Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie (2004)

As I mentioned in my October 18 blog post (read it here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1bq ), I recently checked out a small stack of romance novels after listening to a podcast about the genre. The novel Bet Me was one of those recommended.

Bet Me is a contemporary romance novel that follows a few short weeks in the life of Minerva Dobbs, a self-described “chubby girl” who has been unlucky in love, something her friends attribute to her risk-averse nature and her mother attributes to her refusal to stop eating carbs. As the story opens, Minerva is being dumped by a mediocre boyfriend and is outraged that she dedicated so much time and attention to man who — it is now clear — thought very little of her.

When she tells her two closest friends of her humiliating break-up, they immediately urge her to throw caution to the wind and approach the man standing across the crowded bar and ask him on a date. That man, Calvin Morrisey, is a rich, gorgeous man with a dubious reputation for dating and dumping lots and lots of women.

While the women are betting Min that she doesn’t have the guts to approach Cal, Cal’s friends are simultaneously urging him to pick up (and try to sleep with) frumpy, cold Minerva. So the suave heart-breaker and the frigid ball-breaker leave the bar together, and over the course of their first dinner together find a spark between them that neither expected.

Curious by his pursuit of her but determined to keep her distance from his charms, Minerva decides to play along with Cal’s seductions. This is mainly (she tells herself) so that she will have a date for her sister’s wedding. Meanwhile, Cal finds himself pleasantly surprised to be challenged by Min’s brains and her seeming disinterest in his attentions and finds that he just cannot leave her alone.

As the novel progresses, Cal and Min don’t give the bet that brought them together too much thought…they are too busy falling in love. Their ups and downs largely the result of their fear of allowing themselves to be vulnerable with one other. After all, Min assumes, Cal will just break her heart like he has countless others, women she believes to be far prettier, thinner and more desirable than her. Cal, for his part, has covered up some deep self-esteem issues with causal relationships and finds that Min is breaking down those walls.

The end result as a fast-paced, up-beat, funny romance novel about a unlikely bet igniting a steamy romance. I enjoyed it quite a lot.

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott (2016)

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“That’s what parenthood was about, wasn’t it? Slowly understanding your child less and less until she wasn’t yours anymore but herself…a girl who kept so much inside.”

All of Megan Abbott’s novels have a tense undercurrent to them, a sustained unease that permeates them from beginning to end, so that readers cannot help but read feverishly, hoping that the next page — the next conversation, the next chapter — reveals one more sliver of the story.

You Will Know Me is perhaps the most wonderful example of that mastery of suspense. From the opening pages, it is clear that the author is presenting these specific events to us because they are crucial to understanding the story that is unfolding, but she does not reveal why they are important…that she requires her readers to unearth for themselves. The story is only partially revealed throughout the novel. The novel’s characters are all constantly telling one another lies — or at the very least cloaked, half-truths — so that some of what they reveal leads readers astray, but some bring us closer to the ending; always only one small step at at time.

Telling the story of the Knox family, You Will Know Me introduces readers to the intensely competitive world of Olympics-level girls gymnastics. The exploration of this largely unknown community — the intense practices, the injuries, the jealousy, the costs it exacts on its gymnasts and their families — serves as the back-drop for an accidental death that may or may not relate to the Knox’s.

At the novel’s center is Devon Knox, a supremely talented gymnast who is preparing for her last possible chance at a spot on the US National team. Not only is Devon under pressure from relentless practices and strategy sessions, her entire family — mother Katie, father Eric and brother Drew — are also weighed down by the demanding preparations.  It is Katie who narrates to readers Devon’s path to toward gymnastic super-stardom and the oversized toll it has taken on them all. Katie presents a family that has committed everything to Devon’s success: house crumbling and mortgaged to the hilt; work lives stymied; their younger son largely ignored; their marriage built almost exclusively on supporting Devon. At the start of the novel, readers find the Knox family weary and run-down from the demands of gymnastics, “all their duties hung like heavy raiment over then all of the time.”

Adding the the emotional toll of Devon’s competition preparations are the rumors and jealousies that swirl around her and her success: other gymnasts nasty and undermining, other parents suspicious of her talent and hoping to reveal her secrets to their own daughters. When rumors reach Katie and Eric about Devon, they largely brush them off as part of this constant undercurrent of resentment. Both of her parents believe they know all there is to know about their daughter; that all she thinks about is gymnastics and all that occupies her thoughts is competition. When a young man who works at the gym is killed in a hit-and run accident, Devon’s parents — indeed all of the parents in the story — must confront the fact that their children all keep parts of their lives hidden.

The stress of the murder and its subsequent investigation begin to tear apart first the tenuous camaraderie of the gym and ultimately the relationships between all of the members of the Knox family. All four of them are keeping secrets from one another and from the police and they all become desperate to extract themselves from the case so that they can, once again, pursue only one thing…Devon’s spot on the Olympic team.

As in all of her novels, Abbott explores at length how risky it is for anyone — parent, spouse, sibling — to think they know another’s secrets. Readers follow along as the Knox family struggles to come to terms with the lies they have all been telling one another and as they decide just how many lies they are willing to tell the rest of the world in order to protect their investment in Devon.

“Isn’t it a strange day when you realize you have no idea what’s going on in your kid’s head? One morning you wake up and there’s this alien in your house. They look like your kid, sound a little like them, but they are not your kid. They’re something else that your don’t know. And they keep changing. They never stop changing on you.”

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (1998)

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This week I was faced with hours of errands and chores that needed to get done now that Fall, and the start of the holiday season, has arrived: end-of-summer yard-work, basement clean outs, swapping out the summer clothes and linens for colder weather items, and so on. In order to make the process more pleasant, I decided to download an audio-book onto my phone so listen to while I worked.

At book club on Monday, we had a brief but lively discussion about humorous books and how enjoyable they are to listen to, and Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods was mentioned as a perennial favorite. Knowing that it would be the perfect book to listen to while I completed my chores, I downloaded it immediately.

A Walk in the Woods is a wonderfully funny book chronically the adventures of author Bill Bryson while he attempts to walk from Georgia to Maine, following the Appalachian Trail. Being out of shape and under-prepared does not daunt Bryson, who sets out with a childhood friend (who in even more out of shape and ill-prepared) in early March on Springer Mountain in Georgia, the start of the 2000+ mile long hike.

Immediately things go horribly, hysterically wrong for the two men — bears, food shortages, terrible fellow hikers, snow storms and more — but they continue on their journey, with Bryson dutifully reporting their experiences as they go. I laughed out loud constantly at the hilarious situations the men find them selves in, with the author’s wonderful writing bringing the book  alive with its attention to detail and description.

While the book is, in part, a memoir recording Bryson’s hike, it is so much more than that. Included alongside the stories of his personal experiences are fascinating lessons on history, geology, and biology of the Appalachian Trail. Bryson’s research brings to life the people who inspired the trail’s creation, the people charged with protecting it for future generations, and the people who hike along it (and sometimes those live alongside it).

Overall a gem of a book which really shines with its humor and warmth, one that lends itself perfectly to the audio-book format.

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Holiday Pleasures Series by Theresa Romain

Holiday Pleasure series, Book #1 Season of Temptation (2011) and Book #2 Season of Surrender (2012)

Last week, at just the time that I was growing a bit weary of my blood, guts, and murder-heavy stories that I read so many of each October, I stumbled upon an old podcast on my phone that reviewed and discussed romance novels. After listening to the podcast, I came away with a renewed interest in picking up a romance novel or two to balance out my thrillers, as well as a list of new romance author’s to read.

Here is the link to the podcast, Pop Culture Happy Hour http://www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/2015/06/05/411989347/pop-culture-happy-hour-the-romance-novel-special

Like most girls, some of the first adult books that I read were historical romance novels, which were filled with young innocent women and decidedly less innocent Dukes and Counts who set out of ravish the women but fall in love with them instead. In my adulthood, I read very few romance novels and almost all of them are modern (my favorites include Jojo Moyes, Elin Hilderbrand, and Liane Moriarty) but after listening to the podcast I decided to rediscover my roots. I downloaded the first two books in Theresa Romain’s Holiday Pleasures series and read them both in two days.

Both Season of Temptation and Season of Surrender are classic British, Regency-era romance novels, following all of the recognizable troupes I loved as a teen. Young marriageable women who need to make a good match are sent to London to find suitable (rich) husbands in order to help their families stay financially afloat. Enter a rakish, handsome wealthy Count (or Duke or Earl) who sets out to make his own marriage match. Along the way, the young lady and the charming Count find themselves falling in love.

Although her books are not covering new ground or shaking up the genre, they are sweet, simple stories about romance, passion, and love: enjoyable to read but not especially ground-breaking in their content. As I was reading, however, it occurred to me that the ongoing popularity of historical romance novels — in light of the fact that almost everything that can be said has been said — might in large part be due to the fact that they are rather proper and chaste. Cloaked as they are in complex gender expectations and even more complex — and largely unspoken — social norms, these romances must unfold very slowly, with very little physical contact between the lovers, and often with the constant presence of family members and chaperones to ensure the couple is following the rules. This stands in stark contrast to modern depictions of love, romance, and sex, which — in our post-Fifty Shades of Grey world — are increasingly explicit and becoming more and more a part of everyday, popular culture. What a relief it can be to read a story in which hand-holding and innuendo-laden conversations can once again be titillating…no whips or costumes required.

Season of Temptation (Book One)

Young step-sisters Julia Herrington and Louisa Oliver are the oldest two daughters of an important but not exceedingly wealthy family, both of whom are expected by their parents to have season in London and return engaged to a wealthy nobleman. When Louisa returns from her year in London engaged to the gorgeous Viscount James Matheson, her sister Julia is not only shocked at their rapid engagement but dismayed to find herself deeply attracted to him.

James also feels great pressure to marry a suitable woman in order to distract his wealthy London peers of a scandal involving his older sister. However, during his stay with Louisa and her family, James also feels drawn to Julia.  James is an honorable man and is determined to follow rules of etiquette and proceed with his plans to marry Louisa…even though it means he must keep his growing feelings for her sister at bay.

Both Julia and James want to do the right thing and neither wants to hurt Louisa or embarrass their families, but they also realize that they must try to find a way to marry one another…even if decorum must be disregarded for the sake of love.

Season for Surrender (Book Two)

Of the two novels, this book is decidedly better written and more enjoyable of the pair. The author has gone a bit further to round out the characters and introduce more believable conflict and tension into the story.

Once again it is Christmas, and this year finds our engaged but then set-aside sister, Louisa Oliver, growing weary of living the spinster’s life alongside her blissfully happy sister Julia and Julia’s new husband, James. When she is issued an invitation to attend a two-week holiday party at the home of a Earl known for his debauchery and wild parties, she convinces an elderly aunt to chaperone her for the duration. As a gift to herself, Louisa desperately wants to thrown off her reputation as being a bookish wallflower and to take part in something slightly more wild…but still within the bounds of propriety.

On her first night at the country estate of Lord Xavier, she learns that her invitation to the party was issued as a wager between Xavier and his unsavory cousin, who wanted to bring the most plain and dowdy spinster they knew to the party and to see if they could convince her to take part in the some of the more improper fun on offer. Rather than being chased off by this news, Louisa decides it is just what she needs to learn to loosen up and have some thrilling experiences before she is sent back home to live out her days as an old maid.

As expected, Lord Xavier and Louisa feel an instant attraction to one another and find that each is more complex and more interesting than the other believed. Under his posturing as a rich party-boy, the Earl is a thoughtful, sensitive man. And under her cloak of prim, disapproving spinster, Louisa is a woman eager for adventure and passion.

