Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Swapping Lives Review

After Heart Shaped Box, I needed something super easy and light. And I'm on spring break, so it was the perfect time for a girlie book. I'm picky about "chick lit", whatever that might mean. I want something light and fun but not stupid. I prefer Jennifer Weiner books above all else with Sophie Kinsella as a close second. Weiner's books are smarter and deeper but Kinsella's are just super fun. I'm so excited for the release of her newest book, Wedding Night, in a few weeks.

Anyway, in college at the height of the chick lit explosion I'd read two of Jane Green's books, Jemina J and Mr. Maybe. I loved Jemina J and actually read it a bunch of times but Mr. Maybe was a bit too cheesy. I just came across both while putting together books for a donation from my attic. So I was familiar with Jane Green. I also LOVED The Holiday, the Kate Winslet/Cameron Diaz movie. Like seriously loved. As cheesy and improbable as it was, I just adored the idea of switching lives... or maybe just Kate Winslet's gorgeous little cottage in the snowy countryside of England. So obviously a Jane Green book about women switching lives really appealed to me.

Swapping Lives follows two women: Vicky Townsley and Amber Wilson. Vicky is the features editor of Poise! magazine (I kept hoping Jenna Rink would show up) in London. She is 35, single and lives alone in an adorable flat. She is jealous of her brother and sister-in-law and their country house and adorable children. She wants that married life for herself but judging by the two romances she has in the novel, she clearly does not have very good taste in men. On the other side of the Atlantic, Amber is also 35, happily married to Richard, fabulously wealthy, living in a McMansion in Connecticut and busy being a "Desperate Housewife" (clearly this book came out when the show was on). Amber is a disengaged mother of two young children who spends all of her time trying to on up the other wealthy, suburban moms at their League meetings, which are supposed to be about charity but of course end up being about who is better than who or who has better stuff (clothes, etc.) than the other women.

Vicky ends up accidentally inspiring her boss Janelle to create the Swapping Lives contest and after meeting with a few different English women, Amber is chosen (her husband mistakenly bought her the British magazine one day). It takes about 60% of the book before the swap actually happens during the time the phrases "the grass is greener" and "keeping up with the Joneses" are mentioned a few too many times. To the reader the answer is obvious: Amber is dissatisfied with her life. She wants more purpose like a job, which is why she thrives at working at the magazine in Vicky's place. Vicky, on the other hand, needs to meet a really nice man instead of the douches she keeps dating. See problem solved!

The book was very cute and an easy read - predictable but still fun. It's a good beach/vacation read, on par with Sophie Kinsella. I might turn to Jane Green down the line for another breezy novel when I'm in the mood.

GRIPES: There were a few elements of the book that were a bit annoying. First off, there were two characters named Deborah, one a friend of Vicky's and one Amber's best friend. Why was that necessary? It was just confusing, especially since Amber's friend was English. I kept thinking that the timing was different that I thought and that Vicky's friend Deborah moved to the US. Unnecessary! (SPOILERS AHEAD): At the end of the book, Vicky learns that Amber's husband Richard was laid off six months ago, which is a little nuts since he kept lying about being at work all that time. And sometimes claimed he had late meetings. What was he doing in all that time?! Also when Amber learns about this, she supports Richard in finding a small business to run, one where she will also be able to work. They pick a small working orchard/farm near Albany. Was there every any mention that either of these two could run a farm? Do they know anything about caring for animals or tending to an orchard? I mean it's a romantic idea but really? Neither of them seemed remotely concerned about their new lifestyle change. But I guess that's what I get for reading chick lit!

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Heart Shaped Box Review

From Wikipedia: The distinction between horror and terror is a standard literary and psychological concept applied especially to Gothic literature and film. Terror is usually described as the feeling of dread and anticipation that precedes the horrifying experience. By contrast, horror is the feeling of revulsion that usually occurs after something frightening is seen, heard, or otherwise experienced. It is the feeling one gets after coming to an awful realization or experiencing a deeply unpleasant occurrence. In other words, horror is more related to being shocked or scared (being horrified), while terror is more related to being anxious or fearful. Horror has also been defined as a combination of terror and revulsion.

