May/June 2015 Roundup

I’ve taken a month-long hiatus from the blog, sort of by accident.  Every now and then I get major blogging burn-out and I’ve been very meticulous about keeping up with my reviews in the last year and hit a point recently where I just could not make myself care.  But, as is always case, I end up missing blogging after a while and drag myself out of the funk to write something up.

May and June were not particularly incredible reading months, by any means, but I’ve been working on my Read Harder challenge and some of those books tend to be a bit on the slow side for me, as they require me to step outside my comfort zone.  Also, I’ve been enduring some rather frustrating toddler sleep struggles which have left me wiped out in the evenings and cut into a lot of my evening me time.  In any case, I’m hoping to get back on track with both reading and blogging as this summer continues, but we’ll see if life cooperates with me.

Books Read in May:

It Felt Like a Kiss by Sarra Manning (reread)

Blankets by Craig Thompson

Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend by Sarra Manning (audio)

Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (audio)

Books Read in June:

All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting by Jennifer Senior (audio)

Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Trade Me by Courtney Milan

In the Works: I’m currently reading Endlessly by Kiersten White and listening to The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa (I guess I’m having a YA paranormal moment).  Not sure what is up next, but I’ve got a bunch of stuff I’m looking forward to on hold from the library, so we’ll see what becomes available first.  Blogging-wise, I’ve got a ton of reviews to catch up on, so probably look for some mini (or mini-mini) reviews when I get around to writing them.  I also hope to do a mid-year recap of the Read Harder challenge as I’ve made some really awesome progress with it.  I also want to jump in on Top Ten Tuesdays when the topics are fun, but that is kind of my last priority, so we’ll see how it goes.

What’s going on in your reading/blogging/regular lives?

 

Illusions of Fate- Kiersten White

I picked this book up on a whim (and also that gorgeous cover) because I’d enjoyed Kiersten White’s story in My True Love Gave to Me and had promised to try out some of her other works.  This is a historical fantasy-paranormal romance mash-up.  Jessamin is in school in Albion (a very English-feeling country) and works herself to the bone trying to get the education she needs to rise out of poverty and servitude.  Jessamin is from Melei, an island colony of Albion, and her dark skin, gender, and national origin put her at a disadvantage for surviving and succeeding in Albion and in school.  Things change for Jessamin when she meets the handsome, rich, and mysterious Finn and is introduced to his world– the wealth, the politics, and the magic.  But, of course, their relationship is in peril due to Finn’s mortal enemy who will stop at nothing to obtain the magical secrets and power that he believes Finn possesses.

What I liked: This was smart fluff– somehow managing to be both serious and fluffy at the same time.  Both Jessamin and Finn are YA stereotypes, but somehow they are more than just the cliche.  Jessamin is smart and beautiful and doesn’t fit in, while Finn is rich and has a paranormal secret and wants to protect Jessamin from his complicated and dangerous political/paranormal dealings.  And they’re destined by fate to be together… except Jessamin is determined to not leave anything to fate and demands to make her own choices and to be in control of her own destiny.  I liked Jessamin’s stubborn determination to get an education and make it on her own without accepting handouts from anyone.  I also enjoyed the post-colonial dialogue in the book and the plot twist at the end surprised me.

What I felt meh about:  Most of this story skimmed the surface when there was definite potential for more depth– more political intrigue, more romance, more character development.

All in all: I have gone on to read more Kiersten White because of this book.  White is clever and writes diverse characters and is just plain fun to read.

Girl Before a Mirror- Liza Palmer

I was super excited about this book.  I’d read Liza Palmer in the past and liked her books and saw the potential for her to write my new favorite book.  The premise sounded interesting– a 40 year old woman turning things around at work, in her love life, and in her friendships and family relationships.  The early reviews were mostly 4 and 5 stars and from reviewers whom I trust to approach the work of a familiar author with critical eyes.  All that to say, I had very high hopes coming into this book and I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite as disappointed with a book as I was with this one.

