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FakingArt, theft, and con artists in love are an irresistible combination in this contemporary romance classic. Whip-crack dialogue and lots of old movie quotes evoke the great screwball comedy duos of the screen.

They meet in the closet while burgling a house: Davy Dempsey, a (reformed?) con man introduced in Welcome to Temptation, is trying to steal three million back from a gold-digging ex who has moved on to her next victim, an art collector. Tilda Goodnight is trying to steal back her own painting so that the world won’t learn that the respected Goodnight art gallery has been trafficking in forgeries.

I’d forgotten how crowded this book is when I revisited it on my recent romance binge. On top of the cast of dozens, some have double identities and others have multiple nicknames, depending on which movie they happen to be quoting at the time. Fast-paced and funny, it’s one of those comedy romances in which you never know who will come through the door next— the con man, the hit man, the gold digger, the FBI? “It’s like the clown car at the circus,” someone remarks during the whirlwind conclusion, but it all ends in a happily ever after with character reveals that would make Shakespeare proud.

Crusie’s titles stand out from a crowd of romances because of the truths underneath the silliness: women trying on different roles, trying to be all things to all people, and losing track of which is the “real” self in the end. Tilda, a gifted painter, has been supporting her family with knockoff Impressionist murals for so long, she’s come to hate her art— and Davy can give Tilda her art back, not just in literal paintings, stolen or conned from their original owners, but in the joy of painting again in her own style. And while Davy and Tilda’s hot-and-cold affair is in the spotlight, there are satisfying moments of revelation for all three generations of Goodnight women. Happy endings are not only for the young and cute! Mother Gwen, whose long-repressed anger comes out in subversive cross-stitch and patchwork quilts with teeth motifs, gets a new beginning out of the plot as well.

For other romantic crime capers, Melissa recommends The Spellman Files. Or, there’s the stylish 1960s film, How to Steal a Million, in which Peter O’Toole, Audrey Hepburn, and Hepburn’s Givenchy and Cartier wardrobe also find true love in a closet, while conspiring to steal a forged sculpture. While Dempsey and Goodnight are more down-to-earth than O’Toole and Hepburn— aren’t we all— the aura of witty, screwball fun is the same.

Check the WRL catalog for Faking It.

Go ahead, watch How to Steal a Milliontoo.

Heiress“She imagined the conversation as a prime coach-and-four. She imagined it racing along a road at top speed, the wheels glinting in the sunlight. And then she imagined driving it straight into a hedge.”

Jane Fairfield has the opposite problem of many romantic heroines: she has too much money (a hundred thousand a year!) and too many suitors (who are after her money), and it’s very important to her that she not get married. Marriage would take her away from her sister, who suffers doubly from seizures and from the torturous attempts at a “cure” forced upon her by their uncle.

To further the goal of remaining single at all costs, Jane pretends to look for a husband but presents herself as a tactless nitwit, a social bull in a china shop, and she tops off the performance with the most tasteless, over-the-top gowns she can get away with in a ballroom (“nothing says lace like…. more lace”).

Oliver Marshall, the illegitimate son of a duke, has parliamentary ambitions. Moving between his working-class background and the upper crust set he’s hoping to impress, Marshall is doing his best to blend in with society, while Jane is flying in the face of it. Of course they are meant to be together. Unfortunately, Marshall’s mentor wants a favor in exchange for delivering a bloc of votes in Parliament: publicly humiliate that appalling woman, Jane Fairfield.

Part of a series of loosely-connected novels, this historical romance features not just a duo but an ensemble of strong characters— an aspiring suffragette, an Indian law student, an agoraphobic aunt, lady geneticists!— each with a compelling subplot. Jane, with her tasteless wardrobe and outrageous opinions, is a refreshing and entertaining heroine. The 1860s setting provides all manner of external conflicts in society: class issues, the debate over natural selection, and the vote for women, to name a few. The interpersonal conflicts are handled not just with empathy, but sensibly, with characters having rational conversations with one another and helping one another towards their goals. Nobody gets rescued; instead, with help, everyone rescues themselves. Full of quotable lines, this is a fun, redemptive romance that will have you cheering for, well, everybody.

The Brothers Sinister series can certainly be read out of order, as I’ve been doing, but if you like to take things in order, start with The Duchess War

Check the WRL catalog for The Heiress Effect

WRL also owns the ebook.

crowsIt’s always exciting to discover that an author has returned to a series you thought had been abandoned. While browsing the stacks, I recently came across a new-to-me installment in the adventures of Sir Robert Carey, sixteenth-century Elizabethan courtier and crime solver.

These historical mysteries are set in the 1590s in Carlisle, on the border between England and Scotland, a frontier where blood feuds and cattle raids are what pass for law and order. Carey, taking advantage of his position as Queen Elizabeth’s favorite cousin, finagles a position as Deputy Warden of the West Marches to escape his many creditors and to be near his unlucky lady love, unhappily married to another man. When last seen, our hero and his trusty henchman, Sergeant Henry Dodd, had narrowly escaped torture and death at the hands of an enemy ranked high in Elizabeth’s court.

Picking up where she left off more than a decade ago, Chisholm has relocated her characters from the wild borderlands of northern England to the city of London. Carey is charged with looking into a botched execution in which the wrong man appears to have been hanged, drawn, and quartered. Meanwhile Sgt. Dodd, far from the kinsmen who might help him wreak revenge, decides to pursue city justice against their new enemy. While dubious that anything can be done with warrants and writs on paper, he hires the last lawyer in London willing to do business with them. It’s bad enough that their enemy can buy or terrorize anyone into silence, and that their lawyer seems to have his own agenda, but things really begin to look worrisome when their lines of inquiry point back to Carey’s own mother… a cheerful Cornish lady with her own letters of marque.

P. F. Chisholm is a pen name for Patricia Finney, who also writes sixteenth-century espionage thrillers. The mysteries have a lighter, more humorous tone, but in all of her novels she revels in the details of dress and weaponry that make the setting come alive, plus enough dialect and slang to make the glossary at the back a welcome appendix. Chisholm’s London is boisterous, smelly, and violent. Dodd’s sardonic view of the soft, decadent southerners and his daydreams of leading a great raid on the banks of London lighten the atmosphere; in fact, it isn’t fair to call Dodd the henchman in this one, he’s really the star.

If you’re new to Chisholm’s mysteries, don’t start here; there’s too much back story. Pick up the first book in the series, A Famine of Horses and carry on from there.

Check the WRL catalog for A Murder of Crows

Life Itself, by Roger Ebert

Life ItselfIf you discovered movies as I did, coming of age in the late 70s and early 80s, then you probably also had a love/hate relationship with Siskel and Ebert. Delivered from a darkened theater balcony, first on PBS and then in syndication, their television reviews brought us news of the latest films, but both critics could infuriate us with a snarky comment or an inappropriate thumbs up or thumbs down. While other great film journalists had come before them, Siskel and Ebert brought criticism into the mainstream of American culture.

As a young film buff, I was never a huge fan of the reviews, but over the years, I couldn’t help but come to respect the two, both because they were passionate advocates for film and because both battled premature health problems nobly before succumbing to too early deaths in 1999 (Siskel) and 2013 (Ebert). Before his death, Ebert wrote a memoir, Life Itself, which is destined to become a classic of the form.

Life Itself follows Ebert from his youth in the 40s and 50s, through his rise in the world of Chicago journalism, into his battles against alcoholism, his surprising journey into television and fame in the film world, the blossoming of a late-life marriage, and his struggles with the cancer that took first his jaw and ability to speak, and ultimately his life.

This is a book that even those who don’t care much about film will find worthwhile. Ebert approached life with self-effacing humor and a healthy sense of his own good fortune. Running in circles of big egos and beautiful people, Ebert was full of a sense of his own abilities, but also with a sense of humor about his own shortcomings. He was a regular guy with a great journalistic talent who made the most of the opportunities life gave him, and over the course of his autobiography, you’ll come to appreciate his quirky outlook, his work ethic, and the way in which he learns from his experience. Life Itself is full of charming diversions: Ebert isn’t afraid to spend a few pages describing the merits of his favorite fast food restaurants or London streets. He weaves other familiar names into his narrative but always in a bemused way that can’t help but make you grin. His descriptions of the most important relationships in his life —his difficult mother, his rivalry with and deep respect for Siskel, and his connection and love with wife Chaz Hammelsmith — are each moving in a different way.

Try Ebert’s book and you too will end up with a greater respect for an unusual man and for Life Itself.

Check the WRL catalog for Life Itself

Or try Life Itself as an audiobook on CD

Love Minus EightyWilliamsburg resident Will McIntosh is on his way to the a-list of science fiction writers, and Love Minus Eighty is a great entry point to his work.

The title refers to the temperature at which “bridesicles” are kept. In the horrifying, but believable, dystopian future McIntosh imagines, the most desirable women are put on ice at the time of their deaths. It’s possible to revive them, but only the wealthiest individuals can afford the expensive procedures required to bring themselves or someone else back to life. So the women are kept in stasis, revived only briefly by a wealthy client who pulls them into brief consciousness for a speed date in which the woman must make a big impression if she hopes to rejoin the living.

