Category Archives: Contemporary Romance

Still Me by JoJo Moyes

The thing about author JoJo Moyes is she has the rare talent of making the characters in her novels come alive drawing the reader into the story and leaving them anxious to continue their relationship with these “old” friends.

That is why so many of us can’t wait to read Still Me, a continuation of the saga of Louisa Clark which began with Me Before You where she falls in love and “loses” Will Traynor, a quadriplegic in her care. In After You, Louisa tries to recover from her heartbreaking loss but her plans are interrupted by a life shattering fall from her rooftop where she meets Sam, the paramedic on the scene who assures her that she will survive this ordeal.

That’s the story of Lou’s life, one disaster after another, many due to her big heart which opens her up to the hurts of the world. While her relationship with Sam is definitely moving in the right direction, the voice of Will whispers in her ear to live big and experience life – “Live boldly, Clark” – so when the opportunity pops up to move from her home in London to New York City to be an assistant to a high profile businessman’s wife who has some emotional issues, Louisa packs up and heads out for a new adventure.

In Still Me, Louisa does not disappoint as she deals with her host/hostess and tries to find her place within the confines of Manhattan. Her task is not easy, but she has Nathan, the coworker from her time with Will, as well as a friendship with Ashok, the ever present doorman, and his family who are trying to save the local public library in Washington Heights. She even develops an uneasy peace with Mrs De Witt, the crabby neighbor with a pug dog who constantly complains about everything. Maintaining a long distance relationship with Sam is more difficult than either of them expected with complications at both ends, including Joshua Ryan, a dead ringer for Will who keeps popping up in unexpected places. Yet Louisa handles life with integrity remaining true to her own ideals and discovering an inner strength and fortitude which helps her through the ultimate crap life keeps throwing in her path. Her quirky sense of style, including a pair of bumblebee tights, somehow seems right in a city where everyone has their own point of view, and helps her find other fashion enthusiasts who appreciate her vintage tastes.

The reader also touches base with characters from both of the previous novels along with some new faces, allowing us to bone up on the “gossip” about their current doings. While you don’t need to be familiar with the first two books in the series, there are constant references to previous events which might be confusing to the first time reader. It is surprising that so much has occurred over the three year span between the beginning of book one to the end of book three, but the whirlwind of activity makes for some fine reading.

Even though I was able to predict a lot of the hassles Lou faced, there were still a few “ah ha” moments, but either way, as a lover of soap operas, I couldn’t wait to discover the details of the next chapter in her life (and I wasn’t disappointed). I am aching to discuss my favorites parts of this story, including the letters, but am resigned to wait for my friends to catch up and read Still Me for themselves. Five stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

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The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

I suppose the question must be asked if passion really exists. Not a flame which burns long enough to last through a one night stand, nor a longing which disappears after six months, but a love which transcends time and distance and continues even after death.

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende Is a novel fraught with angst as two parallel love stories unfold, each full of obstacles with must be overcome in order to find fulfillment. Our tale begins at Lark House, a retirement home in the San Francisco Bay Area where octogenarian Alma Belasco resides. A rich eccentric with a secret past, she has eschewed all her former lavish existence and lives relatively humbly in a small cottage at the home continuing her silk screening avocation, now a hobby. Yet a mystery surrounds her puzzling disappearance for days at a time. Where does she go and who sends her the weekly orchid and the perplexing double enveloped letters?

Then there is Irina Basili who is barely able to eek out an existence assisting at the home and washing dogs in the evening so as to afford the rent at the overcrowded boarding house where she resides. She, too, has a secret past which she holds close. Alma hires Irina to help out and, as a bonus, Alma’s grandson Seth visits more often, not only to see his beloved grandmother, but also to spend time with the woman who has captured his heart. The smitten young lawyer takes it upon himself to write Alma’s memoir with the help of Irina who assists him in deciphering clues into the secrets of his grandmother’s past. Alma watches over the two, approving of Seth’s love choice and encouraging them both to find happiness together. Additional characters are added into the plot as slowly the secrets are revealed giving the reader an understanding of the motivation behind each character’s actions.

From the annihilating destructive results of the holocaust to the dehumanizing confinement at the Japanese Internment camps to all the devastatingly forbidden secrets, Allende explores the various stages and types of love found amidst the joys and sorrows of a life well lived. Going back and forth from the present to past events, with interspersed letters from Alma’s Japanese Lover, Ichimei Fukuda (the gardener’s son from childhood days), giving further clues as to the author’s intent, the reader unravels the events which have affected the fate of both Alma and Irina. It is hard not to feel empathy towards the two as tragedy affects the trajectory of their lives. While we always hope for happy endings, there is a bitter sweet flavor as the story concludes with a touch of magical realism, yet we wouldn’t have it any other way. Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Atria Books for providing an ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

The One and Only by Emily Giffin

I wanted to label this book a contemporary romance with the title of The One and Only an indication of the topic, (although personally I would have called it My One and Only), but on second thought I feel that this novel by Emily Giffin is really a study of the various types of love an individual experiences in their life and how that love changes over time. In a way it is a coming of age story, even if the heroine is 33 years old.

The novel takes place on a college campus, Walker University, in Texas not too far from Dallas. The coach, Clive Carr, is a larger than life character in the Walker community (he was even offered a coaching job for the Buffalo Bills – declined due to the winter weather), but is suffering after the loss of his wife Connie to cancer. In play is his daughter Lucy plus his wife’s best friend and her daughter, Shea Rigsby – who was raised alongside Lucy almost as a sister. Giffin relates the story of the season following Connie’s death where the Walker football team plays its heart out for the grieving coach so they can give him the college championship which has alluded him for thirty five or so years. The new freshman player, Reggie, is the best thing to happen to the university since Quarterback Ryan James played for Walker and helped them win the Cotton Bowl. Ryan has had an amazing career and is one of the top quarterbacks of all time, playing for the Dallas Cowboys. These are the key players with some supplementary characters rounding out the crowd.

We learn all this from Shea, who tells her story in agonizing detail (she had to use a big spoon because the little ones were in the dishwasher). Over the year Shea examines the relationships in her life – her mom, her dad who lives in New York with his current wife and children, her former boyfriend Miller and her current boyfriend Ryan, her best friend Lucy, her affinity for football especially at Walker U, her talent for writing, and finally Coach.

From this point on I’m going to discuss the book as a whole with some spoilers, so if you want to be surprised, don’t peek.

It is obvious from the beginning that Shea has a thing for coach, even while she is hooking up with Ryan. This is a May/December romance which slowly develops throughout the book. I not not exaggerating, the process happens at an excruciatingly plodding pace. I listened to this book on tape, (exceedingly well read by Sophia Willingham) and with a total of twelve tapes, the two don’t express their feelings until tape 9, they kiss on tape 10 (and accidentally reveal their secret to Lucy), have a fight on tape 11 (with no make up sex – despite Shea’s attempts to get Coach in the bedroom) and finally at the end of tape 12 there is some sort of resolution, but again, no sex. So don’t expect fireworks throughout this book (although there is a provocative scene when Shea and Ryan hook up). The story is simply Shea’s journey as she discovers what she truly wants from life (as well as who she wants as key players in her future). It doesn’t necessarily go where the reader wants it to go and the conclusion is less than satisfying. Perhaps that is why I’ve heard rumblings of a sequel.

I have some advice for potential readers. First off, if you think football is a bore, skip this book. Second, if the idea that an older man could be attracted to a much younger woman (or vice versa) is abhorrent to you (especially if this relationship borders on the incestuous), choose a different book to read. However, if you are attracted to the idea of an unfolding romance or are curious how such a relationship might come about, then The One and Only is a perfect choice. I also highly recommend the recorded version. The novel starts slowly, but it builds our interest as we become invested in the characters. Perhaps I should refer to one of Coach Clive colloquialisms – it’s not the win, but everything that has gone before that goes into the game. So, it’s not how the book ends, but the build up to the conclusion which is important. It’s the idea of what Shea is willing to sacrifice for the sake of love and whose love she chooses over all others. Read the book to determine the answer.

Three and a half stars.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

I think I was being mocked. Gabrielle Zevin author of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry was actually making fun of me and my passions. Perhaps she was lambasting herself as well. While the average person will enjoy this novel (one might even refer to it as a longish novella or a novelette), it is only the true bibliophile who will really “get” it. Librarians, book shop owners and workers, book club members, avid readers are all included in the mix. If you know your literature, you’ll get a kick out of all the “title” dropping that occurs. Even the chapters are proceeded by a mini review of various short stories recommended by A. J., the main character.

Fikry is a carmudgeon at the age of thirty nine. Even before his beloved wife died in a car accident, he was the anti-social sort who immerses himself into literature. Not any old books, but ones which he considers true literature, within the confines of his narrow vision of what comprises the components of a good book. When our heroine, Amy, appears at the beginning of this story (and we don’t see her again until much later in the novel), she is a newly minted Book Rep visiting each of the book shops in her region to entice the owners into ordering the current seasonal offerings of her client, Knightly Press. After A. J. is rude to her, an exasperated Amy asks him to share what kind of book he likes. He responds that it’s easier to list what he doesn’t like and we are given a litany of book types, including “genre mash-ups” and “gimmicks of any kind”. Whether we agree with his reasoning or not, the reader must respect Fikry’s knowledge about the sorts of books currently being offered to the reading community.

Forward to a drunken A. J. who doesn’t feel he has much to live for. He passes out with a copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tamerlane for company and when he wakes up, this rare manuscript is missing. With the loss of this book comes the loss of his future. Now he can’t retire but must carry on at his little island bookshop with a home above the store. Upon the recommendation of his doctor, Fikry takes up running but leaves the door unlocked since there is nothing left of value to steal. Little does he realize that something more precious than a $400,000 book is left behind which changes his life for the better.

Within the guidelines of the tale are the hidden gems. Zevin doesn’t treat her readers like imbeciles. Just as you think that she’s an expert on “show, don’t tell”, AJ exclaims that “Novels are all tell. The best ones at least. Novels aren’t meant to be imitation screen plays.” When you wonder about the awkwardness of a story told in third person present tense, one of the characters refers to such a narrative as childish. At a book club meeting, we are told that the most important aspect of the event is the food and drink (a necessary component of any book discussion).

Every feature within the book has a purpose which is not revealed until the proper moment. AJ clearly states he believes in narrative constructions, but in the author notes Gabrielle readily admits that this isn’t true in real life where coincidences regularly occur and questions go unanswered, also reminding us that The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is a novel. Within the plot, there were some predictable events, a few surprises, and numerous clever quotes to go along with the witty dialogue. Amy recalls the little details of her past, such as how her mom would regularly mail her a new package of underwear so that she never had to actually purchase any for herself until after her mother’s death. She finally realizes that despite their stormy relationship, “nobody will ever love me that much again”.

Is this a perfect book, by no means. (Please note that the following paragraph contains some spoilers) There are several upsettling events and a few characters who were less than stellar. One also wonders if the author planned to kill off the main character from the beginning or was it an after thought to tie up loose ends? Maya was a little too precocious as a child and a little too obnoxious as a teen. And while AJ was angry about his mom’s Christmas gift, that didn’t excuse his rude behavior. His tantrum detracted from the happiness of the better life he had attained and made me wonder about other possible unpleasant behind-the-scenes family events.

My take away consists of two quotes:
We are not quite novels. We are not quite short stories. In the end we are collected works.
And
There ain’t nobody in the world like book people.

I couldn’t agree more. Four stars.

The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

One of my pet peeves is when an author, whether on television at the movies or in a book, treats all elderly persons as if they have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. Perhaps this is because the more birthdays I celebrate, the older the start of old age seems to become. I know numerous eighty and even ninety year olds who are active and get around just fine, including my own mother. Yes, she’s slowing down, but she’s not a doddering old fool.

I also understand that Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease which robs the victim and their families of so much. However, an author doesn’t do the reader any favors by misrepresenting the realities of these symptoms, although I realize that the “lost and found” of the heroine’s memory is central to the plot of The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks. I suppose we must allow him some poetic license, especially since this is such a baffling ailment (and was even more unknown back in the days when this book was first written).

Nicholas Sparks is one of those authors whose name I have heard repeatedly attached to the term – “romantic novel”. One only has to mention the title of his next book and it is immediately optioned into a movie. When I was informed the book club I had recently joined had never read a romance, I immediately thought of Mr Sparks – the quintessential romanticist, and so I recommended The Notebook, a book on my own to-read list which I had never gotten around to perusing. I even owned my own copy and knew that it would be easy for the group to find at the public library, at Amazon/Barnes&Noble, or even at a “take one/put one back” bookshelf. We had just finished a super long tome and I thought a quick read would be a welcome change.

Now I am somewhat embarrassed by my choice. This was not what I expected.

Don’t get me wrong, my favorite type of book is a Regency Romance, so I often read romantic novels. I even dabble in contemporary romances by authors such as Bella Andre and Melody Ann, so I did have a baseline in mind. Let me just say that The Notebook didn’t meet even the minimal bar and I was left disappointed.

Of course, all romances are contrived and at times unrealistic as couples must overcome various road blocks in order to be together, otherwise why bother to write it all down. The Notebook does have numerous obstacles, not the least of which is a fiancé and an upcoming wedding. So what went wrong?

First one should determine the characteristics of a worthy romance, including:
Romance
Witty dialogue
Well defined characters
An Interesting plot with a few twists
Just long enough to tell the story without a lot of repetition of thoughts or dialogue
Some sexual contact (a plus, but not necessarily a required component)

Well, this book centered on the romance, but the story was one dimensional. Boy loves girl, girl loves boy, they separate and fail to reconnect, she finds another (the problem), girl finds boy again, boy still loves girl, girl discovers she still loves boy, girl sacrifices current life to stay with boy. I wish there was a little more, but that’s basically it. As far as the characters are concerned, Noah Calhoun is a simple, down-home boy who loves poetry and nature while Alison Nelson is a sweet, beautiful girl who appreciates poetry and is a gifted artist. Boom! Not much to build on. The dialogue consists of routine day to day conversations and repetitive thoughts of deep love – nothing clever. The main plot twist is that Allie’s mother Anne hid all the love letters that Noah wrote to Allie after the summer they spent together as teenagers. Mrs Nelson maintains a big town/small town bias, believing that her daughter was meant for something better than the rustic lifestyle Noah has to offer. In addition, pursuit of a career as an artist did not fit into Anne’s overall plan for her daughter’s future. FiancĂ©, Lon Hammond, definitely exemplifies the life that Allie deserves. Lon is a kind, considerate, wealthy, and well connected man who is respectful enough to wait to consummate the marriage until after the nuptials. The fact that he is devoted to his career as a trial lawyer and doesn’t make Allie the sole center of his universe, seems to be held against him. Yet he cares enough about her that when Allie chooses her old love, he graciously accepts her choice. After fourteen years of denial, Ann experiences a sudden change of heart, removing any sense of guilt her daughter might feel for the switch of future husbands. Conflict over!

The best part of the book is the set up. It starts at a nursing home where one of the residents spends every day reading a notebook containing the love story of Noah and Allie to a woman with Alzheimers. On a good day, the patient realizes that this is her story and she will emerge from the fog of her dementia into the real world for a few hours before the haze descends upon her once again. Noah hangs on to these precious moments, cherishing them along with the letters that his wife has written to him over the years. He leaves little poems under her pillow, in her pockets, etc. for Allie to find. Even if she doesn’t know how they got there, the words cheer her up. Noah is beloved by the other residents and the staff for his devotion to his wife. His dedication is responsible for those lucid moments and the kisses which follow, filling the remainder of his days with some sort of purpose.

Sweet like a cup of tea which is more honey than liquid! Contrived like a forged note to get out of gym class!

I suppose people are drawn to the story because everyone wants to root for the good guy. The book is short, direct, with simple dialect, and mild enough that you could give a copy to your grandparents. Also, who doesn’t want someone to love them so totally that you are the center of their universe. Well maybe not everyone, but it does appeal to our romantic side. There are even people out there who can relate to such a love affair. Forgive me if I’m not one of them.

The highlight of this short novel was the author’s mini autobiography found at the end of the story – if The Notebook could have injected some of the humor found in the vignettes of Spark’s own life, this book would have been a much better read.

To my chagrin, this novel is popular all over the world. I hate to believe that readers in other countries think that this is the best literature America has to offer.

I was going to give The Notebook one star, but, ironically, I was the only person in the book club who didn’t care for the book, so here is a reluctant two stars (which is as high as I can go and still sleep at night).

If this book had a hash tag it would be #SappyMaudlin or #NobodyIsThatGood

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

While reading The Rosie Project, I was continually delighted by the trials of Don as he pursued the ideal woman to marry. The only downside of the story was that it came to an end. I knew without a doubt that this was the best book I had read since Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen. You can imagine my pleasure to discover that there was an upcoming sequel, The Rosie Effect. Since I was eager to see what Graeme Simsion had in store for Don and Rosie, I was thrilled when Netgalley allowed me preview this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Although sequels often leave the reader less than impressed, that is not the case with The Rosie Effect, a continuation in a story which is as captivating as the original. The reader is pulled into the inevitable conflicts which seem to surround Don, rooting for him when his unique perspective on life complicates normally calm activities. It is difficult to keep from laughing out loud at some of the antics which ensue. The author draws a vivid picture and each of the characters comes to life. It is as if Don, Rosie, Dave, Sonia, Gene, Claudia, George, even Lydia, are old friends and we can’t get enough of them.

Don and Rosie have relocated to Columbia University in NYC while Rosie gets her MD/PHD. Don has extended his friends list and is content with his married life. Then all hell breaks lose when Rosie let’s Don know that “we’re pregnant”. Problems ensue when Don attempts to discern The Baby Project. In order to keep Rosie calm, Don reaches out to his friends as the plot escalates with one crisis evolving into another. Somehow Don is able to turn the tables and assist his friends with their problems even though the solution of saving his own marriage continues to elude him, since the more Don tries to fix things, the more Rosie considers his efforts fruitless. It will take a miracle to resolve their issues, and as the situation turns from bad to worse the reader becomes even more vested in the results. Somehow, Simsion is able to tie the plot up in a bow putting things to rights, but leaving a few loose ends. I feel a flutter of excitement at the idea of another sequel.

It doesn’t get better than this. I predict a run away best seller. If I could give this book more than five stars, I would. The side story of the split up between Gene and Claudia with Gene moving to NYC and rooming with Rosie and Don, adds just the right amount of spice to the plot. Of course, we can’t forget Dave who is also having problems dealing with his pregnant wife, Sophia. New friend, George, an aging rockstar, adds to the mix of drinking buddies for Boys Night Out. How their lives intertwine brings delight to the reader, even when the outcome looks bleak.

A must read.