What Janine is Reading (and Seeing at the Theater) in Late 2016
So Sweet by Rebekah Weatherspoon
Kayla Davis is out of work and almost out of money when Adler, her roommate and BFF, tells her about an internet dating service that matches attractive women with wealthy men who are willing to help them financially. Though her first instinct is to say no, Kayla allows herself to be persuaded and she and Adler sign up and get invitations to a Meet & Mingle.
Kayla is plus-sized and super cute (and aware of her cuteness, yay!) but she doesn’t meet anyone interesting until she slips away from the crowd to hide in the dining area. There she runs into Michael Bradbury, internet billionaire and owner of the dating service. Michael and Kayla strike up a conversation that ends when he gives her his card and asks her to text him if she changes her mind about making an arrangement—with him.
Eventually this does turn into a date, and later, a relationship, but will Adler’s jealousy get in their way? And will Kayla’s family understand about her relationship with Michael, a white guy in his fifties while she is black and in her late twenties?
I read this hot romance novella, part one of a three-parter, back in October and it hit the spot for me. I liked Kayla a lot. I liked that she was down to earth yet confident, and once she and Michael hit it off on their first date, she was all in. I liked that she was a good friend to Adler, but once she realized that Adler didn’t reciprocate, she took a stance.
Michael was less appealing to me, though he was very good to Kayla. What I appreciated most about his portrayal was how time-consuming his work was. Details like the assistant that traveled with him and Kayla made him far more believable as a billionaire than the vast majority of billionaire heroes in the genre. But at the same time, the believability in his characterization made me more conscious of the difference in power between him and Kayla, in a slightly discomfiting way.
Other than the power issue, though, I really liked the way this novella took on the gaps in age, wealth, and social position. And while I’m not crazy about the BFF that turns out not to be a true friend trope, I thought Adler was a better example of that character type than most. She had some charm, so I could understand why Kayla hadn’t jettisoned her earlier. I also liked that this novella really felt like it took place in Los Angeles, as opposed to any old place. B+.
Christmas Gifts by Mary Balogh
What I love about Balogh’s Christmas stories is how Christmassy they feel. She is one author who really gets the melancholy of the holiday season. She depicts the sense of loneliness during the short days of winter so well, and she also really executes on what I think of all the trimmings of the holiday, from holly and mistletoe to wassail and sledding, to the point that Balogh has come to define the Christmas romance novella for me.
The Best Christmas Ever is about a five-year-old Anna, daughter of Viscount Radbrook, a girl who hasn’t spoken in two years and who wants a mother for Christmas. Without realizing it, Anna reunites her widowed father with Emma Milford, the woman he once loved and lost, during a Christmas house party. Along the way there is some anger and hurt, but also a powerful attraction and a romantic sleigh ride.
My main caveat about this one is that with nine years having passed since Radbrook and Emma’s original breakup, his feelings should not have been quite so raw when the two reunited, and therefore I found his anger at Emma annoying. Other than that, I enjoyed The Best Christmas Ever, and I loved the palpably wintry outdoor scenes. B.
The Porcelain Madonna features Lord Kevern, completely unsentimental about Christmas and determined to stay that way. Then he sees a young woman, shabby but genteel, gazing at a porcelain Madonna in a shop window, and spots a boy who is about to steal the woman’s purse. Kevern catches the child in the act, but before he can punish him, the woman, Miss Julie Bevan, intercedes on the boy’s behalf.
The initial meeting leads to further encounters between Kevern, the boy and Julie, which in turn leads to an understated romance. Kevern’s cyncism butts up against Julie’s sentimentality. When Charlie Cobban, the boy who tried to steal Julie’s purse, tells the two about his family, Kevern is convinced he is making up tall tales, while Julie believes every word. Eventually the matter is settled in a satisfying way.
This novella was deeply moving and my main criticism is that the upper class characters were more convincingly written than Charlie. Other than that, I really enjoyed every sappy, sentimental page of it. When the reasons for Kevern’s cynicism were revealed, I must have gone through half a box of tissues. B+.
I still need to read the third novella in this collection, The Surprise Party.
I Will by Lisa Kleypas
This was another Christmas novella set during the regency. Andrew, Lord Drake is something of a wastrel and offers to end his friendship with Miss Caroline Hargreaves’ younger brother if Caroline will pretend to be romantically inclined toward him. Andrew fears that his father will disinherit him otherwise, and Caroline wants Andrew out of her brother’s life, so the deal is struck.
Soon enough, Andrew’s pretense of straightening out his act turns into something real, and Caroline and he are drawn to each other. Then something happens to put a halt to their romance, and Caroline must discover what happened to change Andrew’s mind.
I often enjoy Lisa Kleypas’ books, but this one was a miss for me. It felt flimsy, since both Andrew and Caroline’s characters were underdeveloped, and the villainess came almost out of nowhere. There was little about Andrew that was appealing, and the one sex scene in the novella began in a less than fully consensual way, and had a set up that was unlikely to say the least.
This is a reissue, and I don’t know how long ago it was originally published. There is a tie in to Because You’re Mine, a book I read nineteen years ago. In any case, I Will doesn’t hold up well. C-.
I’d also like to recommend three movies that I saw in the theater recently:
Barry Jenkins’ film, Moonlight, is a coming-of-age story about accepting one’s sexuality and the human need for connection, set in inner city Miami. Three actors—Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes—portray the main character, Chiron, at different points in his life and they all do a tremendous job. So does Naomi Harris who plays Chiron’s mother, Paula, a woman who takes out her own issues on her son. Mahershala Ali as Juan, the caring drug dealer who is a father figure to Chiron, is excellent as well.
Moonlight is technically strong, too—the cinematography makes good use of color and the music is powerful yet unobtrusive. As we see Chiron grow up and grapple with his attraction to Kevin (another character portrayed well by three actors), we come to understand how hard it is for him to reach out to his friend, yet how much he needs love, as well as greater compassion for himself. A specific yet universal story told so very movingly, and with a very strong cast. A.
La La Land
Damien Chazelle’s new movie musical, La La Land, focuses on the romantic relationship of two people who live in Los Angeles and attempt to work in a creative field. Mia (Emma Stone) is an actress trying to break out into film and television while Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a pianist who dreams of opening a jazz club. After a couple of meet cutes, they realize they are right for each other, move in together, and support one another in their pursuits of their dreams. But will their goals ultimately come between them?
This movie was just gorgeous to look at. It was shot in CinemaScope 2:55, resulting in vivid, saturated colors. Then there’s Justin Hurwitz’s music, which is equally beautiful. The film has one or two big song-and-dance numbers but at the same time, manages to feels intimate and personal. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone both do a terrific job with their roles but the music and the camera are the true stars of this love letter to Los Angeles, a not particularly pretty city that has rarely looked better, or more like itself. La La Land was made to be seen on the big screen, so if you are interested in seeing it, catch it in the theater. I’ve already gone twice. A.
Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, was a very strong SF alien invasion story with a twist. The main character, Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) is a translator asked to translate the alien communications. She is grappling with a personal tragedy at the same time. There’s a twist ending that I don’t want to give away, but what I found fascinating about Arrival was its structure – a puzzle that the viewer must piece together even as Louise and her colleague, scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), must figure out what the aliens are trying to say and what they want with the people of earth.
This movie was very well done and made me want to read Ted Chiang’s Nebula-winning novella, Story of Your Life, which it is based upon. Amy Adams carries the movie as Louise and Jeremy Renner is solid as Ian. The imagery of the film is almost haunting, which suits the story very well. There is an understated love story, given weight by Louise’s personal loss. B+.
A spoiler for readers who want to know how these three movies end: