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: ‘The Liberation of Alice Love’ by Abby McDonald

Alice Love — a Londoner, a lawyer, an all-around safe and ordinary individual — is about to change. It’s not enough that she’s worked hard to save for her dream home or tried to nurture a relationship with her eccentric father and his new wife, or her ethereal stepsister Flora. The Universe doesn’t care that she’s tried to years to move beyond her boring corporate law job and represent real talent at the agency where she works, and fate isn’t interested in watching her try to form a relationship with another disinterested guy.

No. Fate says her identity ripe for plucking.

“It started with a vibrator,” begins Abby McDonald’s The Liberation of Alice Love. Strange purchases — like that one — trickle into Alice’s mailbox, and odd phone calls from “creditors” start buzzing her phone. And when she arrives at her bank — the one where 32,000 of her hard-earned pounds have been, she assumed, locked away — Alice is told that she emptied her account.

Emptied. Her. Account.

McDonald’s novel is a modern-day nightmare — the total dismantling and theft of one’s life. Her money, interests, name — all compromised. And I’ll give Alice credit — she handles it all with grace and aplomb.

You know. Most of the time.

What ensues is our heroine’s attempt at reclaiming her life, even if she can’t reclaim all her money. And once the identity of the thief is revealed, Alice becomes obsessed with finding the person to learn why they did this. It’s not that it was random, or that Alice was an unfortunate victim of the circumstances — no. She knows this person. Knows this person.

And she wants an explanation.

What I loved best about The Liberation of Alice Love was McDonald’s whirlwind, exciting plot — one that took us from Point A to Point B in record time, but not the point that I felt the whole thing was a farce. On the contrary: I actually found Alice’s mission very believable, and I can’t imagine what I would do in a situation like that. I really connected with and felt for her as she struggled to piece everything back together, but the best part?

Well, the best part was the realization that maybe . . . maybe things will be better now. Watching the growth and transition of a character is what I love best about reading: the lessons they learn, even the tough ones; the ways they change and shift their thinking. Though Alice was, of course, a good person, she was a very dissatisfied and buttoned up person. By the close of the novel, I found myself cheering her on to the next big thing. Even if it was a long, hard road to get there.

Fans of women’s fiction and British chick lit will become absorbed in the prose of McDonald, already a prolific novelist at 25. I loved her relationship with Flora, her stepsister, too; it defied the obvious form of so many other unconventional sibling relationships. McDonald didn’t take the easy road — and I liked it.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0545230500 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

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: ‘I Remember You’ by Harriet Evans

Best friends Tess Tennant and Adam Smith grew up in the tiny English town of Langford, made famous for its connection to author Jane Austen — and for its gorgeous vistas, including the historic water meadows. The meadows have been controlled for years by Leonora Mortmain, the daunting and severe old woman who has taken up permanent residence as an antagonistic old crone in the lives of Langford’s residents.

After many years apart, Tess returns to town from London and finds Adam — handsome, gawky, intelligent — living the same old life has has since the death of his mother, the larger-than-life Phillippa. Tess’s heart breaks at the thought of finding her oldest, dearest friend at a stand-still, but what can she do?

Other than begin teaching a course on classics at a local college. She eventually leads her pupils to Rome on an end-of-term field trip, and it’s there that she meets Peter — a charismatic, gorgeous American who sees something in Tess that she doesn’t yet notice in herself. Torn between her long-ago feelings for Adam and attentive, exciting Peter, Tess flounders. But Adam isn’t himself these days, and when a final secret comes to light, changing the very nature of everything in town — and Adam himself — can Tess embrace a new life? Or is she destined to flounder in the old one — alone?

Harriet Evans’ I Remember You was wildly entertaining, colorful, poignant, heartbreaking — basically everything I look for in a good novel. What I wanted David Nicholls’ One Day to be — a tale of best friends over the years, reuniting and loving and losing — was all found here, and what a thoroughly enjoyable book it was.

Tess was a character with whom I could identify immediately: proud but a bit confused about where she’s headed in life; adventurous, but still with a yearning to find “home.” Adam has been her steadfast friend since they were children, growing up in town together, and everyone assumed they’d eventually find love in each other — but not so. Through a succession of heartbreaks, heartaches and confusion, Adam and Tess lose touch. And when they eventually reunite, nothing is the same.

It’s hard for me to say exactly what I loved about this story. It was emotional, yes, and that’s the biggest boon for me: I felt emotionally invested with these people from the start. Their hurts were my hurts; their successes were my successes. Sweet, lovable Adam was hard not to fall for, too, even when he was off gallivanting through Langford, and Evans managed to perfectly capture the bittersweet feelings of first love. Since a terrible breakup, I’ve seen my first love once more — and reading I Remember You brought on a flood of feeling. (And relief, in my case. Let bygones be bygones.)

