Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Recipe for Disaster

Recipe for Disaster
by Nina Harrington
Published by Harlequin UK
231 pages
Genre: chick lit
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
3 / 5

What you have here is a cute story with characters you'll enjoy, spoiled by a "what in the world?" sex scene.

Bunty Brannigan inherited her parents' deli and is determined to make it successful, despite having been disowned by her mother's successful Italian family, they of the Caruso cookbooks and pastas. Bunty ghost writes her cousin's cookbooks, helping generate even more money for the Caruso coffers. When she turns thirty, she is awarded a secret inheritance, one that throws the Carusos and Brannigan's Deli into disarray. Fortunately, there is an attractive Italian lawyer to help her adjust to her new surroundings.

So a cute premise. Bunty has the requisite merry band of friends to support her, and Fabio Rossi turns out to be a comely solicitor who truly solicits. Ba dum dum.

The problem is that there is a sort of sex scene that proves to be a head scratcher. It is completely unnecessary and serves to do nothing other than throw the story off its stride. Yeah, I know. Me? Complain about a gratuitous sex scene? I am all astonishment. Well, I am too, but use this as an example of the nearing apocalypse. I'm all for rocking the headboard, but this scene is just ill-conceived.

Otherwise, it's a capable tale and a nice choice for some light summer reading.

The Husband's Secret

The Husband's Secret
by Liane Moriarty
Published by Putnam Adult
416 pages
Genre: literature, women's literature
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
5 / 5

This is one of those books that I needed to think about and sort of digest before I could write about it. It's that good.

Who amongst us doesn't worry about what secrets our loved ones will discover about us after we die? Perhaps a stray email or a photo that looks suspicious. Some of us even write letters to our families, letters they only can read after we die.

That is the premise for this strong, solid book: Cecile happens upon a letter written in her husband's handwriting, addressed to her, and stating that it is to be opened upon his death. Unfortunately, she finds it while he's still alive.

Cecile manages to put off opening the envelope; those of you in need of a speedy resolution need to reconnect with your patience, because we do not learn the contents of that envelope until about 200 pages in. By that point, we know Cecile, dynamo stay-at-home mom and Tupperware saleswoman. She's the sort who makes and freezes two lasagnes, returns umpteen emails, and schedules appointments all before her husband and children wake up. That she does it with a smile and aplomb makes her even more enviable. But we like her, if only because she admits that she occasionally parents better when there is an audience.

We also have gotten to know Tess, who runs an advertising agency with her husband Will and cousin Felicity. Tess and her cousin have been best friends since they exited their wombs, although Tess wonders how much of that friendship was a boost to her own ego because Felicity was morbidly obese until about six months ago. She lost a lot of weight, became gorgeous, and Tess is happy for her. Happy, that is, until Will and Felicity announce they are in love.

Then there is Rachel, a seventy-year-old school office worker who continues to struggle, over thirty years later, with the unsolved murder of her daughter. Rachel revels in her grandson, whom she can dote on and adore. But then her son announces that his wife has accepted a job in New York, halfway across the world from their home in Sydney, Australia, and Rachel plummets into sadness.

The three women's stories overlap, and we slowly become aware of how. There is a mystery here - who killed Rachel's daughter - and its solution unleashes catastrophic consequences. Moriarty frames her story with that of Pandora, asking if Pandora was all that smart in opening up the box. That becomes one of the central questions: are we better off knowing each other's secrets, or is ignorance truly bliss?

Just as gripping as the mystery is the sense of pending doom for Cecile, Tess, and Rachel. Moriarty tends to this mood of suspenseful despair by taking us fully into the minds of her characters. We know Cecile's desperation to understand her husband. We grieve with Rachel. We feel anger and frustration with Tess. As they maneuver their ways through these few weeks of their lives, their search for contentment becomes important for us as well. Therein lies Moriarty's success as a writer: she makes us care.

While the Pandora allusion works, there are two other metaphors at play that are more intriguing. Cecile's daughter is obsessed with the Berlin Wall, and as she learns more about it, she is surprised to discover that some East and West Germans were nonplussed with the wall's destruction; they were comfortable with it, and the freedoms its removal ushered in discomfited them. We understand this, especially as Cecile confronts the letter.

Perhaps the more intriguing metaphor, however, is Cecile's job. It is no accident that she sells containers. Cecile's life is all about containment and storage, with each piece knowing its spot. Oldest daughter Isabel's burgeoning womanhood disturb's Cecile because it does not fit; she needs to create a new container for this part of parenting. When she learns what her husband wanted her to know only after his death, she must confront the dismantling of all of her storage bins. They burst open and force her to reorganize her carefully arranged life.

You will find yourself asking several "what ifs" as you read this book. What would you do? How would you react?

You also will find yourself wondering what your family will discover about you when you die.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Mistress (The Original Sinners Series)

The Mistress (The Original Sinners Series)
by Tiffany Reisz
Published by Harlequin MIRA
464 pages
Genre: erotica, mystery
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
4 / 5

Let me begin by saying that I truly enjoy this series. I've loved Nora Sutherlin and Søren Stearns (that's Father Stearns to the rest of you people) since my first introduction to them in Seven Day Loan. Yes, even then I was drawn to Søren, cold and remote as he appeared in that novella. As I got to know him (and her) in The Siren, The Angel, and The Prince (I, uh, owe you that one), my feelings only grew stronger. I am drawn to the two of them and their story, even as I get frustrated with some of Nora's decisions. And Søren's too, for that matter.

So it is with a heavy heart that I write this review.

Warning: this review will refer to the previous books in the series, which means spoilers will be revealed. If you haven't read them and prefer to know nothing, skip this review.

The story itself is fine. When we last saw Nora, she had been kidnapped by Kingsley's crazy, presumed dead sister, after spending a week with Wesley, during which she agreed to marry him. Søren must rescue his Little One, and since he loves Nora and Kingsley loves Søren, Kingsley goes too. Wesley joins them, as does Grace (you might recall her as the wife of Nora's editor Zachary) and Laila, Søren's niece. With an army like that, Crazy Not Dead Sister ought not to have a chance, right? Well, she is crazy. And crazy people tend to wreak havoc.

So the merry troupe of BDSM-ers and vanilla lovers heads off to reclaim Nora. The cat and mouse game of "will they or won't they" is almost secondary, though, to the rest of the tale, which focuses on the relationship(s) between Nora, Søren, and Kingsley.

As with previous books, we do not get into Søren's head, which Tiffany Reisz uses to her (and our) advantage. He's supposed to be mysterious and aloof and arrogant and even a bit despotic. Do we really want to know what he's thinking, the way we know Nora's and Kingsley's thoughts? No. We may think we do, but we don't. In addition to Nora and Kingsley, we also get Wesley's, Laila's, and Grace's points of view as well. Yes, it's a crowded landscape.

But just because Reisz doesn't take us into Søren's mind doesn't mean we don't get to know him better. To stay alive, Nora must perform a Scheherazade-type spinning of tales at the behest of Kingsley's sister. She gives us more details about the progression of her relationship with Søren, letting us get closer to him. Kingsley also opens up, as does Søren himself. And there is one of the issues I had: Søren (and Nora and Kingsley) makes a point to tell us about his walls and how hard he works to maintain his distance, yet twice now, he allows himself to get close to a woman not named Nora Sutherlin, first with a reporter in one of the previous books and now with Grace. It turns out he likes to talk, and he forms a closeness with these women that belies all that we've come to believe about him from Nora. He even confides somewhat in Wesley. Come on, Søren!

Something else I've noticed about these books is that there is progressively less sex in them the longer the series goes on. There are some scenes at the end, and they almost feel gratuitous, as if Tiffany Reisz realized she forgot to include them in the first place. One in particular flat out pissed me off, largely because it seemed silly and unnecessary, especially when it appears there was an unintended (or perhaps intended after all) consequence.

What sex there is, though, is nicely written and pretty hot. Reisz certainly fully develops her characters, but GOOD GRIEF, it's been five books now, so you'd hope she would have a handle on them. At some point, though, it feels as if she's trying to force us to love them as much as she does.

And now we get to the point where this all goes terribly awry: clearly there will be another book.

I adore these characters. I do. I am Team Søren all the way, and if I had the chance, I'd sit at his feet too. Amongst other things. But there is a danger in writers falling in love with their characters because it manifests itself in the writer being unable to say good-bye. It's time. It's time to let them go, Tiffany Reisz. It's time to write about other characters and send Søren, Nora, Kingsley, and the rest of the kids off to their fictional heavens and hells. The way you ended this book does not bode well for the next installment, and it actually made me feel sad and a bit angry. I thought it would be over. I am ready for it to be over.

You need to be ready too. You need to just ... stop. Write a quick novella to wrap it all up if you must, but end it. It's time. In fact, it's past due.

UPDATE: I exchanged a Twitter conversation with Tiffany Reisz, to whom I owe a huge thank you, about how this book ends. She says that this is the end of the story and that there will be no more books divulging what happens from this point on. I have to tell you how much I appreciate that as a reader and how much that makes me admire her. There will be more books, but those will be prequels telling us how Søren's and Nora's relationship began and progressed. Happy claps all around.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Complete Me

Complete Me (The Stark Trilogy)
by J. Kenner
Published by Bantam
322 pages
Genre: erotica; romance; mystery
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
4 / 5

This is the third book of a trilogy, so here is a big fat warning for you: this review will contain spoilers from the first two books.

Oh, Damien Stark. You hot, hot, HOT man, you. So tortured, so gorgeous, so successful and rich and sexually sublime. Where are you in my life?

When we first met Damien in Release Me, he was a mysterious former tennis prodigy turned corporate superstar. He sees Nikki Fairchild across the room at a party he's hosting and he instantly is drawn to her. Those of us reading the book perhaps wondered why; Nikki's fine and all, a former pageant queen, but is she worthy? Of Damien Stark? Uh, no.

But as we get to know our happy couple into Claim Me, we could start to see the attraction. Both Nikki and Damien suffered abuse, albeit in very different forms. Nikki was used by her mother for pageant fame and success, forced into being someone she wasn't. Damien's abuse was physical and at the hands of his coach. Both reacted by needing control: for Nikki, it comes in the form of cutting herself; for Damien, it is manifested in his need for BDSM. They recognize this in each other and it cements their bond.

And now we come to the end of the trilogy, where we must face Damien's murder charges in Germany, onslaughts from a mysterious source, and Damien and Nikki's continuing need for each other and a "normal" relationship.

The plot is serviceable. We get caught up in the mystery surrounding Damien's court case, and by now we are fully invested in his and Nikki's relationship. We even like her more, if for no other reason than Damien does. His need for her is so immense that it almost overwhelms us, not to mention her. To her credit, Nikki occasionally is mystified by Damien's obsession with her. We hear ya, sister. However, even I can concede that she's good for him. She understands him the way he needs to be understood; she knows what he doesn't say as much as what he does, and she translates his facial expressions and small gestures.

Yes, there are some overwrought moments. We've come to expect those from this series. Nikki is a pageant queen from Texas, and if it's possible to overreact to something, she might just do it. Some of her problem-solving skills frustrate us to distraction, even as we know that she means well. She really does.

The mystery occasionally feels forced, as if Kenner thinks she needs it in order for us to keep reading. That part could have been better written, although let's be honest. We don't read these for the mystery hooks, do we?

Now, the sexy times. Girls, strap on your vibrators, because there is some super scorching headboard rockin' going on here. Damien doesn't just know how to bed a woman, he knows how to talk about it. His words get you as ready as anything he does with his hands and lips. And other things. The best part is that sex for Damien is a way to connect with Nikki and the way he knows to show her that he loves her. So her pleasure - how she feels when he's with her - is his priority.

Too bad he's a fictional fantasy, right?

The Life List

The Life List
by Lori Nelson Spielman
Published by Bantom
378 pages
Genre: chick lit, literature
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
5 / 5

I have mother issues. I'll admit that straight away. I don't know if it's because I'm adopted or if my mother was not all that fabulous or what, but I have mother issues. When I read books with good mothers in them (and I'm looking at you, Mrs. March), I get wistful and flat out jealous. I wish I'd had a good mom. I wish I could be a good mom.

So as I read this book, I found myself wondering how you get to be the sort of mother who just knows what your child needs, who knows what your child is thinking before the child is even aware of what's going through her mind. Gosh, do I wish I had a mother like that. And gosh, do I ever wish I could be that mother.

When Brett's mother dies, she is bereft with grief. And then she becomes confused and a bit angry, because Mom's cosmetics empire is not left to Brett, but rather her imperious sister-in-law. Everything else apparently goes to Brett's brothers, and all Brett is left with is a list. Not just any list, but a to-do list that Brett created when she was a girl. Mom refuses to leave any inheritance to Brett until she completes the to-do list, and she has one year to get it done.

Brett is stunned. One of the things on the list is to buy a horse. Another is to have a relationship with her father, and that one is particularly problematic because dear old Dad is dead. Fall in love? Brett thinks she has that one, thanks to her boyfriend Andrew. Have a baby? Does Andrew want kids?

There are ten things in all that Brett must do, and of course as she completes her tasks, she receives the greatest inheritance her mother could leave: Brett becomes the person her mother knew she could be. Along the way, much of what Brett thinks she knows is proven wrong, just as you'd expect would happen.

This is written so clearly and enjoyably that you can't help but get hooked on Brett's story. We see some of the solutions to her task before she does, much like her mother could do. But we also find ourselves in Brett's shoes, thinking we know how something will turn out, only to have life zig when we expect a zag. Brett is not perfect; there are times she is agonizingly blind or nearly insufferable with self-righteousness. But she's so darn likable that she invests you fully and completely in her story. At one point, I found myself crying, and I wasn't even sure why. I just wanted her to find love, and every time it seemed as if she had, circumstances would change. I don't just mean romantic love, either. Her relationship with one of her older brothers is prickly at best, and then there is that whole dad thing.

You may find yourself thinking about the you you wanted to become when you were fourteen. Are you that person? Would you want to be? And if you aren't, what's stopping you?
I Wished for You
by Amy Huberman
Published by Penguin
436 pages
Genre: chick lit
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
3 / 5

Do you ever read a book and think to yourself, "This author is trying WAY too hard?" Perhaps there is too much - too much plot, too much sex (wait ... what?), too much cuteness, too much effort. There is a prevailing sense of desperation to make you laugh or think or cry or something.

Such is the case with this book.

The premise is solid: Grace is a bridesmaid in yet another wedding, and as she approaches thirty, what everyone wants to know is when she'll be the one in the fluffy white dress. She and solid boyfriend Robbie bought a house together, he keeps saying they will get married some day. But ... when she catches the bouquet, she sees Robbie's face fall. Doubts creep in, even if Grace is unaware of them. Does she want to marry Robbie after all? And so she heads to a kitschy place in Ireland where one makes wishes that will come true. Is Robbie who Grace wishes to have, or is there another man out there who will capture her heart?

See? Solid premise. The problem is that Huberman TRIES TOO HARD. The little stories that populate this book, whether from explaining how Grace nearly drowned in a fountain or how she and Robbie came to have a cat, get tedious. Just when you get into the rhythm of the story, here comes Huberman with another cutesy memory of Grace's, another "gosh, aren't we fun!" story, that serves no purpose other than to annoy us readers. Grace is lovely. Her friends are a bit cookie cutter-ish in that friends-with-quirks kind of way, but that's not so bad, actually. We can't get to know them, truly, because the pacing keeps getting interrupted. What clearly is meant to draw us closer to the story and characters instead pushes us away.

At times it almost reads like you're watching a stand up routine at Vinnie's Yuk Yuk Club, and I found myself wondering what this book would have been like without all of the blatant attempts at humorous shtick. Yes, parts of it are funny. Yes, parts are sweet and heartwarming. Yes, parts sort of break your heart. Yes, yes, yes. But wrapped around this book is an overwhelming sense of Try Hard.

And it doesn't work.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Kiss the Bride

Kiss the Bride
by Jody Wallace
Published by Entangled: Ever After
115 pages
Genre: chick lit
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
4 / 5

Did you happen to see the Patrick Dempsey movie called "Made of Honor"? If so, this book will seem a bit familiar. Even so, as far as fun books are concerned, this one fits that bill just fine.

Caroline and Herman Edward Heckley, III, aka "Heck," have known each other their entire lives, and for those thirty-four years, Caro has loved Heck. But he considers her his BFF and nothing more. A girl can only wait so long, however, and since Caro's boyfriend asked, she decides she might as well get married, even if it's to the wrong man. A girl typically asks her bestie to be her maid of honor, though, right? So Caro asks Heck to stand in for her. Naturally, during this process, Heck discovers that he might not want to be just friends.

Yes, it's completely transparent, but it's fun and silly and worth the $1.99. Another one of Caro's friends sees what Caro and Heck won't admit to each other and conspires to force them to face reality, and that part gives you the meat of the plot. There is a hot - and I mean nice and hot - bit of headboard rockin', such that you will wonder how any woman with half a brain would settle for being Heck's friend, unless it's a friend with benefits. Granted, there are times that either Caro or Heck - or both - is so aggravatingly blind that you might find yourself getting frustrated with their apparent cluelessness.

