Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Review: Beige

Beige by Cecil Castellucci
3.5 stars

Book Description: "Dad’s an aging L.A. punk rocker known as the Rat. Daughter’s a buttoned-up neat freak who’d rather be anywhere else. Can this summer be saved? Now that she’s exiled from Canada to sunny Los Angeles, Katy figures she’ll bury her nose in a book and ignore the fact that she’s spending two weeks with her father — punk name: the Rat — a recovered addict and drummer for the famously infamous band Suck. Even though Katy doesn’t want to be there, even though she feels abandoned by her mom, even though the Rat’s place is a mess and he’s not like anything she’d call a father, Katy won’t make a fuss. After all, she is a nice girl, a girl who is quiet and polite, a girl who smiles, a girl who is, well, beige. Or is she?"

My thoughts: Music-themed books seem to be quite the thing these days (e.g., Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and a few others I can't think of right now). I think Cecil Castellucci is pretty cool and so is this book. Even though I don't know anything about punk music (in fact, I usually have the same freaked-out, "What is this noise?" reaction that Katy does at first), I recognized a few of the songs that are used as chapter titles, so I felt slightly cooler. Actually, I had to double check that, as the first few I didn't even recognize as songs/bands, so I was a bit confused. But it's a neat device and it's an alternative music primer, just like a mix CD that gets made later in the book.

Katy is rather hard to like - she really is beige at first, not just for her pink t-shirt/capris outfits and vague interest in nonthreatening boy bands, but because she's so tightly wound. We eventually learn that she has good reason to fear any loss of control, being the daughter of two recovering junkies. But even though she consistently refers to herself as the quiet, nice girl, she has a lot of rage and fear inside. And really, she's not particularly nice - she does try to be polite, but she seems to hate everyone except her mom and her best friend back in Montreal. She's constantly having a conflicting internal dialogue - she tells herself how nice she's being while at the same time reflecting on how much she hates the person she's being "nice" to. But once she finally starts to shed some of her beige-ness by realizing that she can enjoy music and doesn't have to always be in control, she's able to open up to the idea of letting new friends in.

The Rat is quite the character. I don't read many father-daughter YA novels - dads are usually in the background, if they're there at all - and while he's not going to win Father of the Year, the Rat is trying (at this late stage) to be a good dad, though some basic home and personal hygiene would be nice. He's also trying to get his life together with a nice (if bohemian) girlfriend and the Suck reunion tour. Despite Katy's complete lack of interest in music and her meanness because she's so upset by her mom's backing out of her promise of only being away for 2 1/2 weeks, The Rat tries to make her happy in LA.

The book ends with Katy's mom, in my opinion, completely betraying Katy for a man, although Rat's wise girlfriend does try and point out that Katy's mom is still really young and has been sacrificing everything for Katy since she was 18. I didn't really buy it, but we're left with the impression that non-beige Katy will use her newfound skills for dealing with new situations and people to make the best of her mom's flakiness.

Favourite character: Garth Skater, a neighbourhood skater/drummer boy who worships The Rat. He provides a lot of the humour and he's a very interesting character - without his skating helmet on, he's girlishly pretty, he has no filter and says whatever comes into his head. Despite these quirks and his frank discussions about boners, he's actually a really nice guy.

(This was my first book for the What's in a Name? challenge.)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Review: The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell

The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell by Loraine Despres
4 stars

Summary (adapted from Publishers Weekly): "In this prequel to The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc, Despres, herself a native Southerner, introduces readers to Sissy's grandmother, the strong-willed Belle of Gentry, La. The book opens with Belle confessing she feels no guilt for "killing" her husband of 16 years, Claude, and Despres successfully spins the rest of her story against a turbulent political backdrop. Belle (who has a horse named Susan B.) fights for women's right to vote, battles the local Ku Klux Klan and works as the overseer of the family property" after firing the slimy Bouree LeBlanc, who will eventually become Sissy's father-in-law (and more).

First paragraph: "Belle Cantrell felt guilty about killing her husband, and she hated that. Feeling guilty, that is. A lady shouldn't do something she's going to feel guilty about later was a rule [from the Primer of Propriety] kept firmly in mind, along with its corollary: No sense in feeling guilty about all the little pleasures life has in store for you."

My thoughts: I read The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc last year and really enjoyed it (unfortunately, it was before this blog, so I don't have a review). I've been eager to read this prequel ever since, and I wasn't disappointed.

I enjoyed how each chapter started with a quote from warring guides to behavior - Belle's own The Southern Girls' Guide to Men and Other Perils of Modern Life (which I believe is the precursor to Sissy's Southern Belle's Handbook) and The Primer of Propriety. Belle tries to follow the dictates of what is proper, but she finds that she has to bend the rules or make her own, since society's rules all come down to "Don't."

I loved Belle - she's feisty, sexy, sassy, and smart. I think I liked her even more than Sissy because Sissy seemed a lot more selfish. Belle definitely wants to enjoy life and do things her way, but she seems to actually care more about her family, friends, and the world than Sissy did. I couldn't put the book down (even though it was after 1 AM!) during the climactic scene where Belle risks everything to help the people she loves. I enjoyed her naughty side (red silk bloomers!) that's tempered (if that's the word) by a distinct lack of worldliness. Despite her suffragette adventures, she's really quite innocent and, as the dashing Rafe discovers, adorable when she gets excited about learning and seeing new things. I admired her dedication to women's rights and her bravery in doing shocking things from bobbing her hair to running the farm. She's a woman who's both ahead of her time and right in the middle of it.

