Friday, February 12, 2016

#10 [2016/CBR8] "The Legend of Lyon Redmond" by Julie Anne Long

The Legend of Lyon Redmond (2015) and the love story of Lyon Redmond and Olivia Eversea has been a long time coming. Julie Anne Long has written numerous books about the small town of Pennyroyal Green and the many epic romances sprouting from the area. Every young man or woman of marriageable age and suitable demeanor has been swept up in Cupid's influence, including every Redmond and Eversea sibling. A common thread throughout all of Long's previous Pennyroyal Green books is the whispered mystery of the failed romance between Olivia and Lyon--a Romeo and Juliet story of a love despite two rival families. No one knows exactly what happened, but the end result was that Lyon disappeared and has been missing for five years. Rumor has it that he has become the notorious pirate, Le Chat. Olivia has finally given up on ever seeing Lyon again and has agreed to marry the dependable and loving Landesdowne. And that is where we begin.

The book alternates between present day, with Olivia preparing for her upcoming nuptials with Landesdowne, and five years earlier when she first meets Lyon. The two most powerful families in the area would not approve of their children marrying [because they hate each other--for unspecified reasons], so they sneak around, meeting when they can, and not thinking about the future. Olivia gets jealous when Lyon's father tries to pair him with the daughter of a Duke, and eventually Lyon has to face his father. In the present day, Olivia is getting her trousseau prepared. Lyon learns that Olivia is to be married and is presumably making some kind of plan.

So, let's just get this out there. I did not like this book. I found it frustrating and boring. Almost two-thirds of the book covers what we already know from previous books. Lyon and Olivia liked each other, and then Lyon takes off. After years of the hype of their romance, I was expecting something a lot more dramatic than a disapproving father and a misunderstanding. They spend significantly more time apart than together and besides instant attraction, I didn't really feel that they were meant for each other.

***SPOILERS***
When we finally get to Olivia and Lyon together in the present day, about two-thirds or more through the book, it doesn't make any sense. Instead of Lyon finding Olivia and talking to her like a normal person, he's dressed up as a beggar to spy on her. He gets Olivia's dressmaker to hire one of his employees in disguise, and then invites Olivia on a fake trip to meet some of her mentors fighting against slavery. Olivia decides to bring her newly hired dressmaker's assistant as a companion [???] only to discover that her companion is Lyon's employee and Lyon is there! Lyon takes Olivia on his ship to his beautiful home in Spain. First, they are mad at each other but then their attraction overwhelms them and they have a lot of sex. There is very little discussion about what Lyon's been doing or the fact that Olivia is about to be married. Instead of discussing this, Lyon lets Olivia leave without a word when his ship comes back to pick her up.

My new pet peeve in romance novels is the dramatic conclusion at the wedding altar. If Lyon is really Olivia's true love, and she's been tortured for years because of his absence, how can she leave him to go marry another man? And why would Lyon let it come to that? And Landesdowne is a nice man. It is bad enough to end an engagement that will be talked and sung about forever, but to drag everyone from both of your families and the entire town to witness you dumping him and running after another man is just cruel.

The Legend of Lyon Redmond has 4 1/2 stars on Amazon, so there were quite a few people who appreciated it much more. I started wondering if I'm just burnt out on romance novels, or don't know the previous stories well enough to appreciate the build-up. However, the more I think about it, the more frustrated I get. It just didn't work for me. Also, I've always had a problem with excessive typos in Julie Anne Long's Kindle books, and this continues to be a problem.

Monday, February 8, 2016

#9 [2016/CBR8] "Cold-Hearted Rake" by Lisa Kleypas

Cold-Hearted Rake (2015) is Lisa Kleypas's latest historical romance. I was already warned that it was disappointing for a Kleypas novel, so I went in with lower expectations. And it's a good thing that I did, as I wasn't drawn in by the characters. Although some of the side characters were entertaining, this one is pretty forgettable.

Kathleen was married to an Earl for three days--an Earl from a family known for their temper, risk-taking, and short lives. Devon Ravenel, a supposed but not very convincing scoundrel, is one of the few people left in his family. Thus, he becomes the reluctant heir to the title and the estate. When Devon and his brother West arrive, they find Kathleen and the Earl's three younger sisters, as well as an estate in disrepair and near bankruptcy.

Kathleen and Devon get off to a bad start when she overhears him planning to sell off the estate in pieces with no concern for the servants and tenants who will immediately lose their livelihood. Of course, she doesn't realize how bad off the estate is, and Devon develops a conscience and pride in his role as the book develops. Unfortunately, the dynamic between Devon and Kathleen stays the same. She's always mad at him, and they're always bickering. The parts of her character that would make her more likable are not fully developed, so what you end up remembering are the prudish and shrewish parts of her personality that get tiring. "That would be improper," is her response to pretty much everything.

SPOILERS - I knew I was in for disappointment when Kathleen and Devon first connect. Kathleen has apparently not cried since she was a young girl and her parents basically abandon her for their love of horses. But soon after meeting Devon, she falls apart in his arms. I would be okay with this if it had happened later, after she got to know and began to trust Devon (which never really seemed to happen). But when this happened right away, it felt unbelievable. Also, why are the daughters going on a shopping spree when the estate is near bankrupt and they are struggling for money?

The ending was also pretty underwhelming. Devon has less than zero interest in marriage and kids because of his own less than stellar upbringing. Kathleen gets pregnant the very first time they really have sex, but she lies to him and tells him she's not. Devon realizes that he's disappointed and they end up happily ever after. Neither character was very intriguing or fully developed. I hope/think Kleypas's next one will be better.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

#8 [2016/CBR8] "I Can Barely Take Care of Myself" by Jen Kirkman

I've had I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids (2013) on my to-read list for quite a while. But with so many other books to read, I never got around to it. That is, until I finally picked up the audio version and started listening on my, lately, significantly increased drive time. The subject of this memoir by stand-up comedian Jen Kirkman is pretty obvious from the title. Kirkman shortly describes her life, from right after college, deciding to become a comedian, meeting her husband, and her decision not to have children. The largest part of the book, however, is dedicated to stories of people asking her if she has kids and then harassing her when she says that she doesn't want kids.

I have a hard time immediately diving into a comedian's memoirs when I don't already have a good idea of who they are. Aziz Ansari had to slowly worm his way into my heart as I read Modern Romance, and it took me a couple chapters before I warmed to Jen Kirkman as well. At first glance, we have enough in common: We're both in our thirties and not interested in having kids. But these similarities made me a little more sensitive. In a way, she was representing me to the masses, and I didn't necessarily want Kirkman being the spokesperson for my childless self. It wasn't until the chapter where Jen goes to an all-inclusive, beachy vacation with a friend and complains about the kids in the adult-only pool, that I really started to like her. Seriously, the entire complex is dedicated to kid-happy, water entertainment. Why do kids have to blatantly ignore posted signage and infiltrate the one kid-free zone? And why are parents letting them? After that, whether Kirkman was speaking for me or not, I was on her side.

My job is very male-dominated and very traditional, so I get a lot of pointed comments and questions regarding my fertility and family planning. And yet, I was still surprised by the number of people harassing Kirkman about her life choices. From her hairdresser, to acquaintances at a wedding, to even her divorce attorney, she is constantly being questioned and challenged. One of the most common responses to Kirkman saying that she doesn't want kids is a pompous, "Oh, you'll change your mind." It is obviously infuriating to be told what you will be thinking in the future by a stranger. What works for you, doesn't necessarily work for me. Let's just agree to make different decisions about out lives, okay?

Occasionally, Kirkman veers toward what feels like defensive attacks against pregnant women and mothers. She says they're attacking her because they're jealous of her freedom, and their only conversations are about poop and gross bodily functions. Although this is [kind of] true, and there's nothing worse for a friendship than marriage and children, I don't want to turn this into a battle between moms and child-free-by-choice women. One moment that stuck with me was Kirkman stating that the judgment doesn't stop when you have kids. That's certainly true. It never ends. All decisions surrounding your kids are up for debate and unsolicited advice. Are you going back to work? Breastfeeding? Letting them watch television? And for god's sake, what are you feeding them? The answer is obvious: Stop judging and let people live their own lives. But it's easier said than done.