Girl Before a Mirror is about Anna.  Anna has just turned 40, is divorced and has been on a dating timeout for a couple of years, and works in advertising.  She’s been trying to reshape her life– getting rid of toxic relationships and trying to go after what she really wants.  One thing she really wants is a big, important account at work.  She’s tired of getting no respect for working on ads for women’s products.  She gets a great idea to pitch to Lumineux Shower Gel, to totally rebrand the under-the-radar item and get it into every woman’s shopping cart.  She figures if this is a success, she has a shot at landing Quincy Pharmaceuticals, the parent company of Lumineux.  Part of her ad campaign involves getting a romance novel cover model to be the man in the Lumineux ads.  So off she and her younger coworker, Sasha, go to Phoenix to attend RomCom, the romance novel convention.  In Phoenix, Anna meets Lincoln, a consultant in Phoenix on business and the two hit it off quickly, but while they find intimacy between one another easy, true commitment is another story.  These events set the background to Anna’s journey of self-discovery, as she tries to remake herself into the woman she wants to be, free of the insecurities of her youth.

All of that sounds like a book I would have liked to read, but I did not like reading this book at all.  The plot was very convoluted.  The ad campaign made very little sense to me– its tagline was “just be” and it was supposed to be about women accepting themselves as is, and this somehow had something to do with romance novels and the male models on their covers.  Anna’s relationship with Lincoln felt like instalove.  They meet in the hotel bar, barely talk, then end up making out in the elevator, and suddenly they’re sleeping together and talking about their insecurities and thinking about love.  All over the course of a couple of days.  I don’t want to dismiss whirlwind relationships, but these are two very closed-off people with walls built up all around them.  It was impossible for me to buy that they reached the level of emotional intimacy that they did so quickly and with so few interactions that weren’t just sex.  In addition, most of Anna’s friend/work relationships seemed to suffer from the same feeling of false intimacy.  Anna and Sasha declare themselves friends, but I didn’t really see the building of that relationship.  They are working closely enough together that it seemed reasonable for them to become friends and they acted like friends in the end, but the close confidences and intimacies between the two happened before it felt natural for them to occur, especially with Anna being so afraid to let people in.  On top of Anna’s work and her love life, there is a side plot about Anna’s brother, Ferdie, who ends up in drug rehab and both his problems and Anna’s issues all end up being blamed on their parents who just sort of magically appear as awful and absent people midway into the book.

All of these threads were going on and weren’t handled in way that made it easy to keep things straight… at times I felt like I was missing something– a chapter, a previous book, a conversation, something– that would have explained why Anna felt or acted in certain ways.  The issue with her childhood and parents felt like it came out of nowhere.  And there is a scene where she is rebuffed by the big name romance novelist for dismissing romance novels and for the life of me I couldn’t remember a time where Anna verbally dismissed romance novels.  After all, it was her (and Sasha’s) idea to come to RomCom in the first place.

Palmer tries very hard to make important points about how society undervalues women– as consumers, as workers, as people, as readers.  I nodded my head at most of these points– at how women’s products aren’t important advertising accounts, yet women are the ones spending money.  How ads aimed at women talk down to them or try to make them feel inadequate, rather than trying to speak to them like equals worthy of great things.  How romance novels or pop music are routinely dismissed as trivial or guilty pleasures, when there is value in stories about love and value in pleasure, no matter its source.  But… as important as these points are, they felt out of place in this book.  They are things Anna thinks or talks about, but they didn’t feel organically incorporated into the story.  It isn’t necessary to have Anna say advertising is sexist because it is obvious from the way her bosses treat her accounts, for example.

I left this book feeling like I had read a first draft, like there was something to be fleshed out of this story, but it hadn’t happened yet.  I generally enjoy introspective, smart chick lit and I feel like this was an attempt to be just that, but the lack of cohesion in the plot, the characters, and the deeper message left me disappointed.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post- emily m. danforth

Cameron Post lives in small-town Montana in the early 1990s and is just discovering and exploring her attraction to girls when her parents die and her aunt, Ruth, moves to Montana to care for Cameron.  Ruth has different ideas of what is appropriate behavior for Cameron and is a bit bewildered by Cameron in general.  Ruth is more traditional and conservative and is very involved in her evangelical Christian church.  Cameron is able to coast and hide her lesbianism from everyone.  That is, until she meets Coley Taylor.  Coley and Cameron become friends, but their relationship is super-charged and intense and eventually it leads to some sexual experimentation.  However, they get caught and Coley blames Cameron for everything, insisting she’s been seduced and manipulated.  Ruth sends Cameron off to a de-gaying Christian school, called Promise, out in the Montana wilderness.  Cameron goes into survival mode and has to decide for herself who she wants to be in the face of a system determined to eradicate part of her identity.

