Book review: ‘The Last Original Wife’ by Dorothea Benton Frank

The Last Original WifeAs her husband’s cronies begin trading in their middle-aged wives for buxom, younger versions, Leslie “Les” Carter feels her age, inadequacy and awkwardness in her bones. After several decades of marriage, her commitment to Wes has morphed her into little more than a housekeeper and meal-preparer as she sits in her empty nest without her two ungrateful children.

Just living the life.

When Les learns the bank account Wes has been safeguarding is far more substantial than he’s ever let on, the betrayal sends her over the top. It was enough that Wes had fobbed his wife off in Scotland after she suffers an accident, sending a friend’s wife to sit with her at the hospital while he keeps his tee time. But this? This bed of lies?

Without a word to anyone, Les escapes Atlanta to visit her brother in Charleston, land of their birth — and starts to do some rethinking of her own. She may be the last original wife among Wes’ power-player buddies . . . but is that really what she wants?

Dorothea Benton Frank’s The Last Original Wife is a summer read with heart. Though I didn’t fully connect to Leslie as a narrator, I felt for her situation and wanted to see her happy again.

The novel alternates between the viewpoints of both Wes and Les (how cute), and Wes came off as little more than a bully and a bore. As a woman, maybe my sympathy was just naturally with Leslie rather than her dull husband? I don’t know. But I found myself skimming Wes’ sections because he pretty much sucked, and maybe that was the point . . . but he just wasn’t entertaining.

Despite its rather serious subject matter (life, death, divorce), “entertaining” is a good word for The Last Original Wife. Frank’s playful tone makes Leslie a loveable character, even if I didn’t easily relate to her. She’s rich and sad and longing for connection, but I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at some of her antics. I just . . . wasn’t there with her.

But did I still enjoy the story? I did. It’s a light read with some interesting secondary characters. I could have done with less of the odd therapy scenes when the Carters are trying to sort out their issues, but there were realistic glimpses of marriage — and humor — there. Though I found the ending bittersweet, I appreciated where Frank had started Les and where she wound up. There was a sense of closure and fulfillment.

3 out of 5!

Pub: 2013 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Baby Proof’ by Emily Giffin

Baby ProofOh, I’m so torn about this one.

On one hand, it was very entertaining. Like all Emily Giffin novels, I raced through it — barely pausing between sentences, between chapters. It was interesting and often amusing and filled with (mostly) likeable characters, but . . .


It felt shallow. Ill-conceived (eh, pun intended). I wasn’t entirely comfortable with where the story was headed, and I definitely wasn’t comfortable with where it wound up.

But look. If you’re a Giffin fan, you’ve probably already tread down the path of Baby Proof — like, years ago — and don’t need me to tell you to grab it or not grab it. If you like women’s fiction, chances are favorable you’ve come across the author’s work — and I certainly have. This was actually the final book of her backlist I had to pick up, and I’m not sorry I read it.

Would I read it again? Nope.

The gist of our story: Claudia Parr thinks she’s happily married to Ben, a man with whom she shares a no-child vision for their lives; Ben decides that may not actually be the case; marriage crisis ensues. In the end, Claudia must decide if she’s secure in not wanting to be a mother — and if she’s comfortable with Ben going on to parent with someone else.

That’s it.

It’s a pretty long book centering on one precise issue, but I actually thought Giffin handled it well. Of course, because our narrator emphatically declares she does not want a child — and stands to lose her marriage because of it — she sees babies everywhere. One sister desperately wants to be pregnant, but can’t be; another friend thinks she is going to have a child with her married lover, but fate might have other ideas. Basically, it’s all the babies all the time in Claudia’s world . . . and everything gets complicated.

If this sounds like a read you’d enjoy and/or you like Emily Giffin, you’ll probably dig this one. It was not my favorite of her books — that distinction would go to Something Blue — but, you know, it was passable.

3.5 out of 5!

Pub: 2007 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘The Supreme Macaroni Company’ by Adriana Trigiani

Supreme Macaroni CompanyThis was the book I chose to read during that most sparkly of times of a woman’s life: the week of her wedding. Knowing its lead character, Valentine, was tying the knot herself, I figured it was just the engrossing-but-lighthearted read I craved.

I have a long track record of enjoying the works of Adriana Trigiani, which feature a lovely blend of love and family, and I was really looking forward to sinking into The Supreme Macaroni Company. I’d saved it for November, in fact, and couldn’t wait to get started.

The reading experience? Well, it featured highlights and lowlights, really. But before we get into all that, here’s the gist of it from the publisher:

For over a hundred years, the Angelini Shoe Company in Greenwich Village has relied on the leather produced by Vechiarelli & Son in Tuscany. This historic business partnership provides the twist of fate for Valentine Roncalli, the school teacher turned shoemaker, to fall in love with Gianluca Vechiarelli, a tanner with a complex past . . . and a secret.

A piece of surprising news is revealed at The Feast of the Seven Fishes when Valentine and Gianluca join her extended family on a fateful Christmas Eve. Now faced with life-altering choices, Valentine remembers the wise words that inspired her in the early days of her beloved Angelini Shoe Company: ‘A person who can build a pair of shoes can do just about anything.’ The proud, passionate Valentine is going to fight for everything she wants and savor all she deserves — the bitter and the sweetness of life itself. (Goodreads)

So we’ve seen Valentine before — twice, in fact. It’s been three years since I joined Ms. Roncalli on her adventures, and . . . well, I needed a refresher. In fact, though I apparently enjoyed both books immensely in 2009 and 2010, I couldn’t have told you much about them.

Not a good sign, I guess.

Once I got back on board, though, I was ready to ride that Italian-infused train for hours. I spent portions of this novel completely lost in Trigiani’s world and language, falling in love with Gianluca along with Valentine and reveling in their short — but happy — engagement. I loved the family Christmas, the dynamics and intricacies involved with creating beautiful shoes, and the obvious love the families share for one another.

But somewhere along the line, everything just . . . started to derail. Fall flat. Become quite dull. My relationship with Valentine deteriorated when I realized how she was determined to assert her independence no matter the cost — which could include her husband.

It all just seemed . . . unnecessary. And was painful to read.

But honestly, I don’t have warring emotions about this story. I read it quickly on my honeymoon, grabbing long passages here and there, and I adored much of it — especially Trigiani’s descriptions of the loving, complicated Roncalli clan — but still felt it lacked an emotional component that usually hooks me on stories laced with family dynamics.

The plot twist toward the end felt like a gut-punch — in a sour way. I understood it, but it just . . . made me angry. And this after Valentine had already begun to come across as pushy, bossy, negative, unfeeling. I really hardened toward her, and that feeling lingered long after I’d closed the last page.

Longstanding fans of the Valentine series will want to see how their heroine fared, but I ended the story feeling rather deflated. I believe Trigiani concluded the series in a realistic way, and Valentine certainly did evolve as a character, but I can’t help but feel disappointed we didn’t get a more fulfilling send-off.

3.5 out of 5!

Pub: Nov. 26, 2013 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Just Like Other Daughters’ by Colleen Faulkner

Just Like Other DaughtersSometimes you meet a book and shake its little hand, believing you’ve become acquainted with something sweet — delicate, maybe — and far from life changing. You’ll spend a little time with the novel, seeking diversion, but don’t expect much.

It’ll be a simple story. An easy story. And you venture along in your ignorant bliss, thinking you’ll wade into a warm batch of cotton candy . . . but when you surface 100 pages in, you realize it’s over. You were wrong. You’ve been sucked into a book so emotional and gut-wrenching and realistic and unique, the idea that you could have ever fancied it something innocuous is funny.

Meet Just Like Other Daughters by Colleen Faulkner, a book I picked up because it centered on a unique mother/daughter pair: Alicia, a single parent and college professor; and Chloe, her 25-year-old daughter. Her daughter with Down syndrome. Her daughter who has, against others’ wishes or desires, fallen in love.

Life has been pretty straightforward for Alicia and Chloe. After divorcing her husband, a womanizing fellow professor, Alicia plunges headfirst into her daughter’s care. Chloe grows up in a fairly traditional way, bonded by rituals and thick-as-thieves with her mom, and Alicia feels fortunate — incredibly fortunate — to be around for her daughter in the ways she needs. But as Chloe begins expressing more desire for autonomy, Alicia feels the tender threads binding them together starting to fray.

Enter Thomas. A handsome, mentally-disabled young man from the same classes she attends daily . . . a young man in love with Chloe. The first times they’re caught touching or kissing, Alicia brushes off the burgeoning relationship — even as Chloe asserts that Thomas has asked her to marry him. From a strict and religious household, Thomas’ parents intervene at the idea of the couple having a physical relationship outside the bonds of marriage.

And Alicia just doesn’t want to think about it.

Honestly, I could talk about Just Like Other Daughters all day . . . because there’s just so much to talk about. Once I started reading, I simply couldn’t stop. I was completely sucked into Alicia’s world, constantly empathizing with her and wondering how I would handle all the uncharted territory she must cross myself. Assertive but thoughtful, weak but strong, Alicia is the perfect mom — because she really cares. Would I make all the same choices, do all the same things? I don’t know. Maybe not . . . but maybe. Faulkner’s great ability to create such a sympathetic, realistic and painfully normal mom in Alicia is the story’s true strength. Because Alicia could be any of us.

As the novel progresses, my stomach started to hurt. Literally: it ached. Chloe, Alicia and Thomas are put into such crazy situations that are . . . actually completely ordinary. The book raises so many questions about what constitutes a happy, normal and fulfilling life for Chloe and Thomas, and I realized time and again that there are no easy answers. Nothing is as simple as a yes or a no, and that’s what made it so fascinating — and gut-wrenching — to read.

I didn’t know where the book was going, but a nervous sixth sense seemed to get it before my mind did. All I can say is that, by the conclusion, I was laying in bed wide-eyed in such shock that I couldn’t fall asleep. At 2 a.m. It’s been a long time since a book made me feel so many things at a single time, and I haven’t stopped thinking of it since.

The only thorn in my side? The story’s transitions to Chloe’s point of view. A few times throughout the book, the first-person narration switched from Alicia to her daughter — a choice I found unnecessary and distracting. Always in short bursts, Chloe’s portions really broke up the narrative. I didn’t need them to bond with her, to understand her; I already felt like I did.

But that’s a small complaint in an otherwise powerful story. Readers interested in mother/daughter stories, family relationships or just plain gripping novels will find a moving story in Just Like Other Daughters. It’s a quick read, but not one I’ll soon forget.

4.5 out of 5!

Pub: Oct. 29, 2013 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Bio
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The Good Wife’ by Jane Porter

The Good WifeWhat I love best about Jane Porter also happens to be what most punches me in the gut: her work really, really draws you in.

You’re not reading about the action, kindly removed from the situation with a cool beverage in an ivory tower; you are all up in the drama, standing sticky in the middle of the muck when things get serious. If you’re looking for an engrossing read you simply cannot put down (and who isn’t?), The Good Wife is awesome. But when your head is full of nonsense and you just want to escape from reality for a bit, it’s terrible.

But also terribly awesome. Because maybe you want to get involved in someone else’s disaster for a bit! Feel their anguish, their pain, their confusion! . . . But maybe you don’t. Maybe you want to just veg out, relax, decompress.

I could not decompress with this book.

Don’t let me give the impression I didn’t like it, however — definitely not true. This is the third in Porter’s Brennan Sisters series (preceded by The Good Woman and The Good Daughter), and suffice it to say I am emotionally invested in this complicated, realistic and loving clan. Picking up The Good Wife, which focuses on sister Sarah, felt like reuniting with family.

And just like family, it got messy. Sarah is the wife of handsome and successful baseball player Boone Walker, a charismatic man who spends more time on the road than with his young family. Left to single parent in Florida, far removed from her Californian crew, Sarah is reeling from two recent losses and struggling to move past Boone’s previous infidelities (not a spoiler — addressed much earlier in the series).

Happening alongside Sarah’s struggles is the story of Lauren, a 30-something baker and entrepreneur whose teen son died tragically the year before the story opens. Also fighting through grief, Lauren is trying to make sense of a new world in which she’s a mother without a child . . . and must try to find a way to move forward in the crumbling aftermath of her previous life. When a sweet, smart teammate of Boone’s expresses an interest in her, leading to the first glimpse of dating she’s experienced in decades, Lauren must dig through the wreckage of the past to walk shakily into the future.

I don’t know who I adored more: Sarah or Lauren. Though they initially live in different parts of the country and are marching into different battles, the two women are remarkably similar, too. I like that Porter doesn’t focus on the Brennan family to the detriment of every other character in the novel, rendering anyone peripheral to the background; anyone introduced in The Good Wife is real and interesting and totally flesh-and-blood, making it a dynamic and personal reading experience.

And it did feel personal. When Sarah hurt, I hurt; when Lauren hurt, I really hurt. It’s a testament to Porter’s skill that she has me so deeply involved with her characters that I can barely tolerate parting with them. It’s been a long time since I got hooked on a series, and the Brennan Sisters books have definitely done that for me. Though sometimes the attention to detail felt exhausting, I still can’t help but marvel at the way Sarah and Lauren’s lives were brought so beautifully to life for me.

If you haven’t read anything by Porter, do yourself a favor and start with The Good Woman. Meg has a big role in this one, too, and the impact of events won’t be the same without gaining your own history with the characters. Porter’s third installment is heartbreaking and thoughtful and touching, and I highly recommend this — and the series.

4.25 out of 5!

Pub: Sept. 3, 2013 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The Apple Orchard’ by Susan Wiggs

The Apple OrchardFall is the perfect time to read about an orchard, right?

And maybe also the right time to read about an emotionally-compromised narrator and lost treasures? And perhaps a World War II-era mystery — Nazis and daring escapes and such?

Sure. I think so.

