Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl
Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl comes out in September this year. This is an early review on an ARC I received at BEA.

The Premise: It’s fall semester of freshman year, and Cather (aka Cath, the Less Adventurous Twin), feels lost amongst the other undergraduates. Her sister Wren has basically abandoned her (“if we do this together, people will treat us like we’re the same person”); her dad is home alone and Cath worries about that; her roommate Reagan is scary, and comes with the too-friendly Levi, who is in their room all the time. All Cath wants is to be left alone to work on her massively popular and novel length Simon and Baz fan fiction, Carry On, but college is getting in the way, and college is hard.

My Thoughts: Reading Fangirl is a comforting exercise. It’s one of those books where you open it’s pages and don’t notice the words because it takes no time to be engulfed. What’s more, nothing extraordinary may be happening on the page — moving into the dorms, briefly meeting a new roommate, saying goodbye to relatives, but there is an engrossing quality to how the characters reveal themselves through their everyday interactions. Well, sort of everyday. It’s not every day you move away from home and have your support system disappear. Titular character Cath thinks that college is hard, but I think the real issue is having to do it alone. Without her twin Wren at her side, Cath is too anxious to even go to the cafeteria by herself and lives off a stash of energy bars rather than find out where it is. She sits in the bathroom stalls quietly crying while the other girls in her hall are meeting one another. She is a quintessential introvert, her mind focused on an inner world, and who doesn’t like to get out of her comfort zone. Her sister may call her 3 year (now long distance) boyfriend an “end table”, but Cath is content with things being as they are.

You know where this is going. Cath can’t have the world stay safe and easy, and it won’t pause for her. Eventually she has to interact with others and be absorbed into new people’s orbits, and no matter what she does, other people and their lives affect hers. First (and most obvious) to impact her is her sister’s desertion, a strange flip in loyalty that leaves Cath floundering, but her sister is not the only family member that can rattle Cath. In college itself, Cath can’t avoid her roommate Reagan or the ubiquitous Levi, but then there’s also people from her classes like Nick from Creative Writing and the assortment of new acquaintances Cath picks up because she doesn’t want to be rude.

What I liked though, is that Cath got to stay herself while having to accept change. This is not a story with the moral that being introverted does you no good; it’s perfectly fine to be that way. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the story is Cath’s private world and her devotion to the Simon Snow series.  Fan fiction is so popular now, it’s practically mainstream, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a story that embraces that subculture the way that Fangirl does. I don’t think of myself as part of that subculture, but even I know about ‘slash’ and ‘ships’, and there’s a certain joy in recognizing that Simon Snow is a riff on Harry Potter. Obviously (points at book blog), I get the whole fan and being into books thing, and any time Cath waxed poetic about characters she loves, or I read excerpts of Simon Snow or Cath’s fan fiction (placed like intermissions between chapters) and recognized elements, I grinned internally. I loved how this is important to Cath’s life and reflects as such in her conversations and relationshipsSimon or simply, “stories” and “storytelling” is shared ground between Cath and others and there are a lot of scenes where it is the bridge between minds.

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For all of Cath’s fangirl-ly-ness I connected with Cath while also not really connecting with her. The introverted, wanting-to-be-alone parts I could understand, but some of her more extreme coping mechanisms (like not bothering to find the cafeteria and essentially starving) I could not. It doesn’t matter though. What matters is that even if I didn’t always understand her, I always felt for Cath. It was the same for the secondary characters who didn’t always make the best choices but managed to make me care about them. This is what I want New Adult fiction to be–not a marketing term that means sex, but an extension of the coming-of-age tale into a post-adolescent bracket. Fangirl captures the awkward unsure side of tasting independence for the first time.

