Review: Threads of Desire by KM Jackson

There were surprisingly few unread books on my Kindle with less than 20 reviews, but Threads of Desire (Creative Hearts Book 3) by K.M. Jackson was one of them. I have not read the previous two books in the Creative Hearts series, but that didn’t matter. Threads of Desire works as a stand alone, but I suspect there are some Easter Eggs for those who have read the first two in the series.

I Threads of Desire is a contemporary romance with a friends to lovers trope and is the sort of story that can only take place in New York City, and I mean that in the best possible way. The heroine, Gabby, works in the fashion industry, and the hero, Nick, is in finance. The author, K.M. Jackson presents a lived in New York City that is realistic and reminds me of what I miss from the brief time I lived in the NYC area. The city was my second favorite character in the book, behind Gabby.

So often in the romance genre, the characters are all fabulously wealthy and successful, or at least the hero is. Part of my enjoyment in this book came from the characters’ professional struggles, which made them far more relatable than a billionaire-vampire-shiek. I particularly found myself drawn to Gabby, a curvy designer in the size zero fashion world. The author doesn’t reveal Gabby’s size and she doesn’t need to. I love that Gabby is happy and confident with who she is physically. She doesn’t need to lose weight to fit into some off the rack dress. Gabby makes her own style. The author’s description of design and fabrics seemed to come from a place of knowledge that ran deeper than watching a few episodes of “Project Runway.”  Threads of Desire tapped into the same awe I get when watching “Project Runway.” I may not be fashionable myself, but I love witnessing creativity at work. This book gave me a glimpse behind the curtain.

I didn’t love the hero in quite the same way as I did other aspects of the book. But all in all, this was an enjoyable by an author I’ll seek out again. I discovered I have another book by K.M. Jackson on my kindle, Bounce. The short tease for Bounce offered at the end of Threads of Desire has earned that book a promotion to the top of my to-be-read list once I’m through with the January Project. Bounce has a lot of great reviews already.

Review: The Boys of Summer by Sarah Madison

My first foray into gay romance brought to you by The January Project.

My alter ego won an ebook of  Sarah Madison’s The Boys of Summer during a month-long blog hop. I didn’t have to enter the contest, but the cover and description evoking World War II sucked me in. I’m so glad I’m a lucky girl.

In the modern day, David McIntyre, a Hollywood location scout, hires Rick Sutton of Sutton’s Air Service to fly him around Hawaii’s islands.  A storm forces Sutton to crash land on a deserted island as the two are nearing the end of their working relationship.  The two men take refuge in an abandoned World War II outpost and scavenge resources, battle the elements and injuries and try to attract the attention of potential rescuers before it is too late.

This is only part of the story. Roughly one third of the way into The Boys of Summer, the author introduces a lengthy dream sequence. For some people, this is a deal killer. In the past, I’ve been known to roll my eyes or worse put down a book with dream sequences lasting a page or two because they are irrelevant to the story. David dreams he and Sutton met and became romantically involved in London during World War II. About twenty pages in, the idea crossed my mind that it was a novella that could stand alone and apart from the contemporary frame, then the last third of the book, set once again in modern day Hawaii blew up that foolish conception.  The dream sequence becomes integral to David’s character arc and guides his actions. Major props to Sarah Madison for making a dream sequence that is worth reading AND relevant to the story.

I also commend the author for the judicious and effective use of detail. All too often in historical novels, superfluous detail describing the curtains or ruffles on a gown the sheen on a street take away from a character and deep point of view.  The reader sees both settings through David’s sharp eye.  He is a man who notices detail as a profession, but his commentary on what he sees is honest, never showing off.  Madison did her research and her accuracy shines as the RAF pilots discuss planes, but she never loses sight of her characters.

This is a character driven novel, in spite of having adventure scenes that would fit into one of the movies David loves. The male/male sex scenes are pretty tame compared to ones I’ve read in mainstream male/female romance and even sex scenes from literary works. I walked away with a sense of tenderness between partners rather than sex simply to titillate and push book sales.

