Saturday, February 1, 2014

THE SELECTION and THE ELITE



Author: Kiera Cass

Age: Teen

Like so many other current teen sci fi novels, this is a less well done knockoff of The Hunger Games, but with the unique twist of Hunger Games meets The Bachelor. (Come on, you know you’re intrigued now.) In a post-American dystopian society with a strict caste structure, the heir to the throne always chooses his bride through a televised contest open to women from any caste.

Far removed from the glamour of palace life, ball gowns, and TV cameras, the only fantasy America Singer (yes, that’s really her name) has ever harbored is to marry her beloved best friend, Aspen (again, really his name), and share life’s trials with him. And there will definitely be trials—if she marries Aspen she will be forced from her already low caste (musicians and artisans) into his even lower one (servants). However, when the nation of Illea’s current prince comes of age and a new Selection is announced, Aspen does the honorable thing and breaks up with America, urging her to fill out an application for the Selection. America is cute enough but doesn’t think of herself as anything special so it is a shock when she is one of 35 young women chosen to live in the palace while Prince Maxon (also, yes, his name) narrows down his choices.

America just wants to get through the contest, hopefully use it to improve her family’s life a little, and then get back to Aspen. But of course, her disdain for the whole process captures Maxon’s attention, and, of course, she finds herself falling for him too. Her feelings become even more conflicted when Aspen (the one who pushed her away!) gets himself a job as a palace guard.  

These are not fantastically well-written books (I have to fight the urge to take a red pen to much of the dialogue—I check them out of the library or else I might actually do it) but they make for good, quick, guilty pleasure reads. AND if you hang on to about halfway through the second book, The Elite, the plot actually thickens a bit, which is a pleasant surprise! As America grows closer to Maxon, she learns secrets about his family and about his ancestor, the founder of Illea who instituted the caste system. Maxon gains some depth as well, which was also a nice shock—the more we learn about him, the more he starts to look like he might be the villain, and America begins to trust him less even as she begins to fall for him (and for the power she might hold to enact change as queen) more.

The final book in the trilogy comes out in May and I can’t wait.

THE LUXE



Author: Anna Godbersen

Age: Teen

I have seen this in bookstores a million times but only just got around to reading it, so I apologize if I’m very much late to the party with this one. If you are the type to spend much time in the YA section, I am sure you’ve seen it too—the striking cover features a young woman in an enormous pink ballgown, and it is supposed to be the turn-of-the-century (the nineteenth century) answer to Gossip Girl. I have tried multiple times to get into Gossip Girl (is it embarrassing to admit that?), always without success, so maybe that’s why I was slow to read this. However, I found it to be a quick, enjoyable, and reasonably clever read.

The Luxe is set among the high society of 1899, a strict culture of rules to be followed and appearances to be maintained. Our story opens with the funeral of 18-year-old society belle Elizabeth Holland, who was last seen falling into the Hudson River (body never found). Following the prologue, we rewind to one month prior to the accident and are introduced to each of five protagonists: Elizabeth herself; her younger sister, Diana; her best friend/frenemy, Penelope Hayes; Elizabeth’s fiancĂ©, Henry Schoonmaker; and her lady’s maid, Lina Broud. As the story of the next month unfolds, the chapters alternate among the point of view of each of these five teens. (The narration remains in the third person throughout, which is a relief, because unless well-done—e.g. The Poisonwood Bible—switching first-person narration can quickly become confusing.)

What I found most intriguing about the format was that when we are introduced to Diana, Penelope, Henry, and Lina, each has a clear motive for Elizabeth’s murder. (What a group of friends!) Diana feels stifled by her family’s expectations and irritated by her sister’s “perfection.” The nouveau riche Penelope resents the fact that old money Elizabeth moves more easily through old society. Henry’s thoroughly enjoyable playboy existence is threatened by his father’s insistence that he settle down with a respectable bride. And Lina is growing increasingly bitter about the limited life of a servant and the fact that the man she loves seems infatuated with their mistress. As the plot progresses, none of them can be ruled out as suspects—in fact, each character’s motive is only strengthened by the passage of time and further interaction with Elizabeth. Not only that, but Elizabeth’s own potential motive for suicide is developed as well. I am a sucker for a good whodunit, and the addition of historical atmosphere, illicit romance, family secrets, and money troubles only made this book more fun.

The Luxe does have multiple sequels, which I am excited to read, but it was also fairly self-contained. This sort of thing is important to me, since my primary reading time is between about 11 pm and 2 am, and I hate hate HATE to stay up that late to finish a book only to have it end on a cliffhanger.

You may also enjoy: Downton Abbey, the Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray (A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, The Sweet Far Thing), the Time Travelers quartet by Caroline B. Cooney (Both Sides of Time, Out of Time, Prisoner of Time, For All Time), Agatha Christie

ME BEFORE YOU


Author: Jojo Moyes

Age: Adult

The plot, in brief—a love story about a quadriplegic and his caregiver—seems like it would be either terribly sappy or horribly depressing. In fact, it is emphatically neither. There are parts that might make you cry, yes—but on the whole it is more funny and real than anything else. The main characters are drawn in such a way that you feel empathy for them instead of pity. And the supporting characters, mostly family members, are multidimensional and real as well—each flawed in their own ways but also loving and lovable. This was a difficult book to put down.

Before the accident that left him unable to perform even the simplest tasks without assistance, Will Traynor was a powerful young businessman with a penchant for risk taking, world travel, and beautiful women. Louisa Clark, on the other hand, has always preferred to stay within the narrow comfort zone of her tiny village and her plodding routine, going nowhere and interacting with no one beyond the circle of her family; her long-time, rather dull boyfriend; and the regular customers at the tea shop where she has worked for years. When the tea shop unexpectedly closes, she is left without the small income that her family (mother, father, aging grandfather, annoying sister-who-was-supposed-to-be-the-brainy-one-but-got-pregnant-and-had-to-drop-out-of-college, and young nephew) depend on to help make ends meet. Job opportunities in her village are slim. In theory she is lucky to find a position as caregiver/housekeeper/babysitter for Will—it’s that or the chicken factory!—but he is cranky and verbally abusive and she can’t really stand him.

Of course, over time the two warm to each other. As Louisa begins to understand how Will has struggled to come to terms with the loss of his former life and independence, she transforms into a woman on a mission—to help Will find the joy in life again. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that as each brings a fullness to the other’s life that was lacking before they met, they each also come to fear that the other’s lasting happiness cannot be achieved without sacrificing their own feelings.

  
What to read after this: If you find yourself in need of a more “conventional” British romance, I suggest the works of Sophie Kinsella…guaranteed to make you laugh but NOT cry. :)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Project

This is something I've been wanting to do for a long time. Husband and I are going to embark on this great works reading list:

http://www.stjohnscollege.edu/academic/readlist.shtml

St. John's College is a liberal arts college in which all students follow the same curriculum, which basically consists of reading classics for four years. When I was applying to colleges, I was really intrigued by their program and seriously considered it, but then I decided that I could do the reading on my own and I'd better go and get a degree in something practical. (Boring, I know.) However, here I am, nearly a decade later, and I haven't actually done any of the reading yet. But now that we're finally, for the first time in maybe forever, both not in school for at least one semester, we have some time to read something other than textbooks. We are excited.

I know I have been really bad at keeping this blog updated. I have been reading a ton but that takes up most of the free time I have (and honestly, a fair bit of the time I should be spending on dusting and toilet cleaning, too) and thus I'm left with no time to write about what I'm reading. However, I like the idea of trying to blog about the discussions husband and I have about the things we read from this list. You are invited to join us!

Here's the plan: We are going to read the same thing at the same time. We are not going to go in order. Husband says that is way too much Greek at once (and he's the one with the degree in Classics, so I defer to him). We have read some of the things on the list before (him probably more than me) but we will read them again as part of this project. We will jump around partially based on preference and partially through the use of a random number generator. I will keep you updated on what we are reading at any given time. I'm not sure how long it will take us. Like I said, at the current moment we have more time to read than usual, so we might get off to a good start this fall and then slow down a bit, but we will try to keep going. It may take us four years; it may take much longer. I think it will be a fun ride. I'm thinking at our current pace we will read a couple of the shorter items (essays or plays) a week and spend a couple weeks on the longer novels; but we'll see how it goes.

We are planning to start with Aristotle's On Generation and Corruption and Cervantes' Don Quixote.

Also, if you're curious (of course you are!), here's what I've been reading lately:

I just finished Going Bovine by Libba Bray and The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I recommend both (although perhaps more especially The Help. So good.).

I am currently reading Matched by Ally Condie and Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Assorted Mini-Reviews

I haven’t posted in a very long time. It’s not that I haven’t been reading; well, yes it’s partly that. It’s been a busy year, the sort that results in several almost-finished projects. I have several almost-finished blog posts saved on here that have sat idle for many months now. In the interest of time, and as it is the holiday season and if you’re like me, you like to get books for Christmas, or at least spend your time off reading, I thought I would post some fast mini-reviews. I’m no good at giving out stars for anything…I can never decide what the various number of stars would represent. (Is five stars the best book you’ve ever read in your life? Or simply any book that’s passably enjoyable?) It's too much work for me. I avoid goodreads for this reason. So here is my (hopefully pretty self-explanatory) reviewing scale.

Don’t bother = Don’t.
Library = It’s worth a read, but not worth spending your own money on. (Note: This is not an empty suggestion. If you live near me, our local library has a copy of this book.)
Buy it = This is actually good enough to spend your own money on and keep in your personal library. (On my current budget ,the standard for a book of this category is very high. Higher than it might be for you if you are, say, Jessica Simpson. I once watched an episode of Newlyweds in which she and Nick were going through bags of DVDs that they had recently purchased. They had to look through all the bags before they could watch anything because they didn’t even know what they’d bought. They just like, went into Target and pulled everything off the shelves and bought it all, or something. Ok, I admit it, ever since I watched that episode, it's been my dream to be able to live that way.)

So here we go…

What I’ve read this year:

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray: Don’t bother.
Age: Teen (Definitely an older teen, though. See the themes, below.)

I absolutely loved Libba Bray’s first series, A Great and Terrible Beauty, etc., so I was excited to read this. However, it’s in a completely different genre (contemporary “humor/satire” as opposed to fantasy historical fiction) and she’s just no good at it. It’s about beauty queens and Sarah Palin and Kim Jong-Il and reality TV and feminism and boy bands and being transgendered and girl power and how you’ll know you’re self-actualized when you achieve sluthood. If that seems like a lot of themes crammed into one book, it is. And it’s unfunny and absurd and not well done at all and the satire just falls flat.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver: Buy it!
Age: Adult/Teen

I can’t even tell you how much I loved this book. It’s one of those rare finds that combines a good story with good storytelling. It’s told from the alternating perspectives of the five women in the Price family. The father, Nathan Price, is a Baptist minister who decides the family will spend the year of 1959-1960 as missionaries in a remote village of the Belgian Congo. It is an intense, tragic, eye-opening year that changes each member of the family forever. Best of all, Kingsolver manages to give each narrator her own unique and beautiful voice.

Why I’m Like This by Cynthia Kaplan: Library
Age: Adult

I read several amazon reviews of this book and the chief complaint was along the lines of, “Why would I want to read the memoir of someone who isn’t famous?” My response to this is first, “Well, but you did read it.” Second, in my opinion, unless you’re Cleopatra or something, most people’s lives are pretty much the same, at least when told in memoir form. Anyway. I enjoyed this book. I actually thought it was even funnier than Bossypants, Tina Fey’s new memoir (see below). Kaplan’s perspective on life is pretty similar to my own. We’re both kind of crazy in the same way. One caveat: the first chapter features some rather unpleasantly graphic teenage sex, leading me to believe that the rest of the book would be dirtier than it actually turned out to be. If that sort of thing bothers you, just skip it and start with the second chapter.

The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld: Library
Age: Adult

If you’re already a Sittenfeld fan, I do suggest that you read this book. It’s in a very similar vein to her other two books, Prep and American Wife, but I don’t think it’s nearly as well done. (Those two I would definitely classify as Buy!) The biggest problem I had with it is that the narrator is as socially inept as Sittenfeld’s others but she lacks any of their humanity. She’s not one of those people who assumes that no one likes her but really they do. She’s actually that unlikeable. She’s not just awkward, she’s really a b*tch. As the book progresses it becomes very difficult to muster any sympathy for her at all. If you’ve never read any Sittenfeld, you’re much better off starting with one of her other two books.

Bossypants by Tina Fey: Library
Age: Adult

I’m a huge 30 Rock fan and I really love Tina Fey. However, this book was not nearly as funny as I would have expected. The humor is more along the lines of a few witty observations here and there, not a laugh out loud on every page. It was, however, an interesting read, and it moved quickly. I haven’t made it all the way through a book in f-o-r-e-v-e-r but I read this one in a day and a half. You know those features in celebrity gossip magazines that are all like, “Celebrities…they’re just like us!” but you just don’t buy it? I’m pretty certain I have absolutely nothing in common with any of the Kardashians, for instance. Well, after reading this, I feel like there is at least one celebrity out there who is a lot like the rest of us. Tina Fey may not be as funny as I had thought (at least not in this medium) but she does seem like someone I would like to know.

What I’m reading now:

Nefertiti by Michelle Moran: Undecided (Library/Buy?)
Age: Teen

This is basically Philippa Gregory set in ancient Egypt, but also for teens so there’s much less sex. I’m undecided because I’m about halfway through and it’s moving very slowly. Nothing much happens and what does is repetitive. Also, it’s written from the perspective of Nefertiti’s younger sister, and it kind of bugs me when authors do that. It seems like Nefertiti would have a much more interesting perspective and it sometimes feels like a cop out when authors decide to write from the perspective of a less complex character. However, I do feel like it captures a sense of what life in Egypt was like at that time, and I’m enjoying that aspect of it. I started reading it right after viewing the King Tut exhibit that’s visiting our local art museum (Nefertiti was one of the wives of King Tut’s father, Akhenaten) so I’m in a very ancient Egypt mood right now.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: Buy
Age: Adult/Teen

This is actually a re-read because I read this book for the first time when I was in high school, but it’s definitely worth thinking about if it’s not already in your library. This is the story of a group of American soldiers stationed in Italy during WWII. It’s satire done right, fantastically right (Libba Bray, you should be taking notes).

At Home and A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson: Buy
Age: Adult/Teen

I’ve been slowly working through these books for a long time now, but that’s because my husband and I read Bill Bryson out loud together so it takes a lot longer, and we have to take semester-long hiatuses every fall and spring. Anyway, they’re super fun. At Home is a history of the modern house and how it evolved over the past 200 years. Along the way it is full of lots of trivia and the history of all sorts of other things. If you’re not familiar with Bill Bryson, he’s a historian/grammarian/travel writer/comedian who has a knack for making nonfiction really really interesting and fun. A Short History of Nearly Everything is what I wish all of my middle school, high school, and college science textbooks had been. Bill Bryson actually manages to explain scientific principles in a way that make sense, instead of vaguely hinting at them and talking around them the way all of my science teachers did. This book is also full of lots of history about science…it covers what we know now and also how we got to that point and what we thought we knew before.

Dedication by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus: Library
Age: Adult

This is a novel by the authors of The Nanny Diaries. (It is actually a honest-to-goodness novel, not a satire. The characters have names and everything.) Our heroine’s high school boyfriend grew up to be a huge pop star, only every song he’s ever written is about her. She’s been embarrassed by this for the past decade but she’s never had a chance to confront him until he returns to their hometown to film an MTV Christmas special. The chapters alternate between the present and the past. I think this element of the storytelling is really well done, as each chapter reveals a new and deeper layer to their relationship. The more you learn about their shared history, the more you understand why what he’s done is unforgiveable, yet at the same time, the more you cross your fingers for them and hope for a reconciliation.


What is on my to-read list:

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

This is the story of four Jewish women at Masada. I’m a huge sucker for historical fiction and I haven’t read anything about Masada since my high school Latin class. (If you didn’t take high school Latin and you’re not Jewish so you don’t know what I’m talking about, Masada was a fortress on top of a hill where a community of Jews withstood a siege of the Roman army before eventually committing a mass suicide rather than be captured…sorry for the spoiler.)  

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Probably all of you have read this one already, or at least you’ve heard about it. I’ve heard nothing but good things about it and I’m looking forward to it.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson

This is a new nonfiction book by the author of The Devil in the White City (about the architect who designed the Chicago World’s Fair and the serial killer who preyed upon the tourists…another book that I strongly recommend). In the Garden of Beasts is about the American ambassador to Berlin in the 1930s and seems likely to be fascinating.

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean

My husband owns this book and says it is similar to A Short History of Nearly Everything and also fascinating. It is about the stories behind the discoveries of the various elements in the periodic table. 

The Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran
This is the sequel of sorts to Nefertiti. Based on the amazon reviews, it sounds like it succeeds in the areas where Nefertiti is lacking (more interesting characters, more interesting romance, etc.). I'm planning to read it when I finish Nefertiti.

Finally, I'd love to make this blog more interactive. Tell me in the comments, what were your favorite books this year?

Monday, June 13, 2011

My Name is Memory

Author: Ann Brashares

Age: Adult/Teen (It's marketed for adults, apparently, but it's not very different from most teen fantasy romances. Most good ones, anyway.)


