Thursday, May 14, 2015

Book Review: The Wife Maker by Karey White

Title: The Wife Maker (The Husband Maker #3)
Author: Karey White
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: A clean read

When we last saw Charlotte and Angus, at the end of The Match Maker (the second book in Karey White's The Husband Maker series), Charlotte has finally realized that she's in love with Angus just in time for him to let her know that it's too late and they will never be a couple. In The Wife Maker, Angus moves from San Francisco to Kansas City for an orthopedic surgery residency/fellowship, and even though Charlotte's dream job, adoring family, and social life are all in the Bay Area, she takes a chance on love and follows him halfway across the country, despite his protestations.

In The Wife Maker, we finally hear Angus in his own voice (Angus and Charlotte take turns as the POV character). The two prior novels have been narrated entirely by Charlotte, and we as an audience could see her blindness to the fact that Angus was in love with her, even when she couldn't. Sometimes Charlotte was annoying in those first two books, and this time Angus has the opportunity to be annoying. If you've been in love with someone for a decade, and you haven't told her about your secret passion until a moment when you're both involved with other people, you can't blame her for taking a few weeks to think it over. And if you don't give her that time, or act like a sniveling baby when she comes back to you to tell you that she loves you too, then you're just being a brat. Angus continues to be a brat for most of The Wife Maker. If I hadn't liked him so much in the other books in the series, I would have been rooting for Charlotte to ditch his sorry self. As for Charlotte, she comes off pretty well in this book, although I really do think that most people would not be as up in arms if their daughter, a successful professional in her late twenties, decided to move out of the nest. Charlotte's mom seems to overreact a bit to the state of her life. (Maybe the fact that I moved to Belgium by myself when I was twenty and my parents didn't bat an eyelash colors my perspective, but thanks Mom and Dad, for knowing when not to hover). All of that said, I was very, very happy to see Angus eventually come to his senses. I would have rather seen a wedding as the way to end the book than the fast-forwarded career move that White gives us in her epilogue, but I would call The Wife Maker a successful, strong conclusion to the series. If there's a fourth book, please resist the urge to call it The Baby Maker, because that would just be gross. :)

Book Review: The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg

Title: The Dream Lover
Author: Elizabeth Berg
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: lots of sex

The Dream Lover opens in 1831, when twenty-eight year-old Aurore Dupin leaves her husband and children behind at her home in Nohant in the French countryside and moves to Paris, where she assumes a male identity and writes her first novel, publishing it under the name George Sand. The book then explores the events in her past that led up to the schism, as well as the experiences she had living as George Sand. Berg's Sand is a woman who both revels in and chafes at domestic life-- she loves her children, but feels that she can't accomplish her artistic goals when she's mothering them.

The conflict between motherhood and freedom has been explored so much these days that it's almost a cliche. It's something I live every time I sit down at my laptop-- if I'm writing or editing, I'm not reading to my kids. If I'm out at night with friends, I'm not kissing them goodnight. But I would imagine that Sand's struggle felt more novel in her day and age, especially as she chose to live separately from her children for at least half of the year. I enjoyed the passages that showed her struggle, as well as those from her childhood (she was the daughter of a courtesan and the grandson of the king of Poland, which provided very fertile ground for cultural conflict), much more than the passages in which she tries to "find herself" (mostly sexually) in her late twenties and thirties. I'm no prude, and I know The Dream Lover aims at verisimilitude, but Berg definitely chose to center her narrative on the bed jumping years rather than the elder statesman years.

Book Review: Home Game by Michael Lewis

Title: Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood
Author: Michael Lewis
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: a few swears

In the introduction to Home Game, Michael Lewis (of Moneyball and The Big Short fame), says that his level of involvement as a father should be viewed on something of a sliding scale-- compared with his own father, he's all hands on deck, compared with other fathers who take a more hands' on approach, he might be seen as distant. The book, drawn from a series of columns Lewis wrote for Slate from approximately 2003-2009, shows him in the trenches of fatherhood with his three kids, juggling writing and parenting and his relationship with his wife (Tabitha Soren, that MTV hottie from my teen years).

If you're not into judging Lewis's involvement (and it seems that most people on Goodreads are) or his upscale lifestyle (ditto), and take the book for what it is-- a collection of humorous stories about parenthood from which Lewis occasionally tries to draw a deeper message, then Home Game is an enjoyable read. If you're trying to do cultural commentary or delve into a deep discussion of gender parity in America, then maybe not so much.

Book Review: Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel

Title: Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic + the Domestic
Author: Esther Perel
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: This is one to read with earphones if you have teenagers who are squeamish about the idea of married people "doing it."

A friend mentioned Mating in Captivity to me one day, and a few days later I heard it referred to as a "seminal work" (get it?) in the genre of erotic intelligence, so I bought it to listen to on my phone. The book talks about all different kinds of sexual incompatibilities, drawing on Perel's several decades as a sex therapist. The main premise is that we want both eroticism and a comforting domestic life, but those two desires are often in conflict and present at different levels in different individuals, and sexual satisfaction comes through working to find a balance between each partner's needs.

The book itself is pretty interesting, and I found the case studies especially illuminating, although she never got to the one about the SAHM of six. Maybe that doesn't exist in Manhattan? Anyway, I would not recommend the audiobook, because Perel narrates herself, and her French accent is quite distracting. Also, it was strictly headphones-only, because my kids got wigged out that one time it came over the bluetooth in the car during carpool.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Book Review: A Fine Romance by Candice Bergen

Title: A Fine Romance
Author: Candice Bergen
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: a little bit of swearing, but a cleaner read than I expected it would be

When I was a teenager, I remember sitting on the couch with my mom on Monday nights to watch Murphy Brown. Murphy was beautiful, smart, and tough, and I admired Candice Bergen, the actress who played her. A Fine Romance is the second of Bergen's memoirs (her first, Knock Wood, was written in the early 80s, when she was launching her career as a writer, photographer, and actress, after growing up the daughter of Hollywood royalty), and takes place where the first left off, when she falls in love with French director Louis Malle. The story spans marriage, motherhood, widowhood, falling in love again, and lots and lots about her career.

