How to Be a Grown-Up by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

How to be a grown-upCo-written by Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin, How to Be a Grown-Up is a fascinating peek into upper class New York and the world of start-up websites – in this case, one for upper class babies and their parents. More than a little absurd, this world of over-consumption and ambitious, yet inexperienced, young bosses is the one in which Rory finds herself – after her husband, an  aspiring actor, dumps her.

Kraus and McLaughlin are the authors of The Nanny Diaries,and there are definite similarities – in the dynamic between the very rich and those struggling to get by. Some of the scenes do seem to be written filmically; we can almost see a  Scarlett Johansson or Anne Hathaway-type breaking her foot as she juggles the impossible demands of her tyrannical bosses and the equally formidable demands of her two children, while teetering on five-inch heels.

The most successful part of the book is the satire of the workplace – the two young entrepreneurs in charge of the start-up dress in the skimpiest of outfits no matter how cold they are, and regard “things” such as wastebaskets and a work space as unnecessarily retro. It’s satisfying to see the tables turned, and  Rory’s experience and know-how are acknowledged as valuable.

If the authors had focused more on the work aspect of the book and less on the inexplicable choices Rory makes in her personal life, the book would have, in my opinion, been better for it. Still, it’s a revealing and interesting look into a very fast-paced world, not well-known in Iowa – even in the metro Quad-Cities.

Life and Other Near-Death Experiences by Camille Pagan

Life and Other Near DeathLibby Miller finds out (on the same day) that her husband is not at all who she thought he was, and their marriage was not what she thought it was. And that she has terminal illness.  The internal monologues make you wonder how you, too, would cope with a day like that. For me, the first half of the book was most interesting, as Libby struggles to cope with seismic shifts in every aspect of her life – her job, her home, her health, and her family.  She begins to realize that nothing at all in her life will ever be the same.  This Camille Pagan novel is written in the first-person, so we are privy to her wildly swinging emotions. Her reaction to her husband’s news is both horrifying and funny.

Life and Other Near-Death Experiences  is an odd amalgam of standard fiction and chick-lit. Some of the latter’s conventions are apparent – the tone is self-effacing and self-mocking, the main character is young (ish) and attractive, and good at her professional job – though she is a PA to a horrible boss. There is a spirit of re-invention, and, inevitably, a romance with a man who is a soul-mate, rather than someone she has stayed with, out of habit.

However, the reader (or this reader, anyway) had certain expectations about the illness that were not met, so it didn’t follow a typical airport fiction trajectory.(No spoilers here).  The tone often veers into pretty dark territory – the illness and death of Libby’s mother is a driving factor in how Libby deals with her diagnosis. The result is that the reader is thrown off balance, and isn’t quite sure where the story is going. It’s a novel with a high-concept plot that delves deeper than expected.



Stay by Allie Larkin

This book is a lovely mix of what a romantic comedy should be – light and funny with some undertones of seriousness. Stay by Allie Larkin will make you laugh (out loud), think about some of the big issues in life (without sending you into a tailspin) and wrap it all up with a happy ending.

Savannah (“Van”) Leone has long been in love with her college pal Peter, but he falls for Van’s best friend Janie instead. Van is forced to stand by (as the Maid of Honor) and watch them get married, leaving her to her lonely life. In a fit of self-pity, she gets drunk while watching a marathon of Rin Tin Tin movies and gets it into her head that she needs a German Shepherd that will save her and always be with her. A little drunk-googling soon finds her the perfect puppy and before she can sober up, she’s bought a dog.

Imagine Van’s surprise when the expected cute little puppy turns out to be a huge, nearly full-grown, black, long-haired beast. Who only understands Slovakian commands. And takes over half the bed in no time flat. At first Van is terrified, but Joe (as she renames him) worms his way into her heart almost as quickly as the bed and he turns out to be exactly what she needs – someone who sticks with her no matter what, who makes life more interesting and a lot more fun, someone who will love her back. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Joe’s new vet is super gorgeous and available!)