The English town in which Adam, Tess, Leonora and many others live really comes to life here, too. Throughout the novel, a huge tension exists between the “old and the new” — the longtime residents who want nothing to change, even as a flood of tourists arrive to visit the Jane Austen Centre, and the new regime: younger people, some transplants from London, who are seeking modern amenities in a quieter setting. I loved the resolution to many of the problems that exist in the narrative, especially regarding the water meadows.

When the setting switches to Rome, though, was equally enjoyable. We all know I’m in love with the British and find them an endlessly interesting lot, so reading about the group of Tess’s students and fellow citizens in Italy was great fun. Even peripheral characters came to life through Evans’ prose, giving us a glimpse of homemakers, playwrights and bartenders alike. Everyone was so colorful.

Not a novel I’ll forget anytime soon — and one that has me itching even more than usual to tromp around an English village. And if Tess and Adam were there to greet me, more the better.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1439182000 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher

Book review: ‘Holly’s Inbox: Scandal In The City’ by Holly Denham

Life seems to be looking up for Holly Denham. Her adorable boyfriend, Toby, is suave and attentive; her receptionist position at a high-powered bank in London keeps her busy while also providing ample opportunity to socialize. But when Holly (finally!) earns a promotion, there’s someone eager to tear her down: Tanya, a snobby fellow manager with her sights set on Toby. And she’s ready to tackle Holly’s confidence to the ground just when her other relationships become tenuous. Can she hold strong?

Through a series of daily emails, Holly’s Inbox: Scandal In The City — the sequel to the  highly entertaining Holly’s Inbox — reveals far more about a group of characters than you’d expect from a tome filled with only electronic correspondence. Holly is as charmingly disheveled as ever, though trying to put a hold on her partying ways long enough to earn some clout with her employers.

This series’ charm comes through its ability to tap into that voyeuristic side in all of us. If a coworker you may or may not like stepped away from their desk, leaving Outlook or Gmail open in full view, would you be able to resist the siren call of snooping? I’d like to think I could, but who knows. That same urge to sift through someone’s medicine cabinet, book collection or purse is what makes Holly’s Inbox so compelling.

Unfortunately, what worked so well for me in the original lost a bit of its luster in the sequel. Reading Holly’s emails in the first novel felt like a fresh endeavor, but here? Well, I feel like I’ve read it all before. My curiosity was satisfied. Favorite characters like well-meaning best friends Jason and Aisha have returned, along with fellow receptionist Trisha, but newcomers like Tanya felt less like real people and more like archetypical “villains” — and people I wouldn’t actually know. Plus, the juxtaposition of Holly advancing in her career while still acting ridiculous in her personal life — drinking herself into oblivion; generally acting like a debauched teenager — didn’t quite add up for me. If she’s such a dynamo on the job, how can she be such a screw-up on her own time?

Maybe that’s not unusual. Maybe I’m expecting a little too much from a fun, light-hearted read. I didn’t consume this one as quickly as I did the first, and found myself less enthused at Holly as a character than I once was. Still, fans of British chick lit who also enjoy the epistolary style will probably enjoy Holly’s misadventures. If you’re new to the Denham books, I’d recommend starting at the beginning — and then maybe we’ll decide our girl isn’t beyond redemption after all.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1402241143 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘The Other Mothers’ Club’ by Samantha Baker

They’re no wicked stepmonsters.

When Eve falls in love with Ian, a widower, she understands he’s a package deal — but doesn’t quite realize what that means until three living, breathing, scowling children are before her, resolutely telling Eve she’s not their mum.

Not that she’s trying to be, mind you. She’s not quite sure what she’s doing — other than loving their father. It’s through these difficulties and reaching out to Clare, Eve’s best friend, that she begins to realize how common it is for women to be thrust into unconventional family situations, playing stepmother to children who may or may not be prepared to welcome them.

Clare herself is wrestling with the sudden reappearance of Will, her teen daughter’s father — a man who has been MIA for the past 14 years of Louisa’s life. Add to this mix Lily, Clare’s younger sister, dating a man with a daughter; Melanie, a successful business woman dating an IT professional with a child of his own; and Mandy, an overtaxed mother struggling to blend her teens with her boyfriend’s brood. Together, the ladies form an impromptu support group — and reach out to one another, especially when life gets tough . . . then tougher.

Samantha Baker’s The Other Mothers’ Club was an entertaining, often poignant look at what it means to form a family, create new friendships, become a parental figure (even when skeptical) and form attachments where you didn’t think possible. If you can get past the approximately 1,000 characters in this story — perhaps by drawing a map, as I contemplated — it’s an enjoyable read.

Set in present-day London, Baker’s characters are all incredibly different women with one thing in common: a stepmother link. Either they are one, want to be one, had one, will soon become one — whatever it is, that stepmother persona is lingering over them. Eve’s story kicks us off and, through the novel, is the plot we most return to — and the one in which I was most invested. Thirteen-year-old Hannah, Ian’s oldest daughter from his first marriage, takes an instant dislike to well-meaning Eve, and the tension crackles like electricity. I kept waiting for the stress to bubble over, covering anything and everything. The scenes featuring the two of them in a single room actually made my heart pound.

