Bookish speed dating: getting lost, finding yourself and more

So I’ve, um, gotten a little behind on book reviews.

Which is to say . . . I am ridiculously behind on book reviews.

Even when I was actively getting lost in a story (or four), I lacked the brain power to discuss anything intelligently. So I cataloged my finished reads on a spreadsheet, made a note to review them later and . . . promptly had a baby.

So.

Here I am: desperately wanting to play catch up. These unreviewed books, friends, they’re weighing on me. Weighing down my soul. Making me feel like a failure. Taunting me from their color-coded Google Doc.

Let’s speed date, shall we? I’ll give you a rundown so you can decide whether to pursue a relationship further. I won’t pressure you or follow up with sassy text messages or Facebook notes asking if you and Happiness For Beginners hit it off; your choice to connect in the future is yours alone.

I’m considerate like that.


Happiness for BeginnersHappiness For Beginners
by Katherine Center
Published: 2015
Source: Review copy from publisher
4.5 stars

Though tough to avoid comparisons to Cheryl Strayed’s classic Wild, Center’s novel of a recently-divorced woman who sets off on a wilderness journey of self-discovery and independence — with her kid brother’s best friend, incidentally — is entertaining, sweet and memorable.

I love Katherine’s writing, which flows like a fast-moving current; it’s impossible not to get swept up in her warm characters, compelling setting and relatable plot. At 32, Helen abruptly finds herself starting over — and regardless of where we are in life, readers will find a bit of themselves in Helen’s cautious optimism. Totally loved it.


Tempting FateTempting Fate
by Jane Green
Published: 2014
Source: Audio from library
3.5 stars

Despite having the perfect marriage on paper, Gabby and Elliott struggle with the mundane details of the long-married: not enough time for themselves, each other and their two daughters, who are growing up — but still in need of their parents’ attention.

When a girls’ night out leads to a chance meeting with a younger, handsome stranger, Gabby can’t resist the allure of feeling wanted again. Those feelings — and, later, actions — have far-reaching consequences, however . . . ones even Gabby can’t anticipate.

So I know I sort of swore off Jane Green after the disastrous Another Piece of my Heart, but I was seeking something lighthearted back in March — and I found it here. Though Gabby’s decision-making skills are sketchy at best, I got lost in the endlessly-complicated drama. Good, crazy fun.


Margaret From MaineMargaret From Maine
by Joseph Monninger
Published: 2012
Source: Review copy from publisher
3 stars

After her husband is gravely injured during a deployment, Margaret is left to care for her young son and father-in-law as they work to maintain the family farm. When another serviceman arrives to accompany her to a ceremony in Washington, she is swept up in their powerful chemistry . . . and the idea of feeling free again. But her loyalty is to her husband, even if he’s in a place he’ll never be reached.

I felt for Margaret and Charlie, who seemed star-crossed from the start. I thought their relationship advanced beyond propriety a little too quickly to be realistic (and some of the dialogue was super silly), but still enjoyed this short, heart-wrenching novel.


Coming CleanComing Clean
by Kimberly Rae Miller
Published: 2013
Source: Purchased
3 stars

In this story of growing up in a hoarding household, Miller manages to draw us into her paper- and garbage-strewn world without really opening up to us. It’s a strange thing, indeed, to write a memoir about such a personal topic that still manages to come across as detached — but I finished this short story of Miller’s childhood and college years with a bit of a shoulder shrug. I did finish, though — and that says something. Especially given my sleep-deprived attention span.


The One That Got AwayThe One That Got Away
by Bethany Chase
Published: 2015
Source: Review copy from publisher
3.5 stars

Sarina is a talented architect with great friends, a successful business and a loving relationship with a man she believes will be getting down on one knee in short order. But when an old one-night-stand resurfaces, asking for her design expertise on a new home, Sarina begins to question the past — and her future.

This was the story I was reading the day before my son was born, and for the most part? I succeeded. Chase has created a realistic, could-be-your-bestie narrator in Sarina, and her sexy, playful dynamic with athlete Eamon Roy — a man who once ended them before they could begin — is one with which many will likely relate.

Though it wasn’t a truly stand-out read, it is a layered story that also deals with grief, friendship and pursuing what we truly want. And heck, it managed to (mostly) distract me from impending childbirth, so that counts for something?


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Did-not-finish book thoughts: ‘Longbourn,’ ‘Dressmaker’

LongbournLongbourn by Jo Baker
Source: Borrowed from library
Where I stopped: Audio disc 5 (of 11?)

Dull. There’s just no other way for me to describe my experience with this one. I went into it with high hopes, expecting a cross between Pride & Prejudice and “Downton Abbey,” and I suppose that’s what I got . . . but I just couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm for Longbourn.

I didn’t need a damp-shirted Darcy skipping between the pages or anything, but the lack of page time for the Bennets was disappointing. Putting that aside, I just wasn’t interested in housemaid Sarah, the mysterious James or the formidable Mrs. Hill. If I’d stuck it out a little longer, I may have been rewarded with a wee bit of romance . . . but when I found my mind drifting repeatedly while listening to the audio book, I knew it was time to cave.

Sorry, Longbourn; I barely knew ye, but I didn’t like what I knew.

Other thoughts:
AustenBlog
Dear Author
Austenprose


Dressmaker Khair The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe
by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Source: Borrowed from library
Where I stopped: Audio disc 3 (of 7?)

Another doomed audio! Non-fiction centering on a brave, entrepreneurial woman in Taliban-controlled Kabul, Afghanistan, I thought this one would be an interesting and inspiring read (listen?) last fall.

Unfortunately, I never emotionally connected with the principle players — and the audio book’s narrator had a distracting, WASP-ish accent that didn’t mesh at all with the strong-willed women she described. I might have enjoyed this one better in print, but I doubt I’ll take that chance.

Other thoughts:
BookNAround
Booking Mama
Reading on a Rainy Day


Mini book reviews: ‘We’re Just Like You…’ and ‘Black Heels To Tractor Wheels’

Two memoirs. And my thoughts on them, which aren’t quite as professional and fleshed-out as they might be in one of my “normal” reviews, so . . . it’s Tuesday, friends, and here you go: Rivenbark and Drummond. Drummond and Rivenbark.

They have nothing to do with one another, but I’m squeezing these ladies into one post.


We’re Just Like You, Only Prettier
by Celia Rivenbark
3.5 of 5 stars
Source: library

When it comes to the South, Celia Rivenbark has seen and heard it all. The humor columnist from North Carolina shares her “confessions of a tarnished belle” in a book that was laugh-out-loud funny one moment and snooze-inducing the next.

I borrowed this one on audio and listened to it in less than a week, so it was quick — but not very memorable. The vignettes have little to do with one another, and many of them have little to even do with Southern culture; the writer just happens to be Southern. Still, no matter; it was funny and light, albeit no competition for my beloved Jen Lancaster and Laurie Notaro.


The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels
to Tractor Wheels

by Ree Drummond
2 of 5 stars
Source: publisher

Marlboro Man is gorgeous. Marlboro Man looks great in his jeans. I act like a fool around MM, but MM makes my insides turn into jelly — which is just as important to note as my parents’ impending divorce and the death of my dog and the effects of an Oklahoma prairie fire.

Look, Ree — I love you. I love your adorable cooking show. I waited in line for four and a half hours to meet you in 2010, which almost led to the demise of my nascent relationship with Spencer. (But also proved a barometer for how patient and awesome my boyfriend is, so actually — thank you?)

But this book? It was pretty dreadful. Boring and repetitive and eye-roll-inducing and all the things I never thought I would ever say about my beloved PW. It read like an overly dramatic romance novel, and honestly? I wondered how such a sassy, spunky woman could come across as such a whiny lemming in her take on the early years of her romance with Ladd, her hunky husband, and their quick-as-lightning courtship. (And marriage. And first child.) The endless references to Marlboro Man’s physique and their obvious attraction to one another made me sip my Diet Coke with disdain, and I only finished the book out of a sense of loyalty to all PW has meant to me over the years. If it had been penned by anyone else, it would have been out. the. door.

Ree’s trademark self-deprecating humor is buried beneath a thick layer of insecurity and inexperience in Black Heels — and not in a charming way. It also came across as . . . very anti-feminist? I don’t know. I didn’t like it. I’m going to end here but still know that I love you, PW, though I will stick to reading your blog and admiring your adorable kids and dogs.


Okay, so I was wrong about not having that much to say about Pioneer Woman. But I feel sort of bad panning the book, so I’m going to hide my thoughts within this “mini” review post because somehow it assuages that odd nagging guilt. Though I’m just being honest. Okay? Okay.


Did-not-finish book thoughts: ‘The Rock Star in Seat 3A,’ ‘Girls In White Dresses’

The Rock Star in Seat 3A by Jill Kargman
Source: Publisher
Where I stopped: Page 82-ish

The Rock Star in Seat 3A was one of my recent vacation reads, but I quickly regretted bringing so few books. This one was most definitely lacking for me.

