Saturday, February 28, 2015

Book Review: Almost Super by Marion Jensen

Title: Almost Super
Author: Marion Jensen
Enjoyment Rating: **** (if I were a ten-year-old)
Source: Library copy

Rafter and Benny Bailey are sure of two things: 1) on the first leap year after their twelfth birthday, they will get a super power (just like everyone else in the Bailey family), and 2) they will use this superpower to fight the Johnsons, the supervillains who live in town. But when February 29th rolls around, Rafter and Benny are disappointed to receive (ahem) underwhelming powers-- Rafter can light matches on polyester and Benny can change his belly button from an innie to an outie. When they return to school, the find an unusual ally in Juanita Johnson, and together they learn that there are bigger fights, manipulations and subterfuges going on than the skirmishes between the Baileys and the Johnsons.

Almost Super is everything a ten-year-old reader would love. It's funny, with plenty of action. But as an adult reader, I appreciated the deeper themes of the novel. Rafter, Benny and Juanita come to realize that there's more in life to being super, and that the way a story has been framed for them their whole lives might only represent a partial truth. They also discover something I think kids might both embrace and fear-- the idea that adults don't have all of the answers. Almost Super was an entertaining read for me, and one that I'm sure my kids will enjoy as well.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Book Review: The Shadow Throne by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Title: The Shadow Throne (The Ascendance Trilogy #3)
Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Library Copy
Content Alert: Violence

In the first book of Jennifer Nielsen's The Ascendance Triology, Jaron rose from orphan boy to king of Carthya. In the second book, he fell in love. In The Shadow Throne, the final installment of the trilogy, both his kingdom and his love are under attack. Jaron, who always has tricks up his sleeve, works to foil his rivals and deals with some unexpected hurdles along the way as this series drives to a satisfying conclusion.

I find myself looking at The Shadow Throne from two perspectives. I'm the mom of ten- and fourteen-year-old boys, both of whom are reluctant readers of fiction. If they're going to keep reading a book, there needs to be lots of action and fighting. They're not really interested in the development Jaron's character over the three stories, and they're only marginally interested in love. If Nielsen is writing to that audience (and I think she is), then she nails it-- this book is nonstop fighting and action, with epic battles. But, I'm more interested in how a character changes over time, and with so much happening in every page of this novel, there's not a lot of room for character development. So is the book written for preteens or for their mother? If for them, it's definitely a winner. If it's for me, the reaction is a bit more mixed.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Book Review: To The Mountain: One Mormon Woman's Search for Spirit by Phyllis Barber

Title: To the Mountain: One Mormon Woman's Search for Spirit
Author: Phyllis Barber
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Digital Copy

After Phyllis Barber and her husband raised their sons as traditional Mormon parents living in Salt Lake City, the pair divorced, and Barber divorced herself from the LDS Church too. To the Mountain is a series of beautiful essays, delving into the child-rearing years, the years away from the church, and the experiences that led her back to the Mormon faith.

This collection of essays is all the good things-- honest, literary, real. It may be uncomfortable for some rank-and-file Mormons in some places, but I loved seeing the variety of experiences that enriched Barber's spirit, and appreciated that those things could be seen in a holistic way that enlightened her life as a Mormon, too. I see this book not just as a collection of essays, but as a journeying piece, in which Barber seems to come to a sense of peace.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Book Review: Hemingway on a Bike by Eric Freeze

Title: Hemingway on a Bike
Author: Eric Freeze
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Digital Copy

We all know that Ernest Hemingway aspired to be the most masculine man of the twentieth century. When I think of Hemingway, I think of those Dos Equis commercials about the most interesting man in the world. Hemingway threw himself headlong into bullfighting, deep sea fishing, large game hunting, drinking, womanizing, and generally being larger than life. Think of him as  an AJ Jacobs who oozes machismo. Essayist Eric Freeze seems takes inspiration from a vision he has of Ernest Hemingway riding a road bike through Paris, but his essays meander through themes of spirituality, masculinity, francophilia, parenting, home repair, and popular culture.

This is a fantastic collection of essays-- one that seems to work as a cohesive whole (I read the book in one sitting) since it feels vaguely chronological (even if it's not), but I would imagine that a more leisurely reading would be even more fruitful. The collection as a whole is sweet, quick-paced, and a little daring. I think Hemingway would approve.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Book Review: Way Below the Angels by Craig Harline

Title: Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled But Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary
Author: Craig Harline
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: Although Harline claims to be way below the angels, this was a clean read

Craig Harline writes about his mission to Belgium in the 1970s. This is a book about a regular boy, with the normal kinds of delusions of grandeur and fits of self-doubt, who goes on a regular mission, where things are boring and hard and he doesn't baptize a lot of people, but he still has a pretty good experience. What I appreciate about Way Below the Angels is the fact that Harline is so normal-- most other missionary narratives I've read have the characters/protagonists converting zillions, or else they end up falling in love with someone or escaping from the mob (or all three). This is a guy whose mission experience was mixed and probably pretty similar to most missionaries' experiences, and I appreciate the honesty with which he tells his story. Also, it's funny, which is always a plus.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Book Review: Hippie Boy by Ingrid Ricks

Title: Hippie Boy: A Girl's Story
Author: Ingrid Ricks
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Paper copy
Content Alert: physical and mental child abuse, neglect, implied adultery