The last thing I want to say about Fangirl is that it is surprising. There were some things that I was expecting, but in the end, this story made it’s characters a lot more complicated than I thought they were going to be, and thus bucked all my predictions. This includes a blossoming romance that I thought was going to be smooth and sweet but defied me by being almost painfully uncertain instead (and was the better for it). If you think you know what’s going to happen after reading the first 50 pages, you’d probably be wrong. The plot is essentially about relationship growth, and every single relationship Cath began in safe little boxes and mushroomed out to be unique and nuanced and entirely different beasts from which they began.

Overall: Really, really, good. I found very little to complain about, and when I did, it was always a personal reaction to a character’s actions and no reflection on the actual writing or story — not worth going over in this review.  And it actually seems to get better the more I reflect on it after finishing it. I hadn’t read anything by Rainbow Rowell before but it hasn’t missed my attention how many fans she has in the book blogging community. I waited in line for a copy of Fangirl because of the hype, and it was a very long wait. I can tell you now: it was utterly worth it.

P.S. How about that cover? I felt proud of myself for recognizing the artwork of gingerhaze.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Not yet as far as I could tell (I searched amongst my book blog friends), but if I missed yours, let me know.

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Seeing Me Naked by Liza Palmer

This was a surprise gift from generous fellow blogger Chachic over the winter holidays (thanks Chachic!). Seeing Me Naked is a book I’d been eying for a while and it arrived just in time to fulfill a craving for contemporary story with a bit of romance.

Seeing Me Naked
Liza Palmer

The Premise: Elisabeth Page is the pastry chef for a fancy restaurant in L.A. Her five-year plan was to one day open her own patisserie, but after the five years come and go, and then another five, Elisabeth wonders if that will ever happen. With a father who is world renowned novelist Ben Page, and a brother who is a publishing wunderkind, Elisabeth feels the pressure of unfulfilled expectations of her intellectual family. Her romantic life is no better than her professional one. Her relationship with Will, childhood-friend turned world-traveling journalist consists of a few nights of passion when Will breezes into town, then months of separation while Will is following a story. Then Daniel Sullivan wins the basket of pastries and private baking classes that Elisabeth donated to one of her mother’s charity events, and Elisabeth’s career begins to go in an unexpected direction. Can Elisabeth let go of her own expectations and try something different?

My Thoughts: I had to think a little bit to put Seeing Me Naked into a category.  Even though this story has an obvious romantic arc, Seeing Me Naked is a lot more focused on Elisabeth and her personal growth than it is on the relationship to be a strict Romance. It does focus on a single woman and her career and relationship with her family but it isn’t quite lighthearted enough to be put into chick lit (although there is some humor in it). I think the closest term might be “women’s fiction”, but that feels like it could be too big of an umbrella term. Really, this gave off the vibe of a mix between a literary novel and chick lit.

At first Elisabeth’s life was rather bland and lonely. She lives alone in an apartment close to work, follows a set routine every day, and doesn’t really socialize. Her life revolves around her stressful job making desserts at a high end L.A. restaurant with a tyrant for a boss. When she goes home to see her parents in wealthy Montecito, the dynamics there are similarly overshadowed by her father, a literary giant with a matching ego. While her high society mother (heiress to the Foster Family Fortune) is supportive of her children, Ben Page is a tougher, more critical parent. Dinner is a battle of wits and intellect with the great Ben Page presiding.  As for her relationship with childhood friend Will, Elisabeth hardly sees him and is tired of them leading separate lives.

As we say our goodbyes in the foyer, I look around at all that defines me. The rubric for success in my family has always been about legacy–what imprint will you make on this world. I have tired to live by these standards all my life. Measuring success and love by the teaspoon, always falling short, the goal constantly out of reach. My five-year plan has become an unending road to nowhere, both professionally and personally.

