Thursday, June 19, 2014
Bittersweet follows Mabel Dagmar, a "plain" girl whose roommate in college is the gorgeous Genevra Winslow from a wealthy, blue-blooded family. Mabel unexpectedly becomes friends with Ev and is invited to spend the summer at the Winslow family compound, Winloch, in Vermont. For more than a century the Winslows have spent summers in Winloch, generations of gorgeous, blonde people with interesting names (Galway, Indo, Birch, etc). Mabel is desperate for the chance to escape her own family and dark secrets and moves into Ev's cottage, named Bittersweet, for the summer.
The beginning of the summer goes well. Mabel and Ev are essentially alone in the compound before the whole family shows up. They clean Bittersweet from top to bottom for an "inspection" by her parents, which Ev insisted was necessary to Mabel staying for the summer. Mabel also has an embarrassing encounter early on that gets her noticed by Galway, Ev's older brother. Ev disappears frequently, off with a couple different men, including the family handyman, John. Left to her own devices, Mabel befriends Ev's younger sister Lu and her eccentric aunt, Indo, who sets much of Mabel's summer into motion by asking her to research some of the family history. There's a rare painting, a Van Gogh, that Indo claims belongs to her. However, Birch (Ev's father and Indo's brother) has the painting hung in his home. Indo essentially promises to leave her cottage to Mabel in exchange for learning some of the mysterious secrets about the family, a task that Mabel finds frustrating.
Ev and John's relationship grows closer, although remains a secret from most of the family and Mabel is shocked when Ev reveals that she is pregnant and planning to run away with John. Around the same time, Mabel is drawn to Ev's older brother, Galway, who she launches into a passionate relationship with. She can't help but notice some of the strange elements at Winloch: Ev's mother's coldness, Indo's outcry against her brother's controlling ways, the bolts that are inside Ev and Indo's cottages, etc. Everything comes to a head one night in July when something horrible happens to one of the characters, sending Ev and Mabel into a total tailspin for the remainder of the summer and setting up their futures once and for all.
All this time Mabel was desperate to be a part of this family, wishing to hide from her own past and longing for what she perceives as the comfort of beauty and wealth. However, she slowly starts to expose the dark secrets that haunt the Winslow family and her opinion of them will change forever. Question is, is it too late for her to escape? Despite being set during the summer on a lakeside compound, this definitely is a gothic novel. The characters aren't always likable and the pacing is uneven (sometimes way too slow and then a lot happens at once), but in general, it's a good novel for long, hot summer days. I definitely recommend it!
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Tuesday, June 17, 2014
Someone on amazon commented that a pregnant woman should not read this book. And as a pregnant woman who read the whole thing, I can say that is probably the case. However, I was in the mood for a thriller and this seemed like the perfect thing. Head's up: I am going to discuss the ending of the book so if you don't want spoilers, don't read beyond the "Spoilers Below" section. I'll do the basic intro first, though.
The plot follows three different women: Claudia, Zoe and Lorraine. Claudia is towards the end of her first pregnancy. After suffering through many miscarriages and stillbirths, she is finally pregnant with a little girl. She is also the stepmother to young twin boys, whose mother died of cancer when they were newborns. Her husband, James, is a naval officer who spends much of his life at sea. She is a social worker who does not intend to give up her job after the baby is born. She and James decide to hire a nanny to help out at home.
Zoe seems younger than she is (she's probably in her early 30s). She is perfectly competent with the boys and helpful around the house, but she is also nervous and skittish and comes off as a bit sketchy to Claudia, who is already nervous about relinquishing control around the house to Zoe. Something about her is definitely off to the reader. Both Claudia and Zoe's chapters are told in first person, but Claudia's perspective seems more honest and open than Zoe's... at least at first.
The third point of view in the book is Lorraine, a detective coping with her husband's recent affair and her daughter's impulsive engagement at far too young an age. Lorraine and her husband (another detective) are investigating two gruesome attacks on pregnant women. In both cases, the child did not survive, but the second young woman did, although was unable to give too much information after her attack (I think it happened later in the book, if I'm remembering correctly). Lorraine's story is told in third person, and frankly to me seemed the most disconnected. I would have been more interested in her storyline if it had been more focused on the attacks on pregnant women, but she was caught up in her husband's infidelity and daughter's drama. I'm not sure if that was purposeful to direct the reader's attention away from the rest of the storyline, but it seemed like an unnecessary tangent, although the infidelity does end up being connected, albeit briefly, to one of the later reveals of the story.