I always prefer terror over horror. I don't like my books to make me nauseous. Same with movies. I prefer horror movies of the 1970s like The Omen or Halloween, where there's no gore and the plot is nerve racking over horrifying. I did love American Horror Story this season but last season not as much for some reason, but I still didn't watch the gory scene. My husband loves Saw which I made it through about 45 minutes of before starting to cry. I made him go buy me ice cream and watch Enchanted so I could get over how much I didn't like it.

As a kid I was really into John Bellairs' books. My mom once told me that she figured since I liked creepy books as kids (lots of Agatha Christie too) that I would eventually read Stephen King. But I've never got there. I know enough about the books to realize that gore isn't my thing. That being said, King's son Joe Hill has gotten a lot of praise for his writing. So as I'm still on a quest to find something like Gone Girl, when Heart Shaped Box and Horns went on sale for under $3 on the kindle, I grabbed them.

Heart Shaped Box follows Jude Coyne, an aging rock star with a penchant for collecting dark items like a snuff film. He lives in an old farm house with his two dogs and his girlfriend, MaryBeth, who he calls Georgia. Like all his former girlfriends, she is half his age, goth, and referred to only by the state she is from. Jude's assistant Danny receives an email for an auction item - a dead man's suit, supposedly haunted by a woman's stepfather. This dead man, Craddock, was a hypnotist and a spiritualist. Jude knows none of this yet. He buys the suit on a whim. It arrives in a heart shaped box and not long after the haunting begins. The house grows cold, Danny gets freaked out and leaves, the dogs are constantly barking and Jude begins to see the old man's ghost. The ghost can possess the radio, TV and email - sending long, rambling, televangelist type rants to Jude about riding with him on the "night road". According to Craddock, Jude will end up dead, as will any one who attempts to help him or offer him comfort, which of course Georgia tries to.

Tied into all of this is the apparent suicide of Florida, the last girl Jude dated. Craddock was her stepfather and when he was dying he and his other stepdaughter, Jessica, did something to make Craddock haunt Jude until his death. Their reasoning doesn't get revealed until closer to the end, but let's just say that Florida's character was far stronger than Jude (or the reader) suspected earlier in the book.

Jude and Georgia take a road trip to Florida, stopping along the way in Georgia to see MaryBeth's grandmother and eventually end up in Louisiana, where Jude is still haunted by his dying, abusive father. Jude isn't necessarily a likable character at first. He's kind of a dick actually, but this is partly a story about redemption and learning to both love and be loved. The ghost just wants him dead, but Jude tries to be a better, kinder person over the course of the book. I won't reveal whether it works or not - just read it.

The story itself was quite good, but it's a testament to Joe Hill's writing that I was revolted by certain details - fingers getting blown off by guns, an infected thumb that never heals and just gets worse and worse as the novel goes on, etc. I could have lived without that stuff. But then again, Hill created a memorable story and a memorable character with Jude, who learns to deal with the consequences of his careless life.

I think it takes a specific type of reader to be into Stephen King and I would say that same for Joe Hill. Interestingly, I learned today that there is another son, Owen King who just published a novel called Double Feature, which has more to do with fathers and sons and less about horror. I just might check that one out eventually.

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Uglies Review

Hey everyone, this is my 100th post. I first started this blog on New Year's Eve of 2011 and have been faithfully reviewing every book I've read ever since. Sometimes I've grumbled a bit about doing it and have wished I never started because seriously, what have I gotten myself into? How long will I have to do this? Will I ever just read a book and not have to write something about it after? But I've been pleasantly surprised to see that people have read all of my posts. Sometimes a lot of people. I don't know who is out there reading, but thanks. And a special thanks go to family and friends and facebook acquaintances who casually mention that they read my blog or browse through posts when they are looking for a new book to read or that they love reading what I write. That's why I've kept this up. I honestly don't know if I'll do this for forever but for now, I'll continue. And I hope I keep reviewing books that people find interesting and that I can pass on good recommendations.

