I have been enjoying an interlude of positive stories this week while I work hard on some paintings. It seems like I can’t read anything too taxing while I’m focused on making art, so I put aside the dystopian sequel, the historical fiction about a difficult period, and the literary masterpiece waiting my attention and instead checked out two Jenny Colgan books from the library. One (yay) was the third in her series about the village of Kirrinfeif, on the banks of Loch Ness in Scotland, and the other is (as far as I know) a stand-alone.
500 Miles From You takes us back to the site made famous by Nina, the former librarian from Birmingham who lost her job, impulsively bought a van from a couple of old codgers, and turned it into a traveling bookshop with a base in the Scottish countryside. The second book brought Londoner Zoe and her son, Hari, in answer to an advertisement for a nanny, to a grand baronial house on the lake, with a family of unruly children needing to be tamed.
Both Zoe and Nina make cameo appearances in this one, which is about Lissa, a nurse for the NHS in London who is suffering painfully from PTSD after witnessing a shocking crime. She is determined to keep on with her job, but her supervisor realizes she needs a complete break with everything familiar while she heals, and arranges for a swap. Cormac, a nurse practitioner in Kirrinfeif, is restless and up for a change, so he moves into Lissa’s nurse’s housing in London for a three-month upgrade on his skills, while Lissa retreats to the eerily quiet town on the loch and tries to get her feet back under her. As they trade files, write emails, and text one another for updates on the patients they have inherited, they develop an unexpectedly close rapport, each of them wondering if it will become something more, once they finally meet.
This was nicely told, and I enjoyed several aspects of it quite a lot. Although both her other books touched on this aspect, Lissa’s and Cormac’s experiences really point up the difference between living in an anonymous city where you avoid the glances of others, don’t speak on the subway or in the elevator, and bolt your doors at the first sound of trouble on the street, vs. in a small town where everyone knows you (and probably knows too much of your personal business), greets you, sees you, and expects you to run out your front door to help if you know someone is in need.
I also liked the gentle and sympathetic treatment of mental health, and the truths about how thoroughly and even devastatingly we are affected by our experiences, sometimes without even realizing the damage until someone helps us figure it out.
These are definitely “formula” books, but they are intelligent, quirky, and interesting. In Colgan’s case, the formula seems
- Move to Scotland;
- Fall in love with somebody there;
- Find some kind of work that expresses your best self;
- Never go “home” to [fill in the ugly depressing dirty dangerous big city here].
Every time I read one, I think, “I’m down with that!”
The stand-alone is Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend. I worry a little when I read a Colgan “single” that I won’t like it; I read her first-ever novel, Amanda’s Wedding, which made me tell everyone to avoid all books before 2012 and stick to the warm-hearted series of series about finding your place in life and making good. This one violated my rule, having been published in 2009, but it had the recent re-release date on it and I was fooled into believing it was new!
It was better than Amanda’s Wedding, but not nearly as good as her later books. The reason I disliked her first book so much is that the “women” in it were billed as charming wisecrackers but were, in reality, just mean girls. I could find nothing to like about them for a good part of the book, and the fact that they were out to stop someone even meaner than themselves from marrying their friend for his money and title didn’t endear them to me until the absolute end, and not much then.
In Diamonds, the mean girls make a reappearance, and the protagonist, Sophie, starts out as one of them. They are all in a set of shallow, entitled rich people who don’t acknowledge anyone below a certain level of money, status, or fashion sense. Fortunately (for the reader, not for her), Sophie almost immediately loses her protected status and her allowance (via the 2008 crash) and has to fend for herself for the first time in her life. She rents a room in an apartment with four guys and, in lieu of a deposit, she agrees as her contribution to clean their truly disgusting habitat. The mishaps that ensue when this person whose morning latte used to arrive on her nightstand every morning courtesy of a housekeeper has to figure out how to scrub a toilet, clean an oven, and cook something are fairly entertaining, as is her pursuit of a paying job; and the romantic relationships on offer also spice up the narrative. I still didn’t care for the mean-girl setting or her continued interactions with her former so-called friends, but having this be about someone who conquers that, even if it’s not initially by choice, made it way more palatable.
