Fate tied into a bookstore

Time feels fluid in the fall.

Blink and I’m 16, watching open-mouthed as the second tower falls from my silent high school physics class. Again and I’m in my final year at college, sliding hardcovers into long rows at Borders not long before it shuttered. Now and I’m 29, calling into the basement in search of my husband — husband — before making a third cup of coffee.

I get lost in the past sometimes. Perhaps we all do? As Spencer and I worked to install the bookcases in the new space at home, I couldn’t stop thinking about where those shelves had come from — and remembering my bookseller days. For as much as I love my newspaper job (and I do), sometimes I fantasize about going back to shilling novels to the masses.

Silly, I know — but I was happy there. Really, really happy. Part of it was just that time of my life: graduating from college, having the first of my “own” money, making new friends. Being surrounded by words and roasting coffee and folks eager for the latest paperback, the newest hardcover.

That was, of course, nearly a decade ago . . . and the world has changed around us. It would never be the same now. That Borders closed and reopened later as a Books-a-Million, and the bones may be the same — eerily similar, actually — but the soul is not.

It shouldn’t feel different, but it does.


Bookshelf


I find it hard to go in there, actually . . . though why remains a mystery. I have more books than I could possibly read already — but that hasn’t stopped me before. Part of me feels slightly haunted as I walk the aisles I once knew so well, I guess, looking for familiar faces that have long moved on and away.

For as much as I lobbied for a hometown bookstore, I rarely go in. I talk about it and think about it and plan to, but then I just . . . don’t.

Maybe because I need new memories. In random moments when we’re driving around town, chatting and daydreaming, Spencer and I talk about if we ever would have met without online dating. Though we lived just 20 minutes apart, we moved in such different circles that they rarely would have intersected.

But oddly, we do have mutual friends.

If you had gone to this party . . .
If I’d left work early to . . .
If you’d come into the bookstore . . .

The bookstore is where our lives could have crossed — if only for a moment. Down from New York for an internship the same summer I worked at Borders, Spencer might have found himself in Waldorf looking for a guide or record and seen me there, flush from searching for a Hemingway, Welty or Rowling.

I squint and crane and remember, trying to picture the faces of countless customers I saw each week in the evenings with mass markets in their arms. In the years I asked for Borders Rewards cards and took special orders, gift-wrapped and greeted, I can’t bring up his face among them.

But it might have been there.

Thinking of those happenstance moments — the serendipity — is fun. “Fate” feels like a big word, but it’s easy to believe in sometimes.

Though I once lamented my husband and I don’t have a “meet-cute,” I’ve come to realize that isn’t true at all. There were so many factors that led to us eventually sharing coffee on a windy afternoon, each path a different thread in the tapestry now knitting us together.

When I was brokenhearted and uncertain at Borders, looking for direction and wondering how it would all play out, he could have been there in the maps or movies — a man I didn’t yet know that I would come to know best.

Though cheesy, maybe, the bookcases standing sentinel in our new home are comforting. A reminder of happy days, of a part of my past, the job that really solidified my love for reading and eventually helped me launch this space. And my column. And the rest of my life.

My home library is “real” now! Really real. We’re building it slowly, finding pieces here and there, and I don’t plan to call it finished . . . well, ever, probably.

There’s always another book. Another world.


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Book review: ‘The Christmas Secret’ by Donna VanLiere

The Christmas SecretIt’s Christmastime! Who doesn’t want a warm, comforting, cozy read at the holidays?

Single mom Christine is just trying to keep it all together. Working long hours in a restaurant with an ex-husband breathing down her neck, Christine’s kids remain her priority — but there never seems to be enough. Enough money, enough time, enough anything.

Threatened with termination if she’s late for work one more time, Christine is finally on schedule when she discovers a woman collapsed in her driveway — and though it means unemployment (and right before Christmas), she stops to help her. After Christine unceremoniously dropped at work and left scrambling for another position, she finds work in a bakery — and meets one of the handsome regulars, nicknamed Table Six.

Across town, department store owner Marshall is dealing with his surly grandson, Jason, a cocky, fresh-from-college idealist who values his own accounting skills too much to fold shirts. In town to assist his grandfather through the Christmas rush, he’s not planning to meet anyone — or stick around. But something about Rosemary, a sweet and harried server, catches his attention. But he’s carrying secrets of his own.

