Take a Chance On Me // by Jill Mansell

//published 2010//

This was another #LMPBC book (thankfully much better than Not the Girl You Marry!)and yet another book that I’m not completely sure I would have picked up on my own.  I tried a Mansell book once and didn’t really warm to it, and while I haven’t been actively avoiding her since then, I haven’t been especially keen to pick up another of her titles.  All in all, while Take a Chance On Me had it’s slower moments, it still ended up being an enjoyable read, mainly because I found the main character to be likable – something that, for some reason, many authors don’t seem to think is an important characteristic for their leads!

Cleo is one of those people who hasn’t quite done much with her life.  It isn’t bad, but she still lives in her hometown, she doesn’t have a college degree, and she’s single.  These aren’t necessarily negatives, and I liked the fact that Mansell didn’t paint Cleo as a loser.  Instead, she’s a hard worker (with a completely random job – she’s a driver for a company that picks up and drops off people, so she gets to drive limos and other fun, fancy cars) and lives an overall contented life in her small town, next door to her best friend who is a guy but who (surprisingly, honestly) isn’t gay.  Still, like most people, Cleo yearns for that special relationship, and is wondering if she may have found it with Will, a dashing, handsome fellow she’s been dating for a few months.

Of course, romance novels being what they are, things go sideways pretty quickly.  Turns out that Will is a bit of a stinker, but because the rest of the men in this book are actually decent and likable human beings, I didn’t mind the fact that Will was a jerk.  I was also concerned because from the synopsis it sort of sounds like Cleo is mentally-cheating on Will when her old childhood nemesis, Johnny, moves back into town, but Will is actually out of the romance picture pretty early in the story, which made the slow burn between Cleo and Johnny much more enjoyable for me.

This is a chunkier book than a lot of romances I’ve read, mainly because there are multiple stories going on.  While Cleo is the main character, a large part of the book is devoted to her sister, Abby, who is about ten years older than Cleo and has been married for a long time to Tom.  This was another storyline that I was leery of because, as my readers may have picked up, I really don’t like reading about cheating, but Mansell handled this entire situation deftly, creating the necessary drama without actually making anyone a bad person somehow.  Abby frustrated me a LOT more than Cleo – it really felt like, after all these years of marriage, she should have been more trusting of/had better communication with her husband – it was still an interesting part of the book.

The third love story is about Cloe’s neighbor/best friend, Ash, who is kind of a nerd.  He isn’t particularly good looking, but he jokes that that doesn’t matter since his job is working as a radio host.  While he is witty and entertaining on the radio and with people he knows well, he’s extremely shy when it comes to girls, so much of his love story is a series of miscommunications between him and his crush.  Mansell manages to not make it horrifically embarrassing, though, so I could roll with it for the most part.

Like I said, Cleo’s story is the main thrust, and I really loved watching not just love, but friendship grow between her and Johnny.  They have some history to overcome and discuss, but for the most part it felt natural.

There were a few times where the drama just got to be a bit much, a few times where I was incredibly frustrated with the lack of communication between various characters, and spots where the pacing seemed to drag, which means this read hovered between 3.5* and 4*.  But I rounded up to 4* because I think I will give Mansell another go, especially since this book stayed out of the bedroom (yay), which is getting harder to find these days.

While Take a Chance On Me didn’t blow me away, it was still a perfectly enjoyable and pleasant read, and I’ll keep an eye out for more Mansell titles in the future.

Jurassic Park & The Lost World // by Michael Crichton

//published 1990//

I have a lot of books under the heading of “classics I somehow haven’t gotten around to reading yet,” and until recently this pair was on that list.  It’s been literal decades since I watched the Jurassic Park movie, so I thought this would be a good time to pick these up, since I could only remember the basic gist of the story.

