Review: The First Date

The First Date: A heartwarming and laugh out loud romantic comedy book that will make you feel happy by [Zara Stoneley]
Click to buy The First Date on Amazon!

I don’t usually do too much research on a book before I request to read it, save for a quick scan of the synopsis and a look at the comps, so this one was my bad. I saw “from the author of New York Times bestseller The Wedding Date” and got the author confused for Jasmine Guillory. Oops. Anyway, the concept here is rom-com-cute: convinced she’s terrible at first dates, a broken-hearted bookstore employee doubles down on her conviction when she’s stood up before meeting her opposite, a serial dater who takes her on as his de facto student. Surprise, surprise, as their dates/lessons proceed, they reluctantly fall in love with one another.
What bothered me most with this book is not that it’s populated by cliché characters, nor that the plot refuses to veer from the expected. Instead, it is the insistence of the central character, Rosie, on comparing Noah to her father. I ‘get’ the abandonment issues, and I have compassion for the residual problems caused by an absent father, however, the constant reminder of her ‘plight’ was simultaneously a reminder of the story’s weaknesses. Instead of trusting in the reader’s ability to buy into the story and Rosie’s reticence in letting go or embracing her feelings for Noah, the author seems to have felt the need to ‘motivate’ this, but I think it wound up hurting the story. Clearly I wasn’t the only one bothered by this particular issue, as it’s mentioned in nearly every other sub-4-star review I’ve read.

Two+star+rating Stock Vectors, Images & Vector Art | Shutterstock
2.5/5 stars.

Review: Louisiana Lucky

Who says don’t judge a book by its cover? Julie Pennell’s latest effort, Louisiana Lucky, is just as adorable in its content as its cupcake-covered cover.

Three sisters win the Louisiana lottery, each winding up with 22 million dollars– life changing money for anyone. What I loved about this book is that, as fun as the book is itself, it has the added fun of putting yourself in that space. It stirred up thoughts of ‘what would I do with that money’, as I’m sure is the intention. In that way, it’s more of a collaborative, experiential book than most. All three storylines are sort of ridiculously predictable, as all three protagonists move along what is essentially the same arc, from barely getting by financially and emotionally, to the initial highs afforded by their new, spendy lifestyles. Not surprisingly, they’re all brought back down to face the old cliche, ‘money can’t buy you happiness’, or else some milder version of the curse of lottery winners. In the end, after they’ve learned their lessons, so to speak, all is well. Each emerges better for having experienced hardship (wiping their tears with money, I would imagine), but we as readers are left satisfied that the grass isn’t always greener. 

While the book isn’t groundbreaking, it’s well-written and delivers exactly what it promises: a cute story, likable characters, romance, and sisterhood. It offers a wonderful bout of escapism, which is particularly welcome at this time, given the current state of the world. I’d definitely like to read The Young Wives Club.

Rating: 3.5/5

Pre-order Louisiana Lucky on Amazon here.

 

Review: Musical Chairs

Musical Chairs

This book isn’t scheduled to be released for a while, but I’m going to do something I’ve never done before and post a pre-review, because this should definitely be on your radar. Stay tuned for my full review, which will be posted on publication day, July 20, 2020. Let me know in the comments if you’re excited to read Musical Chairs, or if you’re already a fan of Amy Poeppel!

Let’s start with: this is not my usual fare. I almost exclusively read and review books with twenty-or early-thirty-something protagonists, often set in urban landscapes, with edgy subject matters and/or a biting sense of wit. Musical Chairs has none of that. Instead, it is a tame book about family dynamics, set in rural Connecticut, with a middle-aged protagonist and zero Millennial angst.  Nevertheless, I genuinely enjoyed this book, which is a testament to Amy Poeppel’s writing. There’s not a ton going on here as far as plot, but the characters are all well-developed and the world feels immediately available for entering and viewing, as flies on the water-dampened walls of Bridget’s home. Usually, I’ve found with novels like this, the details drown out all else, but Poeppel manages the fine balance of detail, dialogue, and action. Her skills are so evident that I plan to go back and read her previous work, Small Admissions.

