Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Toute Allure by Karen Wheeler

5 Star

There is so much to look forward to in the months ahead – to lengthening evenings, bike rides past fields of sunflowers or wild meadows of bluebells and poppies (just like the seventies Flake ad) and several months of fetes, vide greniers (car boot sales) and barbecues in friends’ gardens. And I cannot wait to get back to see if Andy Lawton has called…
After reaching the heights as a successful fashion editor, Karen said goodbye to all that and set about renovating a run-down house in rural Poitou-Charentes, in central western France, and living a simpler life. Her idyll is almost complete when she is blissfully ensconced in her fully plumbed, tiled, floored and ‘warm as the hug of a pashmina’ Maison Coquelicot – until, that is, a gang of macho Portuguese builders, a procession of Brits behaving badly and the ghosts of boyfriends past begin to arrive on her doorstep.
Karen soon finds her (dancing) feet in the small rural community when she discovers the key to acceptance is le danse country. And after a few shuffles and twirls she meets the love of her life – he has dark, shaggy hair, four paws and a wet nose…

Kathryn - 5 Star

Toute Allure started off a bit slowly for me and I was feeling a bit disappointed at the beginning but it actually didn’t take too long to get engrossed in the plot.  I just had to grasp that the pace of the story was mirroring the pace of life in rural France- so the feeling of hazy summers with the sound of cicadas soon lulled me into the story and I settled in to a great read.
Karen is lovely and natural and I warmed to her desire to bring her London life down a few notches by moving to the small French town.  Her life is her own in that she can work (as a freelance journalist) when she needs to and pick up and visit friends or go for a walk when she wants to.  Sounds pretty idyllic and I am a total sucker for that kind of lifestyle- who isn’t?

Wheeler also gave us many other characters to enjoy - from a quirky mayoress from a neighbouring town to a funny little dog who wins over our main character and basically takes over her life and the story!  I appreciated every supporting character, they all had a purpose in the storyline and in setting the scene and I laughed out loud more than once.

As I mentioned earlier I found myself sinking in to the feeling of being in rural France based on Wheeler descriptions of smells and sounds- she has a wonderful ability to bring out the senses through her words without being heavy handed with description.  Impressive as I haven’t been to France since I was ten!

This is the sequel to Wheeler’s Tout Sweet and although this novel can stand alone I’d still like to the read the first one!

Summer in the City by Candace Bushnell

2 Star

Summer is a magical time in New York City and Carrie is in love with all of it—the crazy characters in her neighborhood, the vintage-clothing boutiques, the wild parties, and the glamorous man who has swept her off her feet. Best of all, she's finally in a real writing class, taking her first steps toward fulfilling her dream. 

This sequel to The Carrie Diaries brings surprising revelations as Carrie learns to navigate her way around the Big Apple, going from being a country "sparrow"—as Samantha Jones dubs her— to the person she always wanted to be. But as it becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile her past with her future, Carrie realizes that making it in New York is much more complicated than she ever imagine.

 Lydia - 2 Star

Summer in the City picks up right where The Carrie Diaries left off: Carrie Bradshaw landing in New York City for the first time. I looked forward to this novel, having had enjoyed The Carrie Diaries, and wanted to discover how the infamous friendships from Sex in the City began, but unfortunately it just didn’t capture my attention and I actually found it irritating at times.

I found Carrie more needy, demanding and whiny and much less insightful and thoughtful than she was in her high school years.  Needless to say, this made the novel hard to read and it may not even come as a shock to some who never enjoyed Sex in the City in the first place. I’d heard these complaints about Carrie’s character before. Thankfully I had never really noticed and enjoyed the series, especially the other characters, but unfortunately their point of view and stories are stifled by Carrie’s teenage angst. I cringed so many times during this novel that I hope when revisiting the television series this doesn’t return to haunt me. 

It wasn’t just Carrie’s whining that got to me. The plot just didn’t seem to move me to keep reading, although I slugged my way through just to make sure I wouldn’t miss anything.  I didn’t. There were threads back to her old life and family which were touched on, but unfortunately never followed up on again. Her old friends were mostly left behind in Carrie’s self absorbed world which made appreciating the new friendships she was developing in New York difficult.  And I wasn’t too sure about the plausibility of them for the most part. It all felt very surface with no depth so I had a hard time believing that such different personalities along with Samantha’s huge age gap would become sociable without something bringing them all together. Although what do I know?  I’ve never moved to a new city and not known a soul, so who knows?

So, all in all, not really my favourite read.  Maybe I just expected too much, but I doubt I’d read another. I really enjoyed Sex in the City and don’t want to taint it.  The scar of the final movie is still healing.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Q&A with Monica Ali

I recently sunk into Untold Story, became immediately intrigued after a few short pages and can't wait to keep returning to it. My review will follow shortly.  Here's a Q&A with Monica from the Reading Group Guide for Untold Story.

1.  Why did you choose to write a novel inspired by Princess Diana?

Like all British women of my generation I grew up with Diana in the background. I was 13 when I watched her wedding to Prince Charles. I followed her evolution over the years into a global superstar. She was a lightening rod for so many different issues. Her appeal was extraordinarily wide, and you could see that in the crowds that gathered after her death – young and old, male and female, gay and straight, every color, every race, every creed. Some people didn’t like her at all, and accused her of being manipulative, of bringing her troubles on herself. To those people she will always be the patron saint of the self-obsessed.

I didn’t see her that way. The more I read about her, the more I admired her. When she got engaged she was 19 years old, a virgin, uneducated, intellectually and emotionally insecure, with a troubled family background and eating disorders. She was supposed to be like a lamb to the slaughter. She was meant to put up and shut up about everything. But she turned out to be tougher than anyone had imagined possible. She didn’t just curl up and die; she took her own suffering and used it to reach out to others. People responded to that. She could be headstrong and reckless at times, and she certainly didn’t follow the rules. I liked that about her.

2.  Explain what you mean when you call Untold Story afairy tale.”

It is a fairy tale, as it says at the beginning of the book! My initial idea had been for a short story – what if Diana hadn’t died, what would she have been like in her 40s? But when I started reading up about her in earnest I homed in on one particular aspect – the fantasy Diana had of living an ordinary life. For her that could never have been anything more than an idle dream. But what I decided to do was to write about a fictional princess, Lydia, who does leave fame and fortune behind and go off to live this ordinary life. It stands the traditional fairy tale on its head. An Unhappy Princess who turns into a more contented Cinderella.

3.    What drew you to set the novel in Midwestern America?

Partly I took my cue from Diana’s fantasies. She talked of moving abroad as a possible way of escaping some of the circus that surrounded her. She always felt welcome in the States, and viewed the country (incorrectly), as somewhere there was no Establishment – having aroused the disapproval of the British Establishment. She also felt that America was a country that could somehow ‘absorb’ celebrity the size of hers. 

So that was the germ of the idea, to set the novel in the States. But of course my fictional princess, Lydia, goes there under an entirely different set of circumstances. She’s living in America incognito. I chose the Midwest as Lydia needed to be away from the more cosmopolitan areas on either coast that she had known in her previous life. It also seemed in keeping with the central idea of the book – to give her a life that was ordinary, and to pose the question: what is actually important in life?

4.     To some, Untold Story might seem like a major departure from your first two novels, Brick Lane and In the Kitchen, in which immigrant life in London figures heavily. Was writing Untold Story a different kind of project than your previous work?

Brick Lane was set in the Bangladeshi community in London, my second book, Alentejo Blue was set in a Portuguese village, my third, In the Kitchen is about an English chef from the north of England. They’re all very different from each other and Untold Story is different again. Although I think what they perhaps share in common is a preoccupation with identity. For example, in In the Kitchen, the chef, Gabriel, is metaphorically and then literally stripped of his identity as his world falls apart. In Untold Story, Lydia not only has to construct a new façade of her identity, she also has to construct a new sense of self beneath that façade.

What’s important to me as a writer is to write about what interests me and to keep stretching myself as well. Untold Story has a thriller element that I hadn’t written before, and I enjoyed the challenge of that.

5.    Do you think real-life paparazzi are as morally conflicted as Grabowski? Why did you choose to make a photographer figure so centrally in the novel?

Grabowski draws a distinction between himself and the new breed of paparazzi. He came up in the old Fleet Street tradition and he thinks of himself as having some standards. He laments how those standards have now fallen away.

There’s a cat and mouse game between Grabowski and Lydia that is central to the book’s plot. But in a way what was more important to me, is the notion of complicity. Grabowski is a (lapsed) Catholic. I guess he carries our collective guilt, for the way that we (nearly all of us) suck up the details of celebrities’ private lives.

6.    Many girls grow up with the fantasy of becoming a princess. Lydia, as princess, has the opposite dream—of becoming average, living a normal life. Was that an irony that appealed to you?

I think this comes back to fairy tales. Marrying a prince – we know, because Diana showed us – is no guarantee of happiness.

We have material comforts in abundance. We no longer need carriages and glass slippers. Neither do we really believe any more in the benign transformative power of great wealth and fame (rather the reverse).

The modern Cinderella with her fast, complex life wants the simple things: independence, freedom, friends she can trust and a good man to love.  That’s what I wanted to explore.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Accidental Proposal by Matt Dunn

4 Star

Ed Middleton is ecstatic: he's just got engaged to his girlfriend, Sam, and he couldn't be happier. At least, he thinks he's engaged. The thing is, it was Sam who did the proposing, and the more he thinks about it, the less he's sure that she was actually asking him to marry her. She could have just been asking the question, you know...hypothetically.
As the wedding day draws nearer, Ed becomes more and more uneasy. Sam keeps disappearing off for furtive meetings and private phone calls, and when he spies her going into a pub with a man he's never seen before, all his old jealousies and insecurities threaten to re-surface. It's the perfect time for Ed's unhinged ex-girlfriend, Jane, to show up on his doorstep.
Meanwhile, Dan - Ed's best-friend and soon-to-be-best-man - is determined to throw him a stag night to remember. And when a severely hung-over Ed wakes up the morning after the night before to see a second dent in the pillow, it seems as if Dan has got his wish.
Will Ed manage to find out the truth about his stag night as well as the identity of Sam's secret man? Or will an accidental proposal lead them both down the aisle to a wedding neither of them ever imagined?

Kathryn - 4 Star

I really enjoy reading lad lit and Matt Dunn has never disappointed me.  There’s something very enticing about getting a sneak peak at these foreign thought processes!

The Accidental Proposal is funny- it has to be funny given that the premise is that our main character Ed thinks that he may have become engaged  to his girlfriend…may have done because he isn’t sure if she actually asked him to marry her and as he didn’t answer her he is now unsure of their official status.  The whole story follows Ed as he tries to determine (without actually asking her directly) if they are indeed engaged and then them trying to plan a wedding without discussing any of the details together.  It’s full of misunderstandings, gross errors in judgement and silly situations. I laughed out loud many times and Ed has the usual skeptical sidekick to create diversion from the serious sappiness of love & marriage!

My only complaint was that I found Ed’s angst a bit repetitive and felt that he had the same conversation with friend Dan a few times.  This was actually distracting but I’m not sure if I would have noticed it if I hadn’t read the novel so quickly? 

Matt Dunn doesn’t disappoint in The Accidental Proposal!

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Art of Forgetting by Camile Noe Pagan

4 Star

Marissa Rogers never wanted to be an alpha; beta suited her just fine. Taking charge without taking credit had always paid off: vaulting her to senior editor at a glossy magazine; keeping the peace with her critical, weight-obsessed mother; and enjoying the benefits of being best friends with gorgeous, charismatic, absolutely alpha Julia Ferrar.