The basic gist, of course, is DINOSAURS!  I found myself wondering, through the first few chapters where there are tales of people coming across mysterious lizard-like creatures, what the advertising was like for this book when it was first published back in 1990.  Did readers  know that this was going to be a book about honest-to-goodness dinosaurs, or was there a real shock value when they found out what was happening?  Despite knowing that the mysterious lizard-like creatures were, in fact, dinosaurs, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Jurassic Park.  It completely ruined my productivity for a day (three days, really, if you count The Lost World) because I really wanted to know what was happening.

These were the type of books that, while I was reading them, I could barely put them down, but when I finished and reflected back on what I had just read, I realized that I actually had a lot of issues.  The biggest one was the never-ending philosophizing by Ian Malcolm.  At one point, he’s been horrifically injured and is probably going to die (sadly, he doesn’t).  Outside, the velociraptors are literally nomming their way into his room.  And Malcom just lays there, explaining how science replaced religion and how life changes and adapts, etc. etc.  Um.  HELLO?  VELOCIRAPTORS?!  And everyone in the room is just sitting there nodding and listening, like Oh my how wise you are, Dr. Malcom!  Please tell us more, I guess this is distracting us from the fact that velociraptors are LITERALLY ABOVE OUR HEADS CHEWING THROUGH THE BARS AND WILL BE IN THIS ROOM RIPPING US TO SHREDS WITHIN MOMENTS.  I mean seriously.

//published 1995//

It was even worse in The Lost World.  Here they are on this beautiful island with this literally once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to SEE LIVE DINOSAURS and they seem to spend an inordinate amount of time sitting around in their trailer listening to Malcom natter on about evolution and natural selection and scientific discoveries and the scientific method yadda yadda YADDA.  Oh my GOSH we could have easily lost 50 pages of Malcom lectures and the story would have been even better for it.

A few things that felt weird to me, especially reading the two books together.  At the end of Jurassic Park, after we’ve spent pretty much the entire book escaping from dinosaurs, and after we’ve spent a big chunk of the story explaining how velociraptors are incredibly dangerous and intelligent – for some reason they decide to go find the raptor hatching place?????????  Why?????  It’s never really explained.  The entire ending the book felt very tacked on and abrupt to me.  Guess we’ll sneak into a cave FULL of the dinosaurs we’ve been running away from for the last however many chapters?!  I was left feeling very confused.  There was also the fact that the beginning of the book is about people finding dinosaurs (albeit small ones) on the mainland – but it’s never really addressed in the end.

I think I liked the story/concept of The Lost World even better than Jurassic Park, but there was SO much lecturing by Malcom that it really brought down my overall enjoyment of the story.  I was especially confused by the fact that, as part of Malcom’s lectures, he explains that the raptors, and other dinosaurs, haven’t been able to form their real, natural society because they haven’t been taught – because the dinosaurs were created in a lab, they have been able to live from some instincts, but aren’t able to create the same kind of society as they would have back when dinosaurs were actually alive.  And that’s all well and good except… at the end of Jurassic Park, that entire weird tacked-on ending was about finding how the velociraptors were forming their own intricate society, with adults caring for and raising young ones, etc. etc. – all the things that suddenly they aren’t capable of doing in The Lost World – in fact, they find a raptor nesting site, and it’s a disaster, with broken eggs and dead younglings, and no effort from the adult dinosaurs to raise their broods.  It seemed weird.  Here are Malcom’s thoughts in The Lost World – 

But animals raised in isolation, without parents, without guidance, were not fully functional.  Zoo animals frequently could not care for their offspring, because they had never seen it done.  They would ignore their infants, or roll over and crush them, or simply become annoyed with them and kill them.

The velociraptors were among the most intelligent dinosaurs, and the most ferocious.  Both traits demanded behavioral control.  Millions of years ago, in the now-vanished Jurassic world, their behavior would have been socially determined, passed on from older to younger animals.  Genes controlled the capacity to make such patterns, but not the patterns themselves.  Adaptive behavior was a kind of morality; it was behavior that had evolved over many generations because it was found to succeed – behavior that allowed members of the species to cooperate, to live together, to hunt, to raise young.

But on this island, the velociraptors had been re-created in a genetics laboratory.  Although their physical bodies were genetically determined, their behavior was not.  These newly created raptors came into the world with no older animals to guide them, to show them proper raptor behavior.  They were on their own, and that was just how they behaved – in a society without structure, without rules, without cooperation.  They lived in an uncontrolled, every-creature-for-himself world where the meanest and the nastiest survived, and all the others died.

Now this does somewhat make sense, unless you happen to contrast it with the end of  Jurassic Park.  At this point, the characters have discovered the cave where the raptors are nesting, and are observing the behavior of the dinosaurs:

There were three nests, attended by three sets of parents.  The division of territory was centered roughly around the nests, although the offspring seemed to overlap, and run into different territories.  The adults were benign with the young ones, and tougher with the juveniles, occasionally snapping at the older animals when their play got too rough.

There was a female with a distinctive stripe along her head, and she was in the very center of the group as it ranged along the beach.  That same female had stayed in the center of the nesting area, too.  He guessed that, like certain monkey troops, the raptors were organized around a matriarchal pecking order, and that this striped animal was the alpha female of the colony.  The males, he saw, were arranged defensively a the perimeter of the group.

?!?!?!?!  Literally nothing like the nesting site in The Lost World, despite the fact that BOTH sets of dinosaurs were created in a lab…???  Sorry to ramble on about this, it just left me feeling mighty confused.  If any of you are Jurassic Park fans and have researched this seeming discrepancy more, do let me know.

One last thing that left me scratching my head:  at the beginning of  The Lost World, large animal bodies are being found dead on the beach.  Later, this is explained.  However, there are also reports of dinosaurs migrating/living in colonies in the jungles of Costa Rica… never addressed.  All in all, it almost felt like Crichton was planning to write another book and then just didn’t get around to it, because there are definitely some weird loose ends left.

I can see why these books were made into movies.  There is something about the enormity of the dinosaurs that is hard to imagine when reading.  It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen the films that I really can’t remember if they followed the books in any more than a basic sense or not, but I’m looking forward to rewatching them ASAP.

In the end, I really did thoroughly enjoy these stories.  When Malcom wasn’t lecturing, they were fast-paced and completely engaging.  The premise is genuinely brilliant.  I’m not sure I enjoyed them enough to find more of Crichton’s works, but these classics are definitely worth the read.

January Minireviews – Part 4

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne – 3.5*

//published 1872//

I’m not sure I had ever read this Verne classic, and there was a bit more mystery than I was anticipating.  This is a book that, in order to enjoy, you have to keep in mind when it was published.  I was kind of mind-blown about how much of the around-the-world travel meant moving through British territory at the time!  My favorite part was when Fogg’s servant rescued the girl, but the girl views Fogg as the hero!  Part of the reason that I can’t rate this book higher is just because Fogg himself is a very dull character in the sense that we never get to see what he is thinking or feeling.  We spend way more times with the thoughts of his somewhat bumbling servant and the policeman who is determined to catch Fogg.  Still, it was a really fun story, and a way easier read than I was anticipating.  As usual, Verne tends to get a little lecture-y but not nearly as much as he does in, say, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse – 5*

//published 1923//

It’s really hard to go wrong with Wodehouse, and even harder to go wrong with a Bertie and Jeeves Wodehouse.  This is really more of a collection of short stories gently connected by tales of Bertie’s friend Bingo’s disastrous love life.  These definitely follow a pattern (Bertie reluctantly gives up several pieces of dreadful clothing for the sake of Jeeves throughout the book), but when the pattern is so delightful, it’s hard to complain.  I loved every page.

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie – 3.5*

//published 1937//

I really wanted to get a bingo on my January Bingo card, so I needed to read a book that was being made into a movie this year, and apparently Death on the Nile is hitting the big screen sometime in 2020.  I’ve read this one before and when I started to read it again, I remembered whodunit, but weirdly that almost made me enjoy this one more than I have in the past.  This time, I was able to watch how Christie really does give her readers enough clues to solve the mystery themselves if they know where to look.  It was sort of like being behind the scenes of a play, watching how all the tricks are done.  I’ve reviewed this book before, talking about some of Christie’s more philosophical moments in this story, which I still enjoyed.  It is obvious from Christie’s writing in general that she strongly believed that we choose whether to do good or to do evil, and that is a particularly strong theme in this story.