There is so much to like about this book.  Cameron felt like a well-developed and authentic teen.  She drinks, smokes pot, shoplifts, and experiments with sex… and with the exception of being shipped off to Promise, there aren’t any real earth-shattering consequences for her rebellious behavior.  She loves movies, swimming, usually ends up being one of the guys, and is quite sarcastic, but there is always a feeling of isolation for her.  One thing that made Cameron different from some of the other LGBTQ characters I’ve read in YA is that she doesn’t really struggle with coming to terms with her own sexuality.  She’s attracted to women, not so much men (though she does give kissing a boy a half-hearted try), she’s a lesbian and that’s the end of that.  For Cameron it is much more a struggle with the outside world and being able to present her true self, sexuality and all, to other people.  In a way, she has a bit more freedom after being sent off to school… her actions and feelings are out in the open and she is able to make friends with a few people who are happy with the whole package.

Not to excuse the reprehensible goal of Promise, but this school wasn’t really what I expected it was going to be.  It was portrayed with a lot of nuance… it’s not a clear-cut horrible place, nor is it the cure that its leaders hope it is.  The intentions of the school’s leaders, Lydia and Rick, are not evil.  They really believe they are saving their students from a worse fate if they change them and they aren’t abusive or neglectful.  Perhaps the best way to see Rick and Lydia is as misunderstanding.  They want to help, but approach it in a way that fundamentally misunderstands the nature of homosexuality.  There is a lot of therapy and pseudoscience, which of course can be dangerous, but Cameron is strong and finds a way to stand against it, while complying with the rules and keeping herself afloat.  An awful way to live, for sure, but I think there are parts of the therapy and self-reflection that were beneficial to Cameron, whose grief over the loss of her parents and anger with Ruth and Coley need to be addressed so that she can move on.  At the same time, the message of the therapy and the school is that there is a part of Cameron’s identity that needs to be eliminated or changed and while Cameron doesn’t really question who she is in the face of it, it does take its toll and wears on her.  We see the harm the school can do much more in Cameron’s classmates, who believe that who they are and how they feel is sinful and that they must change who they are at the core in order to be accepted by God.

Another highlight of this book was its setting– both in time and place.  The events of this book didn’t take place that long ago (1992), but it is amazing to see how different Cameron’s experience is than the experience of LGBTQ characters whose stories take place 20 years after her’s.  There is no coming out in high school in the 1990s.  There is no wide cultural acceptance of homosexuality or gay marriage.  And it’s not to say that attitudes are completely different now, but for Cameron, there is no real choice except isolation, fear of discovery, and lack of acceptance, particularly in her small, conservative town.  I also really enjoyed the Montana setting, from the dusty cowtown where Cameron grows up to the mountains and woods in western Montana, where Promise is located.  Quake Lake, a lake formed by an earthquake in western Montana, plays an important role in Cameron’s family history and becomes a powerful image in the story.

My biggest complaint with this story had to do with its pacing and length.  It takes over half of the book for Cameron to be sent to Promise and I think a lot of Cameron’s early history could have been cut out without hurting the overall story.  At the same time, most of the story is slow, detailed, and drawn-out, but the ending came very quickly and left so much unresolved.  I really wished that the story began when Cameron met Coley and that the ending would have been fleshed out a bit more, giving us some idea what happened to Cameron after Promise.

All in all, I feel like this is a book that will stick with me.  Cameron is an admirable and memorable character in YA.  I liked danforth’s writing and would happily read another book from her, especially if she sets it in the West again.  It’s a story that gives you a lot to think about and even if it was too long and slow, is one I’d recommend to those looking for a good LGBTQ/coming of age story.

April 2015 Roundup

Well.  Life in April was hectic… I started my new job, took a family trip to San Antonio, had out-of-town company come to visit, and have spent free time on other hobbies besides reading and book blogging, namely watching baseball and working on a new cross stitch project.

I kind of predicted that April would be a down reading month for me and boy, was it ever.  I only read four books, which isn’t super terrible, but it is the lowest number of books I’ve read in a month since last May and even when I liked a book or recognized a book was good, I just didn’t find myself wowed by anything, which is always a disappointing place to be.  I also did absolutely no blogging and have been coasting by on reviews I wrote back in March.  I don’t anticipate the reading slump will last, but the blogging slump, I’m feeling less sure about.  We’ll see.

Books Read:

Before I Go by Colleen Oakley

I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson (audio)

In the Works: I’m currently reading Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty and I’m listening to Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend by Sarra Manning on audio.  I have a couple more books checked out from the library that I hope to get to and maybe I will drag myself out of the reading blahs soon.

Blogging-wise I have reviews scheduled out for the next few weeks, but I haven’t really had time or inclination to get caught up on writing reviews or scheduling any other sort of posts.  (Even getting this one up has been challenging.)  I might take a break for a while, but I’m still thinking about it.

Other than that, I’d like to take May as a time to lay low for a while and catch up on some quiet time.  That might be a pipe dream, as the semester is ending which equals super crazy time in a household with one professor and one higher education professional.

What’s going on in your reading/blogging/regular lives?

 

This Song Will Save Your Life- Leila Sales

Elise is 16 and miserable.  She has no friends at school and every attempt she makes to try to make friends or fit in blows up in her face.  She feels so hopeless that she thinks about killing herself, going so far as to cut herself with a razor on her wrists.  She calls a girl from school who calls 911.  Flash forward 6 months and Elise is pretty much on house arrest because her parents are worried about her.  She has people to sit with at lunch now, but isn’t measurably much happier.  Especially since there is some pretty vicious online bullying going on.  The only thing keeping her kind of sane is sneaking out at night to take long, meandering walks around town.  That is, until she stumbles upon a night club on one of her midnight walks.  She is instantly accepted for who she is by Vicki, one of the nightclub regulars, and discovers a passion for DJing.  Finding her crowd and her passion really turns things around for Elise, as she finds life worth living and a place where she can truly accept and love herself.

This wasn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t really a story for me.  I didn’t ever want to quit reading it and it was decently written, but I had some major quibbles with the story and the characters that made it hard for me to really get into the book.  Elise is obsessed with being popular/cool and that felt out of place for me for a character who is 16 years old.  This desperation for popularity seemed a bit immature for Elise… sure, I could see her wanting friends and feeling isolated, but the need to be cool felt more like an 11 year old’s wish than a 16 year old’s.  At the same time, Elise’s time on the nightclub and DJ scene seemed to belong to a much older character, at least a freshman in college.  It was hard for me to buy that the bouncer would not only let her in without ID, but that the club owner would offer her her own DJ party when she is younger than legal drinking age.  And her parents later let her continue to attend these parties because she’s so passionate about it.  That’s a lot of lapse of judgment/looking the other way at the law for me to really buy into.

I also had some real trouble with Elise’s suicide attempt.  I am not a fan of suicide as a plot device and that is exactly what it was here… some dramatization to show how seriously awful Elise’s situation is.  And while there is mention of Elise getting therapy and while finding DJing doesn’t instantly solve Elise’s problems or insecurities, I feel like the suicide thing is a cheap shot that isn’t really dealt with on any serious level.  But I really hate suicide in novels, so this probably comes down to personal preference more than anything.

All that to say, this book just pushed a lot of my no-go buttons for YA contemporary.  I didn’t hate it and thought the glimpse into DJing and nightlife was pretty fascinating, but when I spend most of a book wanting to make major revisions to it (make Elise older, cut out the suicide angle, etc.), it’s probably not a book that is meant for me.

 

 

 

Spring Mini-Reviews: Books in Verse

I have always avoided novels in verse and poetry.  I don’t really know why.  I mean, I liked poetry ok when I was in school, but it’s POETRY and that’s what angsty teens do.  I know, I know, shut my mouth because I actually LOVED these two books written in verse and cannot wait to tackle more poetry.

 

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming is Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir, told in verse, reflecting back on her childhood.  This book has won a bunch of big awards and has been on my radar a while, as a result.  I was hesitant about the poetry aspect of the story, but felt it would be the perfect book for the Read Harder challenge as it is not only written in verse, but is written by and about a person of color and I’ve been trying to pay more attention to reading diversely.