As they explore their budding feelings for one another, they must still remain within the bounds of propriety (such as they are at a party taking place far in the country to allow the guests to shed some of their rigid social rules) in order to protect Louisa from a scandal that would make her completely ineligible for marriage.

NOTE: The covers of these books are decidedly “bodice-ripper,” so I downloaded them all on the IPad.

Dare Me by Megan Abbott (2012)

Dare Me is an in-depth and deeply disturbing look into the complex social hierarchies of teenage girls, their cutthroat politics and ruthlessness often making them simultaneously best friends and worst enemies. At the center of their universe is their queen bee: the most ruthless and reckless of them all, a girl whom the others are both terrified of and desperate to befriend. As if caught up in her spell, the girls grant the queen bee a terrifying amount of control over their lives: taking her abuse and accepting her challenges, all for a chance to be pulled into her inner circle. “Queen of the hive. Don’t mess with the queen.”

The story told in Dare Me focuses on a high-school cheerleading squad, a group of gorgeous young girls drunk with their power: a mix of popularity, sex appeal, and exclusivity. At their helm is their hard-as-nails Captain, Beth Cassidy, whose wildness sets the tone for the entire squad. At Beth’s side for years is Addy, the story’s narrator and Beth’s “Lieutenant,” always up to harass the other girls or stay out late drinking and taunting lustful boys. Hardly anyone dares cross Beth and Addy — certainly not other girls, not even adults — and they both revel in their freedom to be as wicked as they please.

Enter Colette French, the school’s new cheerleading coach and former Queen Bee of her own teenage life. She is young, beautiful, and tough: the girl’s on her squad are immediately enamored with her and her glamorous seeming life. In hardly no time, Coach French has maneuvered herself into the power position, dethroning Beth of her team captaincy, her head-girl status, and her best friend, Addy.

The girls are all frantic with longing for their adult lives to begin, spending their time trying on behaviors the associate with growing up: drinking stolen bottles of vodka, popping their mother’s pills, and tempting men with their new-found sexiness.

“Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girls needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something — anything — to begin….We are all waiting, wanting things we don’t understand. Thing we can’t even name. The yearning so deep like pinions over our hearts.”

Colette offers to the girls on the squad a place to try on their grown-up selves; hosting them for parties at her home where she doles our cigarettes, diet pills, and wine…sharing some of her secrets with the grasping girls. In return, Colette gets adulation and, more importantly, a chance to reconnect with her youthful self: before marriage and motherhood tamed her.

Soon, however, the adult world she has brought the girls into — especially Addy — grows all too real. Addy, longing to be claimed as Coach’s favorite, jumps into a wild, after-hours life that Colette begins to lead, discarding many of her own pursuits to play wing-man (and alibi) to her Coach.

Dethroned and wild with rage at her growing impotence, Beth channels all of her conniving into finding out Coach French’s secrets so that she can cost the woman her job at least, ideally her entire life. When she learns that Addy is a willing accomplice to Coach French’s double-life, Beth realizes she has the power to not only bring down Coach, but also to punish Addy for her disloyalty.

The author repeatedly refers to the girls in terms of their “witchiness,” and describing them as having power over one another and over others, especially men and boys, a power that often wield without understanding the consequences. Selfish and self-absorbed with themselves — keeping their tiny bodies tiny and their boyfriends interested — the girls on the cheerleading squad fail to see any of the potential pitfalls that might ensnare them. Their coach is also blinded: her desire to recapture her youth and the power she feels having the girls in her thrall blind her to the risks she is taking with their lives.

The author creates a creepy, realistic world in which young and beautiful girls play fast and loose with their bodies and with their very lives. A truly wonderful and haunting novel.

Apprentice in Death by JD Robb (2016)

In Death series, Book #43

Lt. Eve Dallas and her team of cops are back for their forty-third case in Apprentice in Death, this time working to stop a serial killer sniper who shoots the — seemingly random — victims from miles away. Using a combination of police work and a whole lot of hi-tech software and gear, Eve Dallas and her cohort quickly find a link between some of the victims and, from there, begin to narrow in on two possible suspects. Complicating the search, however, is the apparent involvement of a teenager in the crimes. The cops must question whether or not such a young person could be a willing participant in so many killings…or worse, be the primary perpetrator.

This novel, like the forty-two that proceed it in the In Death series, blends futuristic science fiction elements with those of the classic police procedural. Dallas and her team collect evidence at a break-neck pace and in record time have a suspect and a motive. All that is left is for the team to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

Although I am a fan of Nora Roberts and JD Robb books, I cannot help but feel that this series is growing just a tiny bit stale. While the cases the author has dreamed up continue to be thought-provoking and exciting, the formulaic way in which the cases are pursued and solved seem very, very familiar. Just as in all her  previous cases, Dallas is able to solve the case and bring it to a close in record time and with little effort. While I understand that part of the charm of book series is their repetitive nature, I cannot help but wish that Robb would bring in some fresh characters, a new locale, or even a harder case for the team to crack.

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson (2008)

Jackson Brodie PI Series #3. Reviews of books #1 and #2 can be found here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-cS and here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-15Z

“What he had felt for most of his life was that he was living on in the aftermath of a disaster, in the endless postscript of time that was his life following the murder of his sister and the suicide of his brother. He had drawn those terrible feelings inside himself, nourished them in solitary confinement until they formed the hard, black nugget of coal at the heart of his soul, but now the disaster was external, the wreckage was tangible, it was outside the room he was sleeping in.”

“You’re going the wrong way,” a causal comment from a woman on the roadside made to Jackson Brodie has a profound, prophetic effect on the man and his life in the days and weeks that follow. As if the stranger had cast a spell on him, Jackson boards a train that speeds him not toward his London home and his new life there, but toward Edinburgh, the city he had fled three years prior after becoming involved in a series criminal investigations. Upon entering the Edinburgh train station, the train crashes, killing hundreds and leaving Brodie with little memory of his recent past.

The train crash has a profound effect not only on Brodie, but on all of the characters in the book, scattering them as if they are bowling pins and tearing apart their stories and completely re-threading them, tying them to one another in ways none of them could have predicted.

There is Louise Monroe, the gritty police Detective whom Brodie met briefly during his stay three years earlier: drawn into the story as a first responder to the crash (who does not see Brodie’s dramatic rescue by a young girl) and later when a just-released, convicted murderer of a local woman’s family goes missing in the crash and again even later when Brodie’s young rescuer, a teen named Reggie, calls Louise to report that her boss is missing. Reggie’s boss, it turns out, is the very woman — named Joanna Hunter — that Louise fears the missing murderer has set out to find.

As if that does not complicate the plot enough, the story of young Reggie is also deeply tied to the crash. Recently orphaned by both her mother and her mentor, her closet ties are to her boss, to whom she feels a deep connection. A witness of the train disaster, Reggie is one of the first to arrive at the site and it is her CPR skills that save Brodie. When Detective Louise Monroe refuses to look into Joanna Hunter’s disappearance, Reggie tracks down a confused and severely injured Brodie as asks, in repayment for her CPR ministrations, Brodie to help her find Joanna.

As the story unfolds, the pieces of several cases begin to tie all of the characters into tighter and tighter relation with one another. Soon the murder of Joanna’s family, her disappearance, the missing murderer, the train crash, and the fates of Brodie, Reggie, Louise, and Joanna become one intertwined story.

Filled with Atkinson’s trademark deep character developments and with her teasing manner of leaving readers only small bread crumbs, one at a time, about the mystery and about the characters in it. Those elements combine with her poetic prose to create an ending that will keep you guessing until the final pages.