Some Kind of Wonderful by Barbara Freethy – 3.5*

//published 2011//

This was another free Kindle book I picked up many moons ago (March 2017 if you’re interested) and finally got around to reading.  Like Your Perfect Yearwhich I read back in November, this book definitely suffers from having a romcom cover/synopsis, but actually being a more serious, novel-ish read.  It wasn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t what I was expecting, and I really wish that publishers would stop making these books look like they are lighthearted fluff when they aren’t (or maybe authors need to decide whether they are writing lighthearted fluff or something more serious).

Anyway, this was a decent story about a guy who finds a baby outside his apartment door. When he reads the note attached to the baby’s car seat, he finds out that the baby is actually his niece, the daughter of his sister for whom he’s been looking for years, ever since they were separated into different foster homes as children.  He has no real idea how to take care of a baby and ends up asking help from his across-the-hall neighbor who, conveniently, is both kindhearted and single.  However, instead of being a fluffy romp with baby shenanigans, this ended up being a more serious story about adoption, infertility, addiction, abuse, and helping those in need.  I thought the issues were handled sensitively and well, and I really appreciated that there was a Christian character – a pastor, no less! – who was actually a decent human being who was trying to help and serve the people around him.  I had a few issues with the way the story was written – there is the weird “maybe our mom is an angel guiding us” thing, the whole situation with the pastor’s church possibly getting closed down felt a little clunky, and there really wasn’t a way that everyone who loved the baby could end up being the baby’s parents, so there was always going to be some kind of bittersweet ending for some characters.  All in all, a decent read, but not one I would pick up again, and not quite the relaxing story I was hoping to find.

ALSO there was literally NO beach in this story and definitely no bride on a beach, so WHAT is with the cover?!

A Man Called Ove // by Fredrik Backman

//published 2014//

This is one of those books that I’ve seen floating around the blogosphere for a long time.  Every time I would read a review of it I would think,  Would I like this book?  Maybe I should read it.  Sometimes I would add it to my TBR, but then I would take it back off because I just wasn’t convinced that it would be a book I would actually like.  It sounded like it might be kind of sad, and we all know that I don’t really enjoy reading books that are kind of sad.

But then I decided to participate in the #AuthoraMonth challenge on Litsy, which I talked about when I reviewed Beartownbecause Backman both wrote Beartown and was January’s author.  And since I didn’t hate Beartown – in fact, I found it to be a rather compelling read – I decided to pick up Ove, even though multiple people told me that it was a very different kind of book.

And it was a very different kind of book, but I ended up loving it.  I’m not sure I’ll exactly be able to explain why I loved it, and I also can’t explain why loving this book has not particularly made me want to read anything else Backman wrote.  It’s honestly kind of weird!  But overall this was a read that made me both laugh and cry, and that honestly doesn’t happen very often.

My review is going to have some mild spoilers, so if you like to go into a book knowing nothing, don’t read any further.  I’m not going into every nitty-gritty detail, but it’s hard to talk about this book without talking about some of the events within it, but in fairness part of the delight of this book is watching it gently unfold in front of you.  But if you want the skinny: 4.5* and my favorite new read of January (as opposed to rereads).

Continue reading

Off Balance // by Aileen Erin

//published 2020//

Off Balance is the sequel to Off Planet, which I read and reviewed last year, and if you really want to make sense of this review, you may want to read that one first.  This review will have some minor spoilers for  Off Planet.

