SWIPING RIGHT FOR A NEW ROMANTIC COMEDY

The classic Shakespearean comedy involves mistaken identities and the complications that ensue, usually ending up with the right people getting together and ending happily.  It’s a theme that’s been used for romantic comedies for centuries, and it’s about time the trope was updated for the modern world. My Favorite Half-Night Stand, by Christina Lauren, is a modern and clever use of the old mistaken identity plot.

As with this year’s hit book, The Kiss Quotient, the main character here is a woman who has very little experience with the whole dating/romance scene.  Millie is a scientist, “one of the guys”, who’s much better at dealing with research into serial killers than at finding men who interest her romantically.  She’s a professor at Santa Barbara and hangs out with four other professors, all male, and all equally clueless about dating. When the group gets invited to a university function that turns out to be — horrors! — black tie, they decide they’re all going to bring a “plus one”, even if they have to find their dates through online dating services.

However, once they make the pact but before she actually starts the online dating process, Millie finds herself involved in a sexy half night stand with one of the other professors in the group, Reid.  The two of them are surprised at how much they enjoyed themselves, but they’re determined to remain just friends.

The online dating process for her is pretty gruesome.  While her male colleagues get all kinds of interesting women responding to their listings, all Millie gets are creepy people and obscene pictures.  So she creates a different identity for the dating app: Catherine, who can be all the things Millie is not, including vulnerable and open.

You’ve already guessed, I’m sure, who finds the profile for “Catherine” and starts corresponding with her: Reid, who knows the real life Millie but would never guess that she’s the same person he’s been connecting with online (if you’re picturing The Shop Around the Corner or You’ve Got Mail, you’re thinking along the right lines).  

Does Millie manage to come clean with Reid?  Does she figure out how to reconcile her real world and her online selves?  Is there a happy ever after? Do you need to read something light and charming with all that’s going on in the world?  Read My Favorite Half-Night Stand and find out the answers.

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A HAUNTED HOUSE FOR THE MODERN ERA

If you’ve been wondering whether the old trope of the haunted house still has resonance and power to scare, or at least unnerve people, or if you’re in the mood for something really dark in this holiday season, check out The Mansion, by Ezekiel Boone, but be sure to keep the lights on.

This is not your ordinary haunted house story, though it has some of the elements: mysterious deaths, a house that is more than an ordinary dwelling, buried secrets and the sense that something malevolent is working its will through the house. This house also has computer programs and cutting edge technology, along with the simmering tensions of a Silicon Valley startup.

Once upon a time, Billy and Shawn were living on the verge of destitution, spending their days and nights in a tiny, ramshackle cabin outside a falling down mansion, designing the next big computer, a revolutionary machine they named Eagle Logic.  Unfortunately, the strains of poverty and overwork, and interpersonal tensions exacerbated by those factors destroyed their friendship. A third partner mysteriously disappeared, Shawn’s girlfriend left him for Billy, and Shawn took Eagle Logic and made himself a fortune.

Time passed, and didn’t treat Billy well, while Shawn became world famous and nearly infinitely rich.  With the world as his oyster, Shawn turned back to a program he and Billy once worked on that hadn’t succeeded: a program they named Nellie that would control a house completely.  And what house does he choose? Why, the mansion that loomed outside their cabin when he and Billy were first working together, of course.

Since I’ve already told you this is a haunted house story, you can probably guess what happens next: the program doesn’t work the way Shawn intended it to, some of the people working on the house die mysteriously of supposed accidents, and as things begin to fall apart, Shawn decides he needs to reach out to Billy to try to fix what’s broken. But bringing Billy back is also bringing back the issues that broke the pair up in the first place, and Nellie may have some deadly secrets in the source code, as the two of them are about to find out.

Adding computers, which most of us use but don’t entirely understand, to the Gothic world of haunted houses that seek to destroy those who live in them is a brilliant idea.  Taking the notion of a “smart” house and exploring all the dark and sinister possibilities of the concept is not only creepy but timely. If you’re in the mood for a different kind of haunted house thriller, The Mansion is waiting for you.

GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER — MAYBE

Many of us have read lots of mysteries and seen tons of movies and television shows about the criminal justice system from all kinds of angles, and after a while you get the feeling you might be able to outsmart the system if you really had to.  Even if you’ve never personally wondered about your own ability to get away with murder, you might well have second-guessed the killer in a book or movie, noticing his or her mistakes and feeling superior because you never would have made those mistakes yourself.

What would happen if you were a criminal defense lawyer, married to another criminal defense lawyer, and you felt the need to take justice into your own hands?  Would that be easier or harder than for an ordinary civilian? Well, Natalie and Will, the protagonists in For Better and Worse, by Margot Hunt, put themselves in that position.  They met when they were both in law school, and bonded from the first in a what if game: what if they wanted to kill someone together, would they be able to get away with it? It was just a game, a somewhat peculiar icebreaker (but perfectly reasonable if you’re dealing with law students), but law students are accustomed to dealing with hypotheticals, and for Nat and Will, the game led to romance and later to marriage and a son.

It would have remained just a memory of a game they played except that life circumstances suddenly made it relevant again.  Nat and Will, both criminal defense attorneys, discover that the school principal has molested their young son. Nat, furious as any mother would be, with the added knowledge of the system that only someone who’s worked in it for decades would have, wants to protect her son from the molester, but also from the potential damage a trial would do to him as a witness.  While Will feels they should report the crime to the police, but Nat has other plans, and her other plans end up involving Will, whether he wants to be drawn into her crimes or not.

Are they as clever as they think they are?  Can they outsmart the police? Should they? Neither Nat nor Will is exactly a likeable character, but that’s pretty common nowadays in thrillers (thanks a lot, Gone Girl, for making that a trend).  While it’s a fast read and nothing deep or profound, the questions For Better and Worse raises about justice and whether vigilante action can ever be justified, even in terrible cases like the one here, are fascinating and keep the pages turning.

 

HOW THE OTHER HALF WINS: THE ACCIDENTAL BEAUTY QUEEN

If you’re in the mood for a charming and lighthearted book (and who isn’t, these dark days?), let me recommend a new book, set in the (to me) alien world of beauty pageants, The Accidental Beauty Queen, by Teri Wilson.

The main characters are a pair of identical twins, identical in face and body though certainly not in personality or life goals. Ginny Gorman is determined to win fame as a beauty queen and has been competing in pageants since she was old enough to lisp the expected answers to her goals for the world.  She lives on Instagram, is a sensation wherever she goes, and will not stop until she wins the ultimate title of Miss American Treasure. Her sister, Charlotte, by contrast, is shy and retiring. She works as a librarian (of course) in an elementary school and is perfectly happy to live through her books and her job, with no more attention paid to her than would be paid to any other librarian.

You can already see where this is going, can’t you?  

Of course Ginny brings Charlotte to a beauty pageant to act as her good luck charm, and of course, Ginny suffers an allergic reaction the night before the pageant that ruins her looks for the next three days at least.  So what’s a disappointed and desperate identical twin to do? Persuade her identical twin sister to pretend to be her, of course. Identical twins do this all the time in books and movies, and hilarity ensues, as well as opportunities for each twin to learn more about the other’s life.

Charlotte being a good-hearted sister, she goes along with Ginny’s plea despite some serious reservations on her part, and so she is introduced to all the things she’s never had time or inclination for: hair extensions, push up bras, false eyelashes, stiletto heels, glitter, and a feverish focus on looks to the exclusion of everything else. Naturally she’s going to make all kinds of mistakes, but she also comes to see that there’s more to the other beauty contestants than the stereotype harpies sabotaging each other on their way to the crown. She starts to learn more about her sister’s world, and about herself.  There’s even a (mild) romance along the line.

For a humorous look at family and beauty, with amusing characters and women supporting each other, check out The Accidental Beauty Queen.

JANE YOLEN DOES IT AGAIN: HOW TO FRACTURE A FAIRY TALE

It should come as no surprise if you’ve been following my blog that I am a fan of Jane Yolen, though I confess I have not read all her writings.  How could I? She’s written more than 365 books, in all different genres, for all different ages, and won just about every writing award she could have, including Hugo, Nebula, Caldecott, and World Fantasy awards. So it was with delight and fascination that I picked up her new book of short stories, How to Fracture a Fairy Tale, and I have to say, they do not disappoint.  If you’re a fan, grab this book, no further information is necessary.  If you’re not a fan yet, this is a good place to start, because the short stories in it demonstrate some of her range, her  sense of humor, her powerful use of language, and her sensibility.

Now, I am not saying that every story in the book is a success, but that’s always the case with collections of short stories, in my experience. There will always be a few that leave me scratching my head, either saying “What was that about?” or “Why was that included in here?”

When Yolen’s good, as she mostly is in this collection, she’s very good.  I’ll just mention a few of my favorites.

Humor-wise, there’s no question: the funniest story in the collection is  “Happy Dens, or A Day in the Old Wolves’ Home”, which is a collection of famous fairy tales twisted to reflect the wolf’s side of the story, as the elderly wolves in an Old Wolves’ Home relate what really happened in the stories of Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs, and Peter and the Wolf.  You probably know the official versions of those stories, and possibly even some variations, but these are especially amusing, and the idea of a retirement home for wolves, staffed by lambs and pigs, is a clever one.

She can also write a chilling story, as in “Allerleiraugh”, which is a version of Cinderella where the father promises his dying wife he will never marry anyone who isn’t as beautiful as his wife, and when his daughter reaches adolescence, he discovers the only woman who could be as beautiful as his wife.  In the fairy tale, she escapes from her father. In this one, not so much.

They’re not all based on fairy tales, though you can usually see the bones of another story under Yolen’s twists and turns.  For example, the modern story, “Wrestling with Angels”, is based (sort of) on the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel of God and getting the worst of it.  Yolen’s version is a kind of cross between the Biblical story and an episode of the X Files, with a poignant underpinning of parental regret.

And one of the best stories in the collection, in my opinion, “Mama Gone,” isn’t really based on any particular story, but is a vampire story set in the hills of Appalachia, with a unique vampire and a unique and touching way for the main character to defeat the vampire.

There are stories based on Eastern folk tales (“One Ox, Two Ox, Three Ox and the Dragon King”), stories based on Native American stories (“The Woman Who Loved a Bear”), as well as Greek mythology (“Sun/Flight”) and the more recognizable Grimm’s and Mother Goose stories.  She adds a little extra in a section at the end of the book where she discusses the sources and origins of each story and includes a poem related to the story’s themes. The book is a rich feast, whether you’re familiar with her sources or not, and there’s plenty of thought-provoking twists to the stories.

Make the acquaintance of Jane Yolen through this book, and look at old stories with new eyes.  You’ll be glad you did.

 

BEFORE GAME OF THRONES, THERE WAS FIRE AND BLOOD

George R. R. Martin hasn’t finished the epic series, A Song of Ice and Fire, the basis for the television series, Game of Thrones.  The gaps between volumes in this series are getting longer and longer, and the date of publication for the next book is up in the air.  There’s even some concern that Martin might die before he finishes the projected 7th book in the series (and what will happen then? This gives more basis for my rule about not reading series until they’re finished).  So when I mention that Martin has a new book out in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, I have to tamp down any unrealistic expectations by saying that it’s a prequel and not the next book in the series.  We’re all going to have to wait for the continuation of the series (the last volume, A Dance with Dragons, came out in 2011, so this is the longest gap between volumes yet), but at least Martin is willing to give us more background in his amazing fantasy world, and we’ll take what we can get.

Fire and Blood, the newest book, is set before the events of A Song of Ice and Fire, taking place when the dragons ruled Westeros, and the House Targaryen controlled the dragons. It starts with the creation of the Iron Throne, and the machinations and intrigues of the family that occupied that throne.  It’s presented like a history book, and if you’re a fan of the series (book or television), some of that history is going to be familiar to you at least in passing, because characters in ASOIAF refer back to the famous and infamous events of the past.  However, since this is focused entirely on the Targaryen family and on the dragons, there’s more detail and more ambiguity and more blood and guts than you would be able to get from references in the main series.

Whether you’re going to enjoy the book or not depends on how angry you are at Martin for not finishing the series yet, and how much you’re interested in the details of how the world got to be in the state it was in at the beginning of A Game of Thrones. But if you’re a completist, if you’re intrigued by the questions of what the world was like when there were more dragons and a different set of ruthless characters vying for the throne, or if you’re just ready to take whatever Martin can give you that’s set in this world, then be sure to check out Fire and Blood.

ONE IN EVERY FAMILY: MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER

There’s one in every family: the problem child, the one who makes trouble for everyone else, the one who wreaks havoc at family functions, who takes up an outsized amount of energy from everyone around them.  Most of us, however, are fortunate enough that the problem member of the family is just annoying and not actually dangerous to other people. That is not the case for poor Koede, the protagonist of My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Brathwaite.  Her beautiful sister, Ayoola, kills her boyfriends when she’s finished with them.  She’s on her third dead boyfriend, and Koede is getting tired of being the practical one, the one who has to clean up after her sister and make sure Ayoola doesn’t get caught.

The book is set in Lagos, Nigeria, so right away you’re dealing with an entirely different system of justice and a somewhat different family structure as well. Korede, as the older sister, the “good” woman who’s a responsible nurse, feels an obligation to take care of her younger sister, Ayoola, even when that obligation involves getting calls from Ayoola to help her dispose of yet another body and clean up another crime scene.

This can’t go on forever, but after three dead boyfriends, what could possibly stop Koede from enabling her sister’s sociopathic ways?  When the handsome doctor on whom Koede’s had a crush forever asks her for her sister’s telephone number, she knows they’re about to cross a line.  She has to stop Ayoola somehow, if only to keep her from destroying all the eligible men in Lagos and possibly in Nigeria.

This is not a book for everyone.  While it’s short and punchy, written with wit and a wicked dry sense of humor, with a unique voice and a setting we don’t often see in American fiction, there’s no denying it’s kind of a dark book which starts out with murder and doesn’t let up.  However, if you’re the kind of person who enjoyed Dexter (the books or television series — of course the books were better, if you’d like to check the source out), or you just like a good quirky read, check out My Sister, the Serial Killer.

FOREVER AND A DAY: THE BEGINNINGS OF BOND. JAMES BOND.

James Bond is one of those characters, like Sherlock Holmes, who fascinates people above and beyond the original stories that created him. Generations of moviegoers have watched several different actors portray Bond in films reflecting the times in which the movies were made, more than reflecting the character from the books (this is also true of Sherlock Holmes, of course). Even after the death of Ian Fleming in 1964 (bet that surprised you, because we all thought he’d been around much longer than that; it certainly surprised me), other people have attempted to reboot James Bond in books, with varying success.  

Once again we have a “new” James Bond book, the prequel to Casino Royale, in which Bond made his first literary appearance.  This one, Forever and a Day, has the advantage of being written by Anthony Horowitz.  Horowitz is a genius for imitating the works of different authors, as well as writing his own work.  He did a superb job of writing a Sherlock Holmes novel (House of Silk), he’s written an Agatha Christie pastiche (The Magpie Murders) and he’s written another, well-regarded James Bond novel (Trigger Mortis, in 2015), so he’s well qualified to put himself in Fleming’s shoes and create a young James Bond, right before he became 007 and got his license to kill, and showing the early development of the character we’ve come to know and love.

The book begins with the death of the last agent whose number was 007.  James Bond, an up and coming would-be agent, is elevated to 00 status, and sent to the French Riviera to infiltrate a drug smuggling network his predecessor was working on at the time of his death. Because this is the beginning of his career, Bond is not the super sophisticated secret agent of the later books and movies, and is still learning his craft. Here in this book, in addition to the intrigues and the double-crosses, the terrible villains and the exotic locations, we see the origins of some of Bond’s later famous characteristics: his favorite weapons, his favorite drink (shaken, not stirred), and cigarettes. He meets and falls for a sophisticated older woman, who, in classic Fleming fashion, may or may not be working on his side.  He runs afoul of Scipio, a grotesque evil drug lord, and somehow has to

If you’re a fan of Bond, either from the books or the movies, you should definitely check out Forever and a Day.

 

PRACTICAL HELP FOR TIME TRAVELERS

Say you’ve invented a time machine. Or maybe you’ve stolen a time machine from someone else who invented it.  Or maybe you just happened to find out a way to go back in time. Very exciting, right? But you don’t realize how difficult it’s going to be to live in a different, more primitive, time, without all the conveniences you take for granted.  And I’m not just talking about computers and cell phones and the like; I’m talking about things like fabric, or buttons, or tea or coffee, or alcohol. The culture shock alone would be devastating.

Unless, of course, you’d read (or brought a copy of) How to Invent Everything by Ryan North. I believe there’s an unwritten rule that all nonfiction books have to have a subtitle (check it out sometime and see if you don’t agree with me), and in this case, it’s the subtitle that makes the book’s relevance clear: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler.

The time travel aspect is brilliant.  The premise is that there is this time machine you’ve purchased (it even has a number!), and unfortunately something’s gone wrong, and of course there are no repairable parts in this time machine, so you’re stuck. It then gives you a little flowchart to help you figure out when you’re stranded, based on what’s around you (including whether you’re before the Big Bang or not, whether the earth has a moon, whether there are animals, what kind of animals you see around you), and then proceeds to tell you what you need to invent in order to survive.

You may be thinking this sounds a little science-fiction-y, and the premise certainly is, while the tone is entertaining and light (I wish there were more repair manuals for actual technology written with such a sense of humor). But make no mistake about it: the information in the book, when it comes to explaining why certain things are necessary (charcoal, for instance, is important for more than just doing great barbecue), and how to invent them, is entirely accurate.  If you actually did have to invent, say, penicillin, based on the information in this book, you could do it.

But, aside from the entertainment value (and I’m not going to disparage science presented as entertainingly as it is here), the book is great for opening your eyes to how much we take for granted, how certain basic aspects of human life (like spoken and written language, for instance) were first developed (and more or less when they were first developed, which may surprise you if you’re not into anthropology and similar subjects).  This is also the kind of book you can open just about anywhere and get a good laugh and learn something new. Even if you haven’t got a time machine just yet.

 

ON THE REBOUND: THE PROPOSAL

Have you ever watched a ball game and seen one of those proposals on the Jumbotron and wondered whether this was really a romantic gesture or a sign of pure stupidity?  I always hope, when I see one of those scenes, that the couple in question have already been talking about getting married and are both pretty sure the answer is likely to be “yes” before making such a public gesture. There have to be times, however, when someone makes a serious mistake in making some spectacular public proposal, like asking someone whose answer is likely to be “no” or “I hadn’t even thought about it and now that I have, I don’t want to”.  How awful would that be?

That’s the initial situation in The Proposal, by Jasmine Guillory, a new quirky romantic novel.  Nikole Patterson has only been going out with this guy for a few months when she accompanies him to a Dodgers baseball game, and is given the unpleasant surprise of her life when he proposes to her via the scoreboard.  She has no desire whatsoever to marry him, but what an awkward position she’s put in when she says no, in front of millions of people! As her (now former) boyfriend and his friends turn on her in indignation and camera crews approach to film her, she is unexpectedly rescued by a handsome stranger, Carlos Ibarra, who swoops in and pretends to be an old friend, getting her out of a difficult situation with flair.

Since this is 2018, Nik’s troubles aren’t over when she escapes gratefully with Carlos from the ballpark to a bar to be supported by her friends.  The video of the proposal and her reaction to it goes viral (of course), and she’s in a world of hurt and embarrassment on social media. To her relief, Carlos is there for her during all this, too, but she knows someone as good looking and personable and smart as Carlos can’t really be looking for a romantic partner, and certainly wouldn’t be trying to find one this way. So, sure, she’ll have fun with him, hang out and enjoy his company, but she knows better than to expect anything more lasting from him.  Or does she?

This is a romance (think romantic comedy and you’ve got the right mood), so of course there’s going to be a happy ending, and along the way you’ve got charming characters to enjoy (including Carlos’ family and Nik’s female friends).  Watching someone rise from humiliation to joy is always a good thing, and especially with all the dark things going on in the world these days. Take a break and check out The Proposal.