We begin the story with Mira, a woman with a lesbian partner who may still be living, forced to pretend to like the creepy but wealthy men who occasionally come to visit. But her poignant tale is an aperitif to the larger story, which follows several characters whose lives have converged. Rob is a musician whose climb into the wealthy world of the haves ends suddenly. In this future, instead of reality television, people follow the “celebrities” of their choice directly through electronic means, and Rob’s girlfriend dumps him viciously and dramatically in a move calculated to gain more followers. Distraught, Rob runs over a jogger. So begins a downward cycle that he decides he can only stop by working a grueling manual job sorting old electronic components until he can save up enough money to thaw Winter out for long enough to apologize to her. When he does, there’s an odd, awkward connection, and Rob begins saving for another encounter. There’s also Veronika, a virtual dating coach who follows her clients electronically, telling them what to say in real time to make themselves more attractive to others. The irony is that Veronika’s love-life is non-existent, consisting almost entirely of fantasies about Nathan, another virtual coach who views her more as a friend and colleague.

The plot is hard to explain briefly, but easy to follow in the book, as McIntosh finds many plausible ways to keep a great set of characters bouncing off of each other in an ever-deepening sequence of plot twists. McIntosh takes our current world, with the widening gap between the wealthy and poor, our obsession with superficial digital culture, and our technological leaps that are often not grounded in adequate forethought or morals, and follows this thread to its “logical” conclusion. The result is terrifying, but only because it is so plausible. When he stirs in some unlikely heroes and a romance blossoming amid the rubble, you’ve got a captivating novel.

If you like this, consider going on to his other novels, Soft Apocalypse, Hitchers, and Defenders. In a world of speculative fiction series, McIntosh has written stand-alone novels to date, but with movie options on a couple of his books and his creative mind, he’s an author you’re sure to hear more about in the future.

Check the WRL catalog for Love Minus Eighty

Foul TroubleAs I channel surfed one night, I passed by this year’s NBA draft on ESPN. I stopped and watched a while, feeling a new curiosity and empathy about the lives of the young men in the spotlight. That was because a few weeks earlier, I had read Foul Trouble, a young adult novel by John Feinstein that should be required reading for any basketball fan.

Foul Trouble is the story of Terrell Jamerson, a late-blooming high school phenom headed into his final season. The narrator is Danny Wilcox, Terrell’s best friend, and a pretty fine player himself. As the point guard who feeds Terrell passes and the son of the coach who is trying to protect the somewhat naive Terrell from the scavengers that would like to attach themselves to his rising star, Danny feels a lot of responsibility for his friend’s success. It’s a big burden to add to his own hopes of a scholarship at a smaller school, and Danny has a quick wit and a quicker temper, which means his attempts at protection often end in confrontation.

The book follows the pair through a gauntlet of crooked summer camps, self-serving media outlets, arrogant competitors, corrupt athletic gear salesmen, out-of-control boosters, and most of all, a series of recruiters and coaches who each have a different way of circumventing the rules that are supposed to govern the passage of a high school star into the college ranks. Feinstein clearly knows this turf, and by the time he’s done with his tale, the reader has a new appreciation for just how much pressure can be put on a top recruit. Along the way there are gifts, girls, faux friends galore, families ruined by greed, and all matter of temptations that Danny and Terrell must navigate.

Sports fans will love this story, but even if you’re only a casual fan like me, the drama of the novel will keep you turning pages quickly. When you’re done, head for almost any of Feinstein’s nonfiction sports titles. They’re plentiful, covering many different sports, but with special focus on golf, baseball, and basketball. He’s a dependable writer, and you’re unlikely to go wrong, no matter which of his titles you select.

Check the WRL catalog for Foul Trouble

Or try Foul Trouble as an ebook

Redshirts, by John Scalzi

RedshirtsSometimes it’s entirely a matter of perspective.

Ensign Andrew Dahl is excited to be assigned to the starship Intrepid, but on his first away mission on an alien world, he discovers that his posting won’t be just glamor and adventure. In fact, given the strange behavior of the ship’s captain, science officer, and few others, he and his fellow new recruits will be lucky if they survive at all.

Yes, this is the story of classic Star Trek told from the perspective of one of the ill-fated red-shirted crew. The names of Kirk, Spock, and their colleagues have been changed, but any reader who knows anything about science fiction television will recognize that Scalzi has made a novel of the old joke that series fans make about anyone in a red shirt being unlikely to survive the episode.

But there’s a deeper wrinkle here. Scalzi takes readers down a metafictional rabbit hole as his characters discover that their lives are based on a television program, and sadly, that it’s not even a particularly well-executed show. They find a way to Earth, where they meet their exact likenesses, the actors in the series . (One hilarious aside describes the disturbing activities of the narcissistic Chekhov equivalent and his actor doppelganger.) Can they end the show without ending themselves? Or is there a way to make life safe for the redshirts? You’ll have to read Scalzi’s book to find out. But that’s not a difficult task: even when it gets philosphical, this is light, funny, frothy reading. You’ll have gulped down the book before you know it.

Check the WRL catalog for Redshirts

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