This will be popular among book club enthusiasts, for its quaint story that opens up larger discussions of what it is to be a middle-aged woman, raising children who are struggling to find their way, taking care of aging parents, and having a life of one’s own romantically and professionally. How does the modern woman navigate all of life’s nooks and crannies (which is what it is here, rather than the cliche ‘ups and downs’)? While this isn’t the book you’d go to for thrills, laughs, or a steamy romance, it is the perfect book with which to curl up on a rainy day.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

Pre-order Musical Chairs on Amazon here.

Review: The Body: A Guide for Occupants

43582376

I’m not sure exactly how I came across this book, but I have been meaning to read it for months now, and started listening to the audiobook, which is read by Bryson himself. There’s really no one better to do the recording, as Bryson is not only a master at writing science that is easily digestible, but is also a deft storyteller, with his posh British accent and inflections ensuring engagement. And, you guys, BILL BRYSON IS THE KING OF SNARK. Part of me wishes I had read it in print, as so often, Bryson’s wording skewed towards the poetic, especially in the first half of the book. However, listening to the audio form felt like an extended TED Talk, carefully treading the lines between too much and too little information and giving a bit of a pop-science feel to it all, with its quick facts, statistics, and historical bits woven together. He’s also so devilishly clever, and I loved being able to hear his sometimes-macabre humor and sense of irony and slight sarcasm come through his voice.

My only ‘con’ about this book is that it did feel a bit long-winded. I wouldn’t say any chapters should (or could) be struck, but I think there are places where some of the more dense science bogs down the rest of the book. It took me over a month to get through it, so I could see how it might lose readers as it dives into the body at a cellular level. Nevertheless, this book should be required reading or listening. I think if science/biology were taught like this in school, far more bright, if disinterested, minds would be engrossed in the material.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Buy The Body: A Guide for Occupants on Amazon here. 

Review: The Love Solution

Image result for the love solution ashley croft

 

I’d give Ashley Croft’s The Love Solution a 2.5, as it really was just okay, but after having looked at the other reviews, I decided to round up to 3 stars (on Goodreads) because I don’t believe a book’s quality should be assessed based on the moral judgements of its readers. It’s one thing to say a book is poorly written, constructed, plotted, or its characters are one dimensional, etc. But to say ‘this book is not good because I disagree with the morality of the characters, choosing to use a love potion’, is silly. Not that I think the Love Bug story points add to the quality of the book as a whole; in fact, I actually think the book could’ve done without that bit entirely, and would’ve perhaps been stronger, as that whole back and forth was ultimately a bit pointless, and the characters and relationships were interesting enough on their own. Also, characters are meant to be flawed– and sure, maybe *you* are the kind of person who maintains utmost integrity, even in the face of heartbreak, and you would never succumb to your own desperate misery. But I’m not going to pretend for one single second that I couldn’t be led down a ‘dark path’, or that I’d label someone who did resort to something like a magic love pill as a ‘bad person’. Yeah, there are ethical issues with that– that’s precisely why we have Science Fiction (or, in this case, Romantic Comedies with Sci-Fi-Light elements), to extrapolate and tease out the potential pitfalls of such medical and technological advancements.

Outside of all that, The Love Solution is truly mediocre. It’s the kind of thing you pick up because you’ve exhausted everything other option, or because there’s a secondhand copy on sale for $1.99. Funny enough, after I wrote this review, I went to pull the Amazon link and it is indeed being offered for… $1.99. At least the publisher is aware what they have here, and they’re not price gouging their customers. It feels like it has been churned out, a bottom of the barrel tale that the author spruced up so she could make that next mortgage payment. It all feels very dated, in its language and domesticity, as if it was either created twenty years ago, or else is intended for an audience of senior citizens who prefer a more tame story. And, by the way, I don’t mean that as a cut down; I think it could be successful in assisted living book circles, and there’s not a ton geared towards that demographic.

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Buy The Love Solution on Amazon here.

Review: Stay Up With Hugo Best

Image result for stay up with hugo best

 

I moved Stay Up With Hugo Best to the top of my list when I was approved to read it, as it sounded like the perfect thing for me, as a woman in entertainment with an affinity for comedy. I wanted to like it, I really did– and perhaps the issue was that my expectations were too high? To me, almost every attempt at humor or cleverness fell just short of being truly humorous or clever. It was actually frustrating, how many times I felt that “this is going to be it!” during the set up, only to be let down by the punch line. Despite the promising plot and characters, the story roams about, with nothing of import really happening. There was a lot of ‘tell’ here, rather than ‘show’, like an extended obituary– not even as interesting as a New Yorker profile.

Now, with all of that being said, Somers is a capable writer. There’s nothing truly bad here, and she’s actually quite good at constructing concise, clear sentences, and telling a story. It’s just that this particular story is like watching paint dry. Her writing actually makes the overall even worse, because, coupled with the overall concept, there’s so much potential here. A has-been, millionaire late night television host and his young, impressionable writer’s assistant spend the weekend together? That is a great hook! Give me something more! Give me the ‘wit’ and ‘hilarity’, the ‘enigma’, the ‘less predictable’, as promised in the description! After being thoroughly confused, I returned to the description to see whether I had mistaken the book; was this meant to be funny? YES. THEY PROMISED. I wanted more debauchery, more scandal, more romance, or at least more searing commentary from June about Hugo, or from Hugo, about the cultural climate. If it was meant to just reflect a sad reality, I think the description should reflect that and not use words like “hilarious”, because that sets the reader up for something… Well, HILARIOUS; not an understated, slow-burn character study. I’ve witnessed this same bad-branding/poor marketing in films, with Our Idiot Brother (starring Paul Rudd) and Funny People (starring Adam Sandler), which were both portrayed as being comedies in the trailers, but were ultimately more about the melancholy side of humor.
Rating: 2.5/5

Buy Stay Up With Hugo Best on Amazon here.

Review: The Water Cure

 

Rarely do I read anything outside of my approved galleys, due to lack of time and, usually, bitterness at having requested something and been denied. But I had to get my hands on Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure, as I love all things feminine and cultish. Okay, where to even begin? Mackintosh’s debut is stunning from start to end, and I fear any review would be insufficient. It’s not necessarily the subject matter or the characters that are spectacular here, but rather the author’s expertise in construction, from the macro, to the micro level. Every word is precise, yet at the same time, they’re strung together in a fashion that straddles the borders of prose and poetry. The storytelling itself is what is special here– the author’s daring choice to move between narrators and points of view, without being jarring. In this way, the water motif that carries our characters throughout also carries the story along, flowing between perspectives.

Yet, for all of its literary beauty and daring/experimental choices, it’s still cohesive and clear enough so as not to ostracize its reader. There is nothing masturbatory or gratuitous, nor is there anything condescending to the reader. Oftentimes, I find authors to seem as though they’re being off-center for the sake of being off-center, being elusive or controversial in an effort to assert their own, smug intellect. As if the more they confuse the reader, the more they deserve merit. (And hey, I’m not entirely innocent of that elitism myself– just look at my blog name 😉 But there’s none of that with The Water Cure. And, get ready for this, there’s actually a plot. Things actually happen in this novel, despite it being literary. There are physical acts that extend further than mere perambulations, there’s suspense, there’s violence, and even a few twists. It’s truly one of the few books I could recommend to a casual beach reader with as much confidence as I could to a literary snob.

