Review of “No Love Allowed” by Kate Evangelista

This young adult version of “Pretty Woman” shares many elements with the adult story: there is the rich, seemingly shallow guy, Caleb, who hires a pretty girl, Didi, to be his escort at summer parties, insisting that no feelings be involved (there’s even a no-kissing rule); the need to dress the benighted female in sumptuous clothes; the shock that she can hold her own in his social set; her refusal to take his money; and of course, the aha moment when he realizes he has fallen in love with her. (“Reluctantly he caught himself admitting Didi affected him more than he’d ever thought possible. It scared him. Yet in the pit of his stomach, a thrill mixed with his fear. What was happening to him?”) In the end, it will be no spoiler to fans of “Pretty Woman” to relate that in spite of all Caleb’s assets, it is Didi who rescues Caleb.

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There isn’t any sex in this younger version, but a lot of purple prose nevertheless, replete with breathless longing, bulging muscles, tight, lean bodies, and an eventual kiss that was “hard, hot, and full of promises.” While no one claims Didi is a “Cinder-fucking-ella” she clearly is, and analogously, Caleb finds about Didi that “[e]ven the way she ate a fucking burger fascinated him.”

As for Didi’s past, she isn’t a prostitute, but something perhaps just as shameful – at least as far as Caleb’s father is concerned: Didi is bipolar. [Um, gosh – how can one even come up with a comment on that “equivalency”?]

Unfortunately, a movie version would have helped. We could have seen events unfold instead of reading bad prose descriptions of them, such as “Curses and giggles abounded.”

Then there is the inevitable nod to Jane Eyre: “It was as if an invisible string bound her heart to his, and no matter what happened nothing could cut the connection between them.” Too bad Charlotte Brontë never got royalties for that concept.

Evaluation: For teens not having been exposed to “Pretty Woman,” this modern YA combo of “Cinderella” and “My Fair Lady” may have broad appeal, but I was sorely disappointed at the quality (or lack thereof) of the writing.

Rating: 2/5

Published by Swoon Reads, a division of Feiwel & Friends, an imprint of MacMillan, 2016

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Review of “The Undomestic Goddess” by Sophie Kinsella

It’s not as if there is anything unpredictable in Kinsella’s books, but they are nevertheless full of humor and charm, and worth reading in spite of the lack of significant surprise.

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I loved the premise of this book: a high-powered London lawyer, 29-year-old Samantha Sweeting, running from a horrible mistake at work, stops at a house in the Cotswolds for a glass of water, and gets mistaken for an applicant for a domestic servant. Before she knows it, she has taken the job. She can’t cook or clean; she has always used hired help herself. The handsome (of course) gardener Nathaniel notices her plight, and offers to have his mother Iris help Samantha. Iris (of course) just happens to have learned to cook in Italy, and is fantastic at it.

Samantha doesn’t just need training in cooking and cleaning; even relaxation is not natural to her. She comes from a family for whom a typical Christmas is her barrister mom reading a court report, and her head-of-investment brother taking a Xanax while he checked financial indexes. (She has another brother, but he had a nervous breakdown.) For Samantha, time has always been divided into six-minute intervals (corresponding to how law firms bill clients), and working all hours of every day and every night just seems natural. Iris and Nathaniel aim to teach her otherwise.

Samantha’s new employers, the Geigers, are very funny and very endearing, if a bit benighted. But they are far preferable to her previous employers. In fact, she finds out just how much when she inadvertently discovers the real nature of her “mistake” at the law firm.

Evaluation: This book by Kinsella is delightful. Although the story arcs in her books are similar to one another, she adds so much hilarity that it is a joy to read her books anyway. They are just the thing when you are looking for a light sorbet between your heavier main course books.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Dial Press, a division of Random House, 2005

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Review of “Thursday’s Children” by Nicci French

This is book four in the detective/psychological thriller series featuring psychotherapist Dr. Frieda Klein, who is the occasional collaborator of London Detective Chief Inspector Malcolm Karlsson. There is no romantic involvement between the two, although not for want of enthusiasm among readers for the match-up.

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In this book we get a better look at Frieda’s past, after a former schoolmate approaches her with a request to help her fifteen-year-old daughter Becky, who has been acting out. Frieda agrees to see Becky, and discovers she was recently raped by a man who told her before he exited her bedroom window: “Don’t think of telling anyone sweetheart. Nobody will believe you.”

This rings bells for Frieda; she was raped at age 16, twenty-three years prior, and the rapist said the exact same words to her before he exited her bedroom window. No one believes Becky now, and no one believed Frieda then, but Frieda now understands the rapist is still out there, and still preying on young girls.

Frieda is determined to stop him, and goes back to her hometown of Braxton to investigate the matter herself, with the help back in London of her friend Karlsson. No one seems to want Frieda back, and soon she finds out why as she learns the answer to her questions from twenty-three years before.

Discussion: While this book gives us more background on Frieda’s past, her personality remains opaque, even as it did to her friends and boyfriends while at school. Frieda was a solitary character then and in the present. Her friends now are pretty much limited to the able handyman Josef, her BFF Sasha, her former analyst Reuben, and Karlsson, but even with them she remains secretive. As she realized in a previous book, “[s]he could listen, but she couldn’t talk; give help but not ask for it.”

But one man does know Frieda, the killer who is stalking her, and only she and Karlsson understand he is still alive, having previously staged a death to seem like his own.

The authors (Nicci French is the pseudonym for the writing team of husband and wife Nicci Gerrard and Sean French) endeavored in this book to give us more hints as to why Frieda remains so closed off. As part of the explanation, they explored the theme of how rape victims have such a difficult time being believed; often, as in this story, girls are targeted who are troubled or rebellious and vulnerable, and apt to have a number of problems. Police and even the families of these girls dismiss the claims of rape as “hysterical” or “looking for attention.” They demand to know why didn’t they cry out or fight. The interrogators discount fear in the equation. Those who have been raped, meanwhile, have to live with the guilt, shame, and feelings of violation, with no support from anyone else. Years of this can have lasting damage.

Evaluation: I like this series; the suspense is balanced with character development, and the pacing, while slower than most thrillers, is well done. I didn’t think this particular book was as good as the previous one, however, and I am beginning to think that the extent to which Dean Reeve, Frieda’s stalker, knows about everything going on with her (especially at the end of this book), is pretty improbable.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Pamela Dorman Books/Penguin, 2014

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Review of “Dark Matter” by Blake Crouch

Who would have thought I would have already read, only halfway through the year, and by somewhat random selection, four novels employing themes of physics to structure the plot? And that all four of them were pretty clever? (They were The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church, Relativity by Antonia Hayes, Before the Wind by Jim Lynch, and this one.)

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Let’s see: imagine me in a locked library. I either pick or do not pick a novel with tropes from quantum mechanics. If you open the library doors to come observe me, what do you see? Me deeply interested in yet another such book? Or me deep in sleep from yet another such book? Or me reading a bodice ripper? (Ha ha! That one is too improbable!) This is my “Reader’s Restatement” of the classic Schrödinger’s Cat Paradox, the real paradox being central to Blake Couch’s story. According to the original thought experiment in physics as devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935, a cat is put in a sealed box with a flask of poison. A mechanism is set up to poison the cat or not, depending upon what is going on at the moment of observation, i.e., when the box is opened. The act of observation collapses the wave function of activity on the quantum level from two outcomes to only one. Further, quantum mechanics suggests that until this observation is made, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead; there is quantum superimposition.

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In Crouch’s novel/science fiction thriller, Jason Dessen, a brilliant quantum physicist, has come up with a way to overcome the problem of reality splitting into two paths upon observation. He suggests a rather convoluted, but not inconceivable fix that involves, at the moment of decision, a split into a different universe. Thus, he posits an infinite number of universes, all reflecting different decisions that launched us onto different life trajectories.

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Continuing this thought experiment (or real life experiment, as in the novel), what do you think would happen if that were the case? There would be infinite numbers of us, leading infinitely different lives, based on minute options we took or passed up at each and every moment.

In the story, Dessen wins a big science prize for inventing a box that will hold people, rather than cats, and a way to to put people into this superimposed state. Once they enter the box, they embark down a labyrinthine maze of doors leading to endless universes. Pretty soon, we’ve got a bunch of Jason Dessens, but they don’t want separate lives in new places; they all want what only one of the Jasons has, and are willing to kill to switch places with him.

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Discussion: We have all thought about the big “what ifs” in our lives and in the lives of others. How many accounts of 9/11 did we read in which a survivor asked in wonder, “What if I hadn’t decided to stop for a bagel that morning?” How about people who switched plane reservations at the last moment and the plane crashed? Or more mundanely, what if we had majored in law instead of in English? Or married our high school sweetheart instead of a guy we met years later? It’s fun to think about, and Crouch shows it can scary, too.

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Evaluation: This was a little “out there” for me, but I appreciated the intellectual achievement.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Crown Publishers, 2016

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Kid Lit Review of “Return” by Aaron Becker

This book completes the wordless trilogy that began with Journey and continued with Quest by award-winning author/illustrator Aaron Becker.

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As the saga began, a little girl escaped her lonely and boring home life through a magic door she colored onto her bedroom door. She met a new friend from her neighborhood, and he too began to escape his humdrum sepia-colored world for the fantastical realms discovered behind magic doors.

Scene from Quest

Scene from Quest

This third volume begins with the amusing premise that the dad of the little girl, ordinarily totally focused on his work, notices the girl’s kite by his desk, and goes looking for her. He finds the open magic door in her bedroom, so he too passes through the door. Immediately he finds himself in an enchanted world of architectural wonders and exotic landscapes. He soon locates her daughter along with the neighbor boy, and while it first seems as if the girl will refuse to go back with her dad, before long they have to combine forces when they are all in danger. Using their magic markers to fashion a dragon for escape, they become immersed in exciting and perilous adventures, requiring their imaginations to survive. The dad becomes as invested as the kids in vanquishing the bad guys, and they finally make their way home, back to the little door where they started. The girl hugs her dad, and he seems to have quite literarily “seen the light” about the importance of spending time with his daughter.

Scene from Quest

Scene from Quest

The landscapes are wondrous: intricately drawn in watercolor and pen and ink – somewhat medieval, somewhat steampunk, and somewhat reminiscent of the drawings of Chris Van Allsburg, the children’s book illustrator who inspired Becker.

Discussion: Some of my favorite books are wordless. They allow children to supply the dialogue through their imaginations, forcing them to think about what is being depicted and what it might mean, allowing for endless creative interpretations. The pictures in this book are not as simple to analyze as, for example, the wordless books by Tommi dePaola (which are in fact meant for much younger children), so it asks readers to concentrate and ponder. Younger readers can still enjoy this book on a purely visual level at the very least, and those not as adept at reading words will discover just how much they can glean from clues besides letters.

Evaluation: This is definitely a book for all ages to explore together.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2016

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