I'm sure you noticed that it's been about two months since I've posted a book review. In June, I was crazy with ending the school year and moving and then July has been all about settling into my new place and preparing for the end of summer arrival of our first baby. I've been reading a lot: Jennifer Weiner's newest, All Fall Down, the first of the Outlander books, etc, but I just can't seem to keep up with blogging. I've lost the motivation. At first, I loved sharing book summaries and reviews with people. It has touched me so much when people told me they scroll through my blog to find new books to read. I'm really honored by all the viewers I've had. However, blogging has become a chore. It started to feel like I was required to do it and as my life got busier, I just did not have the time to devote to writing. I'm going to miss the idea of processing a book through reviewing it, as well as the connections I've made with readers, but I'll still be reading (well as much as a newborn will let me), and maybe some day I'll come back to writing about the books I've read.
So thank you all for visiting my blog and keep reading!
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!
Buy it at amazon and Barnes and Noble
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.
Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble
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!
Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble
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.
Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble
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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Monday, February 10, 2014
Oh, John Green. Why are you one of the greatest voices of our generation and why do you make me so so sad? Let me back up. Several years ago, some of my female students raved about John Green. I'd never heard of him, but I like to be aware of what my students are reading so when the 8th grade English teacher chose Paper Towns to read in the spring, I took a copy and devoured it. John Green was a bit of a cultish author at the time. He was known but not voraciously read except by a select group of students, typically girls with fangirl tenancies. However, my 8th graders devoured the novel. I will never forget taking the bus on a school trip that spring and looking back to check on the kids and just seeing most of them curled up reading the novel. That image has stayed in my mind and definitely pushed me to keep exploring Green's writing.
I can't remember if I read An Abundance of Katherines or Looking for Alaska next, although I had a feeling that I waited on Alaska because my kids warned me that it was so sad, which it was, although in the end, I think I ended up liking it better than Katherines. When The Fault in Our Stars came out in 2012, I had read about the new Green book, but frankly I wasn't very interested. My mom was in the process of being diagnosed with Acute Myelodysplasia and would need a stem cell transplant. We had no idea how that was going to go so I was not exactly in the right frame of mind to read a book about teenagers with cancer. Of course, cancer has touched most of our lives in one way or another. Many of us had older family members who faced cancer, which of course is difficult and sad, but it's a whole different ball game when the sick person is a kid.
Now, of course, the film of the book is coming out this summer. So many people told me that I had to read this book. And then I saw the trailer. And I cried. Literally over a movie trailer. After seeing it, I opened the book on my kindle (I've had it since last year), read the first line and wanted to start the book immediately. Of course I had to finish The Hollow City first, but that made me push through it to jump into Stars (I may have rushed through the end of Hollow a little too much, but it was worth it).
The Fault in Our Stars is John Green's first novel with a female narrator. Hazel Grace Lancaster is a 16 year old with thyroid cancer who also faces issues with tumors spreading in different parts of her body and fluid accumulation around her lungs (my mom faced this a few times and trust me, it's very scary). Hazel needs oxygen all the time. She doesn't have much of a life outside of her parents. She has been out of school for three years and having already received her GED takes college classes a few times a week. Her parents want her to have as normal a life as she can and push her to attend a cancer support group so she can meet kids facing the same issues she is. During one of these sessions, she meets Augustus Waters, a cancer survivor, former basketball star and amputee (his leg was removed during his fight with bone cancer). Augustus is immediately drawn to Hazel. She returns the attraction, but is a little more hesitant. However, they continue to bond, especially after Hazel shares her favorite book with him. An Imperial Affliction is Hazel's obsession: a book about a girl that has cancer which ends...well without an ending, really. For ages Hazel has written to the author, a recluse who never wrote anything else and who lives in Amsterdam, desperate to learn what happened to the characters. He has never written back, but Augustus persists and tracks down Peter van Houten through his agent. Thus begins a lively correspondence between the author, Augustus and Hazel. van Houten refuses to answer Hazel's questions about how the characters ended up over email or the phone but he invites them both to Amsterdam for an in person sit down.
Hazel's medical conditions make travel difficult, but even after a week in the hospital due to fluid accumulation around her lungs, her doctor approves the visit. Augustus surprises her by using his wish (from a company like Make a Wish) that he has held onto since his amputation to get them a trip to Amsterdam. At the same time, Hazel starts to pull away from Augustus. She learns that he has already lost one girlfriend to cancer and doesn't want to put him through such a loss again so while she is fine with being friends, she is hesitant to move forward to a more romantic relationship. Regardless, along with Hazel's mother, they fly off to Amsterdam, thrilled to have the chance to meet van Houten.
As much as I would love to go on and on about the Amsterdam trip, I hate to spoil things here... which is a bit ridiculous since I'm going to write about the ending in a little bit, but there's something magical about reading about their trip that I wouldn't want to ruin. Let's just say the trip is life changing for both Hazel and Augustus. Van Houten isn't quite what they were expecting and it seems clear that Hazel will never get the answers that she so desperately wants. She is aware that the book ended abruptly because the main character, Anna, probably died or got too sick to keep narrating, but what Hazel is really concerned about is what happens to Anna's mother. Did she marry a man she was dating? Did she have other children? What happened to Anna's friends and her hamster? It becomes clearer that Hazel is very aware of her own shortened lift span and fears what will happen to her own parents and her friends when she is gone, especially her mother, who has devoted years to her care. While dealing with van Houten is emotional and also a moment that fires Hazel up, the real magic of the trip lies in the further development of Augustus and Hazel's romantic relationship. Who knew Amsterdam was such a romantic place? Or that the Anne Frank museum could be such a lovely setting for a blossoming relationship.
Of course, the trip to Amsterdam changes everything between Augustus and Hazel in a few different ways. It would have been unrealistic for both teens to miraculously be cured and go on to live a happy life together. The Fault in Our Stars follows classic novel plotting: Amsterdam is the high point and everything goes downhill from there.
Time to discuss the end... please do yourself a favor and go read this book. Then come back and join me in talking about the ending. It is such a beautifully written, poignant, funny, smart and devastating novel that deserves to be read by anyone. So please, go read it and then come back here.
Needless to say, SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW...
Like I said, it would have been unrealistic for the story to have a happy ending. John Green wouldn't cop out like that. He wouldn't give into the commercial desire for a book that ends perfectly happily. And trust me, that's a good thing. I vacillated for a while about who I thought might die. But really, Hazel is the protagonist of the novel and I doubted that it would be her unless there was a shift in narrative voices. It worked in (SPOILER) Allegiant, but that book had multiple perspectives so killing off one of those voices was okay. Plus, Augustus was technically healed. He had been cancer free so having him get sick and die was a not entirely surprising twist. He confesses at the end of the Amsterdam trip that he got a PET scan (an imaging test that looks for traces of disease in the body) and that he "lit up like a Christmas tree." And from then moment on, the book is obviously going to be devastating. And it is. Green doesn't hold back in describing Augustus' decline and how Hazel copes with his dying. Cancer is a messy, devastating disease. Having an front seat to my mom's treatment and recovery really gave me a personal perspective that made this difficult to read. Around 85% into the book, I started crying and could not stop. I must have read the first page of one chapter around that point over and over. Fortunately, even after the tragedy, the story still ends in a somewhat hopeful place. Sort of. Hazel's prognosis isn't good and the fact that the book ends on an abrupt note echoes van Houten's An Imperial Affliction. Hazel probably will get much sicker or eventually die (she wouldn't even be a good candidate for a lung transplant - I kind of kept hoping Augustus or Isaac - who lives - would leave her their lungs and insist she use them to replace her own lungs. I know, wishful thinking, right?) but unlike Anna's mother, Hazel is left feeling more secure in what will happen to her parents after she dies. So in the end, she knows life will go on after she dies. And really, what more can you ask for?