I enjoyed my sojourn with Colgan so much that I have now moved on to another series by Phillipa Ashley, set in Cornwall. Those other books will have to wait yet a while longer.
In between other more serious fare, I checked out the Kindle copies of the next three books in the Lucy Valentine psychic matchmaking series. I had enjoyed the first two, and thought I’d like to find out what happened to all the engaging characters (pardon the pun), most of all Lucy and her beau, Sean.
First was Absolutely, Positively, in which Lucy’s psychic ability to find things is finally unmasked to the public and she has to deal with the fallout, while discovering a new method to find “lost loves” with it that expands her father’s matchmaking business to a new department that includes Lucy plus private eyes Sean and his brother.
Then came Perfectly Matched, in which she hooks up with a bunch of other psychics to try to bring out more abilities and hone the one she has. Meanwhile, someone is targeting her boyfriend and his brother by setting fires at all the places where they grew up, and Lucy becomes increasingly desperate to discover why and, more important, who, before something bad happens. Lastly was Undeniably Yours, in which her policeman friend, Aiden, seeks her help finding a lost reporter, who also happens to be the mother of his (previously unknown) child.
I still liked the series after going through the next three books; the author is great at reminding you what has happened, adding to it by expanding knowledge and relationships in the next volume, and still drawing out the suspense in various pairings as well as various themes so you want to go on to the next.
What made me crazy was finding out that this isn’t the end of the series! If you picked up a book called Undeniably Yours with the couple in question in a clinch on the cover, wouldn’t you assume that this is the book in which the drawn-out relationship that started in book #1 would finally reach its HEA (happily ever after)? Well, I did, and I was mistaken! There are still things for the main couple (and other secondaries) to do, places to go, states to achieve (as in matrimony or whatever), and we leave them in the midst of a massive home remodeling project! So there will be more Lucy Valentine tales in my future after all. I don’t know whether I’m mad or glad.
I’m struggling a little with where to put these books in terms of genre. Is it magical realism if people have psychic abilities, or is it just paranormal fiction? Is it a romance if half the characters belong to a family of matchmakers and keep putting people together, or does it just have romantic elements? And is it relationship fiction, or is it a mystery cozy? There IS a mystery of some kind in each one…
Whatever. I enjoyed these books, and felt like each one improved upon the last, so that’s something.
Sometimes themes develop accidentally, as you pick up a book here, a book there, and then view all of them at once, deciding what to read next. This particular theme was “fat women,” with one chick-lit debut and one YA by an author already known for heroines with size diversity.
Reviewing One to Watch, by Kate Stayman-London, forces me to confess a deep and shameful secret: I have been known to tune in to an episode or two of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. Let me hasten to say that I am not one of what the host calls “Bachelor Nation” (ahem pretentious much?)—in fact, it’s been more hate-watching than anything—but I have, over the many surprising seasons it has continued its hackneyed formulaic road to romance, checked it out. The primary motivation for this is a complex cocktail of wanting to see the pretty people and the exotic locales, to mock the uniformly sincere expressions of all the participants who think they might have feelings for someone with whom they have spent six hours, and to marvel at the idiocy or bewilderment of the families who condone this behavior by one of their own. The primary result has been to irritate my cat, who doesn’t like it when I talk back to the television set, particularly when it’s in a scathing tone; but somehow I am as unable to resist seeing what’s going on just once a season as I am prone to wonder who will win Dancing with the Stars.
For that reason, the idea that the show would cast a bachelorette who was of a body type not seen on television unless the actress is playing a grandmother or a police chief intrigued me. A bachelorette who wasn’t a size 4? One who might actually sit down at one of those candlelit tables and eat the delectable dishes laid out in front of her, rather than spend the whole meal sipping her wine and whining about her feelings? Bring it on.
The whole concept that a normal woman—that is to say, someone closer to the American average of size 16—could be celebrated as desirable to 25 bachelors seeking matrimony is enticing, though problematic. After all, regardless of the inclusion of body positivity, the show is still set up to see romance as a cattle-call competition, with the women as prizes.
I am somewhat embarrassed to say, therefore, that I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to someone looking for a story with a protagonist to whom they can relate: Someone who has transformed themselves on the outside but is still vulnerable and afraid beneath the surface; someone who decides she is brave enough to take a chance but who then constantly second-guesses herself based on everything that has been pounded into her by society, her family, other women, the men who have failed to requite her love, and the relentless trolls on the internet.
Bea Schumacher is a confident and stylish 30-year-old plus-size fashion blogger. She has good friends, a loving family, thousands of Instagram followers, but no romance. Her secret crush has strung her along for years, and has recently caused her to swear off men for the foreseeable future. But after she writes a blistering blog post about the show Main Squeeze (The Bachelor, thinly veiled) with its lack of body diversity or, for that matter, any kind of diversity in its legions of skinny white people going on fantasy dates, the show calls her and asks if she will be the next star. Bea agrees, but she tells the show’s new producer, Lauren, that on no account will she actually fall in love. She’s going on the show to make a point about anti-fat beauty standards, and maybe to boost her list of followers into seven figures.
Of course things will get more complicated. Of course she will be upset, confused, intrigued, tempted, repulsed, angered, and beguiled as she spends 10 weeks supposedly looking for love. But she can’t possibly let go of all her preconceived notions and believe in the HEA, can she?
The thing I liked about this book was that it turned the reality show on its ear. Yes, there were meet-cute moments and embarrassing tests and awkward interludes just like on the real-life show, but in between that, because Bea isn’t the usual fare, the bachelors (who are mostly the usual fare, either muscular and dumbly sincere or sharp, handsome, and deeply cynical), get jolted out of their complacency as she attempts to have conversations with them that don’t revolve around the typical inanities. Bea is portrayed as a real person, and she reaches out to find the real person in each of the men she ends up with after the “extras” have been kissed off. (I loved that instead of “will you accept this rose,” the woman here gives them a lipstick kiss or “kisses them off,” depending.) As on the show, you really have trouble trusting that the men are telling the truth about themselves, their feelings, and their motivations, which is compounded in the case of Bea.
I thought the author nailed the struggles of being a plus-sized woman, wavering from confident to terrified as she is confronted by the cruelty of society towards women who don’t conform to insane standards of beauty. (She also had some fun pointing out how a blind eye is turned to men in that same category.) She didn’t fall for the temptation to make her protagonist lose weight in order to find her HEA, she forced the show, the men, and the viewing public to accept Bea as she was.
The depiction of the reality TV world—the way things are manipulated to make ratings, the descriptions of the fancy wardrobe, the tensions of the timetable—were well done, as was the use of the social media inserts into the story—text messages, emails, TMZ articles, tweets, and blog posts all added dimension to the story.
Ultimately, the book does pander to wish fulfillment, but then, what did you expect? It’s a rom-com. But it’s entertainingly written and told, and does have a lot to offer about false standards of beauty and their equation with worth. So I say, a positive review.
By contrast, I became almost immediately impatient with both the author and the protagonist of Julie Murphy’s new book, Faith Taking Flight. I should have known better than to broach this book with no expectations, because I found her previous book, Dumplin’, to be full of contradictions that didn’t lend themselves to her avowed goal of advocating for plus-size teens. But the prospect of a fat girl who could fly grabbed my attention, and I jumped in with enthusiasm.
