Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review: The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen

The Peach Keeper: A NovelTitle: The Peach Keeper

Author: Sarah Addison Allen

Pages: 273

Source: Personal library

Rating: 9/10

Summary (From book flap):

It's the dubious distinction of thirty-year-old Willa Jackson to hail from a fine old Southern family of means that met with financial ruin generations ago. The Blue Ridge Madam -- built by Willa's great-great-grandfather during Walls of Water's heyday, and once the town's grandest home -- has stood for years as a lonely monument to misfortune and scandal. And Willa herself has long strived to build a life beyond the brooding Jackson family shadow. No easy task in a town shaped by years of tradition and the well-marked boundaries between the haves and the have-nots.

But Willa has lately learned that an old classmate -- socialite do-gooder Paxton Osgood, of the very prominent Osgood family -- has restored the Blue Ridge Madam to her former glory, with plans to open a top-flight inn. Maybe, at last, the troubled past can be laid to rest while something new and wonderful rises from its ashes. But what rises instead is a skeleton, found buried beneath the property's lone peach tree, and certain to drag up dire consequences along with it. For the bones -- those of charismatic traveling salesman Tucker Devlin, who worked his dark charms on Walls of Water seventy-five years ago -- are not all that lay hidden out of sight and mind. Long-kept secrets surrounding the troubling remains have also come to light, seemingly heralded by a spate of sudden strange occurrences throughout the town.

Now, thrust together in an unlikely friendship, united by a full-blooded mystery, Willa and Paxton must confront the dangerous passions and tragic betrayals that once bound their families -- and uncover truths of the long-dead that have transcended time and defied the grave to touch the hearts and souls of the living.

My Two Cents:

I'm going to try really, really hard not to gush completely and be somewhat objective about this. Allen is one of my favorite authors, in case you missed the reviews of her three previous books I did last year, and I wait impatiently until another of her novels comes out. I bought this the day it came out (Thanks to a Barnes and Noble gift card leftover from my birthday!) and read it practically in one sitting. Her books are like that.

This book has all the hallmarks of what I love in Allen's writing -- Great characters for whom you root, magical realism, writing that just seems to float off the page and into your imagination. There really are no surprises here, and I loved that. It's like putting on your favorite pair of jeans and curling up on the couch in front of a fire: Warm and comforting and you know you'll feel good when you're finished.

Although I liked Willa, Allen's central character, a lot, I think my favorite was Paxton. I liked that she was far more than what she appeared to be. Her family pressures led her to lead one particular life, one where she's always put-together and going a million miles per hour. But, deep down, she wants something totally different and she must figure out a way to make that happen. I liked that she had interesting quirks and insecurities (The constant list-making reminded me of a lot of people I knew) that I could picture on any number of people.

If you're a fan of Allen's work, or if you're just looking for a light, feel-good read that blends a little magic into the story, I'd recommend this novel.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Review: Juliet by Anne Fortier

JulietTitle: Juliet

Author: Anne Fortier

Pages: 444 (I have an ARC, so page numbers in finished copies may be different)

Source: Publisher for review

Rating: 9/10

Summary (From back of book):

When Julie Jacobs inherits a key to a safety-deposit box in Siena, Italy, she is told it will lead her to an old family treasure. Soon she is launched on a winding and perilous journey into the history of her ancestor Giulietta, whose legendary love for a young man named Romeo rocked the foundations of medieval Siena. As Julie crosses paths with the descendants of the families involved in Shakespeare's unforgettable blood feud, she begins to realize that the notorious curse -- "A plague on both your houses!" -- is still at work, and that she is the next target. It seems that the only one who can save Julie from her fate is Romeo -- but where is he?

My Two Cents:

Anyone who knows me knows my love for Shakespeare. And anyone who knows me also knows my hatred for Romeo and Juliet. I'm not even going to go into that here except to say that, if there were as awesome a back story in Shakespeare's play as there is in this novel, I might like it a little more.

Fortier uses the famous play as a jumping-off point for her story. She places a modern main character, Julie, right into the thick of an ancient family feud full of blood and death and secrets. When Julie's aunt dies, she has no idea this feud or these families even exist, yet she is left to unravel a 600-year-old mystery on her own. And the mystery just keeps getting deeper and deeper, including not only three families, but an entire town and that town's history. It's a stunning accomplishment, really, the back story that Fortier creates. It unravels bit by bit, and people who once appeared enemies become friends, until it all comes together in the end. I loved how rich that back story was.

