June 18, 2018

Book Review: Matchmaking for Beginners by Maddie Dawson

Marnie MacGraw wants an ordinary life—a husband, kids, and a minivan in the suburbs. Now that she’s marrying the man of her dreams, she’s sure this is the life she’ll get. Then Marnie meets Blix Holliday, her fiancĂ©’s irascible matchmaking great-aunt who’s dying, and everything changes—just as Blix told her it would.

When her marriage ends after two miserable weeks, Marnie is understandably shocked. She’s even more astonished to find that she’s inherited Blix’s Brooklyn brownstone along with all of Blix’s unfinished “projects”: the heartbroken, oddball friends and neighbors running from happiness. Marnie doesn’t believe she’s anything special, but Blix somehow knew she was the perfect person to follow in her matchmaker footsteps.

And Blix was also right about some things Marnie must learn the hard way: love is hard to recognize, and the ones who push love away often are the ones who need it most.

Matchmaking for Beginners is a very charming book, much like the eccentric and otherworldly Blix.  She sees people’s auras and colors and has a sixth sense of which person should go with whom. Knowing that she’s about to die, she bequeaths her Brooklyn house to Marnie, her nephew’s ex, whom she’s only met once. Along with the house, Marnie inherits Blix’s friends and Blix’s magical matchmaking gift. Marnie is at first resistant but eventually, she finds that she was meant for this life.

“You need to forget what society has told you about life and expectations, and don’t let anybody make you pretend.  You are enough, just the way you are – do you hear me? You have many gifts.  Many, many gifts.”

Although the book ends happily, some aspects of the story just felt wrong to me. First is Blix’s declaration to Marnie that she was meant for a “big life” as opposed to the ordinary life Marnie saw for herself – being married, domestic bliss, a job, children, etc. But by “big life”, Blix meant a life in Brooklyn in a charming brownstone with a collection of bohemian friends.  That doesn’t sound very “big” to me.  To me, “big life” means she’s going to find the cure for cancer or have adventures in the Amazon or jump out of planes. Suburbs = small.  Brooklyn = big.  I found nothing especially “big” about the life the author described.  

Secondly, it really grated on my nerves when Blix, and then Marnie, insisted on the introverted Patrick attending parties. The author made it seem like preferring to be around one person at a time versus lots of people as pathetically sad.  Only when he came upstairs to go to their parties was he deemed saved by their extroverted ways.  As an introvert, I found nothing wrong with Patrick preferring to hang with one friend at a time. I hate it when people insist that something must be wrong with me for not wanting to be around lots of people all the time.  This of course is my personal preference. I just saw these scenes in a different way than the author intended. I felt really bad for Patrick being forced to be sociable when he did not want to be.  Blix and Marnie should just have accepted Patrick just the way he was – the way true friends should.

“There is so much fear to wade through before you get to love.”

“The subversive truth about love is that it really is the big deal everyone makes it out to be, and it’s not some form of security or an insurance policy against loneliness.  It’s everything, love is.  It runs the whole universe.”

June 11, 2018

Book Review: Half Bad by Sally Green

In modern-day England, witches live alongside humans: White witches, who are good; Black witches, who are evil; and sixteen-year-old Nathan, who is both. Nathan’s father is the world’s most powerful and cruel Black witch, and his mother is dead. He is hunted from all sides. Trapped in a cage, beaten and handcuffed, Nathan must escape before his seventeenth birthday, at which point he will receive three gifts from his father and come into his own as a witch—or else he will die. But how can Nathan find his father when his every action is tracked, when there is no one safe to trust—not even family, not even the girl he loves?

In the tradition of Patrick Ness and Markus Zusak, Half Bad is a gripping tale of alienation and the indomitable will to survive, a story that will grab hold of you and not let go until the very last page.

I dare you to read the first 3% of Half Bad and not immediately want to drop everything else in your life. Because that happened to me and unfortunately, I was at work so spent an unbearable but delicious few hours until I got off, anticipating how I was going to tear into the following 97% for the rest of the night.

What hooked me so hard and so fast? I knew very little about this book before downloading it.  Witches.  That’s it. That’s all I knew. So when the novel opened with an arresting second person POV– putting me in the place of the boy in the cage - I was instantly riveted.  How was this poor creature going to escape his impossible situation and how did he end up in a cage in the first place? I literally woke up at 1:00 a.m. in the morning just to continue reading this book. 

The white witches are considered “good” and the black witches “bad.” The dichotomy is very stark and troubling as it seems to be along racial lines as well. The white witches seem to be, well very white Caucasians and the baddest of the black witches is darker-skinned. Green stops short of making an overt statement about good/bad white-skinned/dark-skinned, but perhaps she’ll develop this further in the sequels.  

Inspite of the great amount of wince-inducing violence, mostly directed at our protagonist, Nathan, and my not-so-clear understanding of how this magical world operated, Half Bad was an exciting discovery. Doubly so because I instantly got the next book, Half Wild, as soon I finished reading the last page.  

April 30, 2018

Book Review: How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry

Nightingale Books, nestled on the main street in an idyllic little village, is a dream come true for book lovers—a cozy haven and welcoming getaway for the literary-minded locals. But owner Emilia Nightingale is struggling to keep the shop open after her beloved father’s death, and the temptation to sell is getting stronger. The property developers are circling, yet Emilia’s loyal customers have become like family, and she can’t imagine breaking the promise she made to her father to keep the store alive.

There’s Sarah, owner of the stately Peasebrook Manor, who has used the bookshop as an escape in the past few years, but it now seems there’s a very specific reason for all those frequent visits. Next is roguish Jackson, who, after making a complete mess of his marriage, now looks to Emilia for advice on books for the son he misses so much. And the forever shy Thomasina, who runs a pop-up restaurant for two in her tiny cottage—she has a crush on a man she met in the cookbook section, but can hardly dream of working up the courage to admit her true feelings.

Enter the world of Nightingale Books for a serving of romance, long-held secrets, and unexpected hopes for the future—and not just within the pages on the shelves. How to Find Love in a Bookshop is the delightful story of Emilia, the unforgettable cast of customers whose lives she has touched, and the books they all cherish.

All the diamonds in the world are nothing in comparison.  Books are more precious than jewels.

Every once in a while, I just crave a novel about or set in a book store because 1) I know it’s going to celebrate books and speak my language and 2) I sometimes pine for the days when I used to work in a book store and the close friendships I formed there. Book people are the best people there are.

"'It must happen to you all the time,' said Sarah. 'People telling you how much a book has meant.'

"'Yes,' said Julius. 'Its why I do what I do.  There’s a book for everyone, even if they don’t think there is.  A book that reaches in and grabs your soul.'”

So of course when I heard the title of this book I immediately perked up – I just had to read it. I thought I knew what it was going to be like and how it was going to go – but in the most pleasant way, it surprised me. With a title like that, you think it’s going to be all meet-cutes in a small town but in actuality, there are some sad moments.  Unrequited love, tragedy, and messy details of real life. But there’s also enchantment and, yes, happily ever afters, some of which were unexpected. 

And she knew from all the books she had ever read, that life was complicated, that love sprang from nowhere sometimes, and that forbidden love wasn’t always something to be ashamed of.

Not only did this novel satisfy my itch for novels set in bookstores, but it also spoke to my love for food and makeovers. If that combination sounds appealing – then you MUST read this book!

April 9, 2018

Book Review: Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan

Sophie’s husband James is a loving father, a handsome man, a charismatic and successful public figure. And yet he stands accused of a terrible crime. Sophie is convinced he is innocent and desperate to protect her precious family from the lies that threaten to rip them apart. 

Kate is the lawyer hired to prosecute the case: an experienced professional who knows that the law is all about winning the argument. And yet Kate seeks the truth at all times. She is certain James is guilty and is determined he will pay for his crimes.

Who is right about James? Sophie or Kate? And is either of them informed by anything more than instinct and personal experience? Despite her privileged upbringing, Sophie is well aware that her beautiful life is not inviolable. She has known it since she and James were first lovers, at Oxford, and she witnessed how easily pleasure could tip into tragedy.

Most people would prefer not to try to understand what passes between a man and a woman when they are alone: alone in bed, alone in an embrace, alone in an elevator… Or alone in the moonlit courtyard of an Oxford college, where a girl once stood before a boy, heart pounding with excitement, then fear. Sophie never understood why her tutorial partner Holly left Oxford so abruptly. What would she think, if she knew the truth?

There is a big “twist” in Anatomy of a Scandal, one that I did see coming as soon as the first flashback is introduced. However, predicting the twist did not make it any less of a pageturner. There are other surprises in store for the reader, not the least of which is if James is truly guilty of what he is charged with. Some of my curiosity derives from following a case through the English criminal system, albeit a fictional one. I was surprised, for instance, to learn that barristers still wear old-fashioned robes and wigs in court, even the female ones. 

As the novel begins, it at first seems that we are meant to find Kate as our touchstone in the story – the crusading prosecutor determined to seek justice. The wife of the accused, Sophie, initially seems like a cold, unsympathetic character, who was lived, along with her husband, a too-perfect life all these years. But as the story reveals one twist after another, Sophie, who might have been a calculating or complicit at first becomes richer with dimension. There are more to the characters than meet the eye.

Scandalous yes, but also an anatomical glimpse into a genuinely realistic scenario apropos for these times. 

“But the truth is, women are often scared of antagonizing their assailants or they feel conflicted; not so very long ago they may have been charmed by them. And we women aim to please. It is hardwired into us that we should placate and mollify-bend our will to that of men….

“And so, yes, a young woman whose boss has touched her up or whose supposed friend has kissed her might well seek to minimize what has happened.  To think the best: that it was an out-of-character mistake, best forgotten or brushed over, whatever the pounding of her heart-and the shot of fear coursing through her-might betray.

“But she is a fool, and it is no wonder.

“Men can make fools of us all.”

March 19, 2018

Book Review: Everless by Sara Holland

In the kingdom of Sempera, time is currency—extracted from blood, bound to iron, and consumed to add time to one’s own lifespan. The rich aristocracy, like the Gerlings, tax the poor to the hilt, extending their own lives by centuries.

No one resents the Gerlings more than Jules Ember. A decade ago, she and her father were servants at Everless, the Gerlings’ palatial estate, until a fateful accident forced them to flee in the dead of night. When Jules discovers that her father is dying, she knows that she must return to Everless to earn more time for him before she loses him forever.

But going back to Everless brings more danger—and temptation—than Jules could have ever imagined. Soon she’s caught in a tangle of violent secrets and finds her heart torn between two people she thought she’d never see again. Her decisions have the power to change her fate—and the fate of time itself.

If you've ever seen the movie In Time, then you would get a glimmer of this fantasy version of a world where time is money. It all stems from the origin story of the Sorceress and the Alchemist, long, long ago, when the Alchemist somehow converted blood into time and tricked the Sorceress into giving away her heart (literally). I didn't much understand this fable but it is very prettily told.  In Everless, the Gerlings are the rich and Jules is one of the poor.  There is Roan who is the beloved golden son and Liam, the cruel, angry one, and if you don't see a love triangle coming then you have never read a young adult novel.

The premise lured me, but the very impetuous/kinda maddening Jules and the confusing origin myth inspired only lukewarm feelings upon completion.  But complete it I did so I would rate Everless as a mildly pleasant diversion.

Oh, and it is the beginning of series.

March 12, 2018

Book Review: The English Wife by Lauren Willig

Annabelle and Bayard Van Duyvil live a charmed life in New York: he’s the scion of an old Knickerbocker family, she grew up in a Tudor house in England, they had a fairytale romance in London, they have three-year-old twins on whom they dote, and he’s recreated her family home on the banks of the Hudson and named it Illyria. Yes, there are rumors that she’s having an affair with the architect, but rumors are rumors and people will gossip. But then Bayard is found dead with a knife in his chest on the night of their Twelfth Night Ball, Annabelle goes missing, presumed drowned, and the papers go mad. Bay’s sister, Janie, forms an unlikely alliance with a reporter to try to uncover the truth, convinced that Bay would never have killed his wife, that it must be a third party, but the more she learns about her brother and his wife, the more everything she thought she knew about them starts to unravel. Who were her brother and his wife, really? And why did her brother die with the name George on his lips?

I have been such a fan of Lauren Willig since The Ashford Affair, The Other Daughter, as well as The Forgotten Room.  The English Wife has the same unputdownable quality of her previous books. I read it in 2 sittings, fighting, then ultimately succumbing to, sleep at one point.

The novel opens in the middle of the glamorous Twelfth Night Ball just before Bay is found dead, with his wife, Annabelle, having disappeared. Their beautiful, privileged life is seen from the outside by Bay's sister, Janie, often overlooked and pitied. The narrative alternates between the aftermath of that night and the years before, starting with how Annabelle and Bay met.

Nothing is what it seems - let me get that out of the way.  The theme of Twelfth Night is not a throwaway detail at all - let that prepare you for having your expectations turned upside down and inside out, not once, not twice, but multiple times as it did mine.  Of course we find out that Bay and Annabelle's perfect marriage was anything but.  Just when I felt sure I knew how the story would turn, it goes in an unforeseen path.  Just when I thought I had pinpointed the murderer, the next chapter would undermine that theory and inspire a new one. 

Though the book is mostly tragic, it does end in a happy ending for some. Yet, I couldn't shake a haunted feeling as I read the last chapter - hoping for a sudden twist that sadly did not happen.

March 5, 2018

Book Review: The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

It isn’t paranoia if it’s really happening . . .

Anna Fox lives alone—a recluse in her New York City home, unable to venture outside. She spends her day drinking wine (maybe too much), watching old movies, recalling happier times . . . and spying on her neighbors.

