Vol. 1 by Michelle
Left Bank, by Kate Muir
Left Bank is the tale of Madison, a Texan-born French movie star who goes out of her way to be as Parisian as possible (which seems to necessitate being in a loveless, frustrating marriage), her husband – the famous French philosopher Olivier – who is a bit of a slut as that seems to be what he thinks being a famous French philosopher requires of him, their put upon young daughter Sabine (who really just wants the hell out of there), and her hot British nanny, Anna. The writing is delightfully sardonic, and I spent most of the time really, really wanting to slap every major character in this novel. Which, I think, is somewhat the point, and I can roll with that. Ms. Muir skewers everyone and everything from French society to the Americans who want to be part of that Frenchness at the cost of their own personas. The characters are nicely drawn, from ice princess movie star Madison to stuck up philosopher Olivier to current-object-of-Olivier’s affection, the British nanny Anna, but there comes a point when you can only read about peoples’ self-inflicted unhappiness for so long before you want to scream “fuck off” and throw the book across the room. Page 230 was where I irrevocably got sick of the lot of them and had to resist said urges.
A strong reaction, to be sure. Perhaps I should not have attempted to finish the novel right after a blood-pressure raising, rage inducing commute from hell. With this in mind, I set the book down and picked it up again the next day. I am happy to report that I finished it on a high note. Once again, I wanted to slap every character, but all in good fun. So there you are. Pick up the novel and enjoy it, with this caveat: Do not attempt to read it after a harrowing commute where someone in the fast lane thinks 59 is speeding. If you are so foolhardy as to attempt this, do not blame me if all of the posturing and ridiculous ‘my darling’s’ make you want to do damage to your copy of the novel. And if you write me to complain, I will merely say “I told you so.”
Yellow, by Janni Visman
Stella is, due to some past trauma that is never fully revealed, agoraphobic, locking herself in her apartment, working from home, content to say goodbye to her boyfriend Ivan every morning as he goes to work – her only rule being that no questions be asked about the past, if you please. But then over the course of a week things seriously go to hell. Ivan wears an old, tacky bracelet given to him by a long-ago girlfriend and the questions start flying. Things, naturally, go badly. Spectacularly so. Too much so, from my viewpoint, for when things begin to unravel, they unravel too much – be it their increasingly violent sexual games or the characters’ personalities, everything shoots too far to the left. Much of this, rather than being blamed on plot holes, can be placed on the shoulders of an unreliable narrator – after all, we are told the story through the eyes of someone who never leaves her apartment. All of her outside world information comes from her once-estranged sister, Skye, or her lover, Ivan. The story, therefore, is skewed not only via the narrator, but also via the double filter of Ivan/Skye then Stella.
Sparsely written with a touch that manages to keep a bizarre light humor throughout most of the strange tale, I did really enjoy this book. No sentence struck me as being extraneous, a blessing in the age where so many stories are unnecessarily padded with subplots and extra characters. It is a tale that, while reading it, you are completely wrapped up in it and go with the flow, but as soon as you’re finished – questions arise. And not all of the narrative oddities can be blamed on the narrator. Why, all of a sudden, do things come to a head? Why are things left lying around the apartment for her to find? Why wear the bracelet, knowing it would evoke curiosity, if one isn’t trying to invoke questions? Just so your current girlfriend would dress up like your ex-girlfriend? And what, exactly, is up with her sister?
These are the questions that keep me up at night. (Fine, they interrupted a nap or two.) If you have answers, please, send them my way. Or, if you feel I am full of it, and that everything is satisfactorily explained, hit me up. I love a good debate.
Salaam, Paris by Kavita Daswani
I had read Ms. Daswani’s previous book The Village Bride of Beverly Hills and enjoyed it, though there were a few moments when I wanted to whap a few of the in-laws over the head (but that is the American “Excuse me? I worked all day, you get up and help me make dinner” in me, and I fully and completely admit that), and this novel follows the previous’ formula: young Indian woman living with family in India, arranged marriage presents itself, move from home, strife, discord, fantastic job randomly and magically achieved, mental anguish (though amusing mental anguish), and finally, love. It’s Chick Lit with an international twist.
Here, the young woman in question, the insanely beautiful 19-year-old Tanaya, wants to be Audrey Hepburn in Paris. She finagles her way out of her strict Muslim, grandfather-run household, saying that she will not marry the young man, Tariq, he has chosen for her unless she flies to Paris, where he conveniently lives, to meet him. Once there, she neglects to call Tariq, hangs out with an Americanized cousin, and lands a job as a top model. Ms. Daswani may have a formula, but it’s an amusing formula and she asks that important questions, like how much sinning is too much sinning before your God cuts you off and you spend eternity in hell? Would, like, a photo shoot in a string bikini do it? One drink of champagne? Pretending to be the lover of a gay rock star to improve your image? No?
Six Reasons to Stay a Virgin by Louise Harwood
In direct contrast to the taken-for-grantedness of Tanaya remaining a virgin until marriage because that was what she believed was right in Salaam, Paris, we have the story of Emily, a young Londoner, 24-year-old virgin-by-choice. Which, according to her obsessive friends, makes her some kind of emotional invalid, and they treat her as such. (Seriously, people, if you’re that concerned about your friend’s lack of sex, I suggest you look into getting more for yourself.)
For a book purportedly based on six reasons for staying a virgin, it takes an insanely long time to get to the actual reasons. I’m not saying they’re not good, valid reasons (I’m not going to list them. Read the book.), I’m just saying it took quite awhile. Almost too long, leaving way too much of the story to focus on her friends’ alarming obsession with her V-card and their plan to hook Emily up with the “one that got away.” Apparently, after making out with him for one night when she was 16, she was so enraptured that no man could come close and closed herself off to all other men. Or something like that. And so a madcap plan is hatched – while Emily frets about her life after walking out of her job and tries to decide what she wants to be when she grows up, her friends decide she’s been a virgin long enough and work on tossing her together with this guy. So either way Emily sleeps with him or discovers he’s a twit and gets over him, thereby paving the way for sleeping with others. Meanwhile, his ex-best friend is waiting in the wings, having had a crush on her since 16. He’s a sensitive man who breeds roses. Indeed. I’ll leave it to you to guess which way it goes.
