Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What I Knocked Off My TBR List in May

Well, if you're stuck not writing, you might as well read, right?  Been doing a lot of that. (And now I'm UNstuck, yippee!)

Here's what I've read, most recently:

The Last Will of Moira Leahy - Therese Walsh
Because I've come to know Therese through her incredible generosity to other writers on her Writer Unboxed site and FaceBook group, I wanted to love her book, but was afraid I wouldn't.

Fear was unnecessary. This was a beautiful, emotionally moving novel, and I would have loved it even if the writer wasn't Therese. Still, I'm stumped as to where to mentally shelve it. There's twins Moira and Maeve, growing up together in Maine - is it a YA? Not really. There's a romance, even sex, so is it a romance? Not really (though my cover notes it was a RITA® finalist in 2010). There's a Javanese dagger called a keris, which seems to have magical powers, is it perchance a paranormal? Noooo... There's mystery, there's a journey to Rome, there's danger, there's complicated family dynamics, and above all, there's lovely, lovely writing. And a surprise twist at the end which I am not giving away.

Unravel Me - Christie Ridgway (Contemporary Romance)

I had a hard time getting "into" this heroine at first - Juliet Weston began as a teeny-bopper with a crush on a foxy older man, to his wife as a very innocent young woman, to his widow, still a young woman, in the blink of a few pages. So it's hard figuring out who she is, when not in relation to others, a problem that lingers till the book is almost done. Turns out Juliet does have a personality, after all.

However, Ridgway's strong writing, and her sexy and complicated hero, Noah, kept me turning pages. I liked the newfound family thread, and speaking of threads, of course I was a sucker for the knitting shop theme. My biggest problem with this book was that almost everyone, from the newfound sisters, to the hero(es) and the quasi-villain, stepdaughter from hell Marlys (who I actually liked better than anyone else) seemed more interesting than the heroine.

Dirty Sexy Knitting - Christie Ridgeway (Contemporary Romance)

The conclusion to the trilogy (which I still think should be a quad), this book focuses on yarn shop owner Cassandra Riley, who is reaching a benchmark birthday (30!); her mom has other plans, her newfound sperm donor half-sisters are both off doing their own "things," more than focused on her.

This book left me emotionally divided. Ridgway is a an excellent writer, and the way she weaves all the different personalities and their stories into a book without losing focus on the lead heroine and hero is brilliant, IMO. She also writes seriously hot sex scenes.

But, I had problems because Gabe, the hero, is a drink-till-you-pass-out drunk. He has a plausible reason, and he is not an actual addicted-to-alcohol alcoholic. I could believe that Cassandra, who was a firstborn/only child until recently, was a super-responsible Rescuer type.  I liked the book, I liked the romance, I liked the surprise twist re: Cassie's previous level of experience, still...  I am concerned with The Message it sends, that a young woman can get involved with an alcoholic/addicted/super-damaged person, and Rescue him, and in the end, find a Happily Ever After. In real life, it almost never works out that way. AND - I still liked Marlys, the spoiled/selfish Army brat, better than the other characters. I am also not sure about Ridgway's use of prologue/flashback to tell this story, finding it somewhat gimmicky, though I read the whole thing anyway.

Now that I've read these two, of course I am kicking myself for not picking up the first book in this trilogy (quad?) How to Knit A Wild Bikini, and have added it to my TBR list. Thought I really hope there is a fourth book, where Marlys takes the lead.

You Can Heal Your Life - Louise Hay (Self-Help/Inspirational)

I held back on reading this for a while, and, while reading, have (so far) held back on doing some of the exercises it suggests. Still trying to figure out WHY, but I have some inklings.

I think, if you read this book and do the suggested affirmations and exercises when YOU are in the right emotional place to do them, this book could potentially be life-changing. There's so much good here, so much about rejecting negativity and embracing one's one loveability and worthiness, I think everyone should read this book.

That said, my mother died of breast cancer. I know that she loved me, and wanted to stay with me; I know others who have loved, deeply and completely, and wanted to stay in this life. To suggest that if you love/accept yourself enough, you can cure anything, even cancer, feels to me more than a little bit like blaming the victim for not wanting/committing to healing enough. Possibly I am dumping my own baggage where it doesn't belong. Perhaps I don't want to accept the possibility that my mother did choose to die, rather than to stay in this life.

I will say that, IMO, 95%+ of this book is great. But I also believe, rightly or wrongly, that even with the heart and spirit in the right place, even with accepting and loving oneself as much as humanly possible, that even with the perfect balance of diet and exercise and supportive family and friends and energies, some people will still die of illnesses and diseases, as well as accidents. Life itself is a fatal condition; human beings are not meant to live in perfect health, forever (not that we should resign ourselves without a fight to acceptance of illness and dis-ease, as Hay puts it so eloquently, either.)

