reviews

Watching You; Lisa Jewell

Watching You: Lisa Jewell
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2018
Pages: 324
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Slytherin

Tom Fitzwilliam has enjoyed a successful career as a schoolmaster, being placed into struggling schools across the country and fixing them up again. And the women are taking notice even today. New neighbor Joey isn’t sure about her marriage, but Tom sparks something inside her that she hasn’t recognized in her own marriage. Teenage Jenna helps deal with the reality of her paranoid mother by hanging out with her friend Bess–who also seems to harbor an interest in their teacher. And then there’s Tom’s son Freddie, who watches everyone and everything play out within his neighborhood…including a seemingly fraught relationship between his mother and father.

It isn’t long before someone’s obsession reaches a breaking point when someone is killed in the Fitzwilliam house. Soon neighbors and friends find themselves questioning each other and wondering how far is too far.

Watching You is an interesting twist on the mystery thriller that brings several different stories together and turns them into one. Many people have roles (albeit sometimes small) in this neighborhood of colorful homes. The title manifests itself in different ways; watching a love interest, watching your neighbors, and even keeping an eye on your family and friends.

The novel reads like a thriller or character study rather than a mystery. It focuses more on the events themselves then it does with the police procedural, though chapters are interspersed with interview snippets. Readers don’t even know who was killed. I had the “who” and the “why” about midway through, but Jewell includes other twists and last-minute thoughts that will shock even the best detectives.

And because they don’t know who for most of the book, it presents itself as more of a character study. This isn’t a bad thing here, though, because I found most of them to be interesting and not caricatures. I liked that Tom wasn’t the perfect definition of handsome as you might expect. I liked getting a glimpse into the life of semi-popular-but-not-entitled Jenna. Overall, Jewell does a great job writing characters as unique people. The character who fell a bit short for me was Joey and sometimes I found myself being bummed out when the chapter changed to to her arc again. I initially thought it would mostly be her story since we spend a lot of time in her perspective in the beginning, but it isn’t. There is nothing new about her affairs and watching her miss her dead mother (yet another “missing parent” subplot I thought was unnecessary).

Yes, there are certainly a lot of stories here! One might even wonder if there are too much. By the end of the book it was pretty clear to me that a lot of the chapters were filler meant to serve as red herrings, which I guess is a good thing if you like to challenge yourself to solve the plot before the pages end. However, again, the characters were for the most part interesting and I didn’t mind. On the other hand, some of these subplots stray considerably from the main storyline. Freddie, Tom’s son, is an awkward teenager who struggles with the fact that he may have Asperger’s. He also struggles with dating, and while they do give some interesting insight, they add nothing to the overarching story. Entire chapters are devoted to his dating life and probably weren’t needed. It’s some nice representation, but it should have been tied into the novel. I was also questioning why he suddenly started acting according to his new label after he realized he had the disorder. Overall, everyone has a part to play even though I felt at times like Jewell went out of her way to include stories for the sake of throwing us off. Of course, then the book would be a lot smaller, so I guess it kind of works.

As for guessing? This could either be an easy or challenging book to solve, depending on your experience with the genre. I read one sentence or two that blew the thing open for me, but then again I could just be speaking for myself. One aspect of there being several characters to hear from is that everyone has a reason for having a motive, from Jenna’s paranoid mother to Joey herself, and that adds an extra challenge as well as a new level of interest.

Watching You is a somewhat slow burn, but it does begin to get interesting in the second half. which I liked better. I don’t have a lot more to say about it than that other than it’s an interesting look at obsession with interesting characters, and if that’s your thing, you’ll probably enjoy this one.

