Thursday, February 27, 2014

Astrid & Veronika


Astrid and Veronika
Linda Olsson
3.5 / 5

Published 2005

First Sentence
"There had been wind and drifting snow during her journey, but as darkness fell, the wind died and the snow settled."
Publisher's Description:
Veronika, 32, a writer whose boyfriend just drowned in New Zealand, rents a house in a small Swedish village next door to recluse Astrid, 81. They share walks, meals, wine, and dangerous memories.
Dear Reader,

My oldest sister sent me a copy of this book, because she had so enjoyed it.  I was already pretty sold just from the beautiful cover, haha!  But it took me a while to get around to this slim volume, strangely enough.  I finally picked it up and flew through it, as I'd expected I would.

The story centered tightly on the lives of two neighbors, one new to the area, and one who had lived there all her life.  It took me several weeks after I finished it, but I finally realized why this book didn't sit entirely well with me: it reminded me a lot of a blend of chick lit and a Mitch Albom work.  I don't know.  It was good, don't get me wrong.  Very powerful and emotional, and told a beautiful story of unexpected but deep friendship, and it definitely made me cry a bit.  But it felt sometimes too much like it was trying to be preachy about how one should be sure to appreciate the little things, the here and now, and make the most of life.  How not to get trapped in unhappiness.  The women were good for each other, both having suffered terrible losses and struggling to find their way back from them.  I definitely liked how the story was almost exclusively focused on these two women, which worked because they lived in a pretty isolated spot.  So the author was able to keep the camera lens focused narrowly on these women and their pasts, as they began to open up to each other.  It was lovely the way Veronika found the mother she never had in Astrid, and ditto the daughter Astrid needed.  I did love the magical way the women's lives ended up weaving together and how they learned to lean on each other.

Overall, I did like the book.  I actually DO appreciate when books send me messages, give me subtle (or not-so-subtle) reminders about why and how to enjoy the little things in life.  I think there was just something slightly off about the way this one was done, despite how well written it was.  Oddly, though, I WOULD recommend it - particularly to other women.  I don't think it would resonate so well with men; it was definitely written to reach out to the female sex.

Yours,
Arianna
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Monday, February 24, 2014

The Crimson Petal and the White


The Crimson Petal
and the White

Michel Faber
4 / 5


Published 2002

First Sentences
"Watch your step.  Keep your wits about you; you will need them."


Publisher's Description:
Sugar, 19, prostitute in Victorian London, yearns for a better life. From brutal brothel-keeper Mrs Castaway, she ascends in society. Affections of self-involved perfume magnate William Rackham soon smells like love. Her social rise attracts preening socialites, drunken journalists, untrustworthy servants, vile guttersnipes, and whores of all kinds. 2013 TV mini-series.
Dear Reader,

My father passed this book on to me years ago (I think it was at least two apartments ago, maybe more) and I have been meaning to read it, but because of its sheer size I kept putting it aside in lieu of other things.  I finally decided it was a good time to tackle a longer book, and I was eager to read this one (besides that I'd been staring at it on my shelves for so long and was intrigued!) because I try to stagger my reading so that I am engaging with books from different time periods and different styles.  Mostly this is so that I can keep the various storylines separate (I have been known to confuse something I heard in an audiobook for a part in the book I am reading), but partly it's because I like the variety.  It's hard not to be in the mood for at least ONE of the several books that I am reading at any given time.

As for this book?  It was really good.  I loved the way Faber swept you in immediately by speaking to you as if you were a visitor to this Victorian-era London, introducing you to the lowest in society in order that you (the reader, but also the observer, the fly on the wall) could quickly move through the social ranks and meet the people you needed to meet for the story, the important ones.  The only thing that bothered me about this device was that you only ended up moving through the social ranks a little bit, from dirt-poor to middle-class, I suppose - only really making three jumps in the entire novel.  Still, I thought it was a great way to introduce things and to move the story along.  Plus, it was wonderful to get the feeling that you were truly walking the streets of London, experiencing it as one would have in 1874.

The book itself was maybe slightly too long for the story it told, but overall it was definitely chock full and needed 99% of its content to really fulfill its mission.  The characters that you get to know as you continue through the story - Sugar, William, Agnes, Henry, Emmeline, and Sophie are your most important acquaintances - really jump right off the page.  While sometimes they infuriated me, and while sometimes I didn't buy the later changes that came over William in the second half of the book, most of it felt very real.  And the ending of the book, while at first frustrating me, ultimately made me quite content once I'd given it a bit of space.

I have to put a plug in here for the BBC miniseries that came out a few years ago, as well - I watched it once I had finished the book, and it was a great & very true-to-the-source interpretation.  Sometimes things I wanted to be changed from the novel were not!  But it's very faithful, and it should be.  I may have particularly loved it because I adore Chris O'Dowd (who played the main Rackham brother), but my favorite performance from that piece was Amanda Hale's portrayal of his wife Agnes - properly insane and believable at once.

The eponymous "petals" referred to are Sugar - a low-born prostitute - and Agnes, an ailing and delicate upper-classer, whose mother married into the gentry via a Lord Unwin.  Sugar's fiery red hair and strongly independent (and ambitious) nature make her the "crimson" one - she is the one Rackham goes to for advice as well as physical intimacy.  Agnes is frail, fragile, pale and blonde, making her the complimentary "white."  Both women undergo quite a bit throughout the book, and the irony is that Agnes is often the one coughing up red blood and acting angry and crazy, while she considers Sugar to be her guardian angel - which I imagine as something white, and pure.  Sugar also maintains a very calm and rational demeanor.  It's a very interesting twist on one's immediate conclusion of who is who when it comes to the title's petals.

Also interesting is the choice of the word "petals", which does not come up at all in the book.  Is it a reference to William Rackham's inherited perfume dynasty?  Petals of flowers can be crushed to create perfume.  Were the women in the book crushed?  It seems to me they turned out to be rather uncrushable, in the long run.  It might not seem readily apparent, but having given the book time to sink in, I think the females of this book are really the strong and important characters.  They shape their own lives.

Yours,
Arianna
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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Sheltered Vol. 1


Sheltered Volume 1
Ed Brisson (Writer/Letterer),
John Christmas (Artist)
3/5


Published December 2013

First Sentence
"...keep your guns stashed in multiple locations."
Publisher's Description:

The men and women of Safe Haven have been preparing for any and all end-of-world scenarios for years. However, their bunkers, weapons, and training can't save them from the one threat they never could have expected: their own children.

Dear Reader,

This was a graphic novel I was graciously given for free from NetGalley.com to review. Sheltered is about a community of doomsday "preppers" preparing for whatever might destroy the world. If you've ever watched the show "Doomsday Preppers" then you know these people actually exist. I'm all for scientific scenario shows and sometimes these end of the world scenarios freak me out and make me think I should be better prepared. This graphic novel goes a little further into the prepping and shows us how a community like this could go wrong. 

Before I get to the catch, I want to make you aware that the novel gives this next bit away right from the start, so this shouldn't be considered a spoiler. The community is called "Safe Haven" and right from the start you see a divide between the young and the old. This becomes even more clear when a group of kids and teens from Safe Haven round up the adults and gun them down. Not everyone is in on this, mind you, and a couple of the main characters witness this and flee for safety (not realizing why this was happening). Slowly, throughout the first novel we get answers as to why the adults were murdered. 

The premise is interesting and like all graphic novels, this isn't the end so the point is to get you hooked to want to read more. I can admit that I want to find out what happens but I wouldn't say this was my sort of thing. The end of the world books/novels are starting to tire me and yes, this is something new but I'm not sure if I want to invest my energy with the rest of the series. Would I suggest it for others? Definitely, especially if doomsday is your thing and you haven't tired of it. This gives a great new perspective, a terrifying one actually. The artwork is solid but the writing a little difficult to read on my tablet (using the Kindle App). Overall, Sheltered gives us exactly what it advertises and could be a really fun graphic novel to get addicted to. 

Happy Reading,
AmberBug


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Monday, February 17, 2014

The Marriage Plot


The Marriage Plot
Jeffrey Eugenides
3.5 / 5


Published 2011

First Sentence
"To start with, look at all the books."
Publisher's Description:
New York Times Notable Book of 2011
Publisher's Weekly Top 10 Book of 2011
Kirkus Reviews Top 25 Best Fiction of 2011 Title
One of Library Journal's Best Books of 2011

Salon Best Fiction of 2011 title
One of The Telegraph’s Best Fiction Books of the Year 2011

It’s the early 1980s—the country is in a deep recession, and life after college is harder than ever. In the caf├ęs on College Hill, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels.
As Madeleine tries to understand why “it became laughable to read writers like Cheever and Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France,” real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes. Leonard Bankhead—charismatic loner, college Darwinist, and lost Portland boy—suddenly turns up in a semiotics seminar, and soon Madeleine finds herself in a highly charged erotic and intellectual relationship with him. At the same time, her old “friend” Mitchell Grammaticus—who’s been reading Christian mysticism and generally acting strange—resurfaces, obsessed with the idea that Madeleine is destined to be his mate.
Over the next year, as the members of the triangle in this amazing, spellbinding novel graduate from college and enter the real world, events force them to reevaluate everything they learned in school. Leonard and Madeleine move to a biology Laboratory on Cape Cod, but can’t escape the secret responsible for Leonard’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and plunging moods. And Mitchell, traveling around the world to get Madeleine out of his mind, finds himself face-to-face with ultimate questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love.
Are the great love stories of the nineteenth century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce? With devastating wit and an abiding understanding of and affection for his characters, Jeffrey Eugenides revives the motivating energies of the Novel, while creating a story so contemporary and fresh that it reads like the intimate journal of our own lives.

Dear Reader,

This book was NOT what I was expecting, which was an awesome thing.  I hadn't read thing one about it (or, at least, I don't recall anything I did read about it!), and apparently even when I picked it up as an audiobook on CD, I didn't even read the blurb on the back - I just went by the author's name, of whom I am a fan from having read his earlier Middlesex.  I really enjoyed his writing style in both novels, and his often unique approach to the world.

This book was a complete departure from his earlier work, which took place in Detroit around the 1960s (but stretched three generations back in order to tell the story).  This one, on the other hand, began with the graduation of the class of 1982 from Brown University, in Providence, RI.  I love that Eugenides selected this time period, not only because I am a child of the '80s (and felt some nostalgia, even though the characters were certainly before my time), but also because it evoked a time of entirely different communications - before cell phones, computers, and the internet - which made for a very compelling story.  In fact, I'm not even sure the story could have happened the way it did were it set further in the future - much of the way life works out for Madeline and the rest can be attributed to the way they are forced to communicate: over the telephone, through hand-written letters, and in person.  And as much as I love my technology, it's a time I also miss: I am still a writer of letters and a fan of typewriters (although it's been years since I used one!).  In any case, I appreciate how the author selected this era: it was modern enough for the way life unfolds for the characters, and yet long ago enough that it evoked a twang of nostalgia for a bygone time.

How could it have been told in any other time?  The graduates find themselves lost, entering the adult world at the time of a severe recession (another way I related strongly to this book!).  They are uncertain of what they want to do with their lives; this really was the first generation who was told they could do and be anything, and who felt that subsequent sense of drifting at sea when they didn't feel as if their futures were certain.  One character works at a scientific laboratory which (among other things) explores the relatively young field of genetics, and struggles with the newness of diagnosed mental illness combined with the administration of experimental medications.  Another decides to travel abroad on almost no money in order to see the world; this is no longer the purview only of the rich and spoiled children who graduate from Ivy League universities, but of all liberal arts students.  All of the characters find themselves struggling to self-identify (some with their sexuality, some with their vocations, some with their religion); they spar with the legacies of their parents and yearn to define themselves separately.

I am not sure I really liked any of the characters entirely, but they were all very human, and you wanted to embrace them, flaws and all, as real people.  There were plenty of surprising moments in the book, but most surprising of all was that this was not a love story.  The title made me worry that it might be (I thought it might mean that the book outlined a scheme to get two people hitched).  Then the explanation of what "the marriage plot" actually referred to (the way Victorian-era novels revolved around getting a woman married off, as if she were nothing as a spinster) also threw me, as I thought this might be a modern-day take on the idea.  Which, I suppose, ultimately it was - but the ending will surprise you.  It did me, and pleasantly.  It certainly took an outdated ideal and updated it in a very real and appropriate way, I think.  And with enough of a modern twist that it ended up being a pretty feminist novel, I think.

These characters and their stories will stick with me for a while to come, I think, which is always the mark of a good writer, to me.  If you can create these characterizations who come to almost feel like people you used to hang out with, then you've done something right.

Yours,
Arianna
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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Bird Sisters


The Bird Sisters
Rebecca Ramussen
4 / 5

Published 2011

First Sentence
"Used to be when a bird flew into a window, Milly and Twiss got a visit."
Publisher's Description:
When a bird flies into a window in Spring Green, Wisconsin, sisters Milly and Twiss get a visit. Twiss listens to the birds' heartbeats, assessing what she can fix and what she can't, while Milly listens to the heartaches of the people who've brought them. These spinster sisters have spent their lives nursing people and birds back to health.

But back in the summer of 1947, Milly and Twiss knew nothing about trying to mend what had been accidentally broken. Milly was known as a great beauty with emerald eyes and Twiss was a brazen wild child who never wore a dress or did what she was told. That was the summer their golf pro father got into an accident that cost him both his swing and his charm, and their mother, the daughter of a wealthy jeweler, finally admitted their hardscrabble lives wouldn't change. It was the summer their priest, Father Rice, announced that God didn't exist and ran off to Mexico, and a boy named Asa finally caught Milly's eye. And, most unforgettably, it was the summer their cousin Bett came down from a town called Deadwater and changed the course of their lives forever.

