Lots and lots of book reviews

One of the nice things about taking a cruise is that I have time to read. This trip, I was able to get a lot of free books, with the understanding that I would review them. So, without further ado, my reviews:

Romances

Love Overdue, by Pamela Morsi.  On the one hand, this was a stock romance:  Dorothy Jarrow (DJ), a buttoned-up young woman planning on being a librarian, let’s lose on a vacation and has a fling with a “hot” guy.  Several years later, when she moves to a small town to run the library, she discovers that Scott, her landlady’s son is that same young man.  Because DJ is embarrassed about that uncharacteristic fling, and because she assumes Scott is a player, she’s delighted when he doesn’t recognize her.  Scott, on the other hand, is not a player, but he’s put off by DJ’s manifest discomfort around him. The rest of Love Overdue is about DJ’s and Scott’s growing attraction to each other, helped along by a gossipy small town, and a charmingly meddling landlady.

As you can tell, Love Overdue doesn’t deviate from the romance script.  The thing is, though, that all romances stick to the script.  Without it, they’re not romance novels.  The difference between one romance and another doesn’t lie in the story arc, which, subject to the applicable gimmick, is always the same.  Instead, the differences lie in (a) writing quality; (b) character development; and (c) believability.  Love Overdue scores high on all three metrics.  While Morsi is no Shakespeare or even a Jane Austen, she’s a solid, grammatically correct author who hits the right note when it comes to the delicate balance between description, dialogue, and the character’s interior monologues.  I especially like the way DJ and Scott are nice people, who live in a fully realized, but not overly done, community that feels real.  DJ’s “uptightness” is a bit overplayed, because it’s necessary to the plot line, but Morsi does a skillful job of letting DJ unwind, even as Scott decides that, maybe, romance is in his future.

For romance lovers, I recommend Love Overdue.

***

Against the Mark (The Raines of Wind Canyon), by Kat Martin.  One of the things that savvy romance novelists learn to do is to build on previous novels, by having each novel feature a different friend or family member.  Years ago, while on vacation somewhere, I got hold of one of Kat Martin’s early books in the series and enjoyed it.  Martin’s writing is anything but simplistic, but she had all the right ingredients:  tough, beautiful woman who needs help from a tough, gorgeous man.  The plot, dialog, and character were all decent.  I ended up reading a few more of her novels and, while I wouldn’t rave about them, I enjoyed them.

Against the Mark, however, didn’t work for me.  The plot isn’t bad:  gorgeous woman hires gorgeous, strong man to help her reach closure by proving that her father, from whom she was estranged didn’t die accidentally but was, instead, murdered.  For some reason, though, Martin’s writing grated on me this time around.  I felt as if she was writing on autopilot.  She didn’t seem interested in her characters.  Instead of writing witty or intelligent dialog, she fell back into the lazy writer’s habit of having someone say something inane or ordinary, and having the other character think “Wow, she’s so brilliant (or charming or witty).”  Good writers don’t use such cheap tricks.  Rather than instructing us repeatedly about their character’s virtues,they actually let us see those virtues played out in real time.

I haven’t given up on Kat Martin, because I think she’s a solid genre writer.  I just wouldn’t bother reading this particular book in her Raines of Wind Canyon series.

***

Three Little Words, by Susan Mallery.  Susan Mallery writes some of the best dialog in the romance novel business.  Her female and male leads are incredibly good at repartee.  As the plot requires, they’re funny, insightful, loving, seductive, or romantic.  I could read a whole book made up solely of Mallery’s by-play between her lead characters. Sometimes, though, no matter how good the dialog and romance, the rest of the book can drag down the story.

Mallery used to write trilogies:  books about three sisters, or three friends, or three brothers.  Lately, though, all of her romances are set in the fictional town of Fool’s Gold, which is located in the California foothills.  In the first few Fool’s Gold novels, Mallery’s gimmick was that Fool’s Gold was a town that had ended up with a preponderance of women, making romance a rare and special thing.

In recent novels, though, Mallery simply places her plots in the imaginary town of Fool’s Gold.  To that end, all of her Fool’s Gold books have recurring characters, some of whom were the leads in past novels and some of whom will clearly be the leads in future novels.  This repetition can actually be a very nice quality in a romance novel, because it presents a fully-realized fictional universe.  However, if a writer gets lazy and forgets to explain who all the various recurring characters are, it can become very frustrating, even for someone who has read some or all of the past books.  As a reader, you find yourself reading through pages and pages of dialogues between people who clearly know each other, but to whom you don’t remember being introduced.  I kept feeling as if I was at a cocktail party, trying to catch up with an ongoing conversation between people a group of people whom I barely know.

Three Little Words is the perfect example of both Mallery’s strengths and her weaknesses.  I loved the romance between Isabel, a woman temporarily managing her grandmother’s wedding dress store even as she prepares to open a high end fashion store in New York, and Ford, a former Navy SEAL who has returned to his home town.  The two have known each other for years, since Isabel’s sister jilted Ford.  Isabel, who had a teenage crush on the slightly older Ford, wrote him letters over the years while he was away in the military.  Ford never responded, but the letters form a bond that allows the two to start a pretend romance to get Ford’s marriage-minded mother off his back.  Both Isabel and Ford (especially Ford) are people I would enjoy meeting, simply for the pleasure of their conversation.

If only the rest of the book was as good.  It’s not bad, mind you.  It’s just not as good.  The first page skipper is a kind-of boring romance between Ford’s math-teacher brother and Ford’s military-hardened colleague.  Even if you track that romance, you may just want to skip the endless dialog between Isabel and her friends.  Most of it doesn’t advance the plot, and it’s just not as much fun as spending time with Isabel and Ford when they’re on their own.

So, I recommend this novel highly for the central romance, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself skimming a lot of the pages that aren’t central to the main romance.

***

Fantasy

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, by Emily Croy Barker.  This book crept up on me.  When I started reading it, the plot (dissertation student dumped by boyfriend who’s about to marry someone else) left be assuming it would be another ordinary romance, maybe with a little witchcraft thrown.  I assumed that the heroine would get revenge against her boyfriend or find Mr. Wonderful.  That, however, was not what happened.  Instead, the book really begins when Nora Fischer wanders away from a rather depressing wedding to find herself the darling of an A-list crowd garden party — and it turns into a party that never seems to end.  Nora is reinvented as a gorgeous woman, married to an even more gorgeous man, living an enviable social whirl.

But all is not as it seems, and Nora finds herself plunging into an ever darker world, inhabited by ordinary people, fairies, and warlocks.  I am not exaggerating when I say that I couldn’t put this book down.  The plot was never predictable, but always satisfying.  The characters were fascinating and seemed like real people.  Nora was indeed a thinking woman who intelligently dealt with the completely unforeseen challenges that kept coming her way.  I’m scared to say anything more about the plot, lest I give too much away.  Suffice to say that it was imaginative, but sufficiently grounded in the characters’ very real personalities, so that it never bogged down into silliness.

I was actually surprised how much I liked this book, because I really don’t like the whole magic/fantasy romance genre.  Too many of them draw their inspiration from the Twilight series, with moody vampires struggling to protect their whiny heroines from fellow vampires who lack that loving feeling.  Bleh.  The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic is not one of those dreary Twilight derivatives.

If you’d like an imaginative take on an ordinary woman’s journey into a magical world, I recommend The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic.

***

History

History’s Greatest Scandals: Shocking Stories of Powerful People, by Ed Wright.  I’m not sure why this book was available on a review website, since it was written in 2006, but I enjoyed it nevertheless, and am happy to throw it a kind word.  This book, which was originally published in Australia, contains a (very) few factual errors, but is otherwise a straightforward and enjoyable series of short chapters detailing all sorts of famous scandals involving famous people.  The author covers political misconduct (Did Thomas Jefferson have an affair with Sally Hemings?); murder in high places (Was Catherine the Great a husband killer?); false prophets (what would a scandal book be without Jim and Tammy Fay Bakker?); dugitives (anyone remember Lord Lucan?); and much more.  This is the kind of book you can dip into when you’re waiting for a bus, or just want to read for a few more minutes before sleep overtakes you.  Of course, it’s also the kind of book that, with its bite-sized chapters, leads you on until you discover you’ve missed your bus or read all night.

Bottom line:  an enjoyable light read that takes you dancing through the sordid side of the history of famous people.

Autobiography

What’s So Funny?: My Hilarious Life, by Tim Conway.  Tim Conway’s book was exactly what you’d expect from Tim Conway:  it’s a light, charming read, written by a talented blithe-spirit who never met someone he didn’t like.  If you’re looking for sordid revelations about Tim or the comedy geniuses with whom he worked (Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, etc.), you are looking at the wrong book.  Tim sees himself as an “everyman”
who fortuitously could make people laugh and who ended up having wonderful experiences because of that.

Tim describes growing up in a half Irish (his father), half Romanian (his mother) household.  His entire family consisted of these two, slightly eccentric, but lovable and loving people.  One of the gifts they gave him was that they were anything but helicopter parents.  He had a simple, wholesome, all-American upbringing, without being burdened with too many expectations, or the overwhelming parental focus that is often the lot of the only child.  To hear Tim tell it, he was born well-adjusted, but with a strong sense of humor.

I would have preferred the book if it had a bit more gossip about the many fascinating people Tim met throughout his lengthy show business career.  Not mean or sordid gossip, but just a few more stories that bring alive the great comics and actors of the past.  Tim reserves that narrative depth only for Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman, both of whom come off as wonderful people.

What’s So Funny doesn’t rank as a great show business autobiography.  Tim Conway is just too diffident and self-effacing for that.  It is, however, a light, lively jaunt through one very funny man’s life.

I actually have several more books that I still have to read. I blush to admit that they’re the more “serious” books. I just couldn’t seem to bend my mind to anything but light reading while on vacation. Apparently my brain needed a vacation too.  And to end on a light note, one of the most brilliant Tim Conway/Harvey Korman sketches ever:

 

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  • Ellen

    Book, Pamela Morsi wrote a romance years ago titled <B>Simple Jess</B> that was set in the Ozarks back in the late 1800s.  A young widow is left a very large and prosperous farm by her late husband and the community decides that she needs to get married again.  Her choice is Jesse Best, a strong and kind young man who is slightly brain damaged when his birth was prolonged.  It’s incredibly sweet and I have never read a romance quite like it.   Morsi wrote quite a few Americana romances in her early career, <B>Wild Oats</B>, <B>Garters</B> and <B>Courting Miss Hattie</B> are others.

  • jj

    You go on a cruise and read, and you have the nerve to laugh at me and my partner using Maui as a place to work?  Ha!