Despite all this, Elisabeth wasn’t actively trying to change her life. Instead she continued on while the stress made her stomach hurt. Elisabeth struck me as a steady type of character with a quiet creativity, a love of food, and gently sarcastic voice. But I was worried about a certain amount of ingrained judgementality she had. Maybe judgementality isn’t the right word — it was just that she seemed to have a self-imposed set of restrictions on herself and was trying to adhere to what she thought were her family’s unspoken expectations. For example, it felt like there was an assumption of who she should be and who she should be with. Any relationship outside these parameters is assumed to be temporary, like all of her brother Rascal’s “giant lollipop head” girlfriends. When regular guy Daniel enters the picture, he seemed to me like the most honest person in her life, but I wasn’t sure that SHE saw that. I think that this first impression could turn some readers off. I’m thankful that the back blurb of this book hints that the story is about Elisabeth having “the guts to let others see her naked…and let them love her, warts and all” because that made me trust that this story would go to a better place. That, and the setting of the story which kept me interested by giving me fascinating glimpses into a life that’s set in L.A. and revolves around food.

Seeing Me Naked takes its sweet time, but there is satisfaction in reading Seeing Me Naked all the way to the end. It’s enjoyable to sit back while the nature of the characters is revealed organically, their dialogue and actions and Elisabeth’s own reactions to them deftly sculpting clear personalities. And then there’s Elisabeth’s own character. She doesn’t actively seek change, but Elisabeth is smart enough not to fight it when a good things fall onto her lap. And the best part is she works to keep these good things. If you can handle Elisabeth in her rut, you will be rewarded by a very cathartic last few pages.  Where things ultimately go left me quite content.

Overall: I enjoyed this one but I can understand why this is an under-the-radar book. It’s not quite literary fiction, not quite chicklit, and not just about self-discovery, but it has elements of all three, so it falls in a difficult to categorize place which can mean you’re unsure as a reader what you’re going to get. Also, the story doesn’t start in the best point of Elisabeth’s life and rolls forward quietly, without much fanfare — so the reward of reading isn’t immediate. It’s much later in the story that the big gestures happen, so you have to be OK with waiting and watching characters grow, enjoying the way the writing builds the story layer by layer, experiencing food and L.A. through Elisabeth’s eyes and trusting that things will get good. They do though.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Chachic’s Book Nook – “I didn’t expect to get emotional over Seeing Me Naked but I’m glad that it surprised me.”
Angieville – “The characters are complex and carefully rendered. There is no black and white in the intricate web of family relationships they navigate.”
The Book Harbinger – ” wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Seeing Me Naked to casual and seasoned readers who like complex, multivalent chick lit.”

White Cat by Holly Black

White Cat
Holly Black

I’ve been meaning to get to this series. Ever since Tithe, I’ve been a fan of Holly Black, plus this was supposed to be a YA with supernatural elements and a con artist protagonist. What’s not to like, right?

A big thank you to fellow book blogger, Laura of A Jane of All Reads for my copy!

The Premise: (taken from the blurb) “Cassel comes from a family of Curse Workers – people who have the power to change your emotions, your memories, your luck, by the slightest touch of their hands. And since curse work is illegal, they’re all criminals. Many become mobsters and con artists. But not Cassel. He hasn’t got magic, so he’s an outsider, the straight kid in a crooked family. You just have to ignore one small detail – he killed his best friend, Lila, three years ago.

Cassel has carefully built up a facade of normalcy, blending into the crowd. But his facade starts to crumble when he finds himself sleepwalking, propelled into the night by terrifying dreams about a white cat that wants to tell him something. He’s noticing other disturbing things too, including the strange behavior of his two brothers. They are keeping secrets from him. As Cassel begins to suspect he’s part of a huge con game, he must unravel his past and his memories. To find out the truth, Cassel will have to out-con the conmen.”

