Cat Lady

Cat LadyCat Lady
by Dawn O'Porter
Rating: ★★½
isbn: 9780008385408
Publication Date: November 3, 2022
Pages: 342
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: HarperCollins

Single, independent, crazy, aloof, on-the-shelf, lives alone . . .

It’s safer for Mia to play the part that people expect. She’s a good wife to her husband Tristan, a doting stepmother, she slips on her suit for work each morning like a new skin.

But beneath the surface, there’s another woman just clawing to get out . . .

When a shocking event shatters the conventional life she’s been so careful to build, Mia is faced with a choice. Does she live for a society that’s all too quick to judge, or does she live for herself?

And if that’s as an independent woman with a cat, then the world better get ready . . .

When am I going to learn about impulse buying?  Anyone who knows me knows why I grabbed this book – how could I possibly walk away from a book called the Cat Lady?

I should have.  I’m not a prude by any stretch of the imagination, but this was the most gratuitously vulgar book I’ve read in memory and I mean gratuitously, graphically vulgar in that way that British writers can excel at and make it sound like that’s just the way everybody talks.  I realise everybody grows more conservative as they age, but I’d have found this as over the top offensive 30 years ago as I do now.

I really wanted to DNF it after chapter 3, the first time the author wallows in the vulgarity, but I really hoped it was a one-off thing, the way so many author’s will have that one, obligatory explicit sex scene.  In the space between chapter 3 and the next spree of vulgarity there was a compelling and touching story, so I committed myself to the end.

If this book had been written without all the how-disgustingly-explicit-can-I-get; if the author had left all that crap out – this would have possibly been a 4.5, maybe even 5 star read.  One  that required a box of tissues by one’s side.  Because the parts in between are lovely, touching, and so often on-point about how much love and acceptance pets bring to our lives and how important they can become to us.

There’s a character in this book that’s described as a genuinely kind, loving, grieving man who hide his true self behind a wall of angry tattoos that cover his body.  This story is exactly that – a genuinely lovely story hidden behind an almost impenetrable wall of graphic vulgarity.

The Homewreckers

The HomewreckersThe Homewreckers
by Mary Kay Andrews
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781250278364
Publication Date: May 3, 2022
Pages: 440
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin's Press

Hattie Kavanaugh went to work restoring homes for Kavanaugh & Son Restorations at eighteen, married the boss’s son at twenty, and became a widow at twenty-five. Now, she’s passionate about her work, but that’s the only passion in her life. “Never love something that can’t love you back,” is advice her father-in-law gives her, but Hattie doesn’t follow it and falls head-over-heels for a money pit of a house. She’s determined to make it work, but disaster after disaster occurs, and Hattie’s dream might cost Kavanaugh & Son their livelihood. Hattie needs money, and fast.

When a slick Hollywood producer shows up in her hometown of Savannah, Georgia, she gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: star in a beach house renovation reality show called The Homewreckers, cast against a male lead who may be a love interest, or may be the ultimate antagonist. Soon, there’s more at stake than bad pipes and dry rot: during the demolition, evidence comes to light that points to the mysterious disappearance of a young wife and mother years before.

With a burned out detective investigating the case, an arsonist on the loose, two men playing with her emotions, and layers upon layers of vintage wallpaper causing havoc, it's a question of who will flip, who will flop, and if Hattie will ever get her happily-ever-after.

I know Mary Kay Andrews is hit and miss, and yet I still can’t resist grabbing her new releases – although I’ve gotten better about getting them from the library when I can.  This was, thankfully, a library loan, because it was a very average effort on Andrews’ part.

Overall, it was too long; at 440 pages it would probably would have held my attention better with 100 fewer pages.  There’s a cold case mystery involved that’s actually pretty good, except that the killer was transparent in spite of the myriad suspects and red herrings thrown in. View Spoiler »

There’s also a ‘romance’, which is what the book is mostly marketed for, and it’s terribly contrived and thrown together, with no chemistry, no tension and no build-up.  Almost all the romantic page time was wasted on what every reader knew was the red herring romance: the super gorgeous TV star that’s just pretending to fall for his newbie co-host to bolster buzz.  Andrews’ romances are always low-key, which is why I read them; they’re never front-and-center, but generally the outcome of the real story line, but this one was just flat, even for a low-key romance.