Donna VanLiere’s The Christmas Secret was . . . delightful! Warm, comforting, cute. I picked up a library audio copy based solely on the cover, seeking something pleasant to listen to on my commute, and VanLiere delivered. This novel was like sipping hot chocolate before a fireplace on Christmas Eve, you know? There is a religious element, but it was subtle and encouraging. Exactly what I wanted.

Christine is a dynamo. With two young children, rent to pay and plenty of troubles to weigh her down, she still manages to work hard and figure (most) things out. I was occasionally frustrated by her reluctance to accept help, but it was understandable given her situation. I loved how her slowly-building love affair played out, enchanted by the cases of mistaken identity that kept readers in the know while the principle players were in the dark.

But there were surprises, too! Several minor twists I did not see coming, and I loved that VanLiere wove subplots in without me noticing. As soon as details were revealed, I had that hand-hitting-forehead “of course!” moment I simply love. Jason was probably the character that experienced the greatest transformation, and I went from rolling my eyes at him to wanting to give ‘im a hug.

It was also easy to appreciate VanLiere’s way with dialogue. With a 7- and 5-year-old in the story, it would have been easy to suffer from Kids Talking Like Adults-itis — which I find distracting. But young Zach and Haley were kids who talked like kids, and weren’t simply props furthering Christine’s “Single Mom” plot line. They were sweet, funny, full of personality. I loved them.

Though we’re getting down to the wire before the big day is here, The Christmas Secret would make an excellent story to cuddle with before the arrival of family and friends. VanLiere has seven books in her Christmas Hope series, though they’re all independent works, and I intend to pick up another next year. Maybe I’ll even start my own holiday tradition!


4 out of 5!

Pub: Oct. 13, 2009 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio copy borrowed from my local library



About the audio: VanLiere narrates the novel herself, and I felt she did a good job. Her voices for various characters were sometimes hard to distinguish, but that was a minor quibble.


Book review: ‘The Garden Intrigue’ by Lauren Willig

Drama, French society, a budding romance and lots of complications — the latest in Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series delivers nothing less than the intrigue and snappy dialogue I’ve come to expect from this fun series, now in its ninth installment.

In this story within a story, widow Emma Delagardie flits through Parisian society as an associate of Napoleon Bonaparte’s family, hosting parties and enjoying her newfound friendships with powerful associates. One friend is Jane Wooliston, the subject of a poet’s ardor — Augustus Whittlesby’s ardor, in fact, though it’s undesired. Posing as a terrible poet so as to attract little suspicion in Paris, Augustus is actually a spy . . . and his awful verses are actually filled with clues for those in the know. His innocuous behavior allows him unlimited access to upper-crust French society — access he hopes to use to Britain’s benefit.

Though Augustus believes he’s actually in love with Jane, spending more time with the effervescent and outspoken Emma begins to change his mind — and when an opportunity to arises to gain access to Emporer Napolean through a play during a country weekend, Emma and Augustus are commissioned to work on it together. Their time in cahoots leads them to form new opinions about one another — but the masks they wear in public, and around each another, might not be what they seem.


Having read and enjoyed several of Willig’s Pink Carnation books, though not in order, I was happy to grab this latest installment — and it didn’t disappoint. The story was fun, light and very fast-paced, and I loved the setting of early 19th-century Paris. So much was happening here that, at times, it felt difficult to pin down — and I didn’t even mention the entire story-within-a-story plot of a modern-day grad student and her British boyfriend (Eloise and Colin, if you’re a devotee) above. The contemporary plot was less compelling to me, and I found myself flipping to return to the 1800s.

Zany, outspoken Emma was easily my favorite character. I loved her garish behavior — and the fact that she rarely seemed to give a fig what anyone thought of her. Disowned by her family because of an elopment to her now-deceased husband, Emma is definitely someone who cuts her own path. She stands in stark constrast to Augustus, a spy who uses terrible poetry as a cover. Though I appreciated Augustus’ cunning and the heavy dose of espionage happening in The Garden Intrigue, at times it felt a bit long. And I was a mite bored.

The push-and-pull conversations between Emma and Augustus had me grinning, though, and Augustus’ wordplay is fun for a word geek like me. Francophiles will love the Parisian setting and backdrop of Emperor Napoleon’s estate, and the romantics will enjoy the banter and budding romance between Augustus and Emma. Though I didn’t love this one as much as The Mischief Of The Mistletoe, it was a pleasant way to spend a few evenings — and I’d imagine Pink Carnation fans will gobble this one up.