All in all, I’m surprised how much I enjoyed this novel.  The Boys of Summer certainly exceeded my expectations, although in truth, I wasn’t sure what to expect other than “gay romance.” The beauty in this story and writing go beyond a subcategory.  I will seek out more of Sarah Madison’s writing in the future.

As always, I make no money by offering buy links but I want to offer them as part of The January Project to encourage book reviews.

Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Boys-Summer-Sarah-Madison-ebook/dp/B00CCUVR7G/ref=sr_1_4?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1390076079&sr=1-4&keywords=the+boys+of+summer

Barnes&Noble http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-boys-of-summer-sarah-madison/1115194648?ean=9781484135495

Review: Draculaville by Lara Nance

Next up on The January Project, Draculaville by Lara Nance.

Are you over vampires and ready to throw your kindle across the room next time read a heroine swoons at the sight of elongated teeth? Yeah, me too. I read Draculaville anyway based on my previous experience with indy author Lara Nance. By the end, I wanted to hug my little ereader and dance around the house singing “someone made vampires fun again” to a tune of my own invention.

The standard vampire is dark and broods over his (or her) lack of mortality, that is when they aren’t consuming blood and/or seducing everything on two legs. Some of Nance’s vampires do this, but the hero (and love interest) Drake isn’t your standard vampire.  Nance understands that as characters vampires have become victims of sorts of their own pop-culture success. They are too ubiquitous to be monsters. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Nance takes on familiar tropes of the vampire stories and pushes them to the next level in consumption. Huh? you ask.

Heroine Talia Quinton, an advertising exec, rescues her vampire, Drake, from a dark alley. Her head wasn’t working right after a bender over the career failure of being shut out of a big money advertising campaign and foisted onto a Romanian tourism project.  Her resident vampire inspires a new direction – vampire tourism. The pinnacle of the project will be an amusement park, Draculaville, where patrons will pay money to be chased by seductive “vampires” in costume under the shadow of a ruined Romanian castle.  Doesn’t this sound fun? I thought you’d agree.  Better yet, this is the first book in a trilogy so there is more cheeky fun to be had.  You can pick up book 1 (and 2 and 3) below

http://www.amazon.com/DraculaVille-I-Discovery-New-York-ebook/dp/B00APPJYN4/ref=sr_1_9?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1389299430&sr=1-9&keywords=lara+nance

Here’s my full disclosure – I received an ARC of Draculaville in exchange for honest review. I know the author personally and we have swapped works in progress in the past.  If I hated her book, trust me, I’d let her (and you) know.

My top reads of 2013

If you’ve followed me since inception, you know the routine, and you might need your head examined. For the rest of you, here’s the run-down.  Each year in December, I post the ten best books I’ve read all year, regardless of when the book first appeared in publication.  I consider ebooks, audio books and yes, paper books so long as I read them this calendar year.  And since a few days remain in 2013, I pledge I will only read crap the rest of the year so as to not ruin my list.

10. Flowertown by S.G. Redling — I had high expectations for this dystopian novel and this book met-if not surpassed- them. After a chemical disaster leaves an Iowa town in quarantine, the inhabitant yearn for freedom or at least answers. Ellie is a terrific anti-hero who must decide whether to continue a slow death or find a way to channel her rage at the true enemy.  As an FYI- There’s a lot of language in here – didn’t bother me but it may put off some readers and may explain why it hasn’t taken off like some other dystopian series aimed more at the young adult market.

9. If the Shoe Fits by Amber T. Smith — This updated Cinderella story features an evil ex-stepmother, a talking cat, a pair of memorable shoes, Mr. Charming and an even more charming heroine in Ella.    I love that Ella has a lot of self-confidence and can laugh at her own propensity for getting into awkward social situations. She is the type of gal who will make you laugh so hard to spit beer out your nose on girls night out.  There is a terrific sense of play in this book.  If you want serious literature, run the other direction.  This book is a light as air delightful bon-bon, but sometimes, that’s exactly what you need.

8. Mrs. Perfect by Jane Porter — Jane Porter did something I never thought was possible – she made a type A perfectionist super Mom human. Part of the appeal for me in this book stems from how well it meshed with book #2 on my list.  The heroines surely ran into each other somewhere along the way with bile and hilarity ensuing.

7. The Help by Kathryn Stockett — this is one of those books that will fuel conversations for years.  It’s not a perfect book, but memorable with winning characters you think about long after you close the covers.

6. Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea — I blogged about this book last week.  Click here to see why it made my best list.

5. The Time Between by Karen White — Not only is this a strange choice since it actually came out this year, but I haven’t met anyone else who has read it, which is weird and a shame.  I’ll be honest, if I’d seen it in a bookstore, I might have walked past it, but I received a complementary copy from the author at a writing conference and picked it up when a bunch of other books were in moving boxes.  I won’t spoil the mystery surrounding the great aunts, but will say if you enjoy Southern Fiction (it’s set in the Carolinas), or even stories that address familial guilt, pick up this book.  You can practically smell the sea breeze.

4. Confessions of a Prairie Bitch by Alison Arngrim — Embrace your inner Nellie Olsen – Alison did, but this book is so much more. Part Hollywood memoir, part feminist manifest, part overcoming horrors, you’ll learn about humanity and laugh so hard you might pee your wetsuit. (See – that’s why you need to read the book).

3. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker — Another young adult dystopian, but this one, I’d share with my 10 year old.  Unlike many dystopians that feature a world divided by have/have nots and marked by violence, this looks at transition time.  The earth’s rotation is slowing, the time between sunrise and sunset increases daily.  This almost poetic look at the banal during a life changing epoch reminds me of my fave nuclear holocaust film/series of the 1980’s Testament.

2. Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple — freakin’ hilarious and I admire the untraditional storytelling.

1. The Fault in our Stars by John Green — I finished this several months ago and words still fail me when I try to communicate the elegant, unapologetic beauty of this story of about teens with childhood cancer

So that’s it – what should I read next?

Review: Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye

Stefan Kiesbye’s haunting novel, Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone is well worth adding to your reading list.  At slightly under 200 pages, this slim book has much to say about guilt, memory and the burden of wrongs.  Kiesbye writes with a poet’s use of words.  The technical writing is outstanding and each word matters. In this sense he reminds me of one of my all time favorite writers Jennifer Johnston, author of the outstanding, if hard to find, Fool’s Sanctuary. Both write short with an economy of precisely used words.  The beauty with which Keisbye describes horrible awful things is a rare talent.

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Intrigued? The prologue begins with middle-aged adults attending the funeral of a childhood friend. The story then shifts gears and takes the reader back in time to when they were children. The chapters alternate narrators.  Often we get more than one perspective on a nasty event (think incest, rape, and murder both intentional and accidental).  Sometimes the reactions are immediate. Other times, years have passed and a character who was aged 7 during one episode is now a pre-teen or young adult.  We see how friendships unite and divide over shared memories of trauma.  There is plenty of guilt to go around and that is how this book relates to twentieth century German history.

Unlike the heavy-handed and nearly unbearable book B. Schlink’s The Reader (read my review here), Kiesbye interweaves the notions of collective guilt, perpetrators, victims, bystanders and sins of the fathers subtly throughout the book. Guilt and murder are so  interwoven in fabric of Devil’s Moor that the problems of the past are the problems of today, seamlessly, and for the characters in the book, without conscious thought.

Kiesbye treats his readers as intelligent human beings.  He doesn’t offer easy answers to the characters responsibility and duty to the past, just as there has been no clear and easy path for Germany to reconcile its present state and role with the horrors of the Nazi legacy.   In my opinion, Kiesbye’s book is par with any number of Gunter Grass’ work on a similar theme.

And if German History and memory and legacy aren’t your cup of tea, well then, read this book anyway.  It’s short, haunting and beautiful.

Let me know what you think…

Books for 7 to 9 yr olds

Some time back, a friend asked if I could recommend some books for a seven-year old boy.  I’m asked variations on this somewhat frequently so I finally decided to sit down and write out a list.  For this post, I’ll focus on series. I’m sure there will be more to come and these recommendations are in no particular order.  Most will appeal to both boys and girls, but not every child will enjoy each series below equally.

1. The Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne – I have yet to meet a child who rejected this series in its entirety. There are nearly 50 books in the series so it can keep readers busy for a while.  Jack and Annie are siblings who find a magic tree house in the woods near their house.  The characters open a book they find in the house, say “I wish we could go there,” and are transported to the desired location. Before they can go home, they have to solve a puzzle and help either a person or animal. I like the message behind these books, even if as an adult reader, the writing style is a bit repetitive.  For kids just beginning with chapter books, the series offers mild thrills and the chance to learn about the structure of narrative – without even realizing it.

2. A to Z Mysteries by Ron Roy – Three relatable kids, Josh, Dink and Ruth Rose solve mysteries in and around the town of Green Lawn.  My daughter and I loved the friendship presented in the books.  Sometimes the kids get mad with each other, but they find ways to resolve their differences in a peaceful way.  There are enough clues to help readers solve the mystery. Each book comes with a map and readers can use that to help solve the mystery too.  It’s nice to see map skills in use.  Also, I like the way the three kids teach each other.  If one uses a harder vocabulary word, or casually mentions a tougher physics or natural world concept, a second character will be a bit confused so the first speaker explains him or herself, or they will talk about what they learned in school and compare notes on what they each remembered.  Ron Roy has two other series – Calendar Mysteries geared toward the same age range and Capital Mysteries geared toward more confident readers.

3. Geronimo Stilton and Thea Stilton – These rodents both know how to spin a good yarn and get human kids excited about geography, science and the newspaper industry. Heavy illustrations support the text, giving it the feel of a graphic novel, but these are chapter books. My daughter prefers the Thea Sisters series, but the Geronimo Stilton is equally good, if not better. Also, there are a lot of bad puns and literally cheesy dialogue.  The phrases “Moldy mozzarella” and “Fabumous” have become household favorites.

4. Bad Kitty Series by Nick Bruel – For earlier readers, pick up wacky alphabet book Bad Kitty which runs through the alphabet four times and serves as an origin story for our anti-heroine. I love the series for featuring a not so lovable feline who gets her comeuppance in a humours way.  Again, there is a bit of a graphic novel feel, and the heavy illustrations make this a good step into chapter books. The author “breaks the wall” so to speak, inviting the reader to become the anonymous narrator who talks to Bad Kitty. Also clever, asides by Uncle Murray to explain more advanced concepts and the glossary.  Some readers may be put off by the “bad” language. Uncle Murray often refers to “that stupid cat” but  the reader is asked to laugh along with and at the bad examples they see on the page.  Bad Kitty for President is one of the best explanation of politics I’ve seen.

I’ll stop here for now.  What series or individual books do you recommend?  My daughter is always looking for new reads and my son is a few years away from needing some other suggestions.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

As part of my ongoing but occasional series of book reviews, I wanted to share my Goodreads review of The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, in slightly revised form.

I wanted to like The Reader by Bernhard Schlink so much more and I think if you approached it as more of a lay reader rather than someone who has studied German history extensively it would be a better read.  Another Goodsread reviewer described this book as a “Buildungsroman” and I wish I could remember who it was because they were spot on.  The plot unfolds along traditional lines. A great deal of time is devoted to the loss of innocence, particularly the narrators sexual education at the hands of an older woman.  We understand why the narrator is so smitten, but the woman, Hanna, remains aloof. I found this off-putting, particularly because the relationship reminded me of something that would be a sensationalist headline in today’s media like “Teacher seduces student.”  I wanted to know her motivation, but was left wanting.  The teaser on the back of the book promises a shocking reveal when the two meet again after a lengthy separation.  For me, even the “surprises” were predictable and that may have taken away some of my enjoyment of The Reader.

That being said, I think there is a lot to recommend in this book. I hope it is not a spoiler to say the relationship between Hanna and the narrator is meant to symbolize larger patterns of German history and an idea of who, if anyone, should be held guilty and responsible for past German crimes. For many people, this slim novel is a good way to open the door to a fuller discussion of morality, government crime, and the idea of who is a perpetrator and who is a bystander and why the distinction matters.  The memory of the Holocaust is an important issue and The Reader considers who is responsible for keeping the memory but also if it is necessary to keep the memory alive and what is the burden of knowledge.

On the other hand, for those already well versed in Holocaust literature and memory, there is not much to be gleaned from the otherwise predictable book.  Gunter Grass, the former Hitler Youth, does a better job of addressing guilt, national character and responsibility and does so in more innovative ways.  It is as if Schlink has bundled those ideas in a sexier more casual reader friendly form.  You could do worse than The Reader, but you could also do better.

Books I hate to read (but do) – part 2

First, I let loose on Clifford, now I’m going to trash another icon of Children’s literature – the Bear Family.

Created by the dearly deceased Stan & Jan Berenstain, the Bear Family series, better known as the Berenstain Bears, occupies four sections of prime shelf space in my local library.  They are the first books the kids see when they enter the library, being just inside the door and inticingly at eye level for a four-year old.  They frequently leave the shelf and come home in my library bag, much to my chagrin.

The best of the books focus on a specific childhood experience.  Every child preparing to move should have a copy of the Berenstain Bears’ Moving Day. I also give high marks to the easy reader series that includes The Road Race, The A Book and one of my all time favorite children’s books – The B Book.  Seriously – if you haven’t seen that one, get it and read it aloud, even if you have to borrow a child.  These are the few non-preachy books as well.

It’s the rest of the books that make me almost as cranky as Mama Bear.  You know Mama Bear, frequently introduced as happy, friendly, cheerful Mama Bear, at least until you turn the page and she’s frowning, nagging and ready to throttle one of the cubs.  Oops.  I’m sorry.  Mama Bear would never resort to violence.  She’s far too passive aggressive for that, which is why we need Papa Bear.

Papa Bear has two distinct moods – terrifyingly angry and buffoon.  When angry, he screams, pounds on furniture and throws one heck of a tantrum.  That the cubs are inclined towards melodramatic fits should come as no surprise to anyone who has heard the adage “children learn by example.” The rest of the time, he’s an idiot.  He needs the cubs and Mama to show him the error of his ways, whether it comes to recycling, eating healthy or treating others in a thoughtful manner.  By the end of the book, he’s realized his mistake and vows to make a change for the better.  inevitably, for each good habit he picks up, he develops three new ones, hence the proliferation of Berenstain Bear books.

The Berenstain Bear books seem to be as much about how parents should behave as kids.  And more often than not, the parents display poor decision-making and a lack of thoughtfulness.  No wonder the kids are in trouble so much.

As we approach Father’s Day, let’s put the Bear Family into retirement.  Treat Pops with some respect and read Sam McBratney’s Guess How Much I Love You.”

Books I hate to read (but do) – part I

I take my kids to the library weekly so they can pick out new books to enjoy at home.  My daughter (8) graduated to chapter books and picks a variety of fiction and non-fiction, but my son (4) gravitates to the same four shelves every week, just as his sister did at the same age.  Occasionally, he accepts my suggestions, but for the most part, I know we will come home with at least one Clifford or Berenstain Bear book.

Contrary to the slogan, I’m just going to say it — I don’t love Clifford.  I’ll give props to Norman
Bridwell for creating an iconic character that kids love, but that doesn’t mean I’ll share the love. As a parent, I loathe reading them.  As my husband points out, the art is terrible, but perhaps the kids like the drawing because the skewed perspective is a bit like theirs.

I’m more troubled by the continuity issues in the art rather than the style and quality of the art.  Buildings change color, size or disappear completely.  There are three distinct versions of the mother and at least as many versions of the father.  It makes me think Emily Elizabeth and Clifford have spent a lot of time bouncing through the child welfare system.

Artistic choices aside, I find the message unsettling.  The kids think Clifford’s foibles are funny.  I take away the message “you can only do good if you are big.” Clifford the puppy slips and falls and has to be rescued.  Clifford the Big Red Dog steps in to save a kitten from traffic, by causing an auto accident that so badly crunches the car, it’s a miracle the driver survived.  It makes sense that he could support a bridge, but the idea a building would burn to the ground if Clifford didn’t step in to help the fire-fighters is asinine. And an insult to the brave men and women who train hard to be fire fighters.

Time after time, Clifford is the best because he’s big.  I am not a big person.  I’m shorter than the average adult.  Does this mean I can’t do good? Does this mean my children cannot be helpful? That they will never be able to find the most easter eggs or lend a hand because they of merely average height? Is size really all that matters?  I hope not.

p.s – I’ll tackle the Berenstain Bears later.  In the meantime – what do you think?  I’m ready for the onslaught of Clifford lovers to sway my opinion.

Shhhh – Introvert at work

Shhh – can you keep a secret? Ah forget it.  I want to shout from the rooftops how much I loved Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Book cover for QuietCan’t Stop Talking.  At a time when political discourse, health care and economic policy seems to be decided by who literally shouts the loudest while on TV, the radio, the pulpit or self-help seminar stage, Cain argues we need to rediscover the power of introverts.

Cain introduces her readers to a range of introverts who have found success by embracing who they are and granting themselves the tools necessary for introverts to succeed, including “restorative niches,” pursuit of a passion, and a safe way to express their ideas.  Some are well-known, like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates; others are people who could by your neighbor or the shy girl in the back of the second grade classroom.

Adding weight to the argument for valuing introverts, Cain synthesizes scholarly works from a variety of fields and makes them accessible to the lay reader.  I particularly enjoyed chapter 3 “When Collaboration Kills Creativity” and the discussion of the group think mentality.  As someone who does a lot of reading, I can occasionally identify when manuscripts have been overworked in an effort to appease all the members of a crit-group. The result is an inauthentic and rarely enjoyable book.  I hated doing group projects in school. When I led college level history discussion groups as a Teaching Assistant, I disliked giving those assignments.  When I had my own class, I stopped them. If I had read Quiet while still in the classroom, it would have given me the courage to stop the useless practice earlier.

In “Part Two: Your Biology, Your Self?” Cain pulled together complex debates in psychology, physiology and philosophy to address the nature versus nurture debate. As a parent and an introvert who must participate in the world outside my keyboard, I appreciated this section. In some ways, she was “preachin’ to the choir” when I read this section.  I wonder what the extroverts I know thought of this section. The fourth section offered practical tips for introverts negotiating an extrovert dominant culture.

As much as I loved this book, “Part Three: do all Cultures have an Extrovert Ideal?” tempered my enthusiasm.  I found this section which contrasted an introverted ideal Asian cultures with Western and particularly American thinking to be weak compared to the rest of the book.  Cain relied more on evidence from literature and one can be highly selective when picking and chosing proverbs.  For each saying from the west like “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” it’s easy to find a common phrase that reflects what Cain posits is an Asian ideal. However, since you catch more flies with honey, I’ll get back to the positive.

Quiet is an important book and well deserving of its place on the New York Times best seller list. For those I know who have read it, it’s sparked a number of discussion points. It’s changed the way I look at the world and that is no small feat.  The people I know who are most enthusiastic about reading this are all introverts.  I wish more extroverts could be convinced to pick up the book. Perhaps with enough general discussion, they will be forced to do so.  This is one conversation not to be left out of.