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book review: Black Out

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Have you ever been excited to read a book, only to find a nap on the couch much more enticing?

Have you ever had to force yourself to finish reading because you’re committed to a book?

Have you ever been so confused by the events of the book that you stopped caring what happened to anyone in it?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, and it was not a good experience for you, do *not* read Black Out by Lisa Unger.

Look, I spent time with this book! The cover condition testifies to that.

I really wanted to like this book. I truly did. I mean, who goes into a book believing that they’re going to hate it? (I mean, besides certain 10th graders who don’t always read books voluntarily.)

Though I thoroughly enjoyed the first Lisa Unger book I read because of the voice she gave to her main character, this book didn’t have the same charm. I think Unger tried to portray the main character, Annie Powers/Ophelia March, as a strong character, but for much of the book I felt that she was weak and hopeless.

Let me back up a little.

Ophelia March grew up with a mother who was desperate for love. Because of that, she fell into the clutches of a death row inmate and his son. By association, so did Ophelia. In an effort to escape her past, Ophelia became Annie Powers. She married, had a young daughter, and lived an affluent life in Florida.

It should have been a beautiful, charmed time for her, but her past began to haunt her, literally.

The book follows Annie/Ophelia’s struggles with this haunting. Both we, the audience, and Annie/Ophelia are often uncertain that what we see and hear is truth. Our eyes and ears cannot be trusted. Our instincts cannot be trusted.

I wanted to love Annie/Ophelia for her nobility, but she didn’t seem to have many redeeming graces of her own. She was constantly at the whims of her husband, her in-laws, her father, her former lover. I wanted her to stand up at some point and take control, but she was unable.

It was also a book in which I waited for the silver lining. Books like this should be for fun. We should look for the happy ending. There should be a romantic draw, an exciting future, or some sort of there-is-something-I can-look-forward-to feeling.

That didn’t happen, unfortunately. There were too many players, no neatly resolved ending, and a lot of questions left in the balance. I don’t regret reading this book, but it’s probably the last I’ll seek out by this author.

book review: The Search

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Before you know anything else, you must know that I admire dogs, and two dogs that stand out in my mind as the best dogs ever. One was a dog named Snowball. She was a samoyed, and my family got her when I was 8 or 9. I remember her puffball puppy stage and her protective mama stage and her mellow calm stage. She died peacefully in her sleep when the family was away at work and school when I was 18. We think she may have been sick and didn’t want to tell us.

The second was a dog named Emme, a border collie and samoyed mix. She came into my life when she was already 5 or 6 years old and beautifully trained. I fell in love with her respect for her owner and love for her family. I may have fallen more for the dog than for the man at first, but we’ll just pretend you didn’t hear that. It was with this dog that I realized that I was a wonderful dog mama when the dog came pre-trained. (Is this where I can wish that the man had come pre-trained? Oh wait… you didn’t hear that, either.)

In my first round of single days, I tried owning a dog, but the dog ended up owning me. I was too soft, not alpha dog material. Luna slept on my bed, pooped on my floor, and never came when I called her. I’m pretty certain I did her a huge favor when I gave her to someone who would love her and be the master she deserved.

And I told you all this so I can tell you about The Search by Nora Roberts. It, not surprisingly at all, centers on dogs. In fact, the main character, Fiona Bristow, trains dogs and heads a team of search and rescue dogs. Several times in the story, she and her team are called on rescue missions with the dogs. I was impressed with her and the dogs on a number of occasions, so much so that I wanted to reach in and rub the dogs’ scruffs. Who am I kidding? I wanted her dogs. She made me want to own a lab (or 4).

Other than the dog thing, the plot is relatively predictable, as many mass paperbacks are, but it was a fun beach (er, garage sale hosting) read. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Nora Roberts book if there wasn’t a hot man and a romance brewing, so let’s not forget to mention Simon Doyle. We like him, and so does Fiona. I enjoyed watching as Fiona and Simon intended for something simple in their affair only to have it backfire (?!) into a relationship. I loved Simon’s blunt and crusty character. I laughed at their exchanges, often aloud, much to my daughter’s dismay.

But really? How many men would complain as their girlfriend cleaned the windows in his home? And how many men would tell a woman he’s in love with her because she has the ability to pull out the mad in him? Their relationship felt real and desirable and fun. And it was something that I wanted every page of the way.

The push of the plot, though, centers around Fiona’s past rather than her present. Once upon a time, before the book’s action began, Fiona escaped being the fifth victim of a serial killer. To punish her, the killer murdered her fiance and his dog. He ended up in prison, biding his time until he found a proxy to train to finish the job he began: Fiona’s death.

I don’t think I’m really spoiling anything to tell you that Fiona survives. (Really? Do any mass paperbacks have sad endings? Um… NO!) The good guys always win and the bad guys always lose. But that’s not the point. The point is the relationships and the journey of the story. And, like I’ve mentioned, both are definitely summer-read worthy.

And maybe you’ll agree with me: I admire Fiona and envy parts of her life (she works from home and follows her passions!), but really? I’m more of a cat person. Cats don’t expect me to be alpha. In fact, they would laugh at me if I tried to act alpha. So we get along just fine, me and my cats. I just won’t tell them that I just finished a book about dogs.

book review: The Dive from Clausen’s Pier

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Is the mark of a good book the depth of feeling, or is the mark of a good book the wanting to understand how it fits your life? The Dive from Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer is the first book I’ve read in a long time that does not fit the standard pattern. You know, how romances and mysteries are predictable and always have a happy ending? I wasn’t sure if this one was going to; and I’m certainly not going to spoil the surprise and tell you whether it does or not.

In fact, as I begin this review, I haven’t even finished the book yet. I’m about 10 pages away. I can think I know what is going to happen, and I can feel okay with telling you it isn’t what I expected as I was reading the first 400-odd pages. And I really hope I accept what the main character does with her life. But it doesn’t really matter as long as she’s happy with it, and I sense she will be.

The premise of the book is the stuttering relationship of Carrie Bell and Mike Mayer. Carrie and Mike were high school sweethearts — in love since age 14 — and headed towards forever together in a generic Wisconsin town. In the first few pages we learn that Carrie had fallen out of love with Mike but didn’t know how to tell him or what to do next. It was all about expectations, you know? And then he dove from Clausen’s Pier and broke his neck. He lived but was permanently paralyzed.

And in a way, so was Carrie. She made some hard choices, mostly unconsciously, as she casted around in her new future. Her actions helped her start to move again. She made friends and broke up with friends. She found talents and surprised herself. She started to talk to people and ask questions… in a definitely un-Midwestern-like way. And then she had to decide if she was cut out for midwestern life… or not.

I think the book is about knowing yourself and the people in your life and being happy with how they fit together. I think it’s about making family where you are and with who you need. I think it’s about loving others even if you’re not sure how or why.

As I worked through the last few pages of the book (before I started writing, of course), I reached for the tissues several times. Probably because I feel that Carrie is a lot like me. Her Mike is like my Mike. Her Kilroy is like my Kilroy. And at this point in the book, I’m not sure that she’s meant to end up with either of them. (If you’re reading this and wondering if you’re Mike or Kilroy, you’re not. Neither of these characters in my life would care enough about me to read this.)

I knew this before, but love is tough. Carrie is tough, too, and I admire her. I still don’t know what is going to happen — in my life or in Carries — but I wish us both the best of luck. And I highly recommend this book.

(I’ve recently learned that there is a Lifetime movie made of this book. I recommend that you steer clear. I’ve read the reviews. It sounds like they’ve massacred the book. It is so rare that a movie can do justice to a book anyway.)

book review: Marrying Daisy Bellamy

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The latest offering in the Lakeshore Chronicles by Susan Wiggs continues to follow the Bellamy family, this time focusing on Daisy. I’ve enjoyed other books in this series, and Marrying Daisy Bellamy was no exception.

Daisy’s story is familiar to many of ours… or at least to me. She met a wonderful boy at a young age (Julian) and they fell in love. Life, however, intervened, and she and Julian couldn’t exactly connect like they each wanted. Enter boy #2 (Logan) and the baby they had together. Unfortunately, boy #2 and Daisy did not have nearly the chemistry Daisy and Julian shared, and they were raising their son as single parents.

This is where the story began, anyway. When Julian came back into Daisy’s life, things became complicated rather quickly. I can’t tell you any more for fear of spoiling the ending. I know as well as you do that books like these always strive to end happily. But for awhile I thought the author’s view of “happy” and mine would be quite different. I really did not want Daisy to settle for the wrong man.

Okay. I better stop with the story now and tell you what else I liked about this book.

Susan Wiggs painted characters to feel like ones you know. Daisy’s character touched me because she is an artist — a photographer — and she is passionate about her art. I don’t think of myself as an artist, but I would love to make money from my writing, and I’m jealous of her a little bit. I can also relate to (and admire!) how Daisy reacts to trouble. She stands firm and does what is best for her son Charlie. What mother doesn’t do that?

