"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Timeless by Alexandra Monir

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Summary: After her mother's death, Michele is sent to live with her wealthy grandparents and can travel back in time through her family's antiques and memorabilia.

I wish I liked this book better. It wasn't bad, but I just couldn't find myself connecting to the characters or caring that much about the story.

Michele Windsor and her mother have lived in California her whole life, estranged from her mother's wealthy relatives. When Michele's mother is killed in a car accident, Michele is sent to live with her elderly and quite stuffy grandparents. The grandparents offered Michele's father a bribe to leave Michele's mother and while he didn't take it, he did disappear one day, just before Marian (Michele's mother) discovered she was pregnant with Michele.

So Michele has grown up poor and without knowing her Windsor relatives when she's transplanted to New York. She is still grieving her mother and having trouble fitting in at her exclusive private school in Manhattan. One day, she opens an old diary and is transported one hundred years exactly to the past. Only certain people are able to see Michele, while she is invisible to people around them. She visits her relative Clara, and meets Philip Walker, son of the rival Walker family, competitors with the Windsors both now and back then. She and Philip develop a romance, even though Michele keeps popping back and forth between 1910 and 2010 Manhattan. Perhaps my biggest complaint about the book is that the time travel seemed so random, so illogical. What exactly brings her back to the past and why does she have no control over when she returns to the future? How does time pass in the past and in the future?

Philip breaks off his engagement to Michele's ancestor Violet because of his great love for Michele. Philip is a composer while Michele is a songwriter, and together they create two songs that become signature songs of Michele's famous ancestor and great grandmother Lily Windsor. It's got the typical time travel dilemmas and young adult romance, but I just couldn't get into it.

The writing was okay for a debut novel, but I won't continue this series because the time travel seemed convenient for the plot, but not logical. It also begged credibility for Michele - a sixteen year old modern girl - to swear lifelong fidelity to Philip, but of course, I think this sentiment was meant to capitalize on those who swoon over the Twilight romance.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

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Summary: A woman juggles lovers and houses and her reputation. 

I hate stories written as letters (epistolary form) almost as much as I love Jane Austen. Lady Susan is her first novel and I am dying for other Austen lovers to read this so I can discuss it with people.

Is Lady Susan misunderstood? The victim of a vicious rumor mill and a simple misunderstanding based on the jealous actions of a jilted socialite? Or is she a scheming, manipulative gold-digger, breaking hearts just because she can? Yes, all of the above. And does she have a female lover or just a close friend who helps her?

Lady Susan visits her dead husband's relatives at Churchill, likely escaping after a scandal at Langford involving Mr Mainwaring. Depending on whose letter you're reading, Lady Susan had a flirtation, friendship or torrid affair with Mr. Mainwaring, which makes Mrs. Mainwaring unhappy, and flirted with Mr James Martin, who was previously courting Mr. Mainwaring's sister. I tend to believe that Lady Susan is up to no good, but she still remains a sympathetic character to me.  Jane Austen can write unpleasant characters quite well, in that no one in her books is all good or all bad. Emma is the perfect example of this, but so is Mr. Collins, from P&P.

Mr. Vernon is the younger brother of her recently deceased husband (four months!) and has never met his wife Catherine. Lady Susan also objected to the marriage of the younger Mr. Vernon to Catherine, but does her best to smooth things over once she is staying with them. They are eventually joined by Catherine's brother Reginald de Courcy, heir to the de Courcy fortune. Despite rumors and warnings about her, Reginald and Lady Susan start spending time together. When Lady Susan's daughter Frederica runs away from school in London, she joins Lady Susan and the Vernons at Churchill. Then things really get complicated.

I appreciate the writing - Jane Austen really is one of the best authors ever -  even as I didn't like Lady Susan as a person. Read it so you and I can discuss!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

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Summary: A memoir of a Chinese mother raising her decidedly American kids.

Read the whole book. Don't just read the excerpts you find online; read the whole book. I found this a funny, touching and encouraging memoir, not an insulting treatise on Western parenting.

Amy Chua is ambitious and driven. So naturally, that applies to her parenting as well. Her first daughter Sophia is a natural at the Suzuki piano lessons she takes and soon becomes a young gifted prodigy. Amy decides that it's not enough for both girls to be good at piano and chooses an instrument for her younger daughter Lulu - the violin.

It's not until she struggles with getting Lulu to practice that the disadvantages of the Tiger Mother or Chinese method of parenting become apparent. With Sophia, Amy could nag, browbeat, threaten and cajole. With Lulu, none of the threats worked. Amy finds herself more and more frustrated even as Lulu becomes an incredibly talented violinist accepted to study with world famous musicians and tutors. The insults fly and the ultimatums become greater and greater.

Amy's a tough cookie, but Lulu is even tougher. Amy rejects the poorly-drawn handwritten birthday cards scribbled for her at the last minute because she's seen their previous work and know that her kids can do much better. It doesn't show the love and respect that Amy deserves when she gets a scrap of paper with no thought put into it. So when Amy is explaining why she has rejected her kids' cards, you get it. She expects the best and knows what her kids are capable of. One day Lulu decides to cut her own hair, as an act of defiance against her mother. I wish that Amy would have let her daughter go around with a self-inflicted raggedy haircut, to let her live with the consequences, but since I couldn't even do that when my own daughter cut her hair, I immediately laughed and understood.

This is ultimately a memoir about love, as Amy's love for her children drive her to push them to be not just good but excellent. She believes in them so strongly that she pushes them until they do actually succeed. That's really what a Tiger Mother does - she believes her children are capable of great things and will help them reach goals that lesser parents would let their kids fall short of. I need to assume the best of my children and not coddle them, and this book brought me more into balance. Some mothers I know never allow their kids to suffer a moment of discomfort, pain or stress. Amy Chua is often the source of stress for her children, but they are leading far richer and deeper lives than my children ever will.

 Once a week, while my own kids were being taken care of by paid teachers, I'd sneak off to the bookstore and read this on my Nook in a Barnes & Noble and laugh out loud about Amy and her parenting tactics. I loved this book, and wish I were more of a Tiger Mother.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Clarity by Kim Harrington

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: A teen psychic tries to solve a murder in her tourist town. 

This book felt very much like my beloved television show Veronica Mars. You have a sassy, mature/precocious teen who is ostracized by her peers, yet one boy takes the time to get to know her, which eases her social life and brings her a bit of happiness before it's ripped away. Only instead of being a girl detective, Clarity (or Clare) Fern is a psychic.

This was an enjoyable teen thriller. Clarity and her brother and mother make their living giving accurate psychic readings. They are ostracized by the townies, but he tourists love them. Perry also dates the vacationing girls while Clare has no friends her age.

A young tourist is murdered in Clarity's tourist town. The hot son of the big city detective asks for her help in solving the murder, as does her hot ex-boyfriend, who is the son of the mayor running for re-election in a tense race. But what's really worrisome is that Clare's brother Perry was very likely the last person to see the murdered girl alive. In fact, he had sex with her.

Clare doubts her brother for just an instant, but the evidence is quickly mounting against him. Soon Clare becomes a target, as the murders keep happening. An easy quick read with a fun plot and characters.

Friday, May 13, 2011

StarCrossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce

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Summary: A clever thief is hiding as a ladies' maid in a snow-bound castle in this excellent young adult fantasy novel.

This young adult fantasy novel was one of the best novels I've read. It combines so many elements that I absolutely adore - teen novel, moral conflict, magic, politics, danger and a fast-moving plot. I thought the writing was excellent.
"It was the perfect night to drive us all inside; the heavy sky had finally resigned itself to rain - an ugly, sleety mess that made the roaring fire very welcome. I fingered the beaded trim of my bodice. Tart me up like a lady-in-waiting, but I was still a street thief from Gerse at heart, counting the rings on my neighbors' fingers, the exits in the room." 
This sentence tells so much.  Digger escapes from the Greensmen, the Kings' Guard, and hides with four nobles. She ends up as the maid to Lady Merista, and is snowbound in the castle with the family's guests. Everyone thinks Digger is Lady Celyn and they are unaware of her secrets. Until one guest recognizes Digger and her talents, and blackmails her into spying on the family for him. The tension, the danger, the secrets just keep building and building. I won't give much away, but this book was fabulous! I immediately looked for the sequel on my Nook, but it's not available yet. I am eagerly awaiting it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Falling Apart in One Piece: One Optimist's Journey Through the Hell of Divorce by Stacy Morrison

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Summary: A memoir of one woman's divorce.

It's my fault. I love memoirs, and a friend is going through an unpleasant divorce right now. So when I got an opportunity to read a memoir on divorce, I was excited. (IF one can be excited about divorce.)