The romance here is pretty predictable – girl-has-heart-broken, girl-meets-cute-guy, girl-and-cute-guy-have-issues, girl-and-cute-guy-overcome-issues, happy-ending. But the characters are likeable and realistic with messy, imperfect lives who try hard to be better. Van’s continuing struggle with her grief over her Mother’s death and her search for her own “family” adds depth and complexity.  The real charm of the book though is Joe with his cheerful personality and big heart. And in no time,  just like Van, you’ll fall in love with Joe too.

My Summer of Southern Discomfort by Stephanie Gayle

Stephanie Gayle’s story of a disgraced lawyer who moves from Manhatten to Macon,Georgia has all the ingredients of a standard chick lit novel – a young, attractive female in a glamorous profession who places her trust in a wildly untrustworthy cad and is now trying to rebuild her life with new friends, in a new job, in a new city.

Gayle, however, nearly forgets to include a new romance for her heroine, Natalie Goldberg. Instead, the real strength of My Summer of Southern Discomfort is in the relationship the Bostonian daughter of a legendary civil rights lawyer develops with Ben, her Southern, conservative co-worker, as the two of them try a death penalty case together. Natalie and Ben learn to respect the strenghs each one brings to the trial and it’s preparation.

The book is actually a hybrid of genres – legal fiction/romance.  A love interest for Natalie is hurriedly tacked on at the end of the book, so the book does earn it’s embossed Chick Lit stamp.

Groundswell by Katie Lee

Kentucky native Emma Guthrie has just lost her film scholarship to a prestigous New York university and now she is in desperate need of work in Katie Lee’s fiction debut, Groundswell.    After sending out dozens of resumes for any and every job in the film industry, she receives a surprise email from a production company asking her to report to work in the morning as a temporary production assistant for the upcoming summer blockbuster.  Little does Emma know that this small event will completely change her life. 

As a jack of all trades on the set, one day her assigned task is to deliver lunch to the star of the movie, Garrett Walker.  From their first meeting, he is smitten.  After tentatively accepting a date with the known womanizer, Emma becomes the girlfriend of one of the biggest movie stars in the world.  She quickly becomes accustomed to the life of luxury, but after a quick engagement and secret, paparazzi-free wedding, she begins to long for a career of her own.  With some film experience under her belt from her college days, she writes a fictionalized story of her life, Fame Tax, which becomes the summer’s biggest romantic comedy. 

Without any warning, Emma is betrayed and her marriage is hanging by a thread.  Needing a break from the circus-like atmosphere revolving around her, she escapes to a small, sleepy village in Mexico where she meets, Ben, a surf instructor who teaches her both how to surf and how the smallest events in life can eventually lead to the greatest rewards.


Heart of the Matter by Emily Giffin

The latest book by Emily Giffin, Heart of the Matter, delves into the dynamics of what can happen with a chance encounter and how seemingly small things can completely change lives.

Stay at home mom Tessa Russo’s days are spent with her two young children while her husband, Nick, a world renowned pediatric plastic surgeon, works long hours which keeps him away from his family much of the time.  While celebrating their anniversary at a five-star restaurant, Nick receives a call that will completely alter their future as a couple.  A five year old boy, Charlie Anderson, has been burned on his hands and face at a birthday party and Nick has been called to the hospital to treat him.

In the days and weeks to follow, Nick develops a strong bond with Charlie’s single mother, Valerie, and with the boy.  With the days, nights and weekends in which they spend together watching over him through surgeries and rehabilitation, their relationship slowly turns romantic.  Nick’s wife Tessa eventually learns of the affair after his admission that he has just ended his relationship with Valerie.  Tessa’s decision about her future is not easy or simple, and Giffin’s characters have true depth and thoughfulness in the decisions which they make.

Each chapter of Heart of the Matter alternates between Tessa’s and Valerie’s voices and this technique makes each of the two women multi-layered, complex and real. Giffin has a talent for creating empathetic female characters which the reader truly cares about.  Heart of the Matter is Giffin’s fifth book and each of her previous novels conquer similar themes – women at a juxtaposition in their lives as well as the complex choices which go with them.