And then Julia gets hit by a cab. She survives with minor obvious injuries, but brain damage steals her memory and alters her personality, possibly forever. Suddenly, Marissa is thrown into the role of alpha friend. As Julia struggles to regain her memory- dredging up issues Marissa would rather forget, including the fact that Julia asked her to abandon the love of her life ten years ago- Marissa's own equilibrium is shaken.

With the help of a dozen girls, she reluctantly agrees to coach in an after-school running program. There, Marissa uncovers her inner confidence and finds the courage to reexamine her past and take control of her future.

The Art of Forgetting is a story about the power of friendship, the memories and myths that hold us back, and the delicate balance between forgiving and forgetting.

Lydia - 4 Star

The Art of Forgetting is a novel about the ultimate test of friendship. When Julia, the more dominant force in the duo, suffers a brain injury leaving her forgetful along with drastic personality changes, Marissa suffers along with her.  The loss of her best friend leaves her reeling and questioning everything now that Julia’s filter seems to be gone and she keeps reliving the past and trudging up old issues.

I enjoyed Marissa’s character and seeing her grow without Julia’s constant overbearing input. Taken under Julia’s wing as an impressionable young teenager, Marissa grows complacent in her role and never takes time to find herself or figure things out without someone else’s input. I liked how her self development and independence mirrored Julia’s newfound dependence through out the novel as they switched roles. 

I thought both characters were well developed and I enjoyed the ‘one that got away’ storyline and how the history between the two friends and Marissa’s ex-boyfriend was slowly revealed.  Not only is this novel about forgetting, but forgiving as well and I loved how Julia’s brain injury forced them to deal with past issues that had never completely healed. 

This novel never progressed entirely as I expected. I thought the conclusion was satisfying and the entire concept fascinating. What if my best friend was suddenly replaced by a stranger, albeit one that looked exactly like her? What if I had to learn to love her all over again?  What if we didn’t get along anymore? What would I do? This novel was great for questioning both life and love, and especially friendship.    

I did wish the relationship with the sister was developed a little further and I was surprised by how little the novel actually had to do with ballet and although ballet isn’t one of my most favourite things in the world, I think I would have liked to see a bit more considering the dominant theme the cover insinuated. 

Pick up The Art of Forgetting today if you’re looking for a great one about friendship!  I look forward to reading more from Camile Noe Pagan.

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Saturday, July 9, 2011

My Dear I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young

4 Star

From the day in 1907 that eleven-year-old Riley Purefoy meets Nadine Waveney, he takes in the difference between their two families -- his, working class; hers, posh and artistic -- and vows to make himself worthy of the lovely Nadine’s affections.
Nadine’s mother has other ideas for her daughter. Though she tolerates Riley as a young boy, nearly a decade later she attempts to stop the budding romance between the two teenagers. Angry and humiliated, Riley enlists at the nearest recruiting station, and reports for training the very next day.
While Riley and his commanding officer, Peter Locke, fight for their country and their survival in the trenches of Flanders, their loved ones await their return. Peter’s wife, Julia, undertakes a daily ritual to prepare for her beloved husband’s homecoming. Peter’s cousin Rose, with all hope of marriage marching off to war, becomes a nurse at the nearby Queen’s Hospital.
Nadine and Riley’s bond is tested by a terrible injury, and even more so by the ambitious yet imperfect rehabilitation that follows.

Lydia - 4 Star

I found My Dear I Wanted to Tell You equal parts fascinating and horrifying. Although heavy with romance and war, this novel portrayed none of the romance of war. It took me a while to sink into the plot and the characters, but once I did they appeared in my thoughts when I put the novel down and although I enjoyed this novel and thought about it when I wasn’t reading it, I felt it could have been much more captivating.

I didn’t anticipate this war story to be so heavy on the romance, and at times I wasn’t too sure of Riley and Nadine’s love, feeling it was never fully developed before he heads off to war.  This storyline however was diluted juxtaposed against the unravelling of Julia and Peter’s relationship, and Rose’s lack of marital options, without which I suspect this novel wouldn’t have worked.  

This novel further opened my eyes to how an entire generation was altered and affected by the war, especially how women’s roles shifted during the void the men left. This was especially evident with the dotting housewife, Julia, struggling with the feeling that she had no purpose with her husband away and striving to be the perfect housewife for his return.  I loved how Rose, who was never expected to marry and felt ineffective because of it, suddenly felt she had a place in the world.

I was left wondering throughout how all the characters were going to piece their stunted lives back together, whether they even could or wanted to. I thought the ending was well written, but will refrain from explaining why as not to ruin anything, I did find the last scenes interesting and even left me wanting a bit more, although I don’t know if it would have even been appropriate to go beyond the point the author did. 

The plastic surgery plot line that developed was fascinating. The unveiling of the developing surgery was written so eloquently that it never seemed too heavy on medical jargon and I understood it completely.  I was also intrigued with the psychology that young Riley uses to keep himself afloat and to see how different his reaction to the war is to Peter’s. 

The prose took some getting used to and not having read any of Young’s previous works, I’m not sure if it’s her style, but the lengthy descriptive sentences with excessive comma’s aggravated me at times, but that could have been just me. I like description intertwined in the story, not thrown so blatantly at me. This probably went hand in hand with the slower start I found to this novel.

If you’re looking for a romantic war time novel with some interesting medical history, check out My Dear I Wanted to Tell You. 

Friday, July 1, 2011

Best Staged Plans by Claire Cook

5 Star

As a professional home stager, Sandy Sullivan is an expert at transforming cluttered rooms into attractive houses ready for sale. If only reinventing her life were as easy as choosing the perfect paint color. She’s eager to put her family’s suburban Boston home on the market, to downsize, and to simplify her own life. But she must first deal with her foot-dragging husband and her grown son, who has moved back home after college to inhabit the basement “bat cave.”

After reading them the riot act, Sandy takes a job staging a boutique hotel in Atlanta recently acquired by her best friend’s boyfriend. The good news is that she can spend time with her recently married daughter, Shannon, in Atlanta. The bad news is that Shannon finds herself heading to Boston for job training, leaving Sandy and her southern son-in-law, Chance, as reluctant roommates. If that’s not complicated enough, Sandy begins to suspect that her best friend’s boyfriend may be seeing another woman on the side.

Lydia - 5 Star

I really enjoyed Best Staged Plans. It was easy to read with warm characters, snappy dialogue and a story line I found interesting and somehow relatable, even without having any knowledge or experience with empty nest syndrome.     

I loved Sandy’s character. She was warm and funny and never takes herself too seriously, which always leads to humorous situations. Even with not being a huge fan of TV design shows, I found her career interesting and liked the home decorating tips described along the way. Sandy’s worries and frustrations felt real and her nagging had images of my own mother floating through my head and caused a few giggles along with cringes.  

I was surprised at how much of my own childhood this novel brought back as Sandy travelled down memory lane with her own kids, which put numerous smiles on my face. I did find certain memories of her and her best friend’s childhood confusing and I had to stop and wonder about their ages because I had similar experiences with my friends such as the mood rings and magic eight ball, but maybe these things just get recycled over time. Unfortunately it did jolt me out of the story a couple of times though.

I loved all the relationships she had from her husband and children to her best friend and found them warm and loving even when there were kinks along the way and I rooted for Sandy to work her way through her worries. Some of the scenes where she was reminiscing with her husband about the first years of their marriage and their children’s antics growing up were so tender and warm that it tugged at my heart strings when she felt underappreciated and aggravated. I thought Cook portrayed the love and frustration that can occur in a relationship perfectly.

The dialogue in this novel sparkled and popped and the writer in me studied every line. It didn’t matter who was speaking or who they were speaking to, witty dialogue peppered this novel.  

Full of heart and humour, you’ll devour Best Staged Plans. It’s the perfect summer beach read.

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