So anyway, after the disaster that was Defending Jacob, I was so unsettled and annoyed that I was a little stuck on what to read next. I browsed through all the books on my kindle but I was in the mood for something specific: nothing historical. No horror or thrillers. I'm even getting a little sick of the dystopian genre, so I discarded Delirium, which people are loving. Actually what I REALLY wanted to read was the newest Sophie Kinsella book. Why is it not out yet?

Anyway, I ended up going dystopia after all with The Uglies. One of my students was reading it for my dystopian lit class and it sounded a little like Libba Bray's Beauty Queens. Unfortunately it wasn't as entertaining.

The Uglies follows a post-disaster US where the "Rusties" (our generation) were so wasteful and awful that a new civilization developed. The country is divided up into small, self-sustaining, environmentally friendly cities. Since looks were constantly fought about in the Rusty world, in this new society, every teen at the age of 16 undergoes an insane operation to make them stunningly beautiful - but pretty much everyone fits into the same sort of mold so there are no differences between people; everyone is gorgeous. The Uglies are younger teens (12-16) who undergo the typical pains of adolescence. Most Uglies are dying to be Pretties, so they can go live in New Pretty Town (doesn't this sound like Barbie's world?!) and party all the time. Pretties tend to be self-involved teens who care about nothing but pleasure - drinking, parties, etc.

Tally Youngblood is one of the last Uglies from her age group as she has a late birthday. She spends the summer waiting for her operation, even sneaking out to New Pretty Town to meet up with her former best friend Peris, who has become Pretty and wants her to behave herself so she can meet up with him post-operation. She observes that most Pretties seem to exhibit a personality change after the operation but that is typically attributed to "growing up".

Tally is befriended by Shay, another Ugly who shares the same birthday. However, Shay isn't looking forward to the operation. She has made contact with a group of Uglies who live in the mountains (a place called the Smoke) and wants to flee there with Tally rather than be surgically altered. Tally really isn't crazy about that idea. After all, she's only ever wanted to be Pretty.

However, due to circumstances beyond her control, Tally is denied her operation until she helps Special Circumstances, a group of specially altered Pretties find the Smoke. She sets off to find the rebel Uglies against her will but of course once she is out there, she starts to see beyond the Pretty surgery. She learns the value of hard work and falls for a guy named David. All of that happens in about two chapters (maybe a bit more, but it was still very fast) but apparently it changed her whole outlook. When she accidentally brings Special Circumstances to the Smoke, she and David set out to free their friends.

I was turned off by the phrase "Pretties" here. It just seemed to vapid and ridiculous - but that's the point. The Pretties are supposed to be pretty but also mindless and stupid. I think there was a little too much time spent on world building and too little time spent on plot. I'm not sure if I'll read the other books in the series - at least not yet. I need a serious break from dystopia but two of my eighth graders loved the series and highly recommended it - although explained that it was more of a girl's book than anything else. I would definitely agree with that. It's ok but definitely not very action packed or exciting. Or remotely intelligent like The Giver series. It's just another YA dystopian novel. But if that's what you're into right now, it's an easy read.

Author Website

Uglies Book Trailer

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Monday, March 11, 2013

Defending Jacob

Ever since I read Gone Girl (and Gillian Flynn's other two books) last summer, I've been looking for a thriller I liked just as much. I was drawn to Defending Jacob because I thought it might have the same feel to it as Gone Girl had. Unfortunately for me, it did not. I slugged my way through though to the shocking but unsatisfying end.

In Defending Jacob, the small town of Newtown, MA (a name that has such a different connotation since the CT shooting in December), is rocked by the murder of 14 year old Ben Rifkin. Andy Barber is a local DA who takes charge of the case until evidence begins mounting against his own son, Jacob. Andy is removed from the case as his life starts to fall apart. Jacob is reclusive and apparently had been bullied by Ben. He even went so far as to buy a knife although his reasoning was unclear. Was it for protection? Because he thought it was cool? The knife definitely could have caused the three wounds on Ben's chest so what does Andy do? He gets rid of the weapon. He in no way could ever conceive that his son would be responsible for murder so he finds himself covering up some details and obsessively pursuing a pedophile who lived on the edge of the park where Ben was murdered. Disturbingly, Jacob also seems very interested in torture porn and sadism and actually posted a fictionalized (or was it?) version of the murder on a website after Ben was found.