I enjoyed the details about Savannah, watching the house they were restoring come together, and as usual, Andrews’ writes likeable and realistic characters.  These highlights were enough to keep me reading, but overall it was a solidly average read and one I doubt I’d recommend when there are quite a few of her titles that are better reads.

The Cartographers

The CartographersThe Cartographers
by Peng Shepherd
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780062910691
Publication Date: March 15, 2022
Pages: 391
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction
Publisher: William Morrow

What is the purpose of a map?

Nell Young’s whole life and greatest passion is cartography. Her father, Dr. Daniel Young, is a legend in the field and Nell’s personal hero. But she hasn’t seen or spoken to him ever since he cruelly fired her and destroyed her reputation after an argument over an old, cheap gas station highway map.
But when Dr. Young is found dead in his office at the New York Public Library, with the very same seemingly worthless map hidden in his desk, Nell can’t resist investigating. To her surprise, she soon discovers that the map is incredibly valuable and exceedingly rare. In fact, she may now have the only copy left in existence...because a mysterious collector has been hunting down and destroying every last one—along with anyone who gets in the way.

But why?

To answer that question, Nell embarks on a dangerous journey to reveal a dark family secret and discovers the true power that lies in maps...

I need to get this part out of the way first:  this is a great story, well written, with great characters.  It started slow for me, but once the momentum kicked in, it didn’t let up.  I love how the author did multiple POVs without actually doing multiple POVs (well, there are two legitimate POVs, but the other’s were tucked seamlessly into the narrative).  The story is what I’d call a variation on the scavenger hunt theme, centering on a seemingly cheap, pedestrian road map that’s really one-of-a-kind, and how it tore a group of friends that were as close as family apart, with a side helping of how obsessive love can corrupt.  My biggest gripe is that, while the ending is hopeful and happy, it wasn’t really an ending to my mind; I wanted at least a little bit more explanation.

But beyond all of that, and I know this makes me a massive nerd, what I loved most was what was in the author’s note at the beginning, coupled with what was in the acknowledgments at the end.  The story that emerges in these two is, to me, even better than the fictional story between, and no, I’m not sharing it; it would put a dent in the plot of the story, and might sap the joy of discovery from some other nerd out there that might find it as delightful as I do.

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2022, for the Relics and Curiosities square.  I’m pretty sure it also fits Splatter, because a serial killer is involved.

Lessons in Chemistry

Lessons in ChemistryLessons in Chemistry
by Bonnie Garmus
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780857528124
Publication Date: April 5, 2022
Pages: 390
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Doubleday

Chemist Elizabeth Zott is not your average woman. In fact, Elizabeth Zott would be the first to point out that there is no such thing.

But it's the early 1960s and her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute take a very unscientific view of equality. Except for one: Calvin Evans, the lonely, brilliant, Nobel-prize nominated grudge-holder who falls in love with - of all things - her mind. True chemistry results.

Like science, life is unpredictable. Which is why a few years later, Elizabeth Zott finds herself not only a single mother, but the reluctant star of America's most beloved cooking show, Supper at Six. Elizabeth's unusual approach to cooking ('combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride') proves revolutionary. But as her following grows, not everyone is happy. Because as it turns out, Elizabeth Zott isn't just teaching women to cook. She's daring them to change the status quo.

This was a total impulse purchase.  It showed up on my Amazon feed when I was looking up another book.  The colourful cover caught my eye and at first I thought it was non-fiction, which is why I clicked on it.  Turns out it was fiction, but with an interesting story line that promised to be funny.  So I bought it.

The narrative jumps around on the timeline a bit at the start, and the first ‘flashback’ wasn’t funny.  It was dark and there’s a definite trigger warning for sexual assault.  The story takes place in the late 50’s so the misogyny is ripe on the ground and infuriating to read.  But there are moments of humor and more importantly, there are men who aren’t assholes.  In fact, the ratio is about 50/50, and the author includes a number of misogynistic women too, so that this story is set in what was probably a very realistic late 50’s/early 60’s backdrop.  The story itself … not quite so realistic but it was a lot of fun imagining what it would have been like had it been a realistic story.  The scenes on-set were hilarious, and I loved the dog (and his name).

