Here we go…

DownloadedFile-5So I updated my About Page recently and whoosh, three books arrived in my mailbox last week.  I’m excited to start reviewing again and hope to share one review a week.  I’m not the fastest reader ever, and not the fastest reviewer either.  But hey, a goal of once a week is better than going a whole year without a new post, right?

The books that found me this past week include ARCs of Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight (Harper Collins), Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende (Harper Collins), and TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (Random House).  All of them look fantastic, however I might pass TransAtlantic to my mom.  I didn’t request it and I have so much reading material that I fear it will languish on my shelves for years.  But I think my mom will love it, and I want it to be loved by someone rather than be neglected and collect dust, so off it will go.  If she loves it, I might give it a try.

I started Reconstructing Amelia last night and quickly breezed through the first 50 pages.  Already, teenage Amelia has jumped off the roof of her private school, or did she?  There’s a mystery and it’s just ramping up.  I’m nervous for the main character, Amelia’s mom, Kate.

Also last week, I purchased The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch on the Nook for my daughter, who needs to read it for her sophomore English class.  I haven’t read it myself but would like to at some point.  My 8th grade daughter borrowed Dead is the New Black by Marlene Perez from the library for her required RC reading.  It’s below her reading level, but her teacher doesn’t care what level they read at so long as they read 20 minutes a day.  She claims not to like reading, but I caught her giggling over this one.

I also used some Audible.com credits to get a couple more audio books for my husband, the non-reader.  Based on recommendations from both Sandy and Kathy, I got 11/22/63 by Steven King and Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.  Thanks for the recommendations, ladies!

What are you reading this week?

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Review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

51bdApUjo-L._SL500_AA240_Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger is a modern gothic tale set in London near Highgate Cemetery.

The story begins in a hospital, where 45 year old Elspeth dies of cancer while her younger lover, Robert, is at the vending machines getting coffee. Robert crawls in bed with her and wraps himself around her in a touching scene I won’t soon forget.

Elspeth has an estranged twin, Edie, who lives in Chicago. Edie and her husband Jack also have twins, Julia and Valentina, mirror images of each other. Elspeth has left her London flat and everything in it to her nieces, two young ladies she has never met, with the stipulation that they live alone in the flat for one year, and that their parents never set foot in the flat. Julia and Valentina, unmotivated girls who’ve already dropped out of two colleges, find this all a bit mysterious but decide to give it a go.

Once the twins arrive in London and settle in, it’s not long before they sense an otherwordly presence in the flat. Valentina is more attuned to it than Julia and becomes fixated on discovering what it all means.

There are a number of superb peripheral characters in Her Fearful Symmetry that were well developed and interesting. Martin, a neighbor in an upper flat, struggles with raging OCD. His wife Marijke lives apart from him, but their love story is touching and beautiful. Robert, also a neighbor, a guide at Highgate, and the one tragically left behind after Elspeth’s death, is a study in grief and longing.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot because it’s truly an amazing reading experience. However as much as I enjoyed it, there were parts that left me confused. There’s an intricate twist about Edie and Elspeth and Jack. I re-read that section twice and finally had to get out a piece of paper and diagram the whole thing just to make sense of it. There were scenes that I really enjoyed (the BEST was when Elspeth snagged the kitten!!), but the end felt rushed and wrong to me. I’m sure there are many people who will disagree with me about the ending, but I felt almost cheated by it.  Rather than saying, “Wow!” at the end, I was saying, “What??!!”  I was waiting for a showdown between two characters (one alive and one dead) that never came, and that disappointed me.   I had hoped for answers about one character’s motivations and there weren’t any, which forced me to speculate.

rip4150However, don’t let me scare you off.  Niffenegger is a pro at writing about love and emotions and does so in a most creative way in Her Fearful Symmetry. This author, who made time travel so believable in The Time Traveler’s Wife, now gives us a beyond-the-grave love story, full of suspense and impending doom. If you’re looking for a creepy ghostly read for October, look no further! Her Fearful Symmetry will be in stores tomorrow, Tuesday, September 29th.

I read HFS as part of the RIP IV Challenge.

FYI, the publisher is giving away ten ARCs and three first edition hardcovers on October 1st in a lottery to anyone who joins the Facebook page as a fan and sends an email to hfs@regal-literary.com. Good Luck!


Review: The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama

marriageThe Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama is a sweet and funny new book.  Set in modern day India, it is the story of Mr. Ali, a newly retired man with too much time on his hands.  I got a good laugh from this exchange between Mr. and Mrs. Ali early in the book (it reminds me of my parents!).  Someone has just leaned over the Ali’s gate and pulled a flower off Mr. Ali’s hibiscus plant:

He struck his forehead with his hand in frustration and Mrs. Ali laughed.

“What?” he asked.  “Do you think it’s amusing to lose all the flowers from the garden before the sun has even risen fully?”

“No,” she said.  “But you are getting worked up too much over trivial things.  After retiring, you’ve been like an unemployed barber who shaves his cat for want of anything better to do.  Let’s hope that from today you will be a bit busier and I get some peace,” she said.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

Mrs. Ali rolled her eyes.  “I have been running the house for more than forty years, and the last few years since you retired have been the worst.  You keep interfering and disturbing my routine,” she said.  “You are not the first man in the world to retire, you know.”

So Mr. Ali, a Muslim, puts a sign out front and opens up a marriage bureau; a matchmaking service for those who can afford it.  He is willing to work with all the castes and major religious groups.  Soon he has more work than he can handle alone, so his wife suggests an assistant.  She finds Aruna, a lovely Hindi girl with amazing organizational abilities, who becomes invaluable to the bureau.

As customers come in and express their wishes for a match for their son, brother or daughter, or even for themselves, the reader gets a real sense of Indian society.  From arranged marriages to the caste system to religion and food, it’s a cultural lesson wrapped in a charming story.  Some customers think they know what they want, but Mr. Ali (with Aruna’s help) is sometimes able to convince them to widen their search and consider other possibilities.  Mr. Ali has great success, facilitates many matches, and even gets invited to a wedding.

It’s so easy to fall in love with these endearing characters.  Aruna, young and smart but without marriage prospects due to a failed engagement and her father’s health problems and resulting financial woes, falls in love with Ramanujam, a handsome, wealthy customer.  Marriages must be arranged; Aruna cannot find her own future husband!  Brides must have substantial dowries..  and her family simply cannot afford a marriage to a man of means.  And Ramanujam’s family is looking for a very different kind of bride.  When their wishes and choices go against family expectations, Aruna and her intended face a serious dilemma.  Do they respect their elders, or find a way to be together?  Can they do both?

This is a light and breezy book written with much affection for India and it’s people.  I learned a lot about the customs and culture without actually trying.  My only quibble would be that the dialogue felt stiff and stilted at times.. it was like reading English being spoken by someone for whom English is not their first language.  But maybe that was intended.

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People offers a wonderful sense of place; the heat, the rains, cows wandering into the garden, the dust, the sites and smells, and the beautiful people.  While there are significant cultural differences between us, people are people wherever they live.  Book clubs would have many universal themes to touch on in discussions.

Many thanks to Jaclyn at Penguin for sending me this lovely book to review.  Highly recommended.

A Kid’s Review: Slob by Ellen Potter

31ddxnovrxl_sl500_aa240_Slob by Ellen Potter

Product Description from Amazon.com:

Twelve-year-old Owen Birnbaum is the fattest kid in school. But he’s also a genius who invents cool contraptions— like a TV that shows the past. Something happened two years ago that he needs to see. But genius or not, there is much Owen can’t outthink. Like his gym coach, who’s on a mission to humiliate him. Or the way his Oreos keep disappearing from his lunch. He’s sure that if he can only get the TV to work, things will start to make sense. But it will take a revelation for Owen, not science, to see the answer’s not in the past, but the present. That no matter how large he is on the outside, he doesn’t have to feel small on the inside.With her trademark humor, Ellen Potter has created a larger-than-life character and story whose weight is immense when measured in heart.

I received this ARC from Penguin and before I could even look it over, my 11 year old daughter snapped it up.  Maybe it was the Oreo cookie on the cover, or maybe it was the title, but she devoured the book in less than 2 days.   It’s a YA novel meant for kids 9-12 years old.  Rather than review it, my daughter wanted me to ask her questions about it, so here we go!