But this is not an optimistic book, despite the fact that the author calls herself an optimist. Out of the blue, her husband leaves her. There's no affair or a huge blow-up fight; he "just can't do this anymore." I think Morrison was such an overachiever that it wasn't so much the loss of her husband she was mourning, but the failure of her marriage. It's still incredibly sad, but the author comes to realize how little she and her husband had in common, just assuming that he would adopt her dreams and her plans for their life. That also made Morrison's frequent break-downs surprising. She seemed so sad, but for the wrong reasons, I thought.

It's not a book about being optimistic in the face of a divorce, devastating or not. It's more a book on self-reliance, as the author keeps her pain in. Hidden from her coworkers at her new job, hidden from her young son, hidden from her family (mostly), she learns that she can get through anything through prayer, exercise and a project. She also has a lot of wonderful people pass through her life, who give her what she needs at the moment.
"I didn't find answers. Instead what I found was me." 
Or as Dory says in Finding Nemo, "Keep swimming. Just keep swimming." Good advice for all of us, actually.

Today Morrison and her husband have a cordial, friendly relationship and Morrison is still editor at Redbook magazine. But I'm not ready to read another book by her. I think I'm also done with reading books about kidnapping and divorce for a while. Whew!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Secrets Sisters Keep by Abby Drake

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Summary: Four sisters are gathered at the 70h birthday of their uncle, after a 20 year separation. 

Uncle Edward is missing, the day before his 70th birthday.

His housekeeper and niece Ellie does NOT need the stress of looking for him, what with all the party-planning and the arrival of her three other sisters in addition to all the out-of-town guests. Beautiful Babe is an middle-aged movie star married to an even older movie star, and both of them are obsessed with their comeback. Amanda is struggling under her mountain of debt and Manhattan lifestyle after just finding out her husband is having an affair. Then we have Carleen. No one speaks of her, but what she did twenty years ago is still affecting people today.

Ellie is responsible for greeting the guests, dealing with her guests and Amanda's family's arrival. Carleen does arrive and after being rejected by both Amanda and Babe (what exactly did Carleen do?) decides to leave again.  Events unfold so quickly that it was almost, but not completely implausible, that things turned out the way they did. Is Carleen stealing from Ellie? Is Edward flying down from a helicopter? Is Edward's long-term lover a murderer? Ellie escapes to the island and finds a noose hanging from a tree! She freaks out, wondering if Uncle Edward is planning to commit suicide.

The book flips back and forth between the girls' childhood and teen years quite well, revealing just enough about Carleen's "crime" to keep me reading, but also uncovering reasons why Edward might decide to go missing. While this book dealt with extreme situations, the reactions and thought processes of each person were explained in such a loving, understanding way that no one character was a true villain or hero. The relationship between the sisters actually seemed the weakest part of the book, but I quite enjoyed the entire book. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Practically Perfect in Every Way: My Misadventures Through the World of Self-help - and Back by Jennifer Niesslein

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: A magazine editor refers to the experts to try and live her best life.

I had heard about this book five years ago, when I was a reader of Brain, Child magazine. The cover art was off-putting, (who wants to be a 1970s housewife?) and I really couldn't understand the concept of the book. Then after I read Gretchen Rubin's recent book The Happiness Project, I got enthused about the idea of another self-improvement memoir, so I picked up Practically Perfect.

Jennifer Niesslein is the editor of Brain, Child magazine, mother to seven year-old Caleb and husband to Brandon and she's not as happy as she could be.
The best way I can describe it is this: My body is a glove and my hand - my mind - can't get itself into the glove right. As if one of the gloves' fingers got twisted funny in the wash. On these days I'm in a low-grade funk.
I know people who feel like this and some days, when it's freezing cold and I can't stand the four walls of my house anymore, I feel like this, too.

It started out hysterically funny, and I was kicking myself for not reading this book sooner. She sits down with Real Simple magazine one evening. :
The clutter-busting section begins with a quote from Tina Turner: "Whatever is bringing you down, get rid of it. Because you'll find out that when you're free, your true creativity, your true self comes out." Spice cabinet, I don't care who's right or wrong - I don't really wanna fight no more.
I laughed aloud during the clutter section, especially since she refers to and reads the same authors (Karen Kingston, The Fly Lady, etc) that I do.
"Okay, babe!" I say cheerfully and perhaps frighteningly. "We're going to pick up twenty-seven things that we don't want anymore and get rid of them. We'll fling them in this bag!" Christ Almighty. I just used "fling" in an unself-conscious manner with my child. "One. Two. Three. Go!"
Caleb, armed with a plastic grocery sack, races around downstairs, showing off his counting skills.
"What do we do now?" he asks.
"We just throw it in the trash!" I say. "We don't need it!"
He starts crying. "You didn't tell me I was supposed to pick up garbage!" It occurs to me later that Caleb finds nothing unusual in the idea of garbage lying around our house.
The following chapters focus on money, marriage, neighbors, health, religion and charity. Jennifer goes from book to book and chapter to chapter trying to find an expert who makes sense to her. With money, she explores advice from Suze Orman and David Bach. With marriage, she reads Dr. Laura Schlesinger and Dr. Phil McGraw. She really struggles with the marriage advice section, which surprised me, since her marriage seems the strongest part of her life. But her book choices are where she goes wrong. She picks books from people she can't possibly respect, simply because of who she is.  One of the best pieces of advice I got from Rubin's Happiness Project is her advice to "Be Gretchen" which really means be true to who you are and what makes you you. When Jennifer picks a book that speaks to her - Authentic Happiness - her enthusiasm for both the subject and the author is so appealing to read.

Until she gets to the health section. When I found out that she was an active smoker, I was upset. It seemed hypocritical to me that she lets her seven-year-old son sleep in bed with her and her husband, all while she's reeking of cigarette smoke. That b*llsh*t might have been acceptable 20 years ago, but certainly not in 2005. I simply couldn't respect her as a parent any more and all the things we had in common felt so different once I knew she was such a heavy smoker. Based on the author photo, Niesslein is seriously overweight and suffers panic attacks. She gets her exercise regime from an article in Oprah's magazine and refuses to see a therapist about her crippling panic attacks while driving. Instead, she sells her car. Once I saw how uncommitted she was to getting herself healthy, I gave up on the book, kinda like she gave up on herself. This book went from 5 stars to 4 stars to 3 stars as I finally finished the book.

Practically Perfect in Every Way: My Misadventures Through the World of Self-Help--and BackPlease note: I picked up the hardcover version of the book with that terrible cover art, but there is a paperback version with a much more appealing cover that I think will sell much better.

After such a funny promising beginning, I was disappointed about half-way through this book. In this way, I feel like Jennifer is a typical American in that she knows what she needs to do, but feels like she's okay enough not to do what she should. Of course, it's boring to do what you know you should do, instead what feels good. Contributing to this is the fact that her project spans almost two years. The more modern gimmicky memoirs do something for one year, but I think that Niesslein got burnt out by all the self-improvement jobs she had to do.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

April Rejects

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I've been reading - and discarding - a bunch of books lately. I try to give each book at least 50 pages, but with so many great books out there (and two book clubs a month), I want to spend my time reading books I actually enjoy. I'd rather not spend time writing full reviews on books I Did Not Finish. This list includes the books I picked up and rejected in April:

Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith by Martha Beck
Summary: Memoir of a scholar who confronts the abuse she suffered by her family, while relating it to the Mormon faith.
I love HBO's Big Love, but seeing abuse and family disfunction within the Mormon Church dramatized is much more appealing that reading about it - unless it's written extremely well. This was not and reminded me of a typical Oprah Book Club novel. Turns out - Martha Beck is a frequent contributor to Oprah.com and refers to Oprah as The Big O. Apparently, Beck lost her faith and made Oprah her God. Ugh. I do feel sorry for her, obviously I do, but not every abuse survivor deserves to be a published author.

Hot Springs by Geoffrey Becker
Summary: A woman who gives her child up for adoption kidnaps her back at age five.
This book was terrible. There was not a single sympathetic character in the book, including the mother of the kidnapped kid. The plot was ridiculous and seemed very random. Again, this book left me wondering why - and how - some book even get published.

Bitter Grounds by Sandra Benitez
Summary: The life and struggles of a coffee plantation family in El Salvador.
I grew up on a coffee farm and love the smell, the taste, the ritual of coffee. What an interesting novel, I thought. From the very first line: "The parakeets ascended in a rustling roar of wings from the amate and primavera trees. Chattering rowdily, they hailed the rising sun" I was reluctant to continue. Then when a mother and her teen daughter find a headless corpse (!) in the first ten pages, I gave up.