Rebecca Rasmussen's masterfully written debut novel is full of hope and beauty, heartbreak and sacrifice, love and the power of sisterhood, and offers wonderful surprises at every turn.
Dear Reader,

This was a sweet little novel about two old sisters who have lived together all their lives.  They are known as the "Bird Sisters" because they can be called upon to doctor any injured bird that is brought to them (albeit with varying levels of success).  They are known throughout the area as slightly eccentric but sweet women who have simply always lived where they do, treating birds and serving teacakes.

However, their history has much more depth than one might imagine.  The story of their lives and how the two ended up spinsters together is quite a complex tale of family, love, loss, joy, and heartache - at many times, all at once.  The book takes place in the late 1940s, and follows the story of the two sisters - Milly and Twiss - and their slightly-off-kilter family, the land upon which they live, their colorful neighbors and townsfolk, and - most importantly, and most life-changing - their cousin Bett, who comes to visit for one fateful summer.

The story switches between the perspectives of the two sisters, and slowly unravels the mystery behind why they lean so heavily on each other in old age.  This book is chock full of vibrant and memorable characters, from the minister who leaves his flock to seek out drink and gambling, to the bitter snapping turtle who lives in the nearby lake.  All of these larger-than-life personalities clash with one another at various points, creating the backbone behind the story of Milly and Twiss.  While I can't call this a favorite, it's a book I am very glad I read and that I know will stick with me for a long time to come.  Those characters which Rasmussen introduces you are certainly unforgettable!

Happy reading,
Arianna
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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy


Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy
Karen Foxlee
4/5


Published January 28th 2014

First Sentence
"In the end the Queen was nothing like she was in the stories the Marvelous Boy has been told, first as a child beside the hearth and later by the wizards."

Publisher's Description:

A modern-day fairy tale set in a mysterious museum that is perfect for readers of Roald Dahl and Blue Balliett. 

Unlikely heroine Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard doesn't believe in anything that can't be proven by science. She and her sister Alice are still grieving for their dead mother when their father takes a job in a strange museum in a city where it always snows. On her very first day in the museum Ophelia discovers a boy locked away in a long forgotten room. He is a prisoner of Her Majesty the Snow Queen. And he has been waiting for Ophelia's help. 

As Ophelia embarks on an incredible journey to rescue the boy everything that she believes will be tested. Along the way she learns more and more about the boy's own remarkable journey to reach her and save the world. 

A story within a story, this a modern day fairytale is about the power of friendship, courage and love, and never ever giving up.

Dear Reader,


This is a story of magic, set in a museum with an extremely logical girl as the heroine. I loved this, I just wish I experienced it when I was 10 years old. Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is definitely a story for the kids but still holds the charm with solid writing for any adult to read. If I had any kids, this would be on the bedside table to read at night with them. Ophelia, the main character who has just recently lost her mother to a sickness, and her sister are stuck (maybe stuck is the wrong word) in a museum with their father during the winter break. The father is working on an exhibit due to open in a few days. I don't know about you, but this would be the perfect winter break in my eyes, and I think Ophelia feels the same way despite her recent loss. Ophelia finds a boy locked in a cage within the museum who sends her to gather some keys to free him AND save the world, of course. Thus the plot develops.

The Author has done an excellent job with the characters, giving each one depth that becomes very relatable to different personalities the reader may have. Ophelia is the most adorable girl, with her practical mind and smudged glasses. What better setting to drop a practical/scientific girl than a museum filled with magical things. This create a wonderful contrast and will be very exciting for a child who might dream of something like that happening to them. This almost gives a child hope that is could happen to them! I love that.

One of the other things that I loved about this book was the details. Foxlee was really able to call her inner child forth while writing this. She has a wonderful way with words that will relate to the young reader. For example, during the flashbacks of Ophelia interacting with her mother, the later always takes Ophelia's glasses and cleans them on the hem of her clothes. She does this with great detail though, "She would have taken Ophelia's glasses and cleaned the smudges off them with the hem of her skirt. Ophelia would have looked at her, all blurred at the edges, and it would have been a very soothing thing." I think this is something anybody with glasses can relate to, those blurry edges left behind after an improper wipe from clothing.

This is a story meant for children/pre-teens but I think even adults can appreciate this. How often are we given a modern fairy tale? Not often, and when done right... it can be magical to read. Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is just that, a charming modern day fairy tale chock full of the good stuff. I'd be looking forward to this Author doing a follow up with a picture book, something that "classifies" the magical creatures (the way that was mentioned by Ophelia in the book). I'll be looking out for it, Karen Foxlee!

Happy Reading,
AmberBug

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