Book review: ‘Sleeping Arrangements’ by Madeleine Wickham

It’s official: I’m severing all ties with Madeleine Wickham. After reading a few of her books and consequently wanting to shove most of them into a mud pit, hopefully to be swallowed whole, I’m placing her on Meg’s Banned List until I’m somehow convinced to give her a second chance.

And I can be rather stubborn about these things.

So here we have Sleeping Arrangements, a tawdry and droning little book centering on two families thrust together unexpectedly on holiday in Spain. Chloe is desperate to get away with her long-time partner, Philip, and their two sons. When an opportunity to stay at an old friend’s villa pops into their laps, Chloe eagerly accepts an invitation to get away for a much-needed break.

But when they arrive, she’s shocked to find another family already soaking up some rays on the property — and it just so happens she has quite the history with Hugh, a charismatic businessman who broke her heart more than a decade before. Hugh has his hands full with two young daughters and his wife, Amanda, a snotty and self-indulgent trophy wife who seems to be nothing more than a status symbol. And then the real fun begins.

I borrowed a copy of Sleeping Arrangements on audio from the library and listened to the whole novel quickly, though I can’t say it was with much enjoyment. These characters are annoying, spoiled and pretty insufferable. I felt zero empathy for Chloe or Hugh, both of whom acted like petulant children for most of the narrative. Philip was an affable dullard and Amanda a total twit, so that left me with . . . who? Jenna, the rebellious Australian nanny brought along to care for Amanda and Hugh’s squealing daughters? Sam, the teenage boy obsessed with what’s hidden beneath Jenna’s bikini? Gerard, the over-the-top snobby wine critic who masterminds this whole “mix-up”?

Eh. The whole novel just left a sour taste in my mouth. It’s all so faux angsty and ridiculous, and I couldn’t muster up an ounce of enthusiasm for this unhappy British lot. If I’d had my nose in a paperback or — shudder — a hardcover, I would have surely tossed it aside after just a few chapters. But since it was on loan and on audio, I stuck it out.

But would I recommend it? Only if you like your chick lit with a healthy dash of unpleasant, ridiculous characters and unfeasible situations. And I don’t think you do.

2 out of 5!

ISBN: 0312943970 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audiobook borrowed from my local library

Book review: ‘French Lessons’ by Ellen Sussman

Three French tutors meet with pupils one day in Paris, and the lessons and experiences they share — some isolating; some intimate — come to define them in unexpected ways.

Ellen Sussman’s French Lessons was . . . fine. Have you ever felt that way about a book? Neutral, vanilla, “meh.” I read it quickly and enjoyed it well enough at the time, but I’ve delayed writing this review. Two weeks later and I’m sitting here with my head cocked to one side, finding myself with little to say about it.

Sussman’s writing is lyrical, but I got to know her characters in such a limited, superficial way that no one person has stuck with me. Weeks after finishing, I had to physically open the book to remember anyone’s name. That doesn’t bode well. I tweeted a few weeks back that I never thought a book about sex — and make no mistake: this one oozes with trysts, sensuality and attraction — could be so dull.

Nico was probably my favorite character, but only because he was the one person I got to know. His love for Chantal, a fellow Parisian and tutor, was touching at times — and I did like the book’s conclusion. But everyone else was either selfish and dull or ridiculous and campy. I hated and felt no empathy for Josie, a grief-stricken teacher dealing with the death of her married (and not to her, natch) lover. If anything, I only felt sharp twinges of anger toward her.

But those were fleeting. I waited for French Lessons to make me feel something, especially since I’m caught up in a tailwind of obsession with Paris at the moment. (By the way, I think I’ve narrowed my big trip down to France. Hence why I eagerly plucked a copy of this one from my bookshelves.) But in the end, all I felt was a listless desire for this book to be over.

The book’s one strength is the gorgeous portrayal of Paris, a character unto itself. I could feel the breeze ruffling my hair from atop the Eiffel Tower and taste the warm goodness of a croissant while seated at a French cafe. In Sussman’s hands, the city becomes the glittering and glamorous array I imagine it to be. It’s the characters — the human characters — that leave much to be desired.

I did finish French Lessons, though. And I have no problem tossing books aside, so I give it points for that. But unless you’re a diehard francophile, I would probably head for more alluring pastures.

