Not Suitable for Family Viewing, Vicki Grant

HarperTrophyCanada, 2009, 289 pages (soft cover)

I’d never heard of this book or its author, but it’s one of those random library picks that turned out to be an entertaining surprise. Not to mention it’s Canadian, and it made me LOL. I really love books that  literally make me laugh out loud.

Before I get to the meat and potatoes here, can we pause for a moment to communally groan at this cover? As a result I was forced to find creative ways to hold my book while reading on the bus….

That’s not really where the groans stopped for this book, either. The first-person present-tense story is told from the perspective of Robin, the oft-forgotten daughter of Oprah-like TV mega-personality, Mimi Schwartz. (Want to know the name of Mimi’s show? You, You, and Mimi. Groan.) In the shadow of her famous mother, Robin feels like a neglected, fat slob with no motivation to do anything. Then one day she finds a little clue to her mother’s pre-fame days, which is just intriguing enough for Robin to take off for a tiny po-dunk village to do some detective work. This is both where the real eye-rolling as well as nail biting started for me. Along her way Robin meets a guy, who slowly but surely (somehow) becomes a love interest [spoiler alert! highlight to read!] even after she punches him in the face upon their first meeting, and later proceeds to scream – yes, literally scream – every time she sees him thereafter. Obviously this leads to his finding her very quirky, funny, and sexy- sexy. Teeny-bopper romance aside – and I had to gag my way through plenty of that – there’s actually a pretty twisty mystery hidden in these pages. I didn’t realize how much red herring is strategically placed throughout the book, until I’d finished it and had it on my mind the next couple days. Coming off of Paper Townsthis one had a lot more to offer in terms of difficulty actually cracking the case.

I’m glad I was compelled enough to keep on through the first half of this book, because the second half proved well worth it. In the first half I wondered why it was an award winner; now I see why. Layered beneath the typical teen beach romance is actually a strong commentary about how appearances aren’t what they seem.

Paper Towns by John Green

Speak, 2009, 305 pages (hardcover)

Speak, 2009, 305 pages (hardcover)

In the John Green hierarchy of book awesomeness, it is with a heavy heart that I’m actually able to call Paper Towns my least favourite. I still give it a 3 out of 5, but I was expecting something between a 4 or a 5. Maybe my expectations were too high, as it took me a good two years to get my hands on a copy. Maybe it’s because I’ve read literally all of John Green’s books and this felt like (don’t shoot me) more of the same.

This time around, Margo Roth Spiegelman is the unattainable girl that our first-person-narrated hero loves from afar. And when she disappears (not unlike Alaska in Looking for Alaska) the hero spends two hundred pages learning she’s not this carefree manic pixie dreamgirl (not unlike Looking for Alaska). Turns out Margo is a real girl with real problems. Nearing the end of the book comes the philosophical discussion that indefinitely confronts our protagonists’ deep-seated need to make a lasting difference in the universe (not unlike any of Green’s novels).

Okay, so I’m really poking fun here. Every author has a niche, and all I’m saying is I’m on to Green. I still think he’s the greatest living young adult author out there, because his writing is that good, and his humour is without fail. Sometimes I feel like his characters’ horniness-to-intelligence ratio is whack (in that they always seem to score pretty high on both) – but then I really know nothing about what it’s like to be a teenage boy. Paper Towns lost me in its last few pages, when [spoiler alert! highlight to read!] the romantic end felt more obligatory than necessary.

Still, for a light-hearted mystery, this fit the bill for a summer read.

AND NOW…

The John Green Hierarchy of Book Awesomeness (In My Humble Opinion)*:

1. The Fault in Our Stars (6 out of 5 stars and I can never read it again or the lack of newness will drop this score to a mere 5)

2. An Abundance of Katherines (4 out of 5 stars)

3. Looking for Alaska (4 out of 5 stars)

4. Will Greyson, Will Greyson (4 out of 5 stars)

5. Paper Towns (3 out of 5 stars, which is still a pass)

*I haven’t read Let it Snow or Zombicorns, neither of which I’d count as a true novel anyway….

Any thoughts? Agree, disagree? What does your list look like? Sound off below!