What I liked: I absolutely loved this book.  It was full of hope, love, beauty, dreams, and longing and I read most of it with a lump in my throat because of how beautiful/touching it all was.  I loved how the major Civil Rights goings on of the time were woven into a more personal story.  I also appreciated the glimpses into Jehovah’s Witness religious culture and the subtle questioning Jacqueline does of her religion as a child.  I also loved the focus on family, especially Jacqueline’s relationship with her grandfather.  There were bits of the poetry that I highlighted and loved, but since I’m not an avid poetry reader, I think I’d need to do a more careful close reading to fully appreciate the writing style.  That said, using verse for a childhood memoir seemed really appropriate– there was a dream-like quality that came with it that felt reminiscent of childhood memories.
What I felt meh about: I only wish this had been a longer book!
All in all: I’m so glad I gave this book a try.  I imagine this will be one of the best books I read this year. I hope to someday share this one with my daughter.

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Inside Out & Back Again is a novel in verse, telling the story of ten year old Ha. Ha is living in South Vietnam at the end of the war.  Her father has gone missing in action and food and resources are becoming scarce in the face of hyperinflation.  But Ha is a young girl and while war is ever-present for her in Vietnam, she is more preoccupied with school and her papaya tree and not being told she can’t do anything her brothers can just because she is a girl.  Then Ha’s family escapes Vietnam and takes refuge in the United States, finding a sponsor family in Alabama.  Ha doesn’t know English and finds herself mercilessly teased by the children at her new school.  She misses Vietnam and her father terribly, but as time goes by she learns English and discovers friends and allies at school and in her neighborhood and begins to find a way of life that is both Vietnamese and American.

What I liked: I am particularly drawn to Ha’s story of immigrating to the United States and having to start a whole new life in a very strange place.  I have always enjoyed immigrant stories, but this one also had a lot of personal meaning to me as I grew up in an area with a high population of Vietnamese immigrants and I had a good friend in elementary school who moved to the U.S. in the 2nd or 3rd grade from Vietnam.  Ha’s experiences reminded me quite a bit of my friend’s, from desperately wanting curly hair to being self-conscious about language to being both proud and ashamed of her cultural background.  This also carries a fairly clear be-kind-to-your-neighbor/walk-a-mile-in-the-other-person’s-shoe kind of message, which felt aimed at a younger audience, but was certainly something I could appreciate as an adult.
What I felt meh about: I didn’t think the writing was as sophisticated as the writing in Brown Girl Dreaming and as I read these fairly close together, this suffered in comparison.  This felt like reading a book for kids, if that makes sense.
All in all: I’m glad I read this and I think it would be a great book to assign for middle grades in school.  I would certainly read this author again.

The Smart One- Jennifer Close

The Smart One is told in alternating points of view from four women in the Coffey family.  Weezy is the matriarch, whose empty nest doesn’t stay empty and who is a bit of a control freak.  Martha is Weezy’s oldest daughter. She is socially inept, works a dead end job at J. Crew, lives at home with her parents, is very into her weekly therapy sessions, and seems hopelessly incapable of ever becoming independent.  Claire, Weezy’s younger daughter, is the “normal” one, but has just broken off her engagement and finds she can’t make ends meet in New York City on her own.  She moves back home, but her fierce independent streak clashes with her mother’s need to control everything.  Finally, we have Cleo, the girlfriend of Weezy’s youngest child, Max.  Cleo is a beautiful young college student who doesn’t ever feel like she fits in anywhere she goes and can’t seem to follow societal conventions or relationship rules.  Cleo and Max move back in with Weezy, too, after they graduate from college.  This is an interesting look at family dynamics when adult children return to their parents’ home and at the lives of four women at personal crossroads in their lives.

What I liked: I picked up this book at the Strand when I was in New York visiting my sister.  I was eager to read more of Jennifer Close’s work after finishing Girls in White Dresses, which felt like a fresh, smart take on chick lit.  I was equally impressed with Close’s writing in this book.  I like her focus on the ordinary everyday events in life and I appreciate her ability to create characters who felt real and distinct.  Close also has a real understanding of relationship dynamics and that is very evident her in a story about the complexity of family relationships.  I also liked that this book focused on adults returning home, as that experience is becoming especially common these days.  I haven’t had to move back home, but I imagine that I would feel as frustrated as Claire did at the loss of independence.