2.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 034552277X ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy won from a blog giveaway

Book review: ‘Wake’ by Lisa McMann

Well. Wake by Lisa McMann. There you are. Here I am.

We’re not friends.

We never will be.

It’s been a while since I actively disliked a book as much as this one, friends.

Here’s our premise: Janie is a 17-year-old with a mysterious ability to slip into others’ dreams. When someone falls asleep within a certain radius, Janie is sucked into their nightmares — death; fire; falling; sex — and must stand nearby as they all beg for her help. Her unwanted, uncontrollable condition is akin to having regular seizures.

After she begins talking to Cabel, a loner rumored to be a druggie, Janie slowly lets her guard down and starts to give Cabe a foothold in her life. No one else discusses her alcoholic mother or her strange black-outs; no one else sees the secrets that have haunted her since childhood. And Janie is discovering that Cabe has secrets of his own . . .

So, none of this worked for me. We get this story from an awkward present-tense, third-person vantage point that never let me get close to the characters or plot, and the incredibly sparse language did nothing but annoy me. McMann’s short phrases and chapters, diary-like in nature, felt like rapid-fire pelts against my skull. The lack of descriptions and jarring transitions between the “real world” and the “dream world” felt strange — and though I’m sure the author intended it that way, I hated constantly switching between reality and nightmares. It was boring.

This book is a fast read — I finished it in two days, and that was with wanting to chuck it at the wall a few times. I finished because I was already tearing through it and, to be honest, I was waiting for things to get interesting. For me, they never did — not even with a bombshell towards the end. Plus? The language here was atrocious. I know everyone’s quick to pull out “But this is how teens talk!” card but, honestly? Don’t care. I don’t need to see the F-bomb dropped on every other page, nor am I interested in the sex lives of teenagers. I don’t care if that’s how they talk and blah blah blah I’m so old and out of touch with the world blah blah — I just don’t want it. Don’t like it.

The romance between Janie and Cabel left me cold, and I wasn’t interested in the back stories of these characters — or any others. Just . . . not into it. I know I’m being mean and I should try harder to be balanced, but I just wasn’t a fan.

One star for being, you know, a bestselling book; one star for attempts at a creative plot involving dream catching. But I’m sorry, Wake; it’s over between us. Don’t make this any more difficult than it has to be.

But don’t take my word as gospel! There are lots of readers who rave about this one, including Book Reviews By Crystal, Karin’s Book Nook, YA Reads and Harmony Book Reviews. And, you know, many reviewers on LibraryThing and Goodreads. So I’m the weirdo, but that’s all right.

2 out of 5!

ISBN: 1416974474 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘High Tea’ by Sandra Harper

Margaret Moore runs a quaint tearoom in downtown Los Angeles, where she’s lived near her ex-husband and grown daughter for decades. A British expat, Margaret adjusted reasonably well to life in the Golden State — but now, after years away from London, she’s wondering what she might have missed. Compounded with her disillusionment over the hurried, superficial lives of L.A.’s residents, Margaret’s daydreams about returning home may become more than fantasies.

Baking scones and brewing tea alongside Margaret at Magpie’s Tearoom are Lilly, a pastry chef who yearns for more out of life — and her relationship with Deborah, her girlfriend much her junior; Clarissa, an aging actress still desperately clawing for that one part to send her on the path to stardom; and Lauren, a younger actress who spends more time gallivanting with her boyfriend than studying the craft of acting . . . but still manages to snag good roles. Lauren and Clarissa are servers at Magpie’s, but tensions around the building are brewing faster (and stronger) than the tea.

Sandra Harper’s High Tea looked to be a light, savory little chick lit novel — and I guess, if I were feeling vapid and ridiculous, I might have enjoyed it more. I read Harper’s Over The Holidays last December and thought it was fun, though it was badly stricken with Too Many Characters-itis. This one suffered the same illness: too many characters and far too many storylines resulted in my total ambivalence about everyone in this quick read.

Margaret is our main character and, as such, we get the most of her back story — which would have been fairly interesting if I had a clue what any of it meant to her. Her ex-husband, Tony, was a starry-eyed actor who brought his young family to Los Angeles as he pursued a stage career. Now older, wiser and, you know, gay, Tony and Margaret have divorced but continue to raise their daughter, Kate, together. As the years have gone on, Margaret and Tony have become friends — even as Tony, now 60, lives with his long-term boyfriend but watches said boyfriend parade young men through the house.

All very interesting, but how was Margaret feeling? She’s a 60-year-old divorcee whose husband — a man with whom she was once madly in love — has left her and come out of the closet. That’s enough to send anyone into a psychotic break, I’d reckon, but we never get even an inkling of emotion from our heroine. This isn’t a fresh wound in the story, of course; all of this went down years before High Tea opens. But still: there’s nothing.

Lilly’s plotline felt completely ridiculous to me, too. Here we have a woman with dreams, ambitions, goals — and the inability to stop being a doormat to her young girlfriend, a high-powered Hollywood producer who treats Lilly more like a mother than a significant other. Lilly is obsessed with their sex life — or lack thereof — and spoiler: she hops into bed with a stranger with absolutely no preamble. Struck dumb by the idea of life without Deborah, Lilly somehow has zero issue cheating on her with someone she doesn’t even know. And suddenly they’re planning a whole life together? In about .567 seconds? What?

Clarissa and Lauren passed in and out of the story so infrequently, I can’t really bother to comment on them. I never got to know either woman, other than that one was “old” and one was “young,” and apparently that’s an “issue” in Hollywood. Yeah, thanks for the breaking news that all starlets are supposed to be fresh-faced, doe-eyed and thin. Got it.

Meh. I won’t go on. I’m a huge fan of chick lit and love tea — hence why I picked this one up, coupled with the pink cover — but I sped through it in no time because I was bored. Margaret’s sojourn to England provided a brief and promising change of scenery, but it never amounted to much.

2 out of 5!

ISBN: 141658062X ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘The DUFF’ by Kody Keplinger

Bianca Piper has always basked in her camaraderie with Casey and Jessica, her gorgeous (and blonde) friends at Hamilton High. Maybe she’s a little on the larger side than they are, sure, and her hair doesn’t have that same sleek, flowing quality. Perhaps she’s a little bitter, a little jaded — but it’s not like she doesn’t have a reason to be, okay? Her mom is, like, not around. And her dad has tons of issues of his own. And if she finds solace in folding and re-folding clothes at the foot of her bed and indulging in a little daydreaming about Toby Tucker, a cute classmate, who’s to judge her?

Well, Wesley Rush, for one. Wesley — all womanizing, skeezy charm and disarming good looks. Curly dark hair; awesome body. Wanted by half the female population in Hamilton and already enjoyed by the other. Wesley . . . who informs Bianca — unprovoked, unsolicited — that in her group of friends? She’s the DUFF.

The designated ugly fat friend.

If life was coasting along for our narrator up until that point, Bianca’s world suddenly comes crashing down. Issues with self-esteem bubble up and pop, forcing an unstoppable stream of venom in Wesley’s direction. Because she hates him, you guys. Like, really, really hates him. Despises him. Thinks he is the worst.

Except, you  know, not so much.

Kody Keplinger’s The DUFF is a novel about a high school student that was . . . well, written by a high school student. And you know what? It reads that way. This is both good — mostly realistic dialogue; somewhat believable teen characters — and bad. Because I felt like I was reading the diary of . . . well, a teenager. Of myself. And in the parts that were actually tender, there was truth there.

After all sorts of off-handed comments on Twitter, I’m going to try and keep my snark here to a minimum. I didn’t hate this book and I sincerely don’t want to be a hater, but I’m not sure I understand the hype surrounding this title. Though entertaining, The DUFF lacked a little something I like to call nuance. Something for readers to glean between the lines, if you know what I mean. Puzzles for me to figure out. Behavior for me to decipher. Clues as to the bigger picture — a picture I didn’t want to the author to spell out for me in pain-staking detail.

As Bianca and Wesley’s “relationship” heats up — and that’s not a spoiler, friends, promise — I would have loved to actually sit down and try to figure out why our narrator was sleeping with someone she claims to loathe. Not all sexual encounters are motivated by love — I can respect that. But the sound of his voice makes her sick, Bianca says. She can’t stand to look at him. He makes her crazy. He’s disgusting.

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
Continue reading

Book review: ‘A Desirable Residence’ by Madeleine Wickham

One house in Silchester, England, brings together three unlikely groups of people in this novel of deceit, debt and escalating — but unrealized — hopes.

