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Archive for the ‘Romance’ Category

In which I issue a warning: Do not be fooled by this book’s adorable cover. Read at your own risk (of boredom).

Title: Girls in White Dresses

Author: Jennifer Close

What it’s about: Blerg. I’m going to get this out of the way up front. I did not like this book. Reasons:

1. There is no plot. There are a bunch of girls (I could not for the life of me tell you how many, see point 2). They are between 21 and 30 years old. They are not married, but people they know are. They are living in New York or Chicago and they have jobs that they hate. Each chapter consists of a kind of episodic event (or nonevent), mostly to do with boys who they don’t really like that much, but date anyway. This is the whole book. No character progression, no conflict, no resolution. Just stuff.

2. I could not remember which characters were which. In addition to the absence of a plot, there was also an absence of any discernible differences between the characters, which made them just names to me. The very cute cover (I give credit where credit is due, good job designers) is also sadly accurate. They are faceless girls in white dresses (though they spend less time in weddings than the cover and title might suggest…I think there were two wedding-related scenes total). Because the characters all had basically the same voice and no personality to speak of, I had to basically relearn who each person was at the beginning of their next chapter. I found myself flipping back to their previous sections just to get some kind of context. There’s one girl named Isabella who gets mentioned more than the other ones, so I could generally remember her when she showed up, but I couldn’t quite remember what I knew about her. Where did she live again? What kind of job did she have? Was she the waitress or the publishing assistant? Flat. All flat.

3. The writing is childlike, featureless and completely uncompelling. See points one and two. Large casts of characters and a vignette writing style can work. But not in the hands of a poor writer. Whole paragraphs would pass with exchanges similar to the following: “Mary moved to New York. She went to her job every day and didn’t like it. After awhile she found an apartment and moved in. She started to like it.”

I mean, seriously?

Admittedly, I don’t normally read a lot of what we call “chick lit”. Maybe this is what a lot of chick lit is like! I thought I’d give it a try since I was looking for something easy and sweet. I thought, “oh my gosh, I’ve been in a ton of weddings! Maybe I’ll find this funny and relatable.” But I did not. Maybe there’s a reason I don’t read this genre. Maybe my lesson is learned.

That’s all I have to say. You have been warned.

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In which I find a story about cancer cast in a fresh light

Title: The Fault in Our Stars

Author: John Green

What it’s about: Hazel has already gotten her miracle. Two years ago, the doctors seems sure that her thyroid cancer would leave her with only a few months to live. But then she started taking an experimental drug and now her expiration date is more of a question mark. Everyone knows it’s coming, but since the drug is untested there’s no way to guess when it might be. Enter Augustus Waters, a new addition to Hazel’s weekly cancer support group. Augustus is on the other side of his battle with bone cancer, but has joined the group in support of his friend Issac, whose eye cancer is about to leave him blind. Hazel finds a kindred soul in Augustus, but knows what she is—a grenade, ready to burst and leave all those who love her wounded. She tries to keep Augustus at arm’s length, but their connection is too strong.

Though Hazel has cancer, this should by no means be considered a “cancer book.” It is a love story, a story about struggle, and, most acutely, a story about how a young person deals with the reality of death. You may cry, but you’ll also laugh, you’ll think, you’ll smile, you’ll feel warm-fuzzies. It’s a deep, rich book that drives you to ponder mortality, family, love, literature and our heroes.

I’m almost through the Green oeuvre now, but TFIOS takes the lead as my favorite. Green’s back up to the emotional resonance he achieved in Looking for Alaska, but the female narrator does him a great service this time around. I saw repeated elements in Alaska and Paper Towns tied to the male voice, in particular the nerdy male narrator idealizing an unattainable female. The first time around it worked for me, but the second time I felt a bit of deja vu. Hazel’s voice retains the poignant honesty of his previous narrators, but feels singular and fresh. And though she’s also in love, this is a very different kind of love than I’ve seen Green tackle before (I haven’t yet read An Abundance of Katherines, so that book must be excluded from my analysis). Though Augustus and Hazel are teenagers, their life experiences age them emotionally and bring an element of the adult to their relationship. And that’s a good thing.

Would I recommend? Most definitely. Green has found a great balance in this book and created a compelling story that goes far, far beyond the confines of what we’ve come to expect from a story about cancer.

P.S. I did not receive a Hanklerfish or a Yeti and I’m very disappointed.

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In which a young girl finds a husband in an unusual way 

Title: A Young Wife

Author: Pam Lewis

What it’s about: When Minke is 15, a distinguished older man in a yellow car arrives at her parents’ home looking for a girl to come to Amsterdam to nurse his ailing wife, Elisabeth. Minke’s time with Elisabeth in the attic of her lavish home is short, but the two form a bond as Elisabeth relates her travels to Argentina through sporadic opium-induced dreams. Then, suddenly and almost without warning, Elisabth passes away and Sander DeVries—the man who came to fetch Minke—proposes to Minke, hoping to secure a new wife less than three days after his last has died. At first scandalized, but later charmed by Sander and his promises of adventure and beauty in Argentina, Minke accepts and the two are married in the old way, breaking a ring in the company of her family. Minke and Sander board a ship for Comodoro Rivadavia, along with Sander’s business partner, Cassian, an enigmatic doctor charged with looking after Minke while Sander sees to his business ventures onboard. Minke’s life settles into a series of peaks and valleys. She falls deeply in love with Sander, enjoying their nights together and his passion. But Sander often leaves her alone and in the dark, about himself and their future. The nature of his  business is murky, mixed up in oil, shipping, and morphine, and he shows streaks of jealousy and possessiveness as Minke befriends some of the men onboard. At her first sight of Argentina, Minke is disappointed by the barren, dirty town, its houses with walls of corrugated iron and dirt floors, but she soon embraces her new surroundings, befriending the wild gauchos who ride into town to trade, much to the dislike of her husband. Minke will soon find out that Sander is not the man she thought he was and will have to fight for a happy future for herself and her children.

A Young Wife is compelling, partially as it’s based on the true story of the author’s maternal grandmother. It’s the second book I’ve read this year that tells of women’s struggles to carve out better lives for themselves and their children in male-dominated societies. (More on the first here.) Minke’s voice is honest and clear and Lewis weaves a beautiful narrative. Some elements are a bit expected, but in general the story is fact-paced and engrossing. I could have done without Minke’s secondary love interest and found Cassian inconsistent, sometimes acting in sinister capacities for Sander and sometimes proving Minke’s ally. But these niggling points aside, it struck me that while Minke’s story is a coming-of-age tale, it’s also about a woman learning to understand a man and the progression of their relationship. We see Sander through Minke’s eyes and though there are clues that he’s duplicitous, we always have Minke’s understanding and also her love for him, especially in the first portion of the book. As their story unfolds, we see what Minke thought was a love story dissolve into a tragedy. But with this dissolution, Minke learns about herself and grows up. She is, after all, a very young wife.

Would I recommend? I enjoyed this book and read it quickly. It has many elements that I am drawn to: a strong female narrator, a historical basis, and travel to exotic locales. Though a few plot points didn’t come together for me, A Young Wife is emotionally honest a worth a look for fans of historical fiction and romance.

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In which I don my red scarf and join the ranks of the rêveurs

Title: The Night Circus

Author: Erin Morgenstern

What it’s about: The circus arrives without warning. It opens at nightfall and closes at dawn. You enter through a star-filled tent, only to find yourself in a black-and-white world of acrobats and jugglers, labyrinths and ice gardens, a bonfire burning white and the scent of caramel and popcorn in the air. It is Le Cirque des Rêves, the circus of dreams, and it delights patrons around the globe with tattooed contortionists, fortune tellers, and a lovely young illusionist by the name of Celia Bowen. What few people know if that Le Cirque des Rêves is merely a venue for a magical competition, two student magicians bound by rules that neither of them fully understand. Celia was bound by her father, the great illusionist Prospero, who endlessly drilled his child to shatter and fix teacups or pull birds from the air. The opponent in the game is chosen by Prospero’s longtime rival, the man in the gray suit. He selects an orphan boy, Marco, who studies ancient symbols and signs. While Celia’s education is visceral, Marco’s is cerebral. The final battle is to be a test of philosophy and much as it is skill. But to Celia and Marco, this test is so much more. It’s their entire existence. They’ve never known anything but the coming challenge, the mark burned into their fingers that signifies the bond. And after years of training and study it’s finally come in the form of something delightful. They each find themselves falling in love with the circus, challenging themselves to create more wonderful attractions and deepen its mystery, only to find that while they are supposed to be competing they are unquestionably also drawn to one another.

The Night Circus is one of the best books I’ve read all year and I’ll add it to my list of all-time favorites. What appealed to me most was the absolutely mind-consuming beauty of the narrative. I left this book with a deep, deep longing to visit The Night Circus, as if Morgenstern had pulled a hidden place from my mind and breathed life into a dream I’d always carried. The circus is almost supernatural in its pull. The story is magic, mystery, intrigue, and romance all at once. It reminded me a bit of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in terms of language and atmosphere, but it doesn’t have the density of that book and it adds desire. The Night Circus is written in a series of vignettes or scenes, which really adds to the mystery and otherworldly or dreamlike feeling. Morgenstern is able to craft striking, almost haunting images that stay with you long after you close the book. I flew through it.

Would I recommend? Most certainly! What a stunning debut! I may find it hard to forgive Ms. Morgenstern for instilling such a burning hope that the Night Circus exists, but I’ll certainly pick up her next book (and read this one again!).

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In which I accidentally read a romance novel

Title: This Burns My Heart

Author: Samuel Park

What it’s about: Soo-Ja dreams of traveling to the capital of Korea to study as a diplomat, but her parents object, wanting her to follow a traditional path of marriage and family that will bring her comfort and stability. Soo-Ja devises a plan: she’ll marry a weak man, one who will let her make all the decisions and won’t stand in her way. When she meets Min, a young student swept up in a protest movement and a member of her own class, she thinks she’s found the perfect target. Min seems madly in love with her and promises to follow her to Seoul. Soo-Ja agrees to their marriage, only to be approached the next day by Yul, a handsome doctor who is also a part of the protest movement and who once saved Soo-Ja’s life. Yul asks for her hand as well, warning her not to marry Min, but Soo-Ja believes she’s made the right choice. Min will take her away from the confines of traditional Korean life. Or so she thinks.

Three years later, Soo-Ja knows differently. Trapped in a loveless marriage and forced to serve ungrateful in-laws, Soo-Ja’s only joy is her daughter, Hana. She will do anything to build a better life for her child, even if it means bowing to the very doctrines she tried to escape. And Yul is always in her mind and sometimes in her life, reappearing as if by providence when she needs him most. Soo-Ja knows she can never leave Min if she hopes to keep her daughter. Korean law will give custody to the father and leave her with nothing. Bound to Min, Soo-Ja must give up everything else—her ambitions, desires, and even her dignity—to hold on to her daughter. A troubled love story, This Burns My Heart explores the aftermath of choosing the wrong person, what it means to live with that decision, and how we go on with life, even as our hearts burn.

So, the plot of This Burns My Heart is by no means revolutionary. I’ve read my fair share of books about Asian women searching for love in a patriarchal oppressive society, variously set in China and Japan between 1850 and 1980.  This version takes us to Korea and is set a bit on the late side, post-Korean War and into the 1970s. The tropes of the genre are still there: the sacrifice of love for duty, the domineering mother-in-law, the repression of the female perspective. That said, I still enjoyed This Burns My Heart. It’s greatest redeeming factor is Soo-Ja’s voice, which is raw and intimate. This book is less about the particulars of Korean society, only touching on some of the details of cultural practices, but it’s not really meant to be a portrait of a place in the way that Memoirs of a Geisha or Empress Orchid were. This book is far more internal and, at its core, a romance novel.

Would I recommend? Sure! I think I’d wait for the paperback release, but as a light summer read I’d endorse This Burns My Heart. I don’t typically read romance novels, but this one was well done, with just the right balance of forbidden, repressed desire and hope and a compelling heroine to give the story depth.

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In which I discuss the allure of dystopian literature and wonder if joining Twitter was the beginning of the end

Title: Super Sad True Love Story

Author: Gary Shteyngart

What it’s about: Though Lenny has resolved to live forever, his plans for immortality are complicated by several unavoidable matters. First there’s the problem of his appearance as a visibly middle-aged, balding man whose attention to fitness and healthy eating has not been up to current standards. Secondly, though his income certainly puts him above the Low Net Worth Individuals, he still hasn’t saved enough to have Smart Blood pumped into his veins to rehabilitate his deteriorating body. And now he’s been pegged by the American Restoration Agency for potential sedition, all because he told Jeffrey the Otter he’d slept with “some Italians” and the ARA mascot logged it as Somalians. After they dragged that fat man off the plane for un-American activities, Lenny doesn’t know how he’ll ever fit in to the culture of youth, data, Images, and technology.

His one and only bright spot is the young and beautiful Eunice Price, an emotionally damaged Korean woman whose fragility attracts Lenny. He becomes determined to make her love him, not only because he is attracted to her, but because she can undoubtedly  increase his Physical Rating by sheer proximity. What follows is a super sad love story, told in the alternating perspectives of Lenny’s long-form journal and Eunice’s emails and chats to her friends and family on GlobalTeens. Both Lenny and Eunice hate and love one another, seeing in the other something they want but can never have. Eunice sees Lenny as cultured and smart in an almost embarrassing way, but values him as a truly good person, though his goodness leads to an intensity she’s unable to handle, as most of her interactions are via the internet. But the story is bigger than Lenny and Eunice. Around them the world starts to unravel and they will discover if their relationship is made from something real.

Frighteningly close to home: Part of the allure to dystopian literature is in seeing the similarities to our own society, in finding the breaking points. We say “we’re just like like” and that frightens us a little. But isn’t that the idea? Dystopian literature helps us find the extremes of our society and in turn stay away from them. In Super Sad True Love Story, each person carries a digital device quite similar to the iPhone, on which they spend time “emoting” and “verballing,” which basically breaks down to what we would call Twitter, FourSquare, Facebook, and blogs. People gain points by ranking one another, just as we get a high when we gain a new Twitter follower. The role of our credit rankings and the government’s ability to wipe away privacy and make judgments about our worth based on citizenship and assets also rings too close to home. Our world hasn’t taken it quite so far as Lenny and Eunice’s, but the degree of separation is quite small. It’s these types of tales, that don’t involve huge leaps in technology or transitions in values, that are the most chilling. It reminds us what we should not become…But then again, you know I’m going to Tweet a link to this blog…

Would I recommend? As you may have noticed, I am drawn to the post-apocalyptic. I loved Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood, Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey, and even The Hunger Games has a bit of that world-exploding flare. My love of this genre is nothing new though. I was reading 1984 and Brave New World long before “dystopia” was the buzzword of all things cool. So when my mother recommended Super Sad True Love Story to me I was, of course, excited. The book has not let me down. The allure of dystopia is in imagining what could be, shuddering, and becoming determined to avoid it.

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In which the title of a book is very misleading and one of the most eccentric men in history is greatly underutilized

Title: The Kingdom of Ohio

Author: Matthew Flaming

What it’s about: I have been remiss in writing a review of The Kingdom of Ohio, which I finished several weeks ago, mostly because I don’t want to have to tell you how much I disliked it. I know, I know, it’s shocking! This book has been quite popular, frequently exhibited on tables and a common recommendation for book clubs (one of the reasons mine chose it). I thought I’d like it, but the book broke a few of my cardinal rules, leaving me merely frustrated rather than intrigued. But before we get to the problems, let me at least give you the basics so you can decide for yourself.

Peter Force relocates to New York City at the turn of the century and takes a job helping to drill the first subway tunnels. A poor newcomer to the city, Peter finds a room in a flophouse and befriends his fellow workers, but the city only really seems to come alive for him when a chance encounter introduces him to Cheri-Anne Toledo, a woman who believes she has traveled seven years into the future. Cheri-Anne is the last of the House of Toledo, a small independent kingdom that few know has existed in the center of Ohio since before the Revolutionary War. She insists that she and eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla were working on a time-travel device and that an attack on her home caused the machine to activate and catapult her to a future New York City. Peter believes Cheri-Anne to be insane, but after meetings with Albert Einstein and fiscal baron J. P. Morgan, he starts to wonder if there might be some truth to Cheri-Anne’s wild tale.

My first issue with the book comes from what I would call wasted potential. While the title of the book may be The Kingdom of Ohio, the kingdom itself plays a bit part. It’s merely in Cheri-Anne’s backstory and we get only some “historical” excerpts and a chapter that seems ripped from a dry history book. I would have gladly read an entire novel on the struggle to found the Kingdom of Ohio, the secret royal family that existed within the United States, the mechanations of the government to take control of the tiny rebellious state. Was it real? Or was all that “history” invented for the book? I still have no idea! But it hardly matters because the story of the Kingdom is buried and told without personality or character. (more…)

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