The premise: the morning after her thirtieth birthday, narrator Hazel happens to be on a flight seated next to her rock god crush-to-end-all-crushes. Never believing she’d see this guy in the flesh, she’s dumbfounded — but the two have an instant connection, talking the whole time and sharing hopes and dreams, blah blah and so forth. On the surface, this totally works for me; I mean, should I find myself seated next to John Mayer en route to L.A., I’d be fixing my makeup and practicing my most alluring small talk. The opportunities to live vicariously through Rock Star are very appealing.

But what I found in Kargman’s novel was an awkward, unpolished manuscript desperately in need of an editor to whip it into shape and tone down the language. Look, I’m not a prude — but Hazel couldn’t seem to have one conversation without cursing to beat the band. It wasn’t clever, and it wasn’t cute. Plus, the writing was all tell, no show — and therefore boring.

It’s a slim book and a quick read, though. I could have finished it on my own plane ride . . . but I fell asleep.

Other thoughts:
Toothy Books
Leeswammes’ Blog
Chick Lit Central


Girls In White Dresses by Jennifer Close
Source: Audio borrowed from library
Where I stopped: Disc four

Even with its awkward and interchangeable characters, I was willing to stick it out with Girls In White Dresses — especially since it had been heralded as representing the quintessential 20-something struggle to launch and create a fulfilling life, especially in our turbulent times.

But what I found were irritating characters in whom I saw little and expected nothing. Yes, “everyone” our age seems to be getting married and having kids; yes, it’s easy to feel left out and frightened we’re failing. Failing at life. Had these issues been explored through less obnoxious and superficial characters, Girls In White Dresses may have resonated with me. Goodness knows I’ve felt that way myself. But as it stood, this audio version was returned to the library unfinished . . . and without a trace of guilt. I just couldn’t take it anymore.

Other thoughts:
Cover To Cover
S. Krishna’s Books
Book Addiction


Did-not-finish book thoughts: ‘Falling Together’ and ‘My Name Is Memory’

Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos
Where I stopped: Page 110

Having read and loved Marisa de los Santos’ first two novels, I eagerly anticipated grabbing Falling Together. While the plot was slow-moving and cumbersome at times — even confusing — it’s impossible not to appreciate the lyrical quality of her writing. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to redeem this one for me.

Though the novel is ostensibly about three best friends who have drifted apart since their tender college days, Falling Together focuses mainly on Pen, a wounded single mother working to maintain an amicable relationship with her ex for the sake of their child. Having recently lost her father, Pen is a walking open wound. She bravely pretends to have forgotten about Will and Cat, her beloved college friends, but her split from them was worse than any pain she felt in love. Pen grieves as much for her father as she does for the loss of Cat and Will.

Here’s my main issue with Falling Together: the tension between the three friends feels so melodramatic and forced. We spend pages upon pages waiting for an explosive reason for the dissolution of their almost obsessive bond with one another, but it never comes. Or, rather, it’s just a let-down. Pen and her issues grated heavily on my nerves as she reconnects with Will, someone she’s so obviously in love with, and I found myself growing really frustrated with her. Plus, it was hard to understand the dynamic between them. An outsider jokes once about them being in a three-person romantic relationship, and there was some sort of unsettling vibe there I couldn’t shake. Not even by the end.

The action picks up in the latter half of the novel as several characters go on a hunt for a missing member, but it wasn’t enough to save Falling Together for me. Marisa de los Santos crafts lovely prose, but her characters here were enough to set my teeth on edge. If you’re new to her books, I recommend Belong To Me. It moved me to tears.

Other thoughts:
S. Krishna’s Books
The Book Chick
Jenny’s Books


My Name Is Memory by Ann Brashares
Where I stopped: Audio disc three

Chalk this up to bad timing or awful narrators. Whichever you choose, I couldn’t pop My Name Is Memory out of my car’s stereo fast enough. To begin, I felt the audio narrators weren’t appropriate choices, age-wise; I know Daniel is supposed to have been alive for thousands of years, etc. and so forth, but the point at which both he and Lucy are interacting as teenagers makes him sound like a creeper.

Okay, that’s harsh. But true. When we got through the awkward moment where Daniel appears in a darkened room after a stabbing at a school dance (?) and he’s all, Look at me, I’m lurking here. And btw, I love you. Even though we never talk and you have no idea who I am, I thought things would improve. Alas — they just got incredibly boring after that. By the time Daniel was recounting crazy stuff that happened back in the time of Christ or something, I was mentally checked out. Not interested in a long-winded history lesson, thanks.

