Monday, April 12, 2010

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell *****

Wow - what a weird, twisting, convoluted, powerful, confusing, emotional, fascinating book!! A friend recommended this to me after I told her about Still Alice, which I had recently read (fiction written from the POV of a woman with Alzheimer's). I got it (free!) from the library on audio/download.

I think reading this book must have been incredibly hard to follow, because the author uses the POV of Esme as a child, Esme as an adult, Iris in current time, Iris in current time remembering past occurrences, and Kitty, from her demented and aged self remembering things from the past - all without much in the way of clues when the POV changes. The narrator, Anne Flosnik, was superb - rich Scottish accents in voices that portrayed all the POVs beautifully, so that following it was easy once you'd picked up on the different tone and timbre she used for each character.

It's a psychological thriller, a mystery of where Esme has been for the past 60 years, and why. But she hasn't actually disappeared - she has been in Cauldstone Hospital, a mental asylum, since she was 16. When the story starts, we hear from Esme as a child in India, growing up with her older sister Kitty. The story from Iris's point of view is current time - she's in an affair with a married man, running a resale shop, living a sort of oddly normal life. Because she is the only other living relative of Kitty, her grandmother, she must deal with Esme, her great-aunt of whom she had no prior knowledge, because Cauldstone Hospital is being closed. Iris visits her grandmother - now too far into dementia to even recognize Iris - and the grandmother, in her own world, remembering only things long past and even then, only in fits and starts - confirms Esme's relationship.

Iris originally plans to take Esme to a half-way house of sorts until a better facility can be found, but finds she cannot leave her in the horrible place they have sent her to stay.

But it isn't so much about where any of the women are physically. It's about where they are emotionally, mentally, and what is going on in their minds as they each deal with their lives and the choices that they have had made for them.

It was almost like watching a wreck in slow motion - I sensed where it was going, and wanted to turn away but couldn't. When all the truths were finally revealed, and the last inevitable action was in sight, I felt like I was left to deal with the emotional aftermath which is not really spelled out, but left for the reader's imagination.

Highly recommended - especially in audio. 5 stars

Friday, April 9, 2010

Bed of Roses by Nora Roberts ****

I listened to this fairly recent release on audio, finishing it up just a minute ago. It's the second in the bride series - a series of 4 friends who grew up together playing weddings and as adults run a wedding service: a place to have a wedding, and each woman has a specialty. Plus they all live on the property (I don't know if I could take that much togetherness!!)

At first I thought the narrator's voice seemed too young, but after a while she grew on me, and I actually think her reading, her voices, her acting - it was all very good. In fact, she might be one of the better narrators I've heard.

This story features Emma, the florist. She loves flowers and romance - and she's always chipper and upbeat and loves everyone and everything. Somehow she manages to date these great guys who just don't inspire her, so she fixes them up with other women and ditches them.

And Jack - he's the best friend of Del, the older brother of Parker, one of the women of Vows. All of them have been friends forever. When we first see Jack in this story, it's clear he's had a thing for Emma for years, but figures she's like a sister to Del - and I guess in Romanceville, there's some code about not dating your best friend's sister. Maybe in real life too, but I dunno about that.

Jack and Emma have a WOW moment - you know, sparks shooting out when they get close - they almost kiss - bada bing, bada boom, like that. Then, later, they have another - and decide to act on it.

Next thing ya know, here they were just FRIENDS and now they're FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS. Unfortunately, Emma's not a just-benefits kinda girl - she's got her heart set on a happily-ever-after, and when she sparks with Jack, life won't be the same unless he returns the feelings. Unfortunately, Jack's not a long-term-with-future kinda guy either. In fact, he's sorta territorial about his bachelor-ness. But hey, they go into it with eyes wide open, even making a promise that NO MATTER WHAT THEY WILL ALWAYS BE FRIENDS.

Boy - you'd think you could write the book yourself now, except you'd be foolish to try to compete with master wordmeister La Nora! She manages to capture the mood, the lingo, the fun, the drama - she's really got it all when it comes to bringing a story to life with words. She channels her inner-guy, belches and all, so that you find yourself there, in the room, watching it all unfold in front of you.

So - that's the story - they walk slowly towards saying those three little words, but Jack hesitates once too often, and sweet, soft-spoken Emma decides she's worth more - and cuts it off. Then La Nora makes Jack grovel, hard. (Even though, to be honest, Emma was a little out of line...)