A caveat before we begin—up until the last 80 pages or so, I thought this was one of the best books I had read in a long time. At that point, unfortunately, what had been an enchanting, rather original love story somehow (despite me screaming at it to stop!) changed before my eyes into an annoyingly generic thriller. And it turns out that it’s meant to be the first in a trilogy, which also irritates me, because “trilogy” always seems to mean a wholly unsatisfying ending to each of the first two and an unnecessarily long-drawn-out, repetitive plot. I’m really not sure how much more Brashares can do with this story line. If it were up to me (and of course it’s not), I would have thought another 100 pages or so would have wrapped up the story nicely without making the book an unwieldy length. Sigh. BUT the first few hundred pages are so good that it’s worth reading anyway, and I’m not giving up hope that Brashares has something fantastic up her sleeve for the next two.

Lucy is a high school senior who has had a crush on Daniel since he moved to her school two years ago, but he doesn’t seem to know she exists. Then they find themselves together in an empty classroom at the graduation dance. Lucy is thrilled that Daniel finally seems into her—really into her—but when he calls her by the wrong name, she thinks he must be drunk or high or maybe even deranged, and has confused her with someone else. Embarrassed and a bit frightened, she leaves.

The story follows Lucy through her college years, during which she can never quite stop thinking about Daniel. Daniel can’t stop thinking about Lucy, either, but he’s worried that he really scared her and isn’t sure if he should try to contact her again. Besides, Daniel’s a very patient man. He’s been in love with Lucy for over a thousand years.

Everyone on earth lives many lives, but most people don’t carry their memory from one life to the next, except perhaps occasionally in nightmares. (Do you have a recurring nightmare about falling? Or drowning? Or being bitten by a snake? That’s probably how you died in a previous life.) Daniel is unique. He can remember in detail every life he’s ever lived. In his first life, he was a foot soldier. He attacked Lucy’s village (only of course she wasn’t called Lucy then) and set her house on fire. Just before she burned to death, he saw her face and knew he loved her.

In every life he’s lived since then, Daniel has searched for Lucy, whom he calls Sophia. It isn’t easy. He goes many lives—hundreds of years, sometimes—without catching a glimpse of her. If they do meet, they are often the wrong age for each other. In fact, only twice between their first meeting and the present day have they been born at roughly the same time in the same geographical area. The first time, she is married to his brother, and the second, she is a WWI nurse and he is a dying soldier. Will this life finally be their chance to grow old together? Or will they be thwarted once again? For there is another soul who remembers, and he bitterly hates both Daniel and Sophia for perceived wrongs committed in previous lives.

The point of view trades back and forth between Lucy in the present day, who is alternately trying to find and forget Daniel, and Daniel, who tells the story of all the lives in which he has known Lucy/Sophia. Every girl who’s ever had a crush she can’t quite shake, no matter how improbable, will be able to sympathize with Lucy. But Daniel’s side of the story is what’s particularly fascinating to me. I love books that encompass many stories within one story, and I love historical fiction. I found Daniel’s stories interesting and unique. standard historical fiction deals with the famous figures of the era—the main character plays a significant role in history or at least manages to observe important events. But Daniel lives very ordinary lives—he’s usually a sailor or a foot solider—the sort that are almost entirely unremembered by history.

As far as the romance goes, Daniel has all the qualities that make Edward Cullen wonderfully sexy with none of the drawbacks. Because he can remember all of his lives, he is, in essence, immortal. He’s been through school dozens of times and is incredibly well educated. He’s also fantastically wealthy, because whenever he is rich in one life he invests in something durable and hides it for later. But he can also go outside in sunlight and he never feels the urge to drink Lucy’s blood. Ann Brashares has improved upon the most perfect vampire boyfriend in literature. You never even imagined that was possible. Well, now you know.

The story is interesting and the writing is decent, but what I liked most of all was that this book is the rare sort that makes you completely re-evaluate the way you see the world. At least that’s the effect it had on me. I now believe very strongly in re-incarnation. Or perhaps I always have and just didn’t realize it, because I haven’t had a change of religion or anything. Rather I’ve managed to fit it all nicely within my current faith. Now I’m not saying I believe in it exactly as it’s presented in this book (it is a work of fiction, after all), but I do believe that we have all lived at least one life before this one. It just explains so much. Nightmares (dreams are always funny things, aren’t they), and inexplicable phobias—if you can’t understand why you’re so afraid of something in this life, it’s because of something that happened to you in a previous life. And when you meet someone and you feel as if you’ve known them forever, it’s because you actually have. (I’m not just talking about clichĂ© romance here, either; I hope everyone has at least one good friend that you feel this way about.) It also clarifies why families are so important—as Daniel explains, you are born near people who you were close to before. (One soul may be alternately Daniel’s father or son, for instance.)

I love a book that is both entertaining and insightful. This one is highly recommended! 














Recommended for readers who like: time travel romances; historical fiction; The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants; Twilight; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button