My enthusiasm quickly turned to dismay and derision as I experienced the thin plot development regarding the flying skills. Faith meets Peter, who tells her she’s been chosen to go through some kind of conversion to turn her into a superhero, because she has the potential to become a psiot. This conversation takes place at the mall. Then he tells her (alarm bells should be ringing) that she has to perpetrate a “cover” for herself over the summer—to tell her grandmother that she’s off to journalism camp. She agrees! She climbs trustingly onto a bus, goes to a secret underground facility, is locked in a room and assigned a uniform and a number, and then realizes she’s an experimental subject. Meanwhile, her granny (her guardian) sends mail and makes phone calls for the entire six weeks that she’s gone; Grandma Lou receives not one response, and doesn’t see this as a problem or institute any kind of inquiry, just assumes her granddaughter is fine? Come on. We discover later (way too late in the book) that Faith actually escapes from the facility with Peter’s help, whereupon she simply goes home and does nothing—doesn’t call the authorities, or wonder about all the other kids who were trapped there with her—she just gets a part-time job at an animal shelter, and resumes school in the fall. But this is the most unbelievable part of the entire story: She doesn’t fly! She has this ability, which would excite most of us beyond belief, and she doesn’t go out every night to try it out? doesn’t practice? doesn’t test her limits or tell her friends? No. She pulls it out when necessary (to save someone from falling off a roof, or to look for her grandmother when she wanders off, a victim of senile dementia) and that’s it. Right.
Meanwhile, we have the secondary plot, which is actually the primary one considering how much space it fills in the 338 pages of the book: The cast and crew of the teen soap opera (The Grove) with which Faith has been obsessed since childhood—to the point where she writes the premiere blog about it and publishes weekly recaps and commentary—moves its filming destination to her town, and the star of the show, Dakota Ash, supposedly meets cute with her over adopting a dog from the shelter, but then confesses that she has read the blog and knows who Faith is. Faith is over the moon (but still not literally, because not flying), and we get a lot of detail on this relationship, hurt feelings from abandoned “regular” friends as she tours the lot and has milk shakes with the star, yadda yadda. Oh, and this is the point where Faith explores the idea that she might be gay…or bi? After all, in addition to the tempting Dakota there’s also her journalism swain, Johnny….
Enter third plot: Animals (both strays and pets), homeless people, and random teenage girls have disappeared from town and no one can find them. One dog and one girl reappear, but are catatonic and provide no clues to the mystery.
So how does all of this fit together? Badly. Improbably. Unconvincingly. Incompletely. Because…there may be a sequel in the works. Yeah. Which would actually be good if it clears up any of the picked up and dropped plot points, the fuzzy background and world-building, and Faith’s inexplicable reluctance to use her friggin’ superpower! But based on this one, I highly doubt it. I discovered on Goodreads that this is a prequel novelization of a superhero from Valiant Entertainment comics. If I were the author of those comics, I would not be happy at this moment.
Before I forget, allow me to address the fat girls in the room: Murphy punts in this book as she does in Dumplin’. She gives the heroine the possibility of a romance or two in which Faith speculates, “But what could they see in ME?” and she almost lets her have it, but then pulls back to deliver the same blow fat girls always endure, when they are told that they are not special and that no one would want them. Yeah, maybe that message served the plot at that particular moment, but aren’t we all tired of the incessant battering of that already bruised spot on the fragile fat-girl ego? I know I am.
I finished the book, but I confess that it was only so I could better skewer it. Faith herself is an ebullient and somewhat refreshing protagonist, but she’s so weighed down by a thin, chaotic and nonsensical story line that she’ll never, ever get off the ground.
In my last book review (too long ago, I know—things have been hectic), I mentioned that I was going to read another book by Cathy Lamb, because I was so enamored of the first line of the book:
“I left my wedding dress hanging in a tree somewhere in North Dakota.”
It turns out, unfortunately, that the first line was the best thing about that book. Although I did finish it, and although I did enjoy certain aspects, I concluded that this author is just too disjointed in the way she structures her novels. There is a challenge for the heroine that seems perfectly realistic and commonplace, and yet the way it is addressed in the novel is through the cultivation of that heroine by perfectly unrealistic, silly, contrived people and circumstances. As I indicated in my previous review, it’s like someone took a book chock full of magical realism, tore out all the pages, and dumped them in a cauldron with the ones from a straightforward realistic novel, and then drew pages out at random and put them together to make a new book that jumps wildly between fantasy and real life.
And yet…I ended up reading two more of them.