It was funny sometimes, and realistic AND romantic, and I enjoyed it. I also decided I do like this narrator after all - 4 stars.

Vision in White by Nora Roberts ***...???

I did - I listened to this on audio a while back, but I'll be damned if I can remember how I felt about it. I think I liked it - maybe even 4 stars - but for the life of me I can't remember, and can't find any place where I usually make note of my star-rating that I've listed it.

It's the first in the Bride quartet - 4 girls play-act at weddings, and now that they're adults, they are all partners in a wedding planning business. There's Parker, the rich girl whose parents died and left her and her brother Del the "estate" where they now all live and work. There's Laurel, the master chef/baker. There's Emma, the fabulous florist. And there's Mac, the photographer - and this book's heroine. Del's the Big Brother and he has a best friend Jack but they're bit players in the story. Carter's our man.

I can read the blurbs and remember parts of the story, and now that I've listened to book 2, Bed of Roses, I remember the characters. Carter's a geeky professor who is besotted practically when he meets Mac, and she's scared of relationships but not averse to some hot and sweaty sex of the one or two night stand variety. But when Carter makes the L-word declaration - well, Mac has to step back and reevaluate. She's got a bad role model - her parents divorced, her father started a new family and her whacko mother is ruining her life.

Uh, there was no doubt a conflict, the women surrounded their friend, and now Carter and Mac are going to get their HEA.

I guess I'll call it a 3 - liked it - since I really don't remember.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

To Have and To Hold by Patricia Gaffney ***

This is the 2nd in the series, and the one that got AAR Top 100 status. And I guess I shouldn't be too surprised to say: I didn't get why... Not that I usually disagree with the list. I often find books and authors I love. But not this one, and not some of the others either, which just reinforces that old "everybody's different" thing.

This one is about the new heir to the village titled property after Geoffrey died, his cousin Sebastian. I wasn't clear about why Sebastian and not his father inherited. Whatever. Sebastian was jaded and promiscuous and bored. He came to Wyckerley and assumed the seat of magistrate along with 2 other citizens, where he first met Rachel Wade, the heroine.

Rachel had recently gotten out of prison where she served 10 years for murdering her husband after 1 week of marriage. Apparently the sentence was light because her husband had abused her - she wasn't hanged, after all. But prison sapped everything out of her - her family pretty much disowned her, and she learned the hard way that just taking the prison abuse and shutting down your emotions was the only way to survive. But she had been picked up for vagrancy, having nowhere to go, and the court was thinking of sending her back to jail.

Sebastian decides he needs a new housekeeper anyway, and she's pretty to look at and he plans also to bed her, so he offers to be her guardian.

It's this last part that really took the joy out of the story for me. Look, even if she did acquiesce, I say it's rape for him to put her in the position of having to have sex with him. More than once, and meanwhile he's still the same old jaded, bored, rotten fellow. He even invites his jaded, bored, rotten friends over and pretty much subjects her to quite a lot more abuse at their hands before something snaps and he decided maybe his actions haven't been exactly humane. Mind you, that doesn't stop him from continuing to seduce her, but now maybe he has feelings. Maybe even for her.

I kept waiting for the author to show me the slow change in both of them, since I knew they were the h/h of the story. I kept thinking there would be a slow series of scenes where she begins to realize he's changed and that she can trust him. Even towards the end, when his mission in life is to make her come (now there's a worthy goal), he decides that the best way to do that is to restrain her by tying her wrists over her head. I dunno, that scene didn't make me feel any warmth toward him. And Rachel? Yeah, she did decide she had feelings for him, but I never did know why - he was a bastard of the highest degree, and I never felt the change in her even though I read about the change in him.

Then there's another of those incredible coincidental endings - if the author hadn't ended book 1 with a couple of well-timed coincidences, maybe I could have bought this one. But, well, it just didn't work for me for a letter to come out of nowhere right when it was needed - almost too late! - and for Sebastian to arrive in the nick of time, in a rainstorm no less. And Rachel, the dummy, to resist in principal to a solution that would have kept her out of jail again when more than once she had thought she would kill herself before she would go back to jail.

Again, the verbiage was well-written, but the story itself just didn't elevate itself to Top 100 status, even if I'd only read 99 books ever. I'm going with 3 stars because I liked it ok, but it seems almost like 2 stars because I expected so much more.

To Love and To Cherish by Patricia Gaffney

I got all 3 books in this trilogy because book #2, To Have and To Hold, is #34 on the AAR Top 100 Romances 2007. I actually misplaced all 3 until just recently, wnd when I came across them, decided it was time to read them!

This one could be classified as inspirational - which means that it has a religious theme and is almost as driven by love of God as by the couple's romance. The hero is Christian "Christy" Morrell, the village vicar who took over the pastorage from his father. The heroine is Anne Verlaine, who shows up with her husband when his father, the village viscount, passes away. Her husband was Christy's childhood best friend, but they haven't seen each other in years. While Christy turned from mischievous youth to the area's religious leader, Geoffrey turned into a wandering and almost penniless soldier, bitter, disillusioned and ill. He wed Anne, we learn, because he thought she was rich - but through a twist of fate, her father died before inheriting, so she had no more money than he.

He soon leaves Anne alone at the family home to go off to another war. Christy, meanwhile, realizes he has feelings for Anne and determines this is a test of his faith and his will. He decides not to see her anymore, until he learns that Geoffrey has been killed. The two then decide to let the village know of their relationship a proper amount of time afterwards and carry on in secret until...

spoiler spoiler spoiler

Geoffrey wasn't actually killed and returns home. But that's not the end - a sort of deus ex machina couple of coincidences occur which reinforce Christy's faith, and somehow make Anne faithful too, and well, Geoffrey kills himself but then he was going to die of his illness pretty soon anyway.

I liked it ok. It was, well, ok, but not great. Her writing is clear, well-written, well-edited but the story was just ... ok. I wasn't moved and that last bit of coincidences occurring all at the end just seemed too convenient. 3 stars. Yawn.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A to Z Challenges 2010

I didn't finish the 2009 A to Z challenges, but hey - it's a new year (3 months old!) so maybe...





AAR Top 100 2007: Challenge, or Quest?

All About Romance is a website for Romance readers, with a ton of reviews, a forum, a newsletter, lots of author interviews and a poll that appears to be maybe bi-annual where readers submit their favorite romance novels, and the votes are tallied and a list is born.

The AAR Top Romances for 2007 follows. I decided to try to read all (or most?) of them, and have been slowly whittling away on them. Currently, I have read 88, and have eliminated some of them because I either don't like the author or the genre. I may read those anyway.

A more formal challenge has come about through the Readers of Romance Challenge group on Shelfari, and so there are several of us "keeping track" and trying to read them all before the next list is polled in 2009. I figured for me it's an interesting way to see what others think are great books, and to find new authors and sort of stretch my reading wings a little. I marked the ones I've read in Red; the ones in my TBR pile in Green and the ones I don't plan to read will be marked through thusly. I've also put my own personal rating - * = did not like it to ***** = loved it - after the ones I've read. The year it was originally published is also included.