3 stars

SONG OF THE NOVEL: Every Breath You Take

Book Club Questions (spoilers obviously)

  1. There is a lot of “watching” to be done in this book. Who watches who? When is it harmful and when it is okay? Does social media make it more acceptable for us to spy on people?
    1a. Did you ever learn something about someone else that you weren’t supposed to by watching them? What was it? How did things play out from there?
  2. Who did you first guess to be the murderer? Who did you think was murdered?
  3. Think back to a time in school when there was a big scandal. What happened and what came of it, if anything?
  4. Rebecca has a clear-cut motive for what she did. Do you think that she is a good or bad person? What would have been a better way to go about it? What would you have done?
  5. How much was Tom to blame in any event described in the novel? Do you think he was involved in Viva’s death, directly or indirectly? Was he an intentional womanizer or just a victim of his circumstances?

reviews

The Cafe By the Sea: Jenny Colgan

The Cafe by the Sea: Jenny Colgan
Genre: Women’s Fiction
Pages: 384
Published: 2016
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Hufflepuff

After the death of her mother, Flora MacKenzie left her island and intended never to return. Mure was…fine, but the memories were too much and the people too nosy. Now she’s living in London where she can enjoy her own professional life and fantasies about being with the boss that she can’t have.

Then her boss lands a client that lives on Flora’s island and she is recruited to help him win a dispute over there. Despite misgivings about coming back, she is soon reunited with her father and brothers. During her time there, she also finds herself restoring a seaside building which she turns into a cafe. And then she finds herself wondering where she truly belongs…

Despite me sometimes having some issues with the flow of the writing, I am always eager to pick up another Jenny Colgan novel, especially in the summer. This is a novel that includes all her trademark tropes: two possible love interests (which most readers might not be able to guess, a refreshing take in these kinds of books), a woman restarting her life, a woman who likes to bake, a woman who starts her own business, etc. At first, I was worried to pick up another one. The Bookshop on the Corner did very little for me and was almost an exact replica of a previous novel of hers that I read. It went nowhere and there was almost no plot. But as long as these tropes are used in new ways, I’ll almost always enjoy a Colgan novel.

This time, it’s a little different. Flora is actually very happy in her life, or so she thinks. Then when she has to go back home for business, she finds that maybe her island home isn’t so bad. Contrary to the cover, it’s really not so much a book about restoring a cafe as it is about family and finding your way back home. In fact, the cafe isn’t really touched on very much and it’s set up and running in five pages. If anything, it’s a plot device used to bring the community together.

Flora has to contend with several issues. For one, there’s her family. After the death of her mother, she is wanting to repair her relationships with her brothers and father. She left and the island was not happy. I did find that the reasoning for the island’s reason for their anger at her disappearance was superficial to the point where I was wondering if I should like these inhabitants. That’s not to say that characters aren’t well-developed or stereotypes. From loudmouthed niece Agot (I did wish that Colgan could find another way than capital letters to express loudness) to crotchety dance teacher Mrs. Kennedy to Flora’s brother Fintan, nobody is a flat caricature. In fact, there wasn’t one character I didn’t find interesting; on the other hand, nobody was over the top. Charlie’s significant other, Jan, is a charitable person but isn’t a saint; rather, she is a bully to those she doesn’t like. And I have to give Colgan more props: the gay characters were actually people. Every other gay character I read about this year has been a caricature. Not so in Cafe by the Sea. And the character that was written like a stereotype? They were straight. Seriously, kudos to the author for actually making these people people. As for the mother, her presence is felt as well. Now normally I’m sick and tired of hearing about dead parents–and am! However, in this story’s case, the mother’s death gives Flora a reason to reconnect with former acquaintances. The grief is written well, too. It doesn’t take over the book but Flora does have her moments of sadness that come just when you might think they would. Flora also inspires others. Her brother Fintan must also find his life’s purpose when he begins to realize that maybe working on the family farm for the rest of his life isn’t for him. Overall, the novel is a journey of change as characters decide what exactly their futures are.

No Colgan novel would be complete without a love story. Flora enters the novel having a crush on her boss. When he comes back to the island, she may have another shot, but there is another man in the picture as well. She is willing to chance it with both, so readers will find themselves wondering who she will pick. Unlike other novels, it may not be obvious from the start. If I had one complaint, I did find that the inciting climactic event comes out of nowhere and seemed a bit manufactured. And as for the guy she does end up with? One might wonder whether it’s a solid relationship, or if it’s just lust. (There appears to be a sequel that serves to answer this question.) There’s an ethical side plot, too. Flora’s love interest has a client that lives on the island, bringing his business with him. However, the inhabitants’ ire is felt once again as they don’t care too much for the guy and some of the plans that he has. (Characterization shines again, as this guy isn’t the evil corporate owner I see a lot of.) Ultimately, in a book that has a sea of plots, Flora must decide who to side with and what she wants for herself.

The Cafe by the Sea, though maybe not an accurate title, is another great addition to Colgan’s library. It’s a lovely tale about finding your roots and maybe while the romance didn’t seem all there, the family stuff more than made up for it. It makes a great beach read, so if you’re yet to go on vacation, pick it up.

4 stars

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Is J.K. Rowling a Bad Author For Not Including Enough Representation?

I’ve been seeing this one all over Pinterest/Tumblr posts. J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world is so big, so vast, that many wonder: why aren’t LGBTQ issues discussed? Why aren’t there people of different sexualities? Unfortunately, these thoughts tend to turn into hateful remarks about Rowling herself.

So I’ll answer this question right now:

No.

Here’s why.

We already know Rowling is a tolerant person.

This may be irrelevant, but I don’t care. She speaks out against Trump, even though she’s not from the U.S. She donates a considerable part of her salary to charities. Her books speak volumes about the importance of coming together (more on that in a bit). We know that she’s a good person politically, so I’m not sure why the vile comments about her are necessary to begin with.

Some of these topics weren’t talked about much when the books were published.

Some gen-z Tumblr users may not even be aware that the first few books were fare of the 1990s. This wasn’t a hot-button issue yet. .Would it have been nice for the LGBTQ community to feel more respected in the 1950s, or the 90s, or whenever? Yes. But the truth was that it just wasn’t talked about very much, so you weren’t going to see it in a lot of literature. You can’t always blame people who grew up in a different time. Because it wasn’t a hot topic, you can’t really expect it to be written about. Rowling can’t just grab a Time-Turner and rewrite everything to accommodate. If these books were just being published now, though, it wouldn’t surprise me if there wasn’t a need for this argument.

It’s unfair to assume high expectations and politically correct things from authors whose novels were published in a different time. Take the time period with a grain of salt. Even so, there are enough messages about tolerance and equality here that I don’t think complaining about the lack of certain groups is worthwhile; the message in these books obviously spreads to all minorities. You just can’t expect to hold published authors to the standards of your day–that’s like criticizing a non-offensive 1950s novel for having the main character be a housewife. Maybe it wouldn’t fly today depending, but as a product of its time, it’s fine. And if the character is a good, well-drawn character, who cares if she’s not Wonder Woman even if it was written in 2010?

The books’ themes already heavily deal with topics of love and tolerance.

This is literally everywhere. Voldemort’s entire regime revolved around racism, or the idea that “pure bloods” (wizards from strictly magical families) were much better and “purer” than “half bloods” or “mudbloods,” wizards coming from families including non-magical people. In reality, this makes no difference just as white people are no better than those who are black. Additionally, there are characters of many races mentioned. As seen in early debates over the Cursed Child play, just because a character’s race isn’t stated doesn’t automatically make them white– Hermione could easily be black if you wanted her to be. There are many more instances of togetherness too…encouragements by side characters for the houses to get along; teamwork in the Triwizard Tournament; I could go on forever. Just because an author doesn’t discuss one particular facet of diversity, this doesn’t automatically make her a bigot and nowhere is this more obvious than in the Harry Potter series. I feel strongly about equal rights. So you wouldn’t call me a bigot for not writing about it in my last novella, would you?

Quite frankly, given that Rowling is presumably straight herself, the Tumblr community would probably be jumping on her for “getting things wrong” anyway. Either way, you’re looking at an argument.

Finally, it’s not like everyone is white and middle/upper class. Just a few diverse characters in the series for anyone who needs reminding: the Patil twins, Hermione (perhaps), Cho Chang, Dean Thomas (and arguably Seamus), Anthony Goldstein, and Angelina Johnson.

Not all authors delve into issues that aren’t their own.

Many writers tend to write their MCs from their own experiences. This can often be because they just don’t know what it’s like to be of a different race, country, or sexuality. I feel like many bloggers or authors would probably have a problem if Rowling tried to make one of her main characters gay and got details “wrong” (see previous paragraph). Also, considering the time period, doing research might have been trickier. On the other hand, equality in general is a longtime issue relevant not just to everyone in the real world, but in the books as well.

There wasn’t enough time to delve into romance issues to begin with–which is fine, because that’s not what the books are about.

Even with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, romance is barely touched on. (Keep in mind that most of what we see of the Harry/Ginny relationship are aspects expanded on by the fandom. There’s really barely anything between them in the novels.) And then there’s other characters. I really don’t want to be seeing Dean Thomas’ love affair with a Slytherin seventh-year male when I could be reading about the fight to defeat Voldemort. Similarly, I’ve also heard complaints about not enough Jewish wizards. Schoolmate Anthony Goldstein is indeed Jewish, but it would be distracting and irrelevant if Rowling focused too much time on a minor character’s religion (or even Harry’s, as it’s not relevant to the book at all). Some Tumblr folk might say that this could be as easy as dropping a detail, like two boys kissing in a corridor, but that can be distracting if you hear about it all the time. As a book blogger, I would probably call an author out on this type of thing for constantly distracting us with pointing out the sexuality or background of random characters. Doing so feels forced. A recent novel I read did a bit of this and rather than necessarily being diverse, it was kind of a distraction. You can’t cover every issue in books this size. However, what they do cover about acceptance, they cover well.

Still, we wonder: are gay characters ever going to become the majority? Maybe not, because it’s unrealistic…most of the world’s community identifies as straight. However, it’s also not realistic to not include people of other orientations. We’re a big world, and we should strive to get to know each other and showcase each other a bit more. I personally would like to see more books around LGBTQ characters where the focus isn’t their sexual orientation. But there are many more books for that.

Mostly I’d like to add that the vile, insulting, hateful comments towards a clearly well-meaning author that I’m seeing online completely erase the meaning of what the angry blogger is trying to say about tolerance. Authors’ failure to address a certain issue in their work doesn’t mean they are evil villains perpetuating privilege. Common sense 101: not everyone can talk about every issue in every book. If bloggers are writing spiteful things about well-meaning authors, the issue lies with the blogger, not the book. So-called social justice warriors would do well to make sure they are not accidentally practicing what they are protesting. As Dumbledore put it, accidental rudeness still occurs alarmingly often. I hope that we don’t give up on these great, important stories because a few internet bloggers decided that there weren’t enough minority characters to their liking.

reviews

Life on the Leash: Victoria Schade

Life on the Leash: Victoria Schade

Genre: Chick Lit/Romance

Published: 2018

Pages: 343

Cora Bellamy loves dogs. She loves them so much, in fact, that she’s started her own dog training business. Based on a philosophy of love and understanding, she wants to prove the harsh well-known trainers that they’re wrong. So when she gets the opportunity to audition for a dog training TV show, she jumps at the chance.

There’s still one thing standing in the way: her latest client. He’s charming, handsome, and seems to like Cora back. The problem is that he’s taken. What’s a girl to do? Luckily she has the acquaintance of another client to help her. Eli is a great assistant, and little does Cora know that she may be attracted to him as well. 

***There may be minor spoilers.***

I often enjoy a fun, chick-lit novel. I always enjoy dogs. And I also enjoy supporting local talent. So I knew this book had to be mine!

The story focuses on the life of dog trainer Cora Bellamy. She doesn’t have a ton of problems in her life, per se, as she’s gotten over her ex-fiance and is enjoying her dog training business. But excitement is about to manifest itself in the possibility of a new dog training show.

You have several chick lit tropes here for the most part and most are well-drawn.

The clumsy protagonist who leaves her corporate job to start a quirky business: Cora. Her story was interesting and different.

Her party-loving voice of reason best friend: Maggie.

The evil ex: Aaron. He really has no purpose here, and it’s often distracting. More on that in a bit.

The evil corporate-esque giant who is a bully but somehow has a following: Donald I mean Boris Ershovich

The gay best friend who loves clothes, acts feminine and uses words like “darling”: Darnell

We interrupt this post with breaking news…

HOW TO WRITE GAY CHARACTERS

BY FICTIONISTAS UNITED

1. Follow the exact same character-creating process you use for straight people. 

2. Make them attracted to people of the same gender.

3. Um, that’s it.

It really annoys me when writers try to be “diverse” and then write characters according to their cardboard cutout stereotype. Schade obviously tries to be diverse here, maybe to a fault (do we need to know the groomer friend’s lesbian backstory?) I did actually like Darnell. I’m just sick of seeing him show up in every book I read as the gay side character.

My main issue with the novel was that it seemed to focus too much on events that weren’t important to the narrative, while it didn’t often focus enough on the things that were important. The whole balance was a little off. The first half is almost entirely about dogs and there’s not a lot of romance there. (Which was fine, save for the fact that again, there’s not a lot of love development in the second half either so maybe there should have been more of a love story there.) Characters spend so much time complaining about a certain famous dog trainer that I was like, “Enough already! We get it.” Then in the second half, nobody mentions him anymore. Hardly.

This lack of focus creates a few problems. First: I didn’t always care. I really didn’t care about seeing drawn out scenes of Aaron’s reality TV show when I could have been seeing the chemistry grow between Cora and Eli and Charlie, something we desperately needed more of. Second: there is no time for any chemistry to develop. When a fight breaks out between the two, it comes out of nowhere and is clearly just there because “it’s chick lit, and a fight always happens at this point!” It had to be rushed, because, well, there was no time for development. They’re not even in a relationship! And then it was resolved way too quickly with no effort. Actually, I almost started laughing when I read it because of how far out of left field the “argument” came from.

Third: the book skipped from problem to problem so much that it’s easy to forget details. The main characters all go to a party at some point that Cora was apparently invited to. I couldn’t ever remember that happening because it was glossed over so fast. This brings me to the fourth and biggest problem: the book can’t find an issue to focus on. Was it about the dog training show? Was it about Cora finding love? It doesn’t stay on one problem long enough to answer that. This could have been helped if the author spent less time going in-depth about Cora’s roommate’s job issues, drawn-out shopping scenes, Aaron’s TV show, and scenes of partying at clubs (le snore). There are several issues presented that could make for great drama: an evil client possibly holding stake in Cora’s life, going head-to-head with a popular brutish dog trainer (also, I found it strange that Schade implied Cora was going to take him down when they weren’t going head-to-head or even meet); and so forth.

As for the romance itself? Exploring Cora’s moral dilemma with her taken love interest was also exciting, as you don’t see that very often. I know a lot of us who are interested in love have been tempted to date someone in a relationship at some point. It’s easy to guess who she’ll choose, but I wish there was more relationship development. There wasn’t enough here to get me completely invested in these relationships. I also felt that their climax was pretty weak, even for the genre. It tried to be quirky but didn’t make a lot of sense (remember the left field fight I mentioned?) Additionally, Cora doesn’t face a whole lot of obstacles so not much is at stake and it falls flat. It might have been better to spend more of the book showing Cora hosting the show instead of having her wait on the audition results. Waiting does not good drama make. Changing the focus to the show alone could have solved many of the book’s issues.

Okay, let’s talk about the good, because this really isn’t a bad book. I did like some of the subplots, despite how they were distracting. I was especially drawn to one about a woman called Beth Ann, a troubled woman with a poodle living in a tough situation. I was rooting for her. I loved the dogs and their personalities, and there were lots of dogs to love here. Ultimately, I also liked the characters. The dialogue was real, the setting was established, and from a basic perspective it all flowed fairly well. There’s not a lot to talk about, but the story itself was entertaining. 

This was a cute, fluffy book that wasn’t perfect. I did enjoy seeing what would happen next and looked forward to picking it up again to see the characters. Because there was no clear goal in mind, and the one that existed couldn’t be solved by anything but waiting, it fell somewhat flat. Honestly, I feel like it just needed a few more rounds of edits than anything, because in addition to questionable choices, there were definitely some errors I picked up on. It’s a fun piece of chick lit. If you like dogs, you should go for it because the dog stuff definitely overshadows the romance. Still, don’t expect it to win awards any time soon.

3 stars