This is one of those books that knows its place. You will not be asked to confront any of life's pressing questions, nor will you stay up late trying to figure out what happened (I'm looking at you, Dangerous Girls), but your time with this novella will be worth it, if for no other reason than that sex scene.

Love, Technically

Love, Technically
by Lynne Silver
Published by Entangled Publishing
95 pages
Genre: chick lit
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
3.5 / 5

Mistaken identity is a common motif in books, and as done here, it's cute and fun.

Michelle has come to the big city of Chicago from her podunk Iowa hometown, searching for ... well ... she's not quite sure what. Something that isn't her podunk Iowa hometown, that much she knows. She wants to see things and experience things and live a life she knows is out there, somewhere. After a week as a call center rep at a software company, she is about to kick the printer to the curb. When a cute coworker helps her out, she's intrigued. Turns out that he's not just a coworker, he's the CEO of the company. But he doesn't tell Michelle that right away. He likes that she likes him for him, and he wants to keep it that way.

A breezy, fun read, this book doesn't ask more of you than to enjoy it. There is some headboard rockin', not the wildest or most explicit, but good.

One caveat: Michelle is almost unspeakably naive, and her obliviousness occasionally induced a little eye-rolling. But she's adorable, so you accept it. I did have a HUGE issue with the whole University of Chicago thing. That's a pretty good school, and Michelle is not presented as a genius, so that part was a bit of a head scratcher.

Love Unrehearsed: The Love Series, Book 2

Love Unrehearsed: The Love Series, Book 2
by Tina Reber
Published by Atria Books
450 pages
Genre: new adult; chick lit; romance
3 / 5

When I finished Love Unscripted, I didn't realize that Tina Reber intended to write a sequel. My initial reaction was curiosity; it seemed that Taryn and Ryan's story came to a good conclusion. They were together, we readers were happy, and that's that. What more was there to say that didn't repeat everything we just read?

Well, the answer comes in Love Unrehearsed, as we continue on with Taryn and Ryan. While I enjoyed more time with them - Ryan especially (le sigh) - I find stick to my initial reaction. This should have ended with the first book.

That is not to say that this is a bad book or not enjoyable. I enjoyed it quite a bit, especially the headboard rockin'. Girls, Ryan can make it happen, if you know what I mean. No, it's more that this one essentially repeats the stories from the first book, apart from a subplot involving Ryan's bodyguard.

Taryn has joined Ryan on his press tour and then on set as he films more movies. As such, Love Unrehearsed details Taryn's attempt to assimilate herself in Ryan's life. She has to adjust to what it means to date a man with 80 million screaming fans, a man who pretends to make love to other women as part of his job, a man whose every move is scrutinized by his management, his coworkers, and his fans. It's difficult, and it requires communication with Ryan. Each of them needs to get over sticking points that caused problems when they first came together.

The biggest problem with this book is that there is no problem; there is no tension or dramatic angle. It's more of a study of a commoner dating Hollywood royalty, so to speak. In that respect, it's interesting. Taryn's mistakes, misunderstandings, and misapprehension are realistic and well written. If she occasionally comes across as a sort of film making idiot savant, we can excuse that because Tina Reber clearly loves her main character. As does Ryan, whose feelings for Taryn are quite deep and sincere. When he tells her the moment he realized he was falling in love with her, it's one of those "awwwwww" kind of things for us readers.

But ... there isn't anything new here. It's really just more of the same. Whereas in the first book Taryn battled obsessed fans, near sexual assault, a car accident, and a miscarriage, you almost feel like there was nowhere for Reber to go with this book other than the more pedestrian and mundane.

The good news is that for fans of Taryn and Ryan, you get to hang out with them some more. The bad news is that there is no real hook to this one. Oh, and more good news: the sex scenes. Yum.

Do You Remember?

Do You Remember?
by Mandy Baggot
Published by HarperImpulse
306 pages
Genre: chick lit
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
3 / 5

Seven years ago, Emma Barron's life gave her her most heartbreaking times and the greatest joy she could have imagined.

Today, she's made peace with what happened at a French campground those years ago, as she and her father grieved her mother's death and she found love with Guy Duval, a promising football (that's soccer to some of you) player. She also found herself with a son, after she found Guy in a state of undress with another lover.

Emma's nicely crafted life faces some upheaval, though, when Guy, now a football star, gets traded to a local team. The two reconnect, and seven years of lost happiness - of misunderstandings and love that will not die - converge on the two of them.

Emma is sweet and lovely, and you feel for her. She's in a relationship with someone she might be settling for, knowing that she gave her heart to Guy. But Guy hurt her, and she struggles with forgiveness. Guy is also likable; and he feels just as hurt by Emma. From his perspective, she assumed facts not in evidence and ran away before she could hear what he has to say. Then there is the pesky matter of her son. Is Guy the lad's dad?

I enjoyed this book ... for the most part. I'd say that my overall reaction is one of apathy. It's entertaining in some parts and overreaches in others. The romance is sweet, and there are some scenes of sexy times (although they are not wildly explicit). But the plot twists verge on the extreme and the nonsensical. One of them fits perfectly, but the other is just too much and unnecessary.

I struggled with what rating to give this one because when it's enjoyable, it's a lot of fun to read. But when it flies off into ridiculousness, it leaves a bad taste. There are better books out there for the price, but if you can ignore the dumb stuff, this is a cute one.

Your Room or Mine?

Your Room or Mine?
by Charlotte Phillips
Published by HarperImpulse
108 pages
Genre: chick lit; romance
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
4 / 5

So you dump your boyfriend after you catch him cheating, and the two of you were supposed to get away for a romantic weekend. What do you do with that hotel room? Izzy Shaw decides to go anyway, and if she can enjoy a hot hook-up, then all the better.

This novella tells a cute story and has characters you will enjoy. Even better, it's hot.

Izzy gets her hook-up, with the adorably inscrutable Oliver Forbes, and she makes the most of it. With Oliver's help, of course. They enjoy the wrinkled bed sheets out of each other, so much so that Oliver starts to wonder if perhaps they could make their one night together into something more.

Charlotte Phillips does a nice job of letting us get to know Izzy and Oliver over this little book, and she writes deliciously hot headboard rockin'.

Enjoy this one for what it is: a fast read with good sex scenes.

Big Girl Panties

Big Girl Panties
by Stephanie Evanovich
Published by William Morrow
486 pages
Genre: chick lit; romance
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
2.5 / 5

It can't be easy for writers to have a plus-sized heroine.

You know it's true, so don't even bother getting your hackles up. When you picture a heroine, you picture a woman with a lingerie model's physique, not someone who last wore a bikini when she was seven. You know it's true.

So imagine being a writer and wanting to do away with this mindset. Your fair maiden packs on a few extra pounds, but she's smart and sassy and vulnerable and gorgeous despite what the scales say. She deserves the hot dude. Can you sell your readers on the concept? Can you remind them every now and then that the woman they might be picturing is not the woman you're writing about? And how do you address society's perceptions of women with normal bodies as opposed to those who are genetic freaks?

Jennifer Weiner does this to perfection in books such as Good in Bed. She walks that line between pounding us over the head with how wrong it is to dismiss normal-looking women and with presenting them as heroines.

What about Big Girl Panties? Can Stephanie Evanovich (yes, her sister is Janet) pull it off? (GET IT? Pull it off? Panties. Come on, you know you're laughing.)

The short answer is: somewhat.

Holly Brennan is someone we all know. In fact, she might even be us: she uses food for comfort, increasingly so since her husband passed away. She winds up seated next to Logan Montgomery, a man so beautiful that he takes away collective breaths, on an airplane. That in itself is horrifying, because those airplane seats are not very welcoming to bigger bodies. Holly's self-deprecating wit and fragility appeal to Logan, though, and he offers her his business card. Logan is a personal trainer to famous athletes, and he offers to help Holly get physically fit.

And here is where it gets sticky. The premise is adorable, and you know exactly how it will turn out. But to get there, we have to endure Stephanie Evanovich's clear confusion about what book she's trying to write. Is it a romance? A screed against society? A self-help guide? An insightful examination of the hypocrisy of those who give voice to progress for the physically imperfect?

There are lectures a-plenty here, kids. If you don't want to sit through long speeches about loving yourself for who you are and not letting someone's physical appearance deter you from loving them, then skip on past this one. The problem isn't necessarily Holly; she's accurately drawn. We understand her need for comfort, and if her turn at fitness appears too easily done, then so be it. It's a fantasy, after all, and don't we all want to think that we can tone our bodies with only one slip-up? Her emotional journey is more hard-fought, though, and that's the more compelling tale.

Then there is Logan. Good grief. He's physically perfect, and his growing feelings for Holly are fun to read about. He recognizes how shallow he is, and he even acknowledges his hypocrisy. You might want to smack him occasionally, but he's a good guy and one worth rooting for. Oh, he'll learn you some things about fitness and food, and his navel gazing can bring the book to a crawl.

But Logan is far, far more readable than the sub-plot involving his client, Chase, and his wife. When reading their story, you get to the "What the hell is Stephanie Evanovich thinking" part of the festivities. Girl, this is not Fifty Shades of Grey, and your attempt to incorporate a BDSM storyline is beneath you and your readers. For reals, sister. Not only that, but your knowledge of it appears to be flimsy and somewhat lacking, so do yourself a favor and excise this.

The book is fun and not unpleasant to read, but there are better books out there. You want to read about plus-sized girls getting the guy? Try on some Jennifer Weiner. Or go give Dangerous Girls a try if you want a murder mystery involving teenagers.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Dangerous Girls

Dangerous Girls
by Abigail Haas
Published by Simon Pulse
400 pages
Genre: mystery, New Adult, literature
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
5 / 5

Faithful readers, you need to give me a moment or two to collect myself, because this book - THIS BOOK.


I don't know how to discuss it without giving away things, so if you want to go in completely clean and know nothing, then quit reading now, go buy a copy, and come back. Seriously. I want everyone who reads this book - and that better be ALL OF YOU - to come back and discuss it in the Comments Section. I haven't wanted to talk about a book this much since Gone Girl.

I will warn you before I get to anything that is seriously spoiler-ish. Otherwise, there may be a few mild spoilers contained herein.

Do you find yourself getting caught up in televised court cases, particularly the armchair analysts who proclaim they can read body language of the jurors (or even the defendant) and whose opinions influence ours? Even dangerously so? And what about those defendants? What do we make of them? How can we tell if they're truly innocent or guilty? Or could it be that they fall in that nebulous area of "not guilty"?

Abigail Haas tells the story Anna Chevalier and a group of fellow high school seniors, students at a hoity-toity Boston private school, who head to Aruba for spring break. It's their last vacation together before college, and the kids just want to cut loose and have some fun. As we get to know them, though, we discover that they tend to be the cutting loose and having fun sort of crowd, so Aruba seems almost superfluous.

But anyway.

While there, Elise, Anna's best - and I mean BEST - friend gets murdered, and the police start looking at Anna and her friends. They ultimately charge Anna and her boyfriend Tate, and Anna begins to fight for her freedom. She quickly realizes that everyone, including, apparently, Tate, thinks she's guilty of murdering her bestie. But Anna resolutely professes her innocence. She is determined to be found innocent, even in the face of an increasingly large mountain of evidence against her.