That's the basic plot. The tone of the book really annoyed me. I just didn't like the writing style or Andy's voice as a character. I felt like some of the actions he took were really stupid (i.e. the knife situation). Granted, I'm not a parent yet so while I can imagine the absolute conviction that Andy held towards his son's innocence, I just kept shaking my head. It was obvious that something was seriously wrong with Jacob, even if he was innocent of this particular crime. But really, this is a story of a family falling apart, which by the end, it does quite tragically. That's the spoiler free part of this recap. I'm going to rant a little about more specific plot points so if you don't want to be spoiled, don't keep reading.

I talk more about this below but I definitely did not enjoy this book. It was slow going at times and frankly had an unsatisfying and depressing ending. Not my favorite.

NY Times Review

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Ok so first of all, there was this whole Bad Seed concept in the book about a "murder gene" (or the warrior gene, which was just a plot on Elementary. Andy's father had spent a lifetime in jail for being a killer and it turns out the two generations before him were all violent and people died around them. Andy hid this secret from his wife and son his whole life, but when it comes up as part of the defense's trial preparation, Andy is forced to go through therapy with Laurie (his wife) and has to meet up with his father for the first time in 40 or so years. Laurie then kept bringing up all of these instances where Jacob was aggressive as a child and other children got hurt. I was frustrated Andy and Laurie. She seemed to be grasping for straws to explain how her son might have killed Ben but on the other hand, Andy kept hiding all of these anecdotes. I didn't feel like he was a trustworthy narrator, and Laurie seemed too unstable. It was hard to identify with either of them. Also their speech patterns bothered me in ways that I'm having trouble articulating.

So the trial seems to have taken a turn against Jacob until Patz, the pedophile who Andy originally suspected killed himself and left a suicide confession note. This effectively frees Jacob so the family takes a trip to Jamaica (or somewhere warm; I can't remember exactly where and I don't have the book in front of me). There Jacob starts hanging out with this girl named Hope. But at some point on the trip, Hope disappears. Her body later washed up to shore, badly decomposed. It's possible that her windpipe was crushed although given the damage to her body, there was no way to know if that happened prior to her death.

The story fades out a bit there. There was no confrontation with Jacob to confirm whether or not he hurt Hope too. It was simply an unknown. Andy does confront his father at one point to find out whether he was actually behind the forced confession/suicide of Patz. His father essentially confirms this so then it calls Jacob's innocence into doubt. But the reader never really knows.

Throughout the book, there were little snippets of court transcripts between Andy (called "Witness) and Neal, the lawyer who prosecuted Jacob. At first, it seemed like maybe Andy had been indicted for obscuring evidence. Or maybe that Jacob was back on trial (although with the whole double jeopardy thing that probably isn't realistic). There were also hints throughout the book that Laurie was falling apart and because she was referred to in the past tense, one had to wonder what happened to her. It was unclear until the last few pages.

So what happened was that Laurie completely snapped. The situation with the girl, Hope, was the last straw. It was clear that she had a lot of doubts about her son's innocence and when Hope died, she blamed herself for not noticing more about his potentially violent territories. and for not helping him get treated. So at the end of the book, she speeds her car into a guardrail. Jacob was in the backseat not wearing his seat belt. Laurie tooks hers off too but she survived the crash. Jacob did not. So at the end of the book, Andy imagines what those last moments of Jacob's life was like. At the very end, Jacob came to understand how much his father had loved him. So the trial that Andy was a witness for throughout the book was Laurie's.

This seriously made me so mad. I mean in terms of storytelling it was a shocking twist, one that made me feel nauseous reading. I finished and was way more disturbed than I had been by anything Gillian Flynn had written. I also felt like this story was completely unsatisfying. Did Jacob do kill Ben? And later Hope? That was never answered. And it was really depressing at the end. Andy did EVERYTHING for his son and what did he get in the end? Nothing. His son was dead. His wife on trial for killing him. Clearly their marriage was over. How could they bounce back from that? And he was no longer working since who could take a prosecutor seriously whose own son had been accused of murder?