What I felt meh about: While I appreciated that the characters in this book felt realistic and flawed, sometimes they felt too difficult.  It got to be a bit grating at times to read about Weezy constantly underestimating her children and her husband and trying to run everyone’s lives or about Martha complaining about everything and never taking control of her own life.  This also felt like a very WASPy, upper middle class story, which isn’t a flaw exactly, it just made the story less appealing to me.  Finally, some of the characters’ attitudes towards things like homosexuality, premarital sex, cohabitation, and unplanned pregnancy seemed out-of-place and old-fashioned for the characters that held the beliefs.  For example, Cleo is 21 and embarrassed about living with her boyfriend during college because that’s just not a thing girls her age do.  Moving in with a significant other during college was fairly common for people I knew when I went to college 10 years prior to the publication of this book, so that attitude seemed particularly strange.

All in all: While this book was not a personal favorite, I have no intentions of writing off Jennifer Close.  I really enjoy her writing and her sharp observations of people and personal relationships.  There is a lot of potential in her writing and I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

 

 

Spring Mini-Reviews: Read Harder Challenge Books

So.  Every now and then I get supppppper behind on reviews (ok, so it’s more like I’m ALWAYS behind) and in order to catch up I like to throw up these mini-reviews.  This post focuses on books that I picked for the 2015 Read Harder Challenge.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Read for Task 3: A Collection of Short Stories

The Things They Carried is a book of interrelated short stories featuring a unit of soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War.  I bought it years ago after reading about it in one of my graduate classes.  I then proceeded to not read it, but I am so so glad I finally remedied that.

What I liked: The writing in this book is absolutely beautiful.  I have never been to war and probably never will, but this book felt like it carried a truth about war– there’s death, fear, grief, muck, boredom, love, humor, hijinks, drugs, friendship, loneliness.  These men (boys, really) are thrown into an unimaginable situation and their lives are forever changed by Vietnam, whether they die there or whether they come home and can’t move on or come home and never stop writing about it.
What I felt meh about: I don’t really have any complaints about this book.  It was a tough subject matter, which sometimes made it difficult for me to pick up, but I kind of think that’s the point.
All in all: This has become a classic for a reason.  The writing is amazing, the stories are meaningful and presented war to me in the most real/truthful way I think I’ve ever read.  I pushed this on my husband to read (and he reads fiction almost never) because it’s that sort of book that will appeal widely.  I hope to reread it again someday.

 

Mortal Heart by Robin LaFevers
Read for Task 11: A YA Novel

Mortal Heart is the conclusion of the His Fair Assassin series, a historical fantasy series that I’ve enjoyed.  Mortal Heart is Annith’s story.  Annith has been stuck at the convent, eagerly awaiting her turn to go out into the field and practice as Death’s handmaiden.  But opportunities keep passing by and the abbess seems intent on keeping Annith under her thumb forever, as the seeress for the convent.  Annith knows that is not the life she wants or is meant to live, so she strikes out, hoping to uncover the abbess’s motives and to set her own destiny.

What I liked: I generally enjoy the world that LaFevers has created in this series and the things I liked about it continued on into this book– there is plenty of political intrigue and a strong spiritual element to the story.  I especially love the old religion and gods in the book and Mortal Heart offers us a look at another aspect of Mortain, as well as the goddess Arduinna.  I also loved getting to see Annith back with Sybella and Ismae, as their camaraderie from the first book was something that was missing in the second one.  I was also really satisfied to see a conclusion to the political crisis in Brittany, as that historical element of the books has always piqued my interest.
What I felt meh about: This was probably my least favorite of the series, mostly because it got off to the world’s slowest start.  It took me over 200 pages to get into to it.  I also didn’t buy into the romance as hard, as it felt a bit shallow to me… something that I did not feel about the romances in the previous two books.
All in all: This was mostly a satisfying conclusion to the series and I’m happy I finished it out.  This is high on my list of YA fantasy to recommend, even though I feel like these books don’t stick with me for very long.  The research and writing are impeccable.

 

Curly Girl: The Handbook by Lorraine Massey
Read for Task 24: A Self-Improvement Book

Perhaps I’m silly to choose a book about hair for self-improvement, but it became a recent goal of mine to start wearing my hair more natural (that is, curly) and I needed some advice on how to get started.  Curly Girl is mostly a handbook on how to cleanse, style, and care for curly hair from products to coloring to up-dos, but it is also interspersed with personal anecdotes (“curlfessions”) from the author and other curly girls who have come to love and accept their curls.