When we read books that are narrated by a character, we have to ask ourselves if the narrator is reliable or not. Agatha Christie addressed this in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, when we found out that our narrator withheld important information from us. It is crucial that we believe Anna. She needs us to believe in her innocence. If she can't convince us, how can she convince the judge? But even though she is the narrator, Anna's is not the only perspective we have. We also get transcripts of news shows that analyze everything about Anna, from her in-court demeanor to how she acted after learning of Elise's murder, to even how she appears when walking in the prison yard. But can we take them seriously? I mean, we all saw those photos of Amanda Knox canoodling with her boyfriend after the two supposedly committed murder. Amanda says they were comforting each other during a stressful time. The TV shows said it was proof of callousness. We have to believe Anna. We simply must.

The problem is that Anna is not all that likable. Really, no one is in this book, aside from Anna's father and legal team. Neither Anna nor any of her friends are what you'd call "good people." They are spoiled, self-involved, over entitled teenagers who are selfish to a fault. This actually helps us believe Anna, though, because she knowingly reveals herself, including her considerable arsenal of negative characteristics. She is, in a word, a bitch. A very big one. Her friendship with Elise is all consuming to her; Elise sort of rescues Anna, and Anna's gratitude is complete. But it's also reciprocated. Elise is as obsessed with Anna as Anna is with her. When Anna begins dating Tate, it naturally creates friction. I thought this was exceptionally well done by Abigail Haas, who nails the teen angst and jealousy that abound when one friend falls in love and the other does not.

Anna unfolds her story with flashbacks, including the first day she meets Elise. We see the progression of their friendship, as we also see the progression of Anna's trial. She is stunned that people believe she murdered a girl whose friendship was her life. We feel for her when she is betrayed, we become increasingly anxious as the trial progresses, desperate for Anna to be found innocent.

The thing is, there are no innocent people here. Even Anna seems to recognize that. She acknowledges that everyone played a part in Elise's death, even if they didn't kill her. As she tells her story, Anna - perhaps unwittingly - puts her and her friends' lifestyle and mores under inspection. Weren't they asking for trouble, to some extent? As Anna observes about another character, all that perfection has to go somewhere, doesn't it? What happens when it becomes too much, when the effort to keep everything the way you want it proves futile?

Do you find out whodunit? Yes, you do. Will you be surprised? Let me just say that there are a few plot twists, but if you read carefully, one of them won't shock you, but another one (or two) could. As for the identity of the murderer, clues are dropped. But I think you will be shocked at who it is.

And that's when I want you to come back and discuss. Please tell me. Did you see? Did you know? And do you think that there was a certain relationship there?

I really liked this one, kids. I really, really did. It isn't perfect - there are a couple of gaps and some consistency issues - but it will grip you by the throat and not let up until you turn the last page.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Why of Things

The Why of Things
by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop
Published by Simon & Schuster
320 pages
Genre: literature
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
5 / 5

The unspoken arrangement between parent and child is that the child will bury the parent. Not the other way around. When any child dies, it is sad and heartbreaking, and we find ourselves left asking "why."

The Jacobs family faces this question as they continue to grieve the death of eldest daughter Sophie, nearly a year earlier. We slowly come to understand how Sophie died, but we, like her parents and two sisters, keep asking why.

The family is forced to face the whys when they arrive at their summer home in Gloucester. Within minutes, fifteen-year-old Eve, now the oldest daughter, finds tire tracks that lead into the water-filled quarry across the street. Rescue vehicles arrive, but they take too long for Eve, who eyes the air bubbles with increasing desperation.

It is this death, of a stranger named James Favazza, that forces the Jacobses to rip off the thin scab that started to form over the wound left by Sophie's death. Each member of the family adjusts / grieves / survives in his or her own way, and James's death reveals those differences to them.

Anders Jacobs attempts to make peace with his daughter's death by burrowing into security. He protects his heart by unintentionally distancing himself from his wife Joan and daughters Eve and Eloise. He's there, he's around, but he is not present. When Joan gives him a series of scuba diving lessons, Anders is loath to take them. They make him uncomfortable. He attempts to answer the "why" by tracking down an address he found crumpled in a trash can in Sophie's room.

Knowing that another mother lost her child, Joan finds herself drawn to James Favazza's mother. Even as she worries that James's mother will judge her, Joan is convinced the two will understand each other. She can't understand her husband, although she thinks she does, and she needs to understand someone.

Eve's process is raw and realistic. Alternating between anger with her sister and deep sadness, Eve wants to prove that James's death was not suicide or an accident. She's convinced it was murder, and she sets out to prove it.

Seven-year-old Eloise adjusts in a different way. When she finds dead animals, she wants them buried. She insists on it.

As we discover the details behind Sophie's death, we learn less about James's. The message here is clear and unflinching: we may never know the whys, much less understand them. We are called to live, however, and to do so, we must learn to accept that unanswered whys are a part of life.

This book ... oh, this book. It is so lyrically and evocatively written that you will feel a loss when it's over. You get to know the characters so well, and you find yourself wanting to throw an arm around them and comfort them. It seems strange to say I enjoyed a book about adjusting to life after the death of a child, but I did. It's just so good.

Winthrop does not shy away from the tough questions. She may not answer them, but that's part of the lesson you learn.

Entwined with You

Entwined with You (Crossfire, Book 3)
by Sylvia Day
Published by Berkley Trade
368 pages
Genre: erotica, romance
3.5 / 5

Gideon Cross.

Those two words ought to stir your quiver, girls. If they don't, then you need to begin here (Bared to You), continue here (Reflected in You, which I just realize I have never reviewed ... must fix that). You need to connect with Gideon Cross, who puts the MAN in man.

For reals.