Ugh. I didn't like this book very much at all. There were definitely some strong moments but overall it was unsatisfying and upsetting. I can't really recommend it.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Warm Bodies Review

Years ago, during the height of the vampire obsession, an acquaintance predicted that zombies were going to be the next craze. I didn't really buy it because part of the supernatural YA genre tends to be a love triangle or at least a love story. And really, how could that happen with zombies? It just seemed too ridiculous to buy.

And then I heard of Warm Bodies, maybe when I first heard about the movie. I read a description of the book and thought it just sounded incredibly stupid. And the movie trailers and posters didn't make it any better. I like Nicholas Hoult, or at least I did in X-Men: First Class. But the movie just looked incredibly cheesy.

But then I started teaching a dystopian literature class and made a shelfari page for all of these dystopian books for my kids to chose from. Warm Bodies was one of the books purchased for the class and after a few friends on facebook liked the movie, I decided to check out the book.

And really, I was pleasantly surprised. The writing itself is lovely. I highlighted passages all over the place that I found meaningful and well-written.

The story itself is also fine. "R" is a zombie, one of the Dead wandering the world after an unnamed disaster. Since this story is from his perspective, the reader gets to see how the zombies of this world have their own little community in an abandoned airport. R and his friend M sit over moldy coffee in the airport cafe. There is a weird group of skeletal zombies called Boneys who seem to be the leaders or priests of the community. There is even school for little zombies - learning how to properly and effectively kill humans.

R longs for more though. He wishes to remember details about his human life, including his name. He lives in an airplane, which he fills with memorabilia from the world of the Living. You see, in Warm Bodies, when a zombie eats a human's brain, they get a sensory rush as they are immersed in the memories/lives of that human. R craves this high, which leads him on a hunting trip early in the book.

On this fateful trip, he kills and eats the brain of Perry, a morose young man who had been in love with Julie, the daughter of General Grigio, who rules one of the stadiums full of the Living. R is flooded by Perry's memories (which persist throughout the book; Perry becomes the voice of R's conscience) and protects Julie, smearing her with zombie blood and bringing her home to his airport. She is naturally freaked out but comes to realize that she is safe with him (not so much with the other zombies) and they figure out how to communicate. R has Perry's memories and knows that Julie loves Thai food, so he finds her some frozen dishes from the airport food court. She stays for a few days with him but eventually convinces him that she needs to return home.

Home for Julie is a massive sports stadium that has been turned into a city for the remnants of humanity. There are a few different stadiums scattered throughout American protecting those who are left. It's a miserable existence, filled with training to fight zombies and very little joy. Julie is haunted by her mother's death, as is her father, who is a bit of an alcoholic. But still, she belongs with the living. And so R takes her back. They have to escape the Boneys first though. All of the airport zombies seem aware that something strange is happening with R given his affection for a human. Change is definitely in the air. His friend M helps them to escape so Julie can return home. R gets her back safely, but is lost without her.

He decides to return to the stadium on his own. Fortunately he is in fairly good shape; despite his pallor and eye color, he looks fairly human. Using M and some other zombies who followed them out as a distraction, he slips into the stadium and finds Julie and her friend Nora. They use makeup to make him look even more human and for a time, they happily hang out together. Until they go to a bar and R gets drunks (this is another sign that he is becoming more human; alcohol clearly should not affect him). This leads to him biting someone in self-defense, which of course reveals his presence. He and Julie flee the stadium together only to find a veritable army of zombies, all of whom are drawn to whatever is happening to R as a result of his relationship with Julie.

This leads to an inevitable showdown between the stadium and the zombies, with General Grigio leading the charge against R and his pack. Grigio is blinded to the changes happening before his eyes and is unable to accept the evolving Dead as anything more than the rampaging killers they've always been. Clearly this is to his detriment.

Overall I really enjoyed this book. I was pleasantly surprised by the strength of the writing. And I enjoyed how the book was a bit more adult (with curses and references to drinking and smoking pot) than I would have expected from the typical supernatural YA romance. The ending was a bit abrupt and I think required more explanation but in the end, I liked it a lot, as did one of my 8th graders who read it after I presented a power point to the class on the book. It's definitely a unique story and not as stupid or cheesy as I thought it would be.

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble