sweet Spot? It seems like a pretty normal contemporary romance. Except it's not. Or at least, it's not in the way I'd want my daughter (when she's older than 12, thankyouverymuch) to read. This is the second book of Evanovich's that I have read, and in both, her characters are overweight. It's never really fully discussed, other than to say that they are "curvy" or "plump" or "have a lot of booty" (probably it doesn't actually say it that way, but you get the drift). All of which is fine - nice, even, to read about women who are perhaps a little bit closer to my body type than, say, Cindy Crawford's. But it was the way Evanovich went about it. There was a very much a message that Chase liked Amanda despite her curvy bottom or her ample bosom, that he was able to look past it. Chase, as a baseball player, was described as pretty much physically god-like, and wasn't Amanda lucky that he was able to see past her "flaws" to the real her? That didn't sit well with me, because the underlying message is that Amanda wasn't quite good enough for him, and that was the same message that I got from her other book.

Additionally, I think if you're going to introduce spanking (and all its related things) to a relationship, you should, you know, have a conversation about it beforehand. Sure, it's a bit awkward, but I think it's probably a lot less awkward than getting your relatively conservative new girlfriend to finally talk dirty in bed after she's expressly told you that it makes her uncomfortable and then pick her up, put her over your knee, proceed to spank her until she cries, and then have sex with her. Which is an actual thing that happened. That's...that's not how that works. And while we're on the subject, if you do royally screw up and do that, then your immediate reaction should most definitely not be to leave and then be upset when she doesn't understand.

Also? The more I think about it, even unrelated to the whole horrible introduction to spanking thing, Chase was a jerk. And I'm way too worked up about how much I dislike a guy in a romance novel, which just makes me more worked up.

To keep the baseball theme going, this was absolutely not a home run.