The historic backdrop of the book was interesting. It was set against real events such as the 1920 bombing of Wall Street and the ratification of the 19th amendment. The rise of the KKK, something I knew very little about, plays a big part, as well.

I think I'd recommend reading Sissy first, but then, I like straight, one-way lines in my storytelling. Reading Belle second did give me some cool feelings of "aft-shadowing" (rather than foreshadowing), but I think I'd have preferred to know Sissy's family history first. Either book, though, can be read on its own.

Fun fact: Despres is a former television writer. Her credits include the "Who Shot JR?" episode of Dallas.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Review: Food and Loathing

Food and Loathing: a lament by Betsy Lerner

1.5 stars

Summary (adapted from Amazon): A "post-modern recovery memoir," this is "Betsy Lerner’s account of compulsive overeating and decades' worth of yo-yo dieting." . . . there are potentially hundreds of thousands of readers (both men and women, though there is a bit of a Bridget Jones-like assumption here that Lerner is writing primarily for the former) with whom the author will strike many a poignant chord as she charts a lifelong battle with her weight. She takes us from those all-too-familiar and universally mortifying school days . . . through twentysomething years filled with sadness, unrequited love, and a pioneering membership in Overeaters Anonymous, to a bout with suicidal depression that resulted in a six-month stay at New York State Psychiatric Institute. . . Lerner is at her best when she is turning her sarcastic and unsparing sense of humor on herself . . . [but she has]a recurring confusion between trying to relate with her readers via unflinching honesty and simply sharing too much uninteresting or irrelevant information."

My thoughts: This has been on my TBR list for quite some time and when I found out that January was National Diet Month, I decided to do it for the Every Month is a Holiday Challenge. Like many people, I always start the new year resolving to lose weight and be healthier. Like many people, I pretty much always fail. While I knew it was a memoir and not a self-help book, I hoped that the story of a fellow fat girl would provide me with some inspiration. It didn't. Mainly because I found Lerner herself pretty darn unlikeable. I understand (trust me) that depressed people aren't exactly the cheery life of the party, but she comes off as incredibly self-centred and very often mean. And basically, the book is about many years of suffering and misdiagnosis by the mental health profession. And while, in the end, she does eventually get properly diagnosed with and treated for manic-depression, gets married, and has a daughter, the book left me feeling pretty flat. It seems as if, despite having a good life now, Lerner has never fully resolved either her weight issues or her emotional problems (and I wonder if anyone ever really does). I suppose it's actually a pretty universal truth - the best you can hope for in life is for it to be . . . okay. But I didn't need to spend 20 days slogging through this short book to learn that.

I guess I didn't realize the book was about depression as much as it was about weight issues. But it didn't come as a surprise, the two are certainly linked. I can't really remember why I wanted to read it in the first place, but it was probably because the title resonated with me - food has certainly caused me a great deal of loathing over the years.

About the only thing I got out of the book is that I could relate to some of what Lerner felt about herself over the years and it's always nice to feel that you're not alone, I guess. I particularly identified with this part about being weighed in gym class: "On that day of my twelfth year, I weighed 134. I was five feet tall. It was too much. What I would give to see that number again." I feel the exact same way - the other day I saw a photo of myself at 10, which is roughly when I started on the path to overweighthood. Looking back, I was really only just starting to get chubby. That cute little girl had no idea she'd be dying to be only "chubby" 20 years later.

The other line that really struck me is one that I think is one of the best ones in the book since it at least has some humour: "In college, when I first encountered Descartes, it took me no time to translate his famous dictum into something I could relate to: I weigh x, therefore I am shit." I use that formula myself.

I recently read a fellow blogger's review of The Amazing Adventures of Dietgirl (sorry, can't remember who it was!) and maybe I'll give it a try. It sounds like it's at least fairly entertaining, at the very least, which this book was definitely not.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Review: Twisted

Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson

4 stars

Summary (from Barnes and Noble): "High school senior Tyler Miller used to be the kind of guy who faded into the background-average student, average looks, average dysfunctional family. But since he got busted for doing graffiti on the school, and spent the summer doing outdoor work to pay for it, he stands out like you wouldn't believe. His new physique attracts the attention of queen bee Bethany Milbury, who just so happens to be his father's boss's daughter, the sister of his biggest enemy-and Tyler's secret crush. And that sets off a string of events and changes that have Tyler questioning his place in the school, in his family, and in the world."

My thoughts: I was impressed that the book had a big warning on the front page "Note: this is not a book for children." It seems as if many YA books are becoming tween books and tween books are becoming kids' books and it gets a bit inappropriate at times. But there's no bones about this one - there's some serious stuff going on. I liked that that was made clear from the start.

