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.

Crazy Love - Nicola Marsh

The old adage says, "Don't judge a book by its cover." The cover for Crazy Love by Nicola Marsh looked like a movie poster, which is the main reason I chose to download it. I figured it would be a fast-paced, lively book with strong characters. Fortunately, the book proved the adage wrong - it was exactly what I expected!

Sierra lives in Love. Not a perpetual state of heightened emotion - a town in California. She runs - what else? - an internet dating service. She connected her (fake) uncle with the woman of his dreams...whose son then comes to Love to break up what he perceives as a sign of his mother's insanity. A stranger to Love - the town and the emotion - Marc finds the town initially suffocating, but starts to change his mind the more time he spends with Sierra. Though he spends a week in Love on a bet, he and Sierra find that Love is more than a town.

Crazy Love is another book that helps define the line between independent woman and woman who wants a partner. One of my favorite lines: "She may be a twenty-first century girl who'd burned her bras with the rest of the sisterhood but she could appreciate a chivalrous guy like the next gal." Isn't that the issue for many of us born in the seventies and eighties? We want to be as tough and strong as our mothers/older sisters who were on the front lines of the feminist movement. But we still get all gooey over a guy who opens the door for us, or pays for dinner, or brushes our hair out of our eyes.

Of course, don't think this book is some manifesto on female empowerment. It really is just a fun romantic book. It's a fairly long book, but you would never know - it keeps moving with interesting plot developments around every corner. The sarcastic banter between Marc and Sierra, as well as other characters (I just adore Flo!!) had me laughing out loud. The local restaurant is called Love Shack; while waiting for Sierra to arrive, Marc thinks, "Any minute Ritchie, Potsie and Ralph-Malph would join hi, competing the bizarre scenario." Ralph-Malph. HAH!

This book gets four hearts from me. After reading it, you'll be looking for Love - either the town, the emotion, or the characters from the book.

Somebody to Love - Kristan Higgins

One night this summer, I posted on Facebook that I needed a new book to read. A friend suggested Somebody to Love by Kristan Higgins. It was 10:00 at night, but it was summer; I downloaded it, thinking, "I'll read a chapter or two, then sit outside in the sunshine and read more tomorrow." Next thing I knew, it was 4 AM and I was finishing the book. It's the first time I've gone c2c (cover to cover) with a book in a LONG time.

Parker Welles lives in her posh Newport mansion with her son. Her son's father is one of her best friends, and is married to Parker's other best friend. She writes these horrible, saccharin-sweet children's books, but donates all of the proceeds since she is able to live in her father's mansion, supported by her father's money. Until her father is convicted of stealing people's investments, and her home and almost everything in it are taken away. No worries - she finds out she inherited a home in Maine from a distant aunt. Except "home" is a gross overstatement. It's more of a tumble-down shack, but it's all she has. With her son on a trip with his Dad and his wife, Parker goes to Maine to salvage as much of the house as she can. Fortunately, she's not alone. Unfortunately, her helper is her father's attorney, who she unaffectionately refers to as "Thing One." Fortunately, for all of us as readers, she changes her opinion of James, ending with what might be one of the greatest final chapters I have ever read in my entire life.

Like many of the romance books I enjoy, Somebody to Love goes beyond a boy-meets-girl love story. Both Parker and James have complicated relationships with their fathers as well as their mothers. These complications are unfolded carefully throughout the narrative, not splattered in front of us from page one. Relationships get turned on their heads; like real life, many of the characters aren't who they seemed at first. The book makes you think about who has the power in a relationship - partner, child, parent, sibling - and what that power entails. It also helps us remember that, no matter what is happening around you, trust and love are the most important things. If you have those, everything else gets figured out later.

I give this book four hearts; I hope you enjoy Parker and James as much as I do!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Edge of Forever - Barbara Bretton

I downloaded this book on a whim. I didn't read any of the comments on Amazon, and barely read the description of the book. It was a free download, so I figured all I had to lose was a few hours while reading, which is never a loss.

The book is about two strangers who are brought together by an important force in each of their lives: a home, and its owner. Joe and Meg had never met, but they had both spent time living and working at an artists' cooperative. Each had grown especially close with the proprietor of the colony - so much so that, when she died, she left the house, the management of the colony, and the task of documenting its history to the pair of strangers. Left alone in the house, they find comfort and solace in each other, helping to heal past wounds and find happiness with each other.

 What gave this book an extra layer of interest for me was the time of the book. There was nothing in the narrative that suggested it took place at a time other than "now"; however, as the book went on, I realized it wasn't quite the "now" I thought it was. First, Joe was smoking and drinking like it was an episode of Mad Men. Second, there was a profound lack of interruptions by cell phones. The final indication, though, was when Joe said something about his return from Vietnam. Either this book took place a while ago, or my mental picture of Joe was way off!

It turns out the book was originally published in 1986. There were a few ways the book was dated - such as his "lush chest hair" being appealing - but it was interesting to see how timeless the story was.

I give this book three hearts - definitely worth the few hours' time.

Just for Now - Rosalind James

As I have already written, I read all four books in the Escape to New Zealand series twice in two weeks. I can't seem to get the characters or the stories out of my mind!

Jenna is a primary school teacher who finds herself divorced and wandering around her newfound home, New Zealand.  She settles in Auckland, and decides to look for a nanny position that will carry her until the start of the new school year. She interviews for what seems to be the perfect position: six months, housing included, ends right before the new school year starts. Her interviewer is Finn Douglas, a member of the Auckland Blues rugby team; he assumes she's there for her "Mrs.", and, in return, she assumes he's an arrogant jerk. When his actual hire doesn't work out, he calls Jenna and begs her to take the position. She moves in and is a modern day Mary Poppins, with a few modern, not-ready-for-Disney adaptations, but still resulting in a happily ever after.

What I love about Rosalind James' books is how she develops her characters. They are all slightly damaged (not fully broken like certain other protagonists!), and are in various stages of awareness of that damage. The dents are shown to us gradually: opening scenes of adultery, flashbacks of childhood memories, wistful conversations over glasses of wine. The characters all have tremendous depth, but it is presented to us subtly; it is like wading into a deep ocean, rather than jumping into a frigid, deep pool. Her characters make mistakes, both big and small. The big mistakes become major plot points. But it is the smaller mistakes, like Finn's comment about Jenna's bathing suit, that both cause and heal character flaws, giving dimension to characters who otherwise live in a two-dimensional book.

Ms. James hints at issues around body image, parenting and family, acceptance of others...but all in a subtle way. There is no beating of chests and gnashing of teeth, yet I find myself pondering socio-cultural issues after reading her books. The purpose of the book is to tell a wonderful story; thinking about the world around us is just a side benefit.

I give this book four hearts, and really encourage you to read this book, and the whole series.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Just Good Friends - Rosalind James

This is the second book in Rosalind James' Escape to New Zealand series. I read the first one because it was a free download from Amazon; I read this one because I loved the first one so much. I didn't think a second book could live up to the first one. Fortunately, this book exceeded my expectations.

The book opens with Lisa cowering under her kitchen table while a man who was stalking her prowled around the house, threatening to kill her. She realizes she needs to get as far away from home as possible; her former co-worker, Hannah, has moved to New Zealand. So, she quickly contacts Hannah, and is soon living in hiding, in New Zealand. She gets a job with the Auckland Blues, the rugby team Hannah's husband, Drew, plays for. She meets Koti James, playboy hot head player. There is definite chemistry between the two of them - it starts as explosive, but grows into something more.

There were several interesting issues that were explored in this book. One was the question of whether single men and women can be friends without sexual tension. This was one of our ongoing debates in college, so I was intrigued to see it explored here. Second, the issue of co-dependency. In a healthy relationship, the partners take care of each other. As strong women, how do we let a man take care of us without sending the message that we can't take care of ourselves? The conversations between Hannah and Lisa when Lisa first arrives were surprisingly thought-provoking given the light feel to the book. Third, as a Maori, Koti shares a lot about his culture, and we are able to see the experience of an indigenous culture that is so different than the treatment of Native Americans in the United State. Fourth, and most significantly, is the psychology of stalkers, abuse and violence. Ms. James does an amazing job of conveying Lisa's experience with a stalker: the fear as well as the determination, and the pathology behind Paul's actions.

As I said in an earlier post, this is my favorite book from this series. The growth both Lisa and Koti experience is breathtaking. The relationships between Lisa, Hannah, Drew and Koti are fascinating. I don't want to give anything away, but the epilogue in this book is just wonderful!

I give this book five enthusiastic hearts. I may have to read this book a third time. :-)

No More Wasted Time - Beverly Preston

So many romance novels are written about twenty-somethings just starting their lives. Some of them are restarting their lives, after a messy first attempt. As a mid-forties mother of two married to the love of her life, I enjoy these books, but am always somewhat removed from them.

No More Wasted Time by Beverly Preston is a romance novel that completely breaks that mold. The book opens with Tess boarding a plane for Bora Bora, a favorite destination for her husband and herself. However, instead of traveling with her husband, she is traveling alone, prepared to spread her husband's ashes at the location of so many happy memories. While there, she meets Tom Clemmins. Think: George Clooney. Hot Hollywood actor, never married, in Bora Bora for a quick break with some arm candy. However, once he meets Tess, he sends the arm candy packing, bringing Tess on a journey that takes her - and my - breath away.

No More Wasted Time is about second chances. It's about finding the joy in the moment, even when you think there is no hope for joy left. It's about love, family, and hope.

I absolutely adored this book - I read it three times in less than a month. I kept expecting Tom and Tess to walk into my house, or at least appear on my TV - that is how "real" they are. Both characters are flawed, but in a sincere, honest manner. This is the first book from this author, and I can't wait for the upcoming books in the series.

I give this book five hearts. I would give it six if I could.

Playing at Forever - Michelle Brewer

As soon as I downloaded this book, I knew it was my kind of book. Childhood friends with words left unspoken, meeting as adults with broken lives. They would turn to each other to heal, and would live happily ever after.

For the most part, I got what I was looking for. Unfortunately, it was a bit "clunky" getting there. I spent a majority of the book saying, "Oh my heavens - just kiss each other for crying out loud!" (For the record, I just read two books where the main characters were in bed together by the end of chapter two, and professing eternal, undying love 20 pages later. I actually find the "Kiss the Girl" plot more enjoyable; this just went on a bit longer than I wanted!) Tommy just kept making the same mistakes, and Penny is incapable of saying what she is really thinking, or seeing what the rest of us are seeing. The resolution of the tension was what I wanted, but it was almost too little, too late.

In all, I think this is a promising book from what I gather is a new, first-time author. I loved both of the characters, warts and all. The pacing of the book needed some help, but Michelle Brewer has a voice and and eye (and heart!) for a story that can't be learned. I look forward to future books by this author!

I give this book three hearts, and confident future books will be even better. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Just This Once - Rosalind James

I just finished reading the Escape to New Zealand series by Rosalind James. Twice. In ten days. Yes, four books, two times, ten days. THAT'S how good these books were. I read all four of them, and had one of the worst "book hangovers" I've had in a long time. I tried the "hair of the dog" cure - I thought that if I started reading the first one again, I'd get over it. Instead, I was sucked right back in, and ended up reading all four of them!

The first book - Just This Once - is about Hannah, a woman in San Francisco who works too hard and spends all of her time thinking about other people. Sometimes it's her sister, forlorn over another loser boyfriend. Or it could be her brother, in another meaningless job just so he can earn money and travel to some new corner of the globe. Or it's her job, which she loves despite the fact that it sucks the life right out of her. She decides to go on a vacation to New Zealand, by herself, for three weeks.

Her third day in New Zealand, she swims in the ocean and gets caught in a riptide. Luckily, she is saved by a man in a kayak; even luckier, the man is kind, and gorgeous, and totally infatuated with her. While the attraction is mutual and obvious from the beginning, Hannah is reserved - they get to know each other (by romance book standards!) before anything happens. Once they connect, though, they have a whirlwind romance that spans two countries, and just makes you sigh with contentment. Drew is the ideal man: handsome and strong (he's a rugby player, after all!) and wealthy, but just a kind soul who wants to go hiking and snorkeling and wants to take care of Hannah.

The characters are complex and multi-dimensional. Hannah has real problems and explores them in a real way - she doesn't gloss over them with clich├ęs, but she also doesn't moon over them for pages and pages.

I give this book four hearts. Why not five? You have to wait and see the review of book 2, Just Good Friends. :-)

Allow me to introduce myself...

Who am I? I am a wife with the most amazing husband in the world. I am a Mom with the two most wonderful children imaginable. I am a sophisticated professional who, by day, reads Excel spreadsheets and uses big words when presenting around a scary conference table. I have a perfect life that I wouldn't change for anything.

By night, though, I am a hopeless romantic who likes nothing better than curling up with a good book and entering a world that, while not mine, is still pretty darn cool. Let me share those worlds with you.