Juliet, Anne Fortier

Ballantine Books, 2011, 461 pages (paperback)

Sigh. Sometimes all a girl needs is a proper romance novel. And you’ll remember this one from my fall TBR, meaning I had high hopes for it. The good news is that I wasn’t let down. While Juliet definitely falls  into the romance category, it could also easily be called a mystery, thriller, or historical fiction, which is what I like most about it.

Both plots – yes, there are two – are twisty and complicated. One follows our modern-day American heroine, Julie Jacobs who, along with her twin sister Janice, was orphaned by shady circumstances roughly twenty years ago when their family lived in Italy. Upon the event of their great-aunt Rose’s death, Julie is let in on a family secret, leading her back to Siena, Italy to do some major digging. Breaking up the progression of this plot line, is that of Giulietta Tolomei, a young country girl living in Siena in 1340, and her quick and ill-fated romance with one Romeo Marescotti. Six-hundred years apart, the two story lines nevertheless begin to intertwine in the most fascinating and page-turning ways.  To quote an interesting character: “Everything we say is a story. But nothing we say is just a story.” What’s real and what’s legend are frequently conflated.What follows is a lot of intrigue, treasure hunting, chase scenes, not quite knowing who to trust, and plenty of gasping and shouting from the reader (that is, if you’re as interactive with your novels as I am). With chapters flip-flopping back and forth between the two ‘Juliet’s, I was kept on the edge of my seat for the entire 450-or-so pages. I have a few minor complaints, but on the whole this is prime escapist fiction, perfect for anyone who enjoys a modern departure from classic Shakespeare. Without giving away endings (because you will be guessing till the end), the story, while feeling comfortingly familiar, is at the same time new.

Wherefore Art Thou, Perfect Screen Adaptation?

Romeo and Juliet through the (recent) ages.

I await the day that Fortier’s Juliet will be turned into film. The book, being so cinematic, is a natural candidate for a major female-driven blockbuster. And, forgive me if you disagree, but haven’t we enough straight-forward film adaptations of Romeo and Juliet? In tenth grade my English class was introduced to the 1968 version, already begging comparisons to the modernized Leo-tastic version of ’96 which we were more familiar with. Now, apparently with a new generation arose the need for yet another, and so we have the 2013 version released last month (which, I’ll admit, I will watch and probably love). To me it’s puzzling and a little pathetic that, even despite all these versions turning out the same, I always hope for a less-tragic ending. Does anyone out there feel the same way?

Joint Review: Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

Deborah: After all the buzz this book is already getting, it feels a little excessive to write a review. Yet, here it is! The Unofficial Guide to whether or not you should give this polarizing novel a chance!

Personally, I loved it! What’s your verdict, Kaite? Is the cultural obsession well-founded or not?

Kaite: I’m not as excited as most, though I still have two thumbs up. At one point I wasn’t sure if I could even finish this one. I will soon tell you that I really enjoyed this read, but I’m one of those people who does not like depressing stories. I’ll leave the room in the middle part of chick flicks where everything falls apart. The first half of the book was hard for me to get through for this reason. Once I got over that hump, I could not put it down! There were layers and layers to this story and I really appreciated the intelligence with which it was put together. The complexity inherent in every page of this book sets it apart from many others. I would recommend it to many people…normal people who do not leave rooms for the sad part in chick flicks.

Deborah: Three things this book is not: uplifting, reverent, joyous. Three things it is: dark, addictive, complex. Kaite, I’ll let you do the hard part and set it up. Continue reading

Why You Should and Shouldn’t Read the Sookie Stackhouse Novels by Charlaine Harris

A few weeks ago I finished the final instalment in the Sookie Stackhouse novels (also previously known as the Southern Vampire Series), Dead Ever After. I loved it! It was everything I wanted in the final book to the series, and I think Charlaine Harris handled everything perfectly. I’m a newbie on this bandwagon, only getting into the series (which I sped through) this year, and for this reason I feel like there are many others who may need an introduction, despite these books being such bestsellers. These novels will be a perfect fit for some of you, and for others not even come close- so here’s a little guide to help you out.

Reasons why you should read these awesome books:

1. Sookie is a strong female lead. She works hard for what she has (despite inheritances). It is refreshing to have a practical character to read about.

Bill and Sookie Dancing2. The awesome love interests. Harris has a wonderful knack for getting just the right amount of romance and action. Mostly this means that the romance often takes the backseat in the plot, but when it pops up, it’s pretty darn great.