Maybe it's my pessimistic attitude that ruins the possibilities for me, I don't know. I do recommend this book, and plan to re-read it in the future.

Let's Pretend This Never Happened - Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess) (Memoir/humor)

Holy shitsnacks, folks!  Do not read this book (any of this book) on a full bladder, or risk enduring an embarrassing accident. Do not read this book if you are squeamish about laxative overdoses, abandoning a turkey baster inside a cow after having one's arm stuck in said cow's vagina, or the phrase mother-f--ker.

However, if the thought of an enraged, screaming raccoon stuck on your little sister's face strikes you as hilarious and totally badass, then you will love this book as much as I did. Even if you're not lucky enough to get your copy personally autographed by The Bloggess, herself. (braggin' on self and totally unflattering photo).

It's not all shits and giggles. There are some poignant sections there, notably about Jenny's miscarriages, struggles with bizarre health issues and mental illness. There's the story of how Jenny and Victor courted, complete with worries about couch etiquette; cushions being an issue at one set of parents, and live bobcats at another's. There's a very good reason that Hamlet von Schnitzel, a taxidermied mouse holding another mouse's skull, wearing an Elizabethan ruff and little cape, was chosen for the cover of this book. I won't be a spoiler, but highly encourage you to read this book for yourself and find out.

Messalina: Devourer of Men - Zetta Brown (Erotic Romance)

Messalina, in history, was a Roman Empress with a very bad reputation. Most people, myself included, don't know much about the details of her life, but enough juju lingers to be spooked by the name itself. Add to this a cartoon of a woman who looks powerful enough to snap off your head and s--t down your neck if you pissed her off, plus the subtitle "Devourer of Men," and you may understand why this book lingered on my Kindle for a year. She scared me.

Then I read it. Loved it.  Messalina - a cartoon character - is, just like our current impressions of Empress Messalina, "inspired by" real life. The protagonist is Eva (Evadne) Cavell, an as-yet untenured assistant professor at a Denver University. African American, single, in her early thirties, with an abundantly ripe figure. She hooks up with strangers in her local movie theater for a little mutual masturbation, then connects with Jared Delaney, a Caucasian local artist. They are quickly both in over their heads, in lust/love and total emotional connection.

"Messalina" becomes a character in his erotic graphic novels, inspired by Eva, though not looking (exactly) like her or behaving just like her.

The sex scenes - extremely hot. The Denver-Dallas connection, and Jared setting Eva up to hang out with his H.S. sweetheart, Talley, interesting and unexpected. There are constant little realistic surprises, like Eva being embarrassed to spit (while brushing her teeth) in front of Jared after spending the night doing any number of wild acrobatic sexual acts with him. The negative/surprised reactions in the book to Eva "playing in the snow" (interracial romance) come from her own friends and family, rather than antagonistic whites.

I'm not sure the subplot involving Eva's TA Neil "works," and I would have liked to see a little more connection between Eva and Jared than powerful sexual attraction, but I loved this book.

Bet Me - Jennifer Crusie (Contemporary Romance)

Never has almost 500 pages sped by so quickly; I think I read this RomCom in one sitting. Very cute, very funny, very satisfying in the end. I love that Minerva Dobbs is a "big girl." (That is, guessing by the descriptions in the book of her not fitting into a size 8, she's probably a size 12, perhaps even a 14. The horror!) While Calvin Morrissey only seeks her out initially, because of a bet placed by her asshat exboyfriend, David, he quickly becomes enthralled.

A few of the food themes were a little overdone - I'm sure chicken marsala is delicious and all that, but it seems like that and Krispy Creme donuts were ALL these two were eating. Generally people who love food and eating like more than 1-2 things. And enough with the Elvises already!

This is another book with excellent use of the subplot romances and background characters - there are many, but they are all very quickly distinct, from Liza to Tony to Diana to nephew Harry. The 'rents are NOT evil people but who have managed to screw up our hero and heroine quite nicely, thank you. The ex-girlfriend who wants Cal back is not a villain; Crusie's use of Cynthee was interesting, she was both an antagonist, and something of a Greek chorus, filling the audience in on what stage of love that Cal and Min were experiencing.

Another thing I loved that was different, was that while they liked kids, neither heroine nor hero WANTED them. This was consistent throughout the book, and in the epilogue, they did not in fact HAVE kids. I love kids; had one of my own, but not every HEA needs kids, and I love that Crusie matched a couple and gave them a HEA without the obligatory offspring.

The Birthday of the World and Other StoriesThe Birthday of the World - Ursula K. LeGuin (Science Fiction/Fantasy)

LeGuin is SUCH a brilliant writer that on the one hand she inspires me to write, to reach for the stars, on the other hand I despair of ever getting close to her AMAZING, lyrical prose. Her work is filed in Science Fiction, but truly, she is all about who WE are, now.

This is a collection of eight short stories/novellas, what she calls a "story suite," that is, worlds/stories set in the same mythical universe. Her stories simultaneously pose the question: What would life/society be like if:
  • All beings were hermaphroditic, neuter, and became male or female periodically for short periods of time, either siring or bearing children?
  • Females born live and healthy outnumbered males 16:1?
  • Marriages are a complicated mix of foursomes: two males, two females, and two moieties?
  • The rulers of the world are considered Gods, much like the early Egyptians?
  • People travel on a multi-generation starship to discover and colonize another planet - what would the 5th generation be like?
She explores these questions, and more, in incredible tales that draw us fully into these make-believe worlds, while at the same time, holding up a mirror to the society in which we live, without ever getting preachy, lecturing, or wordy.

I am a long-time fan of LeGuin's work, but even the stories that introduced me to worlds new to me, such as Paradises Lost, felt fully realized within a few pages. For those who proclaim that "I never  read science fiction;" if you skip Ursula LeGuin you are cheating yourself of some of the most original, imaginative, skillful, downright beautiful writing there is, in any genre

Bond Girl - Erin Duffy (Chick Lit)

Read this for my Chick Lit readers group. Liked it better than the two previous choices. The author has a very engaging voice, and the trip through the workplace from hell to the financial meltdown was interesting.
Bond Girl
What I found missing was the personal. Alex chooses to work on Wall Street because her father does, and she has wanted to do with since she was a little girl. But when she does, actually, get a job on Wall Street, we don't see her communicating with or even thinking about her father very much.

When she strikes up a workplace romance, I wasn't even sure that she had. She's out for drinks and flirting with a co-worker (something that could cost her her job). Next she's waking up in his bed - did she pass out, or did they have sex?  As you continue reading, yes, apparently she and said co-worker are "hooking up" and she is becoming emotionally involved, but there is no there there. We don't see them kissing, having sex, or her daydreaming about him much, just some innocuous emails.

Since we already know about the financial meltdown, that wasn't a surprise, and since I wasn't emotionally  invested in Alex's romance, the ending to that doesn't really pay off, either.
I would certainly read another book by this author, but hope she'll include some closer looks inside her character's heart.

The Sleeping Beauty (A Tale of the Five Hundred Kingdoms)The Sleeping Beauty (A Tale of the Five Hundred Kingdoms)  - Mercedes Lackey
(?? Fantasy RomCom??)

Another favorite author, I love the way Lackey retells classic fairy tales in her own way, and she is an excellent example of how to write trilogies that work as stand-alones, in her Valdemar series, and this series, a story suite as LeGuin describes. While some of the Five Hundred Kingdoms books are a continuation of characters seen in a previous work, each book stands alone.

In the Kingdoms, The Tradition, a powerful, unseen, magical force, works to compel Princes, goose girls, and orphaned girls, whose lives somewhat resemble those of classic fairy tales, into exact copies of them. Whether all the details fit or not. (Like, what if your "destined Prince" is 70 years old, a baby, already married, or gay?)

In this book, Rosa, a Princess approaching her 16th birthday, has seen her mother killed, her father embroiled by war, and a Huntsman trying to kill her. But she has a secret ally, her fairy godmother Lily, who poses as her Evil Stepmother in public, while doing her magical best to avert a tragic ending for Rosa and the Kingdom. There are heroic Princes, a disembodied green face in a mirror, Wise Beasts, a challenge to win the hand of the Princess, dragons, and a beautiful (if stupid) unicorn with a lisp.

It's light, it's funny, the characters are interesting and different, and it twists and turns in unexpected directions, while still providing a HEA (Happily Ever After).  Loved this book, love all in this series I've read so far.

And for those who note I am only reading female authors, I did make a little progress with Les Miserables.  Plus, I have this:

Uncover me - Peter Matuchniak

Peter is the lead guitarist for a group I reviewed last month, Gekko Projekt, and this is his debut solo album. So I was expecting some intricate electric guitar solos - and they're organically present, but they belong. They don't overpower the music, they don't jump up and down and scream I'M A GUITAR SOLO, STOP EVERYTHING AND LISTEN TO MEEEEE.

These are all full-bodied songs, with styles from classic to progressive rock to jazz to folk, with a variety of well-played instruments, gorgeous vocals, a very clean production sound (and some interesting sound effects - rain, sirens, and more).

Female vocalist Natalie Azerad has a sweet voice, similar to Jewel's, but mix in a little Sheryl Crow and a generous chunk of soul. The first song, Falling Ash, sounds Pink Floyd-ish, very progressive, as is the second part of that composition, Rising Sun, which appears as the next-to-last song. (Okay, maybe there's a few blistering guitar solos in Rising Sun that demand attention, plus a progressive keyboard jam, but they fit the song.)

My favorite tracks are Uncover Me and Running Back To You. Uncover Me features acoustic guitar, vocals and flute, with a lilting, playful, Renaissance Faire feel. The guitar on Running Back To You has a smoky, dirty feel to it; the whole song conveys a hypnotically sexy melody and dangerous interweaving of vocals and instruments. Down in New Orleans and Across the Pond are jazzy, featuring some great sax, great guitar solos.  Definitely party songs.

The last track, Hippy In The Rain is cute, nice acoustic guitar & vocals, but feels like it hitchiked onto here from another era. My only complaint is that some of the songs have rather long intros, and others very abrupt endings (London Vibe, Sandcastles). All in all though, there isn't a clunker on here; the whole album is a great listen, and it's become one of my new personal favorites.

Left on my TBR list from December:

The Birthday of the World - Ursula LeGuin
Messalina: Devourer of Men - Zetta Brown
Uncut Diamonds - Karen Jones Gowan
Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
Daisy Miller - Henry James
Bet Me - Jennifer Crusie
Falling Leaves - Adeline Yen Mah
Picture Perfect - Jodi Picoult
Giving Up the Dream - J.L. Campbell
Automagically - Sommer Marsden
You Can Heal Your Life
- Louise Hay
Little Black Dress - Susan McBride
Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
Confessions of an Improper Bride - Jennifer Haymore

Added to my TBR list, already on my Kindle or bookshelf:

Pleasure - Eric Jerome Dickey
The Darkest Surrender - Gena Showalter
A Heart to Mend - Myne Whitman
The Doctor's Lady - Jody Hedlund
Dev Dreams - Ruth Madison
My Cheeky Angel - Mimi Barbour
Katie's Hellion - Lizzy Ford
The Inner Game of Stress - W. Timothy Gallwey
First Grave on the Right - Darynda Jones
Romance Novel - PJ Jones
Living in Gratitude - Angeles Arrien
Bossypants - Tina Fey
Train Your Mind, Change Your Life - Sharon Begley
Water - Terra Harmony
The Cowboy's Pride - Charlene Sands
The Bird Sisters - Rebecca Rasmussen
Mercury Rising - Daisy Harris
The Brenda Diaries - Margo Candela
Hollywood Ending - Lucie Simone
Are You There, Vodka?  It's Me, Chelsea - Chelsea Handler
Devil's Kiss - Zoe Archer
Melt - Natalie Anderson
Inside Heat - Roz Lee
Beauty and the Werewolf (A Tale of the Five Hundred Kingdoms)  - Mercedes Lackey
Marriage Made on Paper - Maisey Yates
Beloved - Toni Morrison
The Awakening - Kate Chopin
His Strength - Kiru Taye
Just The Way You Are - Barbara Freethy
Bloodchild and Other Stories - Octavia E. Butler
Hunchback of Notre Dame - Victor Hugo
Just Like That - Margo Candela
Twelve Times Blessed - Jacqueline Mitchard
The Lantern - Deborah Lawrenson
Danger Zone - Dee J. Adams
The Possibility of You - Pamela Redmond
Daughter of Fortune - Isabel Allende
Alpha Wolf - Linda O. Johnston
Asphodel (The Underworld Trilogy) - Lauren Hammond
Unbroken - Laura Hillenbrand
Witches of East End - Melissa de la Cruz
The Comic Toolbox - John Vorhaus
A Week to  Be Wicked - Tessa Dare
The Belly Dancer - DeAnna Cameron
Caught in the Act - Jill Sorenson
Fifty Shades of Grey - E.L. James (Because stars know, everyone else is reading this!)
Elizabeth I - Margaret George
How to Knit A Wild Bikini - Christie Ridgway

I know, I know. The first step is admitting you have a problem. (My name is Beverly, and I'm a book-aholic.)

The details and sign-up are at Vicky's blog, Books Biscuits and Tea.

Are there any books you're moved off your TBR pile so far this year?  
Have you read any of the books I read?  
What did you think?