Around the same time I was watching Murphy Brown, I had a friend whose dad was a surgeon. I was always a little starstruck around him. I thought he was so different from the other dads I knew, and got tongue tied, like I imagine I might if he had been a famous movie star. Celebrity memoirs show me that actors are, when you strip them of the Armani and the famous friends, just like the rest of us. The book was at its strongest when she wrote about her pregnancy and early mothering years, the time of Malle's illness and subsequent death, and the risks she took when she gave herself over to falling in love again.

While I love the guilty pleasure of a celebrity memoir, this one suffered from some of what you would expect from the genre-- there was too much name dropping when it wasn't relevant, constant claims that she lives an ordinary, frugal life (ordinary and frugal seem to be quite relative here), and a freaking ton of praise for Chloe, her daugher. Reading the memoirs of parents of only children always makes me glad I have a bunch of kids so none of them gets all the praise or has to suffer all my neuroses. I gobbled A Fine Romance in less than two days, and enjoyed nearly every moment of it.

Book Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Title: The Paying Guests
Author: Sarah Waters
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: violence and hot sex

It's 1922 and the Wrays, mother and twentysomething daughter Frances, have finally come to terms with the fact that they can't afford to live in their home, on the outskirts of London, unless someone else helps pay. Enter Leonard and Lilian Barber, the young couple who rent a few rooms on the upper floor. While the Wrays and the Barbers initially seem to have a friendly relationship that goes no further than landlord and lodger, soon the families find themselves almost irrevocably intertwined.

The first third of The Paying Guests reads like a well-written literary/historical novel. Readers come to understand the mores of the Wray's society, and the reasons why they're forced to take in lodgers (basically, all the men in the family died). Waters does a beautiful job recreating London in 1922, complete with the disabled veterans, the men who returned from the war, and the women who had a degree of freedom and have found themselves displaced. The second third of the novel is, in a word, hot. One of the lodgers and one of the landladies (if you've read any of Waters's other novels, you probably can guess which ones) get together, and wow-ee, sparks fly. Then a crime takes place at the cusp of the third third of the novel, and the book becomes something of a police procedural. While I was delighted by the first third, and entertained by the second third, I found the last third totally boring. The Paying Guests lost all its sparkle, and I can't envision a happily ever after for these characters, no matter what Waters's characters pledge in the final pages.

Book Review: Her by Harriet Lane

Title: Her
Author: Harriet Lane
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: I think there was some swearing and maybe some sex, too. And the end is disturbing.

Nina and Emma don't seem to have much in common when they meet on the streets of London. Although they're close to the same age, Nina is almost free from the responsibility of mothering her nearly-grown daughter, and her home and career as a successful painter make her enviable. Emma, on the other hand, is having her second child on the wrong side of forty, and she's still finding her footing in her career and her marriage. You'd be more likely to find some sticky crackers than an original painting in her home. Yet somehow the two women are drawn to each other and develop a friendship.

I found Her on my Kindle just after finishing the Whitney books and threw myself into it in an attempt to read something new and cleanse my palate. Imagine my surprise when after reading a few pages, the story started to sound vaguely familiar. I skipped to the end, and, sure enough, I'd read and finished it a few months earlier. Basically, this book was so forgettable that I couldn't remember I'd read it. The ending was both predictable and almost unimaginably horrible, challenging the reader's conception of Nina all the way through. In fact, the final act of the book makes the rest of the book feel completely unbelievable-- I'm not sure that any seemingly sane woman would exact vengeance in the way Nina does in the final pages of Her, especially after she and Emma have spent the last year building a relationship.

Book Review: Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

Title: Funny Girl
Author: Nick Hornby
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: a little sex, some swearing

It's the 1964 and Barbara has just won a beauty pageant in her small town of Blackpool in the north of England when she has a revelation-- if she takes the crown, she will never escape her hometown. So she hops on a train to London, and within very short order, she snags a role on a BBC sitcom, changes her name to Sophie, and becomes the it-girl of her age. The story takes place mainly on the set and in the writers' room of that sitcom, Barbara and Jim.

Although I've seen High Fidelity and About a Boy, I think that Funny Girl is the first Nick Hornby novel I've ever read. Many fans of Hornby say it's not his finest work, but I thought it was thoroughly enjoyable. Hornby does a lovely job with the dialogue between the characters, and with the two levels of the story (the sitcom itself, which we never actually see, and the conversations surrounding the sitcom). However, the four guys in the book (the producer, the male lead, and the two main writers) are much more interesting as characters than Barbara is. I think even Hornby recognizes this, because he spends a lot more time with them, particularly with the two gay writers, who chose disparate paths and feel compelled to justify them to each other. So the book is definitely mistitled. I originally decided to read the book because my current podcast du jour, Pop Culture Happy Hour, was holding a book club on the book, and their resulting discussion is totally on point. The book is definitely enjoyable and Hornby is a master at his craft, but I couldn't shake the feeling that Funny Girl didn't quite live up to its potential. It's an easy, breezy, fun read, but I wanted more.

Book Review: A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear

Title: A Dangerous Place (Maisie Dobbs #11)
Author: Jacqueline Winspear
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: some violence, incredibly sad, Maisie Dobbs fans the world over will feel betrayed

I think I finished my review of the tenth Maisie Dobbs novel by making the desperate (and untrue) pronouncement that if Maisie and James didn't get together in the eleventh, I would quit reading the books. Winspear knows how to quell an adult temper tantrum-- Maisie and James do, in fact, marry and conceive a child in the first chapter of A Dangerous Place. But I won't spoil more than five pages for you to let you know that Winspear doesn't give them a happy ending raising a baby on a farm in Canada, safely away from the bombs that will drop on London during World War II. No, Winspear's Maisie isn't made out for domesticity, it seems, and her aging uterus isn't destined for motherhood, since Winspear bumps off James (yes!) and the baby (I know!) in one fell swoop. Months later, after recuperating in India (natch), Maisie finds herself mentally unfit to make the final leg of her journey back to England and stops in Gibraltar, a British garrison town on the Southern tip of war-torn Spain, where she works to solve the murder of a Jewish photographer and finds herself drawn into the political intrigue of the place.

As far as Maisie Dobbs mysteries go, this one was fine. Winspear knows how to work a setting, and her description of Gibraltar had me searching plane tickets on Expedia. Winspear does a nice job explaining the situation in Spain without it feeling like a textbook, and she does a similarly nice job with her the Sephardic Jewish characters. But I was reeling after the first chapter and needed time to mourn myself. I feel like Maisie suffers from the Murphy Brown problem-- could Maisie have a baby and still be Maisie? Can she solve crimes if she's pumping breast milk? I can't imagine Winspear wanting Maisie to be the kind of mother who leaves her baby with a nurse or nanny all day, and James was never the kind of man who would have wanted his wife to be in that position. So Winspear dodges that bullet by cutting Maisie off at the knees and taking both husband and baby. Can Maisie ever just be happy? I'm not sure. Winspear has effectively said that she will never be a mother, and based on what's coming up in European history in the coming years of the novel, I would say that peace and happiness aren't on the horizon any time soon.

Has anyone else read A Dangerous Place? I'm dying to talk with someone about it. Not the mystery, so much as the bomb of James's death.

Book Review: A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Title: A Spool of Blue Thread
Author: Anne Tyler
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: pretty clean read

Three generations of Whitshanks have lived in the house with the wide front porch in a gentrified Baltimore neighborhood. Red's father built the house, and then Red and Abby raised their four children there. Now the children are grown, but the home seems as important to the family as Red and Abby themselves. A Spool of Blue Thread hops back and forth between the generations, showing the insights and deficiencies of three generations of Whitshanks, as well as the way a place can wheedle its way into a family's heart.

I listened to Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread right when I was in the middle of reading the finalists for the Whitney Awards. I was struck by the similarities of Tyler's work to so much of the Mormon women's lit I was reading at the same time-- the works are often domestic and detailed (sometimes overly detailed). One of my frequent criticisms of these types of books is that I don't need to know what everyone wore or ate for breakfast, but Tyler does it right. She's a storyteller with a light touch, who takes the time to create a narrative out of mundane events and unremarkable people (I mean that as a good thing). I've read several of Tyler's twenty novels, and each time I'm impressed with the role of Baltimore in her book-- I love that she has created an entire body of work that highlights a place. I know she only shows the side of Baltimore that she knows, but she does it with such skill. Critics might say that A Spool of Blue Thread is a book where not much happens, and we're not even sure if the people change at all, but I enjoyed the way she told the story so much that those other details were irrelevant.

Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Title: The Buried Giant
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Enjoyment Rating: **** (actually enjoyment was 3/5, appreciation was 5/5)
Source: Audible
Content Alert: some violence, but a fairly clean read

Imagine the scene: England just after the time of King Arthur. Knights still roam the land, and the Angles and Saxons still want to clobber each other. Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple, can't shake a feeling of malaise. They feel compelled to leave their village to search for their son, but their memories are so fleeting and impermeable that it's hard for them to remember much from the present, let alone the distant past when they think their son left the village. Along the way, they encounter all kinds of fantastical creatures-- dragons and warriors and ogres, and spend quite a bit of time with Sir Gawain, and often find themselves sidetracked on their original quest to find their son, instead focusing on their relationship and lost memories.

The Buried Giant is the kind of book that makes me feel pretty stupid for not enjoying more. I listened to the entire book, which I think helped, since it's the kind of story that I would probably skim, finding it difficult to find a footing with the text. I respect Ishiguro as a writer enough to  know that he's saying a lot about our contemporary society with this fable, and I think I was able to see a lot of the connections he seems to want to be making, particularly when it comes to making memories and feeling guilt.  I wanted the narrative to grab me more than it did, and felt myself plodding along out of respect and duty more than enjoyment. I also pegged the last scene, involving a ferryman, the first time we encountered the ferryman hundreds of pages earlier, which made me a little disappointed that Ishiguro didn't surprise me more.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

2014 Whitney Finalists Recap

The books are read, the votes are in, and once again, I won't be at the Whitney Gala (I'm afraid that the candor with which I write my reviews would not make me a popular person at the dinner table-- and besides, I'm running a marathon that day and I'm not sure I could do heels that night). So here's my opportunity to wish all of the finalists well and to weigh in on what I'd like to see happen and what I think will happen in all of the categories.

General: The only book that I think actually deserves to win is Amy Harmon's The Law of Moses, which is a complex and engrossing story about a biracial boy and the farm girl who loves him, but since it features premarital sex and the characters swear, I doubt Whitney voters will get behind it. My guess is that Maria Hoagland's Still Time, about an LDS family who struggles to care for a grandmother with Alzheimer's disease, will take the prize. I was thoroughly disappointed with the category this year, and a A Song for Issy Bradley and City of Brick and Shadow were glaring omissions among the finalists.

Historical: I really enjoyed both Carla Kelly's Softly Falling, about a couple falling in love during a treacherous winter on the Wyoming frontier and Deadly Alliance by EL Sowards, about a man who goes missing during World War II and the spy who saves him.

Mystery/Suspense: Anne Perry's Death on Blackheath, a case where a missing servant leads Inspector Thomas Pitt down a rabbit hole that ends with treason, is a perfect example of why she's a master of the Victorian mystery novel. Josi Kilpack's Wedding Cake, the twelfth and final book in her Culinary Mysteries series, provides a satisfying ending to everyone who has grown to love her intrepid sleuth, Sadie Hoffmiller.

Romance: I'd love to see Melanie Jacobson's Painting Kisses, about a celebrated painter who got fed up with her career and took a job as a waitress and lets her guard down when she meets a handsome construction worker, take the Whitney this year. I think Sarah Eden's Longing for Home: Hope Springs, the second half of a story in which an Irish immigrant in a small Wyoming town must chose between two men who love her, is also a strong contender.

Speculative: While Brandon Sanderson's Words of Radiance (a story too complicated to whittle down to a single phrase) will undoubtedly win, my favorite book in the category was Mercedes M. Yardley's Pretty Little Dead Girls, about a girl who everyone thought would die, but didn't.

Middle Grade: The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry was probably the Whitney book I most enjoyed reading all year. The seven girls who try to hide their headmistress's death so they can enjoy a little freedom was thoroughly delightful. I also thought that Kimberley Griffiths Little's The Time of the Fireflies, about a girl who saves her family from a cursed doll, and Marion Jensen's Almost Super, about young superheroes who got snubbed when someone was handing out powers, were also great reads.

YA General: Chris Crowe's Death Coming Up the Hill was the most delightful surprise of the Whitney reading. The book, written entirely in haiku, with a syllable representing each American man who died in Vietnam in 1968, was moving, thoughtful, rich and not at all gimmicky, despite its spareness. If it doesn't win, I will eat my hat.

YA Speculative: Kiersten White's Illusions of Fate, the story of a girl from the Caribbean transplanted to a Victorian England where the nobles have secret magical powers, was rich in detail and setting, and the story in the category that moved me most this year.

Best novel by a new author: To be totally honest, I wasn't a huge fan of any of the five books in this category, although if pressed to choose a book, I think that Jennifer Moore's Becoming Lady Lockwood, a historical romance about a young widow who falls in love with the ship captain who wants to take away her inheritance, was probably my favorite.

Best novel of the year: While Brandon Sanderson's Words of Radiance will probably win, I would love to see Academy voters have the chutzpah to vote for Amy Harmon's The Law of Moses.

Best novel in youth fiction: Although Death Coming Up the Hill and The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place were both phenomenal books, my heart has to go with my mentor and professor Chris Crowe. His is a knockout of a novel, both in form and narrative-- the best of both worlds.

Book Review: Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

Title: Illusions of Fate
Author: Kiersten White
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Library Copy
Content Alert: Some violence

Jessamin is a biracial girl from the Caribbean, sent to Victorian England (the places have different names, but you get the idea) to be educated at the school where her father is a teacher. By day she studies, and by night, she works as a maid with others of her class in a London hotel. Enter Finn, a dashing and mysterious Lord who has magical powers (apparently, all of the nobles in Albion/England have magical powers, and the commoners know nothing about it). Finn and Jessamin have to fight off some bad guys, and save themselves and the country from certain doom.

I think that Illusions of Fate was probably my favorite of the YA Speculative novels this year, but that had little to do with the story. In fact, I'm not entirely sure that I completely understood where Kiersten White was going with the magical element of the story-- yes, there was magic, and people used it to manipulate space, time, and other people. I loved the setting- White did a great job creating a world that was just a notch off a world that today's readers know well. Jessamin was also a great character, working to figure out her way as a member of the underclass in a new country, while also trying to embrace her role as a muse of one of the most powerful magicians in the country. The book is worth reading for Jessamin's character and the setting, the jury's still out for me on the magic.

Book Review: Remake by Ilima Todd

Title: Remake
Author: Ilima Todd
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: violence

Nine belongs to a society where children are raised in groups of ten, and when they reach the age of seventeen, they're able to choose their gender, their career path, and other aspects of their personality. However, as Nine is on the way to be assigned, the plane she's on crashes, and she washes up on the shore of a small Polynesian island where people retain the gender they're born with and live in families. Nine has to decide whether to go back to the old ways, or to embrace life as she experienced it on the island.

I'm not really sure what to say about Remake. On the one hand, I thought the mechanics of the story were pretty good. It was definitely a story that kept me reading and made me think. However, the subtext of the story seems to be that traditional families are superior to other types of families, and that the ability to choose something like gender leads to the downfall of society.

Book Review: Dangerous by Shannon Hale

Title: Dangerous
Author: Shannon Hale
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Library Copy
Content Alert: violence

Maisie Danger Brown (yes, Danger is her middle name) is eager for an adventure, so she turns in an application she finds on a cereal box, and is selected to attend space camp. What happens next feels right out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with a Willy Wonka character that is every bit as creepy and dangerous as Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka. Instead of simply simulating a space visit, Maisie and her friends actually blast off into space, and return forever changed. The book is one part Roald Dahl, one part Fantastic Four, and three parts implausible, with a love triangle between Maisie, the boy next door, and a boy who is probably an evil genius. The book feels a little rushed, and a little derivative, and doesn't have the staying power of Hale's other works. I can remember the entire plot of The Goose Girl six years after I read it for the first time, but I couldn't remember much about Dangerous even a week later.

Book Review: Cured by Bethany Wiggins

Title: Cured (Stung #2)
Author: Bethany Wiggins
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: violence

I feel like I'm coming into this novel at a disadvantage, having never read Stung, which presumably sets up the dystopian premise of the series, that a bee flu turns people into beasts, and the same bees no longer pollinate crops, so everything is scarce. Sounds like a fascinating premise, right? In Cured, the protagonists of the first novel, Fiona and Jonah, hook up with some neighbors, Bowen and Jacqui (who goes as Jack and pretends to be a guy for safety's sake), to spread the cure that saved their lives and look for their mother. Along the way, they run into Kevin, who may be either their savior or the one who undoes their mission, and prevents thousands from being cured along the way.

I felt pretty lost from the beginning of the novel. In Wiggins's defense, most of the problem was mine-- I was trying to read quickly, and since I didn't have a great understanding of the world she created and wasn't willing to take the time to read between the lines to figure it out, I never felt especially compelled by the story. I did feel compelled by Jack's character, as a former fat girl who lost weight in order to pass as a boy, we get to see her come to terms with both her body and her intelligence as she decides whether or not to give herself over to love. All in all, Cured was not my favorite read, but perhaps the problems had more to do with me than with the author.

Book Review: Kiss Kill Vanish by Jessica Martinez

Title: Kiss Kill Vanish
Author: Jessica Martinez
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Library Copy
Content Alert: Violence, drug use, some mild language

Valentina, a spoiled rich girl living large in Miami has no idea that the Monets and Van Goghs hanging on the walls of her home were purchased with drug money until the moment she watches her father order her boyfriend to murder someone. Despite her love for the boyfriend, Emilio, Valentina runs. Although she has never done more for herself than fix a sandwich, she's somehow able to escape to Montreal, find a job and an apartment, all while eluding the mob.

The plot of Kiss Kill Vanish feels larger than life, and the book certainly has an epic, outsize quality. The main strength of the novel is the snappy pacing-- the chapters end in a way that make you want to keep reading. The premise of the novel, that Valentina manages to escape from her father's clutches, isn't especially believable considering her lack of life experience, and although she's not as bratty as her sisters are, she's pretty bratty. She may have the savvy to hide from a mob, but she doesn't have the savvy to stay away from scary dudes while doing it. She goes from her 23-year-old hit man to a creepy artist to his even creepier brother and back again. I wanted to see Valentina free from all of the guys when the book ended. I can see that Martinez has some great writing chops (and liked other books I've read better) but Kiss Kill Vanish felt too big and implausible to be a winner for me.

Book Review: Not in the Script by Amy Finnegan

Title: Not in the Script (If Only #3)
Author: Amy Finnegan
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean read

Emma Taylor is a teen star who's linked to different boys in the tabloids nearly every week. When she gets a new job starring on the teen drama Coyote Hills, she's shocked to find that her new costar is Jake, the model her bff has been crushing on for years. Everyone expects that Emma will fall for Brett, the resident bad boy, and she's surprised and guilt-ridden when she can't stop thinking about Jake, who's certainly more than a pretty face.

If Only is a series of YA romances, each written by a different author. Not in the Script is really sweet, and shows surprising depth in places (the romance between Emma and Jake is complicated by lots of grownup factors-- his mother's health, her mother's role in her career, her best friend's feelings, the role of the tabloids). My main complaint is that at 392 pages, this book felt really, really long, especially since there wasn't much of a driving narrative besides the relationship between Emma and Jake.

Book Review: On the Fence by Kasie West

Title: On the Fence
Author: Kasie West
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean read

Charlie has always been treated like one of the boys. She was raised by her father, a policeman, since her mother's early death, and she has three brothers who never coddle her or give her any breaks. Then there's Braden, the boy next door who has always been just like any other brother until the summer Charlie turns sixteen, when both she and Braden confront problems in their personal lives and turn to each other, and their friendship suddenly becomes something more.

On the Fence is a cute book. Charlie is a cute character, Braden is a cute character, the boutique where she finally learns how to act around females sells cute clothes. Although the storyline is predictable (no one is really ever in any doubt that Charlie and Braden will get together) and the side story involving the death of Charlie's mother was something I called in the first chapter, it's nevertheless an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. This is a book that I think my teenage daughter would enjoy, not in the gritty, angsty way she loves a David Levithan or a John Green book, but she'd like it nonetheless.

Book Review: Forbidden by Kimberley Griffiths Little

Title: Forbidden (Forbidden #1)
Author: Kimberley Griffiths Little
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: Some violence, death, very oblique talk about prostitution

At sixteen, Jayden, who lives in an ancient nomadic Mesopotamian tribe, has been betrothed to her cousin. It's a fortuitous match, since her cousin will soon lead the tribe, but her cousin is all the bad things-- conceited, dishonest, abusive, unfaithful. The tribe begins to move just as Jayden's mother goes into labor with twins, and the family is left behind to suffer a great tragedy. Then Kadesh appears-- he's from the land southward, and although he's injured he helps save Jayden and her family. As they spend more time together and Jayden has opportunities to see the world outside her small circle of tents, she realizes that she wants Kadesh to be part of her life, even if it means she has to leave everything she has always known.