1 - Lord of Scoundrels - Loretta Chase - Eur Hist - 1995 - *****
2 - Dreaming of You - Lisa Kleypas - Eur Hist - 1994 - ***
3 - Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen - Classic - 1813 - **
4 - Outlander - Diana Gabaldon - Time-Travel - 1991 - *****
5 - Flowers From The Storm - Laura Kinsale - Eur Hist - 1992 *****
6 - Slightly Dangerous - Mary Balogh - Eur Hist - 2004 - TBR
7 - Devil In Winter - Lisa Kleypas - Eur Hist - 2006
8 - Bet Me - Jennifer Crusie - Contemporary - 2004 - *****
9 - Welcome to Temptation - Jennifer Crusie - Contemporary - 2000 - *****
10 - The Viscount Who Loved Me - Julia Quinn - Eur Hist - 2000 - ****
11 - Lover Awakened - J.R. Ward - Paranomal - 2006
12 - Mr. Impossible - Loretta Chase - Eur Hist - 2005 - ***
13 - The Duke and I - Julia Quinn - Eur Hist - 2000 - ****
14 - It Had To Be You - Susan Elizabeth Phillips - Contemporary - 1994 - ****
15 - Lord Perfect - Loretta Chase - Eur Hist - 2006 - ***
16 - Romancing Mr. Bridgerton - Julia Quinn - Eur Hist - 2002 - ****
17 - The Bride - Julie Garwood - Medieval - 1989 - ***
18 - Mr. Perfect - Linda Howard - Contemporary - 2000 - *****
19 - Naked In Death - J.D. Robb - Futuristic - 1995 - ***
20 - A Summer To Remember - Mary Balogh - Eur Hist - 2002 - ***
21 - Nobody's Baby But Mine - Susan Elizabeth Phillips - Contemporary - 1997 - ****
22 - Dream Man - Linda Howard - Romantic Suspense - 1995 - *****
23 - The Raven Prince - Elizabeth Hoyt - Eur Hist - 2006 - *****
24 - Paradise - Judith McNaught - Contemporary - 1991 - *****
25 - As You Desire - Connie Brockway - Historical - 1997 - *****
26 - MacKenzie's Mountain - Linda Howard - Contemporary - 1989 - ****
27 - Dark Lover - J.R. Ward - Paranormal - 2005 - ****
28 - The Secret - Julie Garwood - Medieval - 1992 - ****
29 - Son Of The Morning - Linda Howard - Time-Travel - 1997 - ****
30 - Lover Eternal - J.R. Ward - Paranormal - 2006
31 - Devil's Bride - Stephanie Laurens - Eur Hist - 1998 - *
32 - A Knight in Shining Armor - Jude Deveraux - Time-Travel - 1989 - ***
33 - Heaven, Texas - Susan Elizabeth Phillips - Contemporary - 1995 - ****
34 - To Have and To Hold - Patricia Gaffney - Eur Hist - 1995 - ***
35 - Almost Heaven - Judith McNaught - Eur Hist - 1990 - ***
36 - Match Me If You Can - Susan Elizabeth Phillips - Contemporary - 2005 - ****
37 - The Shadow and The Star - Laura Kinsale - Historical - 1991 - *****
38 - Cry No More - Linda Howard - Contemporary - 2003 - *****
39 - A Kingdom of Dreams - Judith McNaught - Medieval - 1989 - *****
40 - Over the Edge - Suzanne Brockmann - Contemporary - 2001 - *****
41 - Sea Swept - Nora Roberts - Contemporary - 1998 - *****
42 - Ravished - Amanda Quick - Eur Hist - 1992 - *****
43 - Then Came You - Lisa Kleypas - Eur Hist - 1993 - **
44 - To Die For - Linda Howard - Contemporary - 2005 - *****
45 - Something Wonderful - Judith McNaught - Eur Hist - 1988 - ***
46 - This Heart of Mine - Susan Elizabeth Phillips - Contemporary - 2001 - ****
47 - The Serpent Prince - Elizabeth Hoyt - Eur Hist - 2007 - *****
48 - Suddenly You - Lisa Kleypas - Eur Hist - 2001 - **
49 - The Proposition - Judith Ivory - Eur Hist - 1999 - *****
50 - Honors Splendour - Julie Garwood - Medieval - 1987 - *****
51 - Saving Grace - Julie Garwood - Medieval - 1993 - *****
52 - Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Classic - 1847 -
53 - When He Was Wicked - Julia Quinn - Eur Hist - 2004 - *****
54 - Persuasion - Jane Austen - Classic - 1818 -
55 - All Through The Night - Connie Brockway - Eur Hist - 1997 - ****
56 - It Happened One Autumn - Lisa Kleypas - Eur Hist - 2005
57 - Born In Fire - Nora Roberts - Contemporary - 1994 - ***
58 - Thunder and Roses - Mary Jo Putney - Eur Hist - 1993 - **
59 - Kiss An Angel - Susan Elizabeth Phillips - Contemporary - 1996 - *****
60 - Out Of Control - Suzanne Brockmann - Contemporary - 2002 - *****
61 - After The Night - Linda Howard - Contemporary - 1995 - *****
62 - Lady Sophia's Lover - Lisa Kleypas - Eur Hist - 2002 - ***
63 - The Secret Pearl - Mary Balogh - Eur Hist - 1991 - *****
64 - Once and Always - Judith McNaught - Eur Hist - 1987 - *****
65 - More Than A Mistress - Mary Balogh - Eur Hist - 2000 - *****
66 - Untie My Heart - Judith Ivory - Eur Hist - 2002 - *****
67 - See Jane Score - Rachel Gibson - Contemporary - 2003 - ****
68 - The Rake - Mary Jo Putney - Eur Hist - 1998 -
69 - Dragonfly in Amber - Diana Gabaldon - Time-Travel - 1992 - *****
70 - Perfect - Judith McNaught - Contemporary - 1993 - *****
71 - Whitney, My Love - Judith McNaught - Eur Hist - 1985 - ****
72 - The Duke - Gaelen Foley - Eur Hist - 2000 - *****
73 - One Perfect Rose - Mary Jo Putney - Eur Hist - 1997 -
74 - Shattered Rainbows - Mary Jo Putney - Eur Hist - 1996 -
75 - The Windflower - Laura London - Historical/Pirate - 1984 - *****
76 - Dream A Little Dream - Susan Elizabeth Phillips - Contemporary - 1998 - *****
77 - Frederica - Georgette Heyer - Classic - 1965 - ****
78 - Passion - Lisa Valdez - Eur Hist - 2005 - 9/14/08 *****
79 - Voyager - Diana Gabaldon - Time-Travel - 1994 - *****
80 - The Lady's Tutor - Robin Schone - Eur Hist - 1999 - TBR
81 - Morning Glory - Lavryle Spencer - Amer Hist - 1990 - *****
82 - Worth Any Price - Lisa Kleypas - Eur Hist - 2003 - ***
83 - Winter Garden - Adele Ashworth - Eur Hist - 2000 - ***
84 - My Dearest Enemy - Connie Brockway - Eur Hist - 1998 - *****
85 - Where Dreams Begin - Lisa Kleypas - Eur Hist - 2000
86 - Devil's Cub - Georgette Heyer - Classic - 1932 - **
87 - Gone Too Far - Suzanne Brockmann - Contemporary - 2003 - *****
88 - Anyone But You - Jennifer Crusie - Contemporary - 1996 - *****
89 - For My Lady's Heart - Laura Kinsale - Medieval - 1993 - ****
90 - Rising Tides - Nora Roberts - Contemporary - 1998 - *****
91 - Lover Revealed - J.R. Ward - Paranormal - 2007
92 - Open Season - Linda Howard - Contemporary - 2001 - *****
93 - Born In Ice - Nora Roberts - Contemporary - 1996 - *****
94 - Ransom - Julie Garwood - Medieval - 1999 - ***
95 - Venetia - Georgette Heyer - Classic - 1958 - ***
96 - Miss Wonderful - Loretta Chase - Eur Hist - 2004 - ****
97 - Ain't She Sweet - Susan Elizabeth Phillips - Contemporary - 2004 - ****
98 - The Notorious Rake - Mary Balogh - Eur Hist - 1992 - ****
99 - The Prize - Julie Garwood - Medieval - 1991 - ***
100 - Slave To Sensation - Nalini Singh - Paranormal - 2006 - ****