Julie was also a fabulous main character. She's sassy enough to get by in another country on little else besides her wits, even when being chased by men with guns, but she's got insecurities for miles. She's not your typical "I'm going to solve this mystery and no one will get in my way or bring me down" kind of character. I found her really easy to relate to.

Honestly, I'm going to stop my review there to keep from gushing too much. This is a fabulous read. I highly, highly recommend it!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Review: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations (Barnes & Noble Classics)Title: Great Expectations

Author: Charles Dickens

Pages: 468

Source: Personal library

Rating: 8/10

Summary (From back of book):

In an overgrown churchyard, a grizzled convict springs upon an orphan boy named Pip. The convict terrifies Pip and threatens to kill him unless Pip helps further his escape. Later, Pip finds himself in the ruined garden where he meets the embittered and crazy Miss Havisham and her foster child Estella, with whom he immediately falls in love. After a secret benefactor gives him a fortune, Pip moves to London, where he cultivates great expectations for a life which would allow him to discard his impoverished beginnings and socialize with the idle upper class. As Pip struggles to become a gentleman and is tormented endlessly by the beautiful Estella, he slowly learns the truth about himself and his illusions.

My Two Cents:

I've always liked Charles Dickens. I think I get that from my grandma, as he was her favorite author when she was younger. There's just something about sitting down with a Dickens novel, snuggled under a blanket, that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, even if the novel is kind of grim.

Pip is just such a poor excuse for a person. I could not like him, nor could I feel sorry for him. Luckily, he started to redeem himself near the end of the book, but I still didn't find him a sympathetic character. When his prospects looked up, he completely turned his back on Joe and Biddy, people who had done nothing but help him. There was no indication that he used his money or new status to help anyone (Outside of helping Herbert advance in business) for any sort of good. And his obsession with Estella. Ugh. I found absolutely zero redeeming qualities in her that would warrant a nearly life-long obsession.

I wish we could have seen more of Joe and Biddy. They were definitely the best characters in this book (Herbert was all right, too). I know that was Dickens' intention: To show how money and a fine upbringing does not always make one a better person. I just wish we could have had more time with them. And I just love how they get their sort of "happily ever after."

Since I've read a few Dickens novels, I shouldn't be surprised by all the coincidence the reader is asked to swallow. I went into this novel knowing there would be some really crazy happenstance, but I still had a hard time dealing with a lot of what I was asked to believe. Really? Every single person in this novel is connected to everyone else, even if it's just by association? That's not how real life is. It certainly makes for some interesting revelations, but I had a difficult time suspending my disbelief after the first few big reveals.

If you're a fan of Dickens and his contemporaries, or you just want a good, large-scale novel, give this book a try.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Review: The Life of Glass by Jillian Cantor

The Life of GlassTitle: The Life of Glass

Author: Jillian Cantor

Pages: 340

Source: A signed copy from the author herself!

Rating: 9/10

Summary (From book flap):

Before he died, Melissa's father told her about stars. He told her that the brightest stars weren't always the most beautiful -- that if people took the time to look at the smaller stars, if they looked with a telescope at the true essence of the star, they would find real beauty. But even though Melissa knows that beauty isn't only skin deep, the people around her don't seem to feel that way. There's her gorgeous sister, Ashley, who will barely acknowledge Melissa at school; there's her best friend, Ryan, who may be falling in love with the sophisticated Courtney; and there's Melissa's mother, who's dating someone new, someone Melissa knows will never be able to replace her father.

To make sure she doesn't lose her father completely, Melissa spends her time trying to piece together the last of his secrets and finishing a journal he began -- one about love and relationships and the remarkable ways people find one another. But when tragedy strikes, Melissa has to start living and loving in the present as she realizes that being beautiful on the outside doesn't mean you can't be beautiful on the inside.

My Two Cents:

This is one great young adult novel. It has appeal to younger readers without being overly trendy (Ex: Lots of swearing, sex, etc.) or preachy and is readable by adults without being boring. Cantor does a great job balancing this book for her target audience while also allowing a wider audience to enjoy the novel.

Melissa is a great, well-rounded character. She has a lot of the hallmarks of "typical" teen characters -- Insecurity about her looks, fights with her sister, a feeling of alienation, a little bit of a bratty streak -- without being so overly typical that she becomes a stereotype. She also has a decent amount of maturity, but she's not so "grown up" that teen readers won't be able to relate to her. Cantor's decision to make Melissa her narrator really makes this book.

I really enjoyed that Melissa's relationship with and perception of her deceased father is portrayed in a journal of off-the-wall facts and stories he collected. The journal presents some really great scenes for Melissa and serves as a jumping-off point for her adventures, but the plot isn't so heavily reliant upon the journal's contents that its appearance becomes annoying.