Liz and Jonathan Chambers are homeowners up to their eyeballs in money troubles, scrambling to pay both the mortgage on their Russell Street house and the loan against a local tutorial college they’ve purchased. When their bills reach towering heights, they’re forced to take action — and must move with their rebellious 14-year-old, Alice, to a small flat above the school they run. Scared by the turn of events, Jonathan and Liz approach Marcus Witherstone, a real estate agent, about how to handle the mess their unsold home is bringing them, and he makes a proposition: lease it out.

The new tenants are Ginny and Piers, a fashionable couple from London seeking to escape the hustle-and-bustle of the city as they wait for Piers’ acting prospects to finally pan out. With their friend Duncan, they arrive in Silchester to rent the Russell Street property — and soon meet Alice, who frequently sneaks into her old garage to smoke clandestine cigarettes. While that treachery is happening, Liz finds herself in a precarious situation, too . . . with Marcus. As kind, well-meaning Jonathan is left to solve their financial troubles and Marcus’s wife, Althea, becomes obsessed with getting their eldest son a fabulous scholarship, Liz and Marcus’ lies begin to stack up neatly . . . and then become frayed at the edges, threatening to destroy everything.

As much as I became initially engaged in Madeleine Wickham’s A Desirable Residence, all the attraction here is centered on unlikeable, misanthropic people finally getting their just desserts in the end. From scheming, bored Marcus to ungrateful, uncharitable Liz, I struggled to find one character with whom connect in this British novel.

Bratty Alice couldn’t have been more unjust to Jonathan, her bumbling but sweet father, and more than once in the book I found myself wanting to reach in and slap her. She’s a self-absorbed teenager, yes, and I could respect the fact that her behavior was realistic, but who wants to spend 293 pages reading about a rude, deluded 14-year-old? As she began forcing her presence on Ginny, Piers and Duncan, I became more and more agitated. Couldn’t she see she wasn’t wanted? That she was intruding? That she was annoying? Even if the new residents of her old house didn’t feel that way, I certainly did.

What could have saved this book from becoming a soulless mess was a dash of humor, warmth or humanity. Demonstrating some growth. Some maturity. Some sincerity. And though I did find myself smiling inwardly toward the end at an unexpected turn of events, for the most part? The bad people stayed bad. The selfish people stayed selfish. Marcus redeemed himself slightly in my eyes, but Liz — Liz, one of our central characters — didn’t get what she deserved. I wanted a blow-out, a reckoning . . . I wanted an epic battle complete with tears and divulsions. But I was disappointed.

Wickham is better known to most of us as Sophie Kinsella, the nom de plume under which she wrote the best-selling Shopaholic series. While her writing is fluid and enjoyable, her characters — the anchors of any story — were terrible. You won’t find me complaining about any “distance” between myself and these people, because I definitely felt like I got to know them through the course of A Desirable Residence. The real question is would I actually want to know them?

And the answer to that is, of course, a resounding no.

With so much great women’s fiction and chick lit out there just waiting to be devoured, I can’t recommend this one. It was boring, lifeless and grating — though I did manage to finish it, so I guess that says something . . . mostly about the quality of Wickham’s writing, which was fast-paced and readable. I didn’t hate it — but didn’t love it, either. For good British chick lit, look no further than Jill Mansell — and don’t waste your time reading mediocre books.

2.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0312562772 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program

Book review: ‘Hot Mess: Summer In The City’ by Julie Kraut and Shallon Lester

Emma Freeman and Rachel Wolfe are busting out of the suburbs and heading to the city — the big city. Securing (unpaid) summer internships through Mommy and Daddy’s connections, the girls arrive in New York City with inflated egos and no real plan. They secure a few nights in a hotel while they try to find a place to live — um, excellent planning on their part — and begin the process of finding some eligible boys with whom to canoodle.

Cash goes quick in the city, they soon learn, and Emma has to find a way to make it last. Throw in a creepy, ridiculous boss who demands to be called The Dorf, a hot new coworker without a clue as to Emma’s real age and wannabe-celebutante roommate Jayla, and what have you got? Well, one hot mess of a summer.