I’m reverting to the old pros/cons list for the this review to help me sort out my thoughts, since there were a lot of things I really liked, and several things that annoyed me:

Cons:

  • Amihanna is just so, so self-absorbed for most of this story.  It’s all about her and  her feelings and how everyone is going to respond to  her if she decides to marry Lorne.  She spends a lot of time avoiding doing anything remotely ruler-like, yet also complains that she isn’t treated with respect/like a ruler.  I guess part of this is that I’m not someone who tends to agonize over decisions, even big ones.  Assess your choices and their probable trajectories, make the best decision you can, then don’t look back.  Consequently, I don’t have a great deal of patience for someone who spends a LOT of time havering.
  • Way too much time is spent in a gym/doing physical training of some kind.  We get it.  She’s incredibly physically fit.
  • Explicit sex scene that I was not expecting since no such thing has appeared in any of Erin’s other books that I’ve read (including the entire Alpha Girl series).  Also a few scenes that were more graphically violent than really seemed necessary.  Like a lot more.
  • Overall a bit of second-book syndrome.  A lot of this book is waiting for things to happen more than it is things actually happening.  It felt like we could have cut out some of the scenes of Amihanna doing the same thing over and over and OVER again in the first book, cut out some of the incessant training scenes in this book, and combined them into one book with more action.
  • While I’m griping about Ami in this review, I do actually like her as a person. I just feel like she spends a lot of time talking like she’s super badass, but hiding from her actual responsibilities/decisions.

Pros:

  • World-building is great.  There is a real sense of place and other-worldliness without being too crazy.  Loved the glimpses of the Aunare culture and would love to see more of it.
  • NO LOVE TRIANGLE!  Can’t tell you how excited I was about this!  The end of Off Planet seemed to feel like it was setting up for one, but that’s completely avoided in this book, and I am definitely here for that, as I think having a love triangle is the dumbest trope of all time.
  • Which ties into another pro – LORNE.  As a character, Lorne is definitely my favorite.  Why Amihanna would hesitate for even half a second is mind-boggling to me.  While not perfect, Lorne is incredibly patient, kind, thoughtful, and intelligent.  He is eager to help Ami learn more about the Aunare but never comes across as condescending.  I’m totally in love with this guy, and only wish we had gotten way more of his perspective, which was significantly more interesting than Ami’s whining about her (actually very comfortable) life.
  • While I didn’t like having an explicit sex scene in the story, I did appreciate that it didn’t feel like something the characters just rushed into.  It felt like a thoughtful, serious decision, and I liked that aspect.
  • The actual story is solid.  There are a lot of great characters, several directions the plot could reasonably take, and a lot of interesting things going on.

Conclusion:

3.5*, which is where I ended up with Off Planet, too.  A good sequel, a series I recommend if you like sci-fi on the lighter side of sci, and a series I definitely am interested to follow going forward.

NB: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.  Receiving this book didn’t impact my review at all.  Special thanks to the publisher!!

January Minireviews – Part 3

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Cogheart by Peter Bunzl – 3*

//published 2016//

This book definitely seemed like one I should like.  Middle-grade steampunk with super fun world-building and interesting characters, yet somehow the story just fell flat for me.  There were some minor continuity issues that annoyed me – things like several sentences explaining why a certain mechanical animal can’t get wet, but then later in the book he gets completed doused in a huge barrel of water, yet is completely fine.  There were little things like that throughout that really distracted me.  The drama was just a little too over-the-top and choppy.  Overall, while I enjoyed it for a one-time read, I don’t really feel interested enough to read the rest of the series.

Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie – 3.5*

//published 1924//

This is a collection of short stories featuring (you guessed it) Hercule Poirot.  Like all short stories, this batch had its strengths and weaknesses, but overall were just sort of meh.  There wasn’t really one that jumped out at me as being particularly clever or interesting.  Much of Christie’s brilliance is in her characterizations, and this format doesn’t really allow for that to happen, so it’s mostly just random set up of a problem, Poirot is clever while Hastings is a bit slow, and then conclusion.  A fine little read but not one that blew me away.

