Follow My Lead by Kate Noble

5 Jul

Has it really been two weeks since I posted last? How can this possibly be? I feel like I just took a few days off of the blog and then, BOOM. Two weeks, baby. So, apologies for that.

Ok, time to attack my already-read pile and get another review done! This time it’s Kate Noble’s Follow My Lead, which I picked up at my favorite paperback store. I always squee a little when one of my favorite, not-so-readily-available authors has a book in this particular store, as this place is VERY popular with the local bibliophiles and things get snapped up quick. Kate Noble is one of these authors – she’s newer and has a lot of buzz, so to find Follow My Lead was nothing short of amazing. The gods of romance reading were smiling down on me that day. I’d already read Summer of You and Compromised (which I don’t think I reviewed) and so was excited to start another of Noble’s romances.

I love, love, love stories about female scholars. That mix of bluestocking charm and tidbits about Egyptology/art history/whatever subject the particular lady scholar is into are so entertaining to me. Winifred Crane is quite an accomplished art historian, but nobody knows it – that’s because she’s published her papers under a false, male name. When she decides to approach London’s tony (and female-unfriendly) Historical Society for membership, she is rebuffed and good. Not aiding her at all is a particularly odious cousin who intends to marry her and is of that ever-so-irritating opinion that women should be polite, quiet, and contain their efforts to child-rearing and attending their husbands. Charming, no? Also present at Winifred’s rejection by the Historical Society is Jason Cummings, Duke of Rayne, who appeared as the extremely irritating brother in Summer of You. Full disclosure: I loathed Jason in that book, but I tried not to let that color my opinion of him in this one. Jason is very busy with his dukedom, very proper, and actually wants to get married to Sarah Forrester, a perfectly charming young lady of the ton. (I loved that Noble made Winn’s rival completely and totally lovable and worthy – it felt very realistic to have Jason torn between the two women, and I’m looking forward to reading her story in If I Fall, released this past April.) Through chivalry, curiosity, and a little bit of boredom, Jason agrees to a far-fetched plan to allow Winn to prove her claims to the Historical Society by determining the origin of a contested painting. This plan leads to hidden identities, double crossings, madcap chases across Europe, and of course, love.

There were parts of this book I very much liked, and others that either tested my suspension of disbelief or just weren’t my bag. I really liked Winn – what a resourceful, strong, and brave heroine. But, and this is a big but, her attitude/relationship with her cousin was completely beyond my understanding. The man is a twerp of the worst kind, constantly belittling her ambitions and trying to keep her in the little box he’s decided she should be in. For such an intelligent and, frankly, independent woman to put up with this for reasons that I felt were unworthy of her really tested my patience. I don’t always have to like my heroines, but I do prefer to understand them, and in this respect, I just thought she was cray cray. I mentioned above my dislike of the hero due to his role in another book, but I thought he came off well here. It’s been a few years, and he’s not only mended his relationship with his sister, but he’s owned up to his responsibilities and no longer runs away or buries his head in the sand in the face of unpleasantness. That being said, for all his nice qualities, I didn’t get much oomph from him. He is very kind, even when Winn demonstrates an aggravating ability to ditch him, but he was pretty beta. Winn and Jason’s relationship develops nice and slowly, giving themselves, and us by extension, a good amount of time to get to know them, but I never felt any real heat. They seemed like fantastic companions, best friends even, but I didn’t get that “true love” vibe. Actually, maybe that’s a nice change-up – these two characters would probably get on very well together, having a lot of adventures and supporting each other. Maybe I’m just jaded that these nice, mellow relationships don’t thrill me as much as the more angsty ones? I do want to say that the ending is just lovely, so sweet and well-written. I do love me some Kate Noble – she’s a fantastic writer and able to keep my engrossed even when I’m not completely on board with the characters. I’m really looking forward to the next one.

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Two DNFs: this pains me

20 Jun
I’m in a bit of a reading slump right now – nothing seems like the right fit for my mood, and I feel too lazy to go to any real effort to jumpstart my habit. That’s why this post especially pains me. It’s times like these when I go to trusted authors that I’ve enjoyed in the past. What better way is there to get your mojo back than to return to an author’s voice or style that really moves you? One caveat: like I said, I’m slumpy right now, so I’m not holding these Did Not Finish books against the authors at all. They still rock.