I realize this review doesn’t say much about the actual content of the book, as much as it does the quality, but I’m hoping my enthusiasm will encourage you to read it yourself. Like I said, trying to boil it down to its essential elements would be a disservice. And as a note, you may be tempted to suck it down in one sitting, but temper yourself. Let yourself sip it slowly, savor it. Let the words wash over you. And if you’ve read it, please comment your thoughts– do you agree with me? Disagree? Let’s chat.

Review: 5/5 stars.  (My first five star review of the year, and it’s only January 13th. I’m not sure I had any 5-stars in 2018. Hopefully this bodes well for the rest of 2019– and doesn’t mean that everything is downhill from here.)

Buy The Water Cure on Amazon here. 

Review: An Anonymous Girl

Image result for an anonymous girl amazon

Let us first acknowledge the elephant in the room: the only thing sillier than the cover art is the title. There. Now those issues are out of the way, we can move on to the book, which is quite a good one. If you’ve been following my reviews on Goodreads, you know I read a lot of female-focused psychological thrillers, so it’s tough to find anything unique, that I haven’t already read ten times before. Even more difficult is finding something that compares to Mary Kubica or Gillian Flynn, who I think are some of the finest authors in the genre— even though I do find quality control issues among their work, too. So often, it feels like psychological thrillers are churned out, without having been edited properly, as if publishers need to feed a voracious audience and are too lazy (or else too swamped) to give any real attention to developing these stories. As a result, much of the fare feels derivative, cliche, melodramatic— even when there’s a good idea at the root, without time and care, that little bulb is not able to blossom into its fullest potential.

Alright, end rant about the genre and focus on the newest effort by Sarah Pekkanan and Greer Hendricks. An Anonymous Girl *cringes at the name* promises exactly the kind of story I enjoy most: full-on psychological thriller, and it mostly delivers. I was immediately hooked, with the introduction of an active protagonist, who is scrappy and a bit morally agnostic. She doesn’t stumble into danger, as is the case in many of these novels; no, she sees an opportunity and takes it, despite the possible dangers, of which she is fully aware. Or, at least, she thinks she’s fully aware, until things begin going off the rails.

 I also loved that from the start, the reader is involved in the experiment and asked to question their own sense of morality. I wish that had been continued a bit more throughout, so that while Jessica is forced to confront her beliefs, her past, and how she should live in the present, so, too are we. 

An Anonymous Girl offers the best sort of cat-and-mouse game, because Jess is not an innocent who gets sucked into a plot. She is smart and savvy and is trying her damndest to out-maneuver her opponent(s), who is/are always just one step ahead. The novel is rife with twists and turns, which last until the very end. Most are successful at building suspense and skirting around expectations, though as it passes the halfway mark, it loses some of its steam. I think that’s the trouble with books that start out so strong: it’s difficult, if not next to impossible, to keep up that level of intrigue. 

Overall, I would definitely recommend checking this one out. I may even check out the authors’ previous bestseller, The Wife Between Us.

 

Rating: 3.75/5 stars (will round up on Goodreads)

Buy An Anonymous Girl on Amazon here.

Review: Watching You

I’ve been off the grid for a bit, buried in work, but still managing to fit in my daily reading, albeit at five AM. So prepare yourselves for a whole lotta Snark– whenever it is that I manage to get caught up.

All of that being said, I’m going to move the book I finished this morning to the front of the queue.  Why? Because, ladies and gentlemen, I have been genuinely surprised. It’s not often that my expectations are met– and far less that they’re exceeded. Now, it could be that my expectations have withered away over the past few months, having read so many mediocre books. But I’m going to give this one the benefit of the doubt. Of course, now that I’ve built it up, it’ll be a let down for you. Oh well.

So what’s the book?