In her memoir Hippie Boy, Ingrid Ricks writes about the years of her life when her mother's religious zealotry, her stepfather's abusiveness, and her traveling salesman father's ability to shirk responsibility all weighed heavily on her. Ricks could turn the story into a heavy-handed "woe is me" kind of tale, but she doesn't do that. Instead, Ricks works to see the perspectives of both of her parents (not excusing them, but also not condemning them). The book deals a lot with power-- religious power, abuse of power, abdication of power, absence of power, and how they play out in the lives of the Ricks family. She tells an engaging, empowering, and ultimately hopeful tale.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Book Review: Field Notes on Language and Kinship by Tyler Chadwick

Title: Field Notes on Language and Kinship
Author: Tyler Chadwick
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Paper copy

I've been writing reviews for days now, and I've saved my review of Field Notes on Language and Kinship until the end, primarily because I'm not sure how to classify it. In the book, Chadwick responds to, or is inspired by, many of the poems in Fire in the Pasture, the poetry anthology he edited. This is a really creative book, with essays, poems, literary criticism, and thoughts on life thrown in the mix. And by "thrown in," I think I mean, "carefully considered." This book is such a delightful mix of things, and it shows how one work of art can work to inspire readers to create others.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Book Review: The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

Title: The Good Girl
Author: Mary Kubica
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: sex, language, violence

The fact that Mia Dennett, daughter of the prominent Chicago judge, is missing is national news, but on the home front, the only people who seem to care are her mother and Gabe, the detective assigned to the case. We know that Mia isn't dead-- she's been kidnapped by Colin, who was supposed to snatch her and turn her over to the bad guys who hired him. Mia and Colin end up spending the fall and winter hiding out in a summer cabin in Northern Minnesota, while Gabe tries to track them down.

The Good Girl has some qualities in its favor-- the narrative alternates between before Mia is found and after she returns, which requires the reader to put in some effort to construct the story in a linear fashion. But (like Gone Girl, to which the story is compared), the story relies on a twist. I figured out what that twist would be the first time Mia alludes to it during her capture, and that made the ending a whole lot less satisfying. That, and Stockholm Syndrome. It's an entertaining read, and I enjoyed listening to it, but I wish I'd been kept guessing a little longer.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Book Review: The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

Title: The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place
Author: Julie Berry
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Murder most foul

The seven students at Saint Etheldreda's School for Girls are enjoying their Sunday dinner when suddenly their headmistress and her brother drop dead at the dinner table. The girls see this fortuitous event as their ticket to freedom, and decide to bury the bodies in the vegetable garden rather than inform the authorities, who will surely return them to their parents. However, keeping their headmistress's demise a secret and fending off a murderer becomes more work than they had bargained for.

While the book takes place in the Victorian Era, these girls (Pocked Louisa, Stout Alice, Dull Martha, Smooth Kitty, Dear Roberta, Disgraceful Mary Jane and Dour Elinor) have spirit to spare. They recognize that the death of Mrs. Plackett might lead to the most freedom they would have in their lives. This is a darkly tongue-in-cheek book that gets all of the details right, and also has a lot more heart than I expected it would when I started reading. I enjoyed it more and more as the story wore on, and was happy to see a satisfying conclusion, with lots of girl power.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Book Review: Good Manners For Nice People who Sometimes Say F*ck by Amy Alkon

Title: Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck
Author: Amy Alkon
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: language (obviously)

Amy Alkon isn't Emily Post. She doesn't pretend to be Emily Post. She doesn't want to be Emily Post. What she does want to do is to help people coexist peacefully in a modern world. She gives great advice about when people should use cell phones (never at a time when it inconveniences others). In fact, her book seems to have two major theses-- don't inconvenience others, and when in doubt, be nice. Simple, right?

But there are times when these two theses come into conflict. Let's say, for instance, like when you have children. For all her aspersions to modernness, Alkon is definitely of the school of "children should be seen and not heard." Therefore, children do not belong in restaurants if they can't keep their mouths shut. They do not belong at New York Fashion Week. They do not belong on airplanes, unless, Alkon says, someone in their family is either dead or dying, or they need a lifesaving medical procedure. And if the children in your charge do raise a ruckus in an inappropriate place (say, at 25,000 feet), it's probably because you are a bad parent. Alkon is very sweet about her neighbor's children, and the efforts her neighbor puts into flying with her children ("she makes these delightful backpacks that she fills with stuff for them to do on the plane" how novel!), but I think she finds it easier to be nice to people she knows than she does to be nice to that mom in the plane whose kids are polluting up her quiet with their noise. She also has this whole thing about writing shaming letters or putting up shaming signs about people who she thinks are not using nice manners, which also seems to go against the second thesis. All in all, an entertaining and helpful, but also a maddening read.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Book Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Title: The Girl on the Train
Author: Paula Hawkins
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: swearing, sex, vivid descriptions of domestic violence

The Girl on the Train is the it book of the moment. I've heard it called "The Next Gone Girl" several times. My husband called me from the bookstore on Valentine's Day to see if I had read it, apparently because there was a huge stack of books on display, and not because of what the book says about the enduring power of married love. But I'd finished the book earlier in the week, and he was back to the drawing board, trying to find me something I hadn't already read.

Over the last few years, Rachel has been in a slow descent. First, she couldn't get pregnant. Then she started drinking a little more than she should. Then she learned that her husband was cheating on her. Then she moved out to a rented room even further from London and the pregnant girlfriend moved into her house, which Rachel had to pass on the train to work every day. When she got fired for drinking too much, she continued to go into the city each day, and peering into her old home and the home four doors down, where "Jess and Jason," the perfect couple she liked to watch from the train window, lived. Then Jess disappeared, and Rachel's life gained a purpose-- find Jess.

The Girl on the Train is a thriller, and Hawkins does a lovely job unfolding some of the surprises of the story in the early parts. The middle part of the story felt a little boring-- I think it would have been a better story if it were 50-75 pages shorter. The narration of the audiobook is fantastic, with three women taking the roles of Rachel, the new wife Anna, and "Jess." I figured out the whodunit part of the story about halfway through, and sometimes I wanted to fast-forward to the inevitably gruesome conclusion. It's a good story, but one that does not benefit from the comparison to Gone Girl, because it raises the expectations too high.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Book Review: The Glass Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

Title: The Glass Magician
Author: Charlie N. Holmberg
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: Some violence

The sequel to The Paper Magician opens three months after the previous book, which had apprentice Ceony Twill walking through the heart of her master teacher Magician Emery Thane. In The Glass Magician, rival magician believes that Ceony has special powers, and he's determined to reveal those powers if he can't take them for himself. Ceony and Emery, and Ceony's bff Delilah face a series of challenges from the baddies, as Ceony comes to a greater understanding of her powers and her ability to love.

I did a little bit of reading about The Paper Magician, because I feel like it took me most of The Glass Magician to understand the world that Ceony inhabits. Some readers felt that Ceony wasn't a rounded character in the first novel, and I didn't get that sense in this book. I have just a few quibbles with the storyline of The Glass Magician. First of all, it felt like a series of small skirmishes instead of leading up to a big climax, and that may be because of my second quibble-- Ceony wasn't there for the pivotal action scene that sets up the third novel. As for the romance, I think my expectations were met. I think this book does a nice job with what second books in a trilogy are supposed to do-- it rounded out the characters and kept the reader's interest enough to make them want to read the third book.

Book Review: We are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

Title: We are Not Ourselves
Author: Matthew Thomas
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: language, a little sex

We Are Not Ourselves is billed as "a multigenerational debut novel of an Irish-American family," but I think it's really the story of Eileen Tumulty Leary, born in Queens in 1941. Eileen grows up as an only child in an apartment where the relationship between her parents could be described as "glacial." She shares a room with her unhappy, alcoholic mother, while her father, the jovial bartender, slept next door. Eileen pursues the American Dream with a vengeance, graduating from college in three years, doing graduate work in nursing, and marrying Ed Leary, a PhD scientist. But Ed doesn't want a fancy job or a big house in the suburbs, and Eileen comes realize that she won't have a fairy tale ending to her life.

I was fascinated by We Are Not Ourselves. It's pretty much a textbook example of a slow-moving epic family drama, and these are the kinds of books I like best. I love how prickly and flawed Eileen is. I love how unaware of this prickles and flaws she can be. I love watching a real relationship, with struggles that can't be worked out in one evening conversation play out over several hundred pages. I love being a party to what happens when one partner's health fails, and how that effects the entire family. I also enjoyed seeing how the story continued in the eyes of Eileen and Ed's son, Connell. After you've read this book you feel like you know Eileen, like you've lived inside her head for a year or two, and that is a magical experience for a reader.

Book Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Title: The Snow Child
Author: Eowyn Ivey
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: A pretty clean read, sex is implied in places but not descriptive

Jack and Mabel are at their wits' ends, both literally and figuratively. It's 1920, and after years of barrenness and not fitting in in Pennsylvania, they decide to homestead in Alaska, only to discover that Alaska is unforgiving, a place where even young people and families find it hard to get started. Mabel considers suicide, Jack considers working in the mines. Then one night, they forget their troubles and come together to build a child in the snow. The next morning, Faina appears in the wilderness with a red fox at her side. As the weeks pass, they see Faina more frequently, and begin to gain her trust, but when the last snow melts she returns to the woods. As the years pass, Faina becomes the reason for Jack and Mabel to live, and to stay. They see her as a daughter, but they're not entirely where she comes from, or why she chose them to love.

There are few books I've read that are more haunting or more beautiful than The Snow Child. Ivey, who lives in Alaska, does a wonderful job capturing the desolation of the place. I also identified so strongly with Mabel, the daughter of a professor, who feels wholly out of bounds in Alaska, and who finds a fairy tale about a snow child in a box of books her sister sends, and isn't sure whether Faina is a feral human or a fairy. The book is complicated and nebulous and wonderful. It's also the sweet story of a family bound together by love and mutual need. It's definitely worth reading, and the audio book is fabulous.

Book Review: Fire in the Pasture, edited by Tyler Chadwick

Title: Fire in the Pasture: 21st Century Mormon Poets
Author: Tyler Chadwick
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Paper Copy

I'm teaching Literature of the LDS at BYU Salt Lake this semester. When I agreed to teach, I felt pretty confident in my ability to talk about essays, short stories, novels, film, and even drama, but I knew that I'd need some help with poetry. I asked friends for recommendations on what text I should use, and the universal response was Tyler Chadwick's Fire in the Pasture, which is an anthology containing several hundred poems by modern Mormon poets. Several hundred poems still felt daunting, and since the world of Mormon Lit is pretty small, I took a chance and emailed Chadwick, explaining my situation, and within a day, he emailed back with a list of the poems he'd recommend I use with my students. We had a great discussions about baby blessings, baptisms, missionary experiences, teaching Primary, laundry, canning fruit, wedding night jitters, and boob jobs. This collection is full of great poems that my students found relatable and funny and meaningful, and I can't wait to spend more time with it.

Book Review: Painting Kisses by Melanie Jacobson

Title: Painting Kisses
Author: Melanie Jacobson
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean romance

In her former life, Lia was an up-and-coming New York artist who could command high prices for paintings in the best galleries. Married to the scion of a prominent family, she had all the right connections to ensure that her star would just keep rising. In her current life, Lia works as a waitress in a diner and helps her sister care for her niece. Her dating life is non-existent, and she hasn't picked up a paintbrush in years. Then a handsome construction worker starts coming to the diner, and the walls Lia has held in place since she left New York start to crumble.

As far as I'm concerned, no one writes clean, modern romances better than Melanie Jacobson. She has a knack for witty dialogue, and her heroines always have a depth to them that I often find lacking in romances. Both of these things are true about Painting Kisses. This is the first novel of hers that I've read where the characters aren't Mormon characters, which is interesting because I think it's also the first novel I've read that's set in Utah. I know that writing romances that aren't overtly "Mormon Romances" is the trend right now, and after reading romances by LDS authors for most of the last decade, I'm no longer a critic of that (I really do need to write an apology post one of these days about how I dived into reading Mormon lit with almost no understanding of the conventions of genre fiction). but in this case, I think that setting the book in Utah, the issue of whether someone was LDS or not would undoubtedly arise (especially with Aidan, who seems so Mormon). Another quibble-- I'm someone who likes to support local artists and my best friend is a visual artists, so we talk a lot about art. In Painting Kisses, Lia seems very judgmental of the tastes and motives of the people who buy her work, who want something as a decoration on their wall and don't fully understand the motivations behind her art. I wonder if this is an unrealistic expectation of a collector-- as a writer I don't expect the people who read my essays and stories to get everything out of them that I put into them, and while I know that Lia's life history contributes to her skittishness, I wonder if this view of the role of the artist was something that she might have worked through in the development of her character. But the fact that I'm worried about this shows that Painting Kisses made me think a whole heck of a lot, and a book that makes me do that is always a winner in my book.

Book Review: Sense and Sensibility: A Latter-Day Tale by Rebecca H. Jamison

Title: Sense and Sensibility: A Latter-day Tale
Author: Rebecca H. Jamison
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean read

Poor Elly and Maren have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Their father's software company went bankrupt, and he died shortly thereafter. Elly has coped by throwing herself headlong into work (for the rival company to her father's, which happens to be owned by her ex-fiance), while Maren can't seem to get out of bed. When the family has the chance to move from California to Maryland, it might be the solution to their financial turmoil, and both girls might even find love.

I think I've made it clear in the past that I am not big on Jane Austen remakes. In my opinion, what makes Austen's books enduring classics is the cultural commentary they provide, and not simply the romance (I mean, seriously, I'm not sure I'd want to end up with any of Austen's heroes, even Mr. Darcy). What I love when I read Austen is the way I get a window into the world in which she lived. And if a modern revision of the story doesn't do that, then the book doesn't work for me. However, this version of Sense and Sensibility does work. Jamison's story tackles hard things-- she writes about mental illness, women in STEM, mental health issues people can have when they return from war and multicultural marriages, all set against the backdrop of Mormon culture. There were certain plot details I didn't love (a death late in the novel seemed a little too convenient), and Maren's character drove me a little crazy (but then again, so does Marianne Dashwood's character), but overall I enjoyed the story, and think the modern adaptation was a pretty successful one. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Book Review: Spirit of the Knight by Debbie Peterson

Title: Spirit of the Knight
Author: Debbie Peterson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean read

I will admit my prejudice here and say that I fully expected to HATE Spirit of the Knight. The cover screamed "cheesy" and when I read the blurb that said that the story was about an artist who came to a Scottish castle and fell in love with a thousand-year-old ghost who haunted the place, I didn't hold out much hope. And when that knight, Cailen, started speaking with a Scottish brogue, I groaned and wanted to quit reading.

Despite all of these things, I persevered, and was surprised to find myself caught up in the story. I'm not as certain that I was captivated by the romance between Cailen and Mariah (the 21st-century artist) as I was to work out the mystery of the silent female ghosts who inhabited the castle (ghosts who Cailen never saw but Mariah saw regularly). This story was fascinating, and kept me hooked far longer than I expected I would be.

Book Review: Saving Grace by Michelle Paige Holmes

Title: Saving Grace
Author: Michelle Paige Holmes
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean read

When Grace Thatcher's mother married a drunken gambler, her father, the Duke of Salisbury, disowned her. Grace's mother ended up as a washerwoman, and then died when Grace was still a small girl, leaving Grace in charge of a brother and sister. When Grace's grandfather reinstated her inheritance, she became one of the most eligible maidens in England, but she's determined to reject all suitors to protect her younger brother and sister. All this courting takes its toll, and after being kicked out of the house of one nobleman, en route to the home of another, her carriage breaks down. She and her servants end up at the home of Nicholas Sutherland, and together they devise a scheme to thwart her father's plans to take her inheritance, and maybe even fall in love along the way.

I've been reading books by Michelle Paige Holmes for years, and this was one of my favorites. Grace was an engaging character who understood the confines of her position in society, who wanted to do right by her siblings at all costs, and who had enough spunk and intelligence to try to guard her position. I also liked Nicholas Sutherland's character, and loved seeing the change he went through at the course of the novel. This book has more plot than the romance, since Holmes spends significant time on the reconciliation between Sutherland and his brother-in-law (and a side romance takes place there). All in all, a fun read, and one I'd recommend to others.

Book Review: Ring on Her Finger by Lisa Swinton

Title: Ring on Her Finger
Author: Lisa Swinton
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: Alcohol-induced vomiting

Amanda's college graduation trip to Las Vegas is supposed to be the best week of her life. But when she wakes up on the final morning of her trip in a drunken haze with a wedding ring on her finger, it turns into a nightmare. Wealthy playboy Blake, the boy who broke her heart freshman year, is now her husband. His family kicks him out when they hear the news, and they have to live as man and wife, with her parents, until their annulment goes through. But Blake hopes that he can use this time to convince Amanda that he really is the man for her.

While the characters in Ring on Her Finger are very broadly drawn (Blake's family are evil rich people, Amanda's family are salt-of-the-earth, hardworking midwesterners), the plot will likely satisfy most romance readers. Amanda is worried about sacrificing her short-term goals of going to Africa, even if it means she can't have Blake in the long term. The ending seemed super rushed and hurried, and not especially believable and romantic, but other readers may feel differently.

Book Review: Prejudice Meets Pride by Rachael Anderson

Title: Prejudice Meets Pride
Author: Rachael Anderson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital copy
Content Alert: A clean romance

Emma is accustomed to fending for herself. She managed to graduate from RISD, one of the country's best art schools, with little help from anyone. Then, she landed her dream job. But she has never had to take care of anyone else either. When her brother needs her to take his girls so he can get his life together, she moves them across the country to Colorado Springs (where a dead great-aunt left a house to her), Emma has to adjust to a lot, and self-sufficiency has quite a big learning curve. When the cute dentistnext door wants to help her by buying her groceries, mowing her lawn and offering her a job, every offer hurts Emma's pride.

Prejudice Meets Pride is a textbook romance novel. There's nothing offensive about it, and nothing really makes it stand out either. Emma and Kevin (the dentist) are just flawed enough to make them seem endearing, and they both have to grow and stretch a bit to find love. The story is predictable and ends happily, and readers who want to escape without being challenged too much would probably find it a satisfying read.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Book Review: Accidentally Married by Victorine Lieske

Title: Accidentally Married
Author: Victorine Lieske
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean romance

Madison is an actress looking for a steady job that will tide her over until she gets her big break. When she applies to be an administrative assistant for Jared, a CEO, he misunderstands and thinks she has shown up to be the girl he's paying to pretend to be his girlfriend for a family party. The fake girlfriend quickly becomes a fake fiancee when Jared and Madison learn that Jared's beloved aunt is dying. But it turns out that Jared and Madison aren't the only fakers in the family, and the couple turns out to be deeper than co-conspirators.

You know how in Shakespearean comedies everyone's always trying to trick people? I got the same sense in Accidentally Married, which is just about as screwball as the silliest Shakespearean comedy, minus the Shakespearean genius. The book is fine, silly, not especially believable, and I didn't feel a connection to any of the characters or really care if they got together, but fine. In fact, I sort of got the sense that Jared and Madison got what they deserved, for better or for worse.

Book Review: Spy by Night by Jordan McCollum

Title: Spy by Night
Author: Jordan McCollum
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean read with some violence

If you've read the Spy Another Day mystery/thriller books by Jordan McCollum, you won't be surprised to see Talia and Danny appearing in this prequel, which is the story of how the couple fell in love. Talia is a CIA agent working undercover as a lawyer in Canada. Danny is an aerospace engineer whose mother wants him to reunite with his crazy former fiance. The two met at (where else?) their LDS singles ward, and Talia isn't sure if she's willing to be vulnerable and let anyone else in, even if it's for a chance at love.

One of the things that makes Spy by Night unique is that McCollum tells the story from Talia and Danny's perspectives. While the Talia chapters focus mainly on tracking down a Russian spy ring, it's Danny's chapters that talk about how the couple falls in love. This is pretty unique in the romance genre (usually we get the girl's perspective) and I found it interesting and refreshing. I was not interested in the spy story at all, however. I think that knowing what happens to the couple after the events in this novel might be detrimental to this story-- I like Danny so much in this story, but find him a little whiny and tiresome in the other Spy Another Day books. All in all, a solid read, and fun to read one of these novels with a bit more romantic bent than the others.

Book Review: Porcelain Keys by Sarah Beard

Title: Porcelain Keys
Author: Sarah Beard
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: violence and abuse

Since Aria's mother, a Julliard-trained piano teacher, died several years ago, the teenager has been hiding her grief and caring for her alcoholic father, who beats her if he catches her playing the piano. So she's pretty miserable until she meets her new next door neighbor, Thomas, who helps her follow her passions and ignites some new ones. Then tragedy strikes, and Thomas disappears from her life. She has to pick up the pieces and try to reconstruct a new life without him in it.

Did you read If I Stay? What about the sequel Where She Went? If you take away the whole hovering-over-the-body aspect of those books and just focus on the Julliard-bound teen whose family died, and mash it up so it's actually the boyfriend's whole family who died, then basically you have Porcelain Keys. The book reminded me so much of If I Stay that I couldn't help but compare them at every turn, and it usually wasn't in favor of Porcelain Keys. The characters seem drawn with such broad strokes, and I wasn't sure that I wanted Aria and Thomas to get back together in the end, or believed that their relationship was portrayed as being strong enough to withstand the absence that Thomas took from Aria's life.

Book Review: Missing Lily by Annette K. Larsen

Title: Missing Lily
Author: Annette K. Larsen
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean romance

Princess Lylin is riding her horse in the forest when she finds herself separated from her entourage and her animal. Fortunately, before any ill befalls her, she finds a manor house. The servants and their lord take her in without knowing her true identity, and she develops an attachment to Lord Fallon that can't be denied, even when she returns to the castle to find life as she knew it turned upside down.

I didn't recognize that this was the second novel in a series, and that Just Ella (the previous book) dealt with many of the same characters and set up the action in Missing Lily. Although that may have made the book more enjoyable, I will admit my prejudice here-- historical romances from this time period really aren't my cup of tea, and neither are romances where the protagonist is basically a child. The book was written well enough, and the story would probably appeal to someone who loves fairy tales and fantasy, unfortunately that reader isn't me.

Book Review: Loving Lucianna by Joyce diPastena

Title: Loving Lucianna
Author: Joyce diPastena
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: a clean romance

Several years ago, when I was new to reading romance novels, I read Joyce diPastena's Illuminations of the Heart, and it seemed to reinforce everything I didn't think I liked about the genre. It felt clunky, with badly attempted medieval dialect and a convoluted plot, and if I remember right, the book felt a little rapey to me (it's been years, so I don't remember why, but I think her virtue was in question several times). So I wasn't thrilled when I saw Loving Lucianna was a continuation of the previous story. Lucianna is Siri's companion, a contemporary of her deceased mother, and she's engaged to be married to Sir Balduin de Soler, but events from her past and her own insecurities may prevent her from the love she has waited so long for.

All in all, I liked the book a lot more than I thought I would. The couple is already engaged at the beginning of the novel, so the question isn't as much whether they will end up falling in love, but whether they can overcome obstacles (both external and internal) that stand in the way of their marriage. I really liked the idea of focusing on an older character (although in early early 40s, she really isn't that old!), and found the internal conflict that plagued Lucianna to be fairly interesting. The book is a little confusing, with lots of names and languages, and I'm still not sure I'm a fan of the very old historical romances, but I think diPastena's craft has progressed nicely over the last five years.

Book Review: Paso Doble by Moriah Jovan

Title: Paso Doble
Author: Moriah Jovan
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: Language, a little violence, and lots of super sexy sex

Victoria is a Mormon college professor who returned to Spain, where she served her mission, partly to get away from her wealthy, stifling family, and partly to be able to watch the Spanish matador she fell in lust with during those mission days.

Emilio is an underemployed Chemistry PhD who supports his stepmother, brothers and sisters by working as a matador, but who pines for a jazz singer in a local club who (like Sia) he doesn't see, only hears. He also wants to teach at a university, but can't seem to get a job. Through their mutual acquaintance, Sebastian (the hero of another of Jovan's romances), the two come together, and wow, fireworks happen.

I've read a couple of Moriah Jovan's romances in the past, and I was both surprised and delighted to have the chance to read this one. These are not your typical "clean" romances favored by Mormon housewives. But maybe they're the kind of romances Mormon housewives should be reading. Jovan creates larger-than-life characters who encounter everyday kinds of problems. For example, Victoria and her bishop have several discussions over the course of the novel about how, if she wants to marry in Spain, she will likely marry outside the church. This is increasingly true for Mormon women throughout the world, and Jovan's treatment of the subject is something I haven't seen in Mormon fiction before, let alone in romantic fiction. Furthermore, Jovan doesn't shirk from sexy scenes. Holy cow, I feel like I'm getting an education every time I read one of her books, and I don't think that's a bad thing. These aren't books that every reader will love, but I certainly do.

Book Review: Lined with Silver by Roseanne Evans Wilkins

Title: Lined With Silver: An LDS Novel
Author: Roseanne Evans Wilkins
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Paper copy
Content Alert: violence, but otherwise a clean read

Sondra is a successful family attorney, rising up the ranks of her Utah firm, when her sister Nikki, asks Sondra to act as a surrogate for the embryos Nikki and her dying husband, Brad created before his chemo. Sondra wants to help her sister, but she's worried about what her clients will think of a pregnant unmarried attorney representing them, so she takes a trip away for the weekend to think about her options. On the flight,  she reconnects with Zack, a boy she crushed on all through high school. He has his own reasons to want a quickie marriage, and less than 24 hours later, they are legally husband and wife. But will love come for these two as well?

This book was one I wanted to skim, but I felt like a rubbernecker at a bad accident and just kept reading. Very few books offend me, but this one did. From the "An LDS Novel" tagline to the unedited feel of the book to the girl who feels like she has to be married to be a surrogate for her sister because of a judgy culture to the absolutely horrendous ending (okay, so I'm going to spoil it here and just say that Wilkins solves the problem of Sondra's growing affection for the babies she's carrying and her worries that she won't be able to hand them over to their parents by KILLING OFF the parents in an accident). Then the last chapter of the book focuses so much more on the romantic resolution than on the death of those characters. Lined With Silver was just a trainwreck of a book, albeit one I took a bit of a secret pleasure in watching.

Book Review: Infinity + One by Amy Harmon

Title: Infinity + One
Author: Amy Harmon
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: pretty clean, but implications of sex and some mild language

Bonnie Rae is the Taylor Swift of her day-- America's sweetheart, and a crossover artist who got her start in country music but has turned into a pop superstar. On the final night of her world tour, Finn Clyde (get it? Bonnie and Clyde?) finds her standing on the railing of a bridge over the Charles River in Boston, ready to plunge to her death. Without recognizing who she is, he tosses her in his car, and since she has no desire to return to her controlling grandmother/agent and her former life, she takes off on a cross-country trip with Finn. Her grandmother reports her as kidnapped, and pretty soon they're trying to escape detection as they go. Along the way, they learn that they're both suffering the loss of identical-twin siblings, and, despite their differences and all of the ways they're damaged, they fall in love.

I was pretty skeptical about Infinity + One. The whole premise of a superstar and an ex-con crossing the country seemed pretty flimsy, but I shouldn't have second-guessed Amy Harmon. She turns everything she writes into gold, and Infinity + One is no exception. Bonnie and Finn are interesting, rich characters, and I believed that they were falling in love. She also does a nice job weaving in the Bonnie and Clyde historical narrative (and all that it foreshadows) without it feeling heavy-handed.

Book Review: I'm With You by Taylor Dean

Title: I'm With You
Author: Taylor Dean
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean romance, but deals with the death of a child and adultery

Chloe seems to have a perfect life with her husband, her interior design business, and her first baby on the way. But when the baby is stillborn, everything in her life falls apart. All she wants to do is sit in the baby's room all day and cry, and her husband gradually disconnects, until one day he comes home to tell her that he's going on a six-week trip to the Caribbean with another man's wife.

When the jilted husband shows up on Chloe's doorstep. they commiserate over their fates. He's a lawyer, and he helps her start divorce proceedings. And gradually, their shared experience becomes a friendship, which turns to love, and Chloe finds herself living again for the first time since the death of her son.

I know that lots of people love I'm With You, but I'm not one of them. I felt that Dean was pretty heavy-handed with her depiction of the Bathseba who drew Chloe's husband away. Chloe is very clearly damaged and not handling the death of her child well, and I think it's a little facile to think that a romance will solve those deeper issues. All in all, this is a fine book, but not one of my favorites.

Book Review: Miss Armistead Makes Her Choice by Heidi Ashworth

Title: Miss Armistead Makes Her Choice
Author: Heidi Ashworth
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean romance

Miss Armistead, who has lived in India since her London season several years earlier, arrives in England to prepare for her upcoming marriage to Duncan, a blind Scotsman who captured her heart in India. Then Mr. Lloyd-Jones saves her and her mother from a problem with their carriage, and soon Miss Armistead and Mr. Lloyd-Jones are running into each other almost every day. If it weren't for Duncan, Miss Armistead might even say that she was falling for one of London's most eligible bachelors, but her sense of duty is strong, and she knows what she has to do.

I've read several of Heidi Ashworth's historical romances over the years, and they just keep getting stronger. I think Miss Armistead is her best so far. Although Miss Armistead is a fine character, it's Mr. Lloyd-Jones who shines in this novel, and I love the way that Ashworth creates an out (oops, spoiler!) so true love can prevail.

Book Review: Divine by Nichole Van

Title: Divine (House of Oak #2)
Author: Nichole Van
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean romance

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that the second book in a series will be markedly weaker than the first book. I've talked at length in this blog about the second-book curse, and I fully expected that curse to apply to Divine, the sequel to Intertwine by Nichole Van. After all, the thing that made Intertwine so fantastic was the fact that there was a modern woman living in the 1800s and falling in love with a man from that time period. Divine is the story of Georgiana, James's sister, and Emme's sister-in-law, and the man who loves her is also a man of the 1800s, so wherein lies the conflict?

In Intertwine, Georgiana traveled to 2012 to cure her consumption, and when she returns to the past, she's not sure to which world she belongs. The conflict in Divine comes when Sebastian, who has loved her since childhood, follows her through the time portal and experiences modern life. Van brings the same smart writing and rounded characters to Divine that she brought to Intertwine, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading both books in the series. No second-book curse here!

Book Review: Intertwine by Nichole Van

Title: Intertwine (House of Oak #1)
Author: Nichole Van
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean romance

Emme goes to England in the summer of 2012 do to research on her doctoral dissertation, but she's also on the lookout for a man. Not just any man, but the one whose picture she found in a locket at an estate sale years ago and to whom she feels a cosmic connection. The problem is that picture looks so old that the guy is undoubtedly ancient or even dead by now. And then, it happens. One minute she's at the cottage she's rented for the summer, and the next she has been transported to 1812, where James, the master of the house into which she stumbles, looks suspiciously like the man in her locket.

I was super skeptical when I started reading Intertwine. When I'm trying to read a lot of books in a short amount of time, I give the books the 50-page test (meaning that if I don't like the first 50 pages, I will start skimming). Intertwine was a book that almost didn't pass my 50-page rule. It has a bit of a slow start, and Emme seems more crazy than quirky before she ends up in 1812, but wow, I'm glad I persevered. This was far and away the best of the romances I've read this year. Emme and James were fully rounded characters. Van's writing is fantastic, but I really loved that Van was able to sidestep the "modern heroine in a historical romance" problem that chronically plagues historical romances by really making the heroine a modern girl. I loved the internal dialogue Emme had with herself, the things snarky Emme said when she was adapting to life in 1812. Van does a nice job creating a compelling plot which showcases the characters. All in all, a really fun read.

Book Review: Chances Are by Traci Hunter Abramson

Title: Chances Are
Author: Traci Hunter Abramson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean romance

Maya escaped an arranged marriage in India, survived a year in the US foster system after her beloved grandmother left her alone in the world, and still managed to get into a good college. But now, she's facing the biggest challenge of her young life-- a brain tumor. She needs to move to Washington DC for a last-ditch effort at an experimental treatment, and her best friend offers up her brother Ben's empty apartment for Maya to live in. Ben, who's a pro baseball player, returns early after breaking up with his girlfriend to find Maya in his apartment. At first, he throws her out, but when the man to whom her father promised her in India tracks her down, Ben decides that the best solution to all of their problems is for him to marry Maya (insurance fraud, anyone? not to mention immigration issues?). And then, of course, they start to fall in love.

I've read a lot of romances over the last few months, and the "marry first, fall in love later" theme seemed unusually prominent in them. This was a relatively successful attempt at the story. I really liked Maya (although I wanted her to have some flaws). Ben, on the other hand, was such a jerk in the early parts of the story that I wasn't sure I wanted her to marry him, let alone fall in love with him. The final chapter/resolution seemed to come too quickly, but the book was a pretty enjoyable read.

Book Review: Broken Smiles by Tara Mayoros

Title: Broken Smiles
Author: Tara Mayoros
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean read

Laidan is a humble folk singer who hits it big, and before she's even quite aware of what's happening, she's one of the biggest pop sensations of her time. But after two albums and tours, some of the unresolved issues of her past catch up with her, and she takes off (right from the stage at the Grammy's) to volunteer with Rafe, an American doctor working in rural China. Pretty soon, Laidan's broken smile begins to heal, and Rafe and Laidan fall in love, but Rafe has no idea who Laidan is back home, and she's not sure if he would want her if he did know.

Broken Smiles was one of the less engaging romances I've read lately, mainly because it didn't meet the expectations of its genre. For the first half of the book, as we follow Laidan's rise to stardom, I wasn't sure who her romantic interest would be. For a long time, I thought she would fall for her bodyguard. While I thought the story was sweet, I also had a hard time rooting for someone who was pretty dishonest about who she was in the real world, and it made me not care too much if Rafe chose her or not.

Book Review: Becoming Lady Lockwood by Jennifer Moore

Title: Becoming Lady Lockwood
Author: Jennifer Moore
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean romance

Amelia Beckett loves the freedom that comes with being a widow. If that sounds callous, don't blame her-- she never actually met her husband. Her marriage was on paper only, brokered between her husband and father, and shortly thereafter, her husband was lost at sea, leaving Amelia the rights to supervise the Jamaican plantation on which she grew up. Then Sir William Drake, Amelia's brother-in-law, shows up at the plantation, determined to take Amelia to London to see her father and prove the marriage a fraud. He's angry and suspicious; she's defensive and worried, and somewhere in the Atlantic, the two fall in love.

Becoming Lady Lockwood is a pretty great story. I loved Amelia. We often see spunky heroines in historical romances, and often these characters feel too modern and not-quite believable, but Moore does a nice job positioning Amelia as a self-sufficient young widow. I felt that the tension between the two characters worked, and the external villains provided enough of a plot on which to hang the internal conflicts.

Book Review: Sweet Confections by Danyelle Ferguson

Title: Sweet Confections
Author: Danyelle Ferguson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: a clean read, with some stalkerish violence

Rachel is full-figured and thirtyish and her mother is eager to get her married off. Although she's the owner of a successful bakery, she can't seem to find the same success in her love life. When the book opens, she's just broken up with a creeper who turned out to be married. Then Rachel meets Graydon, also known as GG, also known as the most famous and revered hockey player in Kansas City. He's exactly what Rachel doesn't want in a man, yet she can't help being drawn to him.

I genuinely enjoyed the interactions between Rachel and Graydon in Sweet Confections. Ferguson does a nice job creating believable characters with just the right amount of romantic tension. I'm not sure I liked the way that the story shifted from a romance to a thriller in the second half of the story, and the climax seemed much more plot-driven than character driven. Still, this is a solid romance that would appeal to people who like clean, modern romances with interesting characters.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Book Review: Longing for Home: Hope Springs

Title: Longing for Home: Hope Springs
Author: Sarah M. Eden
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean read

Longing for Home: Hope Springs is the sequel to Longing for Home: A Proper Romance. When this second installment opens, Katie Macauley has decided to stay in Hope Springs, Wyoming instead of returning to Ireland, despite the fact that the town is in turmoil, with the Irish pitted against the other townspeople. Katie is also in turmoil, unsure of whether she loves (Irish) Tavish, or (not Irish) Joseph. As the story progresses, the town seems even more divided, and as they face a devastating winter, it seems unlikely that they will ever come together. Then tragedy strikes Katie, and suddenly there is clarity, both in town relations and in Katie's relations of the heart.

Although I know many people loved this novel, I was not a fan of the first book, and therefore felt like I was destined not to like this one either. It feels like this is really one long story split into two books (the traditional arc of a romance isn't fulfilled at the end of the first novel), and I'm not sure that it serves a narrative purpose as much as it does a marketing purpose. Eden is a fine writer, but I don't feel moved by Katie or Tavish, and only feel reluctantly drawn to Joseph, so I found myself not caring as much as I felt I should have about what the eventual resolution to the novel would be.