31 July 2009

The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale

Flap Copy: "Mormon Housewife Becky Jack is seven months pregnant with her fourth child when she meets celebrity heartthrob Felix Callahan. A few hours, one elevator ride, and one alcohol-free dinner later something has happened, though nothing has happened ... It isn't sexual. It isn't even quite love. But soon Felix shows up in Salt Lake City to visit and before they know what's hit them, Felix and Becky are best friends - talk-on-the-phone, drop-everything-in-an-emergency, laugh-out-loud-at-stupid-jokes best friends.

Becky's loving and devoted husband, Mike, is mostly unconcerned. Her children roll their eyes. Her large extended family and neighbors gossip endlessly. But Felix and Becky have something special, something unusual, something that seems from the outside - and sometimes from the inside too - completely impossible to sustain."

Since finishing this book (which I did very easily, it's a quick and entertaining read) I have been struggling with how to review it. On the one hand, it's a fun tale about a normal woman who has the unlikely good fortune to meet her celebrity crush and actually find a meaningful friendship with him. Their banter is witty and their improbable friendship weathers the occasional storm just like any relationship, with spousal jealousies, the demands of work and family and general differences of opinion getting in the way. The story is often laugh-out-loud funny, and the characters are endearing in their own strange ways.

On the other hand, there were many times while reading that I wanted to just shake the book, or the characters within it, for the completely unrealistic moral overtones that I found leaping from most of the pages. Are there really people out there who believe it impossible for married women to have male friends, or vice versa? Are there families out there who would stage minor interventions because a sibling had a friend and the rest feared for her moral soul? I have no problem with storylines that contain religion or spirituality, but I want the devotion to seem realistic, I want to believe that the characters are people of faith, but real people. With this book I'm just not sure I bought it.

All that being said, I definitely recommend this book - it's not your standard chick-lit, the main character being far less independent than most heroines of the genre - if nothing else you'll have a good laugh.

30 July 2009

The Crying Tree by Naseem Rakha

Flap Copy from ARC: "The quiet and contented life of Irene and Nate Stanley and their two children, Bliss and Shep, is turned on its head when Nate comes home one day to announce he's been offered a job as a deputy sheriff in Oregon. Irene fights her husband about moving ... she cannot shake her misgivings about the move ... They are settling into their life in Oregon's high desert when tragedy strikes. Fifteen-year-old Shep is brutally shot to death in their new home, and the family reels with the unspeakable loss ...

Irene waits, week after week, for justice; for the man who killed her son to be executed. Those weeks turn into months, and then years. All the while Irene and her famly become more alienated from one another and even themselves. Ultimately, faced with a growing sense of depression and isolation, ... Irene makes an extraordinary decision to write a letter to her son's killer on death row. What she doesn't expect is that he will write back and the two will engage in a secret correspondence for years."

In The Crying Tree Naseem Rakha tells the story of a family destroyed by tragedy and fueled by emotion and vengeance, a mother, father and daughter trying desperately to find a way to live beyond their loss, and failing miserably. Individual grief makes them strangers to one another, allowing secrets to lie dormant for years and forcing each to live alone within the family unit.

When the killer's execution is finally scheduled, Irene is faced with emotions she never expected - she hated this man so much, but through years of secret communication has come to view him differently. When their hidden relationship comes to light, other family secrets are also revealed (though I had guessed to big secret fairly early in the novel, I think Rahka does a wonderful job building momentum and keeping the reader interested until the end) and each family member must seek a new kind of forgiveness.

I'm labeling this book a must-read - the character development is compelling and real, the plot moves at a good pace and the widely varied emotions are portrayed with heart-wrenching accuracy. Rahka took a difficult story of loss and a political argument about the death penalty and melded them into a very human tale that forces the reader to stop and think. Four stars - read this book, give it to a friend, and then discuss!

14 July 2009

Hollywood is Like High School with Money by Zoey Dean

Flap Copy from ARC: "Tewnty-four-year-old Taylor Henning has just landed her dream job as an assistant at a major movie studio. But when her catty coworkers trick her into almost getting fired, she realizes that the old saying 'Hollywood is like school with money' just may be true. The thing is, Taylor wasn't exactly a social butterfly in high school - how is she supposed to do any better the second time around?

That's when she meets her boss's popular 16-year-old daughter, Quinn, and has an epiphany: Maybe this teenager can teach her how to use her queen bee tactics to succeed in the Hollywood popularity contest. Quinn comes up with a plan to teach Taylor one lesson a week - everything from 'Fake it 'til you make it' to 'It's never your fault' - and soon Taylor finds herself winning the war against rival assistant Kylie. Until, that is, she's directed to steal Kylie's boyfriend, and something happens that's not in the game plan: Taylor falls for the guy. Now she must do the impossible - harness her inner mean girl while staying true to herself."

Obviously the premise of this book first struck me as a knockoff of The Devil Wears Prada. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to discover that this was not another tale of assistants putting up with impossibly awful bosses; rather, Taylor's boss was not the problem - she's the kind of classy lady you would want to work for - instead it was Taylor's fellow assistant who turned out to be the complete psycho.

Taylor's character wasn't wildly appealing, but the story was funny, fast-paced and truly captured the lives of many assistants. I was interested, I wanted Taylor to prevail over her seemingly-insane roommate and her shallow judgemental co-workers - even when the story took some unrealistic turns, I was rooting for Taylor to win. I definitely recommend this book as a quick and fun summer read.

13 July 2009

The Chocolate Lover's Club by Carole Matthews

Flap Copy:"Some women are addicted to shopping; others can't get enough of champagne. But there's one thing that Lucy Lombard can't live without, and that's chocolate - rich, creamy, delicious chocolate. Sharing her passion are three other addicts: Autumn, Nadia and Chantal. Together they form a select group known as the Chocolate Lovers' Club. Whenever there's a crisis, they meet in their sanctuary, a cafe called Chocolate Heaven, and with a cheating boyfriend, a flirtatious boss, a gambling husband, and a loveless marriage, there's always plenty to discuss ... The Chocolate Lovers' Club brings together four unforgettable women from totally different worlds united in their passion for chocolate."

I love chocolate and I love good chick-lit, especially of the British variety, so I was ready and excited to dive in to this potentially delicious read. Unfortunately, good chocolate just isn't enough to carry a story when the characters are vapid, shallow and seem completely implausible as actual human beings.

The book definitely has some redeeming and hilarious moments - a fabulous break-up revenge scene and a plot-turned-caper to retrieve Chantal's stolen jewels - but it was so hard for me not to shake my head in disbelief at the way the characters acted and spoke that the good moments just didn't outweigh the bad. I was especially turned off by Lucy, the narrator and convener of the Chocolate Lovers' Club. No self-respecting woman would actually stick with a cheating boyfriend for so long and actually be proud of herself for it, nor would true friends let such stupidity go on indefinitely. And when her Crush shows interest in her she's about as awkward and moronic as a girl could be - and not just once, but over and over again. I appreciate characters drawn from reality, people whose lives aren't perfect and whose problems are real if sometimes mundane, but Lucy was over-the-top. Chantal was the most appealing character for me, and her problems seemed the most legitimate, but even she possessed a fair amount of bizarre and unrealistic quirks that didn't fit together.

If you want to learn a million different types of chocolate, or drool over your book a bit, then this book is a worthwhile read. As far as chick-lit goes, however, I was really disappointed. I want to find women in books that strike me as people I might know, friends I might have - not women who make me cringe and give the worst name to the fairer sex.

04 July 2009

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

Flap Copy from ARC:"By the second half of the sixteenth century, the price of wedding dowries had risen so high that most Italian aristocratic families could afford to marry off only one daughter. The remaining young women were dispatched into convents, and not all of them went willingly. Santa Caterina's new novice sets in motion a chain of events that will shake the convent to its core.

Serafina, a willful, emotional, furious girl, has just been ripped from her proposed marriage and sent by her noble family to Santa Caterina. During her first night inside, such is her violent, incandescent rage that the dispensary mistress, Suora Zuana, is sent to her cell to calm her with a draft of herbs. Thus begins a complex relationship of trust and betrayal. And while outside the convent walls the forces of the Counter-Reformation push for ever more repressive chances, Serafina's rebellious spirit challenges not only Zuana but many other nuns who have made peace with the isolated life.

A rich, captivating, multifaceted love story, Sacred Hearts is a novel about power, creativity, passion - both secular and spiritual - and the indomitable spirit of women in an age when religious, political and social forces were all stacked against them.

This richly layered historical narrative provided a fascinating glimpse into an often-overlooked facet of Renaissance life. Serafina is willful, passionate and adamantly unwilling to accept her fate and a life in the convent. While she plots her escape and creates a web of deception that only her advisor Zuana can penetrate, the rest of the convent struggles to reconcile her presence and her rebellion with the potential for glory that her renowned singing voice might bring them. At the same time the abbess seeks desperately to remain a convent apart while the greater church invokes new restrictions on the tiny luxuries the nuns still enjoy.

I was engaged and invested while reading this book - at first I was thoroughly on Serafina's side; as the story wore on, I felt more and more for Zuana and her own struggles. By the end of this complex retelling of a star-crossed lovers tale, I was both happy with the outcome and extraordinarily sad for all of the women involved. I give Dunant and Sacred Hearts five stars and highly recommend it as an intense and thought-provoking read.