Image result for watching you lisa jewell

 

WATCHING YOU by Lisa Jewell. I had actually forgotten that was the title until now, and I’m realizing that’s probably why my expectations were so low. Don’t judge a book by its [terrible] title, folks. Watching You is about a small neighborhood in Bristol, England, in which everyone seems to be in everyone else’s business– as is the case in most small towns. But we’re quickly introduced to the fact that there has been a murder in this town, and the primary protagonist, Joey, is also the prime suspect. For about half of the book, it’s unclear whether she’s going to be driven to murder the object of her obsessions, or whether the story is about an innocent woman being framed/wrongly convicted. As the story unfolds, twists and turns are revealed regularly, subverting all expectations (I guess this is the theme of our post today). The way the information is revealed and the transitions are both flawlessly executed, with just enough coming out at just the right times, so that everything makes sense  without feeling contrived. There are a few moments that feel too coincidental, but I’ll give those a pass. Jewell’s writing is clear and her characters are multi-dimensional, possessing positive and negative traits that make them seem human. It’s the kind of writing that is made for movie adaptations. There’s no flowery prose in which to get lost, just a driving plot that keeps you turning pages until the very end.

I’ve never read anything by Lisa Jewell, and since I don’t research authors until after I’ve written the majority of my review so as to keep the person separate from the work, but given her long history writing in the genre, it’s making sense that this book is so solid. It definitely reads like the work of a professional– there’s nothing experimental or avant garde here, no sparks of pure brilliance, but it’s very good. The kind of book you’ll have no problems gifting to anyone and everyone.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

Buy Watching You on Amazon here.

Review: A Well-Behaved Woman

Image result for a well behaved woman

Did you like Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald? If so, you’re going to love Therese Anne Fowler’s newest historical novel, A Well-Behaved Woman, which offers all of the same historical glitz and glamour, and a strong female protagonist.

Fowler’s heroine is an underdog in high society, a progressive woman from the start, though it is perhaps unintentional at first. Having been born to a family with little wealth, and not being able to rely solely on her looks, Alva Smith used her cleverness to maneuver her way into one of the richest families in the world. Unlike her playboy husband, who is mostly useless and spent his time galavanting around the world, Alva sought meaning in her life, pursuing a life that was deemed inappropriate and positively un-feminine by society.  Instead of accepting her role as a housewife, she boldly pursued her passions of architecture and social equality, including being a champion specifically for African Americans. She later goes on to be accused of being an “architect of society’s downfall” for her decision to *gasp* procure a divorce from her husband.

Stories of women’s insubordination and refusal to quietly comply with the “rules” of patriarchal society are always timely, evergreen, but no more so than today.  That being said, one of the greatest things about this book is that Fowler allows the feminist angle to emerge organically. Towards the end, it gets a bit heavy-handed, but it’s justified as it reflects the protagonist’s true turn towards the women’s suffrage movement. Throughout most of the novel, we’re invited into an otherwise-exclusive world, but its pitfalls– especially for women– are apparent throughout. Though the environment is glamorous, the unfortunate treatment of women, minorities, and the poor are on full display. In such a seemingly romantic era, all the more so given the grandiose homes and affairs, it’s striking how little love exists. Love, Money, or Titles: ladies, take your pick. While men of status were permitted to sink ships, sleep with whoever they pleased, and generally do as they pleased, a single misstep by one of their wives or daughters could result in a permanent fall from grace. Fowler points out the horrific hypocrisy, as it applied to Alva, that “Society loved her when she was advancing its causes, then castigated her when she was advancing her own. Yet, were not the two ever entwined?”

One of my favorite moments of the book is at the end, when Alva is standing with her husband, her former maid, Mary, and Mary’s husband, the latter two of whom are African American:

“Will you look at us? Four people of exceptional quality and intellect, three of whom began life as the property of wealthy white men. Not to say that our situations were equal. I just mean to demonstrate that all sorts of societal wrongs can be improved.”

How interesting is that observation? As a creative who subscribes to the notion that stories say more about the time in which they are created than they do about the time in which they are set, I think this quote is most emblematic of the connections between societal issues then and now.

 

Rating: 4/5 stars

Buy A Well-Behaved Woman on Amazon here.