As a caution: this review will include information from the first two books, so if you haven't read them, stop what you're doing and READ THEM. Then come back, read this review, and go get a copy of Entwined with You.

When last we left Eva and Gideon (le swoon), they were facing their next step together after Gideon murdered the man responsible for abusing and terrorizing Eva. This one picks up right after that, as our happy couple navigates those stormy waters.

The murder pops up here and there in this book, and the threat it poses for Gideon and Eva looms over them throughout. Other issues come into play as well, and by "other issues," I mean, "too damn many." At one point, Eva even wonders what else can happen to her and Gideon, pointing out that every time they start to gain some equilibrium, something - or someone - comes on the attack.

I had issues with Eva in Bared to You. I thought she took off running too quickly, and I could not see what Gideon found so attractive about her. In fact, I asked Sylvia Day that very question on Twitter and was told that Gideon saw some of himself in Eva. Both were victims of sexual abuse, both were protective of their hearts, both enjoyed some frisky relationships in the past.

In this book, I finally came to love Eva. She is firmly on Gideon's side, and she appreciates him and what he brings to her life. In one scene, she reacts with her typical knee-jerk reflex, but as she examines what has pissed her off, she comes to see that Gideon wants nothing more than to protect her and make her happy. The "old" Eva would have taken off and run. This Eva sticks around.

Oh, she does run at one point, but not so much from Gideon as from herself. She isn't fleeing their relationship or him, but rather trying to make peace with a mistake she believes she made.

We continue to learn more about Gideon and Eva, and we continue to love that hunka hunka burnin' love that is Gideon Cross.

Which brings me to the sex scenes.

Strap on your vibrators, girls. It might just be possible that Sylvia Day has outdone herself.

There is loads (no pun intended) of hot headboard rockin' in this book. One particularly memorable interlude takes place on Gideon's plane, and it is shattering. He and Eva rock headboards, walls, nightclubs, bathrooms. No place is off-limits, and thank goodness for that. Gideon connects with her through sex; he needs sex with Eva because he believes theirs, for all of its rawness and fierceness, is pure. It cements their union. When Eva wants to burrow into Gideon's core, when she wants to help heal him, she does so through sex. She understands its importance to him.

And, of course, his stamina is a fantasy that makes Christian Grey grind his teeth with envy.

As hot as the sex scenes are, though, the rest of the plot disappoints. There are WAY too many things going on, and they do nothing but serve to muddy the story. I get it, Sylvia Day. You want us to keep reading. But trust your characters; trust that you have created two people we care about and want to continue to read about, if for no other reason than their scorching sexy times. You don't need to throw all these different loose ends at us to keep us reading. Good grief. In this one alone, we have a surprise pregnancy, a potential Russian mob connection, a suicide attempt, extortion by sex tape, and an illicit affair between two former lovers. It's too much. Pare back to what matters: Gideon and Eva.

The good news is that it looks like we might be in for a fourth installment in Gideon's and Eva's story. The bad news is that it does have to end sometime.

Secret Sister

Secret Sister
by Emelle Gamble
Published by Marsha Nuccio
Genre: literature; mystery
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
3.5 / 5

Two women are such good friends - have been forever - that they call each other their "secret sister." But one horrific day, they are in a car accident and one of the women dies. How does her secret sister recover? How does she go on?

One thing you learn in this book is that there are different types of survival. Roxanne drives the car that kills Cathy (whose last name is Chance ... I mean ... grab that frying pan and beat yourself over the head with it), so she bears some survivor's guilt. Roxanne lost all memory of the crash, as well as chunks relating to her life; she doesn't even remember her own name. She has to survive that, as does her mother, who is forced to adjust to a daughter who does not recognize her. Nick Chance, Cathy's husband, must survive the loss of his wife. The women's friend Bradley must survive the physical loss of one friend and the emotional loss of the other. Even Cathy's dog faces questions of survival.

This is sort of two books in one. In the first part, Roxanne must come to terms with the accident. There are mysteries afoot: Roxanne must come to terms with the accident, she needs to try and recoup her lost memories, and she needs to make sense of the flashes of what she does remember. Her memories are confusing and unsettling. Once she does, the second half kicks in, and we have Roxanne's attempt to regain her lost life.

The narration comes from the perspectives of Roxanne, Cathy, and Nick. At various times, you will hate one or all three of them. These are some self-involved people, and sometimes while reading this book, I wanted to quit and go read about people I like. But I kept reading. The story seeps into you, and you find yourself wanting to know what happens next. What is up with those memories Roxanne has? And as the memories clarify, more questions are asked. You will want to know the answers.

There is some romance here, and even some sexy times. Don't get too excited, though. The true romance is the friendship between Roxanne and Cathy, and the sexy times are not wildly explicit.

I will not give away much about this book, nor should you go looking for spoilers before reading it. You will want to enjoy the plot twists (even if you see one of them coming), and you will want to enjoy the wild ride(s). At the end, you will have some questions. The ending is not as neat as it appears, and you will find yourself asking "what if ..."

It's a good book, even if the characters are occasionally annoying.

P.S.: the cover for this book is atrocious. For reals. Publishers, you need to fix that, post haste.

Runaway Groom

Runaway Groom
by Sally Clements
Published by Creative Space
Genre: chick lit; romance
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
3 / 5

So your sister is getting married. Happy times, right? But what if she invites the guy who seven years ago all but abandoned her at the altar?

April Leigh can't understand why her sister June (yeah ... I, too, kept wondering if we'd meet May) insists on asking Matthew Logan to come to her wedding. From April's perspective, Matthew ran off and jilted her sister. But what June wants, June tends to get, as April's friends continue to point out to her.

And there is my issue with this book: April so rarely figures out anything on her own.