Read an excerpt of White Cat here

My Thoughts: In Cassel Sharpe’s family, everyone is a curse worker except for him. With one touch they can bestow a “curse”. His mother can manipulate people’s emotions, his grandfather can kill, his oldest brother, Philip, can break bones, and Barron, the middle brother, works luck. Although curse workers are rare and blowback exacts a cost for each working, curse workers are the reason why everyone in the U.S. wears gloves and keeps their skin covered.  Being the only normal in a family of workers is hard for Cassel, but thankfully, he has his family’s other talent to fall back on: swindling people. While his brothers rely on their curse worker skills, Cassel grew up fine tuning his ability to manipulate others by conventional means.

Now Cassel is enrolled in a private boarding school, but when he wakes up on the roof of his dormitory without any idea how he got up there except a dream of a white cat, his stay at Wallingford is put on hold. This is purportedly for the insurance liability, but Cassel suspects it’s because people think he might be curse-worked. Cassel has been careful at the academy so that people would forget his past– that he comes from a family of crooks and conmen, but this one incident reminds everyone. Despite this, when Cassel goes back to his parents’ house all he wants to do is hustle his way back into the school. In between the house cleaning his grandfather has him do, Cassel is on damage control and smoothing his way back in. But while he is figuring that out he notices some telling behavior from his family — especially from his brothers. They’re keeping secrets from him, and Cassel suspects these secrets are more than just hiding things from the non-worker. He suspects they have to do with the night he killed his best friend Lila.

One of the stronger aspects of White Cat was its world building. The idea of workers, a very small percentage of the population with genetically passed abilities, fits seamlessly into the story. Cassel lives in a world where their existence is a given, and he offhandedly mentions what most people in his world already seem to know: that workers exist in the criminal fringes of society, a fragment of a percent of the population, but everyone wears gloves because of them. Gloves have become so de rigueur that Cassel feels uncomfortable if he sees bare hands. A fear of workers is part of day-to-day life: people wear charms to protect themselves from being worked, and there is also an ongoing controversy about legislation requiring everyone be tested for worker ability. What isn’t as well known is how the abilities work, and here Cassel knows more than the average person because of his family.

What was less strong was the character development, unless we’re talking about Cassel. Since White Cat is told from Cassel’s point of view, he is the most well developed character. The sense of isolation — both from his family for being a non-worker and for Lila’s death, and from the other students at his school, is in his every action. He doesn’t seem close to anyone, and only relies on others when he’s forced to (it goes against what he was taught). He’s a great broody teen guy character and I really enjoyed getting in his head and seeing how his upbringing has messed with him. Unfortunately, that isolation made the supporting characters difficult to know: they got little page space compared to Cassel, and what there was was filtered through Cassel’s walls. Cassel is least familiar with his classmates but they are probably the most likable characters. His brothers are distant and untrustworthy, his sister-in-law disconnected, and his mother a manipulative nightmare. His grandfather seems to be the only one in the family with a proper concern for Cassel, but he’s left out of the loop. Even Cassel’s romantic relationships are dysfunctional ones and it’s not clear if Cassel understands either girl he thinks he loves.

As for the plot – I liked the mystery aspect to this story. There’s a sense of urgency to figuring out what’s going on — that until he does, the cards are stacked in everyone else’s favor. I really loved the concept of what was going on when all was revealed, but I figured things out a lot quicker than Cassel does, and I wasn’t as wowed by the twists as a result. It was nicely done, but there were so many clues that I ended up questioning Cassel for not being quicker on the uptake. Also, because so much is made of Cassel being a normal in a family of workers and having to hone his skills as a confidence artist, I had a certain expectation of Cassel as a manipulator. I think I was expecting Cassel’s tricks to be more.. tricky, than they were. Instead they felt really obvious. I don’t know what this says about me, but I seem to be in a decided minority in feeling this way.