Meg Cabot’s Mysteries

Size 12 is Not Fat and Size 14 is Not Fat Either by Meg Cabot, are the first two books featuring former teen queen and singing sensation Heather Wells.  Through an unfortunate series of events, Heather’s days of singing in shopping malls have come to a halt.  Her bad luck includes a mother who ran off with her entire fortune to Argentina and her father who currently resides in prison.  To get back on her feet she takes a job at the fictional New York College as the resident assistant in Fisher Hall, which is also known as “Death Dorm.”  In each of these mysteries, Heather plays an amateur sleuth and assistant to her landlord who, conveniently, is a private investigator and the two team up to solve the crimes that take place in Fisher Hall.

Whether she is trying to find out if her female residents are truly elevator surfing (or being thrown to their deaths) or attempting to seek out the wealthy New York College students who killed the star cheerleader for knowing too much, Heather Wells is a likeable character whose escapades will keep you laughing and guessing.  The third book featuring Heather Wells, Big Boned, completes this series.  Meg Cabot’s mysteries are full of humor, mayhem, murder and a little romance too. 

The Icing on the Cupcake by Jennifer Ross

In The Icing on the Cupcake by Jennifer Ross, Ansley is a southern belle, Dallas style, whose well-planned life takes an unexpected turn; her perfect fiance leaves her for a fellow Baylor sorority sister. Unusually for romantic fiction, this is completely justified as the heroine is selfish, mean, and manipulative.

To get away from the gossip, she heads to New York City to live with her grandmother. The women of the family have always been expert bakers and have passed down a cookbook in which they record original recipes. Ansley uses her baking and business expertise to open a cupcakery.

A strong point is the insider information about baking (in particular, the difference between home baking and volume baking). Also, insights into Southern culture, specifically the uniquely Dallas way of life is fascinating.

Unfortunately, the novel wraps up quickly and glibly. Up to that point, the reader has willingly suspended belief when there were unlikely plot turns because the writing is graceful and the characters well-drawn. However, the last few chapters are written awkwardly, as if the author ran out of time or inspiration. I’d still give it an overall thumbs up, though…

Another Irish Author

Cecelia Ahern is the young author of several bestsellers, including PS I Love You which was made into a movie starring Hilary Swank.  Ahern  combines elements of a tear-jerker with humor in the story about a young woman  struggling to get on with her life after the death of her husband. Her eccentric family and  the  letters from her husband Gerry  guide her through the process.

The celebrity of the author nearly outweighs the book. A telegenic 21-year old when she wrote the bestseller, Ahern was also the producer and co-creator of the tv series Samantha Who? And before that, a member of an Irish band. Three more of her books are being made into movies and she is now all of 28.

She is also the daughter of the former prime minister of Ireland, Bertie Ahern. Can’t get much more Irish than that.

The Armchair Traveler – Ireland

Marian Keyes, a native of Ireland, gives American readers a native’s  view of the differences in culture between Londoners and Dubliners.

Sushi for Beginners has some of the elements of a stereotypical chick lit book (a frank, outspoken heroine, a cadre of funny pals, a glamourous profession). But she goes beyond the usual undemanding plots with an extra twist of being set in Dublin, which, apparently, is quite the backwater for the hyper-ambitious boss of our heroine.

Ashling works for Lisa, a ruthless fashionista, who is responsible for a new Irish fashion magazine, Colleen, and makes her subordinates pay dearly for the stress she is under. Jack Devine arrives just in time from the United States; to leaven Lisa’s power and to provide the spark of potential romance. The daily grind of the magazine world is depicted as mostly very hard work, with the occasional perks fought over by Ashling, Lisa and their co-workers.

Keyes is one of the first of the genre and is one of the grittier and more uncensored. She isn’t afraid to address topics like the alcoholism and serious depression of her  characters.