Reviewers on amazon gave this book great reviews. And I definitely liked it. The last line of the book, in particular, was haunting. Again, I found the change in voice (between first and third) was a bit odd, but in the end, it was interesting to see how the reader was fooled by the characters themselves, particularly Claudia and Zoe. The novel was suspenseful and had lots of twists and turns. As I said, the ending was quite a surprise. It wasn't a particularly challenging read but was engrossing and fast paced and I recommend it if you like thrillers.
And now onto the spoilers. Do NOT keep reading if you do not want to know the ending.
Zoe is definitely sketchy. She searches Claudia's home when Claudia is out, stumbling on her employer's box of sad mementos from her past pregnancies (this was very difficult for me to read having gone through seemingly endless fertility treatments and not being quite 20 weeks when I read this book) which ended in miscarriages and stillbirths. She also keeps trying to get into James' study to investigate something. It's unclear what. She also has a strange sister who is desperate for a child of her own. So it appears obvious that Zoe is behind the attacks on the pregnant women and that Claudia is next.
Except that this is all a red herring to distract the author from Claudia. Claudia, who had access to these woman through her social services job. Claudia, who has faced devastation after devastation in her quest to have a child. Claudia, who is an extremely unreliable narrator, as the readers discover at the end, when she attacks her own friend in the hopes of stealing her daughter. Because, you see, Claudia isn't actually pregnant. She never was. She wore an expensive, custom made suit under all her clothes that mimicked pregnancy, even down to fetal movement. She told her husband, who was rarely around anyway, that sex was off the table due to her difficult history so he never knew. Claudia, who seemed so stable, was behind it all. And Zoe, who turns out was an undercover cop, came to the rescue just in time. She was investigating some financial situation involving James' late wife, which is why she was posing as the nanny. And the connection to Lorraine? Zoe was the one who'd had a brief affair with her husband.
The creepiest line was at the very end, when Claudia is interviewed by the police. The first woman she attacked turned out to be having a boy, not a girl, which is what she told her husband she was having (ignoring the fact that ultrasounds aren't 100%). The second woman was having a child who was half black, so she couldn't pass her off as her own. And then finally, Claudia sighs and says, "do you want to hear about the others?" CREEPY!
So who knows how long Claudia had been attacking other women. We never found out how often she had been pregnant before or if she had been previously married. I really felt for her husband and the twin boys she was raising with them. Claudia clearly was nuts all along but having gone through a lot to get pregnant, I can see how the desire for a child could drive you off the deep end.
Anyway, I didn't love the idea of an unreliable narrator. I felt a little conned by the author but the story wouldn't have had such a shocking ending without that type of narrator. Definitely an exciting read.
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Wednesday, May 28, 2014
I've only ever read one Alice Hoffman book, Practical Magic, and remembering not loving it, especially since the movie was so fun. I guess it was a little too wordy and literary for my college brain and I dismissed Hoffman as one of those literary writers whose plots disappear in wordiness. But the description of The Museum of Extraordinary Things was intriguing. I've never been super interested in US history, probably because my parents were obsessed with the Civil War while I prefer castles and anything pertaining to Hellenic or medieval history. But a few years ago, I taught electives on The Gangs of New York and Ragtime and became interested in the history of New York City around the turn of the century. There are so many fascinating characters from Harry Houdini to PT Barnum who existed during that time (many historical figures are woven into Ragtime's narrative, which is a fantastic novel that I can't recommend enough).
Anyway, The Museum of Extraordinary Things takes place in 1911 in Coney Island. The titular museum is owned by Professor Sardi, who displays "living wonders", including his daughter, Coralie, a gifted swimmer who happens to have webbed fingers and can therefore pose as a mermaid. However, one summer, when she is a teenager, interest in her exhibit has waned and her father forces her to swim at night in the water around Manhattan, disguised as a mysterious monster so people will spread stories. One of those evenings, she is carried off course by the current, and ends up meeting a young, handsome photographer, Ezekiel Cohen, a former Orthodox Jew who abandoned his tailor father to follow his own destiny.
