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Book Review: Peony in Love by Lisa See

18 Apr

Peony in LoveMy Rating:  2 out of 5 stars.

This book was wayyyyy too much for me.  Most of it is told from the perspective of a dead girl in 17th Century China.  Very transcendental.  I hope I’m even using that word right.

I have read several Lisa See novels, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls, both of which I really enjoyed.  Unfortunately I did not feel the same about this book at all. 

It actually starts out okay.  It’s about a girl named Peony who lives in China in the 17th century, falls in love with a stranger and does not think she can handle having to marry someone else (pre-arranged) and let her one true love slip through her fingers. 

I don’t want to spoil the ending, so I will leave it at that, but I will tell you that it gets OUT of control with the afterlife nonsense. I will tell you that most of the book is told from the perspective of a dead person.  Another thing I found weird was that there is a famous Chinese opera entitled Peony in Love (which really exists) and there are parallels between the character of this opera and Peony in this book.  But it’s not the retelling of the opera.  I hope your head hasn’t exploded yet. 

I still adore Lisa See, especially because I do like Asian historical fiction and she’s great at it.  I would recommend Snow Flower and the Secret Fan any day.  But this one not so much.

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Book Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

17 Dec

The Marriage PlotMy Review:  A regrettable 2.5 out of 5 stars

I say regrettable because I had HIGH hopes for this book.  This author is one of my favorite novelists of all time.  If you’ve never read Middlesex, it was the winner of the Pulitzer prize in 2003 and is my second most favorite book ever.  It’s just so good!  I know, that’s not very descriptive but this isn’t a review of that book.  He also wrote The Virgin Suicides, which is pretty amazing as well.  I suppose no author will turn out a prize winner every single time so perhaps I should go easy on Jeffrey.  But I’ve been waiting for almost 10 years for this and I have to say it was a complete letdown.

The story is about 3 students at a college on the east coast, their lives crossing at random points throughout college and after.  The main character Madeline and her boyfriend are both literature majors and the book is full of references to different authors and time periods of writing.  I actually think that’s what the title is drawing on – the books in the 19th century and how marriage was synonymous with love (or something like that, I wasn’t paying close attention).  The third character, Mitchell, is in love with Madeline but very little of the story focuses on scenes where he’s with her – after graduation he tours Europe and India looking for religion (or something like that, I wasn’t paying close attention).  Are you still awake? 

I finished the novel, which believe it or not does tell you how much respect I have for this author.  If it were anyone else’s book I would have thrown in the towel after the first 100 pages.  If I set aside the subject matter and focus on the storytelling itself, even that wasn’t as Eugenides-y as I had hoped.  I mean, he does have a knack for the written word, but it just seemed so…average.  Madeline’s boyfriend, Leonard, is manic and his breakdowns are described in first person, which is very well done.  I give Eugenides credit for capturing the essence of the no-win situation being bi-polar is.  But aside from that, I am going to re-read Middlesex and try to pretend this novel wasn’t written by the same author.  You can barely tell that it was so that shouldn’t be hard.  Disappointed!

Book Review: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

13 Dec

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed AmericaMy rating:  2.5 out of 5 stars

This novel follows two intertwining stories:  all of the construction for the opening of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a serial killer living in Chicago at the same time.  Both aspects of the story are true.

I picked this book up because someone told my friend it was their favorite book of all time.  I take that as a very serious assertion and had to find out what could make it someone’s favorite.  I still don’t quite know.

Do you remember having to write a research paper in high school or college?  The project had to follow a certain order of operations like:  pick a topic, find resources and put quotes from them on index cards, write an outline (that you had to turn in) and then write the paper?  I think that’s the gist.  Imagine the topic you chose to write about had so much information that it would have yielded an entire room full of index cards.  Now imagine you incorporated every single fact on every single index card into your paper.  That’s Devil in the White City.  While it’s obvious that the author did an exorbitant amount of research, he thought we were as in love with these topics – particularly the Fair construction – as he was.  I don’t believe a single detail was edited out of this book.

Each chapter was so chock full of information that I struggled to stay interested.  And it was pretty fascinating what they pulled off for the world’s fair in such a short time with little money.  But the detail around all of this was just too much.  The alternate story about H.H. Holmes and his macabre serial killer life was honestly all that keep me going.  And  even that I didn’t think was that creepy.  I mean don’t get me wrong, it was creepy, but not THAT creepy, especially since it wasn’t posed as a mystery.  You knew he was doing it.

Okay, all of that being said really means this book was just okay in my opinion.  The juice wasn’t worth the squeeze as my boss would say.  Struggling through this book wasn’t worth it in my opinion.  But if you like history and non-fiction and the late 1800s in America, this might be a good one for you!

Book Review: You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know by Heather Sellers

17 Jan

You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know by Heather Sellers: Book CoverRating:  2.5 out of 5 stars

About the Book

An unusual and uncommonly moving family memoir, with a twist that give new meaning to hindsight, insight, and forgiveness.

Heather Sellers is face-blind-that is, she has prosopagnosia, a rare neurological condition that prevents her from reliably recognizing people’s faces. Growing up, unaware of the reason for her perpetual confusion and anxiety, she took what cues she could from speech, hairstyle, and gait. But she sometimes kissed a stranger, thinking he was her boyfriend, or failed to recognize even her own father and mother. She feared she must be crazy.

Yet it was her mother who nailed windows shut and covered them with blankets, made her daughter walk on her knees to spare the carpeting, had her practice secret words to use in the likely event of abduction. Her father went on weeklong “fishing trips” (aka benders), took in drifters, wore panty hose and bras under his regular clothes. Heather clung to a barely coherent story of a “normal” childhood in order to survive the one she had.

That fairy tale unraveled two decades later when Heather took the man she would marry home to meet her parents and began to discover the truth about her family and about herself. As she came at last to trust her own perceptions, she learned the gift of perspective: that embracing the past as it is allows us to let it go. And she illuminated a deeper truth-that even in the most flawed circumstances, love may be seen and felt.

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My Review

This was one of my book clubs February book pick. 

Unfortunately, meh.  The subject matter was interesting; I did not realize such a thing as face-blindess existed.  I think Heather’s approach to it was realistic – I might not have thought anything was wrong either.  I also think her being obsessed with the fact that her condition could be linked to her mother’s condition was something I would have been obsessed with too.  I did NOT like the switching back and forth of timelines in the chapters – for some reason it confused me. 

I didn’t know that this was an autobiography until the end.  I’m not sure this made any difference, but there were some things I didn’t quite understand because I felt like I was only getting a quarter of the whole story.  Once I knew it was autobiographical, it made more sense – there probably were gaps in the story- intentionally done by the author to keep certain things private.  Unfortunately, it made it hard for me to understand the characters.   I didn’t really feel like I ‘got’ how things were for her.

I didn’t get the husband David either was he an alcoholic?  Did he fall off the wagon?  His over niceness was creepy to me.  He was like a robot! 

Bottom Line:  This story is an autobiography that deals with 2 conditions that are sort of interesting:  schizophrenia and face-blindess.  The story itself, however, isn’t very strong.  It has some good parts, but some gaps, which makes it a bit difficult to connect with the main character.   It’s not paced very well either.

Book Review: Heart of the Matter by Emily Giffin

3 Aug

Rating:  2.5 out of 5 stars

Who will like it best: Women 20+, especially wives and mothers, casual readers

Words to describe it: Tame, flimsy, depressing

Will I add it to my personal library? No

Will I read it again someday? No

I requested this book from the library when it was still on the New York Times Top 10 bestseller list – it came out in May and I think I requested it sometime in June.  It is still on the bestseller list as of today in slot #25 on Hardcover Fiction.   I have read a few of Emily Giffin’s other novels, liking one (Something Blue) and disliking one (Love the One You’re With).  I was interested to see how this one sat with me.

I picked this book up at the library over 2 weeks ago and finally talked myself into reading it yesterday. I was dragging my feet for some reason – not sure if it is because of the gaping departure from what I’ve been digging recently (serious drama, sci-fi, thriller) or the way Giffin’s novels tend to depress me but either way, I was simply not in the mood.  But since I would hate to send it back to the library without even trying, I decided to crack it open. And, luckily, it was over before I could really even decide to abandon it!  I finished the book in a little over 5 hours.