The spunky, brave heroine of YA novels is so widespread these days, it's a bit of a shock when someone who doesn't fit that mold appears in the pages of YA fiction. Jayden is modest and shy (it's 1759 BC, for crying out loud-- would readers expect any different?), and finds enlightenment and release only in the all-female dancing circle in which the women in her tribe take part. While she encounters many obstacles that challenge her culture and her perceptions, it's hard for her to step out of her comfort zone. That doesn't mean that she doesn't do it, but don't expect Katniss Everdeen out of Jayden. I find her character refreshing, and the historical details are richly drawn. I'm interested enough in the story of Forbidden to want to keep reading the series.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Book Review: Death on Blackheath by Anne Perry

Title: Death on Blackheath (Charlotte and Thomas Pitt #29)
Author: Anne Perry
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: violence, Victorian discussions of extramarital affairs

When servants discover that a maid has gone missing and there's blood and hair on the steps of the London home of Victorian naval expert Dudley Kynaston, Thomas Pitt of Special Branch is called in to protect the interests of Britain. While the local police work to see if the missing maid is indeed dead, Pitt tries to uncover a traitorous conspiracy involving Kynaston.

This is the first of the 29 Charlotte and Thomas Pitt novels I've read, and I was a little surprised to see Charlotte getting top billing, since she seems to be such an accessory in this novel. Apparently, early on in the series, the pair solved crimes together, but these days Charlotte raises their teenage kids. I listened to this book at the same time I listened to the newest Maisie Dobbs book, and although I was incredibly frustrated with Winspear's narrative choices, I can see why it's hard to write a historical novel in which Victorian (or later, in Winspear's case) women have the kinds of career options that modern women have.

That said, I loved Death on Blackheath. Once I understood that Pitt was never going to concern himself with whether or not the maid was actually dead and was only interested in what was going on that concerned national security, the book became downright fascinating. I was very surprised by the ending (although in retrospect, I guess I shouldn't have been), and was impressed by the way that Perry created so many complicated characters (both the suspects and the detectives) and wrote about all of them with a deftness that shows why she is one of the preeminent mystery writers of our day.

Book Review: Drop Zone by Traci Hunter Abramson

Title: Drop Zone (Saint Squad #8)
Author: Traci Hunter Abramson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: Violence

Damian is the newest member of the Saint Squad, a group of Mormon Navy SEALs. However, he's not Mormon and untested by the group, and they leave him at home with the wives when they go out on a mission. However, when the Saint Squad finds itself in trouble, Damian and Paige, a nurse who's now working as an administrative assistant to one of the SEALs wives, go undercover in Venezuela to find them. Along the way, they both have experiences that deepen their faith as well as their interest in each other as they work to uncover a mole and return the boys home safely.

I haven't been the hugest fan of Abramson's Saint Squad books in the past, primarily because they are all so similar-- one of the members of the squad finds a woman and they fall in love over the course of a harrowing mission. While I can buy one whirlwind romance, Abramson has now written eight, and at this rate, the members of the Saint Squad and their wives are more likely to belong in a PTSD therapy group than a group of Navy SEALs. That said, I think her writing is getting better, and obviously audiences want this story or she wouldn't keep writing it. I think she does a nice job with what she sets out to do in Drop Zone, but I prefer her books that aren't part of the series better.

Book Review: Tomorrow We Spy by Jordan McCollum

Title: Tomorrow We Spy (Spy Another Day #3)
Author: Jordan McCollum
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: violence

Talia and Danny have finally tied the knot and when Tomorow We Spy opens, they're on their honeymoon in Paris, half a world away from Talia's job as a CIA operative in Ottawa. But it's not too hard for a spy to track down another spy, and before Talia and Danny can even visit the Louvre or kiss on top of the Eiffel Tower, they are sucked into a mission, this time with Danny (an aerospace engineer by day) as the operative being sent into Russia. Talia, being Talia, is jealous and nervous for her new husband, so she insists on posing as his translator so she can keep tabs on him, and then when they realize they have been double crossed, she has to work to keep them both alive.

Oh Talia, I had such high hopes for you as a character in I, Spy. I loved your voice and thought it was refreshing that you were a little neurotic. But lady, you're just as neurotic two books later (or is it five? It depends on whether or not you've read all of the prequels). In order for a series of books to satisfy me as a reader, I like to see a character grow and change, and I would especially expect to see growth when Talia marries Danny, but she's just as insecure and jealous in this book as she was in the first book. It's cute for one book, but wearing after a bunch of them.

Book Review: Wedding Cake by Josi S. Kilpack

Title: Wedding Cake (A Culinary Mystery #12)
Author: Josi S. Kilpack
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: Some violence

In the cozy foodie mystery/Mormon Lit world, the marriage between Sadie and Pete has been as eagerly anticipated as that of Jim and Pam or Luke and Laura. Sadie Hoffmiller was annoying and meddlesome way back when Kilpack started it all with Lemon Tart, but she's grown on us, and we were rooting for her and her fiance, the former detective with whom she had all of those run-ins early in the series. Wedding Cake is, in many ways, a satisfying ending ending to a series that spanned more than 2,400 pages and half a decade. Kilpack nods to the key players in past mysteries (it actually reminds me a little bit of what Matthew Weiner is doing as he wraps up Mad Men right now). But the book has to be more than a retrospective of past cases, and Kilpack digs deeper into a story from Sadie's past when a stalker reappears and tries to ruin Sadie's big day.

I haven't read every book in the series, but I've read enough to be excited for Wedding Cake, and in many ways it was the perfect end to Sadie's story. The books really grew on me over the years, especially as I grew to have more of an appreciation for the cozy mystery genre, and I loved watching Sadie grow and change as a character over the course of the novels. The book was ultimately more violent than I had expected, and the wedding scene in particular was pretty shocking, but the book as a whole definitely met my expectations, and I wiped away a little tear as I read the last recipe and closed the book.