I know I probably puddle up more than the average person. But my desire for certain things in my own life made me cry when I read that “they were both so damaged by all that had happened. She prayed that once they both healed, they could find their way back to one another.” But come on. I’m a woman. And a romantic. And why wouldn’t I want her to have her happy ending?

Yes, this book is somewhat of a fluffy read. And the ending is a happy one for Daisy. But how they get to the happy? And will you agree with the happy? That’s the surprise. And guess what… that’s what life is all about.

book review: Beautiful Lies

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“Anyone in her right mind would have kept her distance, asked him to leave, but I think we’ve sufficiently established that I wasn’t anywhere close to being in my right mind.”

If you’re anything like Ridley Jones, you’ll agree that a mysterious sexy stranger sounds fantastic… until you find out he isn’t who he says he is. Oh. And until he disappears. But you’re not Ridley Jones, and you don’t know what happens yet. And I’m willing to bet that you don’t want spoilers for this book. You signed on for a review. Not the sparknotes version.

So let me ask you this. Have you ever had to take a break from the book you’re reading because it’s just too intense?

This is exactly what happened to me when I was reading Beautiful Lies by Lisa Unger. The book centers around Ridley Jones, a New Yorker and freelance writer, who happens to perform a noble deed. And (since no good deed remains unpunished), it turns her whole life upside down.

I like Ridley’s voice in this novel. I can relate. She says that she doesn’t believe in coincidences. (I don’t believe in them either.) She is tough and strong. And she talks to me. No, not in the I-get-the-character way, but she literally addresses me (the reader) at times. It’s like we’re sitting right here on the sofa, and she’s telling me a story about herself. It’s riveting and girl-friend like, all at the same time. It’s like the best gossip you’ve ever heard if gossip was able to keep you in bite-your-nails suspense.

Oh, and I love her opinions on love. She says, at one point, that “when you really connect with a person’s inner self, any physical imperfections disappear, become irrelevant.” Yes, girlfriend, I agree! (And I wish upon a star to connect with an inner self of a man I find handsome inside and out.)

I realize I’m giving you very few details on the story. Let me remedy that (yet keep this review spoiler free). Essentially Ridley’s fame over her unintentional good deed leads to press she isn’t expecting and press she doesn’t exactly welcome. And the fame also leads to meeting the mystery man and learning details of her past that some people think best remain hidden.

But Ridley is a  bull-dog type woman, and she doesn’t much like following orders. She likes answers, preferably the kind she finds herself. This, of course, leads to trouble, and beautiful lies spill out all over the place. (See how I used the title?! Clever, huh?)

At one point she learns that “it’s not blood that connects us but experience.” And as her world rights itself again (in some way or another), she is as brave as I wish I could be.

I understand there is a follow-up book, and I’m putting that on my to-read list. I want to hear more from this girlfriend.

book review: The Other Daughter

The Other Daughter by Lisa Gardner was darker than what I’m used to, but I liked it. I liked it even more after it confirmed my sniffer theory. Did you know your sense of smell is connected with the memory center of the brain?

The main character in the story, Melanie Stokes, was adopted into a rich family at age nine. She had no memory of what happened before she became a member of the Stokes family; she didn’t remember her mother or her father, or even her real name. Her arrival in the family was a happiness in a family wrought with sadness; the Stokes family lost a 4-year-old daughter (Meagan) to murder five years before Melanie came into their lives.

The mystery — and part of the darkness — of the book comes when Melanie and the rest of her family begin to receive messages having to do with Meagan’s murder, 20 years before. This is also where the sniffer theory comes in. Melanie’s message was almost purely related to her sense of smell.

Even thought the book was a bit dark, I liked the mystery to it. I liked that the author carefully crafted her writing. I recognized some of the tricks I try to teach my budding authors; and the book required more than half my brain for me to keep track of what was happening. I was merrily led down some specific paths of thought (much like the characters in the book), only to be surprised near the end. Definite ‘like’!

Of course, as with all mass-produced fiction, there is an obligatory love story. Melanie gets mixed up with a man very early on in the book. He wants to save her, she wants to comfort him… yada yada yada. I recognize that the book *had* to include the romance, though I find it hard to believe the theory that’s so prevalent in modern love stories.

The theory reads: A man and a woman will pledge their happily-ever-after-undying love for each other after spending just a few harrowing days together. You know… the we’ve-been-through-hell-so-we-can-get-through-anything theory? Someday I’d really like to see a book that has a couple get through a harrowing time and wait patiently for some time to pass to see if they still like each other.

Anyway, the book was a decent escape from grading papers and planning poetry units. I liked the writing, and I’ll read more of Lisa Gardner’s books. She has a fun style!

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