Cantor's writing is really fluid. This book was an easy read for me. She includes enough detail to keep things interesting without being so detailed that it feels like reading Steinbeck. There's a great balance in her writing, as in a lot of the novel, that helps it keep a wide appeal.

If you are looking for a coming-of-age, wholesome young adult novel, check out this book.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (Puffin Classics)Title: Robinson Crusoe

Author: Daniel Defoe

Pages: 273 (I have an abridged version)

Source: Personal library

Rating: 7/10

Summary (From back of book):

After surviving a terrible shipwreck, Robinson Crusoe discovers he is the only human on an island far from any shipping routes or rescue. At first he is devastated, but slowly, with patience and imagination, he transforms his island into a tropical paradise. For twenty-four years he lives with no human companionship -- until one fateful day, when he discovers he is not alone...

My Two Cents:

I can see why this book is considered a classic. It's got a story that, though fairly rooted in a particular time period, allows people in every generation to relate to it. Defoe's writing is also elegant enough and indicative of his time period that it serves as an example of the way books were written for future generations.

The one thing I'm not so sure of, though, is why this book is looked to as an example of the creation of a utopian society. Crusoe's island is utopian for him, sure, because he has ultimate rule and there is no discord unless introduced from the outside. However, with the introduction of Friday, the native who becomes Crusoe's slave (In a way), that utopia is only a utopia for Crusoe. True, Friday willingly puts himself into Crusoe's service for his saving Friday's life, and Crusoe is a fairly benevolent master, but the moment Friday enters the scene, there's disparity and inequality. Crusoe ceases to do a lot of work simply because Friday is there to do it. He becomes an island version of a man of leisure and allows Friday to take everything on his back. This, to me, is not a utopian society.

Short of the small issue with this book being classified as showing a utopian society and my general dislike of Crusoe for allowing Friday to become his servant (He easily could've said no!), I did enjoy this book. I thought it was a great example of how man can survive when he needs to, even if he doesn't seem to have a lot of skill from the outset.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Review: Mothers and Other Liars by Amy Bourret

Mothers and Other LiarsTitle: Mothers and Other Liars

Author: Amy Bourret

Pages: 288 (I have an ARC, so page numbers might be different in a finished copy)

Source: Publisher for review

Rating: 6/10

Summary (From back of book):

As a runaway teen, Ruby Leander could have never imagined the path that would lead her to an abandoned baby. Fast forward nine years: Ruby and Lark have made a home for themselves in New Mexico with their wonderful community of friends -- life is perfect. Until that one fateful day when Ruby learns the truth about her daughter's past. A truth that will change both of their lives, forever.

My Two Cents:

The thing that shines about this book is Bourret's writing and her ability to develop a character. This book was a very easy read, with some nice, lyrical passages. She also made me care about the characters and what happened to them, which is always the mark of a good writer in my book.

However, I just couldn't get over how coincidental so much of this book was. So many things just happened and were accepted as such. I'm not going to specifically say what, because that would ruin the book for anyone planning to read it, but I just couldn't get past a lot of things. Bourret's dealing with what's probably a big hot-button issue was also a little too Jodi Picoult for me. I guess I should have read the back of the book before diving in, or I would've known she's been compared to Picoult.

The other thing that bugged me, and it's such a little thing I feel kind of silly mentioning it, was that each chapter was only a few pages long. In a 288-page book, there are 117 "chapters." Sure, the short chapters made it easy to put the book down and pick it up again, but I just didn't feel it was necessary to separate every single episode or memory out into its own chapter.

Overall, though, I did enjoy this book, despite my complaints about it. If you are a fan of women's fiction (especially books by Jodi Picoult of Marisa de los Santos), then you'll like this novel.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Review: The Hours by Michael Cunningham

The Hours: A NovelTitle: The Hours

Author: Michael Cunningham

Pages: 226

Source: Personal library

Rating: 9/10

Summary (From back of book):

Passionate, profound, and deeply moving, The Hours is the story of three women: Clarissa Vaughan, who one New York morning goes about planning a party in honor of a beloved friend; Laura Brown, who in a 1950s Los Angeles suburb slowly begins to feel the constraints of a perfect family and home; and Virginia Woolf, recuperating with her husband in a London suburb, and beginning to write Mrs. Dalloway. By the end of the novel, the stories have intertwined, and finally come together in an act of subtle and haunting grace, demonstrating Michael Cunningham's deep empathy for his characters as well as the extraordinary resonance of his prose.

My Two Cents:

I saw the movie based on this book during a college course several years ago, and immediately put the book on my "To-read" list. I adore Virginia Woolf, so this book appealed to me for a lot of reasons.

This is definitely a case in which I would recommend reading the book before seeing the movie (Although I always recommend that). The movie and the book are so similar, there were points where I caught myself skimming because I "knew what happened." Not exactly the way I want to read the book.

Cunningham's prose is just gorgeous. One word flows into the next and, before you know it, you've read 30 pages. I love when books completely sweep me away and make me lose track of time. It's easy to see why he won the Pulitzer Prize for this work.

He also does a fabulous job of accurately rendering three really complex female characters without stooping to stereotypes. And it's especially commendable when you consider he even included one major stereotype: A 1950s housewife unhappy with her place in life. I never felt as if I was reading flat characters. I wanted to get to know these women more deeply, especially Virginia Woolf.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Review: The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare

The Comedy of Errors - The Works of William Shakespeare [Cambridge Edition] [9 vols.]Title: The Comedy of Errors

Author: William Shakespeare

Pages: 70

Source: Personal library

Rating: 4/10


The Comedy of Errors tells the story of two sets of identical twins that were accidentally separated at birth. Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant, Dromio of Syracuse, arrive in Ephesus, which turns out to be the home of their twin brothers, Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant, Dromio of Ephesus. When the Syracusans encounter the friends and families of their twins, a series of wild mishaps based on mistaken identities lead to wrongful beatings, a near-seduction, the arrest of Antipholus of Ephesus, and accusations of infidelity, theft, madness, and demonic possession.

My Two Cents:

Wow. It's obvious this was one of Shakespeare's earliest plays. However, even Shakespeare's worst plays are better than other playwrights' best plays.

Even though this piece is short for a theatrical play (Only about 70 pages), it took me a while to get through. I just couldn't get past all the trite dialogue and crazy coincidences. I remember finding the source for this play, Plautus' The Menaechmi, equally difficult to believe. That complete inability to suspend my disbelief, so crucial in theater, is a lot of the reason why I wasn't able to enjoy this play as much as I possibly could have.

Despite my issues with this play, it still is funny. I think it would be much more humorous seen onstage, which was Shakespeare's original intent.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Review: Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom

Shakespeare: The Invention of the HumanTitle: Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

Author: Harold Bloom

Pages: 745

Source: Personal library

Rating: 9/10

Summary (From Barnes & Noble):

Remember the controversy attending the publication of The Western Canon? Well, hold on to your mortarboards -- critic, scholar, and Falstaffian gadfly Harold Bloom returns with his magnum opus, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Whether deriding the tenets of the so-called "School of Resentment" or trumpeting the 39 plays of William Shakespeare as "the fixed center of the Western canon," Bloom is here at his audacious best, offering a passionate analysis of the ways Shakespeare not only represented human nature as we know it today but actually created it. Infusing literary criticism with an unusual narrative force, Bloom helps us to understand ourselves through literature, revealing "not only of how meaning gets started...but also of how new modes of consciousness come into being."

My Two Cents:

As much as I love Shakespeare biography and criticism, I've shied away from reading any Bloom for years simply because I've heard nothing but how arrogant and pompous he is. And, while I do get that from this book (Honestly, what academic publishing a book isn't somewhat arrogant and pompous?), it didn't distract me from my reading at all.

Bloom certainly knows his stuff. He's read all the plays many times over and has looked for through-lines and connections that casual readers normally wouldn't see. He links Shakespeare's earlier characters with their counterparts from later, completely opposite plays. Some of the connections seemed, to me, a bit of a stretch, but most of his observations were incredibly insightful and had me looking at some of the plays in a completely new light.

His writing is, obviously, somewhat hard to decipher at times. He's an academic who is really fond of the million-dollar words. But, all that is just part of the aura that surrounds Bloom and makes the book just a little more fun to read, I thought. Sure, it was difficult to get through sometimes, and I had to put it down and read something much simpler from time to time, but this book wouldn't be what it was without the overblown language.

If you're a fan of Shakespeare, or just want to read a really long, really in-depth discussion of each of his plays, this is the book for you. But, it's not for the faint-of-heart! 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Review: Warped by Maurissa Guibord

WarpedTitle: Warped

Author: Maurissa Guibord

Pages: 337

Source: Personal library

Challenges: Debut Author Challenge

Rating: 7/10

Summary (From book flap):

Tessa Brody doesn't believe in magic. Or fate.

But there's definitely something weird about the dusty unicorn tapestry that she discovers in a box of old books. The wild, handsome creature enchants Tessa, and frightens her too.