Book Review: Softly Falling by Carla Kelly

Title: Softly Falling
Author: Carla Kelly
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean read

When Jack, a Wyoming ranch foreman, is given the job of fetching Lily Carteret for her alcoholic father, the ranch clerk, he's not sure what to expect. When Lily, a beautiful biracial girl who had been raised by her uncle in England, steps off the train, all of her expectations of life in Wyoming are unmet, especially the one that her father, who has lost all of his land in a card game (to Jack), will care for her. Instead, as the worst winter in memory sets in, Lily and Jack are the ones who must care for everyone else on the ranch. As they show their true grit, they also fall in love.

One thing I love about Kelly's books is that they focus on ordinary characters, and Kelly allows a slow build up to the romance. Softly Falling reminded me a lot of Ivan Doig's wonderful Dancing at the Rascal Fair (a slow burn of a story that takes place in a similarly wintry Montana). This one is perfect for curling up with on a rainy day, but maybe not during a blizzard.

Book Review: Gone for a Soldier by Marsha Ward

Title: Gone for a Soldier (The Owen Family Saga)
Author: Marsha Ward
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: Some war-related violence

Mary is only fourteen-- way too young to be married according to her parents, but she's hopelessly in love with Rulon Owen, who will be leaving their small Virginia town to enlist at the beginning of the Civil War. Mary and Rulon marry, and when he leaves, they expect that he will be back by Christmas, or at the very least before their first child arrives, but as we know the war wasn't as quick as they thought it would be.

While many novels about the Civil War focus on male characters and storylines, my favorite thing about Gone for a Soldier is that it's a story about women and relationships. While at first glance, the story is Mary and Rulon's love story, it's really more about what happens to Mary while he's gone-- going through childbirth without her husband, developing a relationship with her mother-in-law, championing the girl she hoped would become her sister-in-law, and gaining enough maturity to see her relationship with her mother from a different perspective. Gone for a Soldier is interesting and well done, and I love the point of view it shows.

Book Review: Eve: In the Beginning by H.B. Moore

Title: Eve: In the Beginning
Author: H.B. Moore
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean read

You know the story: man, woman, God, serpent, fruit. HB Moore's novel Eve: In the Beginning, fleshes out the story (get it?) of the first few chapters of Genesis. Moore does a really nice job with Eve's mindset and the relationship between Adam and Eve, especially once Lucifer enters their lives and Eve starts to think about making the choice to have more wisdom and knowledge. While I think Eve's character is pretty fantastic, because the book is from her perspective, we don't see a lot of Adam's thought process, and while this is a 'historical" novel, one of the things I value most about historical fiction is being able to learn about a bygone era or a culture I don't know much about, this book is pretty remarkable in its absence of culture-- instead Adam and Eve are the culture makers. It's still worth a read as an insight into Eve's motivations.

Book Review: Deadly Alliance by A.L. Sowards

Title: Deadly Alliance (Espionage #3)
Author: A.L. Sowards
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: War-related violence

Idaho farm boy Peter and his team of Allied soldiers have only just returned from a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. One of the men is still in the hospital, and Peter has been enjoying just a few hours of time with his girlfriend Genevieve (an OSS spy), when he's sent out on another mission to destroy a bridge in Nazi-occupied territory. However, they're dropped hundreds of miles away on a suicide mission and declared missing. Genevieve is determined to find him, or at least what happens to him, and she soon becomes a target herself.

Although Deadly Alliance is the third (and final?) novel in Sowards's Espionage series, it feels and functions like a stand-alone novel. Sowards does a nice job getting new readers up to speed with complicated characters and relationships, and with the complexities of alliances during the end of WWII. There was plenty of action, just enough love, and lots of nice, detailed storytelling to keep me reading.

Book Review: The Forbidden Flats by Peggy Eddleman

Title: The Forbidden Flats (Sky Jumpers #2)
Author: Peggy Eddleman
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean read

I usually don't have many good things to say about the second book in a dystopian action trilogy, but Peggy Eddleman's Sky Jumpers: The Forbidden Flats is an exception to my (highly prejudiced) rule. In this book, the bomb's breath that threatens White Rock is descending, and Hope, Brock, and Aaren leave their home in Kansas to travel to the Rocky Mountains in an effort to find an antidote to the poison that will soon overtake them. The book has plenty of action and adventure, but my favorite part of the story was Hope's relationship with her birth family, whom she discovered along the way. I think it's common for authors to develop characters in their first novels, but I loved seeing Hope's character change in important ways in The Forbidden Flats.

Book Review: An Ocean Atween Us by Angela Morrison

Title: An Ocean Atween Us (We Glovers #1)
Author: Angela Morrison
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean read

At fourteen, Will Glover has just recognized that he's head over heels in love with Lucie, a girl from his Scottish village, when his father announces that the family is moving to Nova Scotia to work in a newly-established coal mine. Will can't believe his bad luck, and tries everything (even an attempted elopement) to get out of his move. As the years pass, Will's role changes from dependent child to responsible adult, but his love for Lucie doesn't fade, at least until he meets Jenny.