Synopsis

There are 2 main characters in this novel, Tess and Valerie.  Tess is a mother of 2 small children and married to a hard-working plastic surgeon.  She’s recently made the decision to stay home with her kids and is struggling to find her ‘sea legs’ with this new adventure as a stay-at-home mom. From the outside looking in, Tess appears to have the life women dream of.  Valerie is a single-mother lawyer who has a 6-year-old son named Charlie.  She has had to work hard for what she has and has closed herself off from love and friendship in an effort to protect herself and her son from having either of their hearts broken (again).  Tess and Valerie live in the same community but are not friends.  Tragedy strikes and both women are tied together in a way they never imagined.  Both have to face some somber realizations about themselves and the people they love the most.

My Review

This story was, for the most part, predictable. I’ll admit I did not know how exactly things were going to end and that did keep me hooked, but everything up to that point was really unsurprising.  And, ultimately, I really didn’t care that much in the end anyways.  The storyline was very tame.

At the beginning I found it funny that each chapter alternated between the 2 women, but Tess’s was told in the first person and Valerie’s was told in the 3rd.  This does get somewhat interesting in the 2nd to last chapter, but not enough to justify the choice to write it like this.

I did like some aspects of the characters.  I identified with both women as mothers of young children. And Giffin does a really good job at making her characters act and think realistically.  Here’s a great example (This is Tess, on the phone and fixing breakfast for Ruby, her preschooler):

As I start to reply to Cate, Ruby unleashes a bloodcurdling scream: “Noooo! Mommy!  I saaa-iiiid whole!”

I freeze with the knife in midair, realizing that I’ve just made the fatal mistake of four horizontal cuts.  Shit, I think as Ruby demands that I glue the bread back together, even making a melodramatic run for the cabinet where our art supplies are housed.  She retrieves a bottle of Elmer’s, defiantly shoving it my way as I consider calling her bluff and drizzling the glue all over her toast – “in a cursive R like daddy does.”

And this excerpt really tugged at my heartstrings, especially because Charlie is 6 and I have a young son as well.

She will remember the first horrifying glimpse of Charlie’s small, motionless body as he is sedated and intubated.  She will remember his blue lips, his cut pajamas, and the stark white bandages obscuring his right hand and the left side of his face.  She will remember the beeping monitors, the hum of the ventilator, and the bustling stone-faced nurses.  She will remember her raw appeal to the God she has all but forgotten as she holds her sons good hand and waits.

And while the main characters as mothers was well portrayed, I felt their relationships with their mothers and the entire ‘mother/daughter issues’ theme was seriously over done:  Tess and her mother (although this is less in the end when her mother is a source of strength), Tess and her mother-in-law, Tess and her stepmother, Valerie and her mother, even Tess and her 4-year-old daughter…every relationship listed here seemed to be a bit off or strained in some way.

Because this novel is mainly about the difficulty of marriage, it was natural to think of my own marriage while reading this and pose some ‘what if’ questions myself.  I spent some time asking how would I handle the gut-wrenching situations posed in the book.  Doing this is NOT FUN AT ALL!  Yes, it does remind me to be grateful but I’m a little annoyed at this book for forcing me to think of terrible things that could happen to my pretty stable and happy life!

This book reminds me of a 1 hour crime drama rerun I watch right before I go to bed.  It’s meant only meant to pass the time, the subject matter is grim, and while I am engaged while watching it,  I can’t really remember the story afterwards.

I cannot really recommend this book.  I didn’t hate it, but I cannot encourage someone to read it either.  Maybe someone who likes stories that are very tame and not too dramatic?

First Family (Sean King & Michelle Maxwell Series #4) by David Baldacci

22 Jul

Rating:  2.5 out of 5 stars

I pulled this audio book off the libary shelves one afternoon when my favorite satellite radio show went on a 2 week vacation.  I chose this book because the author is very consistent.  Once you’ve read one of David Baldacci’s books, you know exactly what you are going to get with any of his others.  Here’s the breakdown of a Baldacci novel…they are all legal thrillers involving political figures and are usually unpredictable, which is what I like best!   There is little character development, which is okay with me because I don’t need that much to enjoy the thrill! 