First up, I tried to read Dianna Wynne Jones’ Hexwood. I hadn’t heard of this particular title of hers, but I’ve come to really respect and enjoy her weird world. I mean, Howl’s Moving Castle is a phenomenal book (which incidentally became one of my favorite movies) and I recently read and enjoyed House of Many Ways (which it looks like I didn’t review…curious), so I thought for sure anything I picked up from Jones would be a winner for me. Plus, with her recent passing in 2011, it feels really wrong to not have a glowing review for any of her works. Alas, I didn’t like Hexwood and gave it up after 100 pages or so. It was just too odd and unstructured for me right now. It’s about a motley crew of characters from different times, places, and dimensional realms who interact with each other in an enchanted world. Because I didn’t finish it, I don’t know how it all worked out or what significance each character had, and I can see in hindsight that it’s a very intelligent book that I probably would have enjoyed another time. Now, though, the jolts in time and space were too disorienting for me, and I had trouble caring about any of the characters. One of the blurbs on the cover, from The Washington Post, said it’s a “an intricate mesh of romance, science fiction, mythology, and rite of passage.” Sounds amazing, but didn’t work for me. I’m going to hold onto it and give it another chance later on.

Next DNF for me was Julia Quinn’s Everything and the Moon. Quinn is a romance author that I usually love and can depend on for light romantic fare. She admittedly mentions in her forward that she tried a different tack for this book – she had the h/h fall in love at first sight as teenagers. He’s an earl-to-be, she’s a vicar’s daughter, and their star-crossed love follows the predictable path of heartbreak at first. Quinn seemed skeptical in her ability to pull off the “love at first sight” trope, and like her, it’s not my favorite plot twist either. I just…don’t get it. Attraction, yes. Chemistry, definitely. “I love you with my whole soul and can’t imagine being apart from you” after the first meeting? I don’t buy it, and couldn’t. Because I didn’t believe in their connection and hadn’t really bought in to their love, the resulting plot twists didn’t do much for me. Robert, the hero, is a huge dick to the heroine after the Big Misunderstanding, which is understandable but just grated on my nerves. Victoria, the heroine, manages her disappointment well, in a Jane Eyre, “I will survive” kind of way that I liked. BUT. She inexplicably (to my mind, at least) digs her heels in at a certain point and it really slowed down the development of their relationship and the storyline for me. I eventually lost interest when I realized I didn’t care enough about either of them to see how they ended up. Just wasn’t for me. Still, this is the first of her books that didn’t really grab me, so I’m just writing it off as a fluke.

So there you have it. I’m trying a different tack now by delving into some non-fiction I’ve gotten from the library. I’m working on Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, & Butter, a chef memoir that I mentioned a few months ago. So far, I’m really liking it, not just because I love food and spent a fair portion of my working life in various restaurants, but also because homegirl is an excellent writer. Wicked combo. Then I’ll get to a gardening memoir by Margaret Roach – I’ve recently begun cultivating my smallish patch of dirt in my yard and am super into it. Yay for growing things!

Multiple review: two romances and a space opera

15 Jun
I’m sorry to be a cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater, but I’ve got this growing pile of books to be reviewed and a lower-than-usual amount of blogging mojo. Hence, a multiple review post! I’m just going to write up a quick snapshot of three of the latest books I’ve read (literally, they were at the top of the pile, so they’re getting done first). Summer is in full swing here and I’m continually tempted by the views outside my windows to go frolic. I know I’ve been a little obsessive about the romances lately, so I apologize to anyone who’s just not into those. They’ve just been fitting my mood for a light read.

Your Wicked Ways by Eloisa James. This was a really unusual book, I thought, and it further cemented my opinion that Eloisa James is a must-read author. Not only does she write tight plot, fantastic dialogue, and nontraditional characters, but she always surprises me with how she turns the romance genre on its head. In Your Wicked Ways, Helene, the Countess Godwin, and her husband, Rees, Earl of Godwin, have been separated for ten years. They had an impromptu elopement fueled by infatuation, entertained the bare minimum of time together, and swiftly parted. Not so unusual for a romance, right? However! Rees is not your typical hero – he’s an ass. Not in an alpha, I’m-so-tough way, but in a rude, insensitive, and thoughtless way. It took me a looooong time to like him, mostly because the first fifty pages or so, he is unbelievably cruel to Helene. Rees decided to descend into total immorality after his marriage failed, kicking Helene out and replacing her with a mistress in her bedroom. Helene, meanwhile, retreated into propriety and stiffness, and has become a brittle matron incapable of fun. The reasons they come back together benefit both of them, and it takes a lot of time before either of them learn how to love another person. (Scandalous: Rees is actually terrible in bed! Never have I encountered a romantic hero who had to learn his bedroom skillz, so that was very different).