Soon after the tapestry comes into her possession, strange things begin to happen. Tessa experiences vivid dreams of the past filled with images from a brutal hunt -- one that she herself may have played a part in.

When Tessa pulls a loose thread from the tapestry, she releases a terrible secret. She also meets William de Chaucy, a young sixteenth-century nobleman with gorgeous eyes, an odd accent, and haughty attitude to spare. Will's fate is as inextricably tied to the tapestry as Tessa's is. And although Will might be hard to get along with, he's equally hard to resist.

Together, Tessa and Will must correct the wrongs of the past. But time is running out. The Norn sisters, also known as the Fates, have stepped in and begun to make a tangled mess of Tessa's life. Unless she does their bidding and defeats a cruel and crafty ancient enemy, everything, and everyone, she loves will be destroyed.

My Two Cents:

I struggled a bit with how to review this book. Overall, I liked it, but I had some pretty fundamental problems with the book and its characters, so I couldn't give it a really glowing review.

Guibord's writing flows nicely and the concept she chose for her book is very interesting. It weaves together a lot of legend with modern times, and she didn't choose just any legend. She chose a pretty obscure legend surrounding unicorns. The concept definitely intrigued me and kept me in this book.

Tessa was a character on whom my opinion wavered back and forth. At times, I liked her because she just seemed different from the usual teen protagonist. However, there were times when she was just so... typical ... that I wanted to strangle her. I guess I just didn't have a lot of patience for her throwing fits over her father's girlfriend when there were more important things going on.

My biggest problem with this book, and with a lot of young adult literature, is how quickly Tessa and William "fell in love." Guibord gives a background that they've known one another in a legendary way for centuries, so that's supposed to make their "getting-to-know-you" period a little shorter, but still. I guess I just get a little skeeved out by young adult literature modeling these lightning-fast courtships and head-over-heels loves to girls when that's not really the way a lot of the world works. I just feel as if it sets expectations too high and allows girls to get into the mindset that anything short of perfect, immediate love is not enough for them.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review: Next by James Hynes

Next: A NovelTitle: Next

Author: James Hynes

Pages: 308

Source: Twitter win from Little Brown

Rating: 9/10

Summary (From book flap):

Descending on a plane into Austin, Texas, Kevin Quinn is worried about his stifling job, the younger girlfriend he's lucky to have by can't commit to, his rapidly encroaching late middle age, and the terrorist attacks in Europe that rocked the world just days ago. But as the tarmac looms closer, he's really thinking about only one thing: the beautiful young woman in the seat next to him.

Though he should be focused on the job interview that's brought him to Texas in the first place, Kevin can't quite let his luminous seatmate go. He impulsively takes off after her through the city streets in a quixotic and nostalgic journey that evokes scenes from his past: his dodgy love life, recollected in hilariously mortifying detail; the tragicomedy of his youthful idealism; the dysfunctional family he has only ever wanted to escape.

It's a day both common in its anxieties and singular for the fresh possibilities the girl and the interview represent. Then, on the fifty-second floor of an Austin office tower, as he takes the first steps toward what he hopes might be a late-in-life second chance, Kevin is suddenly confronted with a shocking reality about himself, and the age we live in. Perhaps, in the nick of time, he will understand just what happens next.

My Two Cents:

This is one of those books that I went into with interest, but also trepidation. I was worried Kevin would turn into another Rabbit Angstrom, and I didn't know if I could take that. I think it's the fact that the protagonist is so far from my own experience (Male, middle-aged, etc.). But, I was pleasantly surprised.

Hynes' writing had me laughing from the get-go. Kevin's internal monologue as he's sitting on the plane, ruminating about nearly everything under the sun, including the "other Kevin" who perpetrated a terrorist attack in Europe, is solid. It's focused but still has that stream-of-consciousness feel to it, but it's easy enough to follow that you don't feel as if you're reading Joyce or Woolf.

Kevin is just pathetic enough to be a sympathetic character -- He can't find it in himself to settle down with one woman, he hates his current job, he dwells on his past -- but he isn't pathetic enough to be a completely boring character. He's actually really interesting to watch as he moves through an unusual city, wondering why he's doing what he's doing but still continuing on his journey anyway. I liked him more and more as the book progressed, and especially identified with his sense of humor.

While this isn't a big action-packed book, or really a book about a person changing drastically (Until the very end, during a crucial moment), it's still a really interesting read that I'd recommend to anyone who's a fan of modern fiction. I finished it in just a couple days' time because I kept wanting to know what happened.

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