3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0062069284 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Compulsively Mr. Darcy’ by Nina Benneton

Doctor Elizabeth Bennet is used to dealing with ill, poverty-stricken patients in Vietnam, where she divides her time between treating the sick and helping her sister, Jane, at a nearby orphanage. But she’s not accustomed to dealing with handsome, bristly men like William Darcy bossing her around as she tries to do her job — especially when that job means treating his best friend, Charles, as the pair arrive far from home.

Getting off on the wrong foot, Elizabeth’s unpleasant opinion of William is pretty steadfast. Her disinterest doesn’t really matter, though; she’s convinced Charles and William are actually a clandestine couple (!) wanting to adopt a child, so it doesn’t matter that he’s ridiculously good-looking. And chivalrous. And actually very kindhearted. As the two get to know one another, inexperienced-in-love Elizabeth sees Darcy in a new light . . .

Nina Benneton’s Compulsively Mr. Darcy is a unique contribution to the expansive world of Jane Austen fiction, though I can’t say I was bowled over by this imagining. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, our favorite couple, are transported from Regency England to modern-day Vietnam, where Elizabeth’s job as a physician keeps her from dating much. She doesn’t expect to fall for Darcy, especially as her first meeting with him goes so poorly, but Austen fanatics know there can only be one outcome for this tale of — ahem — pride and prejudice.

First, the good: I liked how Benneton translated Darcy’s steadfast nature and strict attention to detail into an obsessive-compulsive disorder. It makes sense, really, and wasn’t overdone. Readers aren’t subjected to Darcy washing his hands under burning-hot water 45 times a day or checking and re-checking locks. We’re aware of his OCD, of course, but Benneton used a light touch to portray that very human, fallible part of Darcy’s nature. I dug it.

The setting was amazing, too — I mean, how many novels have I read set in Vietnam? None, actually. The very British Darcy was an interesting contrast to Elizabeth, an earthy and low-maintenance American, and I could see how they balanced each other. While Darcy was pacing around, dealing with quirky relatives and a high-powered job, Elizabeth was helping her Korean patients and trying to ignore her attraction to Darcy. It was amusing.

At first, anyway. For all Benneton’s assertions that Elizabeth is an intelligent, independent woman — a doctor, for cryin’ out loud — she becomes a complete idiot around (and about) Darcy. I know what you’re thinking: when we fall in love for the first time, as Elizabeth does, what woman doesn’t temporarily lose her common sense? And I would agree with you, friends. We often do become morons. But not in the obvious, ridiculous ways Elizabeth does. I was riding the Compulsively Mr. Darcy train until she began griping to Jane, her sweet sister, about how Darcy didn’t want to sleep with her after “seriously dating for days.” Yes: days. Virginal Elizabeth, so nervous and apprehensive about sex after some weird incident in her youth, can’t understand why the serious, analytical Darcy doesn’t want to hop into the sack immediately.

And okay, this is romance. I get it. But it just didn’t jive with me — it felt too forced, too unreal. I’m no prude, but I had a hard time taking Elizabeth seriously after she made so many awkward moves. To me, her behavior just wasn’t realistic — and I couldn’t relate to her much after she went so stark-raving crazy. The decisions she makes after they’ve been “dating” (mind you, he’s only in Vietnam temporarily — on a half-“vacation”) for mere days seemed ridiculous.

But was this book entertaining? Yes. I read it quickly, enjoying Benneton’s modern interpretation of Darcy and Elizabeth’s quirks. Nothing here rocked my world, but it was a pleasant diversion and an interesting addition to the Austen fiction canon. The familiar cast is well represented, including George Wickham (the cad!) and the annoying Bill Collins, and I liked finding their cameos in the fast-paced plot.

While cheesy lines akin to “My love, you are the very air I breathe” prompted eye-rolling, Compulsively Mr. Darcy is still a reasonably fun novel that may appeal to die-hard Austen fans wanting to reconnect with our favorite couple in a different place and time. Would I recommend it? Not over many other Pride and Prejudice-inspired books I’ve read, especially Pemberley Ranch by Jack Caldwell. But give it a try for something a little different.


3 out of 5!

ISBN: 1402262493 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

A (new) movie script ending

I have a lot of break-up songs on my iPod.

I was once a Broken-Hearted Girl, a moniker I wore like a badge of honor. I’ve always felt things deeply. When I was younger and less disciplined, this could result in epic arguments with boyfriends. Those fights would dissolve into ugly break-ups on the phone, in parking lots, outside of restaurants. Everywhere, really.

