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The Journals Of Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott, Joel Myerson
Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
The Awakening
Kate Chopin
Ulysses
James Joyce
Jane Austen's Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades & Horrible Blunders
Henrietta Webb, Josephine Ross
Becoming Jane Austen
Jon Spence
The Portable Dorothy Parker
Brendan Gill, Dorothy Parker
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Anne Brontë
Don't Tell Alfred
Nancy Mitford
Autobiographies (Collected Works, Vol 3)
Douglas Archibald, William O'Donnell, W.B. Yeats
First Star I See Tonight: A Novel (Chicago Stars) - Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Susan Elizabeth Phillips is one of the best romance authors of all time, so it greatly saddens me that I can't wholeheartedly recommend her most recent book. First Star I See Tonight is full of SEP's usual ingredients: heroine with an interesting job, sports star hero, snappy dialogue. Parts of the book made me laugh out loud and SEP's writing style is confident and, frankly, of a much higher quality than you get from the vast majority of romance authors. 

 

Unfortunately, the book is marred by lame subplots, weak characterization, and unappealing sex scenes. Several of the secondary characters are POC with little to do other than get rescued by the white hero and heroine. Both of the main characters have feminist moments but for the most part, think and behave like regressive dude bros. The heroine in particular comes across as an aggressive asshole who makes a lot of assumptions about other women based on their appearance. 

 

The sex scenes are pretty terrible. I got the distinct impression that SEP is tired of writing them, which I totally get. I skip past the sex scenes in a lot of the romances I read because they're frequently the most boring part of the book. But these--they're short, unsexy, and vague. I found myself craving an emotional connection to either of the main characters as I wrapped up the book. I couldn't understand why they fell in love, and I didn't fall in love with either of them. 

 

The book ends with a stereotypical romance epilogue, complete with twin toddlers. I settled on a rating of 3 stars because the writing is solid, but this would have been a 1- or 2-star book in the hands of a lesser author. 

 

Side note: am I the only one who read the first page and thought the hero was coming out of a one night stand? I eventually figured out he was letting some woman sign his thigh in a public park, which is fairly odd. 

The Silent Sister - Diane Chamberlain

So, I figured out the entire plot of The Silent Sister by the end of the first chapter. This is a book that spends all of part 1 building up to a big reveal that was given away in the prologue, so it's not exactly written by a master of suspense. If you have read more than one mystery novel in your life and watched a couple of episodes of SVU, you'll quickly figure out each "twist." 

 

The writing is clunky and average. It's littered with exclamation points, and it's the kind of book where chapters end on cliffhangers because one character calls another to say "Come over here right now. I need to talk to you." Hello, you're ON THE PHONE. That's what they're FOR.

 

Both POV characters are idiots. One of them shot a former teacher to death when she was 17, and instead of telling everyone her motive (which any halfway decent defense lawyer would have been able to use to get her acquitted) she sticks to an incredibly unbelievable "it was an accident" story. I can imagine a dumb teen who'd gone through what she did feeling like she'd need to keep everything a secret, but later? When she's an adult she never feels angry at the teacher? She never explains her actions to anyone who loves her and now believes her to be a murderer? Pfffft. People in this novel doggedly keep secrets from each other for no other reason than to keep the plot moving from one discovery to the next. 

 

The main character, Riley, is a counselor for troubled teens, and yet when somebody tells her about a 15-year-old girl who had a baby after being raped by a 40something man, the first words out of her mouth are "They were lovers?" It's concerning that someone who works with teens wouldn't have an understanding of statutory rape. 

 

My main issue with this book is that I thought it was going to be a mystery novel, and so I expected the main character would be in danger and there would be a final climactic scene. Instead, Riley is able to get one over on a couple of people who are trying to extort money from her and there are absolutely no consequences for her actions. There are no stakes. This is a book that talks a big game, but ends up being quite boring. 