Would I have enjoyed this one more had I read it in print? Doubtful. I probably wouldn’t have even made it as far as I did with a borrowed audio version.

Other thoughts:
Belle’s Bookshelf
At Home With Books
The Girl From The Ghetto

Did-not-finish book thoughts: ‘The Ninth Wife,’ ‘Comfort Food’ and ‘This Must Be The Place’

The Ninth Wife by Amy Stolls
Where I stopped: Page 36

Something about this book rubbed me wrong from the beginning — and as sad as this is to admit, I can’t really tell you what it was. It wasn’t any one thing, I guess, but a culmination of things — and I just had a feeling that, as a heroine, Bess and I weren’t going to get along. Plus, it’s a big book and I guess I was just feeling lazy. As time marches on and my bookcases fill up, I’m getting more discriminatory about the books with which I spend time. And, I’m sad to say, this one felt like a slog.

Other views:
Cat’s Thoughts
Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books
Rundpinne


Comfort Food by Kate Jacobs
Where I stopped: Page 53

I love foodie fiction. Books with cupcakes, breakfast or dinners on the cover usually go on my “to be read” stack immediately, and I’ve had Comfort Food hanging out in my bookcase for quite a while. Though I wanted to give Jacobs my Stern Angry Face over the ending of The Friday Night Knitting Club, a novel that was quite the hit a few years back, I overlooked my anger and snagged a copy of this one from BookMooch.

And I don’t know. Again — I just don’t know. If a book is giving me a cold, “meh” feeling after 50 pages, I’ve decided I really need to throw in the towel. As a main character, Gus came off as condescending and slightly holier-than-thou, despite her working-class background and hardships. I wanted to like her and her daughters, but something about them all just screamed “elitist” and annoying to me. I set this one down and haven’t looked back.

Other views:
Caribousmom
Bitchin’ In The Kitchen With Rosie
Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’?


This Must Be The Place by Kate Racculia
Where I stopped: Page 41

After just about 40 pages, I decided this one was just too sad to continue. It’s not the fault of Racculia’s writing, which I found fresh and witty. And it’s not the fault of her characters, which seemed unique and quirky enough to be interesting.

It’s just the “fault” of the plot, I guess — the fault that my heart was already breaking for Arthur and I’m fragile most days and I just didn’t think I could handle this one. Plus, I guessed Amy’s secret from the onset — then read ahead to see if I was right. And I was. And once I had that knowledge, I had to set this one aside.

Other views:
Books and Movies
Always With A Book
Reading For Sanity

Did-not-finish mini reviews: ‘Staying At Daisy’s’ and ‘You Were Wrong’

Jill Mansell’s Staying At Daisy’s
Where I stopped reading: Page 52

So I’m a huge Jill Mansell fan. Her wit always shines through in her fiction, which is decidedly (and gloriously) British chick lit. But Staying At Daisy’s, originally published in 2002 and now reprinted by the lovely folks at Sourcebooks, just wasn’t working for me.

Here we have Daisy, a young divorcee running the hotel owned by her father. Still smarting from the demise of her relationship, she’s thrown herself into her work and friendships — and that brings her to some steady hours at the hotel.

I guess that, with so many books lining my shelves, I was probably too quick to give up on this one in favor of another — especially considering how much I loved Mansell’s Millie’s Fling and Rumor Has It. Still, I found the opening pages to be a struggle and the length was daunting. Once I realized I hadn’t become invested and had the vast majority of the book to go, I threw in the towel. But I still love you, Jill — and will try again with one of her others.

If you’re  new to Mansell, I highly recommend Millie’s Fling — nothing has dethroned it as one of my favorite chick lit novels of all time.

Other views:
Rundpinne
Pudgy Penguin Perusals
Life In The Thumb
Minding Spot


Matthew Sharpe’s You Were Wrong
Where I stopped reading: Page 40

From the opening paragraph informing me that Karl Floor “had had a hard life,” I had a sinking suspicion that the two of us wouldn’t be getting along well. Sharpe’s quirky novel is about a stifled, boring teacher and the beautiful “robber” who enters his home, informs him that she’s taking stuff — but can’t leave without chatting with him first.

I got about 40 pages into this one before flipping to the end, slightly annoyed by the pretentious writing style and seeming lack of plot. As I originally worried, Karl wasn’t a guy I liked, felt for or cheered on — and Sylvia, Karl’s robber, wasn’t any better.

I didn’t really know what to make of this one. It’s short, yes, and would probably be one read quickly. But I made nothing of it, putting it down in favor of something else. Didn’t work for me.

Other views:
Largehearted Boy
Los Angeles Times
Shelley The Book Snob