And God Created the Au Pair by Benedicte Neland and Pascale Smets
This book reminded me of my and Amy’s heyday of shooting 500 e-mails a day back and forth about nothing but the minutiae that faced us at our desks. The topics the e-mails revolved around were not fascinating in the least (meetings, evil co-workers, spilling coffee down our shirts, demands to bring each other fries and Frosties cross-continentally, etc), but when you go back and look at them (made possible by Amy being an insane e-mail pack-rat) they’re actually pretty fucking funny. And such is the case here in …Au Pair. A book about two sisters and their families, one getting adjust to life in Canada, the other wrestling with a fixer upper in London, would more than likely not have held my attention if written as a conventional novel, as concerned as it is with everyday issues such as school concerts, brother-in-laws that won’t leave and the like. Instead, the co-authors brilliantly framed it in e-mail form, where something that would be too mundane to be an episode in a chapter becomes amusing – the behavior of the psychotically perky new neighbor in Canada, the forgetting of a cot when going on a trip, a friend’s creepy Christmas card, etc.
And I, being the girl who used to get impatient with chapters and flip through every single one during Nancy Drew’s adventures to see how long to go before there was a break (even though I knew I was going to read the whole damn book anyway, so why should it matter), have to say that I LOVED the e-mail format. You could put the book down at any time and not feel like you had to sit there for another hour to get to a good breaking-off-point. Not that I like to say I have a short attention span, but let’s just say that this book? Is perfect for the MTV generation. Or those of us that like to read at our desk and have to toss the book under when the boss walks by without warning.
California Demon: the Secret Life of a Demon Hunting Soccer Mom by Julie Kenner
Kate, the mother of two, no-longer-retired, completely mortal demon hunter is back with her loving but neglectful husband Stuart, two year-old son Timmy, 14 year-old daughter Allie and, oh yeah, a man who may or may not house the soul of her dead first husband Eric. I continue to like this series – this time around, besides trying to solve the mystery of the man who reminds her of her dead husband, Kate has to, you know, save the world from Armageddon and stuff. The usual. And while I find Ms. Kenner’s writing to be too familiar at times (the story is written in first person, and there are a lot of ‘you know’s and “did I raise a good kid, or what?”s), I find these books perfect when I want something light and fun to read.
Bras & Broomsticks, by Sarah Mlynowski
Rachel, a typical New York teenager, discovers that her obnoxiously good-of-heart younger sister is a witch. Oh, and her mom’s a witch. And, since she’s not a witch by now at the tender age of 14, there’s a good possibility she will not get the witch gene.
All things considered, she deals with it remarkably well. Much better than I would have. Sure, there are hijinks, and Rachel does, as any good 14 year-old would, try and twist her sister’s new magic powers to benefit her, and things go horribly awry, as well they should. All-in-all, it’s completely funny and the characters are convincingly written, like Rachel’s Mom who’s still maybe not 100% over her divorce and her younger sister Miri, who is a remarkably mature 12 year-old that can still be suckered into doing stupid, idiotic things by an older sister.
Which brings us to the sequel…
Frogs & French Kisses, by Sarah Mlynowski
The follow up to Bras & Broomsticks finds a still amazingly adjusted Rachel wielding her sister’s magic, though less than before. A bit less, anyway. While their mother attempts to date again, Miri kicks saving the world into overdrive, using her powers to do things like cleaning up oil spills and saving cows from the slaughterhouse, when she’s not busy helping Rachel save the senior’s prom. And Rachel? Rachel, still not properly bitter about being a mortal, tries to hold it all together. When not imploring her sister to perform one last tiny love spell for her. And that’s what makes these books work. The characters are really teenagers. Yes, they can save the world, possibly, but dangit, isn’t witchcraft for creating better cleavage? Or at the very least, keeping that senior in your thrall until you’ve successfully attended the prom?
The Tea-Olive Bird Watching Society, by Augusta Trobaugh
Oddly dry and slow moving, the story of a loose group of friends (three of them friends since childhood and two others who just seem to be there to have a younger demographic to appeal to), who, well…I can’t say they band together to save one of their own, because the two older ones who do band together don’t tell the two younger ones. They all live in the Southern town of Tea-Olive and enjoy the laid back vibe of the town. When not fretting about “progress” and how it will eventually head their way, no matter how hard they lobby against it, or wondering how the whole town is seduced by a Northern judge without really knowing him, the ladies of the bird watching society don’t do much of anything besides try and save their local library from closure (thanks to the evil retired judge who wants it closed. Because he is evil. Eeeevil.). I found it hard to make it through this slow-paced novel, but perhaps that’s because I am merely a Yankee who doesn’t understand how things are done in those parts.
Vol. 2 by Amanda
I’ve written three separate intros to this massive list of short book reviews, but they all seemed so la-di-da. Here’s all you need to know:
1) I commute a couple of hours a day by train, and have lots of time to read.
2) I prefer paperbacks, because they fit in my bag better, which means that I rarely read new releases.
3) I’m easily swayed by pretty covers and stylish use of font. I’m also a sucker for hoity-toity awards, like the Booker Prize or the Pulitzer.
Below is a list of what’s been traveling with me for the last several weeks – some new, some old, some brilliant, some dreadful – but all worth a mention here.
A Death In Belmont, by Sebastian Junger
I’m a big old scaredy cat, too much of a wuss to do much more than hide in my bedroom when I’m home alone. Why, then, I decided to pick up this non-fiction account of the Boston Strangler is beyond me. Thank goodness the novel is low on gory details. It’s also slowly paced and overly detailed for a story about a crime that essentially went unsolved. And that’s my main complaint – I knew nothing about the Boston Strangler case. I did not know of false convictions and overturned sentences. I didn’t know how many women were killed and in what ways (aside from strangling). Therefore I certainly didn’t know that I would read 250+ pages only to learn that, basically, no one really knows what happened. Had I known, I would have left this on the shelf. Junger (The Perfect Storm), whose family hired one man thought to be the Strangler to do construction work, wrote the novel seemingly to satisfy his own curiosity. Too bad there isn’t enough information in the world to do the same for me.
A Dirty Job, by Christopher Moore
I was predisposed to love this novel, because like one of the best TV shows ever (the canceled Showtime gem Dead Like Me), A Dirty Job is also about grim reapers. Set in San Francisco, it follows a second-hand storeowner named Charlie Asher who earns his Reaper stripes after catching one in the act. Moore’s novel is filled with zany characters, both human and supernatural, and he’s got a tweaked sense of humor that is perfect for his subject matter. A couple of days after I finished A Dirty Job, a friend loaned me another novel by Moore, Practical Demonkeeping, which I found almost as entertaining. I am now on a diet of nothing but Christopher Moore, and won’t stop until I’ve read every last one of his books.