There were many admirable things about An Ocean Atween Us. Morrison, who drew on old family journals and stories to create her novel, definitely did her homework. She got the details of coal mines and transatlantic voyages down pat. She also wrote the book in a Scottish brogue, which, frankly, I found annoying after a bit because it definitely slowed my reading down and made it so that I always held the characters at a bit of a distance. I think keeping a few of the tags (dinna or lassie, for example) and ditching the rest would have been a better strategy here. Finally, I got really sick of Will mooning over Lucie in the novel, especially after he married Jenny (there's a scene of pretty stark cruelty in their relationship toward the end of the novel that made it hard for me to identify with Will any more). I also think that the setup in the final chapters may lead to a swift demise for Jenny early in the next novel.

Book Review: The Law of Moses by Amy Harmon

Title: The Law of Moses
Author: Amy Harmon
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: Language, teenage sex

The small town of LeVan, Utah is a place where white people ride horses, compete in rodeos, and go to church on Sunday. It's not an easy place for a biracial teenager who sees dead people to find a home. But Moses doesn't have anyone to care for him except his grandmother, so he ends up living in LeVan, where Georgia falls in love with him. She knows their love is doomed from the beginning, but she can't help herself, even when he pushes her away and leaves her feeling as alone as he once felt.

The Law of Moses is definitely the best example of craft among the finalists in the Whitney general fiction category. Both Georgia and Moses are complicated characters who grow and change through the course of the novel. The narrative is heart-wrenching and redemptive, and I think most readers get most of what they want by the end of the story. Harmon also knows how to spin a yarn that keeps readers reading. Some will argue that this book would be a better fit in the speculative category, which may be true. If so, this is the kind of speculative novel I could really get into reading.

Book Review: Still Time by Maria Hoagland

Title: Still Time
Author:  Maria Hoagland
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean read

Alyssa's life seems full enough with her four growing children, her part-time gig teaching aerobics, and everything else that comes with being a full-time stay-at-home Mormon mom in her forties. When the family travels from Texas to Idaho for her father-in-law's funeral, they are shocked to see her mother-in-law struggling with Alzheimer's. Alyssa and her husband uproot their family to care for her, and Still Time centers on the everyday events that result from that decision.

The fact that Hoagland chooses to write about the mundane events in a regular life is the double-edged sword of Still Time. Hoagland tackles the internal dialogue that runs through the minds of SAHMs, and Alyssa seems to represent the mindset of the typical Mormon mom. I could identify with her, but at times I didn't want her to represent me, if that makes any sense. The book was at its strongest when it slipped into the voice of Alyssa's mother-in-law. At first these POV shifts confused me, but eventually, they became my favorite part of the novel. I enjoyed seeing her try to hold on to the things she could remember, and the points of connection she might have with Alyssa if she were only well enough to do so.

Book Review: A Plentiful Rain by Elizabeth Petty Bentley

Title: A Plentiful Rain
Author: Elizabeth Petty Bentley
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean read

Ellis's youth was shaped by his family's relationship with his disabled sister, and his adulthood was marked by a family tragedy. Now his father and sister are both engaged and moving on with their lives, and they worry about Ellis, a never-married fortysomething opthamologist who is something of a Mormon iconoclast. He meets Cassie, a young doctor, at a singles activity, but gradually finds himself falling for her older sister, Hera, a recovering alcoholic who is investigating the church.

There is a lot to like about A Plentiful Rain. Although the book is the second book in a series (the first, presumably deals with the fire and the sister), it feels like a stand-alone novel. I also identify with the characters, and really like both Ellis and Hera. I think that there need to be more honest, interesting, flawed characters in Mormon literature. But the narrative arc of this story is primarily just conversion-- Hera's conversion to the gospel and Ellis's gradual transformation from cynicism to faith. For a novel to move me as a reader, I'd like to see more of a plot than conversion. However, I like where Bentley is going with her characters in this novel

Book Review: Walking on Water by Richard Paul Evans

Title: Walking on Water (The Walk #5)
Author: Richard Paul Evans
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Digital copy
Content Alert: A clean read

In the first book of Richard Paul Evans's The Walk series, Alan Christofferson loses his wife and his business and decides to walk across the country to get his head back in shape. Walking on Water is the fifth book, and Alan is still walking. When the book opens, he's almost to the Florida state line, and then he gets the call to come home to see his dying father. I was glad for the reprieve from all of the walking. When Evans writes about Alan walking, we know exactly what he ate for every meal of every day, and how well the food sat after he ate it. We know all about the pebbles that worked his way into the shoes, and about every single car that passed him as he walked. Or at least, it feels like we got those details, because the books are incredibly heavy on detail. The book is strongest when it delves into the family history of the Christofferson family, and suddenly the walk to Key West gains some significance. But all in all, this series felt a lot like a grueling walk from one corner of the country to the other. I hope Alan flies home.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Book Review: My Name is Bryan by Stacy Lynn Carrol

Title: My Name is Bryan
Author: Stacy Lynn Carrol
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean read

Bryan is a recent high school graduate with his whole life ahead of him when he's paralyzed in a cliff jumping accident on a church-sponsored camping trip. Despite these challenges, Bryan forges ahead with his life, marrying, going to college, having children and a successful career, all while bound to a wheelchair with diminishing use of his hands.

Stacy Lynn Carroll says that My Name is Bryan is "based on a true story," but the book includes photos of Bryan (who is Stacy's father-in-law) and his family. It feels a lot more like a biography in narrative form than something that is "based on" a true story. I remember being in my MFA classes and my professors saying that writers who try to write fiction based on real life have a hard time changing how things really happened, even when it makes a story better. This is a case where I feel like the author is too close to the source. She doesn't take risks with the story or the narrative and seems to have the audience (family) in her sights at all times. This story is inspirational and the mechanics of her writing are fine, but I think it would have been a better read for me if I knew what it was (a family story) when I went into reading it.