Ok, next up is Victoria Dahl’s Good Girls Don’t. I think Victoria Dahl is always reliable for a scorcher, and though I liked this one, it wasn’t as good as my favorite of her books, Lead Me On. Dahl excels at believable chemistry and she doesn’t disappoint here. What got in my way was the family dynamics. Lemme sum up: Tessa Donovan runs her family’s brewery along with her two brothers, Eric and Jamie. Eric is the de-facto head of the family after her parents died, and Jamie is the ne’er-do-well, charming rogue. There is A LOT of built-up tension and issues in this family, almost too much to be contained. Tessa is a pleaser, willing to lie, cheat, and steal (not really, but almost) to keep her brothers happy. Detective Luke Asher is a local cop who is called in to investigate a robbery at the brewery. What I liked with their relationship is there wasn’t a lot of beating around the bush – they meet, they’re attracted, they go on a date. What gums up the process is the interference of Tessa’s brothers and Luke’s own backstory. Essentially, this is a story about how emotional baggage from your past will catch up with you. For me, her brothers’ constant fighting was stressful and Tessa’s reactions and counter-reactions bordered on manic and self-defeating. I kept wanting to tell Luke it just wasn’t worth it. Why don’t book characters listen to me? I don’t know, I still liked it, but it did strain my nerves at times.

Space opera time! I love me a good space opera – they’re like a crackishly addicting form of science fiction, dystopia, and romance. Linnea Sinclair is mega awesome at this genre, and I’m constantly searching for her backlist. Accidental Goddess was one that I hadn’t heard of, but I loved it. Gillaine Davre is a captain in the Raheiran Special Forces when a last-ditch battle maneuver rockets her forward in time 300 years. That’s scary enough, but she soon realizes after waking up on an unknown space station that her desperate move 300 years ago has turned her into a deity to the modern culture. Admiral Rhys Makarian doesn’t know what to do with this odd, injured traveler but he knows he doesn’t trust her. Soon Gillie realizes that her presence in the future isn’t a mistake, and she’s got to figure out how to save the world and her new relationship at the same time. Fantastico! Totally over the top and fun. I loved the slow, mature relationship they developed, and for once, their relationship hangups seemed justified rather than infuriating.

So there you have it, peeps. Three quick-and-dirty reviews, and my pile is now smaller! Hurray for small triumphs! Now, off I go to frolic in the sunshine.

Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman

7 Jun
I’m going to try to sound halfway intelligent in this post, but my brain is feeling particularly tired today, so let’s just muddle through together, shall we?

I finished Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace by Ayelet Waldman earlier this week, and have been sitting on it for a few days, waiting to let my feelings rest and figure out how much I like it. Turns out I do like it! I was engaged the entire time I was reading it (not an easy feat for me and nonfiction), always eager to move on to the next essay. I gave a little teaser on this book a few days ago in this post, but for those seeing this for the first time, here’s the book blurb from Amazon:

In our mothers’ day there were good mothers, indifferent mothers, and occasionally, great mothers. Today we have only Bad Mothers: If you work, you’re neglectful; if you stay home, you’re smothering. If you discipline, you’re buying them a spot on the shrink’s couch; if you let them run wild, they will be into drugs by seventh grade. Is it any wonder so many women refer to themselves at one time or another as a “bad mother”?

Writing with remarkable candor, and dispensing much hilarious and helpful advice along the way—Is breast best? What should you do when your daughter dresses up as a “ho” for Halloween?—Ayelet Waldman says it’s time for women to get over it and get on with it in this wry, unflinchingly honest, and always insightful memoir on modern motherhood.

I mentioned this before, but I get very squicked out by the overly enthusiastic mother – you know, the one who won’t ever let her child have any sugar or non-organic food, who devotes all her free time to Mommy & Me or other similar kid pursuits, who can’t forgive herself or any other mother for taking two hours away from her kids to get her hair done. Actually, I truly don’t care if they are this way with themselves, but I can’t stand the side-eye they can give to mothers who, in their opinion, aren’t devoting enough to their child’s development. Just, that level of expectation is suffocating to me – isn’t it possible to be a loving, devoted mother and still retain some sense of self? I wish there could be some kind of manifesto for mothers: whatever works for you and your kid is good. No need to criticize or judge other parents when they differ from your own ideals. I think I may be guilty of some judgement too when it comes to these turbo moms – I’m happy they’re happy, but I truly don’t understand how they can want to be that way. I guess I’ll have to wait and see how I do when my own baby is born in a few months…