Adored, by Tilly Bagshawe
As a pre-teen, I used to sneak into the closet where my mother kept her romance novels to read the sex scenes. She read the really thick paperbacks, the ones with windswept plains on the covers instead of the ones featuring Fabio and his ilk. When I began to read the books for the stories – passions that would affect families for CENTURIES – I could burn through a dozen in a month, easy. It’s been a good 10 years since I’ve bothered with this kind of paperback, so I thought it might be worth it to take a gander and see what I’ve been missing. Plus, Tilly Bagshawe is the best penname ever. For real. Adored has all the things a good romance novel has – glamour and sex and betrayal and sex and shocking violence and sex and sex. It’s also terrible. Just terrible. I slogged through all 708 pages just in case there was something I was missing, even though I could see the ending from somewhere around page 75. Maybe the last 10 years have created in my something of a literature snob, but I’ve read fanfiction that is better than this.
Bringing Down the House, by Ben Mezrich
My favorite TV guilty pleasure is Las Vegas, the trashy nighttime soap opera that follows the goings-on of a Las Vegas casino. Bringing Down the House tells the true story of six MIT students who participated in the ultimate card-counting scheme, pocketing millions before they found themselves on the most-wanted list of casinos around the country. What do the two have in common? Strip clubs, angry pit bosses, secret identities and high-tech security systems. Bringing Down the House made me realize that Las Vegas is more truth than fiction – except maybe that part where Lara Flynn Boyle blew off the casino roof in the last season. It’s a riveting account of what can be accomplished with a little foresight and a lot of math, and I’ll bet many folks will be just as surprised as I was to learn that card counting isn’t exactly illegal.
The Collector, by John Fowles
Published in the early 1960s, The Collector was Fowles’ first novel – he would later go on to publish the better known The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The Collector is a brilliantly psychotic thriller about a man who covets beauty just a little too much. The main character is at first a collector of butterflies and eventually a collector of the women he watches from afar but cannot figure out how to approach in the normal way. Because Fowles was British, and because this was published so long ago, The Collector is definitely dated. I chose it because I’m a fan of Fowles’ other work (my favorite is The Magus), but anyone who fancies scary, twisted storytelling should check it out.
Devil in the Details, by Jennifer Traig
I picked up this book for one reason – the cover shows a person lining up Skittles-like candies in perfectly straight rows, separated by color. This is a habit I share, though I prefer to use college-ruled notebook paper to guide my lines, and I also tend to separate by how many of each colored candy I have. But this isn’t about me. Devil is a memoir about growing up with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in a time before OCD was a diagnosable illness. As a child, Traig showed all textbook signs of scrupulosity, a form of OCD tied to religion, where the person believes that if they do not perform a certain set of rituals in the exact same order and the exact right way every day, they can literally bring about Armageddon. OCD is a heavy topic, but Traig has a style that enables her to make light of a situation while still showing respect for it. Each chapter ends with a goofy little how-to guide or game or illustration, such as “My Sister’s Room is the Gateway to Death: A Two-Column Proof or Fun Things You Can Make With Kleenex.” I’m a big fan of memoirs, and an even bigger fan of thoughtful comedic writing. Traig manages to combine the two in a way that, while not unique, definitely puts her in the same league with better-known authors like Sarah Vowell and David Sedaris.
Everyone Worth Knowing by Lauren Weisberger
Here’s something I don’t think I’ve ever really said out loud: I didn’t particularly like The Devil Wears Prada. (However, I would have gone to see the movie, because in general I approve of Anne Hathaway, but no one would go with me.) That is to say that I didn’t pick up Everyone because I was a fan of Prada. Rather, this was quite literally the only novel I hadn’t read or wasn’t self-help in the paltry selection at my particular airport gate during one business trip to New York. The main character, Bette, quits her job one day and ends up working for a PR firm where her primary role is to look cool and attend cool parties. Her social life soon becomes fodder for gossip columns and Page Six, and she has to decide whether she wants to keep her glamorous new lifestyle, settle comfortably back into her old one, or find some new middle ground. Three guesses which one she chooses, and the first one doesn’t count. While I’ll admit that I like talking about Fendi handbags and Manolo slingbacks as much as the next red-blooded female, I found the characters in Everyone just as simpering and annoyingly outlandish as the ones in Prada. And while I’ll also admit that Weisberger at least has a better command of the language than some of her Chick Lit peers, I think that Everyone may have proven to this chick that this particular kind of lit is not my cup of tea.
Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
In college I read Robinson’s novel Housekeeping in a Literature in Film class, which basically just means we watched the movies, too. I remember very little about it (not even the plot) except for a couple of lingering images, grainy and haunting, of a train track. Gilead won Robinson the Pulitzer Prize, and for a while I was buying anything with a shiny seal on the cover. It’s the story of a small-town preacher in Kansas, written as a series of letters to his young son when he learns that he’ll likely die soon from heart failure. There are no chapters, just a series of ever-shorter stories as his life is drawing to a close. The language is slow and thoughtful, and though I was never able to conjure a picture of John Ames himself, his history came across as clear as anything.
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
This book made all sorts of notable lists when it was published a year ago, and it definitely makes it into my top five for novels I’ve read this year. History splits its story between the young daughter of a woman who’s been hired to translate a novel and the author of the novel. The daughter, Alma, has been named after the main character in the book, and sets about trying to find her namesake. In the course of her search, she comes across the author, Leo, who is unaware that his novel was ever published and who also conducted a search for Alma many years ago. History is a delicately balanced novel about losing loved ones and finding ways for them to live on. Krauss has a unique, choppy pacing that builds the momentum of the story like the staccato of a drumbeat builds a song. The novel ends as the stories intersect, and though I knew it had to happen and wanted it to, I found myself holding back ever so slightly to drag the moment out as long as possible.
Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel
Indecision was a novel I had picked up during several trips to the bookstore, but could never bring myself to purchase. While The New York Times Book Review had named it a notable book of the year, there was something about the summary that seemed too intellectual for me, if by “intellectual” I mean “full of itself.” Maybe the praise for this new author was just too glowing, or maybe it was the bad pun “pfired by Pfizer” that warned me off. I wish I had listened to my instincts. Indecision is a novel about a guy in his late 20s who cannot make decisions about anything; not his roommates, not his girlfriend, not his job, nothing. One of his roommates convinces him to take part in a clinical trial for a drug that will help him be more decisive, and that leads to the obligatory wacky hijinks. The language in this book is dense and twisty, and often I would read an entire chapter without having any idea what had happened. There were moments when I actually considered putting the book aside in favor of something else because for the life of me I couldn’t find a way to give a hoot about the main character. Supposedly hilarious but mostly painfully self-referential, Indecision is a novel that will definitely accompany me on my next trip to the book exchange, instead of taking up precious space on my shelves.
King Dork, by Frank Portman
I read two glowing reviews of this novel and then ran out to buy it, afraid that I’d be turned off by the gushing praise if I waited just one second longer. And while it’s understandable why so many critics rushed to heap on the kudos, King Dork may have been just a little too…dorky? spazztasic?…for me to follow suit. King Dork follows the day-to-day activities of hopeless outcast Tom Henderson (who has a host of nicknames), his family (stepfather Little Big Tom plays a large role) and his friend Sam Hellermann (who is referred to by his full name for the entire 300+ pages). There are parts of the novel that are brilliant, such as the band names Tom and Sam make up throughout. There are parts that are perfectly awkward, like Tom’s make-out session and subsequent non-stop obsession with a nameless girl. And there are also parts that ramble on for so long and have so many tangents that I was unable to keep up. At first I found this charming, and then somewhere in the middle I realized that I was skimming those passages looking for more substantial storytelling. I guarantee that there are many people out there who have a higher tolerance for wacky randomness than I – and this will definitely make a difference in the level of enjoyment of King Dork.
Love Will Tear Us Apart by Tara McCarthy
I absolutely adored McCarthy’s YA novel The Pursuit of Happiness (published under the name Tara Altebrando) and begged her publisher to send me Love so that I would be prepared to interview her for this site. At first, Love seemed like a mixed bag. Its main character is a woman in her 30s going through a bit of a midlife crisis. It’s got sex, references to expensive shoes and getting in shape, and includes at least one scene where the main character gets drunk to forget about a boy. Sounds like Chick Lit, right? But it’s also got two secondary characters that are teen pop stars, and they’re each trying to forge their own identity. That right there is perfect YA fodder. And THEN there’s the fact that the teen popstars are Siamese twins – and no that’s not a joke. Despite the somewhat confusing surface themes of this novel, Love was amusing, compelling and at times dark enough to get me a little choked up. Even better, McCarthy spearheaded the creation of an entire web empire for her characters, and even went so far as to have friends record a couple of songs as the popstar twins. Brilliant!
Magical Thinking, by Augusten Burroughs
Burroughs first made waves with his memoir Dry, which accurately portrayed the advertising industry as one fueled by cocaine and alcohol. Just as you’d imagine, Dry chronicled Burroughs’ attempt to get sober after waking up one day to friends dying of AIDS and an apartment buried in debris and crawling with rodents. It somehow managed to be amusing even as it was horrifying. Magical Thinking is predominantly filled with stories of Burroughs learning how to date again, sober and as a published author. His wit is still razor sharp and his sense of humor is as dry as ever. Though the best stuff is in the first half, it’s worth it to hang in there for the happy ending.
Tabloid Love, by Bridget Harrison
Harrison was a news reporter, and then a dating columnist, at The New York Post. Tabloid Love is her memoir – names changed to protect the innocent – of trying to find love in New York City. There were times when I found myself re-reading the back cover, just to remind myself that this was truly a memoir. The stories Harrison tells are sometimes so ridiculous (a date who chastises her choice of outfits), so embarrassing (realizing that a one-night-stand has a serious girlfriend) and so heartbreaking (a failed relationship with an editor at the newspaper) that at times it seemed impossible for so many things to happen to one person. Tabloid Love didn’t gain much traction when it was released earlier this summer. I personally think it might have been one too many comparisons to Bridget Jones or Sex in the City. But as someone who didn’t particularly care for either of those things, I can say that Harrison is something altogether different – a lovely, but confused woman looking for love in all the wrong places.
Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl
For the couple of days it took me to read this memoir, I had several people tell me that they had read and enjoyed other books by Reichl, whose jobs have included a stint as the editor of Gourmet magazine and a run as the restaurant critic for The New York Times. It’s easy to see why people would like her. Tender primarily focuses on Reichl’s childhood with a kooky mother and a father resigned to dealing with her, as well as the series of people who enter her life and nourish her love for food and cooking. Reichl is gloriously detailed when it comes to food, whether it’s grossing us out with descriptions of the rotten food her mother served at parties or mesmerizing us with precise adjectives to explain the first exquisite taste of perfectly prepared sushi. Tender might have been just a hair too long, but many chapters contain recipes for foods that I’m dying to make.
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, by Mark Bittner
Parrots was released as a documentary in 2003, and in it Bittner tells his own story of being homeless in San Francisco and finding solace in (and eventually shelter because of) a flock of wild parrots. Though I’ve never seen the parrots myself, many friends who’ve been in San Francisco longer than my five years have. Their origins are unknown, and there have been many times when they’ve been labeled a menace. Bittner, however, spends years chronicling the waxing and waning of the flock and eventually becomes a goodwill ambassador for them. Parrots begins to drag near the end – after all, no matter how many new birds are introduced they are still only capable of the same types of actions – but the Bohemian, almost Zen-like way in which the story unfolds is at once beautiful and fascinating.
Vol. 3 by Michelle
Better Read than Dead by Victoria Laurie
Every once in awhile I get the itch to read a detective story (part of my Nancy Drew-soaked childhood that I can’t shake, I’m afraid), and I’m always looking for new characters that aren’t too cute or precocious, something of a Herculean task these days. Every series nowadays must have a twist to make their peppy, petite heroine with the perfect man stand out, and while the Abby Cooper series is no exception, professional psychic is a character trait that hasn’t been done to death (unlike Super!Spunky!) and therefore does not stick in my craw.