This book takes on a subject that doesn't seem to get addressed much today - what it means to be a man. The inside flap says "Everybody told me to be a man. Nobody told me how." And Tyler really does have to learn for himself, through a great deal of trial and error and suffering. His angry father is no kind of role model (about the only thing he has going for him is that he doesn't physically beat his children). It also deals with depression and poor self-esteem in young men, an area that doesn't seem to get much attention. Tyler has always felt like a loser and just when it seems like he's finally come into his own, Bethany and her clique bring him right back down again and this time he reaches his breaking point. Tyler's struggle with suicidal thoughts is so real and tragic. And when he comes out the other side, all on his own (with a bit of help from his best friend, Calvin), it's a triumph. Life still isn't perfect, but Tyler is going to be okay.

One thing I really liked was that Tyler had real relationships with his freshman sister Hannah and with Calvin. He wasn't always nice to them, but he truly cared about them and they're well done secondary characters, not just background decoration.

This wasn't a fun read, but it was gripping. I was actually surprised to find that it was about a boy. But Anderson writes Tyler as well as her previous female characters. It's a bit like Speak in the way both characters become outcasts after parties where the event that happened was not their fault at all. I hope that the female author won't keep boys away from Twisted - it's got a lot to say about the trials of high school, becoming a man, and making your way in the world.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Review: The Poison Apples

The Poison Apples by Lily Archer

3 stars

Summary: "We all know the stories of Cinderella, Snow White, and Rapunzel. But have you ever heard of Alice Bingley-Beckerman, Reena Paruchuri, or Molly Miller? Of course you haven't. Not yet. But here's something you should know. What these girls have in common with their fairy-tale sisters is this: They are the stepdaughters of three very evil stepmothers. And they're not happy about it. They think they are alone in their unhappiness until they arrive at Putnam Mount McKinsey, a posh boarding school located in lovely, rural Massachusetts. Here is where they will plot their revenge. "

My thoughts: What really struck me in this book was the way Archer tapped into how helpless kids are in the face of a family split - they can be torn from their mothers, sent to boarding school, forced to accept crazy women into their families. . . The girls' loss of control over their own lives was really heartbreaking. But their friendship went a long way to help - they were able to form their own little family with the founding of The Poison Apples.

There's a fair bit of humour in the book, although most of it comes from the utterly over-the-top cluelessness and the stepmothers' insistence on completely dominating their new husbands - both the fathers and stepmothers come off as cruel. Also, the girls' mothers fare horribly - after being completely destroyed by their husbands, they aren't treated particularly well by their daughters, either (except for Alice's mom, who had the dubious good fortune to already be dead). The most humour comes from Barbie-doll-white girl/wanna be Indian goddess Shanti Shruti who is so insane that she forces her new hubby to buy her a penguin, which I did think was a hoot.

Happy-ish endings abound once the girls realize these women aren't truly evil, just really screwed up. There's a hint of a sequel to come, but I think one batch of Apples was enough for me. Overall, a good, quick, read but I didn't find any of the characters so compelling that I want to see them again. I think it would be popular with Traveling Pants fans and girls who have stepmothers of their own, evil or not.

Neat extra - the pages are all edged in red to match the cover, making it the coolest-looking book I've seen in while.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Review: The Devil of Nanking

The Devil of Nanking by Mo Hayder
2.5 stars

Summary (from Barnes and Noble): Grey, a young Englishwoman with a troubled past including a dramatic mental breakdown and a Carrie-like shame about sexuality, has just arrived in Tokyo, penniless, unprepared, and on a mission. For years she's been obsessed with a rare, possibly fictitious film artifact-a film made by the Japanese during the Nanking massacre, depicting a very specific incidence of torture. Flunking out of graduate school because she did nothing but obsess over the film, she thinks she has found the man who possesses it-Shi Chongming, a Chinese survivor of the massacre now teaching at Todai University in Tokyo-but he will have nothing to do with her.

Then an attractive stranger becomes her angel-hooking Grey up with a place to live, and a job that will have unforeseen consequences, in a high-class hostess bar. Shy and schoolteacherish in dress, Grey gradually learns to embrace her femininity, just as it becomes clear that an old, decrepit, but incredibly powerful yakuza gangster, one of the club's regulars, is the key to gaining Professor Shi's trust, because he has something the professor wants-an elixir of unknown origin, which is keeping his decrepit body alive. If Grey can get the formula, the film is hers. It's a devil's bargain-but who, really, is The Devil of Nanking?

My thoughts: Okay, for technical merit, this book actually gets 4 stars. It was a well-crafted thriller with excellent atmosphere. For example, you can picture every detail of the rambling, spooky, decaying house where Grey lives and well as the neon nightlife of Tokyo. But, Hayder's talent for powerful description extends to every horrifying, disgusting, creepy, stomach-turning person, place, and event in the novel. And that's why it only gets 2.5 - this is an incredibly disturbing book. If I hadn't been reading it for book club, I would have stopped reading it. I just couldn't understand why I was having to read about so much horror - not just during the war, but in present-day Japan, as well. Murders with entrails displayed artistically, rape, cannibalism - basically everything that makes one despair for humankind was in there.

None of the characters were likeable. It was really hard to empathize with Grey. She's clearly incredibly disturbed, apparently due to a childhood so sheltered and strange that it was a form of abuse. She's obsessed with Nanking and you don't really find out why until the very end, so it was hard for me to understand why she'd let it rule her life. Shi Chongming came off as a very hard, unkind man. He refused to escape Nanking with his pregnant wife - first because he had faith in the government and then because of his pride. Of course, he couldn't know the extent of the horror that was coming, but there are at least 6 episodes where things keep getting worse and he still won't leave until it's beyond too late. He's also cruel to Grey, sending her into the den of the yakuza to get the "formula," armed only with cryptic clues, when he already knew what it was.

The ending actually made the book a bit better for me - it's not a surprise ending, but everything meshes together and becomes clear. I didn't hate it quite as much once everything was resolved.

I'm wondering about Hayder's other works - I thought her writing was really good, but if all of her books have that level of disgustingness in them, I won't be checking them out.

Favourite character: There was one, at least - Mama Strawberry, the owner of the Some Like It Hot club where Grey works as a hostess. She's obsessed with Marilyn Monroe (the club has a huge Marilyn perched on a rocking swing on the roof) and only wears clothes based on ones she wore in movies or public appearances. She's constantly saying how much better the clothes suit her than Marilyn. But despite that oddness, she seems to be an excellent businesswoman and she comes to truly care about Grey. I have a soft spot for Marilyn, myself, so I also enjoyed seeing what Strawberry would be wearing next.

For a much better-written review of The Devil of Nanking, check out my friend and fellow book-clubber Vidalia's post about it here.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Review: Beastly

Beastly by Alex Flinn
3.5 stars

Summary (from Publisher's Weekly): "Kyle Kingsbury is a gorgeous high school freshman, spoiled rotten by his famous anchorman father, a man who'd rather dole out cash than affection. Kyle attends the exclusive Tuttle School in New York City and torments those poor unfortunates who lack his looks and wealth. When he humiliates a girl at school, she transforms him into a horrific-looking creature. Kyle's only hope for breaking the spell lies in finding true love-as he reports online in meetings of the Unexpected Changes chat group (other members include Froggie and the mermaid Silent Maid)."

My thoughts: I enjoyed this version of Beauty and the Beast. I liked that it was contemporary and that it was from the Beast's point of view. Kyle really does change from a beastly rich boy (Kendra, the witch who curses him, calls him this the first time he's mean to her) into a smart young man who can love someone other than his own reflection. I liked the fact that Lindy, his "Belle," isn't actually a Beauty - she's just a normal girl. The online chat group (run by a "Mr. Anderson") was a neat touch. I think the thought that you could find a chat group for even magical changes in this day and age is rather a hoot. A definite to-read for fans of retold fairy tales.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Books Read in 2007

Here they are, a bit late. :)

Adult Books
1. Television Without Pity: 752 things we love to hate (and hate to love) about about TV by Tara Ariano and Sarah Bunting
2. Mountain Man Dance Moves: the McSweeney's book of lists
3. The Birth House by Ami McKay
4. Merde Actually by Stephen Clarke
5. My Lucky Star by Joe Keenan
6. You Suck: a love story by Christopher Moore
7. Talk Talk by TC Boyle
8. Natural Born Charmer by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
9. Going Home by Harriet Evans
10. The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde
11. Alphabet Weekends by Elizabeth Noble
12. Wicked Widow by Amanda Quick
13. One for the Money by Janet Evanovich
14. The Queen's Fool by Philippa Gregory
15. Shopaholic and Baby by Sophie Kinsella
16. After This by Alice McDermott
17. Angels and Demons by Dan Brown
18. A Perfect Life by Rafaella Barker
19. Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson
20. The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc by Loraine Despres
21. The Dog Dialled 911 by The Smoking Gun
22. The Room-Mating Season by Rona Jaffe
23. Summer Reading by Hilma Wolitzer
24. Don't Look Down by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer
25. Rumble on the Bayou by Jana DeLeon
26. Miss Julia Speaks her Mind by Ann B. Ross
27. Life's a Beach by Claire Cook
28. I Like You: hospitality under the influence by Amy Sedaris
29. Infidel by Aayan Hirsi Ali
30. The Last Summer (of you and me) by Ann Brashares
31. Espresso Tales by Alexander McCall Smith
32. Home Sense by Eduardo Xol
33. Welcome to the Great Mysterious by Lorna Landvik
34. Candy Girl: a year in the life of an unlikely stripper by Diablo Cody
35. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
36. This Side of Married by Rachel Pastan
37. Evening Class by Maeve Binchy
38. Austenland by Shannon Hale
39. Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen
40. Screen Legends by Bruce Yaccato
41. Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth Jr.
42. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
43. The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler
44. Nantucket Nights by Elin Hilderbrand
45. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
46. So Many Books, So Little Time by Sara Nelson
47. Rain Village by Carolyn Turgeon
48. Literacy and Longing in LA by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack
49. The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby
50. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
51. Bobbie Faye's Very (very, very, very) Bad Day by Toni McGee Causey
52. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
53. Going Dutch by Katie Fforde
54. The View from Mount Joy by Lorna Landvik
55. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
56. Me and Mr. Darcy by Alexandra Potter
57. There's a (slight) chance I might be going to hell by Laurie Notaro
58. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
59. Sixpence House by Paul Collins
60. Swim to Me by Betsy Carter
61. An Inconvenient Wife by Megan Chance
62. The Shepherd, the Angel & Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog by Dave Barry
63. Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani
64. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
65. The Xmas Factor by Annie Sanders