Ayelet Waldman is of the same opinion as me in her assessment of the “mommy culture” Americans have created. She readily admits being guilty of judging “bad mothers” before her own children were born. In her mind, bad mothers are the ones who lose their temper with their kids in public, who never shows up for classroom duty at the preschool, or who in any way is deemed not as committed, not as devoted to her child’s well-being as other mothers. Now that she has four kids, though, and through her career as a writer has documented a lot of her mistakes and revelations, Waldman has come to relax her standards and to admit that raising a child is hard, and the incessant criticism of mothers by other women does nothing to help. She’s not always gentle in her essays, though; Waldman definitely has a snarky edge that I found amusing, but I imagine that if you found yourself on the other side of the ideological spectrum from her, you might not find it so funny.She has a big personality too and sometimes I was attracted to that and other times repelled. For instance, her competitiveness with what sounds like a perfectly lovely mother-in-law rubbed me the wrong way, but her ability to laugh at herself was endearing. She has LOTS of strong opinions,and I don’t always agree, but that’s what makes her writing entertaining for me. And besides, I’m not looking for a best friend here, just someone to introduce me to some new ideas and perspectives on being a mother today.

Overall, I would recommend this to anyone, but especially mothers who are feeling somewhat “less than” in their assessment of their mothering skills. Chances are, you’ll recognize yourself in Waldman’s foibles and adventures and will feel like being a so-called “bad mother” really isn’t so bad after all.

Sunday reflections

3 Jun

I thought I wanted to write another review today, since I still have a small stack of finished books waiting for me on my nightstand (this is my procrastination tip, because I am inherently very, very lazy: if I move those books out of my way, into, say, a bookshelf where they belong, I will NEVER write them up. Out of sight, out of mind, and all that. So there they sit, staring at me until I write up reviews for them, after which they can go to their new home on my bookshelf). But alas, I am tired and slightly cranky from hormones and Sunday shopping.

I HATE to shop, especially now that my pregnancy takes a physical toll on me. How can one person be so tired from simply driving to two stores (although one was that behemoth Target, so maybe that counts as 1.5) and doing some Sunday shopping? Sometimes my legs feel like they are actually filled with water balloons or lead, something heavy that prevents me from moving quickly or efficiently. Ugh, and everyone was so annoying with their big carts, all standing in my way. So I came home, ate a ginormous salad with garlic bread, and am now feeling much more content. But I also don’t want to do anything that requires more brain cells than perusing my favorite blogs, so I’ll just give a little update on what to expect on here in the next week or so.

  • Review of Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman. Waldman writes both fiction and nonfiction, but it was her controversial essay about marriage and motherhood that landed her in the hot seat – she even went on Oprah to defend herself. In her essay, she made the comment that she loved her husband more than her children, and as you can imagine, she was crucified by many, many people, mostly women. I was interested in what she meant by her statement (no context is ever given when that line is quoted), and I was attracted by her reputation as a writer who frequently addresses the overwhelming expectations of motherhood. I’m just getting my feet wet with this whole motherhood thing, but I have to admit I’m a little ambivalent so far toward the whole  attachment parenting thing, and Waldman seemed like a good place to start when exploring some other perspectives on parenting.
  • Review of Tinker by Wen Spencer. Finished this a week or two ago, really loved it at first, got a little frustrated toward the end. I’ll hash that out in a review coming up.
  • Review of Just the Sexiest Man Alive by Julie James. Picked this up on a whim while at the paperback bookstore, since I remember that I’ve read and liked another of James’ books in the past. She writes contemporary romance, which is a newer subgenre for me, since I like the ol’ historical ones usually
  • Review of Follow My Lead by Kate Noble. I’m reading this one right now. Features a beta hero (not my usual forte, but it’s fun to switch it up). Noble is a newer historical romance author, and she’s very, very good. I read a lot of reviews of her work when she released Summer of You a while back and was adored by all the romance bloggers. She’s definitely a must-read author.

 

So that’s what’s coming up on the blog, barring any surprises. I will leave you with a video I saw this morning on Buzzfeed. People, prepare yourself for some tears – if this doesn’t make your heart melt, you are a robot made of bitterness and canker sores.

A Kiss at Midnight by Eloisa James

30 May

I really like Eloisa James. I always find myself immediately falling into her story, with none of that self-conscious reflection I sometimes get when I read in a genre. It’s kind of a weird habit – before I really get interested, for the first few pages I mentally catalogue various earmarks of certain genres, trying to give myself a feel for what I can expect. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it’s kind of like me, sitting back, listening to myself read in my head, and thinking “Ok, gothic mystery obviously, there’s the tortured hero and the mysterious presence in the upstairs bedroom, gotcha.” I know, nerd alert. Anyway, Eloisa James never lets me do that – I always end up immediately engrossed in her plot and characters.

