Monthly Archives: April 2014

Great Storytelling Transcends Genre: A Review of SEA OF LOVE by Melissa Foster

SEA OF LOVE is book 7 of Melissa Foster’s Love in Bloom series (book 4 of The Bradens sub-series), and it is my favorite so far. The story revolves around marine biologist and shark enthusiast Dane Braden and Lacy Snow, a publicist who specializes in helping non-profits gain exposure and support. The pair met at a family wedding three books back. Now we learn that they’ve been in touch via email and Skype for months. They finally meet in person again on Cape Cod at the wedding of Dane’s older brother. Both of them are as anxious as they are excited. Each has a reason to worry. Dane fears his promiscuous past will come back to haunt him, and Lacy worries that her shark phobia will sink their burgeoning relationship.

Sea of Love (Love in Bloom, #7, The Bradens, #4)

Sea of Love

Two factors make SEA OF LOVE a standout in an ocean of contemporary romance novels. First, Dane and Lacy are both fully rounded characters with sturdy back stories and believable quirks. Foster arranges for us to know them first as individuals and then as “hero” and “heroine.” Not only do both characters change over the course of the book, the alteration is halting and uneven, just the way real people might experience personal transformation.

The second factor contributing to the books success is Foster’s ability to set her scenes. Her Cape Cod is so well drawn, I could smell the briny aroma and feel the warm sand between my toes. The chapters on Dane’s boat were also completely realistic with enough sensory detail to bring them to life without slowing down the pace or interrupting the narrative. The careful selection of detail also helped build tension in the shark-related sections. I shared both Dane’s fascination with these creature, and Lacy’s dread as she faced her biggest fear.

As for the sensual sizzle that Foster’s books have become known for…The erotic scenes left me blushing for sure, but they didn’t overwhelm the story.

An all-around great read.

An Uncommon Pleasure: A Review of the film soundtrack BRIGHT STAR

 

While I came to enjoy this soundtrack a great deal, I admit that the unconventional format took me by surprise. Rather than simply giving us the musical score of the movie BRIGHT STAR, this recording combines music, dialogue, and Keats’ poetry, distilling them into a short but moving program. We start with “Negative Capability,” an instrumentally backed conversation between Ben Whishaw (John Keats) and Abbie Cornish (Fanny Brawne) about the nebulous nature of poetry. This piece might also be taken as instruction to the listener about how to approach the rest of the CD–not necessarily with a destination in mind, but in a spirit of expansion and possibility.

The selections that follow demonstrate how melody, speech, and rhythm can come together and create an almost three-dimensional sensory experience that transports the listener INTO the film. I felt like an invisible entity listening in on Keats and Brawne. Particular high points include, “The Human Orchestra,” an amazing vocal arrangement that sends chills down my spine every time I hear it, and actor Ben Whishaw’s readings of Keats’s poems “La Belle Dam Sans Merci” and “Ode to a Nightingale,” understated performances that resonate with emotion.

So, although this soundtrack is not quite what I expected when I decided to purchase it, I am glad that I gave it a chance.

The Problem of Pacing: A Review of FRIENDSHIP ON FIRE by Melissa Foster

It took a couple of books for me to warm up to Melissa Foster’s Love in Bloom series. This is probably because I started with the second book. FRIENDSHIP ON FIRE is the sixth book, and the third one of the sub-series, The Bradens. Riley Banks is a young designer who never thought she’d get her big break until childhood friend Josh Braden, now a hot New York fashion designer, sees her portfolio and invites her to join his firm. There’s a long-standing (though unacknowledged) attracted between the two, but Riley is determined to set aside her personal interest in Josh and focus on building her career, which won’t be easy with a conniving mentor who is out to undercut her at every turn. Despite Riley’s best intentions, she and Josh do begin a relationship, but the course of true love isn’t easy when the paparazzi dog your every move and then you’re accused of stealing another designer’s work.

Friendship on Fire (Love in Bloom #6, The Bradens, #3)

Friendship on Fire

The book starts out wonderfully. Riley is funny and vulnerable. Her feelings of dislocation and anxiety about leaving her small Colorado town for the big city is a strong contrast to Josh’s position as a New York insider struggling to hold onto his simple roots. Josh yearns for authenticity in his life–especially in his personal relationships–but his environment promotes the exact opposite. Yet, he’s too dedicated to his career to leave behind the bright lights and shallow people. Josh and Riley find each other and the result is plenty of steam and excitement…for the first third of the book. It’s at this point that the internal stuff–angst, second-guessing–begins to weigh down the story. Josh and Riley have so many heart-to-hearts that the pacing suffers, and the reader is left waiting for “something” to happen. Luckily, plenty does happen. The final third of the book rages ahead with Riley floored by accusations that, if not countered, will kill her career before it starts, and Josh frantic to prove her innocence.

I love that Josh is given some serious weaknesses–and is aware of them. He struggles to accept that loving Riley may hurt a business he’s worked years to build and he’s not always sure it will be worth it. Riley is also a vivid, spirited character. Not the sort of person to stay down long–or beg for a man to love her. The villain is another great character. Claudia is cold, clever and manipulative. Foster makes her a true and unique threat rather than simply a plotting device.

So, while FRIENDSHIP ON FIRE isn’t my favorite book in Melissa Foster’s contemporary romance series, there’s a lot to appreciate.

Funny and Fashionable: A Review of RIPOFF by Morgan St. James and Caroline Rowe

Kimberly is a thirty-something high flying accountant with a great job, a killer wardrobe, and a hot young boyfriend. That is until the company she works for goes bust and her pretty-boy lover takes off with her bankbooks and most of her worldly possessions. Desperate to regain some stability, she gets a position as comptroller for a division of the government that oversees the production and sale of furniture made by inmates of the Federal prison system. At orientation she meets Cameron and Kate. Like Kimberly, they’ve tumbled (or been pushed) down the corporate ladder and have now signed on as regional sales reps for furniture operation. The geographical distance between the women doesn’t present a barrier to their growing friendship. Nor does it stop them from working together when Kimberly uncovers a massive embezzlement scheme. The trio uses all their skills–from computer knowledge to good cleavage–to entrap the thieves.

Ripoff

Ripoff

The action moves at a nice pace, and the characters are well conceived and interesting. Our heroines have some serious human frailties, which make the women easy to like and to root for. Of the three, Kate is probably the one that could have used just a little more fine-tuning. Cool cougar Kimberly and giggly, plastic surgery aficionado Cameron seriously outshine the somewhat reserved redhead. The novel’s villains are nasty and greedy, but the authors also give them plenty of vulnerability. I wanted to see them caught, but I also felt sorry for them.

One aspect of the book was a little rough…The authors obviously have a lot of firsthand knowledge of how this government furniture business works and how it could be exploited. I don’t think we the readers necessarily needed the level of detail provided. This is especially apparent when Kimberly shares information about the case with the other two women or with the authorities. The explanations get repetitive and weigh down the middle a bit. A little more summation would have smoothed out these bumpy spots and supported the overall tone of the story, which is light and bright.

In the end, though, RIPOFF: A FUNNY CRIME CAPER lives up to its title. It’s a quick, enjoyable read where the good triumph over the naughty and look good while doing so!

Fiction Makes a Wobbly Soapbox: A Review of RIGHTEOUS LIES by Patricia Watters

RIGHTEOUS LIES begins well. Grace Templeton is called for an unexpected meeting at her fertility treatment center. Rancher Jack Hansen, his twin brother and the brother’s wife are there as well. These are high-stakes pregnancies. Grace’s child was conceived using her late husband’s sperm. Jack Hansen has donated his sperm to his brother, who became sterile due to cancer treatments. The brother’s young son has a rare disease and needs a stem cell transplant from the closest possible match. You can probably guess the twist–there’s been a mix-up.

Righteous Lies (Dancing Moon Ranch, #1)

Righteous Lies

On one hand, Patricia Watters takes this potential soap opera and makes something interesting of it. Her characters are complicated and given strong back stories. The emotional tension is realistic. For example, Grace has no problem loving the child she’s carrying, even though it isn’t the one she expected. Jack’s sister-in-law isn’t as fortunate. She develops serious psychological issues that cause Grace to worry for the safety of her late husband’s son. It’s here that Watters begins to turn her romance novel into a clumsy “family values” platform. It isn’t enough that the sister-in-law has a bad reaction to carrying a stranger’s baby. Watters reveals that she’s actually a shallow, unstable flake. Why? Because she didn’t initially want children and expected her husband to deliver on his promise to help her open a fitness center. In Watters’s world career girls and owners of fitness centers are promiscuous Jezebels. Further, neither the diabolic sister-in-law nor another pivotal character (can’t share specifics due to spoilers) breastfed. In this novel, not breastfeeding is akin to child endangerment and a possible precursor to infanticide.

Watters “message” takes over the book to the point that Grace, who begins as fun, empathetic and engaging, is slowly transformed into a self-righteous shrew. She loses all of her gentleness, all of her compassion. Grace has two goals: save her late husband’s son from the crazy and selfish glamour girl and show Jack that she’s the domestic goddess who can heal the wounds left by his tragic past.

What bothers me about Watters’s approach is that it sinks a perfectly entertaining romance novel. Her setting is well crafted. Her dialog–when she lets her characters speak for themselves–is snappy and moves the narrative forward. This is why I gave the book three stars when I’d rather have given only two. I’m not saying that fiction can’t represent an author’s personal viewpoint. Nor do I believe fiction can’t be a vehicle for education. Novels can change the world…but not when employed as a sledgehammer. I’ve read novels categorized as family values, clean, religious or Christian and had wonderful experiences. It’s all in the telling. The stronger the message, the softer the touch.

RIGHTEOUS LIES isn’t a bad book, but I don’t plan on reading the rest of the series.

Pretty but Pallid: A Review of THE LAST CAMELLIA by Sarah Jio

I won THE LAST CAMELLIA in a Facebook giveaway and was pretty excited. The book’s description caught my interest and the book itself is beautifully designed. The story is constructed around a dual plot line. Apparently this literary device is a signature of author Sarah Jio. If so, I hope she tries something new with her next book, because between two main viewpoints taking place in two separate eras and the heady mix of genres (romance, historical, mystery, thriller)there was just too much going on for a book of only 300 pages.

The Last Camellia

The Last Camellia

The first story line takes place at the start of World War Two. Flora, the daughter of a financially strapped Brooklyn baker is also a keen amateur botanist. She’s recruited by a plant thief to infiltrate an English country estate and locate a rare camellia. During the voyage over, she strikes up a romance with a man who turns out to be the son of the estate’s owner. Once at the stately home, she becomes embroiled in the family’s personal drama and finds herself the target of a local serial killer. Forty years later, the second heroine, Addison, visits the property with her husband after his parents buy it. Addison just happens to be a landscape designer. And she just happens to have a nasty stalker who ends up following her across the Atlantic.

There’s a lot of coincidence in this book. Obviously, the author wanted the women’s lives to be eerily parallel. Unfortunately, due to a general lack of character development, the actual result is a situation that seems stilted and overtly engineered. Flora and Addison’s stories alternate, which would have been fine had there been fewer plot elements. As it is, the reader has no time to develop an emotional attachment to either protagonist, and the jumping back and forth in time happens so often that there isn’t enough time to build suspense. Of the two villains in the piece, the 1940’s serial killer is more integral to the narrative as a whole than Addison’s stalker, who becomes just an annoying distraction.

So, while I can see and appreciate the complex and sweeping vision Sarah Jio had for this book, she needed at least another fifty pages to fully realize it. At the current length, she should have told the entire story from Addison’s perspective and allowed us the opportunity to really get to know the character. Disappointed as I was, I’ll probably try another book by Jio. I guess that shows the power of packaging. Her covers make my mouth water. I only hope that next time the content is just as satisfying.

Two Points-of-View Not Always Better Than One: A Review of FINDING HOME by Aine Kelley

I received FINDING HOME from the author in exchange for an honest review.

The book begins well. Sam is a young college graduate who has suffered through a bad breakup and her only real support comes from her best friend and roommate. When her new job falls through, her friend’s family comes to the rescue and she travels from Boston to California to work at their winery. Ben is her roommate’s brother, who has lived through a tragic loss and is not quite sure how to move forward. He and Sam meet in person for the first time and sparks fly. The rest of the novel is about their struggle to leave their pasts behind and commit to one another.

Finding Home

Finding Home

When it comes to romance novels, I normally prefer books that stick to a single point-of-view. The issues I had with FINDING HOME highlight why this is the case. By alternating chapters between Sam and Ben, we know exactly how they feel at all times. This tends to undermine the romantic tension. The only mystery for the reader is when Sam will catch on to Ben’s real feelings or vice versa. Even so, we might still have enjoyed an entertaining read. The characters are certainly complicated enough and the emotion is genuine. The writing itself is skilled. But the author has her characters constantly think about their feelings and then repeat those thoughts in dialog almost word for word. This really weighs down the narrative in places and sucks the drama from what should be nail-biting scenes.

The author could also have taken more trouble with her setting. We’re in California wine country. Ben reveals to Sam his favorite spots on the vineyard. These are places that move him emotionally, but we get only a generic description before things move on to more long stretches of “I feel” talk and some foreplay. The sexual content itself seems overly choreographed. It made me wonder whether the author added a lot of it because she thought that’s what readers of New Adult fiction expect rather than allowing it to emerge organically via the characters’ interaction.

FINDING HOME has all the ingredients of a killer romance. Sam and Ben are great characters with rich back stories. The setting is potentially glorious. There’s plenty of opportunity for complication and misunderstanding to ramp up the tension. Ultimately, though, it just doesn’t deliver that punch to the gut I search for in my reading.

A Late Bloomer Seeks His Destiny in the Big City: A Review of IN THE SHADE OF THE MONKEY PUZZLE TREE by Sara Alexi

As of this writing, I haven’t read any of Sara Alexi’s earlier Greek Village novels. As a result, I can’t speak to how this may compare to the others or fits in to the collection as a whole.

In the Shade of the Monkey Puzzle Tree

In the Shade of the Monkey Puzzle Tree

IN THE SHADE OF THE MONKEY PUZZLE TREE takes place in the early 1970s. Theo is in his forties and works in his elderly father’s cafe in a small Greek town several hours away from Athens. Though it’s normal in Greek culture for an unmarried man to remain living with his parents, even into middle age, Theo is dissatisfied with his situation and the future that has been set out for him. He and his father butt heads often. Theo feels that the old man will forever see him as a child, and he yearns to make his mark somewhere outside his small town…in America or, at least, Athens. Finally unable to stand another achingly familiar day in his stifling little world, Theo pockets some of the cafe’s takings and hops a bus to Athens, where he quickly learns that the Adriatic isn’t any bluer on the other side of the Isle.

I won’t give away too many details about Theo’s belated coming of age, but the people and situations he comes up against provide much of the charm of the novel. Time and again his honesty and sense of fair play is tested, and he toys with the idea of throwing away scruples and morality and becoming part of the jaded world he’s chosen to inhabit. But once a man knows the right way to make a cup of Greek coffee–slowly, with care and deliberation–there’s no way to un-know it. Theo is what Theo is. The question becomes can the person he is thrive in the big city or should he head back home? Is going home even an option after the way he’s treated his father and the disillusionment he’s suffered in Athens?

Theo is a compelling character. For all that he spouts about not falling into his father’s rut, his own aspirations are quite modest and traditional. He wants to make a living and get married. This contradiction in what he does (run away seeking excitement and glamour) and what he wants (a quiet life) might make Theo ridiculous. What saves him is his own realization that his rebellion is not only a failure…but pointless. He’s ridiculous to himself. This combined with his genuine goodness is what makes him salvageable.

I did have a problem with the romance in the book. Theo falls hard and early but the girl is easily forgotten until he remembers her. To be fair, the author makes him suffer for his neglect of the poor girl. It turns out that he very well might have taken on more than he expected with this particular love interest. And the resolution–of the romance and of Theo’s mid-life crisis–is creative and satisfying.

IN THE SHADE OF THE MONKEY PUZZLE TREE is a warm, rich read. I plan to seek out other novels in the The Greek Village Collection.

Short and Scary: A Review of “Dive” by Kory M. Shrum

Short stories can be hard to review. How much can you say about a brief work without giving the whole thing away? Luckily Kory M. Shrum’s horror short “Dive” offers a lot to chew over.

Dive: a short story

Dive: a short story

The story jumps between “then” and “now.” This constant switching provides a neat counterpoint to the reality faced by Lou, Shrum’s complicated protagonist, whose strange gift might be termed “here and there.” I can’t say much more about this without seriously spoiling the fun. So, I’ll move on to Lou herself. When we first meet her, she’s a terrified child with no idea how to handle the secret that’s tearing up her existence. Her mother tries to empathize, but she really doesn’t understand Lou’s problem. She can’t. Lou’s father, however, understands all too well. Contrast this lost child to present-day Lou, a hardened, angry woman relentless in her pursuit of a vicious drug lord. Shrum takes us back and forth in time, filling in the life experiences that have transformed Lou from prey into predator.

In the end, the drug lord isn’t Lou’s biggest antagonist. She is. Lou has to decide what kind of person she wants to be. Watching as she makes this choice is the scariest part of the entire story. Considering what leads up to it, that’s saying a lot.

Lou and the world Shrum has created for her could easily carry a full-length novel or series of novels. I hope Shrum has plans in that direction. But even if she doesn’t, “Dive” stands strong all by itself.

Even a Murderer Can’t Overcome the Love of a Good Dog: A Review of LOST AND FOUND by Amy Shojai

September Day is an animal behavior expert and dog trainer who has recently returned home to Heartland, Texas after the deaths of her husband and beloved dog. Though we don’t learn the blow-by-blow details, it seems they were murdered by someone who had been stalking September over many years. This has left September a prisoner of her own fear–and of a home she’s remodeled into a virtual fortress. She lives a simple, quiet life with her cat Macy and hosts a pet advice show on the local radio. Unfortunately, the safe world September’s carved for herself tumbles down around her when her autistic nephew and his service dog are lost in a blizzard. She sets out to find a missing child and ends up embroiled in a medical drama that quickly spirals into murder.

Lost And Found

Lost And Found

Shojai does a great job of building tension with each chapter. Just when we think things can’t get any worse for September and those around her, it does. As the body count mounts, ties of family and friendship are strained beyond endurance. Everyone involved seems to have either a personal agenda or some secret they’ll do anything to protect. September, too, has something to hide, an event from her past even more traumatizing than the loss of her husband and pet.

While there’s plenty of edgy action in the novel, it is driven by character. Shojai’s human characters are all red blood and vinegar. No wimps here. Every one of them is capable of murder if pushed to it. The animal characters, especially Shadow the service dog, are well executed. Shojai gives us a glimpse into their doggy and kitty brains without descending into blatant anthropomorphism. It’s a fine line and Shojai shows some serious skill negotiating it.

The author’s strong grasp on her craft is also apparent in her setting. Even with all of the violence and suspense in the novel, Shojai creates a small town that seems real and, in its way, cozy. You want to visit it–and its quirky citizens–again and again.

If I had one point of contention with the author, it would be over September’s tendency to play the martyr. A fly gets caught in a spider web and September blames herself. Sure she’s carrying a heavy burden of grief and, we suspect, guilt. But her self-castigation can get annoying. There were one or two points at which I wanted to slap her and tell her to get over herself. Otherwise, LOST AND FOUND is a great book. As soon as I finished it, I was on Amazon downloading the next novel in the series.