Then the Russells move into the house across the way: a father, a mother, their teenage son. The perfect family. But when Anna, gazing out her window one night, sees something she shouldn’t, her world begins to crumble—and its shocking secrets are laid bare.

What is real? What is imagined? Who is in danger? Who is in control? In this diabolically gripping thriller, no one—and nothing—is what it seems.

At about the 75% mark, I gasped out loud and my mouth hung open for a minute.  "Whoa, whaaat?" I exclaimed to the otherwise empty room.  And then furiously debated whether to reread the entire book up until that point, only to decide in favor of pushing forward to the finish in order to find out what happens next.  Really, that's all you need to know. 

A.J. Finn doesn't try to hide his influences - As soon as the reader is introduced to agoraphobic Anna Fox, the film noir references start rolling in, with a particular emphasis on Hitchcock. The title and description immediately recall Rear Window. The title also neatly fits into the proliferation of "girl" thrillers (Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train) but now, thankfully, the protagonist has matured. She has graduated to a "woman."

Three previous works kept coming to mind when reading The Woman in the Window: The Girl on the Train, Rear Window and Vertigo. Despite these heavy influences, however, my ever-changing theories about whodunit and why did not bear fruit. Yes, many elements reminded me of something I've read before or seen before, but my mind was still blown and I can definitely say, "I did not see that coming."

February 26, 2018

Book Review: The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

Source: Vine

Publication date for this edition: February 18, 2018

If you are like me then the only reason you’ve heard of The King in Yellow is because of HBO’s first season of True Detective. Otherwise, you’re probably a fan of H.P. Lovecraft, who cited Chambers’s collection of stories as “One of the greatest weird tales ever written,” and a strong influence in his own work. Until True Detective, The King in Yellow was a rather obscure work that enjoyed a cult following. The strange, supernatural show’s repeated allusions and references led to a new and more mainstream appreciation.

The King in Yellow is a play whose second act reveals such terrible truths that all who read it descend into madness. If that doesn’t arouse one’s rabid curiosity, nothing will.

Robert Chambers wrote a collection of stories, first published in 1895, also called The King in Yellow, which are connected by the same-titled play.

This particular edition is indeed “deluxe,” as it is quite handsome, with a beautiful abstract cover in black and gold and mustard yellow endpapers. This is a gift for the weird fiction aficionado in your life.  HOWEVER, it only contains four of the original published stories in the following order: "The Repairer of Reputations," "The Mask," "In the Court of the Dragon," and "The Yellow Sign". The collection’s renewed popularity is acknowledged in the jacket, which mentions True Detective.

Keeping in mind that this was written and published in the turn of the last, last century, I had a bit of struggle trying to comprehend the world I was thrown into in the opening story, "The Repairer of Reputations." It read as a dystopian novel as imagined in the 1800s. The characters live in 1920s America, which is now a military state. Suicide has been legalized  and government Lethal Chambers have been built for those who wish to commit that final act. You would think in the first few pages that the story will revolve around that – but it doesn’t. Our narrator is in fact obsessed about the play, The King in Yellow, which he first read as he was convalescing after a fall from his horse.

…I cannot forget Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the lake of Hali; and my mind will bear for ever the memory of the Pallid Mask.  I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth- a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow… It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there … It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect.

After this tantalizing description, one of course now wants to read this infamous play. But although the main character in each of the four stories either mention or discuss it – the actual play is an elusive cipher. The reader, perhaps fortunately, never gets to read it for herself. Instead our horrified curiosity grows with each short story – Mystery is The King in Yellow’s secret power.

"The Repairer of Reputations" needs to be read multiple times – at least I needed to. Like the best weird fiction, the story is fully in the world within its pages. The first-person narrator’s point of view is slowly revealed to be twisted, and the reader comes to the shocking conclusion of just how unreliable he is.

The second story, "The Mask," is a more straightforward speculative tale, about eternal life in creativity . The King in Yellow again shows up in the plot – but it is not as central as in "The Repairer of Reputations." "The and Mask and "The Yellow Sign" are actually more connected than any of the other stories, both featuring artists, one of which shows up in both stories.  I suggest reading them in that order.

There are threads running throughout all four stories: madness, creativity and death. The King in Yellow – the play and the fictional character - hovers as a frightening, enigmatic shadow in the background. Because the actual text of the play is only revealed in snatches, the reader comes away never fully satisfied. What can be so terrifying yet beautiful that will strike me with “lunatic despair” upon revelation? One’s imagination runs rampant. I want to see the terrible truth for myself -which is perhaps madness after all.