Please read this book. I hope you did before you read this last paragraph, but seriously, it's a lovely, wonderful book and I know you'll love it.
John Green's Website
NY Times Review
The Atlantic Review
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Wednesday, February 5, 2014
In 2011, I read Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. In all honesty, I don't remember much about the book and I read it before I started this blog so I had to turn to the internet for the plot. Essentially, in the present time, Jacob Portman visits Wales to investigate his grandfather's mysterious past (after the old man's death). He ends up meeting the Peculiars, children with special powers, who are protected by a ymbryne (a witch of sorts) in a time loop (where one day happens over and over to act as a sort of haven for these children). He ends up back in 1940, where he learns that he is also a Peculiar, one who can see "hollows" or "hollowgasts". Again, I don't really remember all the details here but hollows hunt Peculiars and are controlled by Wights, creature who appear human but have white eyes. Jacob gets to know the other children and becomes attached to them to the extent that when he learns they are in trouble, he knows he can help. Apparently Peculiardom is threatened by these Wights who want to use the Peculiars in dreadful experiments. Jacob is able to save his friends from an encounter with a hollow but when they return to the time loop, they find that Miss Peregrine, their ymbryne has been kidnapped. The children attempt to rescue her, leading to a showdown in (or around, I can't quite remember) a submarine. At the end, they rescue Miss Peregrine, find she is stuck in bird form and they need another time loop or they will all start ageing forward and eventually die.
Thus begins The Hollow City. The children row their way from the island they lived on to the mainland, threatened by bad weather, rough seas and attacks from wights (in the form of soldiers). I think they are currently in the 1940's. Once they make it to shore, they are still chased until they manage to find another loop with the help of a set of Peculiar fairy tales that suddenly come in handy. They wind up in Miss Wren's loop and meet her strange menagerie, but Miss Wren has gone off to London to investigate the disappearances of her fellow ymbrynes and the attacks on other loops and Peculiars. Without another ymbryne to change Miss Peregrine back, she will become stuck forever as a bird and revert to an animal state. Most of the children decide to forge ahead to London, not knowing what they will find there. Along the way, they continue to be chased. They wind up with a band of gypsies for a bit, are captured by Wights in disguise as soldiers (it is the 1940s) and end up taking a first class train to London. There, they need to follow clues in the fairy tales to find Peculiar pigeons that will guide them to Miss Wren. Of course, London is being pummeled by the Blitz at the same time, making their journey even more dangerous. Along the way, they encounter other Peculiars, including some who survived an attack on one of the London loops. With their help, they are able to get into a strange loop, dominated by a carnival where Miss Wren has been hiding out and gathering Peculiars from around the world to build an army.
There, the children learn the extent of the Wights' plan. All Peculiars have a second soul, from which their power emanates. The Wights are removing the second soul (this part reminded me a lot of severing the link between children and daemons in The Golden Compass) and using it to feed hollows so they can gain access to the loops (any "normal" without a second soul who attempts to go through a loop will wind up insane). I don't quite understand what the Wights' endgame is. Maybe I missed something in there but I'm sure all will be revealed in the third book. The Hollow City was entertaining even if the whole book seemed to be kids on the run (sort of akin to Frodo and Sam in The Two Towers and The Return of the King). It dragged a bit in places and as I said earlier, I really wished I remembered the first book in the series better or that I had waited to read them until all three were out, but I'm interested in continuing. By the end of this book, Jacob has come to terms with and learned more about his power (he can tame hollows to some extent) and is on the run with Emma and a talking dog (Addison, I think) to try to free the rest of their friends and save the ymbrynes and Peculiardom.
The most intriguing idea behind these novels is that they are inspired by vintage found photographs that sprinkle the books themselves. I put a link to an article about the photos below. The cover of all the books and the images inside are all photos that the author started collecting at flea markets about three years before he started writing Miss Peregrine. He wasn't sure what to do with them, initially considering something like Edward Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies, but his editor suggested using them to write a novel. Eventually he worked with other found photography collectors to gather even more images. For the first novel, he looked at 100,000 photos, pulled out 300-400 that he wanted to use and narrowed that down to 44 that appeared in Miss Peregrine. The pictures are strange and sometimes disturbing but Riggs manages to weave the images into the story in a way that makes a lot of sense even if I sometimes didn't want to look at the pictures for too long. I'll definitely read the third book, especially to see the images, although I hope there isn't as long of a gap between novels this time around.
Found Photos Article
Ransom Riggs' Website
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Thursday, January 23, 2014
If you've been following my blog for a while, you know that I adore Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series. He publishes about one a year and is up to book six with this current release. Flavia is an almost 12 year old daughter of a formerly wealthy family who lives in a crumbling estate in England. She has a distant father, two resentful sisters and a mother who disappeared in a mountaineering accident when she was only a baby. Flavia is intelligent, headstrong, independent and obsessed with chemistry, especially the making of poisons. The series has taken place over the course of about a year during which time Flavia has been involved in six mysteries, usually involving a dead body. Left mostly to her own devices, Flavia seems to raise herself and both causes and gets out of trouble relatively easy. She's a true, unique voice and an intriguing protagonist.
Anyway, about a year ago, I was sitting in the Trenton train station waiting for my mother-in-law to pick me up for my sister-in-law's rehearsal dinner. She was running late, so I got to finish the previous Flavia de Luce mystery, Speaking from Among the Bones. It ended with a spectacular cliffhanger, which (SPOILER ALERT), I am going to talk about in this review since A. the book came out over a year ago and B. the cliffhanger is central to the plot in this novel. This review is going to be pretty spoiler heavy so please, read at your own risk if you haven't picked up the book yet.
Another reminder - SPOILERS BELOW!
Speaking from Among the Bones ended with Haviland de Luce, Flavia's father, calling his three daughters together and announcing that their mother, Harriet, had been found. I completely freaked out when I read this in the train station, especially when I learned I had a year until the next book came out. I wrote in the review of that book that this wasn't exactly a surprise. Harriet has been a lively and mysterious presence in the books since the beginning. The family's financial issues are even tied up in the fact that Harriet did not leave a will and the property does not just automatically revert to the father or the girls. So it wasn't a surprise that she would resurface, since her body had never been found. However, the more I thought about this new novel, the more I wondered how Harriet's presence will affect Flavia. Of course her return will solve the financial woes of the family and they will no longer lose their beloved family estate, Buckshaw, but how will Flavia cope with having a more present parent?
I was completely let down by the end of the first chapter. The whole family is gathered together, along with most of the townspeople, at the long out of use Buckshaw train station, which has been repaired for this special train visit. Haviland refused to go to London to meet Harriet since they first met at Buckshaw so it was more appropriate for them to meet again at the station. It doesn't take long before I realized that the train full of dignitaries and important members of the government (Winston Churchill himself shows up!) was not escorting home a live and healthy Harriet, desperate to reunite with her family. Instead, it was carrying her body, which had been found preserved in a glacier after ten years. I should have known Harriet wasn't found alive. It would have solved too many problems to easily and Flavia's story would lose momentum. Harriet's actual death makes for a much more interesting plot.
On the platform, Churchill approaches Flavia and says something strange to her about Pheasant Sandwiches. She has no clue what this means. A little while later, a very tall man walks up to Flavia and whispers something to her about the Gamekeeper being in danger and the Nide. She again is confused but is swept up in the moment of her mother's coffin being unloaded from the train. Before the de Luces begin the trek back to Buckshaw, the tall man winds up dead beneath the wheels of the train. Flavia hears someone exclaim that he had been pushed but is quickly ushered back into the family car and heads home to begin the mourning process. Harriet's body is laid out in her bedroom, which has been untouched for ten years and each member of the family from Haviland, to his sister Felicity to the three de Luce girls are charged with standing vigil over the coffin.
Flavia, of course, decides to use her hours to resurrect her mother using some complicated chemical reaction. She has to sneak off to get the equipment, but as usual, she is hardly missed by the family. Alone, finally, with her mother's grave, she cuts through the layers of the coffin and for the first time, sees her mother's face, perfectly preserved and looking remarkably like Flavia herself. She also manages to retrieve a leather purse from her mother's clothing which contains what appears to be Harriet's will. However, before Flavia can continue her experiment, representatives from the Home Office (the branch of the British government that deals with immigration, security and law and order) release her from her vigil to conduct an autopsy.
Flavia also uses her chemistry skills to develop a roll of cinematic film that she found in the attic (or in her laboratory - I can't remember which). It reveals Harriet flying her plane, Blithe Spirit, while pregnant with Flavia, playing with her older daughters and having a picnic with Haviland. She also mouths the words "Pheasant Sandwiches" to whoever was filming when her husband's back was turned. Clearly Flavia's interest is peaked. The various funeral events slow up her investigation as she gets the opportunity to fly in her mother's old plane (twice) and get sidetracked by her annoying young cousin, Undine, the daughter of Harriet's cousin, Lena. However, due to various circumstances, Flavia begins to suss out the truth about her mother.
The big revelations: Harriet was a spy. She was sent to Japan during WWII, where coincidentally her husband was interned in as a POW. Her job was to identify a mole in the British government who was passing on information. On her way home, she went through the Himalayas and met her end (fell or pushed?) She actually came face to face with Haviland while as a guest of the Japanese government (they were showing off their captured British officers) but they could not acknowledge each other. How heartbreaking that this was their last view of one another. Harriet, and possibly Haviland, were part of a secret MI group referred to as the Nide (a group of pheasants). The phrase "Pheasant Sandwiches" acted as a warning about the spy.
The double agent, as it turns out, was Lena de Luce, Harriet's cousin. I was suspicious of her from the start so I sort of figured she was from the "dark branch" of the de Luce family tree, especially when she asked to meet with Flavia alone towards the end of the book. This never actually happened because the police also were onto Lena who during Harriet's funeral tries to flee and ends up meeting a nasty end while attempting to jump through a stain glass window. Yuck.
The other big turn of events is that the youngest daughter of the de Luce families are given certain privileges and responsibilities. Flavia has always been given free reign to explore her own interests. Turns out her father was always keeping an eye on her and allowing her to have freedom, despite others' recommendations. He was also helping to keep her laboratory stocked with the supplies she needed. This explains why her sisters have always resented her - they sensed that she is involved in something they are excluded from. It also explains why Harriet ended up leaving her Buckshaw in the long missing will, and why Churchill approached her at the train station. By the end of the book, Haviland tells Flavia that he has neglected her education and that she is being enrolled in the same school her mother went to. Flavia truly is being groomed to take on her mother's role in the family.
The ending made me think that there might not be another book, but according to Bradley's wikipedia page, he was originally contracted to write six books in the series, but that was pushed to ten just recently, which is awesome. I don't know what will happen next, though. Will the upcoming novels take place in Buckshaw during school holidays or away at the school in Canada (where the chemistry mistress is an acquitted husband killer!). I'm intrigued by the idea that Flavia's world will broaden and she will have to navigate a whole new set of rules. A school has to be more rigorous than her free life at Buckshaw. Also, I'm interested in the idea that she is being trained to take on an important government role like Harriet was. This is going to give Bradley the opportunity to reset the series if he wishes too, which should be interesting. So far, there is nothing on his website indicating the next title or when it will be released but I'm hoping Bradley will stick to his annual book releases because I am dying to know what will happen to Flavia next!
Great article about the series
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