UPDATE October 12, 2008:

I decided to get a little more organized about getting these books - see, I have to read series in order, so if they are part of a series, I try to find them all and read them before moving on. I guess I shouldn't be so surprised that SEVERAL of them are Wish-listed at PBS, and some of those are truly Hard To Find. I've marked the Hard To Find ones above, and have wishlisted them myself. Plus, I did some searching on eBay and and Amazon marketplace (with a nod to Barnes & Noble's Authorized Sellers, who cannot even begin to compete). I guess I should have started looking for all the books a little sooner! I may have to break down and try the library as well.

I'm still not completely organized - I have to do some research on Mary Jo Putney, plus I haven't even attempted to get the older books (Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Georgette Heyer) yet.

Some random observations:

I think when I started this quest I had read almost 30 just on my own, not being aware of this list.

(1) I don't like Lisa Kleypas' writing. I read 6 books by this well-loved and -lauded author, and they are not my cup o'tea. So I stopped. Too many books, too little time. (Of course I'm still reading them, it's an obsession to finish this Quest!) [edited to add: I actually read another one, so I've read 7 - still not impressed.] [edited Nov 2009 to add: I actually do like her contemporaries! shock!]

(2) I may have lost all interest in vampire romance after listening to the first 2 audio books in Christine Feehan's Dark series. In my oh-so-very-humble opinion, the narration was awful. Dreadful. The worst. Shouldn't have been paid. Really, the woman needs a dictionary for pronunciation, not that it would have helped her lack of narrating talent. So for the time being I've summarily stopped reading vampire books - but maybe I'll try, later, someday, to read them.


I have also added a post for The Romance Reader's Top 109 Romance Novels, and included in that which ones appear on both lists, and which ones I have read. I, uh, actually plan to include any on that list that do not appear on this one to my quest.

UPDATE January 2009 : it occurred to me to add the links to my own reviews here on the blog. Duh! So I'm working on it, however, I did read several of them before I started the blog and don't have reviews.