It’s funny to think about who I was then versus who I am now. Like all teens and early 20-somethings, I had no idea what I was looking for in a mate. My requirements, especially in the beginning, were slim: was he cute? And did he like me? If both were true, I would gladly chat with you on AOL Instant Messenger (oh, the days!) or accept a short-but-sweet phone call while my dad surveyed the scene from the next room. I wasn’t in my first “real” relationship until I was 17, which sounds young now — but trust that it felt old as dirt when I was a teen, obsessed with the fact that “everyone had a boyfriend” but me.

Over the years, my romantic entanglements were messy. There were the military men, including the Marine that broke my heart for the first time. (That sucked. But it was also seven years ago.) The boys who thought they were men — but really weren’t. The bad kissers. The dudes who couldn’t get their stuff together. The ones who were nice but just too nice — brotherly nice. And some fit several of those descriptions.

For a while, it felt like I was destined to wade through life without finding someone who actually meant something to me. After that first heartbreak, I felt resigned to just let the chips fall as they may. I didn’t really try. I was complacent at work, complacent in my friendships; I was too hung up on the past to move into the future. After ending an almost three-year relationship with a so wrong-for-me guy (who married someone else the following year), my one attempt at meeting someone organically was an epic disaster. I confused meeting a short guy with a larger-than-life ego as some sort of “kismet,” totally embarrassed myself by trying to force something that had no business being forced and then just felt . . . defeated. And awful.

Then I met Spencer.


{Top, April 2010, weeks after we met; October 2011}


I like talking about him — because I love him. As today is Valentine’s Day, I’ve been thinking about the paths that brought me to this moment. All the “God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you” sort of times, you know? I get annoyed with all the empty cliches about “I found the man I love when I finally stopped looking!” because, you know, I was looking. I was very actively looking. I was on a dating site, for cryin’ out loud; when I finally woke up to the fact that I’m totally type-A and wasn’t cool with just waiting for a partner to drop into my lap, I was really committed to the search.

Still, Spencer made the “first move,” if you will, out there in cyberspace; I kept all our early email exchanges. We wrote back and forth just a few times before agreeing to meet for coffee on a Sunday afternoon. When I close my eyes, I can see him walking into the cafe with his long, unruly curls and easy smile. He was my third (and final) date in a week — a beacon I hadn’t known I’d been searching for.

From that initial meeting, we’ve been inseparable. I don’t have any doubts — about him; about us. There have been no teary fights. No arguments that lasted long into the night, and no fiery parking-lot break-ups. No accusations, and no broken trust.

I stopped listening to my iPod a few months back, sick of my endless streams of sad, sappy break-up tunes. I tired of the melancholy riffs of Death Cab for Cutie, though “A Movie Script Ending” was once a favorite song. They were all a complete carry-over from those broken-hearted days, and I longed to start fresh.

Except for the odd-ball moment, I don’t think about the past anymore.

And I think I’ll get my “movie script ending” after all.


Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!


Book review: ‘Anna and the French Kiss’ by Stephanie Perkins

Oh, this book. This book. I spent half of it pacing around; another half getting weepy and silly and emotional; another half clutching it to my chest and swooning like a 16-year-old.

Wait — was that three “halves”?

I’m losing my mind. But that’s what Anna and the French Kiss will do to you.

Seventeen-year-old Anna is the daughter of a famous schmaltzy writer who wants to give his daughter the chance to broaden her horizons — at a boarding school in France. Far from her home in Atlanta, Ga., Anna arrives at School of America in Paris without friends or the boyfriend she’s hoped to have by now: Toph, a former coworker at the movie theatre where they both worked.

It’s not long before Anna settles in, though, and begins to get the lay of the land at SOAP — with the help of new buddies, of course. Meredith, Rashmi and Josh welcome her into their circle of artists and athletes, but it’s the group’s wayward member — Etienne St. Clair, friend to all and hot as can be — that really grabs Anna’s attention.

Of course, she’s not interested in St. Clair. He’s sweet, funny and gregarious, plus he has a British accent and amazing hair, but Etienne has something else, too: a girlfriend. And Anna is missing Toph and her best friend stateside, Bridgette, so she has no time to worry about him. Or does she . . .

Stephanie Perkins’ Anna and the French Kiss really is as awesome as everyone claims. Like the colorful macarons Perkins describes, I couldn’t help but devour entire passages of this book whole. It’s funny, entertaining, witty, realistic and oh, so romantic. So romantic. I’m telling you now, I was swooning from here to the Atlantic with this novel clutched to my chest.

Etienne is so my new book crush. (But you’ll always be my first love, Marcus.)