A Scot in the Dark - Sarah MacLean

I like Sarah MacLean so much that I preordered this book. It pains me to admit that I hated it. Normally MacLean is good for a really swoony, emotional story, but there's none of that here.

The hero is tall, handsome, rich, Scottish (accents, amirite?), and a duke, but he feels he's not good enough for the heroine. We don't get to learn the deep, dark secret behind this bizarre lack of self-esteem until the very end of the novel, and it's actually not deep and dark at all. 

Basically, we learn that he was tall and good looking enough as a schoolboy to entice women pay him for sex. *eyeroll*

(show spoiler)

Lillian is a fairly depressing character. In the intro she considers herself to be deeply in love with a jackass painter, but a few days later she's fallen hard for the duke. Her whole arc is based on her extreme loneliness and isolation, so it's a bit hard to take her feelings seriously. One imagines she'd have fallen in love with damn near anyone if it meant she'd have someone to talk to. 

There's also a string of annoying secondary characters from other books. Several of them are Kardashian-like sisters who all have ridiculous S names, like Sesily. No thank you! 

 

On the plus side, I liked the hero's dogs, there were some funny bits, and the scandal sheet plot is fun. I am cautiously optimistic about the next book in this series. 

Disappointing ending

The Norfolk Mystery: A County Guides Mystery - Ian Sansom

The Norfolk Mystery is the story of Stephen Sefton, who, jobless and desperate for money after drifting through a few teaching jobs and fighting in Spain, becomes a writer's research assistant. Swanton Morley, the writer, churns out dozens of newspaper articles and books on any topic imaginable. His latest project is a set of guidebooks for every county in England, starting with Norfolk. 

 

Sefton and Morley travel to a small village to begin their research, only to find themselves stuck there after they discover the vicar's dead body and become embroiled in the investigation as to what happened. 

 

Morley is completely obnoxious--he knows everything and talks constantly, and much of what he says is in Latin. Sefton is okay as a character even though his main contribution to the narrative is to feel embarrassed on Morley's behalf. We meet a colorful cast of characters in this story, some of them reasonably amusing, and then the book ends in a horrible letdown as Morley magically solves the case and you find that there wasn't really a mystery at all. 

 

I might try other books by this author, but I don't think I'll return to this series. 

Trashy, and not in a good way

A Murder in Time: A Novel - Julie McElwain

This book was offered through my library's Overdrive app as some sort of Big Read, so I decided to give it a try. It has all of the ingredients for a fun summer book: FBI profiler Kendra Donovan accidentally travels back in time and has to catch a serial killer. If you like trashy books at all then you probably think that premise sounds pretty fun. 

 

Sadly, the execution is lacking and I quit on this one after 5 chapters. 

 

1. There are major POV problems. There is a huge difference between an omniscient narrator and an inept writer who constantly head-hops. 

 

2. Kendra isn't just *any* FBI profiler, because that wouldn't be interesting enough. No, she's the product of two scientists who believe in eugenics and created her in a lab. She's therefore the smartest and most specialist FBI profiler who ever was--indeed, so special that the FBI waived their age requirements and let her join up early. Dear author: no1currr. 

 

3. Everyone is fucking stupid, including Kendra. She drones on and on about the deadly ricin in the warehouse she and her colleagues are busting into in the first part of the story. Better keep those masks on, right guys? Nope--almost the first thing they do when they breach the warehouse is rip their masks off because the bad guys have flash bombs. Fortunately the ricin they've been so worried about is not Chekhov's ricin, so it ends up not mattering.

 

4. The author seems to have only a vague idea of how computers work. Kendra leads her team to the bad guy by "tracking his signal," and writing a magic computer program that guesses where he'll go to next, whatever that means. Maybe she's using the Find my Phone app on his iPhone.

 

5. The pacing sucks. I got through five chapters of a time travel story--guess how much time traveling is done to that point? If you guessed zero then, sadly, you're correct. The author strands us in what is essentially Kendra's backstory for what feels like an eternity. I now understand why this book is 500 pages long.

 

This one wasn't for me, and I'm a bit envious of people who liked it. I really wanted to be one of those people.  

Great book for fans of the Saw movies

Pretty Girls: A Novel - Karin Slaughter

I stayed up too late reading the first half of this book. The second half started to drag, and there's a lot of gruesome violence and torture that became increasingly difficult to read. It's also hard to take the ending seriously--the final standoff with the villain is insane, and then things wrap up a bit too neatly for a group of characters who've been so severely traumatized. 

I wanted to like this one

Finding Jake - Bryan P. Reardon

Finding Jake is the story of a stay-at-home dad whose teenage son is involved in a school shooting. The chapters alternate between flashbacks showing Jake as he grows up, and chapters in the present as the dad learns what happened at the school and searches for his son. 

 

I really wanted (and expected) to like this one, but unfortunately, it never landed for me. The description on Amazon said it had a surprise ending, which is why I kept reading it, but to my deep disappointment the ending was neither good nor surprising. It also dragged on way too long (spoiler alert: the dad adopts a puppy at the end). 

 

The writing is overwrought and full of misused words and clumsy metaphors that made me doubt the talents of both the writer and his editor (who surely saw $$ over a hot-topic plot and didn't do much work on the manuscript). The dad complains about the mailman looking at him "askew" (did he mean askance?) when he mows the lawn in the middle of the day and there are sentences like this gem: 

 

It was as if the cloying progress of time had no effect.

 

...Cloying? I'd honestly be interested in hearing what the author had in mind there.  

 

This was another bizarre and overly dramatic moment: 

 

The man in the golf shirt appears within a foot of the moving car. The brightness of the fabric grasps me like a monster's claws, pulling my soul away.

 

The book is crammed full of writing like this. A Kindle search tells me the narrator blathers on about things happening to his soul 16 times, which in my opinion is 14 or 15 times too many for a secular novel. 

 

The narrator of this story is none too bright, and the details of the crime and the cops' behavior didn't ring true at all. I get that this isn't a police procedural, but the book badly needed to be grounded in reality to offset its copious amounts of purple prose. The main plot hole is that people suspect Jake of being involved in the school shooting because he's seen running away from the school before the shooting happens. Can someone please explain the logic in that? 

 

Later, the cops haul the narrator into the station and question him because they spot a creepy-looking doll in the back of his car. How does this make sense? The doll, which the main character finds hanging in an abandoned church, is treated by everyone like a smoking gun. I guess by that logic I should have been given a psych evaluation when I cut my Barbie's hair as a kid. 

 

Anyway. There's something terribly earnest about this novel, which leads me to believe that the author is a nice person. I feel bad for not liking his book more, but I think his editor did him a disservice by publishing his story in its current state. The publicity machine around Finding Jake is fairly ridiculous--it's a story that simply cannot support its weighty subject matter. 

Brain Rules for Baby (Updated and Expanded): How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five - John Medina

My kid isn't very old yet, but Brain Rules for Baby seems to have pretty reasonable advice for raising a smart and well-adjusted child: no spanking, explain your rules, help your child label her emotions, etc. 

 

The author cites peer-reviewed research to back up his advice but also intersperses the book with plenty of anecdotes about his own family. Hilariously, he says that life isn't a competition! Babies develop at their own rates! Don't worry if your baby isn't reciting Shakespeare by age 3! But also, let me tell you about my son, whose first word was octopus (surrre) and he said it at 6 months old. Side-eye for days, dude. 

A Guest at the Shooters' Banquet: My Grandfather's SS Past, My Jewish Family, A Search for the Truth - Rita Gabis

Halfway through A Guest at the Shooters' Banquet, the author recounts a number of survivors' stories along with an eerie anecdote about her grandfather. This section of the book is tragic and compelling and I couldn't stop reading. 

 

The chapters you have to slog through to get to that point are pretty tedious. This would have been a much better book if the author--a poet with an excruciatingly pretentious writing style and a number of depressing anecdotes that were surely honed during memoir writing classes--had taken herself out of it. 

In a Dark, Dark Wood - Helen Ruth Elizabeth Ware

This book is a decent beach read if you're not looking for something original, and if you don't mind a protagonist who's dumb as a stump. 

One Good Earl Deserves a Lover - Sarah MacLean

One Good Earl Deserves a Lover continues Sarah MacLean's series about a group of scoundrels who run a London casino--whoops, I mean a gaming hell--and fall in love with appropriately exasperating women (because if they didn't exasperate the hero then there'd be no plot).

 

The hero is Cross, an earl with a sad backstory, a ridiculous guilt trip (five or six sessions with a good therapist could have saved him a world of hurt), and a self-imposed vow of celibacy. He can't stay away from Pippa, a scientifically minded virgin who's two weeks away from marrying the wrong man and comes to Cross to conduct a series of "scientific experiments" (i.e. ask him about sex).

 

Cross was fine, Pippa was fine, but somehow it took me almost a month to finish this book. Part of it is that I've read a lot of MacLean recently and some of her writing quirks started to grate. How many times can you refer to a carriage as a "conveyance"? Do romance novelists abide by some little-known law requiring them to describe every pour of whisky as an "amber liquid"? There was also a really repetitive writing structure that grew annoying to read:

 

Tonight, however, Cross doubted them. Doubted their keen, unwavering ability to win.

Doubted himself.

Too much was riding on Pandemonium tonight. Too much that he couldn't control. Too much that made him desperate to win.

 

As I read, I couldn't help but wonder. Wonder if she writes this way in every book. Wonder if she'd have smoothed some of these fragments out if she weren't on a deadline.

 

Finally, I have to light the flare gun that I always fire into the heavens when I read a romance novel with a redheaded hero. I don't have anything against gingers, but do keep in mind that if the hero of a romance novel is described as a tall, lanky redhead it's damn near impossible not to picture Conan O'Brien the whole time.

 

Hello ladies

Real Murders - Charlaine Harris

I'm not sure how much I actually like Charlaine Harris's writing, but I do have a soft spot for her books. I read all of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, and I was excited about the premise for this series: Aurora (Roe) Teagarden is a member of a true crime book club called Real Murders. When members of the club start turning up dead, she's alternately in danger and under suspicion.

 

So here's my main problem with the book--if you've ever read some Sookie Stackhouse, you know that there's a long section in every book where Sookie has a day off and spends at least a chapter going to Wal Mart, laying out, and cleaning her house. The first third of Real Murders feels like that. Roe finds a body, but rather than investigating the crime she talks to her friends on the phone, cleans her windows, and buys a new outfit. (Including a pair of pants--possibly referred to as "slacks"--with "extravagant pleats." Not sure what those are, but in this book's world they are sexier than the skirts Roe normally wears.)

 

Given how...dare I say, boring...the first part of the story is, the finale feels like getting punched in the face. It's an interesting affect that made me bump my rating up by half a star.

 

There are some other odd touches in the book that made me wonder if it were set in an alternate universe. At one point Roe makes lunch for a friend, which involves microwaving a "frozen ham and cheese sandwich." WTF is this? Is she describing a Hot Pocket? Fresh ham and cheese sandwiches literally take less than a minute to make and I have never in my life heard of them being frozen for later use. If there are people who freeze their damn sandwiches, they need to rethink their lives. I am not budging on this issue.

 

There's also a character in the book who is a man with a "sophisticated" pageboy haircut. Not sure about anyone else, but this is what I imagine when you tell me a grown-ass man has a pageboy:

 

Sophisticate

 

So, you know. Definitely the height of male fashion.

 

Finally, one of Roe's love interests (because there's some kind of law now that every mystery series has to involve a love triangle) is a red-headed man named Robin Crusoe. No! That is the stupidest name I've ever heard, and having some of your characters comment on how awful it is doesn't mean it's okay to use in your book when you could use literally any other name in the universe and it would be better. I'm going to be pissed off about this for the rest of the day.

The Pale Horseman - Bernard Cornwell

You know how sometimes you read a historical novel and when you're done you think, "That was pretty good--maybe not quite as good as the first book in the series, but fun." And then a few days later it sinks in that you're a grown woman who spent the better part of a week reading a book about a guy who named his sword Serpent-Breath and you feel weird about your life? Yeah.

 

Anyway, I couldn't help wishing the book had been from the POV of Iseult, a Shadow Queen who knows magic and can see the future and is ever-so-slightly more interesting than proto-bro Uhtred.

If You Only Knew - Kristan Higgins

If You Only Knew is the story of two sisters: Rachel, whose seemingly perfect life is turned upside down when she discovers her husband is cheating on her, and Jenny, who moves back to her small hometown after her divorce.

 

It's not a very flashy plot, but luckily Kristan Higgins is a good writer and kept me turning pages long past my bedtime.

 

Pros:

1. The setting is Stars Hollowish without being unbearably twee.

2. The emotions in this book ring true.

3. The main characters are extremely likable, so you'll be rooting for them even when they mess up.

4. No sex scenes--I've been reading romance novels since I was ten and am frankly tired of the damn things (having said that, this book is more "women's fiction" than pure romance).

5. Every basic bitch itch gets scratched. Jenny has an interesting and creative job (and can run in heels!) and a clawfoot tub; Rachel is almost universally liked, a perfect mom, and a great baker. Everyone has bottles of wine on hand to crack open after a hard day. I want to live in this world.

 

Cons:

1. The subplot about Jenny's dad and whether she should tell her sister the truth about him felt unfinished.

2. There are TODDLER TRIPLETS in this book and every single character acts like they're awesome little miracles and not a nightmarish fate you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. (Get ready for dialogue where tiny girls say "fank" instead of "thank" and grown people melt.)

3. Jenny's love interest's background was so sad and damaging that she ended up with more of a "happy for right now" than a "happily ever after," but hey--that's what most of us get. 

4. There's a fairly strong bias against single life that sometimes felt jarring.

 

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I chalk that up to Higgins's writing. I've read a lot of romances lately where the author comes up with a high-concept hook but then ruins the story by writing shallow characters who act in unbelievable ways just to further the plot. It was refreshing to read clean, smooth prose about people I can imagine being friends with, whose actions make sense.

 

 

Chasing Jillian: A Love and Football Novel - Julie Brannagh

Jillian is an executive assistant for the owner of an NFL team. One night, while working out in the team's weight room, she meets a football player named Seth. They start to hang out together. Both of them are nice people and get along but she's short and curvy and he's built like a Greek god and dates models so she thinks he would never be interested in her.

 

Spoiler alert: he is!

 

Many of the other characters talk a lot about how great their spouses are and all of the women are pregnant, so I'm assuming they were the subjects of the other books in this series.

 

This is a strange book:

* A lot of major conversations (for example, when Jillian tells Seth about her childhood in the foster care system) are talked about but not shown. Instead, the author focuses too much on weird logistical touches. Jillian reserves a car via Lyft; a vendor calls to promise a mailed invoice. Water is offered and fetched.

 

*There's a weird sexual harassment moment that flares up and disappears without any consequences or heft.

 

*At least two scenes involve football players interacting with "adorable" children. YMMV, but for me that was two scenes too many.

 

*There is absolutely no tension of any kind in this book. No sexual tension, no worries that the couple won't end up together, nada.

 

*Jillian gets a mini makeover that includes a "pretty, turquoise fleece cardigan" as part of her sexy new wardrobe. (Sexy. Fleece. Cardigan.) A Google image search didn't yield anything that would have what I just typed make sense.

 

So, anyway. Definitely get this book if you want to read something that has zero chance of stressing you out.

 

 

 

My Stylish French Girlfriends - Sharon Santoni

This just in: wealthy French women often have beautiful houses.