To say Susan Wiggs’ The Apple Orchard was different than I’d anticipated is an understatement — but in a good way. I went into this 400-plus-page book expecting some romance set against a sparkling California backdrop — and Wiggs delivered on that front. But I was also treated to some mystery and some history . . . all while a burgeoning love affair simmered just beneath the surface.

In short: delicious.

So we have Tess Delaney, a purveyor of fine goods — a woman in San Francisco who specializes in finding lost treasures and returning them to their rightful owners. Save a flighty mother who dodges in and out of her life, Tess has no real family . . . and has always longed to forge a connection with others, though she isn’t sure how. When news arrives that she has a grandfather and half-sister living in nearby Archangel, Tess hightails it out to an orchard for answers — but only discovers more questions along the way.

Though lengthy, it’s hard not to get sucked into The Apple Orchard — a story brimming with entertainment and intrigue. I never became as emotionally invested in Tess’ life as I would have liked, but I was able to enjoy my first Wiggs novel as pure entertainment. It was very involved, but it never felt too heavy. I was surprised at the depth of the characters and the far-reaching twists in the plot — many of which spanned decades.

As love interests, Tess and Dominic — the banker threatening to foreclose on Bella Vista, the sprawling family orchard — are an interesting pair. With little in common on the surface save their vested interest in Magnus, Tess’ ailing and newly-discovered grandpa, the allies work together on ways to save the Archangel property . . . including locating one rare, very valuable family artifact. The romantic tension between them crackled and popped, and I spent most of The Apple Orchard waiting for them to connect. You know, ahem — really connect. The results were not disappointing.

Alternating between present-day California and WWII-era Denmark, Wiggs does an admirable job of connecting so many characters across generations. One plot point involving the fate of the family treasure felt a little hokey to me, especially as far as Tess’ father’s fate was concerned, but that was a minor ripple in an otherwise enjoyable story.

Also, the setting really made the novel for me . . . and I totally want to go hang out in an orchard now. Maybe like the one we wandered last year in Syria, Virginia (pictured below). Cider? Apple picking? Prancing through the rows like I’m Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music”? I’ll take it.

3.5 out of 5!

Pub: April 30, 2013 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

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Book review: ‘The Bride Wore Size 12’ by Meg Cabot

The Bride Wore Size 12Heather Wells was hoping for a banner year at New York College, where she works with undergrads and sees to their needs in a busy — now infamous — residence hall. A former pop star now sporting a sparkly engagement ring courtesy of her PI fiance, Cooper, Heather’s hope for a quiet semester vanishes when an RA turns up dead and the son of a prominent international politician stirs up controversy in her building. With many students as possible suspects and the stakes getting ever-higher before her big day, Heather just hopes to get out of this one . . . alive.

Meg Cabot’s The Bride Wore Size 12, the fifth book in her Heather Wells mysteries series, is a fun story that may not have had me reading compulsively, but did serve as an entertaining distraction during a busy month. I read the first book — Size 12 is Not Fat — back in 2009, but never felt compelled to pick up the books that came after. I chose to reunite with Heather as a bride-to-be myself, and . . . well, it turns out I didn’t miss much.

But I don’t mean that in a super mean way. Just that Heather is still the Heather I remember: assertive but kindhearted, interesting but not ridiculously compelling as a narrator. She’s engaged to a private investigator, works with an assortment of unusual coworkers. I remember the first book being fun but not life-altering, though the details did come back to me all these years later. (Always a good sign.)

The “mystery” aspect — centering on the death of Jasmine, a popular coed — was . . . well, it was. I was curious about what happened to her, but we didn’t know enough (or anything, really) about Jasmine to make her death matter to us. Rashid, the son of a prominent Middle Eastern leader, comes with baggage — and it’s his partying and involvement on campus that bring the circumstances surrounding Jasmine’s death more attention. I was interested in Rashid and his story with Ameera, a fellow student, but I wished they’d gotten more screen time.

There was just . . . so much happening here. We have Cooper and Heather’s upcoming wedding; the mystery surrounding the student death; the popularity of a student news blog breaking stories Heather would rather not be breaking; the reappearance of Heather’s long-lost, no-good mom and former manager; Cooper’s interactions that ultimately turn unpleasant; and . . . well, now I have whiplash.

But I can’t say this book wasn’t a fun read. Despite some of its heavy subject matter, Cabot writes with humor and a light touch — all qualities I’ve always loved about her. If you’re new to the series, you could certainly start with The Bride Wore Size 12 and work your way back . . . but I’d recommend starting at the beginning. If you’ve spent time with Heather in the past but aren’t sure you want to scamper back into her world, your return will probably be an enjoyable one.

3.5 out of 5!

Pub: Sept. 24, 2013 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review