There’s a come-full-circle, fairy tale ending to the whole thing but the only other alternative ending I can imagine would involve a romantic HEA, and I much prefer this one, as it makes the story far more empowering without any knights in shining armour.

A solid read.

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts

Tuesday Mooney Talks to GhostsTuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts
by Kate Racculia
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: October 8, 2019
Pages: 359
Genre: Fiction

A handsome stranger. A dead billionaire. A citywide treasure hunt. Tuesday Mooney’s life is about to change…forevermore.

Tuesday Mooney is a loner. She keeps to herself, begrudgingly socializes, and spends much of her time watching old Twin Peaks and X-Files DVDs. But when Vincent Pryce, Boston’s most eccentric billionaire, dies—leaving behind an epic treasure hunt through the city, with clues inspired by his hero, Edgar Allan Poe—Tuesday’s adventure finally begins.

Puzzle-loving Tuesday searches for clue after clue, joined by a ragtag crew: a wisecracking friend, an adoring teen neighbor, and a handsome, cagey young heir. The hunt tests their mettle, and with other teams from around the city also vying for the promised prize—a share of Pryce’s immense wealth—they must move quickly. Pryce’s clues can't be cracked with sharp wit alone; the searchers must summon the courage to face painful ghosts from their pasts (some more vivid than others) and discover their most guarded desires and dreams.

How much fun was this book?  I had a blast reading it; there are very pale shades of Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookshop to it, although it’s an entirely different beast.  Scavenger hunts! Unsolved mysteries! Lost fortunes! Secret codes!

Enough exclamation points – it was a thoroughly enjoyable adventure with an engaging cast of characters and the closest to unreliable narrators (not really) that I can come without hating a book.  The narrator is reliable, but so much of the information she gets is not.  There are stories within stories and games within games and the author does a phenomenal job putting it all together in a way that doesn’t leave the reader behind.  Racculia also scores points for combining brutal violence, a happy ending, and poetic justice in a way that I was willing to buy without a blink.

There was only 1 thing that left me hanging – a very minor plot point that was never addressed:

View Spoiler »

This is the kind of book you pick up when you just want to surrender a few hours to having an adventurous good time.

Adult Assembly Required

Adult Assembly RequiredAdult Assembly Required
by Abbi Waxman
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781472293619
Publication Date: May 17, 2022
Pages: 375
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Headline Review

When Laura Costello arrives in downtown Los Angeles, her life has somewhat fallen apart.

Her apartment building has caught fire, her engagement to her high school sweetheart has been broken off, and she’s just been caught in a rare LA downpour and has no dry clothes.

But when she seeks shelter in Nina Hill‘s local neighbourhood bookshop, she finds herself introduced to the people who will become her new family. And as Laura becomes friends with Nina, Polly and Impossibly Handsome Bob, things start to look up.

Proving that – even as adults – we all sometimes need a little help assembling and re-assembling our lives. . .

This is a good read; I’d have called it a great read if I hadn’t already read The Bookish Life of Nina Hill and The Garden of Small Beginnings, but I have and it doesn’t quite measure up.  The snappy wit that made me laugh out loud in the first two books was much more subdued in Adult Assembly Required (a title that doesn’t make any obvious sense after reading the book), and while all three tackled some pretty serious anxiety issues, the first two did it with a level of tension that AAR never achieved.  I think I also ‘clicked’ with Nina and Lily, the MC’s of each of the first two books in a way that I didn’t connect with Laura.

Saying that, it really is a good read; I may not have connected with the MC, but holy wow, her parents – well, her mom, really since dad never got any direct page time – was a piece of work.  As was her ex-fiancee.  I’ve met these people in real life, but I’m sort of surprised in this day and age they haven’t gone the way of the dodo.  I really enjoyed seeing the characters from Nina and Garden come back, all slightly further ahead in time; it’s fun to see the ‘after’ part of their happily ever afters.

I’m caught up now with my Waxman reads, but I’ll be on the lookout for whatever she writes next – they’re fun without being horribly shallow, without being stories about a bunch of drama llamas.  A fabulous summer read, even if where you live is in the middle of winter.

A Cup of Silver Linings

A Cup of Silver LiningsA Cup of Silver Linings
by Karen Hawkins
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781982105563
Publication Date: August 1, 2021
Pages: 354
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Gallery Books

Ava Dove—the sixth of the seven famed Dove sisters and owner of Ava Dove’s Landscaping and Specialty Teas—is frantic.