The Sean King and Michelle Maxwell series is about the adventures Sean and Michelle get themselves into as retired Secret Service agents.  Basically they can’t stay away from the job even though they officially left that world.  Michelle definitely has some daddy issues and Sean seems to be a commitment phobe.  They definitely have sexual tension between each other too.  I’ve only read one other book in this series, Simple Genius, which I enjoyed.  And overall, this book did not disappoint either.  I did not feel like I was missing anything by not having read the other 2 previous books in this series. 

The first lady’s niece is kidnapped.  While the official channels work on finding out who took her, First Lady Jane contacts Sean Maxwell and asks him to conduct his own investigation.  Sean is ex-Secret Service and he brings along his partner, Michelle, and together they look to solve the crime on their own.  In the middle of this story there is a sub-plot involving Michelle and her family which seemed unnecessary because it doesn’t support the major storyline but was actually very intriguing as well.    The last chapter is dedicated to wrapping up some of the loose ends of this series, which was uninteresting to me because I hadn’t really been following it. 

As I mentioned, one of the most predictable things about Baldacci is his unpredictability!  While I was able to get an idea of what was going on and how things were going to end, I really was unable to predict the outcome until it was staring me in the face.  I loved that!  I also really enjoyed the Washington D.C. and the national government backdrop of the story.  Here’s what I didn’t like – the outcome was unfeasible.  I mean really unfeasible.  And unethical in the worst way.  It seems a little extreme for Baldacci’s taste and it surprised me.

I would recommend this book if you looking for a thriller/mystery that will keep you interested to the end without expecting to have it profoundly impact you.

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

21 Jul

Rating:  2.5 out of 5 stars

This book was recommended to me by a friend who spent time vacationing in Utah last year.  She likes to pick books relevant to her vacation destination to help enhance her travel experience which I think is a really cool idea.  This was also one of my book club’s monthly picks.

I chose to listen to this book rather than read it, which I’ve since realized was a terrible decision.  This book has 2 primary story lines that are unveiled in alternating chapters.  In between that are letters and diary entries of various origins and it is nearly impossible to keep all of that straight when listening to it.  I believe that regardless of the content delivery though, this book would still have been a struggle for me – a ton of description and detail.

One story line takes place in the near present day and is told from the perspective of an ex-Latter Day Saint named Jordan Scott.  He was excommunicated from one of those sect communes when he was a teenager.  His mom is still living there and becomes accused of murdering his dad.  We follow Jordan as he goes back to his old home to help his mom.  The other story line is about Brigham Young’s wife, Ann Eliza, and the scandalous book she wrote about her life as a plural wife in the late 1800s.  

I learned a lot about the history of the Latter Day Saints and how polygamy came to be a part of their doctrine in the early days.  More importantly, I learned that the present day LDS church has long ago split off from the crazy sect that believes in polygamy.  There are still remnants of the crazy sect around – these are the scary polygamy communes you hear about on the news.  I appreciate a book that can give me this sort of historical information while being mildly entertaining at the same time.

If this book were about a topic less taboo and freakish than polygamy, I don’t believe the other elements of the story would hold up.  The diaglogue is fragmented and unrealistic.  The present day plot is a mystery, but less focus is placed on solving it  than on the internal conflicts Jordan is experiencing.  The mystery is resolved in about 3 anti-climactic lines.   The character development was okay, better in the Ann story, but certainly not enough in either strain for me to feel anything for any of these characters.   I would be lying if I didn’t say I was slightly disappointed that there were no juicy descriptions of they ways of polygamy behind closed doors.  Polygamy is actually really boring.  I would be less irritated by that if there wasn’t an f*** word on every page and a pretty colorful description of gay sex – – being conservative was certainly not the goal of the author and these references looked out of place.

I liked this book for the educational aspect but not as entertainment.  I cannot recommend it as a ‘good book.’  I do recommend this book if you want to learn something new in a unique way and are prepared with the patience it takes to get through it.