When Hot Mess: Summer In The City was published in 2008, I’m guessing it might have felt hip. The novel is filled with constant pop culture references to folks like Lindsay and Britney — back before they both went totally insane. (Or were on that track, anyway.) And with all the antics and ridiculousness over time, Emma and Rachel might have started to feel like buddies — girls with whom we could relate and appreciate. But instead? The whole thing was painful. Reading began to feel like a chore.

mountain of a chore.

The jokes I’ve been penning regarding the title and the, um, content of this one are endless. In fact, I got so bored while reading that I started writing this review in my head, going over and over exactly how terrible it was and figuring out what portions of the plot, terrible dialogue, unrealistic characters and bad parenting I wanted to highlight first.

My beef with the story began pretty much on page one. I’ve never read a young adult novel that felt more like an adult (in this case, two adults) writing a young adult novel. The dialogue, “lingo” (if you can call it that) and vernacular the teens use felt dated, stilted and unbelievable — even to me. There’s no way a teen would talk the way Emma and Rachel do. And their dialogue was littered with profanity and crude statements — stuff that, as otherwise “classy” girls, they would never have said.

And let’s go ahead and talk about stereotypes in young adult fiction for a second. You seriously expect me to believe the parents of two 17-year-olds would ship their daughters off to New York City for months without even arranging a place for them to stay? Honestly? We’re led to believe these are otherwise rational, “good” parents who have no problem with their underage girls using Craigslist to find an apartment. In New York City. Alone. Clearly they have more money than sense. Emma and Rachel’s parents rarely appear except to be the objects of derision — as in, “Oh, I’ll lie to my dad and tell him I had to buy these clothes on his credit card because the apartment got flooded or something and he’ll never know, that idiot!” It never ends.

At several points in the otherwise ridiculous story, I was literally offended. Rachel’s internship takes place at a magazine run by women, which prompts her to often make comments about how she’s working with lesbians. It’s a feminist magazine. Being a feminist does not automatically make one homosexual, and even if it did? Of course there’s nothing wrong with that. The girls talk about it like it’s horrifying, this idea of working with lesbians. At several points in the book. So not only do I dislike these characters as being vapid, shallow creatures, but now I dislike them for being homophobes, too.

Seriously, though, the book was just boring. Emma’s job was boring. Her social life was boring. Her love life was boring. She hates her job. She hates her boss. Rachel is always abandoning her. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Whine. Whine. Whine. Whine. She writes in a journal. We’re supposed to think she’s a good writer. Her boss is ridicul0us but supposedly funny, but all of Derek’s antics just seem stupid. I never laughed. In fact, if I had any reaction to anything I was reading, it was probably to roll my eyes.

I made it about 150 pages in before a love interest was introduced and for once I was screaming, “Bring on the boys already!” Normally I’m exasperated at that novels center around the girls falling in love to the detriment of any other plot point, but I thought introducing a hot guy was the only thing that could save this one for me. Too bad the “hot boy” was Colin, a 23-year-old coworker of Emma’s. Who didn’t know that Emma, in addition to being just a lowly intern in their office, wasn’t legal. And it took a good, long while for him to find out the truth. Awkward — and gross. Plus, why would someone like Colin — successful, handsome and smart — be interested in Emma? She can’t go a beat without mentioning how awkward and unsteady she is around him. Is she supposed to be drop-dead gorgeous or something? Must have missed that part.

I know I’m not a teen — and this is a book aimed at teenagers. But there are a million and one young adult fiction books I’ve read and loved, completely separate from the fact that I’m not the “intended” audience for a work. A good book is a good book, regardless of genre, and this? This is not a good book. Whether you’re a 14-year-old or a 30-year-old, this is not a good book.

Okay. I’m done. I’m not normally mean in reviews and I dislike being a critical psycho, but this book was beyond redemption for me. I skimmed the last 50 pages because I had zero interest in what happened to these people, but I wanted to genuinely say I’d given in it a real chance. The only thing I liked about it was the colorful cover, so that earns one star from me.

Everything about Hot Mess screamed “2008!”, and I’m wondering if this is the sort of novel we’ll read ten years from now and sigh wistfully at all the time-period-specific references. But I’m thinking probably not — considering this book will have faded into oblivion by then. At least, I really hope so.

2 out of 5!

ISBN: 0805090819 ♥ Purchase from AmazonJulie Kraut’s Website
Personal copy obtained through BookMooch