Thursday, January 13, 2011

Summer reading

The latest chick-lit to put in your beach bag this season…and what we think of it.
Nicky Pellegrino, Herald on Sunday.

By Jilly Cooper
(Bantam, $39.99)

Jump marks a return to form for Jilly Cooper. The story of a sweet, still-pretty, put-upon granny finding and nursing back to health an injured filly is set firmly back in the equine world; the place where she set the best examples of her breathless, adjective-strewn oeuvre, Riders and Rivals. Cooper has deviated from this milieu in a few of her recent published works, and I - even as a fan - believe that was to their detriment (her last, Wicked, about a high school, featured a cast of wrong-side-of-the-tracks teenagers the credibility of whom stretched even my Cooperphilia past its limits – I’m not sure real youth-at-risk say “I fink”, “man” and “wicked” so often). Anyway Jump is on far more familiar terrain; back amongst Machiavellian millionaire owners, comely stable lasses, stiff-upper-lip aristos and diamond-in-the-rough working class heroes (did I mention the adjectives?).
Yes, it’s true; the plot at times is outrageous verging on preposterous (well, to be honest, it’s frequently not so much “verging” as “well and truly past”). But it’s still a jolly jape in Jilly world that even at 728 pages seems to end too soon.

I Still Dream About You
By Fannie Flag
(Random House, $38.99)

This one only counts as chick lit if you can still be a chick in your sixties. That’s the age of its heroine, former Miss Alabama, beautiful but quietly miserable Maggie Fortenberry. Maggie’s life has not turned out the way she dreamed it would. Instead of fame, success, a family and a beautiful home she’s wound up alone, living on frozen dinners and working in real estate. With her best friend and mentor dead and the world changing for the worst all around her, Maggie decides to end her life neatly and efficiently. But while she’s busy making plans and prissily ticking off items on her final to-do list, her life takes an interesting turn. She discovers the elegant house she’s always coveted is going on the market and, almost by mistake, scores the listing. That takes her up against her arch-nemesis, the ruthless Babs “the Beast of Birmingham” Bingington and distracts her from her many disappointments and her 16 good reasons to jump in the river.

Fannie Flagg is best known for her hit novel Fried Green Tomatoes At the Whistle Stop Café and, while this doesn’t have quite such an instant appeal, it still reeks with southern charm and bubbles along with lovable characters. It has Flagg’s trademark whimsy, humour and warmth along with a historic mystery for added value but there is also a bittersweet tang that keeps it from being overwhelmingly syrupy.

Maggie’s southern respectability and beauty queen perkiness do get a little wearing at times but you’ve got to applaud Flagg for writing about women in their sixties – an age when they have tended to become invisible – with such verve, wit and wisdom. All in all, a bit of a hoot.

Mini Shopaholic
By Sophie Kinsella
(Bantam, $38.99)

UK cover left, US cover right.

It is, to a degree, to Sophie Kinsella’s credit that she has stretched this shopaholic series over this – a sixth – novel, since the original premise was basically just your bog-standard “boy-meets-girl” with a few extraneous Prada references thrown in. Given that by the time we get to Mini Shopaholic, the boy (Luke Brandon) has not only met the girl (Becky Bloomwood) in book one: The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic, but married her (in book three: Shopaholic Ties the Knot) and conceived and bore a child with her (in book five: Shopaholic & Baby), you would be forgiven for thinking there was not much more to say. Perhaps, in fact, there isn’t. Mini Shopaholic (the baby from S&B, Minnie, is now two and something of a terror) never really takes off, despite occasional flash of genuine amusement at times.
But these seem like rare, bright beads precariously held on too delicate a thread of a plot (which can be summed up as “boy-meets-girl-and-she-throws-a-surprise-party”).
Whether it’s entirely Kinsella’s fault or not is arguable – in the ten years since the first book in the series was published, the world has undergone massive financial reversals which rather reduce the hilarious mileage in rampant consumerism. But either way, one might suggest that Kinsella let Becky retire gracefully while she’s still in the black.

The Secret Lives Of Dresses
By Erin McKean
(Hodder, $36.99)

This is a real slow-burn of a read as far as chick lit goes but it’s charming all the same. The story is an offshoot of the author’s website in which she writes about vintage frocks, making up sweet little tales about the things that might have happened when they were worn by their original owners. It’s a quirky idea for a website but does not a novel make and so Erin McKean has come up with a character on which to hang both her frocks and her plot. Student Dora has returned to her hometown because her much-loved grandmother Mimi is dying. While Mimi lies comatose in a hospital bed Dora takes over the running of her very classy vintage clothing store. There she discovers her grandmother has been writing stories to accompany some of the more special dresses she sells in the shop and, as Dora contemplates her own uncertain future, she becomes caught up in things vintage. There’s a romantic thread running through the book as gradually Dora realises the guy she’s crazy about is a total egg and succumbs to being wooed by a far more suitable hometown boy called Con. But the two skeins of the plot don’t weave together especially neatly, in fact the love story is almost a distraction from Dora’s quest to come to terms with her past, understand what is most important to her, and take the path to happiness.

This is McKean’s first novel. A dictionary editor by trade, her previous books have all been about words. If you’re looking for a gentle, romantic tale with old-fashioned outfits and values then it definitely fits the bill.

One Secret Summer
By Lesley Lokko
(Orion, $39.99)

This, like most of Lesley Lokko’s books, very nearly contains all the elements to be a classic beach bonkbuster: glamorous characters, international locations and compelling human drama. The fact it isn’t just a standard beach read but something a little more is a credit to Lokko’s ability. Like her previous books (Sundowners, Saffron Skies, Bitter Chocolate and Rich Girl, Poor Girl), One Secret Summer is a kind of intelligent escapism.
It isn’t literary - and it’s not trying to be - but the story of three different women married to three brothers and the family secret they all must come to terms with is satisfyingly meaty and it’s easy to become immersed in the emotionally vivid world she depicts. Lokko perhaps doesn’t reinvent the chick lit genre (there’s a few too many “porcelain complexions”, “ice blue eyes” and men with a touch “both tender and strong” for that), but this is a more than satisfying addition to it.

Last Night At Chateau Marmont
By Lauren Weisberger
(HarperCollins, $36.99)

Lauren Weisberger’s big problem is The Devil Wears Prada. Her debut novel, about life working for the hellish editor of a glossy fashion mag, was just so genius that nothing else she comes up with ever matches it. Her latest foray into the glitzy celebritydom of Los Angeles is a perfectly serviceable read. It does the same sort of thing as Prada, stripping the veneer from a world that seems glamorous from the outside. It’s entertaining, it has designer clothes and cocktails, it even has a shoe on the front cover – but while the recipe is similar the result doesn’t taste quite as good.
Brooke is married to struggling musician Julian, living in New York and working two jobs to support his dreams of stardom. Suddenly the dream comes true and Julian is an overnight sensation. But fame turns out not to be all that much fun. Brooke finds herself struggling to juggle her life and career with the demands of his schedule. She has to face the attentions of the paparazzi, the heartbreak of the rumour mill and the ever-increasing circle of stylists and handlers swarming around her husband. When a scandalous shot of him hits the front pages, it seems like fame has destroyed her marriage.

Despite not matching Weisberger’s bestseller there’s plenty of fun to be found in this latest book. The glimpses inside the celebrity world are both wry and believable and there’s one fantastic scene where Brooke is given a rundown on how to get red-carpet ready for the Grammys.

Fairly predictable but still entertaining.

Fly Away Home
By Jennifer Weiner
(Penguin, $40)

If you wanted to over-intellectualise, Fly Away Home could perhaps be called meta-chick lit, a look at what happens after happily-ever-after: since the novel starts with our heroine Sylvie Serfer’s senator husband’s extra-marital extracurricular activities becoming public knowledge and follows Sylvie’s journey as she attempts to define herself as an individual, after a life devoted to her husband, and to reconnect with their daughters, driven perfectionist Diana and addictive wild child Lizzie. Jennifer Weiner is known for creating compelling characters and weaving tales of richly layered emotions – she also wrote Good in Bed and In Her Shoes – and this is along similar lines, although perhaps Sylvie is the only fully realised character, with both girls verging at times on one-dimensional archetypes. But still it’s a mature and engaging read and worth a look for Weiner fans or new readers.


Nicky Pellegrino, a succcesful Auckland-based author of popular fiction, (The Italian Wedding was published in May 2009 while her latest, Recipe for Life was published by Orion in April, 2010), is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above piece was first published on 2 January, 2011.


PeterNZ said...

You should have titled this post "Summer reading for female readers". Are there any summer reading recommendations which are not only about romance, love and shopping for clothes?

Do you realise how difficult it is to find good books which are written not only for females but for all of us?



Bookman Beattie said...

Peter if you have the time scroll back through my blog and you'll find plenty of books reviewed/recommended/listed that are not about "romance, love and shopping for clothes"!