Friday, March 8, 2013

An Unplanned Lesson - Beth Rinyu

Did you ever hear the expression "sophomore slump"? It's the idea that the second time you do something it doesn't go as well as it did the first time. Wee see this a lot: in movies, in book series, in our jobs. One place I don't see it is in Beth Rinyu's second book, An Unplanned Lesson. I loved her first book, The Exception to the Rule, and was excited to preview her second book, but also a bit nervous: what if I didn't like it as much? No worries - there is no sophomore slump here.

It is the middle of August, and Nicole gets her dream job as a second grade teacher. One of her students struggles academically and with behavior; it turns out he lives with his uncle because his parents died in a car accident in the spring. She emails the uncle for support, and receives a nasty response. Feeling sorry for Ryan, Nicole offers to work with him after school. When she meets the uncle, Dailan, she finds herself - despite her best judgement - attracted to him. The story unfolds with many twists and turns that keep you hanging on until the very last page.

When I was in 8th grade English, I remember learning about the names for the elements of a plot; the only ones I remember were climax and [one of the most ridiculous words ever] denoument. According to my English teacher, books follow a steady progression, slowly increasing in a straight line, until reaching the high point, then quickly dropping off.

Real life is nothing like what my 8th grade teacher described. Life is messy. There are up days and down days; some days manage to be both "up" and "down" at the same time.

This book is like real life. There were times where it moved so fast my head was spinning. There were other times that I just felt cocooned in the gentleness of the book. There were ups and there were downs. This is not one of those romance books that is total fantasy; a book that you can't stop thinking about, wishing it was your life, even though you know it can't be anyone's life. Instead, it is a book that you can't stop thinking about because you feel like it really happened. Maybe it's because I'm a teacher, but I feel like Nicole could be one of my friends, that at any moment she'll be calling me to talk through her day.

I give this book five hearts. It isn't fake, and it isn't sunshine and roses, but it is real. And sometimes, real with a happy ending is all we need.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Exception to the Rule - Beth Rinyu

I often say that books are like a blanket. I enjoy books that are like a knitted afghan; they can be in soft, gentle hues, or in passionate, bold colors, or even a combination. However, the strength of the book is how the tones smoothly blend from one end to the other. There are other books that I criticize (not on this blog, of course...this is my happy place!) for being a messy, patchwork quilt. There may be bits of strong plot points, illustrative dialogue, vivid descriptions, character depth...but not enough, or mixed in with too much "junk", or just mashed together in a way that doesn't really make sense.

True to its name, The Exception to the Rule by Beth Rinyu completely defies my categories of books. Though it is a patchwork quilt, it is an absolutely stunning combination of characters, locations, times, and plots, creating a wonderfully memorable story.

The story begins with Kat, a pediatrician, walking in while her long-time boyfriend is in bed with another woman. In an attempt to start over, she leaves her father (her mother passed away when she was young) and heads to Nigeria for a nine month volunteer medical project. She goes with two friends, but ends up meeting the renowned Dr. Julian Kiron. They share a deep connection, but must sever it when an emergency calls her back home. Their paths cross again a few months later, and then again several years after that. I must admit: it is difficult to summarize this book without giving anything away! Trust me: the story is MUCH better than this summary.

When I was little, I became obsessed with the idea of travelling to Africa. I would send away for travel brochures (did you know Zambia had a Bureau of Tourism in the 70's??), and even went to West Africa for my honeymoon. So, of course, the Nigerian setting for the beginning of this book drew me in from the beginning. But then the story became about a crisis in her childhood home in New Jersey. As that is resolved, we jump ahead five years, to another whole plot point. While this should have seemed jumpy and rough, it was a smooth story that kept me drawn in at each moment.

This book makes me think about fate, and what is "meant to be". This story revolves around two people who continue to be drawn together. Despite seemingly different goals and core values, two people keep finding themselves pulled towards each other. This is one of the cornerstones of a good romantic novel: even when the characters do their best to mess it up, their connection is so perfect and true that the connection survives all attempts to thwart it.

I give this book five hearts. It is a complete, full story that has many layers of depth, and characters who will stay with you long after you read the last page.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Cross My Heart - Abigail Strom

As Nemo's winds swirled around us here in New England, we had friends visiting for the weekend. The days were filled with sledding and shoveling, with nights spent playing games and watching movies. We all went to bed late, and tired from a day of fun. Last night, I thought I would read a chapter or two of a new book before falling asleep. Instead, I read Cross My Heart by Abigail Strom until about 2:30 in the morning, then woke up at 7 and finished the book. I just couldn't put it down!

Dr. Michael Stone is a workaholic cardiac surgeon in suburban Des Moines. His fourteen-year-old daughter, Claire, comes for her annual, two-week summer visit, and is less than thrilled to be there. As they pull into his driveway, Claire recognizes Michael's neighbor: Jenna Landry, guitarist for the defunct rock band, The Red Mollies. In an attempt to make Claire happy, Michael invites Jenna to dinner. During dinner, as well as the two week visit, Jenna and Michael help each other learn about themselves: finding strengths they didn't know existed, as well as how to handle weaknesses they tried to hide.

I was completely enraptured by the development of Michael and Jenna, as well as the relationships between Michael, Jenna and Claire. Both Jenna and Michael struggle with the balance between being independent and the awareness that their lives are better when shared. At one point, Jenna "wonder[s] what it had been like in the past, when people's choices - women especially - were so much more limited." Turning 30 was the hardest birthday for me. Like Jenna, I knew that I was changing, but wasn't sure what would be the end result of this metamorphosis. While Jenna's options are different than mine were, the desire to "have it all" is becoming more and more universal for women, and maybe even men, in our ever-changing world.

I give this book four hearts. It definitely is on my "read again" list!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Having My Baby - Theresa Regan

When I taught fifth grade, I asked my students to keep track of their favorite lines from books. They had a section in their "writer's notebook" where they recorded descriptions or dialogue or anything else that got their attention. At the time, my favorite example was from the first page of The Relatives Came, a picture book by Cynthia Rylant: "They left when their grapes were nearly purple enough to pick, but not quite." Thanks to Theresa Ragan's Having My Baby, I have a new favorite quote from a book: "'You're making the ladies nervous, and truthfully, you've got me wondering too - what is your business with this woman?' Derrick pried his gaze from the woman's stomach and raised his eyes to Jill's. 'She's having my baby.'" BEST. LINE. EVER.

Derrick Baylor is a successful player in the NFL. However, before he made it big, he sold his sperm in a desperate move for cash. Despite sending the money back and requesting that his "donation" be destroyed,  Derrick receives a letter saying that his sample has been selected by a client. Derrick hires a private investigator, and finds Jill pregnant with his child. After Ryan is born, Derrick and Jill navigate being parents when they are strangers to each other.

This was such a fun and flirty book! Derrick is just adorable. Of course, I think he is more fantasy or science fiction than romantic fiction, but we can all suspend reality and pretend that people like this really exist. All of the back-and-forth with Derrick's family members was fast  and highly entertaining. I loved Jill's friend Sandy - especially how she was able to change throughout the book.

I give this book three-and-a-half hearts. It doesn't have the "make you think beyond the book" of a four heart book, but it definitely did have the "think about the characters long after you've finished the book" of a five star book. I really want to hang out with Derrick and Jill. :-)

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Ryan's Return - Barbara Freethy

I can't believe it has taken me this long to review a Barbara Freethy book. I just started reading a lot more FUN (not for work) books within the past year. Barbara Freethy is an author I stumbled upon early; I have not just read, but DEVOURED several of her books already. Though I loved all of the books I have read - and will review each of them eventually! - Ryan's Return is the one that stuck with me the most.

Kara grew up on a small town; she has fond childhood memories from the inn that was run by her aunt. After a failed marriage, Kara brings her daughter back to Serenity Springs to restore her aunt's inn - both the inn itself and the memories she created there. For the centennial celebration, she invites the local-boy-turned-famous-photojournalist, Ryan Hunter, hoping he will attract more visitors to the celebration. What she doesn't realize is that Ryan and his family don't get along; bringing him back to the town brings up long-buried secrets and resentments. Throw in the rainstorm of a lifetime, and turmoil is certain to follow.

On one level, this was a wonderful story about family, love, trust, pride, secrets...everything that a good romance novel is about. I've promised myself no spoilers in this blog, but there is one scene where Ryan is speaking with his nephew that just takes your breath away. The relationship between Ryan and his brother, Andrew, is multi-faceted; just when you think you have it figured out, we see it from a different angle, making it look completely different.

What made this book stand out for me is that, in many ways, the main character is the river that runs through town. Every theme in the book can be tied to the river. The state of the river reflects the emotion of the characters: the river starts low, but rises as tempers and emotion rise throughout the book. The river is the character that connects all other characters, past and present.

As a child, I spent a lot of time in a small, rural town. I didn't think much about it then - I just enjoyed the sound of the screen door slamming, being able to walk anywhere and feel safe, and not having to lock the door to the house when I left. As I have gotten older, and still go to that town, I see the tension between keeping that "small town feel" and "staying alive in a world that is anything but small town". Ms. Freethy did an amazing job of capturing this tension. It is the subtle thread woven through the tapestry of the book - you don't notice it at first, but you eventually realize it is an integral component of the story.

I give this book four hearts. All of the characters - the river included - will stay with you for a long time.

Love By Design - Liz Matis

The other day, I had a really lousy day at work. The weather is gross, and people are really annoying me. So, I did what any good, conspicuous consumer would do: I went shoe shopping. I had a picture in my mind of the shoes I wanted to get. I didn't know where this picture came from, but was bound and determined to get them, thinking that these shoes would lift my mood. It eventually dawned on me: the shoes were my mental picture of the shoes worn by the main character of Love by Design by Liz Matis!

Victoria Bryce is about to start the second season of a cable design show (think: HGTV). Her friend and cohost, Neil, can't start the season, as he has to care for his ailing mother across the country. Instead, the network hires a hot Australian who many not share Victoria's polish and eye for design, but is handy with a hammer and saw. While Victoria initially is incensed that such an un-classy guy would take the place of the ├╝ber-classy Neil, she eventually starts to realize the chemistry between herself and Russ, which can only help the show.

This was a thoroughly entertaining book. The witty sarcasm and barbs that go between Victoria and Russ - both in front of the camera and when no one is watching - made me laugh out loud. When my kids were young, I remember watching a renovation show on HGTV with a male and female hosting team;; their dialogue was cringe-inducing. I wish Victoria and Russ were a real show!

I give this book three hearts. It's not going to make you ponder life's idiosyncrasies, but it will send you on a quest for some great shoes. (For the record, I got the shoes. And five other pairs. I said: it was a REALLY bad day! But I did feel better by the time I got home. :-)

Monday, January 28, 2013

Just for Fun - Rosalind James

The other day, a friend was telling me about her ex-husband who is engaged to someone significantly younger than her or him. She was saying she is worried about how his new wife will handle being a step-mother to her teenaged daughter and tween son - the fiance is not the "warm and fuzzy" type, nevermind the mother-figure. I said, "I just heard a story like this from someone else. Who was that? Maybe you two should form a support group!" As I wracked my brain to remember who it was, it dawned on me: it was the characters from Just for Fun by Rosalind James. This could be a sign of how much I immersed myself in these books. Or, more likely, it's a sign of how Ms. James created such immersible characters.

The book opens with Nic Wilkerson, young hottie star of the All Blacks rugby team, helping out at a rugby camp for kids. A young player catches his eye for having great moves. When six year old Zack returns to his mother, Nic realizes he knew her - six years and nine months ago. Nic is engaged to the posh Claudia, but realizes that the feelings he has for Emma, nevermind Zack, go deeper than he imagined. The connections that exist between these three grow and deepen, and develop into a wonderful family.

One one level, this book is about trust. And making mistakes. And working through them - as Emma says, there are days her philosophy has to be, "Just getting through till I get to something better." In the first three books, all of the characters live in a world where everything was easy, or else challenges were handled with ease. With Emma, we see what it is like to struggle. She gets through, but we see her work hard, and rely on others.

We also explore what it means to be a man, and what it's like for a father to raise a son. Nic's Dad, George, acted a certain way towards Nic; as the son, Nic acted a certain way towards George. Now, as the Dad, Nic sees his relationship with his father through a different lens (or, more accurately, takes the blinders off the lenses he already wore), and tries for a different relationship with Zack. And Zack has yet another relationship with Nic. I often say it is easier to parent "the other gender" - for mothers to parent sons, and for fathers to parent daughters. As we see in this family, each man's/boy's interactions with the other is influenced by his perceptions of himself, and how he thinks he is supposed to act. The last scene with Nic and Zack is enough to bring tears to your eyes; it should be required reading for every Dad out there.

I'm trying to not give every book five hearts, but I have to say this book deserves five hearts as well as Just Good Friends. The characters are just so deep, and so strong, and their journey - both independent of and joined with each other - is so memorable, that I clearly think the characters are real.