What I liked:  I liked the cleansing and styling tips and they have really gone a long way in improving the look of my hair.  I’ve been using the curly girl method and my curls seem more defined, less frizzy, and more manageable.  Some of the steps (shampooing and drying) take longer than what I was doing before, but the styling part is SO EASY and takes a fraction of the time that blow drying ever did (not that I dried my hair much, mostly brushed it into a ponytail).  I also enjoyed the little “curlfessions” and related to these women who have been fighting their hair their whole lives.  I have wavy hair and because it straightens fairly easy if I take the time to do so, I have pretty much always felt (and been given the impressions by hairdressers/the world) that my hair should be straightened.  Previous attempts to go wavy have always left me feeling like I couldn’t pass as curly, either, with too much frizz and volume and not much uniformity in my curls.  It’s nice to see that I’m not alone in feeling like my hair was uncooperative and not worth messing with.  It’s also nice to see that there is some light on the other side– curly hair can be easy, fun, and beautiful, too!
What I felt meh about: Large chunks of this book did not apply to me.  I don’t color my hair and don’t have any desire to try cutting my own hair or making my own products.  Also, the skeptic in me is a little uncomfortable with the fact that the author has her own product line and salon/stylist academy.  She never outright tells you to go buy DevaCurl products, but still I wondered about the potential commercial motivations behind the book.
All in all: This was a nice, easy intro to hair care and styling for those of us with curly hair.  I don’t think it’s essential to read the book if all you want is instructional information, but the anecdotes and pictures were helpful/interesting for me, so I’m glad I grabbed it from the library.

Here’s Looking at You- Mhairi McFarlane

Anna was bullied and ridiculed as a child for being fat, nerdy, and Italian.  Everything culminated in a horrifying scene at the school’s Mock Rock where Anna was pelted with candy and called names.  Anna is now in her 30s, a professor of history at a university.  She lost a lot of weight in her 20s and has become not just good-looking, but beautiful.  Her past haunts her, so in the name of closure (and a bit of sticking it to them), she goes to her school reunion.  No one recognizes her, though, but she runs into James, her school crush and one of her tormentors back in the day.  James doesn’t know Anna is THE Anna he tormented through school and Anna lets him believe they’ve never met before, that she has stumbled into the wrong event.  After the reunion, they keep running into each other, finding themselves thrown together on work project.  They get off to a rocky start, Anna holding the past against him, and James put off by Anna’s inexplicable rudeness towards him.  But as they spend more time together, they begin to realize how much they have in common, particularly a sharp wit.  With their past, though, it will be a rocky road to happily ever after.

I enjoyed Mhairi McFarlane’s debut and had been putting off reading her second book because the blurb sounded so cliched.  A girl loses a ton of weight and is suddenly beautiful and can suddenly land her high school crush?  Ugh.  Well, yeah, ok, that is the short of it, but McFarlane handles it much more delicately and just better than I ever expected.  Anna’s life isn’t perfect when she becomes skinny and beautiful.  Being beautiful comes with its own rules, ones Anna never had to learn.  And the Anna on the inside is still nerdy, smart, and sarcastic.  Love doesn’t come any easier to skinny Anna as it did to fat Anna.  James is also not a simplistic character.  He’s pretty shallow and vain and is left reeling when his gorgeous wife leaves him for another man.  He struggles with coming to terms with the fact that beauty and flash aren’t actually making him a happy person.  He, like Anna, also has quite the sense of humor.  The banter between James and Anna was one of the best parts of this book, it was funny and cute and really helped make this mismatched couple make sense together.  What sounds like an eye-rollingly simplistic and cliched story was actually quite complex and none of the issues were glossed over to make this an easy love story.

My only real trouble with this book was that the ending felt unnecessarily drawn out.  Everyone else realizes that Anna and James are in love.  Then Anna and James realize they are in love, but there are some complications thrown in (the bullying thing, James’s ex-wife) that keep them from getting together right away.  And in the end, they only come together after a grand romantic gesture, which felt a bit out of place for their characters (particularly as they joke about this being a convention in romance novels earlier in the book).  None of this was a dealbreaker, it’s all pretty standard stuff for the genre, but I had hoped for more given that most of this book is hell-bent on complicating cliches in romance.

In any case, if you are a fan of smart and funny chick lit, you should definitely give Mhairi McFarlane a try.  I, for one, am eagerly anticipating the U.S. release of her latest book, It’s Not Me, It’s You.