Just as her new tearoom is about to open, her herbal teas have gone haywire. Suddenly, her sleep-inducing tea is startling her clients awake with vivid dreams, her romance-kindling tea is causing people to blurt out their darkest secrets, and her anti-anxiety tea is making them spend hours staring into mirrors. Ava is desperate for a remedy, but her search leads her into dangerous territory, as she is forced to face a dark secret she’s been hiding for over a decade.

Meanwhile, successful architect Ellen Foster has arrived in Dove Pond to attend the funeral of her estranged daughter, Julie. Grieving deeply, Ellen is determined to fix up her daughter’s ramshackle house, sell it, and then sweep her sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Kristen, off to a saner, calmer life. But Kristen has other plans. Desperate to stay with her friends in Dove Pond, she sets off on a quest she’s avoided her whole life—to find her absent father in the hopes of winning her freedom from the grandmother she barely knows.

The follow up to The Book Charmer, and the book that arrived yesterday.  I figured I should dive right into a book that inspired me to take my first solo walk in over 6 months.

Is there a fairy tale involving an evil grandmother?  If so, this is a take on that, sort of.  Kristen’s mom dies, she has no idea who her father is, and so her estranged grandmother comes riding in on her metaphorical bulldozer to rescue her grand-daughter, who, by-the-by, doesn’t need rescuing.  Grandma is a selfish, stubborn, wealthy cow, but Kristen is stubborn and as it turns out, rather wealthy too, so there.

In a parallel and connected story line, Ava Dove, one of the ‘gifted’ Dove sisters, is stressing about having kept a secret for a couple of decades, and the secret is fighting back.  Remember, this is magical realism, so the secret is literally fighting back, trying to escape its box and throw Ava under the bus for a stupid mistake she made when she was a kid.  Ava is also trying to get a tearoom reading for opening and the special bespoke teas she makes to help people are starting to cause some strange behaviours in those that drink them, leaving Ava scrambling to figure out why.

On the fringes of this is an unresolved plot point from the first book involving Ava’s sister, Sarah.  It all comes together into a fairly coherent story line, and if you suspend your disbelief enough to enjoy magical realism, the redemption of Grandma ice queen is believable.  Still, the secrets (Ava’s and who is Kristen’s dad) are both pretty transparent to the reader, the former especially if one remembers events from the first book.

Overall, it’s a charming read, with strong individuals and friendships that make the story work better than it might have otherwise.

Other People’s Houses

Other People's HousesOther People's Houses
by Abbi Waxman
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780399587924
Publication Date: April 3, 2018
Pages: 330
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Berkley

At any given moment in other people’s houses, you can find…repressed hopes and dreams…moments of unexpected joy…someone making love on the floor to a man who is most definitely not her husband…

*record scratch*

As the longtime local carpool mom, Frances Bloom is sometimes an unwilling witness to her neighbors’ private lives. She knows her cousin is hiding her desire for another baby from her spouse, Bill Horton’s wife is mysteriously missing, and now this…

After the shock of seeing Anne Porter in all her extramarital glory, Frances vows to stay in her own lane. But that’s a notion easier said than done when Anne’s husband throws her out a couple of days later. The repercussions of the affair reverberate through the four carpool families–and Frances finds herself navigating a moral minefield that could make or break a marriage.

Well, this is not the Abbi Waxman I was looking for.  This was a much more intense, painful story than the other 3 I’ve read so far, and while the humor is still there, it’s not at all light-hearted.  This is a story that reads like a fictionalised version of the author’s experience (there is no evidence at all that this is the case).  The language is cruder, the emotions are rawer; there’s a lot of anger.  There’s also a lot of navel gazing about parenthood, which, you know, not really my jam.  But the writing is excellent and I got sucked into the lives of all these people, whether I wanted to be there or not.  A very compelling read.

The Unbearable Bassington

The Unbearable BassingtonThe Unbearable Bassington
by Saki
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1978
Pages: 146
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Folio Society

The handsome and infuriatingly nonchalant Comus Bassington and his mother Francesca are struggling along at the edges somewhat — an advantageous marriage would certainly help. And Comus has met an heiress who appeals, Elaine de Frey. But he has a rival, his friend Courtenay Youghal, who is an up and coming young politician of great surface charm.

Francesca is relying on Comus, and there’s no accounting for what she might do if he doesn’t come up trumps. It will not only be embarrassing to his and his mother’s pride, it will also place a terrible strain on their resources.

The tracing of not only the simmering and uproarious repartee, but also the implicit tragedy in the venal expectations of high society in The Unbearable Bassington introduced a new note in Saki’s repertoire. Their combined power made for a book which was instantly celebrated as one of the great novels of its decade.

I discovered Saki, (Hector Hugh Munro) when I read one of his short stories in a Folio collection of Christmas Ghost Stories.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, so when I saw this short novel at a used book store I snapped it up, where it languished with all my other ‘improving’ books on my TBR.

Digression:  The pandemic and this stupid broken leg have been a pain in the ass in most ways, but together they’ve wrought great improvements on the size of my TBR.  There are noticeable spaces on the shelves!

The Unbearable Bassington – I don’t know what to say about it.  Imagine an Austen novel with no redeeming or sympathetic characters.  None. at. all.  Imagine her scathing wit let loose on such a cast of worthless characters.  The result is the pure misanthropic comedy Saki released here.    Either Saki was having a bad day when he wrote this, or he truly found nothing redeeming in humanity, but either way this is the most mercenary glimpse of early 20th century London society I’ve ever read, and while it starts out as a comedy, and remains so through most of the book (a black comedy, to be sure) the ending is thoroughly … not tragic, because tragedy implies a level of sympathy or empathy and there’s none of that to be found between these covers, but not at all happy.  In fact the author’s note at the beginning sums it up best:

Exactly so.

But oh, the writing is brilliant.  Even though I found myself uncomfortable with the complete and utter lack of any redeeming quality, I couldn’t stop reading.

I’m not sure I could recommend this book unless someone was in the mood for a misanthropic read, but I do recommend giving Saki a try one way or there other.

Vinegar Girl

Vinegar GirlVinegar Girl
by Anne Tyler
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780804141260
Publication Date: June 21, 2016
Pages: 237
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Hogarth

Kate Battista feels stuck. How did she end up running house and home for her eccentric scientist father and uppity, pretty younger sister Bunny? Plus, she's always in trouble at work - her pre-school charges adore her, but their parents don't always appreciate her unusual opinions and forthright manner.

Dr. Battista has other problems. After years out in the academic wilderness, he is on the verge of a breakthrough. His research could help millions. There's only one problem: his brilliant young lab assistant, Pyotr, is about to be deported. And without Pyotr, all would be lost.

When Dr. Battista cooks up an outrageous plan that will enable Pyotr to stay in the country, he's relying - as usual - on Kate to help him. Kate is furious: this time he's really asking too much. But will she be able to resist the two men's touchingly ludicrous campaign to bring her around?

I bought this book originally purely because of a sign.  Not a portent sign, but an actual sign.  Neon, actually, and registered as a historic landmark, it’s about 2 miles from us and sat over what was the Skipping Girl Vinegar factory.

Anyhoo, it sat on my TBR for years because … I bought it for its dubious coincidence of naming with a sign I’ve always liked.  And I’ve never read The Taming of the Shrew, nor have I previously read any Anne Tyler titles.  But yesterday I picked it up and read the flap and thought, yeah, why not?

It’s an easy one-day read, but it’s weird.  I can’t say I liked it, but it wasn’t bad either.  As individuals, the characters were well constructed, fleshed out.  But put them together in a scene and they didn’t interact well with each other at all – they all turned into mechanical constructs that sort of bumped along together. Was this on purpose?  I don’t know.  But the result was a story that didn’t work, that felt clumsy and dysfunctional.

The ending was … I don’t know what the hell it was.  (See: haven’t read Shakespeare, above.)  It felt like Kate was assimilated into the Borg that is her father and Pyotr.  There was a complete lack of emotion involved and a sense of passivity about all her movements.  And there was quite a rousing Stepford wife speech at the end that I suspect Tyler meant in all sincerity but failed to sell me; had I been in that scene I’d have thrown food at her – preferably something sticky – and told her to get over herself.  But then the epilogue clearly showed me that I missed a cue somewhere in the story, one that showed Kate definitely possessed a will of her own.

So … 3 stars because: weird.