One of the (poor) reviews of Julia’s Chocolates on Goodreads commented that the book was “sappy chick porn.” Her justification of this was that whenever a woman in such a book left an unhappy marriage, a horrible relationship, or another life-threatening situation, there is always around the next bend a delightful little town, a wildly successful talent that she can immediately turn into a new career, and a perfect Prince Charming. None of this resonates of truthfulness for anyone, but those are probably the exact reasons why books such as this enjoy a wide readership. Julia’s Chocolates was not a particularly well done example of one of them, but in the next two books, I did find some saving graces.
The next book I read is called Such A Pretty Face, and it is, as you would surmise, about a fat woman plagued by the constant cliché of supposedly well-meaning people telling her that if she’d only lose weight, everything would be divine. But I have to give Lamb credit: In this one she managed to avoid a lot of the clichés that plagued the previous book, and she actually drew a realistic picture of a woman so inundated by horror in her life that all she felt able to control was her eating, her eventual size protecting her in some aspects from dealing with the world around her.
The portrayal of Stevie Barrett’s terrifying childhood and the precipitating event that sent her from a loving though troubled home into a dysfunctional, belittling one was sensitively done, with details so perfectly personal and intimate that they evoked the scenes almost too powerfully for the reader. Similarly, her struggles as an adult to come to terms with herself are touching. After a heart attack at age 32, she undergoes bariatric surgery and loses more than half her weight, but inside she is still the fat, unattractive, deeply unhappy person she was never able to confront. Slowly, with assistance from friends and relatives, she begins to turn this around.
The criticisms of this book are two: One, Cathy Lamb doesn’t know how to write dialogue for the bad guys. She can depict them realistically, but when it comes time for them to speak, they sound like the villain in a melodrama, complete with handlebar mustaches and maniacal ha-ha-has! Two, of course, is the perfect love of her life who discovers, pursues, and wins her in the course of the book. As my friend on Goodreads said, “I mean literally, the next man she meets will always be handsome, sexy, available, and perfect for a long-term relationship.” This book deals with that topic more realistically than did Julia’s Chocolates, but it still seemed a bit too ideal.
Actually, let’s make those criticisms three, which goes as well for the next novel: the completely generic book covers. There were so many interesting images in this book that could have been featured on the cover to give it a little pizzazz as well as some intrigue, but no. Also, in the last book I will review, the sisters all three had black hair. Ahem.
My favorite, The Language of Sisters, is about three women—Antonia, Elvira, and Valeria—Russian sisters who escaped Communist Russia with their parents when they were young children, and moved to Oregon to be with the rest of the noisy, loving, extended family of Kozlovskys. This book, as do most of Lamb’s, has a touch of magical realism to it: The sisters are able to hear one another in their heads at times of danger, sadness, or trial, and can call out to one another for help. The book is narrated by Toni (Antonia), and is essentially her story, although it encompasses both her sisters, her extended family, and the “extra” family she has created on the dock of the tugboat (floating in the Williamette river) that she calls home. It’s not a surprise that those characters, given Lamb’s propensity for exaggeration, include an interracial couple, a lesbian couple, a high-priced call girl, an elderly opera singer suffering from dementia, and a husky blond DEA agent jonesing to be Toni’s soulmate.
The things I enjoyed about the book were the secrets that are gradually revealed throughout the course of the book—some in the recent past, and some left over from the girls’ Moscow childhood. The flashbacks to Moscow were particularly powerful. And I will admit that I also enjoyed, even while scoffing at, Toni’s blossoming relationship with Nick (the DEA agent). Apparently even a cynical reader can’t, in the end, resist romance.
I’m still not sure I would count Cathy Lamb as among the authors I like or would return to for more; but this has been a pleasantly fluffy, cozy, romantic interlude in my reading habits for which I have been grateful while confronting so many challenging pursuits in the real world for the past few weeks. (Let me just say that “I hate Microsoft” encompasses almost all of those challenges.) Although I will now return to my regularly scheduled programming of fantasy, teen fiction, and anything else that strikes my fancy, I won’t rule out another Lamb interlude in my future.