True Blood Fairies3. If you’re a fan of the supernatural, this book will fill your quota. From vampires to weres to fairies and even a couple demons and an elf, this book will keep you on your toes.

4. The Southern perspective. Reading about everyday life in the southern states (in any era) is always interesting because many parts of the life are so foreign to me.

5. The series is over. There are no more books to wait for. Instead, they’re waiting for you!Sookie Stackhouse books

6. These are great, easy reads. No Nobel-prize winning literature here! Harris is talented and these books will and most definitely do, appeal to many readers. They’re easy to pick up and hard to put down.

7. Sookie is interesting to read about. When you have 13 books in first-person narrative this is a pretty good quality to have. To emphasize the first point, she is practical, moral and can often remind you of a friend you have in the real world. She isn’t as complex as some other great female leads, but because she is written so well, that’s her selling feature. Though we don’t share the same lifestyle, in most instances I felt like Sookie and I were very similar or relatable. It helped make the books more personable.

True Blood8. It will help make the tv show based off these novels, True Blood, make a lot more sense. It is awesome to have characters you love realized on the tv screen. Though the show is not my favourite (the plot changes are a little crazy/intense), it’s nice to spend a bit more time with these guys.

Dead Ever After9. I am not going to spill the beans about how the final book ends, but if you’re really, really not wanting to have any inkling you may not want to read about my feelings on the most awesome major-series finale ever.

This was mostly due to how realistic and level-headed it was. While Sookie finds love and can see a very happy future ahead of her, at the same time she also realizes that if this romance were to fizzle out, she would still have a great life ahead of her. Maybe this doesn’t seem like much, but it struck a chord with me. How (unfortunately) rare this is! A female character whose happiness is not dependant on the man in her life! Kudos to you, Charlaine Harris.

10.Men of True Blood

Reason you Shouldn’t

1. You’re not into the whole ‘vampire thing’. Or love hexagons.

2. You’re not interested in reading the whole series. The books only get better.

3. You’re not open-minded enough to accept new characters/situations. Many a reader has lost their head at Sookie’s love life. If you’re going to freak out that she isn’t with your favourite guy, these books may not be healthy for you. (But you’ll probably love them.)

4. You’re not a fan of chick lit. These books pack in some serious drama, but they will not really appeal to readers who don’t like to vary into the chick lit genre.

Sookie and Eric5. You get prissy with the kissy. I love how this book blends in the romance with the rest of the story. There are no helpless damsels or, despite the many fantastical elements to this book, insane scenarios that really detract from the story. (Okay, maybe it can get a little crazy, but nothing compared to those Scottish romances.) I think Harris has the perfect touch, but what works for me may not work for you. Though there’s not a lot of bedroom action, if you’d rather not know than maybe these aren’t the right books for you.

Definitely Dead6. You judge a book by it’s cover. The cover illustrations are not my favourite, but they’re at least unique and I’ve certainly seen worse. What I don’t like is the crazy adherence to having the word ‘dead’ in the title. It went way too far, and I can never remember which book is called what.

Vampire Bite7. If you don’t like the idea of vampires drinking human blood, people transforming into their were-form, or having your great grandfather come visit you from another realm, these books are not for you.

8. You get squeamish with the literary bloodshed. Throughout the whole series quite a few people find themselves 6 feet under. These books are often banned from certain audiences, as I found out at the library a few months ago. It oddly felt like a walk of shame when the librarian pointed out that the book was on their display on banned books. But it was in the illustrious company of a Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and To Kill a Mockingbird, which made me laugh.

9. You’re not a fan of the TV show. This is a hard point because the books are so much better. A lot of the characters on the show are barely in the books, and neither are their crazy plot twists (ie: all that Lillith insanity). But if you really hate the show, you’ll probably hate the books.

10. These guys just don’t do it for you:

Alcide HerveauxEric NorthmanJason Stackhouse

The Book of Blood and Shadow, Robin Wasserman

I told my mom the title of the book I was reading and she immediately responded by pulling a face and asking, “why would you read that?” I was wondering the same thing. Why do I do things like this to myself?

The Book of Blood and Shadow, it should be obvious, was dark and bloody. The story starts right off with our narrator, Nora, revealing her best friend Chris’ violent death. (How’s that for a dangling carrot?) Keep reading and you realize the story starts a long time before that. Like…the 15th century before. The Voynich manuscript is actually one of the world’s most mysterious manuscripts, filled with codes and ciphers scholars still can’t figure out. In The Book of Blood and Shadow, however, they do. Go figure – a group of four smart-mouthed Latin-speaking teenagers are able to crack the code all the grown-ups of the last five hundred years were not able to. Continue reading

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith

I’d been meaning to read this book since high school, when my English teacher Ms. Grenier read us a few hilarious excerpts in class. I even got so far as taking the book out of the library not once, but twice. Still, it took me upwards of six years to get around to The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. All I can say is, I’m glad I’ve finally arrived.

Mma Precious Ramotswe is a smart, shrewd, modern and secretly hilarious Motswana (i.e. Botswanan) woman who decides to open a detective agency. Following are the episodic happenings related to her line of work. Sometimes they are funny; sometimes they are sad. Every few chapters presents a new case, together with the development of further overarching story lines that help bring the whole thing together. The narrative jumps around a bit, from this person’s point of view to that – but mostly we stay put in Mma Ramotswe’s mind and memories. This is no easy feat, considering the writer is an old Scottish man who is actually a professor of medical law! (Granted, he was born in Africa and obviously has a soft spot for it.) The fact that McCall Smith was able to get inside an African woman’s head and relay her voice so clearly speaks to his amazing talent. Add to that his perfect capture of the sadness/beauty dichotomy that is Africa, and you have the perfect beginner’s introduction to African literature.

So what else can I say without giving away too much of the mysteries? How about I hook you with a few quotes, the way I was first convinced I should get into this fun series? I only hope, if you’re interested, that it doesn’t take you six years to pick it up.

About Africa:

The book even spawned a 2008 HBO television spinoff!

“There was so much suffering in Africa that it was tempting just to shrug your shoulders and walk away. But you can’t do that, she thought. You just can’t.”

“Then, just past the Mochundi turnoff, the sun came up, rising over the wide plains that stretched away towards the course of the Limpopo. Suddenly it was there, smiling on Africa, a slither of golden red ball, inching up, floating effortlessly free of the horizon to dispel the last wisps of morning mist.”

About the “big problems of life”:

“It was time to take the pumpkin out of the pot and eat it. In the final analysis, that was what solved these big problems of life. You could think and think and get nowhere, but you still had to eat your pumpkin. That brought you down to earth. That gave you reason for going on. Pumpkin.”

And one last thing to make you laugh:

“She felt terribly sorry for people who suffered from constipation, and she knew that there were many who did. There were probably enough of them to form a political party – with a chance of government perhaps – but what would such a party do if it was in power? Nothing, she imagined. It would try to pass legislation, but would fail.”

The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton

It’s 1913, and a four-year-old girl is found on a wharf in Australia, having come across in a boat from England. All she has in her possession is a small white suitcase, and a curious illustrated book of fairy tales. She is soon taken in by a loving family, who fail to ever solve the mystery of where she came from. Years later, “Nell” goes on a journey to find the missing pieces of her history. Thus comes together a rich, complex story line featuring three prominent female voices, sprinkled here and there with delightful fairy tales and other’s points of view.

Quite honestly, though I enjoyed this book and would give it a solid 3 stars out of 5, The Forgotten Garden took a good 100 pages for me to really get into. Here’s the conundrum: sometimes the promise of a story, the feel and look of the actual book, don’t quite live up to the tale itself. I was confused by the back-and-forth narrative the author uses to tell her story – first we’re in 1913, then we jump to the ’60s, then we’re in 2005. And then there’s the innumerable cast of supporting characters to contend with! Once I got acquainted with these things, however, I was able to sink into the story a bit more. I loved the “scrapbooky” feel of the book as a whole. As a lover of folklore, myths, and children’s stories, I really appreciated the interspersed fairy tales. Not only did they help connect the three timelines running throughout the book (they were not idly placed); they were beautiful and symbolic in their own right. It was also fun to imagine the illustrations that were described as going along with them. I found myself wishing the book of fairy tales really did exist!

Now, the part of my review where I reveal my biggest complaint. Maybe this is just me, since I’m obviously a fan of The Secret Gardenbut there was something a bit cheeky about how Morton chose to rip off certain details of the original garden classic. Like The Secret Garden, The Forgotten Garden featured an orphan being taken into a big manor inhabited by her creepy uncle, and her subsequent discovery of a walled garden that offers healing to her sickly cousin. Incidently I would have no problem with the recycling of these plot points (even the robin that led her to it!), should a fictionalized version of Frances Hodgson Burnett herself not make an appearance in the book! As it turns out, the author is invited to a garden party at the manor, and gets all inspired. In fact, we’re led to believe that her experience at this party leads her to write The Secret Garden. In a word…audacious.

All objections aside, this is a good book. Despite the halted start, I don’t want to slam an author who’s skilled at weaving a good plot line and ultimately able to keep my attention for 500-plus pages. I’ll put in a good word on behalf of those people I know who adored this book – your adoration is not unfounded, and I will likely be reading other Morton books in future.

The Virgin Blue, Tracy Chevalier

Plume, 2003

I know I’ve already mentioned how much I adore Chevalier’s books, so I’ll try to keep this one short!

Her first book, The Virgin Blue features two stories in parallel. One centres around a 16th-century French woman, Isabelle du Moulin, who clings to her Catholic faith even though all those around her, including those in her own family, have converted to Protestantism. Her husband is cruel and psychologically manipulative from the start, and her story is one heavily shrouded in superstition and suspicion. Then there is Ella Turner, a modern-day American woman who moves to Lisle-sur-Tarn, a small town in southernwestern France, with her husband. Ella struggles to find her identity in France, a big part of which involves digging into her family’s extensive history there. The result is an interesting connection between the two women who lived centuries apart.

That’s the bare bones of it, and I must say I enjoyed the general story. It was obvious to me, however, that Chevalier was still green at the time of her writing this book. There were several themes which she stuck to faithfully throughout the story – marriage, happiness, religion and spiritual tradition, dreams and superstition – these are all things both women battle throughout. But then there were things thatseemedshould be important, but weren’t – Ella’s interest in bringing her midwifery to France, for example, really doesn’t play out in the story, a detail the author seems to have forgotten about half way through. There were also several minor characters who didn’t have to be there. On top of it all, the ending was plain confusing. Tension started building near the end of the story, and it was paced so beautifully (a skill Chevalier has only improved upon since). But then it all seemed to end in two pages! Bam! – there’s the ending. Deal with it. It left me jilted, and I had to remind myself that the book in its entirety really was better than the feeling it ultimately left me with.

I stand by my claims that Chevalier is one of those rare, naturally-gifted writers. This may not have been her best attempt, but for a first novel it’s fine. Everyone needs a moment to find their footing, and this was that. It only gets better from here.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley

Doubleday Canada, 2009

Flavia de Luce is the funniest, most precocious little protagonist I’ve read since Scout Finch. And this book, the first in a series, has won over so many fans that she now has her own website!

Set in 1950s England, Flavia, an aspiring chemist of eleven years old, takes it upon herself to solve the mystery behind a dead body she found in her family’s cucumber patch. Determined to find the answers before the police inspector already on the job, she embarks on a secret quest all around town, into the library newspaper reserves, to the candy shop, to the county jail, and an old school. Much time is also spent in her very own laboratory, located in its very own wing in Buckshaw, the de Luce mansion. The adventures she gets up to are hilarious, I can tell you that much. I have to say I’m quite glad this book is only the beginning. Aside from Flavia, who is so funny in her lack of age eleven-ness, the characters in this book are all very distinct and interesting in their own way. While Flavia’s passion is chemistry, her two sisters also have interesting hobbies. Daphne likes reading, and Ophelia likes herself – but they both also like to gang up on Flavia and take revenge at every opportunity. The book starts and ends with the two parties forever retaliating against the other for the most previous heinous act. After having ridden her bike (affectionately named “Gladys”) all over town one day, Flavia trudges into the house only to find her two sisters crying on each other’s shoulders. “We thought you had drowned!” Says Ophelia. “If only it were so!” (This is a paraphrase, but you get the picture). Turns out they weren’t crying about Flavia’s absence, after all. And that pretty much sums up the relationships there. I’m curious to see where they go in further books.

Darkly comedic, well-written, well-paced, and with distinct voice and style, this is a good quick read. I laughed out loud several times, and reveled in several “aha!” moments as the story unfolded. What more should I say? If you haven’t already read it, I give this one a big recommend. Thanks to Tami for recommending it to me!