You know when your best friend falls for a guy and talks about him so much that you start to think, “Hey, you know what? You’re right. That dude is awesome.” That’s totally Anna and me, BFFs: in love with the same man. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Etienne St. Clair, so I didn’t even try to stop myself. It would have been like putting out a house fire with a bottle of water. Smokin’.

Ahem.

So yes. This book. This book. I loved Anna and her occasionally clueless self. She felt like a real teen, a real friend — a young woman who was both intelligent and adorable, eager to please her family but struggling under the weight of her parents’ divorce. She was so linked to her little brother, Sean, that it tugged at my heartstrings. And even though she had all sorts of Big Stuff going on, it didn’t bring her down. She just kept moving forward, learning and experiencing as she went.

Anna and St. Clair’s friends were all well-drawn and believable, too. There when you needed them, but with their own difficulties to figure out. Again: realistic. I think that’s what I loved so much about this book: it was like I could have stepped right through the pages and sat with them at lunch. It made me — a 25-year-old — feel like I belonged at SOAP, too.

France came alive under Perkins’ fingertips, and I haven’t wanted to visit this bad since finishing French Milk last year. There is so much to love here — I could go on and on. But rather than encourage you to keep reading a ridiculously long review, just go get Anna and the French Kiss. Perkins has crafted a young adult book that readers of all ages will enjoy, relate to and, like me, want to hug after the final page has closed.

I totally hugged this book.

And I think you will, too.


5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0525423273 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘Dating Mr. December’ by Phillipa Ashley

Emma Tremayne arrives in Bannerdale, a quaint town in the English countryside, after a disastrous break-up — and has plenty of her own baggage from the exchange. But ever the consummate PR professional, Emma accepts a new job and finds a daunting task ahead of her: helping the Bannerdale Mountain Rescue team raise much-needed funds.

The answer is something that has worked before, Emma claims: a calendar featuring the hunky men of the squad — in the buff. But not all members are ready to drop trou for the “greater good,” and especially not Will Tennant, a local entrepreneur and businessman. Citing that the exercise is degrading and will surely make the team a laughingstock, Will does his best to unhinge Emma’s plans.

Until he begins to realize how completely dedicated to her work Emma is, which impresses him. And how lovely she is when she’s begging to be taken seriously. And how attractive her figure is when she’s wearing a skirt, or muddy boots, or jeans . . .

You see where I’m headed, friends. Phillipa Ashley’s Dating Mr. December is a classic nice-girl-meets-supposedly-bad-boy storyline, sprinkling in a few new details for flavor. Will is broody and difficult, but also devastatingly handsome and charismatic; Emma is serious and hurt — a bit timid from her recent heartbreak — but also wildly attracted to Will. It’s a recipe for . . . well, not disaster. But entertaining foibles, sure.

Going into the novel, I’ll admit I was expecting something a little more holiday themed. Will is “Mr. December,” the featured man for the calendar’s December, but the book doesn’t take place at Christmastime. Also? What Will and Emma are doing, for the vast majority of the book, couldn’t be called “dating.” It could be called fantasizing, building sexual tension, bantering and throwing longing looks, yes, but definitely not “dating.”

That nit-picky stuff aside, I enjoyed this story — a light romp through the British countryside with two people who met as strangers — or even adversaries — but found a way to work together . . . and even fall in love. Emma and Will’s conversations were fluid and fun, and Will’s unexpected romantic side was definitely swoon-worthy. Unlike some of the romance novels I’ve read recently, author Ashley wasn’t eager to just throw these two into bed; the plot built slowly but realistically, and I didn’t feel as though their feelings had been forced or manipulated.

There were times I was a little annoyed at some of the obvious tropes — like Emma constantly needing Will, a member of a rescue team, to rescue her — but I still enjoyed her character. Smarting from that betrayal, Emma was delicate and in need of some TLC. And fortunately for her, Will wasn’t the woman-using scoundrel the folks of Bannerdale made him out to be. I liked him, too.

Fans of romance will find this story charming and quick — and not lacking on the sexy scale. But don’t let the Santa hat on the cover fool you (and that’s not supposed to be Emma, is it? She’s a brunette) — it’s less about the holly-jolly and more about the misunderstandings between would-be romantic partners. But, you know — that’s fun, too.

And look for the TV adaptation of the story, “12 Men Of Christmas,” on Lifetime — it stars Kristen Chenoweth and Josh Hopkins of “Cougartown” fame. I’ll be tuning in this holiday season!


3 out of 5!

ISBN: 1402241429 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review