What is Slob about?  Who is the main character?

Slob is about a fat genius named Owen who tries to figure out a mystery about his parents.  Owen is 12 years old and goes to middle school. 

What challenges does Owen face?  

Owen is overweight, which presents a lot of problems for him, especially in gym class, where his coach is out to get him and embarrass him.  Someone suggests he get a ‘fat exemption’ from the doctor but he decides to tough it out.  Owen wants to solve the mystery about his parents so he builds Nemesis, a radio/television that can see the past and expand on what was caught on the security footage of a camera across the street from their deli.  It’s complicated.

How would you describe the book?  What was your favorite part?

I would describe it as suspenseful.  It has both serious and funny parts.  It’s mostly a mystery. The cover is really cool.  On the cookie, where it would say “Oreo”, it says “A Novel”.  The part I liked best were the parts at school, because he helps his arch-enemy recover from a seizure, and then they become friends.  

Were the characters believable?

I thought they were.  I liked Owen but the character I found most interesting was Mason Ragg.  He has one brown eye and one milky-blue eye and half his face is always sneering due to a medical condition.  It was rumored that Mason carried a switchblade in his sock, but it turned out it was just a key carrier.  There was another rumor that he was kicked out of his old school for being a handful.  It shows that people often make assumptions based on incorrect information. Mason knew about his reputation but didn’t let it bother him.

Did you like the ending?  Is there anything you’d change?

I did.  Owen learned a lot about himself by the end of the book.  He never did solve the mystery about his parents, but maybe some things are better left unsolved.

Who would you recommend this book to?  

I’d recommend this book to middle school kids, kids who’ve been bullied, kids who are friends with a bully, kids who are different, and kids who love to read.  It’s an easy read, and not too long (208 pages).  I’d give it 4 out of 5 stars.  

 

Slob by Ellen Potter will be released on May 14th, 2009.  

Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

51a7mjkefwl_sl500_aa240_Shanghai Girls by Lisa See is the tale of two sisters.   The book opens in Shanghai in 1937, where Pearl and May are “beautiful girls” who model for an artist and whose faces appear on calendars and advertisements selling everything from soap to cigarettes.  They make money, but it all goes into supporting their expensive lifestyle.  They are sophisticated, educated girls who wear gorgeous clothing, stay out late, go to clubs, and take full advantage of their status in this cosmopolitan city.  They are blissfully ignorant of the rapidly changing political climate and the war with Japan looming on the horizon. 

At home, they are just girls, albeit girls living a privileged life, with cooks and servants and lovely furnishings.  Daughters are worthless in China except for their value as marriage material.  Pearl, however, is in love with her “beautiful girl” artist ZG, and May loves Tommy.  They’ve made a modern assumption that they will marry for love, as they do in the west, and are shocked when their father announces that their marriages have been arranged, to help the family. “Baba”, a wealthy businessman, has had a reversal of fortune.  His gambling debts are mounting and he sees no other way out but to marry off his daughters to the highest bidder. 

dsc0325824 hours later, the girls are married women.  Their new husbands, Sam and Vern (only 14!), and their family live in Los Angeles.  The plan is that the girls will tie up loose ends, take a boat to Hong Kong to meet their new husbands, then travel with them to Los Angeles.   Pearl and May, still in denial, never get on the boat for Hong Kong.  Baba is upset but thinks, “What can I do?”  Life goes on pretty much as before, with the girls adjusting their lifestyle only slightly and trying to make more money. 

But then the war breaks out.  They get caught up in the bombings but manage to escape Shanghai.   Threatened by collectors of Baba’s debt, they flee.  Leaving the city proves extremely difficult, and as they make their way out of the country, they are broken both physically and spiritually.  They finally arrive in Los Angeles after much hardship and make a life with their husbands and extended family as immigrants in Chinatown.  Pearl and May, with their love of western clothing and sensibilities, are made to wear the traditional clothing of China for the tourists and must stay within the confines of the community.   Pearl works and works, harboring little resentments against the more carefree May.  They struggle with everyday life, and nothing is as they expected it to be.   

