Books are not cheap these days, even with Amazon’s discounts. And with all the crappy, how-the-hell-did-that-get-published books out there, it’s easy to get burned and fear picking up the latest offering from an unfamiliar author. I’ve read a bunch of books that came out this year so far, and let my pain and glory help you decide which to take out from the library, which to spend your hard-earned cash on and which to just run screaming from as soon as you see the cover.
In a perfect world, these would be in haiku. But it is not a perfect world, and these are not, obviously, in haiku. Please imagine, if you would, that they were.
The Fabulous Girl’s Guide to Grace Under Pressure, Kim Izzo and Ceri Marsh
Are you kidding me? I picked this up on a whim based on the title and the cover and the page I flipped to and skimmed – I thought I had found a deliriously tongue in cheek look at etiquette that covered everything from indiscretions on the job and in public to throwing cocktail parties to handling a lover’s inability to, um, get it up. Sadly, the more I read, the more serious I realized the authors were. I’m not saying the book isn’t hilarious, quite the contrary. However, these authors, who both work at glossies, have such a completely different lifestyle from mine (and from most women – I mean Fabulous Girls – I know) that I don’t really see the advice being all that helpful.
If your lifestyle is that of Carrie & Co. from Sex and the City? Then this may, possibly, be just the etiquette book for you. However, those of us who work in a more conservative office environment might, say, find it takes a bit more than covering oneself up to the best of ones abilities and promising ones boss it will never happen again when getting caught having sex in the copy room. Though I could be wrong on that end. Let me try it out, I’ll get back to you.
Izzo and Marsh’s repeated use of the term Fabulous Girl, or FG, grates, and the odd little anecdotes of a sample FG and her FG friends are bizarre. Because if they were supposed to want to make me be an FG? They missed their mark. Though I will say that their advice to be considerate when having sex in public (i.e. if there are two stalls in the bathroom and one is out of order, the Fabulous Girl will use the one that is out of order so no one is inconvenienced by her having sex), was just…fabulous.
Best Enemies, Jane Heller
Told in the voices of two ex-best friends, one being the sinned against and one being the sinner, it’s the story of Amy Sherman, a book publicist, who walked in on her fiancé and her best friend Tara Messer indisposed mere days before the wedding. Four years later they run into each other and Amy can’t bring herself to admit that she’s not seeing anyone, so she makes up a fiancé and all hell breaks loose. A quick, easy read. Though I must warn you, the urge to slap both ladies upside the head overwhelmed me quite a few times.
The Book of Renfield: A Gospel of Dracula, Tim Lucas
I’ve never read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the only movie version I’ve seen is the one with Winona Ryder and Gary Oldman, and the only real reference for Renfield’s role I have is Xander Harris’ turn as the buttmonkey on that one episode of Buffy, so I wasn’t really sure if I could appreciate this book. And after reading it, I’m still not sure. The book is presented as a “true” account of what went on with Renfield when he was in the insane asylum. His one-on-ones with doctor John Seward, a character I presume from Dracula, are recorded and presented as a cautionary tale about the evil that exists in the world still hidden from view. If you haven’t, like me, read Dracula, your enjoyment of this book hangs entirely on whether or not you find Renfield’s childhood, or the author’s musings on evil and its causes, fascinating. I found myself distracted the entire time, wondering if I would care more if I had read Dracula and trying to figure out how it all tied in. So now I might just have to go and read Dracula.
Well written, but at times too over-descriptive, and like I said, your enjoyment hangs on whether you felt Renfield didn’t get his due in the other story, or if you can look at this as a stand-alone, which I found difficult to do.
The Boy I Loved Before, Jenny Colgan
Besides having an ending that puzzled me and had me calling Amy, harassing her until she also got the book so she could explain how the ending was possible (she couldn’t), I loved this book. (A puzzling ending did not destroy my enjoyment – that alone earns the book a twist. Anyone who knows me knows I am notoriously difficult to please when it comes to the ending of a book.) The ending aside, this is the story of Flora Scurrison, a 32-year-old accountant bored with her job, life and boyfriend. She makes a wish on her best friend Tashy’s wedding cake and madness, the painfully funny kind, ensues. She wakes up in her 16-year-old body, a month before Tashy’s wedding, her divorced parents joining her on her body/time traveling trip, resumed to their former squabbling glory, and everyone else…stays the same. That’s right, a time-traveling twist! Only three people recognize poor Flora: Tashy, Olly (Flora’s boyfriend) and Clelland, the boy she dated at 16 and never got over. And, like I said, madness ensues as Flora attempts to maintain her maturity and sanity being an adult in a 16-year-old’s life.
Bubbles Betrothed, Sarah Strohmeyer
All of the books in the Bubbles series are quick, light reads, and the newest book is no exception. While nothing stands out about the series, there are always a few moments where you find yourself smiling. Bubbles is a not-so-smart, divorced, 32-or-so-year-old ex-hairdresser journalist. She has a super smart 16-year-old, a dead-beat ex-husband, and a globe-trotting, photojournalist stud of a boyfriend Ms. Strohmeyer actually dared to name Steve Stiletto She also has an appropriately wacky mother, and Genevieve, her mother’s best friend who is wacky enough to fill the Chick Lit void left by Bubbles’ boring best friend. In this round of murder solving, Bubbles has to pretend to be engaged to Steve to keep him in the country and wackiness ensues in the forms of a gold-digging woman and Steve’s photojournalist competition, while Bubbles tries to solve a years-old murder mystery. The ending, I’m happy to say, actually did stand out from the usual Chick Lit fare, if even only a little. If there’s one thing I can’t stand about Chick Lit is its focus on women needing a man. This, happily, takes steps towards saying they do not. Baby steps, but still.
Carnivore Diet, Julia Slavin
While the ending left me sort of at sea, which was intentional I’m sure, I really liked this uneven book. A Chagwa, a mythical sort of carnivorous creature, shows up in D.C. and begins stalking the good folk of D.C. and their pets. It takes a liking to Wendy, the wife of a politician currently in jail for wrongdoing (a charge that may or may not have been trumped up to get him out of the way). How Wendy and her cartoon-character-voicing son cope with the Chagwa and the utter insanity of their politically-powered world, numbing oneself with prescription drugs is a favorite method of coping, is the meat of the book.
I loved that it was uneven, that everyone was a caricature and that Washington politicos were skewered left and right. The pompous men perfectly balanced the needy, insane wife-of-an-imprisoned-for-wrongdoing-politician Wendy. It got a bit strange there at the end, with the return of the husband and the introduction of the home boot camp, but I saw what Slavin was trying to do with it. If you look at the book as three different stages, which is easy to do, as Ms. Slavin thoughtfully broke it up for the reader by switching narrators, it works.
Carpe Demon: Adventures of a Demon Hunting Soccer Mom, Julie Kenner
I was a bit afraid to pick up this book, mainly because I’d discovered when innocently reading The Givenchy Code that Ms. Kenner has a penchant for romance novel sex scenes. I couldn’t resist the description though (that would be the damn Buffy fan in me, so I caved. Which wasn’t a bad thing.
This is clearly Ms. Kenner’s bid for an on-going series, and bully for her. Everyone needs an on-going series to rely on, and as a character I fully expect to see again, Kate Connor shows promise. She’s a 30-something mom of two kids (a 14 year old by her first husband and a two year old by her perfect-if-slightly-distracted-by-imminent-victory-in-local politics husband Stuart) who, from the age of 14 on, hunted and killed demons for the Vatican before retiring in San Diablo, CA. Unfortunately, after 14 years of slacking off and letting her reflexes go to hell while her muscles atrophied, the demons are back, and it’s up to Kate and her Vatican-provided alimentatore (a sort of Giles, but much less sexy) to figure out why and how to stop them, all while running the household and hiding her past (and present) from Stuart. It’s a quick, fun read, written in a familiar way and Ms. Kenner does a great job of avoiding the dry, long explanations one can only get away with if one has them coming out of the mouth of a hot British librarian. Managing to fill in the reader on a convoluted history and a new mythology in a way that flows with the story is difficult in any situation, but Ms. Kenner pulls it off nicely.
Child of a Rainless Year, Jane Lindskold
Dull, dull, dull. I really thought from the description on the back of the book that this would be a fascinating read. Sadly, it was the exact opposite. The plot moves at a snail’s pace and the wrap up, after 400 pages, is too quick. Mira Fenn, returning to her birth home in Las Vegas, New Mexico, after 40 or so years away, tries to solve the mystery of her mother’s sudden disappearance all those many years ago. Adoptive parents, a mysterious trio of trustees and possible stalkers are tossed into the mix, but the payoff is not worth the build up. There was a promising plot, somewhere in all that tedium, and a point about colors having magic but they got completely lost in the plodding pace and abuse of the language.
Confessions of a Teen Sleuth, Chelsea Cain
Do not even bother with this book. It doesn’t matter if you were a fan of that nosey teen, Nancy Drew, or not, this thin book is an insanely irritating, if quick (due to a lack of substance) read. I went into it thinking that it would be the “true” adventures of Nancy, since the first page says something along the lines of Carolyne Keene being a ninny that got it all wrong. (I paraphrase, but you get the idea.) Unfortunately, what it is is one adventure each decade after Nancy is no longer a teen, each one more tedious than the next and each one making Nancy seem just a bit more of a sad sack. I’m not even sure it’s worth checking out of the library, to be honest.
Dearly Depotted, a Flower Shop Mystery, Kate Collins
As mysteries go, it was an okay read. Nothing to get enthusiastic about, and at times I had to stop myself from flipping ahead, reminding myself that it wouldn’t make the book go any faster. It suffered from the malady that afflicts most mysteries — the answer is never anything hinted at in the first 300 pages but only dramatically and impossibly revealed in the last two. This irritates me as I want a chance to solve it myself. This whole pulling a reason/villain out of your ass at the last minute? Not flying right by me. But hey, everybody’s doing it, so what do I know?
Right. Other than that? The dialogue was clunky and the characters weren’t new, we’ve seen them all in some form or other many times. When bored or needing a light book to take on a plane, I’ll probably check out the other two books in the series, probably more due to the fact that I have a compulsion to finish any series I start, no matter how obnoxious I find it, rather than due to enjoyment of clumsy dialogue and annoying unsolvable mysteries. It’s a sickness, I know. I’m working on it.
Eleven on Top, Janet Evanovich
I adore Ms. Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. My mom gave me the first one last year and I breezed through all ten. You’d think things would start to get repetitive around book 11, that the Ranger/Joe/Stephanie triangle of perpetual indecision would get irksome or that, maybe, you’d start wishing Gramma Mazure would just kick the bucket already. Not so. While the ending goes a bit too 60’s campy Batman, (you know, where the Penguin has Batman suspended over the vat of boiling liquid, confesses everything, then leaves as Batman is slowly lowered, ever so slowly, into the vat of said liquid, enabling Batman to escape his horrible fate, while knowing everything, only without the crazy man dressed as a penguin or a boiling vat of liquid. But still, I think you get my point.) crossed with a bit of CHiPs for good measure (you can virtually see the freeze frame at the end where everyone has a stupid grin on their face as they’ve been frozen in mid-chuckle), I loved the book. Stephanie Plum never lets me down.
The Girlfriend Curse, Valerie Frankel
Another quick, easy, inoffensive Chick Lit read. I realize that doesn’t sound like high praise, but considering how offensive I find many Chick Lit reads, it really is. Trust me on this. Anyway, shortly after breaking up, Peg Silver’s exes get married, generally within six months. So she sells her apartment in Manhattan, makes tons of money and moves to the boondocks, AKA Manshire, Vermont. There she discovers the home she bought isn’t exactly inhabitable and checks herself into an adult camp of sorts called Inward Bound while it’s fixed up. Inward Bound, not as porny as it sounds, is a camp for adults to figure out why they suck at relationships. Wackiness, of course, ensues, and it’s actually kind of amusing.
The Givenchy Code, Julie Kenner
Melanie Prescott, our sassy, smart, fashionable heroine, played, once upon a time, an online game called “Play Survive Win.” The creator of said, fairly self-explanatory game, being a sadistic bastard, turned it into a real game with a cash prize upon his death. Without warning, Melanie is given a clue by a hot young man, who sadly wishes to kill her, and upon deciphering it starts the clock ticking. She has 24 hours to solve a series of clues before the assassin gets to her. Along the way she is assigned an ex-Marine with issues as her protector. Together they race around Manhattan, getting shot at, stopping to shop for shoes and, occasionally, making time for a quick romp in the probably flea-infested motel sheets.
I want to recommend this book based solely on the fact that it mocks The DaVinci Code, a book I could not stand. I still don’t know how I made it through. So I might still recommend it, just because. And parts of it were a lot of fun. Sadly, parts of it were too close to a romance novel for me to get into it. I was looking for a little more code breaking and mind games. Still, it’s fun having a smart, savvy main character, even if she is obsessed with shoes. But since she’s so good at figuring out difficult ciphers, I’m going to cut her some slack on the shoe thing. Every girl has her vice, whether it be Jimmy Choos or hunky, haunted ex-Marines with buzz cuts.
Gonzalez and Daughter Trucking Company: A Road Novel with Literary License, Maria Amparo Escandon
Libertad Gonzalez, born to big-rig driving parents, has spent her entire life living out of a semi, traversing the United States of America without ever having a real home. The book kicks off with her in a Mexican prison, wishing aloud that all the people she’s killed were alive again. Who she killed, how they died, and how a young woman who seems so nice and sweet could kill people, nobody knows, as Libertad won’t share her story with anyone. (Something the other prisoners find truly annoying.) Unable to tell her story, Libertad discovers the run-down library and begins a book club, unburdening her conscience to her fellow prisoners while hiding behind copies of The Three Musketeers and other torn-apart novels. The story goes between her tale and her everyday life in the prison she has somehow found herself in. While the ending may be a bit too pat, it’s nothing that made me want to scream, and in fact fit in with the rest of the story.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Men I’ve Dated, Shane Bolks
This book should have been made for me – not-all-that-pretty, sci-fi convention attending geek Rory Eggelhoff is dating a bore just because she’s afraid no one else will come along, collects Star Wars memorabilia (and hides this fact from certain people due to residual geek shame) and has a painfully hippy mother and sister. Enter the staple of every Chick Lit book ever, the gorgeous, perfect, delightfully troubled in a non-serious way man who just happened to be her crush all throughout her formative years. What happens next is the usual bout of misunderstandings, self-hatred and wacky mistakes all Chick Lit heroines go through. The ending’s totally predictable, and while not the worst Chick Lit book I’ve read, I can say I was sorely disappointed just because I had such high hopes for Rory. I mean, how many convention-attending, Princess Leia-costume-sporting heroines do you get out there? Not many, so it’s a shame when you do get one, and all you want to do is slap her silly and maybe shake her a bit, just to get her to behave properly.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, JK Rowling
Right. Not going to say a lot here, because you’re either a Harry fan and have read it, or you’re not and you’re never going to be, so nothing I say is going to sway you in the “to buy, or not to buy, that is the question” department. I’ll merely say that I thought this installment in the series was paced quite nicely. There was nothing to distract from the overall story, i.e. House Elf liberation, and I didn’t want to smack Harry around at all.