Better Read than Dead is written by a professional psychic who uses her own experiences to educate the world on what normal people psychics are – when they’re not using their psychic powers to find murderers and like. Not only is Abby Cooper a psychic intuitive who reads people for a living, she solves murder AND deals with skeptical (but hunky!) boyfriend in her spare time. She’s a bit of a cusser, god bless her, who gets in honest to goodness, true to life irrational fights with her boyfriend — and for that I love her. I mean, how many Chick Lit, mystery-solving heroines are there out there right now who tell their boyfriends to go to hell and to fuck off over things rational (him being a skeptic and embarrassed that she’s a psychic) and not (her hating that his new partner is female and hot)? Not a whole lot, right? They’re too busy making with the witty banter, something that can get old after awhile. And Abby doesn’t have time for witty banter, damn it, she’s too busy trying to help the police capture a serial rapist while dodging the Greek mob boss who attempts to harass/intimidate her into working for him, all while trying to schedule a romantic date with her hunky FBI man. Indeed.
Me vs. Me by Sarah Mlynowski
Chick Lit with a slightly fantastical twist — Gabby has a perfect job waiting for her in New York, when her boyfriend Cam proposes to keep her in Arizona. She wishes that she could have it all and thus splits herself into two –- one Gabby accepts the proposal and lives through wedding planning hell with Cam’s overbearing mother, while the other Gabby breaks up with him and goes to New York where she becomes a strong independent woman with a completely insane roommate. Every night she goes to sleep in one universe and wakes up in another, remembering everything that happened. It’s funny and maddening, it’s got characters in it that are stubborn, obnoxious, patronizing and so annoying that you just want to haul off and slap them. And I enjoyed every page of it, though Mlynowski never did answer the question: when does she sleep?
Forbidden Pleasures by Bertrice Small
Okay, I have to admit, I’ve never been a reader of erotica. Why didn’t anyone tell me what I’ve been missing? Holy hell, there are people being impaled on penises and experiencing the throbbing of cocks in assholes and being bent over sofas while their hosts are busy elsewhere and I’ve been missing out!
Admittedly, I mostly did not read it because of the uncontrollable giggling that tends to commence when people are being impaled by penises and the like, but I’m older and more mature now and honestly, this is fabulous. (And yes, that is the sound of me giggling. I am five, apparently.) Emily’s an author who is also a virgin and her editors feel she must spice up her books or be fired. So she gets a new editor, Emily tricks him into devirginizing her, the naughty minx, they fall madly in lust and start banging each other all over the place so Emily can make her books more… passionate? Real? Who the hell knows? Who the hell cares, when the plot involves a secret network called The Channel (I am sort of mystified as to how it works) where women can go and virtually slut it up – I mean be tutored in the arts of sensual delight, all in the name of research! Which, apparently, involves taking it simultaneously in three orifices by randy British lords (well, it WAS a period piece she was writing. Authenticity is key.)
A Tale of Two Sisters by Anna Maxted
Maxted’s Chick Lit is Chick Lit with issues. Something of a serious nature tends to afflict her characters and her newest book is no exception. While I found it to sort of drag any enjoyment out of the reading in the novels I’d read before, I really liked Two Sisters. Lizbet and Cassie are complete opposites, as sisters in novels are wont to be, with different lives. One has a great job and a crappy husband, one has an “eh” job and a fantastic boyfriend. Things are thrown into a tailspin when Lizbet has a miscarriage and Cassie can’t conceive. Misunderstandings, bitterness and healing all happen while the story alternates between the distinct personalities and voices of Cassie and Lizbet. And to Maxted’s credit, she does all of this while maintaining a bit of humor.
Give It A Go If You’ve Got Nothing Else On Your To Read Plate
Cat in a Quicksilver Caper by Carole Nelson Douglas
Yes, the cat that thinks he’s a hardboiled detective is back. And no, I have no real reason for reading these odd little books, other than they involve, and take seriously (as seriously as a book involving a cat that solves mysteries can): The insidious workings of a secret cabal of magicians bent on ruling the world (or something equally sinister); A magical magician of a boyfriend (who goes by the fabulous moniker Miracle Max) that loves his girlfriend but must stay under cover incognito in order to infiltrate this cabal, and therefore save lots and lots of people; And an ex-priest who loves the magician’s girlfriend and wants to rip her clothes off, his eternal soul be damned. I think you can see, yes, how this could be hard to resist? The plot of this particular installment? Inconsequential. (in a nutshell: Something is stolen, someone dies, cat and Temple solve mystery. So, you know, the usual.) You know you’re just reading it to see if she sleeps with the priest, you hussy.
Run for your Life by Lucy Hawking
Not a book that reaches out and grabs you in any way, really, nor did it make me want to get up and run as the book jacket promised I would (however, I am notoriously lazy and abhor running, so I’m sure it’s not the book’s fault.). It’s a pleasant enough story and a nice read that actually drops a bit of something new into the girl-in-mid-life-ish-crisis pool. These things include, but are not limited to: a Serbian art forgery ring, an annoyingly sober aging rock star of a father, the girl not winning back the man she lost years ago. Fleur, recently dismissed from a fancy curator job in NY, returns to London after an absence and slums it in an antique shop of questionable repute while being strong-armed into joining the requisite band of misfits in a marathon runners’ club. Bonding, arson and prison time ensues. The ending’s a bit tidy with a huge bit of convenience tossed in when it comes to finding a witness that could keep Fleur out of the big house, but then I’m the girl who adored a show that pulled out the largest deus ex machina ever (magic snow, anyone?) so I really shouldn’t judge.
Bye Bye, Black Sheep by Ayelet Waldman
This is an odd mix of murder mystery involving pimps and hos of the uncuddly, non-Disney variety and motherly-concern diatribes about the safety (or lack thereof) in the world for children. And mostly? It doesn’t really jibe. I like the main character, a married mother of two who isn’t perfect and can’t fit into her skinny jeans and has a soft spot for the underdog, even if the underdog is a six-foot-tall transsexual named Heaven who wants to know who murdered her prostitute, junkie of a sister. Unfortunately I found her penchant for the previously mentioned diatribes on childrearing issues a bit ponderous, especially as all the rants are essentially the same and, while I’m sure a mother of two young children who solving the mystery of a murdered prostitute might take time out from following clues to ponder on the safety of her children and the annoyance that is the “play date,” it just detracted from the flow of the story.
Skip It, Yo
Target Underwear and a Vera Wang Gown by Adena Halpern
A collection of boring, pointless essays on clothes — items as fascinating as men’s boxer shorts — owned by Halpern at various stages of her life and what they meant to her, all of which leave you asking “so?” She aims for humor, introspection and meaningfulness, and completely misses all three.
Strange Candy by Larell K. Hamilton
A collection of previously published, though probably wicked hard to find, short stories by the author of the Anita Blake, vampire hunter series. Most of the stories are set in a fantasyland of elves and magicians swords, a genre at which Hamilton does not excel, unfortunately. Her writing is better when she sticks to, uh, realism. You know, zombies, vampires and the like, roaming a world similar to the one we currently inhabit.
The one new short story in this collection is an Anita story, though it doesn’t forward any plots. Consider it a slice of life, a short slice of life that doesn’t necessitate the buying of the book. You could easily read it in the bookstore in five minutes or so if you absolutely must read all things Anita.
Vol. 4 by Michelle
Learn-y Type Books
How To Be Impossibly French: A witty investigation into the lives, lusts, and little secrets of French women by Helena Frith-Powell
If being French, and I think it would more accurately titled How to be Impossibly Parisian, is anything like in this book, I can only recommend that if you are considering being French, please have your head examined first. According to this book, you must live and breathe jealousy of all other women (friends are rare and you must never trust them), pursue all men at all times (people will think you are anyway, so you might as well), dress well at all hours and times, and spend many hours on your face/hair/nails. And that’s just a start. Frith-Powell, a British ex-pat trying to survive in France wrote this book on what she’s observed of how the French comport themselves, and while she tries to do so in a lighthearted, amusing manner, too much of it was more about how her life was developing over there than a funny, how-to manual. From the name I was expecting amusing graphics and charts on how to speak, hold your cigarette in a sexy manner (not that I smoke, but it is a valuable skill, holding a cigarette in a sexy manner. All good spies know how. See: Nikita, La Femme) and ways to tie a jaunty neck scarf. Sadly, none of these were present, and, mostly? Being French sounds like an immense pain in the ass.
The Physics of the Buffyverse by Jennifer Ouelette
It’s as if this book was created for fangurls who would like to have a basic idea of, say, string theory or how atoms work, but can’t muddle through a boring text book to save their lives. Ouelette touches on everything from wormholes to relativity to whether or not, realistically speaking, Buffy could really kick Angel’s ass, even if she does possess mystical strength in such a way that, mostly, you understand. And how can you not love an author that expounds at such length on why Bethany, the girl with telekinesis in the Angel episode Untouched, would be unable, if one followed the rules of physics, to move a dumpster with her mind? It felt like I was reading a post at The Bronze again, only with actual data to back up the poster’s argument rather than just their discontent.
Other Type Books
Fabulous Pugs by Lisa Knapp
Oh. My. God. Even if, like me, you find pugs disturbing, this book is so odd, so bizarre and so hilarious that you just have to have it on your coffee table, if for nothing more than to have something to “what the fuck” over when your dinner party stalls. Knapp has dressed up her, I can only assume, extremely patient pug in outfits she herself created, and we’re talking everything from a cave dog to Jackie Kennedy, and the result is fabulous.
Ready or Not? by Chris Manby
Heidi Savage is getting married, full on into the planning and finalizing stage, when she starts to question her intelligence in marrying a man that loves rugby a bit too much and who has friends that think nothing of shaving off his eyebrows when he drinks too much and passes out — as most people might be wont to do (reconsidering, not shaving off people’s eyebrows.). Coincidentally, who should happen to waltz into her work? Why, the extremely hot and mature man who broke her heart seven years previously, of course. It’s a cute little story, and to Manby’s credit you never hate any of the characters (the fiancé is never a complete churlish boor, the ex-boyfriend is not too high on his pedestal and for a soon-to-be-bride in the midst of a freak-out, Heidi is delightfully not shrill),
The Perfectly True Tales of a Perfect Size 12 by Robin Gold
Delilah White is a Martha Stewart-type person who is, as the name implies, a size 12 and happy about that — which is nice, for a change. She’s a bit too nice and sweet, has a rich, skinny best friend, a fantabulous job as producer on a show called Domestic Bliss, and a nemesis in a skinny redheaded power-hungry evil bitch of mega proportions (who just happens to want the same promotion as Delilah and, in true villain fashion, will stop at nothing to get it). Everything blows up when the 4th of July rolls around and Delilah and her friend head to a family weekend, only to be followed by the mega bitch. At times a bit over the top — and it’s rather unclear why her arch rival tags along for the weekend, I can only assume it’s because she’s inherently evil and likes to stir shit up, and I think we all know someone like that, so I’m going to roll with it — it’s still fun.
The Fortune Quilt by Lani Diane Rich
Carly McKay is a 29 year-old producer for an Arizona news magazine who interviews a woman who makes psychic quilts (just go with it) and promptly watches her life go to pieces after being gifted with one. She returns to the small town of Bilby to accuse the quilt maker of destroying her life, and ends up staying for a while. Being a small town it is, of course, stocked with the requisite kooky characters, but amazingly they don’t grate. The writing’s fun, the story’s engaging, Carly’s a flawed, sometimes bitchy woman and the only thing wrong with this book was the love story (didn’t buy it, and was in fact rooting for someone else. Bah). But that can be overlooked.
The Deception of the Emerald Ring by Lauren Willig
Kind of a curious creature, this book. Mostly it’s a period spy novel set back during an Irish uprising, but then it seems Willig wanted to try her hand at modern chick lit, and so the main story is sandwiched between modern day interludes involving grad student Eloise Kelly researching spies of the early 19th century while dreaming of the hunky guy she met while researching said spies. An odd mix that was more distracting than anything, even though I actually enjoyed the chick lit-ish interludes more than I did the main story, as I found the story of Letty Alsworthy and Lord Pinchingdale (it’s always a Lord, isn’t it?) to be less than compelling. And I’m a spy nut, so that’s a bit perplexing, but there you go.
Queen of Shadows: A Novel of Isabella, Wife of King Edward II by Edith Felber
Eh. Usually I like learning a little history via entertaining stories, but this book really didn’t hold my interest. Sure, I felt sorry for Isabella, and King Edward sounds like a twit no one should have to be married to, but palace intrigue? Welsh maidens out for revenge? Homosexuality back in the day? Everyone using 50 words when five would do to make a point? Tiring. And amazingly lackluster.
Two Books That Completely Chapped My Hide
Every once in awhile a book comes along that irks me so much I twitch just thinking about it. Not necessarily because it’s poorly written or executed or condescending, really, but because I am just so fucking annoyed by the content. Recently, I had the pleasure of reading not one, but two books that caused me to rant to anyone who would listen. (A big apology to my boyfriend here.)
She’s the One: The Surprising Truth about What Makes a Woman a Keeper by Gregory Gilderman
A book on what guys look for in a long-term girlfriend instead of a one-night-stand is the first offender. I’m not saying that what Gilderman wrote isn’t true and valid and wasn’t done humorously, in fact everything much of what he wrote is pretty much spot on from what I’ve observed and most of the humor hits – so that’s all good. But that was also the problem — I got so annoyed at men in general while reading this that I wanted to throw it across the room. Rather than being grateful to Gilderman for FINALLY explaining to me why a guy might get all insecure and bitchy if, say, I’m more successful than him, I got mad at men and their pesky masculinity issues – a feeling that followed throughout the entire reading of the book. Suck it up men! We do. Shit.
GRITS Friends are Forever by Deborah Ford
GRITS are Girls Raised In The South. And, apparently, they are superior to Girls raised in the North. They are friendlier (though one or two testimonials in the book actually imply that they are bitchier), better neighbors and love their mommas more than us Yanks. Indeed. The book is a “celebration” of Southern girls and their friends, and while I’m sure it’s beautiful if you’re included in that exclusive group, I am one of those cold, frigid Northerners and spent too much time being offended to appreciate how beautiful those damn perfect GRITS are.
The book itself was repetitive (after all, there are only so many ways you can say “your girls are always there for you”) and most of what the book declares makes Southern people so great are, you may be shocked to hear, things those of us in the frozen-hearted tundra of the North are also accustomed to doing (when properly trained, if started at a young age, we also can make excellent friends). The digs at Northerners, not to mention the lamenting that people without southern twangs were invading their cities and lives, were I’m sure at least partly made to add a bit of humor to the book but they made me want to bang my head against the desk. Which is a shame, because I was interested in her other titles (her books on Southern entertaining and how to deal with a Southern man sounded amusing), but now fear that my ire will be too raised. I gave the book to my friend from Louisiana, who knew what GRITS meant, so hopefully she enjoyed it.
Vol. 5 by Michelle
To counterbalance last article’s “books that I hated with every fiber of my being,” I am pleased to announce that sometimes the opposite happens. Occasionally I have the pleasure of reading a book that leaves me with a feeling of joy – pure delight that I was able to find that book, out of all the millions out there, and join the author’s world for a minute. And, yes, I am aware of how cheesy that makes me sound. There’s nothing I can do about it. This time around, I had the pleasure of reading two books that gave me a happy.
Books that fill one with pure, cheesy joy
The Penny Tree by Holly Kennedy
Annie’s life is falling apart. She and her husband Jack are splitting up after 13 years of marriage, she’s had to move back to her old hometown while coming back from a near-nervous breakdown and her oldest son is treating her like crap. Kennedy crafts this telling of a family that fell apart expertly, alternating the points of view and jumping from the present and the past at certain points to build a full picture of what happened. Mostly told through Annie’s eyes, though Jack gets his say as well, things start rolling when someone takes out an ad asking “Have you seen this woman?” with an old picture of Annie. Soon the local media picks it up, and her life is thrown into a bit of chaos. Jack’s view of what happened complements Annie’s, creating a fuller picture, and ensuring that no one is a villain in this piece. Also, I liked the ending. Bonus!
Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos
I absolutely loved this book, from the plot to the most excellent prose. This is the story of 30something Cornelia Brown, a young woman obsessed with Cary Grant and old movies and what happens to her drifting, coffee-shop-managing life when a handsome Cary Grant look-a-like wanders in and twitter pates her. It is wonderfully told and written story, and when I say that I mean Santos’ writing is fantastic. Not a single sentence seemed unnecessary. There’s just something that flows so well with her words and pacing, you just kind of float along with the story. Even the alternating narratives between the first person of Cornelia and the third person of Clare, an 11 year-old that stumbles into her life out of the blue, didn’t bother me. It all just worked. My only wish is that it had ended maybe a chapter or two sooner, before the urge to wrap everything up neatly overtook Ms. Santos and wrestled her to the ground, forcing her to its will.
Informative type books
Phenomenon: Everything You Need to Know About the Paranormal by Sylvia Browne and Lindsay Harrison
Sylvia Browne believes some whacked out shit, ya’ll. And for that, I love her. I will endlessly question what she writes in this A-to-Z compendium of all things in her universe, from Affirmations to Zombies (yes! Zombies! And no, they aren’t real! At least, not as far as she knows! But fairies! Totally real!). I enjoy getting glimpses into other people’s fervent beliefs, so while I do not subscribe to the notion that we all plan out this whacky trip called Life in painful, excruciating detail, down to and including our five exit plans (aka Death), I fully appreciate her putting herself out there for people like myself to read. It takes balls, especially when many reactions are undoubtedly much like my “Sylvia Browne believes some whacked out shit, ya’ll” variety. And she does it so self-deprecatingly and off the cuff, even saying “yes, I know you think I’m crazy,” that I love her a little bit for it. I may not agree with her, but I cannot accuse her of not giving me something to think and talk about.
You, Inc.: The Art of Selling Yourself by Harry Beckwith and Christine Clifford Beckwith
No, not like that. Get your mind out of the gutters. This is a self-help book, intelligently written for the younger generations in the word equivalent of sound bites. It comes with a handy phrase in bold at the end of each mini-chapter to cement in your mind what you should have taken away from that mini-chapter, like how to put the best you forward in business and how not to come off as an asswipe. The husband and wife team dispense some good advice, much of which that you will recognize as being obvious, but stuff you probably don’t think about until you see it in writing. They recognize that much of the advice is not new, but it is good, and you should probably follow it. They cover everything from what not to talk about (sex, religion and politics, natch), to what every successful business person should own, to ways to make yourself stand out from the crowd without coming off as a complete jackass (amazingly, more difficult than one might think). But, of course, they can only do so much. They can lead you to great, bite-size bits of wisdom, but they can’t make you act on it. Which, at least, they admit, and they implore you to take it slow, and focus on doing one new thing from their book a day. And if you think you can do that, and you need assistance in how you are coming off in your field, perhaps you should pick up this book. I will say that I’ve been trying out a few of their tips, and I can say their advice, while simple and seemingly obvious, is so far spot on.