She's a likable girl, and you can't help but root for her. But her life seems to have happened to her, as opposed to because of her. She's one of those people who lets life affect her, rather than the other way around. She landed in fashion design because that's how things worked out, not because she had a particular inclination toward it. She tracks down Matthew to beg him to forego attending June's wedding not because she once had a crush on him and wants to reconnect, but because she thinks it's best for June. She takes up running because Matthew needs some help with a client. She lives in an apartment located above the coffee shop where she works. As I read this book, I kept wondering what April would be like if she went out and attacked life rather than wait for things to happen to her.

So she goes to see Matthew, and let's just say that her teenage crush is rekindled. As far as Matthew is concerned, his former fiancee's little sister has grown up quite nicely. Due to quirky circumstances - again, not because of anything April does, but rather because of what happens to her - she moves in with Matthew. Separate bedrooms, OF COURSE. They're clearly attracted to each other, though, and you can imagine which one makes the first move. Go ahead. Guess.

The ending provides more of the same. April waits, and life happens.

This is a quick, fun read, and there are some sexy times. Not a whole lot, nor is there a tremendous amount of detail, but you get the sense that Matthew knows what he's doing. You also understand his concerns regarding a relationship with April, even if you want to knock him upside the head.

There are plot holes here and there, but let's face it. You don't read books like this with tremendous concern about plot coherency. You read them because their romances are cute, sweet, and maybe a little hot.

I just wish April had a little more oomph to her.

True Love

True Love
by Jude Deveraux
Published by Ballantine Books
464 pages
Genre: romance; chick lit
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
4 / 5

This is the first Jude Deveraux book I've read. I know, right? She's über-popular, writes oodles of books, yet I hadn't read one prior to this. Am I sold on her? Welllllllll ....

Alix Madsen is fresh out of school for architecture when she is bequeathed a most unusual demand after a family friend passes away: go live in the woman's home for one year. That's about the total of what Alix is told. She is not informed that the house is haunted by a ghost who wants her to get to the bottom of a family mystery, nor is she told that the ghost only appears (supposedly) to women in the family or that her mother used to spend a month every summer in the home (she claimed to be in a Colorado cabin) or that her father mentored renowned hot architect Jared Montgomery Kingsley, a man Alix professionally idolizes.

On the surface, this is a mystery. Several, in fact. There is the task Alix unknowingly has: what happened to Valentina, the ghost's true love? Then there are other mysteries. What is Adelaide Kingsley's relationship with Alix's family? Why can Alix see this ghost? And what's going on with that ghost anyway?

The story lines will grab you. Alix is a likable character, a girl with a good amount of spunk but not so perfect that she turns you off. We can see why Jared, Mr. Commitment Phobe, is drawn to her. And we certainly can see why she likes him. He's enough to make you want to commission a design, just so you can meet him. They are drawn to each other, but wary. Does she like him because of Jared the Architect or because of Jared the Man?

This is the first in Deveraux's Nantucket Brides trilogy, and you do meet the other two future brides. The whole lot of people in this book are quirky in that New Englander way that is so typical in novels (see: Higgins, Kristan), but you will find yourself wanting to move there and be their friend. Deveraux packs this book with a LOT of characters - some predictable and way too familiar; others fresh and intriguing - and to her credit, you feel as if you get to know them. Yes, we have some questions, particularly about Alix's mother (what's up with that little activity that caused the demise of her marriage, for instance), and you get the feeling that the book could have ended about fifty pages sooner. But it's fun. And sometimes fun is exactly what you're in the mood to read.

Alix and Jared's romance is not explicit or overly detailed. We get a few somewhat tame peeks into the bedroom, and those scenes are nicely detailed and written. I know there are readers out there who do not prefer the hot headboard rocking of Tiffany Reisz or Sylvia Day (or you, Christian Grey), and for them, Jude Deveraux offers a solid alternative.

I look forward to getting to know the other Nantucket brides, and I hope that I get to see more of Jared along the way.

Love or Money

Love or Money
by Peter McAra
Published by Escape Publishing - Harlequin Enterprises Australia
132 pages
Genre: chick lit; romance
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
3 / 5

What do you do if your mother desperately needs an expensive operation and you recently inherited your grandmother's beloved Australian beach home? Such is the conundrum facing Erin in this breezy book.

On the surface, it seems her decision is simple: sell the home. But in this romance novel that occasionally masquerades as a treatise on the coastal environment, Erin's apparently easy decision is made a whole lot tougher by two things: (1) Granny loved the hell out of that house and trusted it to Erin's safe keeping, and (2) there is a hot man involved who doesn't want her to sell.

The closer Erin gets to Hamish Bourke, her grandmother's executor, the less inclined she is to sell. Too bad the pesky issue of Mom's heart operation won't go away.

I'm not one who typically enjoys sweet books, but I did enjoy this one. Erin occasionally annoyed me when she became a bit self-righteous; we know your mother is dying, Erin. We know. WE KNOW. So you can quit beating that drum. I found myself not caring about her mother, though, which I suppose speaks more to my cold hard heart than it does to Peter McAra's writing. The mother is also sent up as a selfless saint, so I can understand why Erin wants to save her life. And if the ending comes about a bit too tidily, then all the better for Erin and Hamish.

Ah, Hamish. He has his own set of issues, and perhaps his reasons for wanting to control Erin's decision are not entirely noble. Or maybe they're entirely too noble? Hamish's personal life is turbulent, to say the least, so maybe he needs to preserve the beach home because he needs some sort of reliable stability. Or maybe he really is concerned about preserving Grandma's beloved homestead.

I'll admit to occasional boredom with this book, largely because every time there was dramatic tension, it was too easily resolved. Where the romance is concerned, it is very tame. If you want hot headboard rocking, this is not your book. But overall, it's cute, sweet, and enjoyable. As summer reads go, it works well.