YA and Children's Books
1. Forever in Blue by Ann Brashares
2. The Possibility of Fireflies by Dominique Paul
3. The Actual Real Reality of Jennifer James by Gillian Shields
4. Kendra Kandlestar and the Box of Whispers by Lee Edward Fodi
5. Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
6. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
7. The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordin
8. Midnight for Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo
9. Mates, Dates, & Mad Mistakes by Cathy Hopkins
10. The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron
11. The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
12. The Secrets of Peaches by Jodi Lynn Anderson
13. I'd Tell You I Love You But Then I'd Have to Kill You by Ally Carter
14. Lost It by Kristen Tracy
15. Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye (Geronimo Stilton)
16. Flora Segunda by Ysabeau S. Wilce
17. If We Kiss by Rachel Vail
18. Cyberpals According to Kaley by Dian Curtis Regan
19. Sleeping Beauty, the one who took a really long nap by Wendy Mass
20. Oh My Goth by Gena Showalter
21. Being by Bruce Brooks
22. Zara by Mary Hooper
23. The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci
24. Love is a Many Trousered Thing by Louise Rennison
25. Crispin: the cross of lead by Avi
26. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling
27. Dramarama by E. Lockhart
28. Dream Factory by Brad Barkley and Heather Hepler
29. The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupery
30. The Off Season by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
31. The Xenocide Mission by Benjamin Jeapes
32. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
34. New Moon by Stephenie Meyer
35. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
36. Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer
37. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
38. Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr
39. Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
40. Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah
41. Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
42. Guyaholic by Carolyn Mackler
43. Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy by Ally Carter
44. The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
45. Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Review: Blue Bloods

Blue Bloods by Melissa de la Cruz
3.5 stars

Summary: When the Mayflower set sail in 1620, it carried on board the men and women who would shape America: Miles Standish; John Alden; Constance Hopkins. But some among the Pilgrims were not pure of heart; they were not escaping religious persecution. Indeed, they were not even human. They were vampires.The vampires assimilated quickly into the New World. Rising to levels of enormous power, wealth, and influence, they were the celebrated blue bloods of American society. The Blue Bloods vowed that their immortal status would remain a closely guarded secret. And they kept that secret for centuries. But now, in New York City, the secret is seeping out. Schuyler Van Alen is a sophomore at a prestigious private school. Suddenly, when she turns fifteen, there is a visible mosaic of blue veins on her arm. She starts to crave raw foodand she is having flashbacks to ancient times. Then a girl from her school is found dead . . . drained of all her blood. Schuyler doesnt know what to think. Could those vampire legends really be true?

My thoughts: I've been meaning to read this one since it came out. I'm so behind - bad YA librarian! My first impression was that it was Gossip Girl with vampires, and basically it was - lots of fashion name-dropping, swanky NYC locations, beautiful young people... But it was also a creative vampire story. De la Cruz plays with the old legends - "Blue Bloods" are fallen angels, there are only 400 souls that keep getting reincarnated, they don't kill humans, just perform a sexy, sacred ritual to ensure they have blood to drink... And the whole thing is run by The Committee, which is disguised as a charity committee that basically runs the city. I really liked this bit of tongue-in-cheekness about high society blue bloods actually being Blue Bloods - it explained the hierarchy of high society quite well, really.

The Mayflower connection is brought in through flashbacks and pages from Catherine Carver's diary. Someone not too familiar with US history (like me) might have a bit of a problem with this, but it's fairly well explained. It's actually a tricky way to slip in a history lesson - I'm sure if I hadn't known about the Roanoke colony, I'd be researching it to find out what happened.

I'm glad I finally read this one. It was a good, quick read with an intriguing premise. I think I'll be checking out the sequel, Masquerade.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Review: Glamour

Glamour by Louise Bagshawe

3.5 stars

Summary: "Three powerful women. Once best friends. Now deadly rivals … Texan honey Sally Lassiter, English rose Jane Morgan and Jordanian Helen Yanna meet at an exclusive girls’ school and become best friends. They form a bond which will never be broken … Years later, the three girls are grown-up, co-founders and millionaire co-owners of the exclusive Glamour chain of stores. They are fabulously wealthy, instantly recognisable, adored and revered. Or are they? The Glamour empire is on the verge of collapse and the three women are embroiled in a bitter feud."

First line: "GLAMOUR. The name was written in brass letters, each one sixteen feet high, polished like a mirror."

My thoughts: I was so excited when I spotted this one on our new books shelf. And after East of Eden, my brain needed something fluffy. This one followed the usual Bagshawe rags-to-riches/riches-to-rags and women who were friends and are now rivals/were rivals and are now friends mold. It was a fine chick litty read, but I think her previous book, Sparkles, had a lot more going for it - a more intriguing story and setting and a huge twist. This one just kind of went along, with a little bit of tension as to whether the women would stay friends, and then it was over. The timeline also seemed off to me, it was as if the store took off in a matter of days and was suddenly a worldwide phenomenon. It seems like several years got glossed over - not that we needed to slog through those years, but it was just rather off.

I did love the idea of the GLAMOUR stores being the ultimate luxury shopping experience (not that I'd ever be able to shop there!) and I liked the story of each girl's struggle back from the bad cards life dealt her. My favourite character was Sally, with her sparkle and creativity. Jane was too much of a stereotypically cold Englishwoman and Helen was pretty arrogant.

I found that there was too much of the "strong woman loves being taken by a stronger man" vibe. I suppose the cliche about being a tiger in the boardroom and a kitten in the bedroom is a cliche for a reason, but it felt icky to me.

And one more quibble - the typos! My stars. There were enough spelling mistakes to be noticeable, but the worst was that a secondary character called Rhodri Evans, Jane Morgan's first saviour in business, keeps getting called Rhodri Morgan. Particularly confusing when they just referred to him as Morgan. Very sloppy.

So, overall, a quick, fluffy read with some entertainment value. If, like me, you really like Bagshawe, it's worth reading. But if your chick lit budget (either time-wise or money-wise!) is small, I'd recommend Sparkles or some of her earlier books.

Friday, January 11, 2008

And the winners are...

Following in other blogger's footsteps, I'm going to try and have some best/worst categories for last year's reading, rather than the usual Top 10 list.

(There are links to my reviews, but some were read before I started the blog.)

Best Book Overall:
Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind by Ann B. Ross - everything about it was great!

Most Charming:
Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen - just a lovely story;I loved the Waverley women and their mysterious gifts

Most Suspenseful:
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield - wonderful wordsmithing; kept me guessing!

Best Group of Characters:
Evening Class by Maeve Binchy - there are some companion books to this one, I'm looking forward to seeing the Italian classmates again.

Author I Was Happiest To See Again:
Joe Keenan with My Lucky Star - this former Frasier writer/producer is hilariously funny and he writes about one of my favourite things - Broadway musicals! He reminds me of PG Wodehouse, one of the funniest writers ever. The 2 preceding books, Putting on the Ritz and Blue Heaven are delights, too.

Best Drama Queens:
Dramarama by E. Lockhart - I love E. Lockhart's books and was happy to find this one as stellar as her 2 Boyfriend List ones. More Broadway - cue the jazz hands! Sayde (nee Sarah) is bored stiff in her Ohio town until Demi arrives - boring young black man in public, fabulous gay Broadway boy in private! The pair get a chance to attend summer drama camp and learn about their strengths and weaknesses on and off the stage. Funny, smart, bitchy, and a great read.

Favourite Sequel:
The Off-Season by Catherine Gilbert Murdock - I was so pleased to find that I enjoyed this one as much as Dairy Queen.

Most-Enjoyed Nonfiction Book:
Candy Girl: a year in the life of an unlikely stripper by Diablo Cody. I wrote a ton about this one, but now there's added coolness - Cody is the writer of the fab movie, Juno!

Book That Has Resulted in the Most Quotes at my House:
Television Without Pity: 752 things we love to hate (and hate to love) about about TV by Tara Ariano and Sarah Bunting
My husband and I both enjoy the Television Without Pity site, and he got me this book for Christmas. It's a mini-encyclopedia full of silly, annoying or badly awesome stuff about TV. For some reason the authors are anti-David Boreanz of Angel fame and describe him in later episodes as a "glazed ham in a trenchcoat." Poor Angel is now regularly called that in our home, despite the fact that we love the show. If you like the site or are a TV buff, this is great fun to have in your home. (It's very best for 90210 fans, which I'm not - it gets mentioned a LOT.)

Guiltiest Pleasure:
Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. I haven't read The DaVinci Code and don't plan to, but I tackled this one for book club. And loved it! I'm not sold on all the conspiracy theories and it's very over-the-top, but man, it was a page-turner!

Best Soap-Opera, Book Style:
The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory - I could NOT put this one down!

Weirdest Book:
I Like You: hospitality under the influence by Amy Sedaris - quite possibly the oddest book I've ever read, but the recipes, illustrations, and stories were very entertaining, if bizarre.

Best Book About Living a Great Life:
The View From Mount Joy by Lorna Landvik - I loved how Joe was able to find happiness despite a lot of sorrow throughout his life and that he passed that joy on to others, even the customers in his grocery stores.

Best Book About Reading:
The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby - I liked this one so much that I asked for the sequel for Christmas!
Runner-Up: 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff - a wonderful look at both the love of reading and a slower, kinder past

Best Historical/Hysterical Fiction:
An Inconvenient Wife by Megan Chance - explores how womanly hysteria was treated in the 19th century, but a huge, chilling twist reveals how a once-submissive woman can come into her own with a vengeance.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Review: East of Eden

East of Eden by John Steinbeck
5 stars

Summary (from the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature): It is a symbolic recreation of the biblical story of Cain and Abel woven into a history of California's Salinas Valley. . . Spanning the period between the American Civil War and the end of World War I, the novel highlights the conflicts of two generations of brothers; the first being the kind, gentle Adam Trask and his wild brother Charles. Adam eventually marries Cathy Ames, an evil, manipulative, and beautiful prostitute; she betrays him, joining Charles on the very night of their wedding. Later, after giving birth to twin boys, she shoots Adam and leaves him to return to her former profession. In the shadow of this heritage Adam raises their sons, the fair-haired, winning, yet intractable Aron, and the dark, clever Caleb. This second generation of brothers vie for their father's approval. In bitterness Caleb reveals the truth about their mother to Aron, who then joins the army and is killed in France.

First line: "The Salinas Valley is in Northern California."

My thoughts: This is one of my husband's favourite books of all time, and I'd been meaning to read it since we met. While I didn't finish it in time, the Something About Me Challenge spurred me to finally pick it up. And I was glad I did, we ended up talking about it as I was reading it. I think we need to read more of the same books, it was great fun! :)

Wow. In the dedication, Steinbeck descibes the book as a box "Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts - the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation. . . And still the box is not full."

And it really is filled to the brim. At first I wasn't sure I was going to be able to manage it - the first chapter is a long description of the Salinas Valley and I've never been one for big long nature descriptions. And as I read further, I couldn't figure out how all of the threads were going to connect. But connect they do! And Steinbeck was right, the number of themes in the book are amazing - good and evil, normal and abnormal, rich and poor, fathers and sons, brothers, family, identity. . . All set against the recurring backdrop of the Cain and Abel story.

One thing that really amazed me was that, amongst all the threads, there were a bunch of little anecdotes that had nothing to do with the main story, yet they enriched it greatly. My favourite was the one about Steinbeck's grandmother going up in an army plane (as a reward for selling bonds) and being sure she was going to die, but wanting to encourage the pilot, so she kept giving him the thumbs-up every time he inaudibly asked if she wanted to do another trick or loop. She stayed in bed for 2 days after landing safely, but she wasn't going to let the pilot be afraid. That had nothing to do with the Trasks and only vaguely to do with the Hamiltons, but it was a marvelous mini-story.

I think this is a book one could read over and over again and still not take in everything it has to say.

Favourite characters: I loved Lee, the Trasks' Chinese cook who basically raises the boys and is a counsellor/caretaker/brother to Adam. He was wise and funny and knew the best way to help in any situation. I think everyone could use a Lee in their life!

I also loved Samuel Hamilton, based on Steinbeck's grandfather. Though he settled on a ranch with very poor soil and was never wealthy, he and his wife Liza raised their family of 9 children. He was an inventor (the actual Samuel held 3 patents on farm machinery), a dreamer, and a would-be scholar, filled with endless curiosity.

Memorable passage:
It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.

We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.

Saturday, January 5, 2008


My reading resolution this year is to do a better job of rating books, so I can remember which ones really were my top favourites by the end of the year. I once tried to make one on an "edible" scale with Fudge being the best and Mud being the worst. But I couldn't really get into that one. So I'm going to actually assign meanings to the 5-star system, based solely on my enjoyment of the book, since sometimes I rather enjoy books that aren't terribly literary. :)

So, more for my benefit than anyone else's:

5 stars - loooooved it
4 stars - really liked it
3 stars - enjoyed it
2 stars - it was okay, I guess
1 star - didn't like it
0 stars - loathed it (probably won't have many, will just stop reading)

Friday, January 4, 2008

Review: Big Stone Gap

Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani

4 stars

Summary (from the publisher): It's 1978, and Ave Maria Mulligan is the thirty-five-year-old self-proclaimed spinster of Big Stone Gap, a sleepy hamlet in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She's also the local pharmacist, the co-captain of the Rescue Squad, and the director of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the town's long-running Outdoor Drama. Ave Maria is content with her life of doing errands and negotiating small details-until she discovers a skeleton in her family's formerly tidy closet that completely unravels her quiet, conventional life. Suddenly, she finds herself juggling two marriage proposals, conducting a no-holds-barred family feud, planning a life-changing journey to the Old Country, and helping her best friend, the high-school band director, design a halftime show to dazzle Elizabeth Taylor, the violet-eyed Hollywood movie star who's coming through town on a campaign stump with her husband, senatorial candidate John Warner.

My thoughts: I read this one for a few reasons - I read Trigiani's Rococo in 2006 and really enjoyed it, I'm always on the lookout for Southern lit, and I went through a bit of a small-town phase last year and added a bunch of books with that type of setting to the TBR list.

This book stirred up all kinds of feelings in me! I loved the first page (see the quotes below) and thought it boded very well. But at first I thought I really didn't like Ave Maria. In fact, I was very near the end before I decided I really did like her. Yet after I started writing about it, I found I really liked a whole lot about this book! Strange.

Rosanne Cash described Ave Maria as "so real" - and it's really true. Most first-person narratives are good for letting you learn about the character, but in this book all of Ave Maria's thoughts and feelings (at least the ones she's aware of) are laid out - even when she's confused and doesn't really know what to think. Sometimes I was just as confused as she was, and irritated when she couldn't seem to make up her mind (that was why I thought I didn't like her).

But in the end, I found I really had quite a lot in common with her - she found a wonderful husband who loved her, quirks and all (I've been similarly fortunate) and she worries incessantly (Jack tells her she's been practicing it for 37 years; I once won a Girl Guide "award" as the "best worrier" and I think I could still hold my own in a cage match for that title today .)

The secondary characters are also great - Iva Lou the bookmobile driver who thinks she's God's gift to men (and they seem to agree), Fleeta the chain-smoking pharmacy cashier who loves pro wrestling, and teenaged mountain girl Pearl Grimes whose potential Ave Maria invests in.

And in all the blurby stuff at the end, I was very pleased to see that there is a Big Stone Gap and Italian girl Adriana Trigiani grew up there, just like Ave Maria. For some reason I always get a kick out of authors sharing experiences with their characters. I see that there are 2 sequels, I think I'll have to add them to the TBR list!

First line: "This will be a good weekend for reading."

Second paragraph: "The Wise County Bookmobile is one of the most beautiful sights in the world to me. When I see it lumbering down the mountain road like a tank . . . I flag it down like an old friend. I've waited on this corner every Friday since I can remember. The Bookmobile is just a government truck, but to me it's a glittering royal coach delivering stories and knowledge and life itself. I even love the smell of books. People have often told me that one of their strongest childhood memories is the scent of their grandmother's house. I never knew my grandmothers, but I could always count on the Bookmobile."

Another favourite quote: After her husband has told her to "stop thinking" because there's a crease between her eyes that never bodes well, Ave Maria tells him it's her third eye:

"In face-reading. It's the all-knowing eye of your mind. It's where you create the pictures that become the reality of your life."

"Put a pretty picture in there then," Jack says simply.

Oh, if it were only that easy; I look at him pityingly. When it is all said and done, he is still a man, and men just don't understand.

My husband and I often have similar conversations!

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Review: The Uncommon Reader

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

Summary (from Booklist): One day the queen takes inadvertent advantage of a bookmobile that happens to arrive at a Buckingham Palace back door; she rather accidentally borrows a book. She'd never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. As surprising to herself as to those who know her, the queen develops into a dedicated, avid reader of serious literature, and the court and her government are sent reeling by this new royal practice—as well as by her newfound knowledge about all kinds of things. When she turns from the joy of reading to a desire to write, the consequences are jolting.

My thoughts: This just didn't do it for me. I know it was supposed to be satirical, but I just couldn't get past the fact that I'm sure the Queen is a reader. I can't believe that a woman of her age with her education wouldn't have read, for example, Henry James (one of the many authors she "discovers" in this book). I just couldn't get past it - perhaps I'm an even bigger fan of the Queen than I realized!

There were some funny bits (the fact of her wandering into the bookmobile, the talk of her "peripheral grandchildren," how she knows a lot of the authors because she's knighted them, and how she'll bring up books with any random person) and it was interesting to see how reading could be seen as elitist (there's a passage where the Queen says something like "But surely most people can read?" and the Prime Minister or whoever it is replies that people can, but most people don't).

But between the Queen being a non-reader and reading turning her into someone who starts to neglect her duties and because reading is seen as an annoying habit by everyone around her, I just wasn't having it.

I actually searched all over the Net for someone who agreed with me and had a very hard time, most people think it's completely delightful. I did find one Waterstone's bookseller, though, who only gave it one star and said:

"I'm not convinced by Alan Bennett. To be honest, I never have been. And this only adds fuel to my doubtful fire. I just can't see what the fuss is all about. To me, this reads like a rather badly written and thought-out children's book. The Queen goes to a mobile library and meets a skinny boy called Norman, who despite being a mere kitchen hand appears to have the combined intellects of Will Self, Stephen Fry and Martin Amis. Still, he's very popular so I guess it must be just me who doesn't get it. (sigh). "

I don't think I'm convinced by Alan Bennett, either.

Newbery Challenge Wrap-Up

The Challenge: Not long before she died, Nattie, may she rest in peace, challenged us to read and review 6 Newbery winners (click the logo above for the page).

My Books:
1. The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron
2. The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
3. Crispin: the cross of lead by Avi
4. Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
5. Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
6. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

Favourite book? While the intrusive narrator bugged me a bit, The Tale of Desperaux was lovely.

Book I Could Have Done Without: While I didn't adore them all, I'm definitely glad to have read them all.

What I Learned: As with the Something About Me Challenge, I see that I often need an excuse to read things. I'd been meaning to read Shiloh, Maniac Magee, and Number the Stars for years.

Thank you, Nattie, for a great challenge! I wish you'd gotten to finish it with us.

If anyone else did the challenge, please feel free to post a link in the comments, I'd love to see your picks and reviews.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Hardly any holiday reading...

I cannot believe it! I brought home literally a sackful of books to read over my 10-day holiday and I only finished one, and it was the shortest one, at that! I'm about halfway through East of Eden, so I'll cut myself a bit of slack, because it's huge. And halfway through Beastly, which I've only been reading on the exercise bike and due to holiday sloth, I haven't exactly done much of that. But still, I had visions of booky sugarplums in my head that did not come to fruition.

Plus, I'm behind my fellow bloggers in a Best of 2008 list, too...