As in Lisa See’s earlier novels, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love, there is a major misunderstanding between the main characters that threatens to destroy their relationship and propels much of what happens in the book.  May and Pearl, like all siblings, view their shared past differently.  The revelatory moment, when they each see things clearly and understand the others’ perspective, comes late in the novel.   

I’m a huge Lisa See fan and was completely swept away by Shanghai Girls. This is a book about survival and just how much a person will endure for the people they love.  It is also a captivating history lesson about the difficulties faced by our immigrant population.  The book is so rich in detail, lush in its descriptive language.  Lisa See is an expert at describing and exploring women’s relationships, making this a natural choice for a book club.  My only complaint is the cliffhanger ending.. but then, maybe that leaves the door open for a sequel.  I hope so!  

Shanghai Girls will be released on May 26th.  Many thanks to Random House for sending me an advanced readers copy.  

For more information on Lisa See, please visit her website.

Teaser Tuesday 4/14/09

tuesday-t1Miz B and Teaser Tuesdays asks you to: Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page. Share with us two (2) sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12. You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

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imagedbcgi1My teaser comes from a deliciously naughty book called Foreign Tongue by Vanina Marsot. Lucky me, I get to see the author on a panel called Windows on the World at the Festival of Books in a couple of weeks!  It’s about an American woman who moves to Paris to escape Los Angeles and a love affair gone wrong.  She gets a job translating a novel from French to English, then discovers after she accepts the job that she’ll be translating an erotic novel.  Oooo la la!

This is from page 19:

“I had a sensation I’d had before in France, that not everyone finds a blank slate charming and guileless, the way we do back home.  Here, they prefer complexity; an acknowledgement that we are all guilty; or at least, no one is innocent.”

This book is witty and smart.  I just love the main character, Anna.  It’s one of the most entertaining books I’ve read all year!  Foreign Tongue is on sale beginning today, from Harper Paperbacks.  

Interview and Giveaway: Laura Fitzgerald, author of One True Theory of Love

images-1Recently I had the opportunity to interview one of my favorite authors, the wonderful Laura Fitzgerald.  Laura is the author of the bestselling book Veil of Roses, and a new novel, One True Theory of Love (reviewed here), which just came out in February.  Even though she is really busy promoting her book and going to book signings and festivals, she took the time to give me very thorough and thoughtful answers to my questions.  Please enjoy this interview, and leave a comment if you’d like a chance to win her new book!  

BOTB:  If you had to describe your new book in one sentence, what would that be?

Laura:  One True Theory of Love is a story about the redemptive power of second chances in life and love.

51svuaqeq5l_sl500_aa240_BOTB:  You mentioned your very own book club recently read and discussed One True Theory of Love.  What was that like for you? 

Laura:  It was incredibly fun, because it was such a celebration of a big goal achieved and these are great women with whom to celebrate. It was also a great discussion of the book’s themes of second chances and the changing nature of relationships. All in all, it was a fun night of much wine, great discussion, and laughter.

It was also a bit weird, because everyone was asking me about my husband’s forearms and are they as sexy as Ahmed’s in the book…That’s been the one big difference between Veil of Roses and One True Theory of Love. With the main character in Veil of Roses being from Iran, no one suspected there was anything of me in her. But with this second book, I’m being asked that question a lot: How much of Meg is you? And, of course, there’s a lot of me in both Tami and Meg, as there is a lot of me in every character I write. I’m all over my books, hiding in plain sight. 

n225748BOTB:  I’ve read on your website that the idea for the book came from a book club meeting you attended for your first book, Veil of Roses.  Can you tell us about that?

Laura:  Well, I was quite far along in my writing of this other story that just wasn’t working out – I couldn’t get the main character to be likable, and the story itself was so different from Veil of Roses in tone and temperament that I was coming to the sad conclusion that it wasn’t the right “next book” for me. This realization was confirmed as I met with three book clubs in Wisconsin in the course of a week. 

The clear message was they like the “make you laugh, make you cry” flavor of Veil of Roses. The book I’d been working on was a straight “make you cry” type of book. Also, in each book club, members were going through huge life changes, falling in or out of love, mourning the deaths of loved ones, and just in general fighting the good, hard fights that life presents us. And it just struck me how much courage it requires to build yourself back up after life has knocked you down. We like to believe our happy ending is out there, waiting for us – that no matter how bad things are, if we just try harder, or try AGAIN, good things will happen and we’ll be happy. That’s not always how it works – but this deliberate optimism is what helps us move forward. 

I hate to sound existential, but I believe the happiness can be found in the struggle. Life is richer for going after what you want when there’s no guarantee of a positive outcome. It just is. 

BOTB:  What has been the most exciting thing that has happened to you since becoming a best selling author?  How has it changed your life? 

Laura:  I can’t and won’t downplay how nice it is to forevermore get to be referred to as “national bestselling author,” but the life-changing part of it comes down to the fact that I had a hard-to-achieve goal and I achieved it – writing a novel good enough to be published at a time when no one cared whether I did it or not. I now get to spend my days doing what I love, in a way that is perfectly suited to my skills, wants and personality. I am figuring out how to tell great stories, and after years and years of work learning my craft, I am almost at a point where I feel I’m hitting my stride with my writing. It’s exciting for me personally to feel with some confidence that the next few books are going to be a culmination of a lot of work on the backend, and that the best is yet to be. 

To repeat: Life is richer for going after what you want when there’s no guarantee of a positive outcome. I feel like I’m walking on a tightrope and to stay on it requires every ounce of skill I have, plus some luck. It’s a position I love to be in. 

BOTB:  Do you write with a particular audience in mind, or do you just write what you like?  

Laura:  Pretty much all my stories center around women who have to summon the courage to do something that is hard for them to do in order to get their shot at happiness — it’s a proactive approach to life and ultimately very affirming. We save ourselves, and we find ourselves in the broken pieces. I firmly believe that. My audience is any woman who needs that message. 

BOTB:  What is the writing process like for you?  Do you treat it like a job- writing for a certain number of hours a day- or do you wait until inspiration strikes?  How do you manage to get anything done with two young kids at home? 

Laura:  Writing is my job, absolutely. I have an office that I go to Monday through Friday while my kids are at school. I’m at this phase in my life where I’d spend twice as much time on my writing if I could – seven days a week, probably, but I’m acutely aware that my kids won’t be this age forever. My top value at the moment is maintaining balance and it’s a constant struggle. So I leave my writing at the office and spend the rest of the time with my kids. And husband. And friends. (And on facebook.) 

BOTB:  Can you tell us about your workspace?  Do you have interesting things on the walls or on your desk to spark creativity?  

Laura:  I rent an office a few miles from my house, and it’s mine, baby – all mine. No phone, no internet connection, no husband, no kids. I don’t like clutter, so I keep my desk clear, with only a great view of the Catalina Mountains in front of me. I’ve got Ethan Allen furniture – desk, reading chair and bookshelves. I have three prints on my walls – two simple and artistic photographs, one of a book with its pages spread open and one of a cup of coffee shot from above (I love both coffee and books). I also have a print of Mark Twain with one of his quotes: I find it usually takes me three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech. This has significance to me because I believe in doing a ton of work behind the scenes to make my writing come out smooth and easy. I’m a big planner and thinker and having my office – which I think of as my “pretty little prison cell” allows me the space and time to do both. And then to write, of course. 

BOTB:  You mentioned that you’re writing a sequel to Veil of Roses.  I’m so excited about that!  What will it be called, and when can we expect to see it in stores?  

Laura:  I’m working very hard to make this sequel even better than the first book. In addition to learning what happens after Tami and Ike’s wedding, I’m delving into the lives of two other characters from Veil of Roses – Tami’s mother, and Rose. 

As yet, it hasn’t been titled. I’m calling it GONE TO PICK FLOWERS, but that’ll likely change. It should be in stores by next summer (2010).

BOTB:  Laura, THANK YOU for your time and generosity!!  I loved your book and am so thrilled to be able to offer a copy of it to one lucky reader!

If you’d like a chance to win a copy of Laura’s new book, One True Theory of Love, leave a comment here by Tuesday, March 17th.