Friday, September 26, 2008

Review: 10 Things to do Before I Die

10 Things to do Before I Die by Daniel Ehrenhaft

3 stars

Reasons for reading: I've been wanting to read one of Ehrenhaft's books; New York setting for Triple 8 Challenge; Young Adult Challenge

Book description (from Booklist): "It's the first day of spring break, and bright, nerdy 16-year-old Ted Burger is hanging out with his best friends [Mark and his girlfriend Nikki] at a New York City diner. Ted's friends are constructing a "to do" list for him, the first item of which is "lose virginity." Then Ted discovers a disgruntled employee has poisoned the fries he has just eaten, and he'll be dead in 24 hours. Suddenly the "to do" list takes on new meaning."

First line: "My name is Ted Burger."

My thoughts: Daniel Ehrenhaft is funny! I'd heard he was, which is why I wanted to read the book. So that was good. He has some very funny turns of phrase and a few hilarious scenes. The origin of Ted's favourite band, Shakes the Clown, is particularly stellar. The ad they placed seeking a drummer included the following requirement: "must be an older chick or have punched a cop in the groin."

It's a quick read and an interesting idea. It gets a bit rushed, with Ted's attempts to complete the list squeezed into about 8 hours. The things he discovers while trying to do the 10 things are fairly cliched - his old middle-school bully is now a saint, the members of Shakes the Clown are asshats, and, of course, he's in love with his best friend's girl.

The end of the book felt a bit like an after school special - "You know, I learned something today..." While I suppose it could happen with a near-death experience, Ted very quickly realizes a great deal about himself, his parents, Mark, Nikki, and his nice but not-Nikki girlfriend Rachel.

But I would definitely recommend this to teens. I don't often read books about boys, so I was glad to read it for that reason, too. It reminded me a little bit of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. Not the story, but some elements - rushing around New York at night, the quirky humour, Ted being a music geek, and the cool girl friend who becomes more.

I'd be up for reading more Ehrenhaft in the future. I think a longer book would serve him better. His Drawing a Blank sounds interesting.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: Rat Pack Confidential

Rat Pack Confidential by Shawn Levy
3 stars

Reasons for reading: I've always been quite interested in learning more about the Rat Pack and reading
Cease to Blush earlier this year made me even more intrigued; Nonfiction for the Triple 8 Challenge

Book description: "January 1960. Las Vegas is at its smooth, cool peak. The Strip is a jet-age theme park, and the greatest singer in the history of American popular music summons a group of friends there to make a movie. One is an insouciant singer of Italian songs, ex-partner to the most popular film comedian of the day. One is a short, black, Jewish, one-eyed, singing, dancing wonder. One is an upper-crust British pretty boy turned degenerate B-movie actor, brother-in-law to an ascendant politician. And one is a stiff-shouldered comic with the quintessential Borscht Belt emcee's knack for needling one-liners...

Around them an entire cast gathers: actors, comics, singers, songwriters, gangsters, politicians, and women, as well as thousands of starstruck everyday folks who fork over pocketfuls of money for the privilege of basking in their presence. They call themselves The Clan. But to an awed world, they are known as The Rat Pack.They had it all. Fame. Gorgeous women. A fabulous playground of a city and all the money in the world. The backing of fearsome crime lords and the blessing of the President of the United States. But the dark side--over the thin line between pleasure and debauchery, between swinging self-confidence and brutal arrogance--took its toll. In four years, their great ride was over, and showbiz was never the same."

My thoughts: This definitely satisfied my Rat Pack curiosity. I don't think I'd have been interested enough to read a separate biography of each man, but I liked Levy's approach of viewing "the Rat Pack as a kind of organic phenomenon, a being that lived for a few years around the turn of the sixties with roots stretching back into its principals' childhoods and effects haunting them until their deaths."

While parts of their lives were very exciting and glamorous, my main feelings about the various members were mostly pity or disgust. Frank Sinatra appears to have had three main modes - baby, bully, or coward. His loyalty is often touted, yet he cut many of his so-called friends dead for months or years at a time over any slight, real or imagined. Peter Lawford wasn't really liked by anyone in the Rat Pack or his Kennedy in-laws and is mostly a laughable figure who ended his days as a truly sick individual. Dean Martin seems to have been the most normal and likeable of all, probably because he managed to stay the most detached, but even he seems to have had his moments of being a real asshole. Sammy Davis Jr. is presented as having extreme self-loathing issues, despite being probably the most talented of them all. Failed marriages, drug and alcohol problems, estrangement from their children...doesn't sound like it was quite the swingin' life it appeared to be.

I did enjoy reading about the heyday, Summit years and reading about the fiascos involved in filming it made me want to see the original Ocean's 11 even more. Even after reading about all of the negative things they did and that happened to them later, it's really hard not to view it all in nostalgia-tinted glasses - the oh-so-modern, cool Sands, the jokes, the songs, the glamour. There really hadn't been anything like them before. And it was quite astonishing to realize how truly on top Sinatra managed to be for so long (despite a few slumps). Levy also repeatedly points out the true gift he had for singing, which was like nothing seen before it (or presumably since). I've always liked his music (mainly because I love Cole Porter and the other standards he's known for), but the book made me interested to hear some of his earlier work, I think I've only really ever heard the middle-aged Frank with all of his "Pow! Zoom!" type stuff. And I have to say, I've simply got to listen to an album called Ring-a-ding-ding! just for the title. :-)

The part I liked the least was all the mob stuff. I know they were connected to the Rat Pack, especially Frank, but the lists of Italian guys with dumb nicknames got a bit old, as did reading about how many points various mobsters had in various casinos. The history of Las Vegas is pretty interesting, especially when you consider how immense and family vacation-oriented it is now, but there was still just a bit too much of that, too.

This was definitely an interesting book and it was a fairly quick read. For a biography, I felt it read well, almost like a novel. And it made me interested to hear and see more Sinatra and perhaps learn more about that swingin' era itself.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Review: Among Other Things, I've Taken Up Smoking

Among Other Things, I've Taken Up Smoking by Aoibheann Sweeney
2.5 stars

Reasons for reading: Sam Houston's review; New-to-Me Author for Triple 8 Challenge

First line (unsurpisingly): "Among other things, I've taken up smoking."

My thoughts: This wasn't a bad book, it was just a bit dull. It was my pick for book club and I'm afraid I disappointed everyone (I usually pick funny books). But, as my friend Vidalia pointed out, it was "quick dull" rather than 700-pages dull. So that was something.

My favourite part were the descriptions of their tiny Maine island. Ana the coffee cart girl and Mr. Blackwell were interesting characters, although they remained fairly shadowy, particularly Mr. Blackwell. The inclusion of the myths from Ovid's Metamorphoses added another layer. But overall it was fairly predictable - the big "secret" of her father being gay wasn't much of a surprise nor was it a suprise that Miranda would be a lesbian when she finally allowed herself to interact with people.

I wanted to know how her father had supported them for 15 years while working on the same translation. Perhaps he inherited a lot of money along with the house. I did find it very sad that he seemed to have never really loved Miranda's mother nor helped Miranda to feel anything for her memory. I also found it very sad that for most of the book it seems as though he's content to let Mr. Blackwell raise her, barely noticing her existence except when he needs her to cook or type.

Again, it wasn't a bad story or even an unenjoyable read, it was just kind of blah. The main reason the book caught my eye was the title and that was the most novel thing about it.

BUT, Sam Houston wrote a great review of it here, so do take his much better-considered and better-written opinion under advisement.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Genre Challenge

Samantha at Bookworms and Tea Lovers is hosting:

There are 12 basic genres and she wants us to get reading outside our comfort zones. It runs from November 1, 2008 - November 1, 2009 I'm going to do option A, which is "Read 10 books, drop the genre you read the most and one of your own choosing." I'm dropping horror because I'm a big wimp and I'd say that my beloved chick lit is basically romance, so I'll leave it out, too.

Here's my list (subject to change):

1. Crime - The Crime Writer by Gregg Hurwitz
2. Detective - T
he Case of the Missing Books by Ian Sansom
3. Mystery - And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
4. Thriller - Vodka Neat by Anna Blundy
5. Science Fiction - A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
6. Action/adventure - Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
7. Fantasy - The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
8. Realistic - Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan
9. Historical - The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue
10. Western - The Chili Queen by Sandra Dallas

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Review: The Perfect Manhattan

The Perfect Mahattan by Leanne Shear and Tracey Toomey
3 stars

Reasons for reading: sounded fun; Bourbon Heritage Month for Holiday Challenge, New York setting for Triple 8 Challenge

Book description (edited): Meet Columbia grad and aspiring screenwriter Cassie Ellis. Eager to avoid an office job (even if it's for US Weekly) but needing to pay off her student loans, she shocks everyone she knows by opting for a sexier, more flexible job: mixing drinks. Never mind that she doesn’t know single-malt whiskey from Jack Daniel’s: she’s eager to learn. With the help of a bar owner she happens to meet while out for a graduation dinner with her parents, she’s soon cranking out three-olive martinis with the city’s glitterati fifteen-deep at the bar—all while angling for tips, fielding bad pick-up lines, and trying to keep up with the other bartenders who party as hard as their stylish clientele.

When Cassie accepts a summer gig bartending at the hottest new club in the Hamptons she finds herself catapulted into a whirlwind of dazzling celebrity and over-the-top wealth unlike anything she’s ever seen. Life behind the velvet rope is hard to resist, especially when she finds herself falling for a Hamptons hottie named James. But as the summer progresses, and she finds herself surrounded by playboys, moguls, spoiled rich kids, and Paris Hilton clones in strappy stilettos, she soon wonders if playing the ersatz socialite—while actually trying to make a living—is more than she bargained for.

First line: I was drowning in a sea of bev naps, searching frantically for the bottle of Grey Goose, while hordes of people thirty deep with contorted red faces and bulging veins were screaming drink orders at me.

My thoughts: This was a fun, beach-type read. Nothing too serious. I've been quite fascinated by the Hamptons since I read James Brady's Further Lane a few years ago, so I always perk up my eyes, so to speak, when a book is set there. But, I must say, it sounds exhausting! Maybe I'm old before my time, but I can't imagine sharing a house with dozens of people and spending my nights trying desperately to get into places to get drunk. But, I don't know much about bartending or bars, so that made it an interesting read, even if it's not a lifestyle I could manage.

And the snobbery! On one hand, part of my fascination with the Hamptons is that it's for the rich and elite, but reading about it almost firsthand (both authors were, unsurprisingly, bartenders) is really sad - it's hard to believe that people are allowed to treat others poorly just because of their wealth in this day and age. But then, I guess that's something that has never and will never change. After watching the Gossip Girl crowd spend their summer in the Hamptons, this is definitely a view from the other side of the tracks.

The result of the romance with the rich boy is pretty predictable, but the happy ending is a bit unexpected and nice. In the end, Cassie definitely learns that being one of the Pearls Girls, as she nicknames James' socialite female friends, isn't something she's cracked up to be, and that's a good thing.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Blogs I Like!

To kick off Book Blogger Appreciation Week, Amy has asked us to post about blogs we enjoy that weren't nominated for BBAW awards (though I enjoy a lot of those, too). I have a feeling that I'm going to discover a bunch more, too, from her Mr Linky list of others' faves.

There are so many great book blogs out there, so I don't mean to slight anyone, but I wanted to highlight just a few that I really enjoy reading and always look forward to reading their comments on my posts.

Raidergirl at An Adventure In Reading
She's my reading kindred spirit!!

Stephanie at Stephanie's Confessions of a Book-a-holic
Vampire lit fan and great commenter!

The ladies at Girls Just Reading
Fellow fans of chick lit and YA lit!

Wendy at A Novel Challenge
Fuels my addiction by keeping me posted on all the challenges out there in the book blogosphere!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

What a fun idea! Amy is hosting Book Blogger Appreciation week next week. I think it's a great idea for the book blogging community.

Click the button below for more info and/or to register. I'm just in the nick of time, registration and voting close tonight, so hop on over!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Review: Indie Girl

Indie Girl by Kavita Daswani
3 stars

Reasons for reading: Orbis Terarrum Challenge; enjoyed one of her adult books

Book description: "Fifteen-year-old Indie Konkipuddi has always dreamed of becoming a fashion reporter. She'd do anything to land an internship with glamorous Celebrity Style magazine -- even babysit publisher Aaralyn Taylor's two-year-old son. Indie's neurosurgeon dad can't understand why Indie would want to spend her weekends picking Play-Doh off of someone else's Persian carpets, and pretty soon she starts asking herself the same thing. hen Indie finds out that (1) Celebrity Style is in trouble, and (2) Hollywood's hottest star is having her wedding dress made in a village in India. Indie's sure she's scored the juiciest gossip in town -- the kind of story that will put the magazine back on the map and finally land her the internship! But when things don't pan out exactly as planned, Indie wonders -- will Aaralyn ever see her as anything more than just the hired help?"

First line: "Today, I would be meeting the woman whom I was convinced would change my life."

My thoughts: I really enjoyed Daswani's For Matrimonial Purposes a few years ago, so I was really interested when I saw she'd written a YA novel.

My library is in a city with a large South Asian population, so I was really glad to be able to get a chick lit novel for the teen girls in that population. One of the things about both adult and teen chick lit is that it's usually pretty darn white. As far as I can tell, white in the Gossip Girl books and even on the TV show, they only have one Asian and one black girl who may as well have TOKEN stamped on their Prada bags. This book addresses issues like that - Indie's dad points out that no matter how successful some Indian celebrities might become at home, they never really break into Hollywood. Aralyn says something I found shockingly ignortant to Indie - "I hear that people from your part of the world are good with domestic duties." Elements like that elevated this book above typical fashion-obsessed teen lit (interning for fashion houses or magazines seems to be the hot trend in YA fiction these days, overtaking the previously popular nannying).

But I liked that Daswani also addressed that, while North Americans may have either no thought about people from other cultures or insulting thoughts like Aralyn's, people from another culture often isolate themselves. After contemplating that, among other things, her family spends American holidays with other Indians eating tandoori chicken, Indie realizes "We were Americans but in name only." It's a tough issue - the desire and need to maintain traditions balanced against the fact that the family has moved to a different country with a different culture.

There's a bit of everything else in the book - a bit of romance, a bit of struggle against parents, a life lesson in being yourself and not letting someone disrespect you. And lots of fashion, as well. I think teen girls from any background would enjoy reading about Indie's unique style and her attempt to follow her dream.

Since this is for Orbis Terrarum, I'll mention how funny it seems that Daswani counts as a Hong Kong author because that's where she was born, but her books are completely, utterly steeped in Indian culture. She has a real gift for making the reader see the beautiful clothing, taste the food, and really be immersed in a different world.

Review: Fairest

Fairest by Gail Carson Levine
4 stars

Reasons for reading: I love Gail Carson Levine; Young Adult Challenge

Book description: "Once upon a time, there was a girl who wanted to be pretty . . . Aza's singing is the fairest in all the land, and the most unusual. She can "throw"t her voice so it seems to come from anywhere. But singing is only one of the two qualities prized in the Kingdom of Ayortha. Aza doesn't possess the other: beauty. Not even close. She's hidden in the shadows in her parents' inn, but when she becomes lady-in-waiting to the new queen, she has to step into the light—especially when the queen demands a dangerous favor. A magic mirror, a charming prince, a jealous queen, palace intrigue, and an injured king twine into a maze that Aza must penetrate to save herself and her beloved kingdom."

First line: "I was born singing."

My thoughts: I usually love the first work I read by an author the best and I loved, loved, Ella Enchanted. But I enjoyed Fairest, too. This re-telling of Snow White has a lot going on - an abandoned baby, a chance to rise above one's station, beauty potions, ogres, gnomes (rather than dwarves), a mean (not quite evil) queen, a magic mirror, a handsome prince (with big ears) . . .

What I liked:

The book had a lot to say about beauty and self-esteem, and not just in an "everyone should feel good about yourself" bland way. The unkindness Aza faces because of her appearance rang true. I liked that the beauty potions were temporary - it wasn't a typical fairy-tale situation where the heroine is transformed by magic, she has to learn to accept herself. And even though Aza does come to accept herself somewhat, it's not a quick and easy change - she still feels it will take quite some time before she can smile at her image in a mirror. She also realizes that part of her problem has been that she believed what others thought about her and so she needed to accept some of the blame for the way she felt about herself. A classic lesson in overcoming a negative self-image. And while he botches it a bit, Ijori eventually convinces Aza that he loves the way she looks and always has, which is what everyone wants from their beloved.

I really liked that Ayortha was a kingdom of singers and that so much of the book was made up of their songs. I'd love to live in a kingdom like that!

The references to Ella and Frell that made Ayortha seem like part of a larger world and gave me a few happy thoughts of Ella Enchanted.

What I didn't like:

The whole magic mirror element was a great idea, but I found it rather rushed. It didn't seem as central to the Snow White-inspired story as it should have been. The mirror is mentioned a few times after Aza meets the queen and she does try to find out about it, but most of the explanation of the mirror's history, the queen's involvement with it, who the spirit in the mirror was (which I didn't find convincing or satisfying), and then Aza's vanquishing of it takes place in 2 or 3 chapters near the end and the real action is too quickly packed into only in a few pages.

Still, Gail Carson Levine is a wonderful author and I'd definitely recommend it. I'm looking forward to reading her latest, Ever.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Review: Do Not Disturb

Do Not Disturb by Tilly Bagshawe
3.5 stars

Reason for reading: I loved her previous books

Book description: "Honor Palmer has always been a fighter. First, for her father's love, approval or even just his attention. When that failed, Honor switched her efforts to saving the family hotel that shares her name. Palmers, a beautiful old jewel of a building nestled on the coast of the Hamptons, used to be the most glamorous destination in the world. Now Honor wants to restore its reputation, its glitz and its guestlist. But there's a new boy in town with a different plan. Lucas Ruiz is no stranger to struggle. He's worked his way up from the grimy hotel laundries of Ibiza, via Sweden and London, and now as manager of the new hotel on the block, he wants to bring modern boutique-chic to the States. He's got no time for the faded traditions of Palmers - or the ball-breaking girl who's trying to save it. As Honor and Lucas prepare to go head to head to get the rich and famous checking in, the locals are busy checking out the backstairs gossip. Blackmail, adultery and the dirtiest of dirty tricks are all in a day's work behind the scenes of the five-star facades."

First line: "Over my dead body! D'you hear me? You'll take Palmers over my dead body, you scheming, greedy, little - "

My thoughts: I didn't like this one as much as Bagshawe's Adored and Showdown. I didn't find it quite as, well, novel. The influence of my beloved Jilly Cooper (whom Bagshawe says is "is one of my heroines and I'm sure that her books have influenced me") is even more obvious here than in the last two books, even down to having a very long cast of characters outlined at the start of the novel. But it was still a fun read.

I love fancy hotels, so having that as a setting appealed to me. I'd love to stay at Palmers. The foiling of Tisch, the hotel magnate villain, was interesting - his brand of evil was pretty timely and not something run-of-the-mill and he was outed in a funny scene. As with all good bonkbusters, the romances are all predictable and there's lots of sex. It was a perfect end-of-summer read.