The book takes place in the same year as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which forms the background of the novel's mystery. Ezekiel, who now goes by Eddie, is a photographer who ends up at the factory, photographing girls as they were rescued or leapt to their death to escape from the flames. Later, many families came to him to look at the pictures while they tried to identify their dead. One of the fathers who approaches Eddie is from his old neighborhood. He is sure his daughter did not die in the fire and asks Eddie to track her down.
In the meantime, Coralie is being cruelly treated by her father, who forces her to perform lewd sexual acts in the tank where she performs as a mermaid during the day, in front of strange men. She is deeply unhappy and tries to investigate into her father's mysterious past. She is also continually forced to swim in the Hudson to pretend to be a monster to attract attention to his fading business.
Eddie and Coralie eventually come face to face (which takes way too long) and immediately fall in love. Her father is an obstacle to their relationship, as is Eddie's obsession with the wealthy factory owners who he worked for as a child. All of these forces come together by the end of the book, tying together the missing girl, Coralie's father and the wealthy factory owners. The culminating moments of the book were drawn from actual history, when the amazing amusement park called Dreamland in Coney Island caught fire and burned to the ground. This was probably one of the more exciting scenes in the book, made even more fascinating because the traumatic scene is part of New York's history.
The writing itself was a bit odd. In each chapter, there was an italicized section that initially filled in both main character's backgrounds and childhood before launching into the main part of the story. This was interesting at first because the reader learned what made Eddie and Coralie who they were. But as the actual story moved forward, those italicized sections dragged a bit. Also, the mystery of the missing girl was solved pretty quickly and wasn't as exciting as I thought they would be.
I think this book had an interesting premise and I really enjoyed reading about New York in this time period, but a lot of the momentum of the novel got lost in literary flourishes. Still, I think it was a good read, if you're not expecting a super gripping and exciting plot that is a bit slow at times.
NY Times Review
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Tuesday, April 15, 2014
This book got great reviews, but personally I found it a little boring. The title is what my husband refers to as a "Dorothy title" - long, ridiculous and probably British. And he's entirely correct. I forgot how I stumbled onto it but the title and synopsis immediately appealed to me. A comedy of manners set in Wales during the 1920's? Perfection! But then, not quite. I found this book to drag until about halfway through and then it just got odd.
Wilfred Price is a young funeral director living in the small town of Narbeth, in South Wales. On a picnic one day, he is overcome by his companion, Grace Reeves', beauty and spontaneously proposes. She accepts and not long after, he panics. He quickly tells her that he doesn't really want to marry her, especially after her meets Flora, a young woman grieving for the recent loss of her father (whose funeral brings the couple together) and the long ago death of her fiance in WWI.
However (SPOILERS FOLLOW): Grace has a secret. Seemingly out of the blue, she tells her father she is pregnant. He immediately assumes the child is Wilfred's and demands the young man marry his daughter. Wilfred goes along with the loveless marriage because he knows that he if he refuses, he will leave Grace is disgrace and will lose his business and possible be run out of town since he abandoned a pregnant woman carrying a child everyone assumed was his. However, he refuses to consummate the marriage, given his love for Flora, who is the only one he tells the truth to.
At this point, I was like, WTF? There was no indication that Grace was pregnant. It seemed to come completely from left field. Even worse, it is later discovered that the child is a product of Grace being raped by her own brother, Madoc. He was introduced in only one scene, which gave no hint that he was a sinister, twisted character. So while the plot moved along faster once the pregnancy was confessed and the marriage took place, it was also so random that I thought I accidentally skipped a chapter somewhere.
The rest of the book follows Wilfred's struggles over what to do and his eventual rebellion against his domineering father-in-law. By the end, he is able to annul the marriage and the book ends with a hopeful scene between Wilfred and Flora. However, poor Grace leaves her family in disgrace and without them knowing the father of her child. Her parents seem to disown her but her father slips her a note encouraging her to write. Wilfred also gave her quite a bit of his savings. And then that was it. She's gone off to try and make a living and support her child while Wilfred gets his happy ending. I suppose that's the reality for a woman in her situation, but still, she gets kind of shafted: friendly, alone and pregnant. She doesn't even know where she is heading when she leaves.
The biggest issue to me was the lack of development between Wilfred and Flora. They are quickly attracted and drawn to each other, but they don't see each other all that often and seem to spend much of their time together silently cuddling, until he gets up the nerve to confess his marriage. So for the reader, it's not easy to see what makes them so into each other, which makes their eventual ending feel a bit meaningless.
Still, Wilfred is an interesting character and he has a sweet relationship with his widowed father who raised him after his mother died in childbirth. He also has dreams of expanding his funeral business into selling paints and wallpapers. I'm not sure how the two are connected but I would have been interested to see where that went, although with him giving Grace a lot of his money, I don't think that would have gone very far.
Anyway, I found this book to be a let down. It got good reviews on amazon, though, so don't take my word for it. You might love it!
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Wednesday, April 9, 2014
I've been a huge Veronica Mars fan since friends at my old job got me to start watching halfway through the airing of the first season in 2004. For those of you who aren't Marshmallows (fans of the show), Veronica Mars followed the title character in her last two years of high school and first year of college. Veronica is an intelligent, witty, cynical private detective in training. At the start of the series, she is a social outcast who is trying to solve the mystery of her best friend's murder the year before. Throughout the series, Veronica solves a mystery every episode, but also follows a larger, season long mystery. The show only lasted three seasons but featured unforgettable characters and relationships that stuck with me ten years after the show premiered.
Last spring, the creator, Rob Thomas, launched the most successful Kickstarter campaign in the site's history to make a movie that continued the series. Season 3 ended on a depressing, unfinished note, because Thomas was desperately trying to get renewed by the CW by hooking fans, which didn't work. Anyway, I think they met their goal of 2 million dollars in ten hours. So clearly, the show has passionate fans. The movie was released about a month ago, in theaters and also on demand. As an avid fan, I've been rewatching the show from the beginning (season one is literally one of the most perfect television arcs that I've ever had the pleasure of watching. Seriously. Watch it.) and then finally saw the movie a couple weekends ago. I'm not sure if the movie appealed to non-fans, but I loved how it brought Veronica back to Neptune after 10 years of being away and reunited her with her father, Keith, friends Mac, Wallace and Weevil and long lost love, Logan. The movie set up some other plotlines that might seem ill-advised given that another movie won't necessarily be made, but that's where the book comes in.
Apparently Rob Thomas originally wrote the plot of the novel for the movie, but realized that fans would want to see what brought Veronica back to Neptune, CA in the first place. So, along with Jennifer Graham, he wrote (well, I don't know how much he actually wrote beyond coming up with the initial plot) a novel that picks up right where the movie left off. MOVIE SPOILERS TO FOLLOW. Veronica is living in Neptune, having decided that being a PI is more appealing to her than being a high powered New York City lawyer. Her father, Keith, isn't exactly thrilled by this news, but he is dealing with recovering from a major car crash from the movie. While he is healing, Veronica takes over his cases, given her something to focus on since her love, Logan, is two months into a six month tour in the navy.
She is hired by the Neptune Chamber of Commerce to find a girl who disappeared while partying on spring break in Neptune. During the course of the investigation, the disappearance of a second girl brings Veronica into contact with a face from her past, which leads to some interesting tension and emotions for our girl. The novel follows a lot of the same pacing and beats as the show did. There are red herrings, dangerous situations for Veronica to get herself out of and tons of twists and turns. Graham does a good job of getting into Veronica's head. A lot of fans were disappointed that the book was written in third person because the show focused on voice overs that put us in Veronica's mind. However, we still got into her thoughts, and she was still the protagonist, so this didn't bother me. It was impossible to read the book without visualizing the actors from the show, so like the movie, I don't think this would appeal to people who didn't know the show, but for fans, I thought the book was a great continuation of Veronica's world. Would I prefer a movie? Sure, but just like how I love the Buffy and Angel comics for continuing Joss Whedon's world, if I can't have a movie, or even a reboot of the show that picks up from where the movie left off, this is a great option.
Of course my one complaint is that Logan wasn't in it enough. He does appear in Skype conversations, but his absence was noted, although it did give Veronica time to process her feelings for him after a decade apart. Also, I would have loved more Mac and Wallace. Mac ends up quitting her high paying tech job at Kane Industries and becoming the technical consultant for Mars Investigations, which is an interesting move, but I wanted more of her working with Veronica on cases. Finally, the plot that was briefly introduced in the movie about Weevil being accidentally shot by Celeste Kane and then having a gun planted on him wasn't continued at all. It seems to me that a "season long" mystery following class warfare and corruption in the sheriff department was introduced in the movie and then dropped here. Weevil's big scene in the movie was at the Neptune High reunion, where he joyfully introduced Veronica to his wife and talked about his little daughter and how he's totally out of gang life and owns his own shop now. But then at the end of the movie, he's back on his bike, leading his old gang in the wake of being framed by the sheriff department. I really wanted more of that in the book, but Weevil only makes one tiny appearance.
However, a second novel is in the works and should be published late in 2014. So maybe that story will be picked up then and hopefully Logan will be back. Overall, this novel was a breeze. Clearly I'm in the midst of a totally V Mars obsession with the show and the movie, so I just ate this book up, getting through it in only a couple days. Again, I have to reiterate that this book probably is not going to appeal to non-fans, nor would the movie, but if you're looking for an awesome show to binge watch, I can't recommend Veronica Mars enough. It's available on amazon prime and probably iTunes. Kristin Bell is awesome as the lead and the rest of the cast is also fantastic. And if you get as hooked as I am, then I definitely recommend the movie and the book. If you got through this review, thanks for reading. Now go watch!
Great article about the evolution of the "girl detective" archetype from Nancy Drew to Veronica Mars
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If you've been reading my blog for a while, you've probably read my other posts on Hugh Howey's Wool series. I linked to the Wikipedia page because Howey initially published his series in several novellas, which were eventually collected into longer novels. I figured checking out the Wikipedia page was easier than linking to all of my individual reviews, but if you'd like to read those, do a search of my posts for Hugh Howey or any of the titles found on the Wikipedia page. There's a little search box on the upper left hand side of the blog. I entered Hugh Howey and found all my previous posts... which is good because I can't exactly remember all the plotlines!
Third Shift, the previous installment, took the three prequels up to the present time as Donald, a former congressman who helped created the Silos, caught up with Juliet's timeline in Silo 18. Donald is dying, still suffering from the effects of his attempted suicide at the end of Second Shift, when he went outside Silo 1. He is also still pretending to be Senator Thurman, running Silo 1, helping his sister Charlotte discover what the world outside the boundaries of the silos is like and finally, coaching Lukas in Silo 18 to figure out the purpose of the silos. He's juggling quite a lot. All this time, there are nanobots in his body trying to kill him (I assume he picked those up outside Silo 1) and other nanobots inside that are trying to keep him alive (from before he went in the silos? I'm not sure). The nanos are fighting each other and using his body as a battlefield, slowly destroying him from the inside out.
In the meantime, Juliet, now mayor of Silo 18, is trying to force her people to dig through the walls to get to Silo 17, where Jimmy and the kids are still trying to survive. This takes time and leads to a lot of fear and anger on the part of the people in her silo. However, she is successful. And yet, her success leads to disaster as it was timed with the discovery that Donald isn't Senator Thurman, who actually survived being shot and was woken from his cyropod to take over his dastardly plan. Spoilers to follow: Thurman turns the gas on in Silo 18, killing most of the inhabitants, but a few hundred from the lower levels, including Silo, the kids and Juliet manage to get through the Silo 17 and the hole between the two silos is sealed off.
Meanwhile, the dying Donald is in jail and Charlotte is desperately trying to finish making a drone that is capable of seeing beyond the boundaries of the silo to find out if there is fertile land somewhere. Back in Silo 17, Juliet realizes that there are not enough resources for the survivors of 18, especially as people start fighting over the limited gardens and food that had been growing in them. She introduces a bold plan: to make suits that will allow the survivors to leave the silo and survive to get beyond the nuked air around the silos. Some survivors support her, others are simply not interested, but Juliet knows that if they stay, eventually resources for all silos will run out (I think the limit was 500 years) and only one will emerge as the "winner" to repopulate society.
Juliet and her gang make it out, as does Charlotte, who has her own suit. They get to an area of Georgia beyond the silos where they find another silo that is stocked with supplies. The idea was that the surviving silo would be able to use these resources while they rebuilt. The book ends with Juliet's group deciding to travel to the sea and see if there are other people in the world. I would have liked to see an epilogue from further down the line to see what would have happened to the characters, but I think it ended on a rather hopeful note. I'm glad Juliet and Charlotte survived to see the world beyond the silos. This book was far more interesting than the previous three and did a good job of tying everything together. Overall, a good ending to a solid series.
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Monday, February 17, 2014
After all the crying that accompanied my reading of The Fault in Our Stars, my husband told me I had better read something light next. I've had a sample Lauren Graham's Someday, Someday, Maybe on my kindle for ages so it seemed like the perfect book to read next. I love Lauren Graham. I was a huge Gilmore Girls fan. I used to babysit on Tuesday nights during college and started to catch some episodes or parts of episodes after whatever else I was watching that night. However, it wasn't until I was working at Soap Opera Digest that I watched the whole show from beginning to end. I must have watched the early episodes at the same time as the current episodes but I can't exactly remember. I just know I've seen every episode at least once and just loved the whole premise. I tried to follow Graham to Parenthood when it started in 2010 but didn't get sucked in although it's supposed to be fantastic, so I'm thinking of watching it next year (once I'm done rewatching Buffy and Angel and watching all of Fringe). And yes, this is supposed to be a book review blog, but I'm also a bit of a TV junkie.
Which is appropriate, given the subject of Someday, Someday, Maybe. The novel focuses on 26 year old Franny Banks, a struggling NY actress in the mid-1990s (not so coincidentally the time that Lauren Graham was a struggling NY actress). Franny is the daughter of a teacher from Connecticut whose mother passed away when she was in middle school. Due to this loss, Franny dove into acting as it was a place where she could pretend to be someone else. Despite having a serious college boyfriend and the possibility of a teaching career, she moved to NYC and gave herself a three year deadline to find some sort of success. She isn't someone who dreams of being a huge Hollywood star; she wants to be a successful theater actress who eventually can host an evening at the 92nd Street Y in the city.
At the start of the novel, her three year deadline is quickly approaching and she has little to show for her work. She has been accepted into a well known acting class and she had one commercial job, but little else has come to fruition. She works as a waitress for a comedy club to make ends meet but still struggles to pay her third of the rent in a Brooklyn apartment that she shares with two friends - Jane who is trying to become a producer and Dan, who wants to write science fiction or screenplays. Her father wants her to come home and become a teacher. However, Franny is determined to make it.
After a showcase through her acting class, she is approached by two possible agents: one a total character who has worked in the biz for years and the other a flashy agency. While she prefers the older agent, the flashy agency books her in a job almost immediately. She signs with them, even though as a reader, one knows that this wasn't the best move. At first, she gets auditions, but an offer for a bit role in a zombie movie that includes being topless really throws her off. And then the calls start drying up. She can't even reach her agency. In the meantime, romantic tension develops between her and Dan and she is on the verge of losing her comedy club waitressing gig while being desperate for money. She begins dating one of her classmates, a gorgeous actor who has already "made it" to some extent and develops a bit of a rivalry with one of her classmates, Penny.
Through a variety of circumstances, Franny of course, realizes what she really wants out of her career and possibly out of her love life as well. Towards the end of the novel, she begins to make the right decisions and starts to be recognized for her unique talents and looks. The story ends with hints at the good things to come for the plucky up and coming actress and while I don't need a sequel, I would have liked a bit more of a definitive ending to her story. However, I suppose ending on a hopeful note is the next best option. And besides, if Franny really is modeled after Lauren Graham, she got the career in the end and has done quite well for herself! Someday, Someday, Maybe is a good vacation read - light but not dumb and quick to get through. Throw it in your bag if you're heading somewhere warm this winter!
Washington Post Review
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