The Decorated Garden Room by Tessa Evelegh – 3.5*

//published 1999//

This was a nonfiction read and focuses on turning outdoor areas into living spaces.  The book was an odd mixture of the super practical and then the super impractical.  Overall, Evelegh presents some useful information, like where to start (floor/ground) and gives some ideas for other aspects of creating a garden nook.  But some of her ideas were just so over-the-top that I can’t imagine anyone doing them from scratch.  Still, there are a lot of lovely photographs and some interesting concepts.  I’m not sure how happy I would be if I had paid full price, but since I picked it up as a library discard for a quarter, it was worth the investment.

Watching You by Lisa Jewel – 4*

//published 2018//

Do you ever have one of those authors that you just keep adding their books to your TBR but never seem to actually read one??  Jewel has definitely been one of those authors for me, and I finally got around to reading one of her books this month!  I really enjoyed this one, although Joey’s pattern of self-sabotage (“I’m a terrible person because I do terrible things/I may as well do terrible things because I’m a terrible person”) really began to get on my nerves.  There was also a married couple in this book that didn’t end up staying together, and I think the story would have been a lot stronger if they had.  Instead, it’s just another one of those messages about how “sometimes things just don’t work out” instead of “marriage is work so you’d best work on it.”

But all of those things are side issues. The main story/mystery was done very well.  The pacing was absolutely fantastic – I loved the way the police interviews were sprinkled throughout the story, giving little tidbits of what is going to happen in the future.  The majority of this book was written in third person, past tense – YAY.  At the end of the day, this was an easy 4* read, and I definitely want to see what else Jewel has to offer.

A Mouse Called Wolf by Dick King-Smith – 3*

//published 1997//

This is a very short children’s book (less than 100 pages) that has been on my shelf a long time.  I have a lot of love for many of King-Smith’s books (Babe the Gallant Pig, Harry’s Mad, The Fox Busters, The Queen’s Nose, etc.), but he also went through a time period where he was cranking out books at a ridiculous rate, so some of his stories do lack depth, and this was one of those.  A story about a singing mouse and an elderly lady, this was a perfectly nice little story that I can see younger readers enjoying, but it was a bit too simplistic for me.

Cordina’s Royal Family series // by Nora Roberts

  • Affaire Royale  (1986) – 3.5*
  • Command Performance (1987) – 3.5*
  • The Playboy Prince (1987) – 3.5*
  • Cordina’s Crown Jewel (1992) – 3.5*

Although Roberts’s romances tend to be steamier than I prefer, I still find myself picking them up because her books have a lot of other things to offer – likable characters, good plots, humor, friendships, and engaging stories.  The four books about the royal family of the fictional country of Cordina were pretty typical Roberts fare, and I thoroughly enjoyed them, especially since I was reading them after slogging through  Stoner, Beartownand How To Stop Time right in a row.  I was READY for something fluffy!

The first three books focus on three royal siblings.  The first book is about the oldest, a daughter, who starts the book by escaping her kidnappers and fleeing to safety – but now she has amnesia and can’t remember what happened, or anything about her past life.  This should have been completely cheesy – and it totally was – but Roberts handles the story deftly and made me still care even if the plot was a little ridiculous.

In Comand Performance the story focuses on the crown prince.  The terrorist who orchestrated the kidnapping in the first book is back, so there is just enough mystery to keep things interesting.

The youngest brother is the star of the third book, which was probably my least favorite.  Bennet was just a little too pushy of a character for my liking, but this story did wrap up the whole situation with the terrorist, which was fun.

The final book was published a few years later and is about a member of the next generation of the royal family, Camilla.  This was my favorite of the series.  Camilla’s father (her parents are the couple from the first book) is an American, so her family has always divided their time between America and Cordina.  Fed up with the constant pressure of the press, Camilla runs away to just “live life” for a while – and of course is rather bad at it and ends up wrecking her rental car in a muddy Vermont ditch in the middle of a thunder storm.  I really liked Camilla’s relationship with Delaney and the way he falls in love with her without having any idea of who she really is.

Overall, this isn’t really a series of books that’s destined to become one of my favorites.  For lack of a better term, the writing is very 80’s.  But they were still fun, and they really helped pull me out of my reading doldrums.  I can see myself revisiting them if I’m ever in need of some quick palette cleansers again.