#7 [2016/CBR8] "Career of Evil" by Robert Galbraith a/k/a J.K. Rowling

Career of Evil (2015) is Galbraith/J.K. Rowling's third novel following private detective Cormoran Strike and his assistant-cum-partner, Robin Ellacott. I discovered this series through my book club when we read The Cuckoo's Calling. I followed it up by reading The Silkworm on my own. Each book has a self-contained, engaging, and complex murder mystery. The connection between all three books is the relationship between Cormoran and Robin. Robin starts working for Cormoran in the first book, she becomes more indispensable to him in the second, and they become dependent on each other in this last novel. Although the mystery and the secondary characters in these books are always well done, it is, without question, the developing relationship between Robin and Cormoran that keeps me coming back.

Rowling ups both the drama and the gore in her latest book when a serial killer decides on Robin as his next victim in an attempt to ruin Cormoran. The killer's first move is to deliver a severed leg to Robin at the office. Cormoran immediately thinks of three possible suspects, all dodgy and horrible men from his past who could be harboring a grudge. And the race to find the killer begins.

For the first time, Robin and Cormoran are not only looking for a killer, but they are also the intended victims. This is a serial killer, not satisfied with one victim. Robin seems to always be vulnerable in one way or other, constantly ratcheting up the suspense. We learn more about her past and understand some parts of her life that were left unexplained in the first couple of books. In addition, as they dig into the life of each suspect, a part of Cormoran's past life is also revealed.

I am very impressed with how J.K. Rowling is handling the characters and relationship of Cormoran and Robin. Cormoran is ex-special forces with a pretty dark past. He smokes like a chimney [which I hate] and is pretty sexist when it comes down to it. I hate the way he treats the women he sleeps with. Yet he has true talent and drive for his work and his gradual appreciation and concern for Robin make him a compelling character. I got to a point in the book where I only felt that Robin was safe when she was with Cormoran. Although Robin had a relatively idyllic childhood, she has her own past problems to overcome. Robin also has to balance her fiance, who does not approve of her work, with her love of what she does with Cormoran. I loved how Rowling advanced Robin and Cormoran's relationship in a way that felt real and has me itching to read the next book.

It should not be forgotten, however, that this book is a bloody, gory mess. The serial killer likes to keep trophies and cut off body parts, and he's killed a number of women. It was disturbing. And there is rape and child rape lurking around every corner. Although sometimes important for character development, it's not a fun beach read. Even though this book is in the style of the old-school, male-centric mysteries, Rowling makes some fine points about dealing with the aftermath of rape. In addition, in a scene that I remember vividly because I was so mad at Cormoran, Cormoran had dismissed a rape claim against one of his potential suspects because the complainant "was a partier" and "didn't want to get in trouble with her boyfriend." And the suspect was married, so he couldn't be a rapist. The book doesn't dwell on it, but Cormoran discovers later that he was very wrong.

As far as the mystery goes, I had a hard time keeping two of the suspects clear in my head in the beginning. I didn't know enough about them to think of them as separate people. Also, Rowling sets up these mysteries so that you would never be able to figure out who the killer is without more information. My personal pet peeve is when she has Cormoran figure out the mystery, but then not tell us what he's thinking. We've already spent half of the book inside Cormoran's head! It feels like a trick to kick us out just when Cormoran figures everything out. Rowling did not rely on this as much as she did in her second book, but I have a low tolerance.

I would recommend this book and this series for the fantastic characters of Cormoran and Robin.

#6 [2016/CBR8] "The Japanese Lover" by Isabel Allende

I know Isabel Allende from Daughter of Fortune and Zorro, so when I saw The Japanese Lover (2015) at Costco, I was immediately interested. Alma Belasco is a young, privileged, Jewish girl in Poland. As WWII ramps up to its destructive beginnings, Alma's family sends her to her rich uncle in San Francisco, where she is safe, but alone, lonely and miserable. Her two companions become her cousin, Nick, and the Japanese-American son of the family's gardener, Ichimei Fukuda. Alma and Ichi soon become inseparable. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the racial tension ratchets up and Ichi and his family are forced into a U.S. government internment camp.

Near the end of her life, Alma has moved out of the family mansion and into a rather eccentric nursing home. Irina, a desperately poor young woman has just been hired and befriends Alma, becoming her new assistant. Alma's grandson, Seth, is a frequent visitor, and he becomes besotted with Irina. The two make attempts to figure out the mystery that is Alma's past and the whisper of a mysterious love affair. As Irina and Seth become closer, we learn that Irina grew up in an impoverished village in Moldova, with her grandparents, When Irina is twelve years old, her newly married mother sends for her from Texas.

Going into this novel, I was expecting a detailed, in-depth story of forbidden love with some focus on the treatment of the Japanese in America during WWII. I was partly correct. This book is much more than a tale of internment camps in WWII. And it is also much more than Alma and Ichi's relationship. Just as important, if not more so, are the relationships between Alma and Nick, Alma and Irina, and Irina and Seth. Irina and her history in Moldova and Texas play a large part in the book. In addition, there is a lot of rumination about death and looking back on your life with or without regret.

There are a lot of things I liked about this book. The descriptions of the internment camp was fascinating and made me want to do more research on the subject. I wouldn't mind an entire book on the subject--fiction or non-fiction. Allende also did a very good job with keeping the characters interesting and the plot moving. I never got bored while reading. In addition, Allende has the gift of creating a world and making it come to life. The retirement home became a real and entertaining character of its own.

My only complaint is that I sometimes felt the characters' feelings were informed. We are told that Alma and Ichi loved each other very much, but I never really saw it. I was expecting a torrid love affair that would uphold an entire book, and I just didn't feel it. In addition, I didn't really see where Seth's adoration of Irina came from. Finally, I would have liked more details on Ichi, his life, and his feelings. Alma, despite narrowly missing death in Poland, lives a life full of privilege and opportunities, and she makes decisions that ensure her continued privilege. Ichi, on the other hand, faces much more adversity and I wish I knew more of him.

This book was both a lot more and a little less than I was expecting. Although I didn't always feel connected to the characters, it is a book I'd still recommend.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

#5 [2016/CBR8] "I've Got Your Number" by Sophie Kinsella

I've had to drive around the city much more lately, and to take away some of the boredom, I picked up some books on tape. Initially I didn't have many options, so I grabbed I've Got Your Number (2012) by Sophie Kinsella. I'd never read Kinsella before and wasn't sure what to expect. Overall, I guess I was entertained, but my thoughts on this book went back and forth like crazy as I worked my way through. At first it was kind of funny, then I got bored, then I got irritated, then I got caught up in the story. It finally ended on a note of frustration. It made my driving hours more pleasurable, but I'm not sure if I would recommend it. For what it's worth, the Amazon reviews appear to be very positive.

Poppy Wyatt is a physical therapist near London. She's engaged to a wicked smart professor, and has a beautiful, family heirloom ring, which she loses at a busy hotel at the beginning of the book. Soon after, her telephone is stolen, so she doesn't even have a contact number for the hotel staff to contact her if they find the ring. Panicked and disconnected, Poppy sees a discarded cell phone in a trash can and grabs it. She discovers that the phone belongs to the previous personal assistant of business executive Sam Roxton. After some begging, Sam allows her to temporarily keep the phone until she finds her ring, but Poppy has to forward all his business and texts to him until he can get another assistant.

I enjoyed the beginning of the book. It had a light, fun tone. The reader did a great job with voices, and I loved the way she said "Poppy" with her English accent. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of Bridget Jones's Diary. As the book wore on, I started getting a little irritated with Poppy. She was bringing most of her problems on herself by being ridiculous and dishonest. I didn't feel sorry for her, I wanted her to stop being so stupid. How could you sign up the stranger who lent you his phone on a trip to Guatemala without talking to him? Why would you be friends with such a backstabber as Annalise? I also couldn't understand how she could possibly be in love with her fiance, Magnus. They had nothing in common. In addition, there's no question that I picked this book up looking for romance. But text messages between strangers just aren't that romantic. In fact, text messages in general are nothing compared to personal communication.

When Poppy and Sam start working together and start spending real time together, I did get invested in their relationship. But then it was ruined for me by Poppy acting with absolutely no self awareness. ***SPOILERS*** So, Poppy discovers that Magnus has been lying to her and cheating on her. Poppy also discovers (even if she doesn't admit it to herself) that she loves Sam. And yet, she doesn't break the engagement. She doesn't even  hold things off until they can figure things out, or even have a good discussion about Magnus's cheating and lying. Instead she gets ready for her wedding, feeling absolutely miserable. This sets up the climax at the altar, which felt ridiculous and unbelievable. Relationships don't need to begin or end in front of everyone you know.

Although there were parts I enjoyed with this one, there was too much that just rubbed me the wrong way, so I think I will take a break from Kinsella for now.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

#4 [2016/CBR8] "The Lifeboat" by Charlotte Rogan

I found The Lifeboat (2012) by Charlotte Rogan when I stumbled on (or Facebook shoved in my face) the Huffington Post's list of 21 Books From the Last Five Years That Every Woman Should Read. Of the eight books I'd already read on that list, I'd really liked seven of them, so it inspired me to try out some more.

After surviving 21 days in an overcrowded lifeboat lost at sea, Grace Winter is on trial for murder. Recently married into wealth and almost as quickly widowed, Grace describes the tension and stress on the lifeboat from her own perspective, the beginnings of her relationship with her husband, Henry, and the details of her sensational trial. Grace is not an entirely dependable narrator. Between her limited knowledge, personal interest, her trauma, and her hunger and thirst, she is far from the omniscient narrator we can often enjoy in fiction. In addition, she isn't even always a likable character. She can be self-centered and manipulative, but her strength, adaptability, and willingness to do anything to survive is also admirable.

The enigmatic Grace and the mystery of the book pushed me to finish it without delay. As I read, I needed to find out what happened in the boat for Grace to be tried for murder, I also wondered what would happen at the trial. More mysteries appeared as I read, and I finished the book very quickly.

Perhaps my biggest problem with this book is that I wasn't given enough information to fully understand the character's motivations. My favorite books usually contain characters that I am so in tune with that no matter how much I disagree with their life choices, I can imagine no other way they would act. In The Lifeboat, however, there were a number of times where I had no idea why people were acting they way they were. I understand that because we are limited to Grace's point of view, we cannot fully know what is going on in anyone else's head. I am also sure that Rogan intentionally left a number of points open to interpretation, which does make me think about the book more, even if it doesn't make me love it more. In the end, though, I read it with interest and I continue to think about it. You can't ask for much more than that--except maybe answers to all my spoilery questions below.

***SPOILERS***
After finishing The Lifeboat, I am left with so many questions that were never answered, which I found rather frustrating. Did Grace really have a good relationship with Henry, or did she convince herself that she loved him because she needed him? Did Henry lie to Grace about sending a wire to his mother announcing their wedding? Did Grace end up getting along with Henry's mother? Were Mrs. Grant and/or Hannah lesbians and did that have anything to do with the court's final decision? Grace was able to portray herself as a typical woman, after all. Why was Grace so fascinated with the way Hannah was looking at her? Was Hannah really looking at Grace in the way Grace described? Why? Why did Hannah and Grace go after Hardie so strongly? Was Hardie lying about the SOS going out? Did Hardie steal the gold? What was in the box Hardie carried with him? Why was the box so important to Hannah and Mrs. Grant? What did Henry say to Hardie on the ship? Did Hardie's death really help the rest of the lifeboat survive? Did Hardie die?