I had a hell of a time figuring out which of James’ books I’d read already when picking A Kiss at Midnight out at the bookstore. A Kiss at Midnight is a slight retelling of Cinderella, but with some alterations. The stepsister (there’s only one) isn’t mean, just kinda clueless. The heroine is not immediately enchanted with the prince; rather the opposite, really. I do love me some fairy tales, by the way. I love that deep-seated vibration they give all of us who grew up on the same fairy tales – immediately, we’re all on the same page, feeling the same emotions. Anyway, Kate is the impoverished child of a neglectful father, who left his vast estate to his evil new wife, leaving Kate little more than a servant in her own house. Through some shenanigans involving a disfiguring dog bite, Kate must impersonate her stepsister during a visit from a prince from a neighboring country; this prince is the relative of her stepsister’s fiance, and without his approval, the marriage can’t take place. Kate’s not happy about it, but wants to help her stepsister, so she hies off to the prince’s estate with her almost-brother-in-law, complete with ill-fitting dresses and ugly wigs. Needless to say, sparks fly between Kate and the prince, but the prince is already engaged to a Russian heiress who is due to arrive any day. Lots of mistaken identity, secrets, and tomfoolery ensue, with the requisite and much-deserved happy ending.

I can’t tell you how pleasant it was to read this book. Admittedly, I’m kicking bootay in my reading lately, with the exception of Shogun, and I wasn’t expecting to find yet another awesome romance, but huzzah! I did! James’ writing is funny and clever, and you end up enjoying the secondary characters almost as much as the hero and heroine. I especially loved Wick, the charming butler/illegitimate brother, and Henry, Kate’s godmother. The buildup of the relationship between Kate and the prince was entirely believable, and I loved how neither were perfect. The prince is a bit arrogant and is used to getting his own way, while Kate’s imperfections lie in her physical appearance, though she did have a kind of ugly duckling transformation in the end. And James is so funny! She has a real knack with dialogue and is able to introduce a sly kind of wit and humor to her characters. Also, as icing on the cake, the ending was SO good. Such a good, emotional payoff after a bit of angst. Thank you, Ms. James, for writing such likable characters, fantastic dialogue, and a kickass ending.

On rereading, or “I can’t believe it sucked the second time around”

27 May

Oh man, I’m so disappointed. Don’t you have a secret stash of books in your head, an imaginary stack of books that rocked you, that you loved and remember with warm, fuzzy feelings? I like to dip back into my secret stash from time to time; I’m a huge proponent of rereading. My husband is always bemused by my tendency to rewatch my favorite movies and reread books – his own philosophy is to constantly seek out new experiences, and that’s what allows him to grow. But for me, so much comes from insight, from rolling over ideas in my head and looking for something new to mine. There’s a reason why a book appeals to me, and I like to come back to that reason and let it keep giving me something. But…oh, there’s a heartbreak in coming back to a book sometimes and it’s just…ugh. Less than. Not as good. Flat.

Obviously, the book stayed the same. It’s me that changed, and it just breaks my heart when I don’t find the same enjoyment and experience I did the first time around. This just happened to me when I tried to reread James Clavell’s Shogun. Oh my God, I LOVED this book when I first read it around age nineteen. It was so exotic, and the first time I had ventured into Japan in my imagination. I loved all the ritual, the tradition, the beauty in small things. I was really in the mood to fall headlong into another culture like that again, so I picked it up and…yick. This Blackthorne guy is a total turd. How did I miss that? And the violence! I got as far as one of Blackthorne’s crew being boiled alive and just said no. But it wasn’t just the plot and characters – Clavell’s writing itself fell flat for me. There was a ton of telling, not showing; all of a sudden, I’d be transported to one of the character’s point of view, and this character would end up having a VERY lengthy, not-so-realistic conversation with him/herself about the long history between characters, motivations, etc. I get it, it’s hard to write an epic and introduce so much history, but jeez. I felt like I was sitting through a clumsy exercise in How to Write a Historical Epic 101.

[Sidenote: my husband just reminded me about the time we rewatched Goonies, which we both loved as kids, and were just so turned off. Those kids were annoying.]

I guess at nineteen, this hit the right spot for me, but my tastes and pet peeves have clearly altered. Such a disappointment – I feel like I have to retire Shogun from that “favorites” list in my head. Still, I’ll never forget the exhilaration of reading it for the first time, and how it kickstarted my interest in Japan (only to be further cemented by Sophia Coppola’s move Lost in Translation, which is fantastic and quiet and beautiful). Maybe I’ll reread Pride and Prejudice to re-cement my belief in the pleasures of rereading.