It’s not all bad news bears for Eve, though. In an unlikely twist, she hits it off immediately with 5-year-old Alfie, who’s content to play action figures with her, chat and generally be adorable. Thank God for Alfie, because once Eve moves in with the brood? Well, chaos erupts. Serious chaos. And her feelings for Alfie become the bright spot in her otherwise uncomfortable new life.

The thing holding me back from giving The Other Mothers’ Club a glowing review is, as I mentioned, all the people. Honestly, I think Melanie and Mandy’s storylines could have been cut completely and we wouldn’t have missed a thing. I guess it’s not much of a “club” if it only includes three members — two best friends and a sister — but hey, that would have cut down on the page count . . . and my confusion levels. No matter what they said or did, I never got close to Mandy or Melanie. They felt severely undeveloped as characters and only distracted me from the more interesting, compelling plotlines.

What kept me reading were the poignant moments, like when Clare realizes having her first love back in her life means actually having to share her daughter — their daughter, the one Will wanted nothing to do with, for the first time in her life. As the years have passed and Clare has thrown herself completely into motherhood, she realizes what’s given up in order to give Lou everything she needs, and without any help. And it’s a lot. That’s a familiar trope, sure, but Baker’s writing elevates it to a different level.

With so many families having stepdads and stepmoms, stepgrandparents and stepchildren, it’s amazing to me a book like this hasn’t already been written (or have I just missed it?). And by the close of it, I really cared about Eve, Clare, Lou and Lily — and was actually sorry to see it end. No need to be a stepmother to enjoy this story of friendship, change and love. Fans of women’s fiction, stories of motherhood and pregnancy and British chick lit will find plenty to enjoy in this one — just keep a homemade character map handy.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0061840351 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program

Please note the book was originally published in the UK under the name The Stepmothers’ Support Group and still appears that way on some sites. As Baker notes on her website, her publisher wanted to change the name “to make sure everyone realised that [T]he Stepmothers’ Support Group was not just for stepmums but a novel about female friendship and modern relationships.”

Book review: ‘Rumor Has It’ by Jill Mansell

It’s official: I have a literary crush on Jill Mansell.

Her writing is quick-witted, fast-paced and entertaining. She’s quirky. She’s irreverent. Each of her characters is infused with personality and charisma, fully fleshed-out and, often, hilarious. And Rumor Has It is awesome.

Londoner Tilly Cole walks into her home one day to discover her live-in boyfriend of many years has “done a runner.” Startled by just how heartbroken she doesn’t feel, Tilly gets away to visit her friend Erin in Roxborough, out in the Cotswolds, for a little fresh air and time to regroup. It’s there that she meets Max Dineen, a local single dad, and his daughter Lou — as well as Jack Lucas, the “tragic widower” whose gorgeous physique competes with his wit and friendly manner in terms of grabbing Tilly’s attention.

Knowing she has little left for her in London and eager to begin a new phase of her life, Tilly takes a job working as Max and Lou’s “Girl Friday,” helping out with Max’s interior decorating business and generally being a pal and helper for teenage Lou. When Kaye, Lou’s mom and Max’s ex-wife, is caught up in a Hollywood scandal and returns to England, Tilly immediately worries her easy relationship with the Dineens will be threatened — and her services no longer required. But it’s not as simple as all that.

In fact, nothing in Rumor Has It is simple — or an easy out, as far as Mansell’s concerned. Bring into the fold the burgeoning love between Erin and Fergus, a man still plagued by his drama queen ex-wife Stella, and a complete cast of extra quirky characters and then just try not to be bewitched by Roxborough. I certainly was.

We all know of my notorious obsession with England, so I gobbled up the British idioms and vocab like a fresh package of Peeps. In all of my far-ranging experience with chick lit, it doesn’t get much more “chick lit-y” than Mansell — and, for that matter, no British chick lit author surpasses her in my eyes. Her writing is so fresh and fun and the male leads so charismatic, it’s impossible not to fall in love with the men in her books.

In Rumor Has It, I was thoroughly charmed by Jack and further entranced by him as more of his story comes out. Tilly is warned off him from the start, told that he’s a womanizer and a heartbreaker — but Jack’s easygoing manner don’t seem to match the image she’s presented. And as she worked to set aside her insecurities and get to know him, I did, too.

What I love about Mansell’s novels are the realistic, fun and funky heroines — ordinary women who aren’t models, aren’t wildly successful, aren’t supernaturally beautiful: just regular people capable of great feeling. Tilly thinks like I do, acts like I do — has ridiculous things happen to her, just like we all do. (Think reeking of garlic breath just as the man of your dreams finally comes in for a romantic kiss. Yeah.) It’s the tiny details that set this and other novels, like Millie’s Fling, apart for me. And I adore them.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1402237324 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher