Bridget Jones: Mad about the Boy

Image

Oh, the mixed feelings.  I loved Bridget Jones’ Diary – the book AND the movie.  My brother (hi, Sibby!) and I can practically recite the audiobook to each other.  Even though I was not a huge fan of The Edge of Reason, it left Bridget and Mark in a really good place.  They were getting married and living happily ever after.  I didn’t know if I necessarily wanted another book in this series, where the plot would have to turn on some sort of Bridget/Mark marital problems.

Then, a few months before this book was published, Helen Fielding dropped a bomb.  Bridget Jones is a widow.  Like many other Bridget fans, I short-circuited.  Mark Darcy is DEAD?  Mark was Bridget’s rock, her safe place, and the one person who could moderate her tendency to declare herself an incompetent failure at everything.  I couldn’t believe Fielding would just rip Bridget’s happiness apart that way.

But then I got to thinking.  If happily married Bridget and Mark were a fantastic end to a book, and I didn’t want to read a book about unhappily married Bridget and Mark, the only way to write a new Bridget book was to take Mark out of the picture.  Fielding couldn’t have them divorce – that would have soured us on the romance of the first two novels (or perhaps on Fielding herself).  Since the first Bridget book is one of my favorites of all time, I decided maybe I should give this one a try and see if Bridget without Mark is still the hapless, hopeless Bridget that I know and love so well.

Bless her heart, Bridget hasn’t changed much.  This book starts four and a half years after Mark’s death, and Bridget is struggling to deal with her loss and raise her two children, Billy and Mabel.  In her defense, Bridget is very aware that she cannot afford to fall completely to pieces.  Though she does allow herself to wallow quite a bit (she has developed a mysterious habit of eating entire bags of grated cheese), she continuously reminds herself that she must Keep Buggering On for the kids’ sake.  Despite her steely resolve not to break down in front of the children, or be complete crap as a mother, Bridget still worries (in an almost manic way) about trivial things.  She counts her calories, obsesses over her number of Twitter followers, and daydreams about ham and cheese paninis.  When she meets a new guy, she revives the “But I luuuurve him,” diary entries that made me smile in the first books.  She gets stuck up a tree, worries about farting during yoga, and has a botched botox experience.  Overall, Bridget may be older, but she’s still our girl.  The truly touching moments are the ones where she’s missing Mark or finally, FINALLY having a real talk with her mother that doesn’t involve an argument about what Bridget is wearing.  You know how hard Bridget is trying, and you just can’t help rooting for her despite sharing her fears that social services will come for her children.

I did have a few problems with the story.  This first one seems minor, but it was really distracting while I was reading.  Here are the names of a few adult characters who are introduced in this book: Rebecca, Chloe, Scott, Jake, Brian, George.  Unremarkable, right?  Here are the names of a few children who attend school with Billy and Mabel:  Atticus, Cosmata, Thelonius, and Oleander.  What??  Also, there were a few times that Bridget just flat-out got on my nerves.  Prime example: she’s in a meeting with a production company that is considering making a screenplay Bridget has written into a film.  While the production executives are discussing her work all around her, what is Bridget doing?  She’s texting.  And she’s not texting about an emergency with the children – she’s flirting with her “toy boy.”  This happens, not just at one production meeting, but ALL of them.  I wanted to smack her upside the head and yell at her to CONCENTRATE if she really cared about this screen play thing at all.

Biggest source of irritation?  (Stop reading here if you don’t want this plot point spoiled)

Daniel Cleaver.  I was not at all surprised to find him back in this book.  He’s like a habit Bridget can’t break.  I figured he’d at least be mentioned a few times, even if he wasn’t a presence in the book.  But it turns out, he’s not only still in Bridget’s life, he is her children’s godfather.  Let that sink in a minute.  Mark Darcy’s best friend from Cambridge, who slept with his wife, ruined his first marriage and broke his heart, is the godfather of Mark Darcy’s children.  No.  Fielding explains this by saying that Mark contacted Daniel after Billy was born so that they could mend their fences.  This I can see.  I can imagine mature, sensible Mark reaching out to a former friend to say, “I can forgive you now – no hard feelings.”  But I can’t wrap my head around a situation where Mark asks Daniel to be Billy’s godfather, particularly when Daniel has so clearly not changed a bit.  He’s older, and (as we learn towards the end of the book) sadder, but he is still Daniel Cleaver.  And Bridget asks him to babysit.  I just couldn’t buy into it.

The bottom line?  It turns out that more Bridget, even a Bridget who can be maddening, is better than no Bridget at all.  The great thing about the diary format of these books is that you experience everything right along with Bridget.  I missed Mark with her.  I felt overwhelmed by the complexity of school scheduling with her.  I laughed out loud with her multiple times, and I cheered with her when it seemed things were working out alright.  This time, I really do hope Fielding is done with Bridget.  She’s happily settled in the end, and I feel like she’s earned it.

Happy Release Day, Deanna Raybourn!

jasmine

Finally, today is the publication day for Deanna Raybourn’s newest novel!

Here is what Harlequin has to say about City of Jasmine:

Set against the lush, exotic European colonial outposts of the 1920s, New York Times bestselling author Deanna Raybourn delivers the captivating tale of one woman who embarks upon a journey to see the world—and ends up finding intrigue, danger and a love beyond all reason.

Famed aviatrix Evangeline Starke never expected to see her husband, adventurer Gabriel Starke, ever again. They had been a golden couple, enjoying a whirlwind courtship amid the backdrop of a glittering social set in prewar London until his sudden death with the sinking of the Lusitania. Five years later, beginning to embrace life again, Evie embarks upon a flight around the world, collecting fame and admirers along the way. In the midst of her triumphant tour, she is shocked to receive a mysterious—and recent—photograph of Gabriel, which brings her ambitious stunt to a screeching halt.

With her eccentric aunt Dove in tow, Evie tracks the source of the photo to the ancient City of Jasmine, Damascus. There she discovers that nothing is as it seems. Danger lurks at every turn, and at stake is a priceless relic, an artifact once lost to time and so valuable that criminals will stop at nothing to acquire it—even murder. Leaving the jewelled city behind, Evie sets off across the punishing sands of the desert to unearth the truth of Gabriel’s disappearance and retrieve a relic straight from the pages of history.

Along the way, Evie must come to terms with the deception that parted her from Gabriel and the passion that will change her destiny forever…

After reading the e-novella “Whisper of Jasmine” earlier this month, I can’t wait to get my hands on this one.  Deanna’s descriptions of Africa in A Spear of Summer Grass were incredible, so I’m betting she will do a fabulous job with Damascus.  I was surprised to see Aunt Dove makes the jacket of the novel – she seemed fairly minor when Deanna introduced her in “Whisper,” but I did like her, so it will be fun to learn more about her.

In the novella, there is a nice hat-tip to Deanna’s Lady Julia series readers as well – I’m wondering if this will continue in City of Jasmine.  Either way, must get to the store and grab this soon!

Pride of the Peacock

peacock

Happy Friday!  Wherever you are, I hope you are warm and dry.  We have had the world’s most bizarre weather lately.  Last week, there was the freakish snowstorm.  Today’s treat: tornadoes.  The result is that everyone is walking around sounding like a character from a Jane Austen novel who socializes by discussing the weather or the state of the roads.  So rather than speculating on whether or not our freakish meteorological trends will continue, I will tell you about Pride of the Peacock.  This was a NetGalley download, written by Victoria Holt.  It was originally published in 1976, but Sourcebooks is re-releasing this and several of Holt’s other books as “Casablanca Classics.”

Jessica Clavering has always felt like an outsider in her unhappy family. With two distant older siblings, a passive father, and a mother who constantly bemoans the family’s fall from grace and the loss of Better Days, Jessica grew up accustomed to entertaining and educating herself. When Jessica turns 16, an old miner named Ben Herrick moves into the house that her family once owned. Despite mother’s objections to socializing with the man who “stole” their house, Jessica befriends him. Through Ben, Jessica learns the true story of her family’s past and how intricately it’s connected to Ben and his opal mines in Australia. Through an unexpected turn of events, Jessica finds herself an heiress on her way to Australia with a husband she doesn’t know if she can trust and she is certain she doesn’t like. In Australia, Jessica sets out to find a precious opal called “The Green Flash” whose existence has dogged her family for two generations. But the closer Jessica gets to uncovering the Flash, the more dangerous she becomes to someone who has fallen entirely under the peerless opal’s spell.

This is the second novel I’ve read by Victoria Holt, and she does tell a good story. I loved her descriptions of the mining town in Australia and the opal lore she includes. The mystery had some excellent qualities – plenty of likely suspects, murders, affairs, ghosts, and rumors of a curse that touches all owners of the Green Flash. There is one scene I particularly enjoyed where everyone in the mining town gets together for a treasure hunt at Jessica’s manor. It seemed like something all the characters in Downton Abbey would do for entertainment on a “Saturday-to-Monday.”

Here were the things that prevented this from being a 5-star read for me. The action doesn’t really get going until Jessica heads to Australia, and that doesn’t happen until almost a third of the way through the book. The first 100 pages are almost entirely exposition, and it feels a bit drawn out. Also, the plot device where a marriage-of-convenience couple winds up falling for each other is fine with me, but I never really believed that Jessica and her husband had deep feelings for each other. Sure, the fireworks are there with their snappy (and frequent) verbal altercations, so I believed that they had chemistry. But the story winds to its conclusion so quickly that I felt like I had whiplash from the big “I hate you – I love you!” turnaround. Not a bad book, but I preferred The India Fan.

gods in Alabama

Image

How can you put down a book that starts like this: “There are gods in Alabama.  I know because I killed one.”

When I read the back jacket of gods in Alabama, I got the impression that this book would be a story about Arlene Fleet, raised in Alabama but self-exiled to Chicago, returning home after ten years with her black boyfriend Burr in tow to attend her uncle’s retirement party.  It seemed like most of the conflict in the book was going to turn on the interracial relationship and how Arlene’s family would react to it.  What you actually get is a book split pretty evenly between present-day and flashbacks, with Joshilyn leading you in baby steps toward understanding the relationships that Arlene has with her Aunt Florence and her cousin Clarice.  It’s like a character study of Arlene, and it’s definitely a love story.  But it’s not a love story about Arlene and Burr – it’s a love story about Arlene and Aunt Florence.

When Arlene was a toddler living in Kansas with her parents, her father died and her mother Gladys lost her mind.  Because she’s recently lost a child herself, and because Arlene and Gladys are her family, Florence drives to Kansas, packs Arlene and Gladys into her truck, and moves them into her home in Alabama.  She talks the elementary school principal into putting Arlene in her daughter Clarice’s third-grade class even though Arlene ought to be in second.  She takes charge of Gladys’ painkiller addiction.  She is a force to be reckoned with.  Arlene grows up in respectful fear of Florence and total adoration of her beautiful, sweet cousin Clarice.  But by her sophomore year of high school, Arlene has decided that she has to leave Alabama when she graduates.  She doesn’t decide this because she’s unhappy or ungrateful – she makes a deal with God that she will never lie, never sleep with another boy, and never ever return to Alabama if God will just keep everyone from discovering that she killed Jim Beverly.

Joshilyn does a great job of tying the present-day and flashback stories together to help you understand exactly what would lead fifteen year old Arlene to murder Jim Beverly, the high school quarterback and every girl’s choice for a date to homecoming.  Arlene is a great character, and some of the best parts of the novel are the bits where she’s puzzling out her motives for the way she has behaved the past ten years.  She does love her family, and she loves Burr, but she’s been carrying around an impossible weight of guilt and fear that make it impossible for her to be as close to them as she wants.

Arlene is the main character and the narrator, but I would argue that Aunt Florence dominates her fair share of the story.  In her notes after the final chapter of book, Joshilyn says that people always assume she wrote Arlene as a version of herself, but she actually identifies more strongly with Aunt Florence.  She says that her children “are the sum total of my heart.  And sum total of my heart is even now, as I type this, out in the world wandering around, probably in traffic.  It’s unendurable.  How do we go through every day with them out there on their bikes, among snakes and lightning and mean kids and rabid squirrels and chaos theory and predators?”  Aunt Florence has this same fierce protectiveness and single-minded need to make the world a safe place for her daughter and Arlene.  Even when Arlene moves to Chicago and makes excuses about why she won’t come home for Christmases or birthdays, Aunt Florence calls her twice a week.  Arlene knows if she doesn’t answer the phone for those calls, Florence will get in the car and drive up to Chicago to find out why.  She may not live under Florence’s roof any longer, but Florence will never let her slip quietly out of the family.

This is my fifth book by Joshilyn Jackson, and there is something about her writing that is completely different from anyone else’s.  She writes these stories about Southern women and their crazy families and the terrifying things we are capable of doing to protect the people we love.  There were several unexpected twists at the end, but Joshilyn does such a great job setting you up for them that they don’t feel unrealistic.  I think my favorite of Joshilyn’s books is still A Grown-up Kind of Pretty, but this was an excellent story.

Fire from Heaven

Wherever you are, I hope you are inside and warm!  Thanks to Snowpocalypse 2014, I may never leave my house again.  My commute home, which usually takes 15-20 minutes, took me nearly five hours last night.  But Brad, Clouseau and I are all safe and home, so we have a lot to be thankful for.  And the University is closed today, which means I get to start some new books!  Lauren Willig had a great “if you like” blog post a year ago with a list of books to read about being snowed in, so perhaps I can start one of those.

A few days ago, my brother (hi Sib!) and I were talking about Mary Renault.  If you haven’t read anything by her, and you like Greek or Roman mythology, I would definitely give her a try!  I’ve read a few of her books and really enjoyed them, and my most recent one was Fire from Heaven.

Image*I received a copy of this book via NetGalley from Open Road Integrated Media.

The story of Alexander the Great is quite an undertaking. The politics of ancient Greece, with its kings and lords and constant wars could very easily make for a dry read. But Mary Renault has a gift for storytelling, especially storytelling that evokes Greek mythology. This is the first novel of her trilogy about Alexander, and it follows his story from the time he is a toddler living in the women’s chambers to the day he must take control of a vast kingdom and unruly army while he is still in his teens. Renault describes Alexander’s childhood with impressive sensitivity. Raised by a father and mother who were relentlessly at each other’s throats, Alexander is forced to take sides time and time again, and Renault allows the reader to see the cost of this consistent pressure on a growing boy. You can’t help but admire Alexander as he learns to navigate the waters of political and personal pressures, basically teaching himself how to be a man. He makes some mistakes, but you can see that the lessons he learns from them will enable him to be the King who forms one of the largest empires the world will ever know.

I read and loved Renault’s books about Theseus (The Bull from the Sea and The King Must Die), and I think this story is every bit as good. I can’t help but agree with what Hilary Mantel says in her introduction to this book – one of the best things about Renault’s writing is her refusal to explain or interpret ancient Greek customs and traditions through a modern lens. She doesn’t try to excuse or judge her characters’ actions. Even though the setting is completely foreign to me, I still felt like her characters were actual people, and I could understand their struggles or joys. Alexander lived over two thousand years ago, but Renault’s story made him real to me. I sympathized with his frustrations over his parents, and the scene where he first rides his famous horse, Bucephalus, was really moving.

If you’ve read Mary Renault, I’d love some suggestions for books that have a similar feel!  If you haven’t, do you have any mythology-themed books you’d recommend?

Happy Friday!

It’s been a very long week, and I’m smack in the middle of two books at the moment – The Splendour Falls by Susanna Kearsley and The Collector of Dying Breaths by MJ Rose.  So I don’t have a new review to post, and instead, I thought I would share some great book things happening around the web!

  1. Deanna Raybourn is offering up a signed ARC of her new book, City of Jasmine, and a sweet initial necklace from Altruette.  You can sign up to win this giveaway over on Deanna’s blog.
  2. Miss Eliza of Strange and Random Happenstance is devoting the entire month of February to reviewing Downton Abbey readalikes.  She’s already posted her first few books, and today’s review is about The American Heiress.  I keep seeing this book everywhere, and after reading her review, I’m convinced to give it a try.  Also, she is giving away a very cute Downton Abbey bell that looks like a decorative version of the ones that hang in the servants’ hall.  No charge to enter, just comment on her blog post!
  3. The New York Times has asked author Sarah Maclean to review four romance novels for this week’s Sunday Book Review.  Possibly this doesn’t sound exciting, but it’s actually a pretty big deal.  The NYT has a history of taking a “wall of silence” attitude about romance novels – they just keep ignoring the fact that romance is one of the most widely-sold fiction genres today in favor of reviewing “literary fiction.”  I think it will be interesting to see the reaction to Sarah’s reviews.
  4. There is an excellent list on Buzzfeed of 16 books to read before they hit theaters in 2014.  Since Winter’s Tale comes out next weekend, I’d better get cracking on it!  Not sure what’s up with Colin Farrell’s hair in some of the pictures I’ve seen, but Jessica Brown Findlay (Sybil!) and Alan Doyle (from Great Big Sea) are going to be in this, so I’m excited.
  5. Lauren Willig posted on Facebook that she’s working on a new novel set in the 1920s, and her hero reminds her of Benedict Cumberbatch.  I knew I liked Lauren for a reason.  And as an additional treat, check out this video of the man himself discussing the importance of reading and then proceeding to do just that.  Because it’s Friday, and I love him.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Adulting

Image

I don’t read that much non-fiction, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a self-help book before.  But my friend Beth loaned me her copy of Adulting by Kelly Williams Brown and told me it would make me laugh and make me feel less like a failure at being a grown-up.  That sounded promising to me!

The subtitle of the book is “How to Become a Grown-Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps.”  This is not a joke.  This book really does contain 468 things people could (and frequently should) do in adult-world.  468 is a lot of steps.  This seems intimidating to me.  But Kelly’s style is approachable, and she freely admits which of these steps she struggles with or flat-out cannot do.  She also admits that these are not 468 things she came up with all on her own – she asked everyone she knows and several people she doesn’t for tips, including her mechanic, a maid, a therapist, and a financial counselor.  Kelly doesn’t write like an expert who has it all under control and is trying to force her methods on you.  She keeps things simple, she’s frequently hilarious, and she adds little drawings and diagrams that are guaranteed to make you smile.

Here are my favorite examples of her illustrations:

On the importance of not forgetting about the produce in your crisper

Image

On mentally coping with unkind people by imagining them as jellyfish

Image

On real vs. ideal way to react to spills:

Image

Image

The format of the book breaks the 468 steps down into 10 categories which become chapters, like “Domesticity,” “Cooking,” and “Fake It Till You Make It.”  For someone who is twenty-eight, has a job, and has successfully moved her belongings into new apartments multiple times, some of the earlier steps seemed like common sense to me (excellent work, Mom and Dad).  But I felt like some of the chapters, especially the one about money, had new suggestions for me or some that, even if I’d heard them before, were worth repeating.  The chapter about maintenance was also excellent.  The main theme of that chapter is, “It’s okay to have nice things as long as you treat them like nice things.”  I am embarrassed to admit that the ratio of times I have ignored my “Change Oil” light vs. times I have spent $25 (the price of an oil change!) on an impulse pair of shoes is frighteningly lopsided.  Again, common sense, but it’s nice to have the gentle reminder to take care of the things that are important.

Kelly says that her book’s spirit animal is a thank-you note.  I think maybe Kelly is my spirit animal.  There were so many times where I laughed out loud because I was positive Kelly was talking directly to me.  Examples:

  1. “Getting a job isn’t optional unless you are phenomenally wealthy, in which case enjoy hanging out in your own private baby animal menagerie.  Mine will have a bouncy castle full of red pandas.”
  2. “Don’t put tacos in your purse.”
  3. “Are you allowing leggings to usurp the rightful place of pants?  Leggings can never be pants.”
  4. “Plants are the ultimate passive thing: they never tell you what they want, they just sort of wilt and die if they don’t get it, like tiny green Katie Holmeses.”

Amazing.  It’s like she knows me.

This book’s target audience is definitely women in their early twenties.  I don’t think it would be useless for guys, but Kelly does spend a bit of time talking about specifically female concerns.  I would say that regardless of your life experiences up to this point, there will be at least a few things in this book you could try, and probably several that will make you laugh while you think, “Yup – been there.”