The Vatican’s Exorcists: Driving Out the Devil in the 21st Century by Tracy Wilkinson
Apparently exorcisms are on the rise all over Italy, so much so that there is a dearth of church appointed exorcists, and Tracy Wilkinson attempts to discover why. Not entirely neutral, you can definitely get an idea of Wilksinson’s stance on the issue of people using exorcism like others use therapy, she does attempt to present all of the evidence, interviewing both official exorcists and the people they attend. A history of exorcism gives a background into the Catholic Church’s stand over the centuries, and she profiles four very different Church-appointed priests who perform exorcisms, whether they want to or not. From the reluctant to the overly-zealous, these profiles were the most interesting part of the book and made for fascinating reading. It reads a bit more like a research paper than a book produced for mass-consumption, but it’s not a dry read and it’s definitely fascinating.
The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t by Robert I. Sutton, Ph.D.
This is a book that everyone should leave, anonymously, on their boss’ desk. Much more useful than that stupid Who Moved My Cheese book that was making the corporate rounds a few years ago, this book might do some actual good – unless you are one of those very rare people to work in a pleasant environment sans assholes. Not only does this book give tips on identifying assholes in the workplace (which, granted, isn’t hard to do, but we all know that sometimes bosses have blind spots when it comes to the evil behavior of co-workers), it also has a chapter to help you identify if YOU are an asshole (whether you know it or not). Being someone who recently left an unhealthy corporate environment where asshole-ism ran relatively unchecked, this is one book I would have loved to have given to a few people as parting gifts.
Dog Stars: Astrology For Dog Lovers, Sherene Schostak and Wendy Lam
Written by the staff astrologer of the UK Elle, and it definitely reads like it, this book identifies the astrological signs of popular dog breeds, and goes over how they mix with human signs. It is a strange little book, with each chapter focusing on a sign and what this means if you’re a Taurus, a Leo or whatever. So if, say, you’re a Capricorn, you probably shouldn’t own a Gemini dog. It will go badly.) It also includes a little bit in each chapter in the dog’s words – you know, the kind of owner and life the dog is looking for. (If he’s a Leo, for instance, he’s looking for someone into pet worship. Just an fyi.) You probably only need this if you live your life by astrological charts, or if you go crazy for anything dog-related.
Other books and pending Lifetime Movies
Plum Lovin’ by Janet Evanovich
I just do not understand these little in-between novellas Janet Evanovich subjects her readers to, the first of which was the Plum Christmas novel a few years back. The Plum books, entertaining beach reading about an inept bounty hunter that attracts men like white on rice, are fairly straightforward, grounded-in-something-this-side-of-reality affairs. Then came Visions of Sugar Plums and Plum Lovin’, both of which involve yet another hot man who wants to break himself off a piece of the Plum. One of which being a man named Diesel who has, well, powers. He can disappear and track other “special” people and, really, the hell? Is this Evanovich’s way of just shaking off her normal workday and running with a little sci-fi, just to stretch herself? If so, it’s annoying. Start another series if you must with a wacky, hot, inept alien bounty hunter, and the wacky people that surround her, and give them super powers. Just leave your established, “realistic” series alone. Which, too late. But you get my point. (I use “realistic” lightly here, as I assume after 13 years or so Stephanie would age or mature or learn to use a gun or sign up for some kung fu or, I don’t know, just pick a guy already.)
Good Things by Mia King
Deidre is Seattle’s own Martha Stewart, with a local TV show. (I don’t really think we have a Deidre-like show in Seattle, but that’s not really the point.) The point is, her show is cancelled, her gay best friend finds love and cruelly moves out on her, she loses her apartment and her life in general goes to shit. Unable to support her shopping habit in the way she’d like and faced with public humiliation, she runs off and ends up in a cabin where she ingratiates herself into small town, quirk-filled life and, eventually, finds herself. And stuff. You know how these things go. Parts of it are amusing and parts of it are predictable, and unfortunately I never really bought the love interest. The book includes recipes, though, and those I intend to try.
Lucy Blue, Where Are You? by Louise Harwood
Pleasant enough to read, if one needs a book to just pass the time, but afterwards I was left wondering if it was really worth it or if I even found the characters intriguing enough to be worthy of a story. Lucy Blue starts off promising enough, with young Lucy freeing herself of the invisible bonds that make her slightly pedestrian and seducing a stranger in a roadside motel. But it quickly degenerates into a ho-hum story of finding love in an unexpected place, even if the reader knew exactly where she would find love and with whom as soon as his angry, yet handsome face popped up.
The Sweet Life by Lynn York
A sequel to The Piano Teacher, it continues the story of Roy Swan and Miss Wilma, two sweethearts married later in life, and their life in a small town. Added to the mix is Wilma’s granddaughter, Star, and Star’s no-good dad, Harper. Toss in a medical emergency and hijinks involving a grass roots bluegrass festival and you’ve got a nice, laid-back story about small town life where everyone gets a say from their perspective, and their point-of-view doesn’t necessarily mesh with another’s.
Special Relationship by Robin Sisman
This book is what Lifetime movies are made of. Annie Hamilton’s pleasantly normal life in 1992 is turned a bit askew when her 20 year old son Tom finds an old photo of her and a man that’s not his father but sort of looks like him. Questions about parentage and flashbacks to Annie’s Oxford college days in the 60s ensue. The man in question, Jordan Hope, a very thinly disguised Bill Clinton, is not-so-conveniently in the last week of his presidential campaign. Annie, believing an illegitimate son showing up at this crucial juncture might harsh Jordan’s buzz, chases her son to America, all while trying to create a new career for herself. Will she succeed? Will she see Jordan again? Will her son ruin the presidential election? Do we find out who Tom’s real father is? You’ll just have to read the book, or tune into Lifetime to find out.
The Secret Heiress by Judith Gould
I kind of loved this book more when I found out it had been written by two men who collaborate under the pseudonym Judith Gould. It’s a trampy, trashy take on The Man in the Iron Mask with a bitchy, Paris Hilton-like antagonist in lieu of a French king. And instead of Musketeers you have a sensitive, handsome, passionate bodyguard protecting the innocent, sweet twin while giving her a few lessons in making love outdoors. Is there really anything more you could want from a trashy read? I think not.