Together, Again

by Milly Johnson

In a way, this book returns us to Milly’s often-used foundation of three women whose lives intertwine and whose relationship supports one or more of them escaping from a desperate situation and the others finding happiness and fulfillment.

Three sisters born seven years apart meet at their family home upon the death of Eleanor, their mother. And I use that “mother” term loosely. Maybe I should instead say “the woman who gave birth to them.” The two older sisters (around 38 and 45)have only seen each other sporadically and perfunctorily. Neither has seen or heard from the youngest (31) for 15 years since she ran away at age 16. They hardly know each other and aren’t particularly fond of what they do know. Jolene, the oldest, is married to a very bad man and is very unhappy in her marriage. She is also a very successful romance novelist who seems to write the same type of books Milly herself does. Also, they are both on their 20th book. And I hope that’s all their lives have in common, but I suspect not.

Later, in bed, Annis didn’t go to sleep immediately but sat up reading one of Jolene’s books, the only one she hadn’t read. It was about a well-to-do woman who left an abusive husband and had to build up her life from scratch. Jolene wrote a lot about women in need of a renaissance and she wrote about them too well. Annis had met women like them in her own life, so she could sense the ring of truth in her stories and her characters.

Marsha is the owner of a thriving company and is very well-off. She is single and has never had a successful long-term relationship thanks to having unresolved issues from her girlhood platonic affair with the family priest. (It is funny that she apparently once went on a blind date with the same crazy loser that Juliet in An Autumn Crush did!-I love these little threads to her other books Milly always includes.) Annis is something of a mystery, except we know she has had a very rough life. At first homeless, hungry, and going from pillar to post, for the last 7 years she has at least been relatively safe and befriended by a somewhat mysterious group of women who work at a cocktail bar and maybe something else. She is very wise, thanks to her experiences, and is the catalyst for Jolene and Marsha to find their paths forward.

There are a lot of mysteries and questions that run through this book. Why did Annis run away at 16? Why did her parents apparently not try to find her? Why, even when most desperate, did she not ever try to make contact with her family? Especially her sisters? Why does Jolene stay with such a vile man? Exactly how vile is he? Why did Eleanor leave the bulk of her fortune to Annis of all people? What’s with Sally and her extreme reaction to reading “the letter” Eleanor entrusted her to deliver after her death? Eleanor’s letter is revealed bit by bit to the reader throughout the book. The answer to the first question is telegraphed pretty clearly before it is spelled out, others are revealed at various points, and some come only at the end.

Most of the questions and drama involve Annis and Jolene. The three sisters forge strong loving bonds with each other as the book progresses, and each of their lives and challenges are explored. Two of the three sisters are in hopeful romantic relationships by the end of the book. And the other finds freedom. So yes, it has much in common with many of Milly’s books, but it does forge some new ground. It has plenty of funny observations and commentary, but not as much comedy as many of her earlier books. A lot of comedy would be out of place in this one. It deals with some serious and disturbing issues and people. Usually, Milly’s villains are despicable human beings, but they fall short of being mentally ill. In this one, we have 3 really sick people and one that comes pretty darn close. I admire Milly for bravely breaking new ground and forging new paths with each novel, especially lately. But I also love that she is keeping true to many of the aspects that I love and that really work. It’s probably one of her best books, but it’s not a personal favorite. **Spoiler**

I wasn’t too enthralled with either romance. I just could not understand Jolene’s choices even given her childhood. It is certainly not the first time Milly has had a “wet lettuce” as one of her main characters, this one seemed to be less understandable. I felt that the reveal of her husband’s perfidy was a little handy. I would have preferred for her to break free without needing that extra impetus. Sally’s enlightenment seemed to come out of nowhere. I do miss the comedy and although the ending was satisfying, I didn’t find myself wanting to cheer.**End spoiler** 

 Oh well. No book is perfect, and my bar has probably become too high for Milly. I guess that’s on me.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Limelight

By Amy Poeppel

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this excellent book on Audible. The reader, Carly Robbins, was perfection and I can’t imagine how the personalities could be better portrayed on the page as they were by this actress. She particularly nails the narration of Allison, our estimable heroine, the sulky brattiness of Charlotte, one of her daughters, her wise and very active mother, and our other main character, L’Enfant terrible Carter Reid.

Allison Brinkley is a teacher and married mother of 3 precocious children who is excited to move her family to New York City when her perfectly wonderful attorney husband gets a big promotion. They are leaving Dallas Texas to live the dream in the city that never sleeps! The Culture! The Opportunities! The Restaurants! The Excitement! The Shopping! The Charming Brownstone on the Upper West Side! Cue the rude sound of the needle scratching a vinyl record. Does the reality match the fantasy? Of course not.

Her teaching job(s) fizzle, she misses her dynamo of a mother, the kids are not adjusting well, the schools leave a lot to be desired, the other moms are cliquish and snobby, etc., etc. And trade in that brownstone in a leafy neighborhood for a too-small apartment in a modern high-rise somewhere in Manhattan not near Central Park.

But somehow things start to look up when, through a series of unlikely events, she becomes the Personal Assistant to Carter Reid, a Justin Bieberesque super pop star. Allison is cheerful, nurturing, patient, responsible, intelligent, hardworking, and chock-full of integrity. Carter has never experienced anyone like her. And vice versa. Carter is a rude, ignorant, lazy, hedonistic degenerate with the manners of a feral child. Maybe that’s a little harsh, but just a little. How it turns into a match made in heaven makes for a very entertaining journey. It is by turns frustrating, hopeful, a little scary, funny, and heartwarming. It is one step forward and one step, sometimes two steps, back as Allison assumes responsibility for whipping Carter into shape for the Broadway debut he is bound and determined not to do the work for. But Carter’s whole future is on the line, and though Allison is determined not to fail, it is not until she enlists the help of her teenage daughter Charlotte that we see there just might be some small possibility of saving Carter from himself.

As much as this book is centered around the development of Allison’s relationship with Carter, it is also about her whole family and their adjustment to the city, work, school, and creating a new social circle. By the end of the novel, they are all New Yorkers, even though super smart Charlotte will be moving to the West Coast to attend Cal Tech. And although no, (spoiler alert) Carter does not win a Tony award and thank Allison during his nationally televised acceptance speech in front of the glitterati of Broadway for saving his career, it ends pretty well for him too.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Happy Ever After Playlist (The Friend Zone #2)

By Abby Jimenez

This book started out so good, I was barely 6% in when I downloaded the first one in the series from the library to read it right after this one. I really loved the writing, and the way it started: A nice likable woman still trying to recover from her fiance’s death two years prior, her funny supportive friend, and the adorable dog. The promise of the dog’s absent owner, an up-and-coming acoustic rock star showing up to claim him was the carrot on the stick. Unfortunately, it went south pretty quickly. They text and talk being very cute and flirty before they ever meet in person. The getting to know each other stage was sweet and nice. They find each other online. “ Jason was hot. No, he was beyond hot. He was bearded, thick brown hair, sexy smile, blue eyes hot. Six-pack abs on the beach hot.” I can only take so much of that. When they finally meet and see how hot and gorgeous they both are and how cool and nice, well, it’s a done deal. End of. I’ve read a few reviews of this and this is the part people seem to really like. It’s light and funny and romantic. But I’m sorry, I was just bored with all of the sweetness, perfection, and adorableness. Had I but known.

He takes her to meet his parents (they love her-who wouldn’t) and they finally have sex. Of course, it is mind-blowing. She says “I always considered myself immune to that kind of frenzy.” among many other things. So sex with beloved dead Brandon was not as good as with Jason? I didn’t like that she even implied that, and I didn’t even know Brandon or their love story from the first book. TMI, Sloan. The last half is all drama and angst all of the time. At first, I actually found this to be a relief from all of the perfection. They have really got themselves in a pickle, and I had to keep reading to see how they would get out of it and achieve a happy ending. To make a long story short, Sloan is sick and miserable on the road and Jason is miserable because she is miserable. It was a constant litany of what a miserable life it was and how it was going to last a whole decade so they can’t have kids or a home and Sloan has to give up her career as an artist. He finally sends her to his parents’ house so she can paint and not be miserable, but they are miserable without each other. Maybe he should have sent her to Sting and Trudy, or BonJovi and Dorothea, or Ozzy and Sharon, to see how they did it.

They have a big fight over Jason being a dick without her and Sloan can’t take the separation either so she surprises him by rejoining him. She has decided that the whole being miserable with life on the road was just her attitude problem and vows to make it work with a positive “can-do” approach. Meanwhile, though, Jason finds out that the record company he is tied to is even eviler than he thought it was and if Sloan stays with him, her very life will be in danger since the record company wants him with his crazy ex-girlfriend Lola for publicity purposes. Now I know record companies only care about the money, but it was pretty hard to swallow that they would maim (and maybe kill?) an inconvenient girlfriend. I mean wouldn’t that kind of thing get out? Anyway, Jason lies to her making her believe he is the worst person on earth so she will leave him and be able to lead a normal safe happy life. The other alternative would have been to just have a conversation, but I guess he just didn’t think it through. Or maybe he just likes the dramatic approach. So naturally, they are sick and miserable without each other. Jason says this:

It had been ninety-four days since I’d last seen her, and I was nothing but a husk of myself now. My world was dim. All was faded. And the more time that passed, the darker it got. Life without her was a sensory deprivation of my soul.

This is not the foundation for a healthy relationship, folks. No one should be that dependent on another for not only joy and happiness but not to be an empty shell with no soul. Sloan is actually trying to move on and is pretty successful, except she will never love again and spends her days in ‘various states of numb confusion,” so no, not really happy. They finally do get back together again after Jason overshares his personal business with a stadium full of people and all of the roadblocks are miraculously removed. But one of the things he says in his self-indulgent blubbering under the spotlight is this:

“Yeah. She’s on a date tonight. I saw her. Went down to her art gallery and saw her with some guy when I was about to come out. It fucking killed me,” he whispered. “I thought breaking up with her was hard. But seeing that…”

So in other words his 3-month separation from her was not as painful as seeing her moving on from him and trying to be happy in a nice relationship? And don’t forget, he purposely broke her heart just so this exact thing could happen. That is just messed up.

So there were even more problems for me with this one, as well as some good things. The redemption of Lola was well done. Abby Jimenez can be very funny-loved Kristen. Despite my difficulties, she is an engaging writer if a little over-wrought at times. I tried to skip ahead but had to go back. Life on the road with a rock star was something new for me, It was thought-provoking and educational. I even like that hunting was not demonized. It is told, and told well, from two alternating first-person viewpoints. Despite the bipolar nature of the plot, I might give her another try with a different story and not-so-problematic characters.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

August 24, 2022

Again, Rachel

by Marian Keyes

‘ “The truth must dazzle gradually, Or every man be blind.” Emily Dickinson.’

I loved much of this book. First, The Walsh family is a main character here, with each of the sisters maintaining the personalities that we have come to know and love or not love as the case may be. I hate it when an author does a sequel or a series and personalities that were interesting and intriguing, that made you want to come back for more, have vanished and we have reconstituted versions. The people we were introduced to and came to know throughout the Walsh family chronicles are the same people, yet some have been allowed to grow and mature. And some haven’t.

Confidence was usually seen as a positive. But Mum was from that generation of Irishwomen who prided themselves on raising children with rock-bottom self-esteem. Nothing galled them as much as an offspring with confidence.

 I definitely need to re-read Watermelon and Angels. And maybe skip through Anna’s story to find references to Angelo. After the last book, my favorite sister is Helen and I loved her role in this.

Rachel is back. She is 20 years sober and the head counselor at The Cloisters, the rehab center that saved her life back in the late 90s. Marian Brings back the patients and their heartbreaking yet entertaining stories that I found so involving in Rachel’s Holiday.

In here, clients gave only the most sanitized, tragic version of themselves. To get the full picture, you had to talk to everyone who knew them. It was a little like investigating a crime.

Readers of previous books know that Rachel and Luke got married, and now we find out they have now been divorced for 6 years and he lives in Denver, Colorado. She is in a happy relationship with another man, Quin, who is not easy, but he is interesting and complex.  In the beginning, Rachel is told that Luke’s mother has died and of course, Luke will be back for the funeral and to take care of his Dad’s affairs. Told largely in flashbacks we learn that, according to Rachel, Luke deserted her (but how can that be?) and we are taken through their heartbreaking story that led to that surprising circumstance. Meanwhile, we explore Rachel’s present life, her relationships, her work, and catch up with the Walsh family. And of course, Rachel and Luke are in the same country again. Rachel wants an explanation and apology from Luke but he is distant. It can’t be over for them, can it? But what about Quin? And what’s up with Luke’s long-time partner who came with him to Ireland?

In all of Marian Keyes’ books, The heroines go through horrendous times before getting to the happy and uplifting. Sometimes through no fault of their own, sometimes of their own making, or circumstances out of their control but exacerbated by bad decisions and self-delusion. Rachel part II was more heartbreaking than usual. I had some problems with some aspects of Rachel’s story and some of it was a little hard to swallow. Yes, it was long and drawn out, but in order for everything to come right, it had to be. Could Rachel have had her epiphany a little sooner? Maybe. could there have been a little more fair play with the reader? Hmmm. Not sure. But the book was as insightful, involving, and hilarious as usual. Marian is a master at balancing tragedy and comedy. And with a writer this good, the more words we are given, the better. So not too long for me.

After Anna’s story, Is Anybody Out There and Helen’s, the last sister’s, story there was an over 5-year gap.  Right before Marian came out with The Mystery of Mercy Close, she wrote a refresher to catch everybody up with the Walshes and kind of get them up to speed. If like me,  you have read Mammy Walsh’s A-Z of the Walsh Family,  you can forget about what she told us about Luke and Rachel. This book completely retconns what we thought we knew about them. This is by way of fair warning. I wish I had had one.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

April 27, 2022

Rachel’s Holiday

by Marian Keyes

**Spoilers**

As much as I enjoyed listening to Rachel’s Holiday, a book I have previously read several times though many years ago, I’m a little bit pissed. After I had finished it, I noticed it was the Abridged Version. Gaaaahhhh! I wanted to refresh my memory of Rachel’s journey in preparation for the debut of Marian Keyes‘ new sequel to my long-time favorite of her novels, Again, Rachel. When I searched for it on my Audible account a few months ago, this one popped up and when I saw that it was almost 12 hours long, I bought it. It never crossed my mind that it could have been abridged at that length. Now that I have listened to it, and investigated further, I see that there is an unabridged version, not available until tomorrow, February 3, that is almost 15 hours long. Now that I have finished it, and looking back in the foggy mists of my memory, I do seem to remember scenes and aspects of the book, that weren’t in this audio version. It seems like Rachel had more than one relapse, or almost relapse, than the one depicted in this. It seems like there was more about Chris in the world outside of Cloisters. It seems like we get more of her background with Luke, primarily her mistreatment and hatefulness towards him. Also, in my first read of this novel, It never really hit me how serious Rachel’s problem was until I found out the job she was fired from was as a maid in a seedy hotel. And I seem to remember that we learn that one of the addicts Rachel meets in the Cloisters ends up dying of an overdose in the outside world. These may be memories in my imagination, but I am spurred to get a book version of this to see if those were real happenings in the full book or not. I may have mixed things up in my memory.

So all that said, on to the book. The narration was great, and I enjoyed my “re-read”. It was as funny, witty, painful, and shocking as I remember. As I said, I did not get the sense that anything was missing at the time except one thing. Rachel doesn’t seem to go through any withdrawal symptoms or struggle with craving drugs and alcohol in this version. Does she struggle in the full novel?

Having it told in the first person made the book very effective as we see the truth according to Rachel and the real truth at the same time. That is, once you realize that Rachel is the definition of an unreliable narrator, and nothing she says can be taken at face value. If I’d read it for the first time today, I may have realized how bad her situation was right away. But I didn’t when I first read it. I really liked Rachel. The dawning realization that Rachel was not a likable character at first was a large part of why the book had such an impact on me. Even when she is on the road to recovery she still sees things from a skewered viewpoint until well towards the end. Her continued rage against Luke’s (and Bridget’s) “betrayal” being the primary example. It is only when she lets that go and sees that their visit to The Cloisters was an act of love rather than a betrayal that we know she sees her past behavior clearly and is truly and firmly on the road to recovering.

Apparently, the sequel, due out this spring in the U.S. (and in a couple of weeks in the U.K-not fair!), finds Rachel in her late 40’s and a drug counselor at The Cloisters. It sounds like she doesn’t stay with Luke but meets him again in this one. But yet in Mammy Walsh’s A-Z of the Walsh Family, they did get married and had a little boy. Also, he is mentioned in Helen’s story, The Mystery of Mercy Close. So it will be interesting to see what happened. But whatever, she is happy and healthy. Yay!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

February 2, 2022

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father

By Mark Toby

In the dream, Helen was not dead at all. she was in the bedroom, or the kitchen, out of sight, but within call, if I needed her…Pretty soon she would come to the door of the room, and look at us both, and smile. ad she might say something, or she might not.
So many nights it had been like that. So many little casual moments that I let slide through my fingers because they were so commonplace, so ordinary, so numerous.

This was a very cute if very short book (under 160 pages in the original hardback form.) It almost qualifies as a novella. I had just finished Ron Howard’s autobiography and he talked about the movie which he considers his best work as a child actor. It reminded me that the dramedy, a long-time favorite, was based on a book. It was not easily found for a price I was willing to pay.

It turned out to be as funny and touching as the movie. Sometimes more, sometimes less so. I was disappointed in the length but was surprised and happy that the movie was practically lifted from the book scene by scene. I had just hoped that there would be more to the story in the novel, not less. The movie actually adds some aspects and scenes that are not in the book.

Eddie and his father are recovering from the death of his wife a few weeks earlier and trying to get back to normal. It’s not long before Eddie starts to hint around, that as much as he loved and misses his mother, a new wife for his Dad and a new mother for him would not be unwelcome. After a minor false start, and a serious misstep, by the end of the book, Eddie’s wish is fulfilled.

The story is told mostly through dialogue between Eddie and his father. Their discussions and interactions are sweet, funny, and sometimes very touching. We are treated to many of Eddie’s ruminations and Tom’s reactions and inner thoughts as the plot plays out.

” Dad, you know why I like Elizabeth?”
“Why?”
“Because she doesn’t have skinny eyes.”
“Skinny WHAT?”
“Eyes. Like those ladies in the comic books who’re no good….You can always tell…they always have skinny eyes.”
It did sound very reasonable to me, and I decided to remember it. “No other clues? Just skinny eyes?”
“Well.”…The bad ladies always got big busts. Don’t get mad, Dad. It’s true. Very big. Skinny eyes and big busts is how you tell a bad lady from a good one.”

You will be relieved to know that the woman Eddie settles on very early on and the one Eddie’s father finally realizes is perfect for him has “round eyes” and a “medium bust.”

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

January 14, 2022

The Something Girl

by Jodi Taylor

According to Russell’s many books on the subject, hen houses should be light and airy. This one looked like a Dickensian workhouse.

‘No one who has met you could ever forget you. I certainly can’t.’ I felt tears well up. ‘Why are you crying?’ he demanded, slightly panic-stricken. ‘What did I say?’ ‘Something nice.’ He seemed indignant. ‘I say nice things all the time. I’m famed for it.’

A very worthy sequel to the charming and unusual The Nothing Girl. Not quite the impact as the first book, as the arc that Jenny takes is not quite as dramatic. She is safe and sound, adored by her husband and ersatz family (even though she does not always realize it. She still struggles, sometimes, with very low self-esteem.) The plot revolves around her happy home being threatened by an enemy from the past and how she is able to triumph in the end. There were chuckles throughout while the subplot of Jack, the new kid on the block, brought the tears. As a big fan of unconventional heroes, Russell Checkland is in a class by himself.

The domesticity of the world and the comedy reminded me of Betty Macdonald or We Took to the Woods by Louise Rich. Old childhood favorites. I wish Jodi Taylor would draw the Chronicles of Saint Marys to an end, and concentrate her talents on book like these.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

October 2, 2017

The Girl He Used to Know

by Tracey Garvis Graves

“What if it turns out that after going through the evaluation, I find out I’m not on the spectrum. That I really am just weird. I don’t know if I can handle that.”

This is a lovely, sweet romance. In a way, it’s two for the price of one because you get the initial meeting and college courtship of Annika and Jonathan, and then, 10 years later, after a mysterious break-up, their attempt to reconcile now that they have changed and matured. Most readers, like me, will be amused, intrigued, moved by, admire, and come to love Annika. Actually, you love her from the first few pages. She is high functioning autistic. Jonathan is great too because he loves and supports Annika. We also meet Janice, the best friend in the world, and Annika’s wonderful mother, who is even more wonderful than you first think.

“It’s a Christmas present from Jonathan. He said I have to wait until Christmas to open it.” “Oh, Annika. That was so sweet of him. He seems like such a nice young man.” “He has never been mean to me, Mom. Not even once.” My mom didn’t say anything right away. But she blinked several times as if there was something in her eye, and then hugged me again. I wriggled away as soon as I could, because this one was so tight I could barely breathe.

I love when you close a book with a sigh of satisfaction, happiness, and emotion. When you read the last paragraph in this, you will know you have read the perfect ending.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

May 10, 2019

The Joyous Season

By Patrick Dennis

“Daddy always said that Christmas is a joyous season when suicides and holdups and shoplifting and like that reach a new high and that the best place to spend the whole thing is a Moslem country.”

A cross between Cather in the Rye, Parent Trap, and the Eloise books, I think it’s one of the most hilarious novels ever. It is certainly the most hilarious novel I’ve ever read. Set in 1960’s Manhattan, narrated by a VERY precocious and smart-mouthed (but nice) 10 year old, this book is a delight from start to finish. His take on the antics of the adults in his and his eccentric younger sister’s lives during his mother and father’s break up and ultimate reconciliation commences during a disastrous family Christmas.
For Cripes Sake.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday

By Milly Johnson

I don’t want to get back to reality, said Robin inwardly. He felt protected here in this odd little inn. It was as if it was enchanted, like the Beast’s castle when Belle walked in and found all the luxury food waiting for her. He wouldn’t have been at all surprised if clocks and candelabras had started dancing around the room singing “Be Our Guest.”

In reading the description of this book and right up to about the 20% mark, I thought I knew where this one was going to go. It starts out as a fairly typical Milly Johnson. She really likes to have 3 stories going at once. In this one, 3 couples get lost during a terrible snowstorm two days before Christmas and end up together in a deserted but charming inn (Which is magical. Of course.) One couple, once passionately in love, is meeting to sign their divorce papers after years of acrimony. They are tired of fighting, have new partners, and just want to move on with their lives. Couple number two is the head of a large company who is accompanied by his unappreciated PA who has been in love with him for years. The last couple is a very happy gay couple who have been together for over 30 years.

I settled down to enjoy the journeys of at least several characters who had to learn, grow and break out of self-destructive patterns in order to find fulfillment and happiness. Of course, finding happiness would also mean finding true love with the obvious person as well. Well, all did not go according to plan. I am happy that Milly has grown out of her usual formula that all of or most of her early books incorporate, as delightful as most of them were. It became pretty obvious pretty early on, that the love stories were not going to follow the usual romantic comedy playbook. For one thing, Two halves of the prospective couples were so unlikable, almost toxic, that I was rooting for the people they would naturally be paired up with to run far and fast in the opposite direction. To make it more confusing, One of the prospective love interests was already in a very happy and healthy relationship albeit “off-screen”. So It was not predictable how all this was going to play out, romantically speaking.

Don’t worry. There are happy endings in this one and a love story or maybe two by the end. But it does not go how you think it would at the beginning. Turns are taken and there is some suspense up to the final climax. And that is a good thing. Once again Milly delivers a satisfying, touching, and amusing story. As always, it was very English. The title is based on a popular British Christmas song that is virtually unknown in the United States. And a dose of Jane Austen-love never hurts.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

June 21, 2021