A Long Way Down, Nick Hornby
I was really afraid to read this, after the atrocity that was How to be Good. I am happy to say that Mr. Hornby is back in fine form. Here he uses four radically different narrative voices to tell the story of four people who intend to off themselves on New Year’s Eve by tossing themselves off of a tower in London, only to be interrupted in their plans by the arrival of the others. They band together and while they can’t actually stand each other, they happily (or not so) use each other as crutches. The story flips back and forth between the narrators – a disgraced morning show host, a disillusioned musician American, a teenaged, spoiled daughter of a politician and a middle-aged woman who has spent the last 20 years of her life taking care of her vegetative son – as they make a pact not to kill themselves for 60 days or so, to help keep each other alive for at least that long, and see how they feel after that. It’s a credit that, while you probably will not actually like any of the characters, you do kind of care about how they end up.
Miss Gazillions, Richard Weber
40-year-old slacker extraordinaire Daniel O’Sullivan is brought back to semi-reality when his rich father dies and everything is repossessed. The people doing the repossessing give him a job, and he moves from tropical paradise to an apartment complex in Brooklyn where he lusts after the 22-year-old, delusional, semi-insane Celeste. But she’s pretty, so what does it matter if she’s a kook?
Celeste shortly pops up on his doorstep, bedraggled and toting $4.4 million in ill-gotten cash, and they’re off across Europe, hooking up with his father’s ex-mistress and her current temporarily suspended Cardinal boyfriend, avoiding the bad guys, getting shot, shopping, and occasionally getting laid.
Sounds like a great time, right? Eh. Something about it was off. I found myself flipping ahead, seeing how much more book I had to get through. Which is not, you can imagine, a good sign.
Notes from the Underbelly, Risa Green
Lara Stone, a woman who is not sure she ever wants to have kids, is pressured into having a child by her husband. Though much of the book annoyed me – her husband basically giving her an ultimatum and her cracking so easily is one major stick in my craw – it’s nice that this book takes the stand that pregnancy is not all that. Women are lied to about it being a beautiful experience, and Ms. Green does an excellent job presenting the miserable side of it, especially if you’re not sure you want to be doing it in the first place.
Other than that, there’s the usual – an outspoken best friend, a job nicer than most of ours (guidance counselor at a private prep school in Bel Air) and a work conflict (she must get the slacker daughter of a famous film director into the college of her choice to get the schedule she wants the next year) that is, of course, resolved sans tears and heart-breaking choices. (Oops, hope I didn’t spoil anything there.) Oh, and oddly enough, a talking dog. That’s right, a talking dog. Gotta make your book stand out somehow, yes?
Rococo, Adriana Trigiani
Despite an ending that is a bit Wonder Years in its execution and nostalgia-soaked pontificating, I found this little slice of New Jersey life enjoyable. Bartolomeo, a metrosexual before there was a name for metrosexuals, poor dear, is about to turn 40, has been engaged, thanks to two meddling old-school mothers, since before he was born to his friend Capri even though neither is attracted to the other, and is the most (read: only) celebrated interior designer in his hometown, Our Lady of Fatima, NJ. His dream? To redecorate the Catholic church he’s been worshipping in his whole life. His supporting cast? His not-so-wacky-that-I-hate-them, in-fact-I-rather-liked-them Italian family. While the plot may seem small when reduced to a sentence, the book never feels like it’s overstayed its welcome. I liked it a lot, and plan on checking out Ms. Trigiani’s other books.
Strange Times My Dear; the PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature, edited by Nahid Mozaffari, poetry editor Ahmad Karimi Hakkak
The publishers had to sue for the right to print Strange Times My Dear due to the material being from Iran (Iran being on the enemies of the USA list). As soon as you begin to read the book, you realize the need for lawsuits is ludicrous. Strange Times My Dear is comprised of short stories, a few beginning chapters of novels and poetry, each one prefaced with a short biography of the author. According to the intro, the stories chosen were selected on how relatable they would be to an American audience, a shame in my eyes, but still, the stories presented are, if a bit depressing in places, fantastic reads. Each one is based in a tumultuous, recent time in Iran – during or right before Iraq’s invasion, right after the CIA-sponsored coup and right after the declaration of Iran as an Islamic state. Interestingly enough, while all characters live in the Islamic state, not all are devout Muslims – in fact, many in the stories presented seem to be going along mostly out of duty, much like a Catholic who only attends Easter and Christmas mass, and many only obey the law outwardly. Not one story was presented where the main character was ecstatic about the new Islamic state, an omission I found interesting, and wondered if it was specifically chosen that way for the American audience. If so, that’s a shame.
My one complaint is that the book, in some respects, is quite the tease. Five excerpts from novels are presented, and damned if I don’t want to know how they end. Sadly, not all are available in English.
The Sunday Philosophy Club, an Isabel Dalhousie Mystery, Alexander McCall Smith
I’m a big fan of Mr. Smith’s laid back No. 1 Detective Ladies’ Detective Agency – sometimes I find it nice to read a mystery-type book that doesn’t involve grisly murders and outright evil. It’s a quirk of mine. This new series is much of the same, only this time he’s set his intrepid main character in Edinburgh, Scotland. And sadly, unlike Precious, Isabel is a freaking bore. She’s a rich woman who majored in Philosophy in college and likes to show off her deep nature in long, boring ponderings on life, the universe and everything that tends to bring the narrative to a screeching halt, though I’m sure Mr. Smith envisioned them adding to the flow and depth of the story. Not so much. I found myself flipping to the end, just to get it over with. And while this book does involve a murder mystery, it ends as softly as any Detective Ladies’ book. There is no sense of urgency, other than to read faster just to get it over with.
Tattoo Blues, Michael McLelland
The cleverest part about this book was its tagline: Think before you ink. Which is a shame, because the back of the book held promise. Once again, sucked in by the back of the book. I should know better by now, shouldn’t I? Based in the laid-back Florida town of Cedar Key, this book is chock full of “quirky” characters, from the laid back guru of the town to the alcoholic tabloid reporter there to create a story about a possible waitress-eating dragon sighting to the young ingénue trying to escape her rich, controlling father. And none of it works as well as it should. The story is dry, and it completely fails as a quick, light, amusing summer read.
The Undomestic Goddess, Sophie Kinsella
I’m torn on Sophie Kinsella. I hated the Shopaholic series at first, but I read them all. Finally, at the last one, I stopped hating Rebecca Bloomwood and learned to enjoy the story without it raising my hackles. Kinsella’s Can You Keep a Secret? was fun enough, even if I thought the main characters were both twits. And now, The Undomestic Goddess. Parts of it were amusing. Very few parts, unfortunately. Most of it seemed forced, from the characters to the trumped up “drama” betwixt Samantha and the gorgeous, of course, hunk of man that woos her to the rest of the situations to the dialogue. I think it’s more than likely her answer to people picking on ChickLit — the media frenzy, Samantha’s insisting she’s making the choice that’s right for her, not all womankind, etc. But when you get right down to it, Samantha’s just another generic character who isn’t really responsible for her actions and things just fall into place. To whit, the book, or at least the plot, is kicked off by Samantha making a huge mistake. Anyone can guess, within the first few pages, that it will turn out she did not, in fact, make this huge mistake, and will be, probably in a humorous way, vindicated. Fine. My bitch here is that, when she thought she did make this huge mistake, her first reaction was inexcusable, whether or not she did make said mistake. And the aforementioned “drama” between the beefcake du jour and the heroine? Only there because the laws of ChickLit govern it must be so, assumedly, and because Kinsella couldn’t come up with one that sprang organically from the plot. How about the fact that your heroine is a control freak of a flake? Just a suggestion.