Overall: I loved loved loved the concept, world building, and voice. But. Other than Cassel, a lot of the side characters weren’t fleshed out and I wasn’t as surprised by the story as I wanted to be. I liked this one, and feel like it has that Holly Black writing that sucks me in, I just wasn’t in awe (and I really wanted to be). That said, I think a lot of people liked this one more than I did, and I liked it enough and am curious enough to continue this series with the next book, Red Glove.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Bunbury in the Stacks – “Cassel is one of those bad boys that you just can’t help but have a thing for…because he’s also kind of a good guy. “
Chachic’s Book Nook – “While I didn’t find White Cat amazing, I still recommend it to fans of urban fantasy.”
Stella Matutina - “I was somewhat less interested in the plot than in the overall setup.”
Steph Su Reads – “Don’t miss it!”
Jawas Read, Too!“White Cat is an impressive and entertaining read.” (8 out of 10)
Read. Breathe. Relax – “White Cat is a must-read.”
See Michelle Read – “In this exceptionally character-driven novel, Holly Black has crafted a world so unlike any other YA book I’ve come across. White Cat is dark. Gritty. Intense. Just my kind of story.”

Other:
The Curse Workers website

P.S. I was tickled by the image of a mystery girl on the spine of the hardcover. Easily looked over, it’s a hidden detail.

Something Like Normal by Trish Doller

This is the perfect example of bloggers influencing my reading — this was only on my radar because I saw a banner on Holly’s blog. Chachic, who recently reviewed it also credits a blogger for her interest in the book. And why is this debut author getting good buzz? Well, I think what she does right is her website is nice and clean and information is easy to find, she uses social media well, and she has a nice long excerpt (very crucial). All good things, but hey, most importantly – the book is a good read too!

This review is based on an eARC copy I received via Netgalley.

Something Like Normal by Trish Doller
Trish Doller

The Premise: Travis Stephenson is a nineteen-year-old Marine on leave for thirty days. He’s been in Afghanistan for a year and his best friend Charlie was recently killed over there. Now that he’s home, everything that was once familiar is now strange, and Travis isn’t as okay as he pretends to be. While he’s dealing with his own messed up head, he also has to deal with his less-than-ideal family life. His parents’ marriage is strained, and his younger brother Ryan is a rival, not an ally (he stole Travis’s girlfriend and car while Travis was gone). Then he meets Harper, the girl whose reputation he ruined in middle school after a game of seven minutes in heaven led to rumors he didn’t bother to curtail.

Read an excerpt of Something Like Normal here

My Thoughts: There’s a lot in Travis’ life that he has to deal with. Non-trivial things. His best friend Charlie is dead. Travis has trouble sleeping and may be suffering from PTSD. He wants to pay Charlie’s mothers his respects, but he isn’t sure how to do that when he can’t even process Charlie’s absence himself. On leave from Afghanistan, Home has become an alien planet. He’s surrounded by a reputation-obsessed father, an anxious mother, and a brother that covets what Travis has. His parents’ relationship has deteriorated, and his ex-girlfriend Paige is with his brother Ryan now — but keeps showing up in his bedroom late at night. Every relationship Travis has is fraught with complications and unresolved issues.

Then Travis runs into Harper Gray, a girl who has every reason to hate him because he’s why the world thinks she’s a slut. After a good punch in the face, Harper is surprisingly non-judgmental, and Travis, messed up and floundering, recognizes that she’s someone that he wants to be around. Their past history and Travis being drawn to Harper now becomes another sign of changes in Travis. I’d normally question if Harper should forgive a guy who hurt her, but here, Travis is suffering already. Harper’s intuition that Travis is in pain and her decision not to hold a grudge (well, after that punch), makes her strong rather than weak. There was something quiet and right (and a little delicious) about their burgeoning relationship.

Just like Chachic says in her review, I have never been a nineteen-year-old boy, but I could see Travis fitting in with the ones I’ve known. Bonding with his friends from the unit means giving them all a hard time, and physical exertion is part of his coping mechanism. He really likes girls. And he’s realistically flawed. Actually, his younger self sounds rather immature: his treatment of Harper is one example, his rocky relationship with his ex is another (“We cheated on each other all the time. That’s the way it was with me and Paige–insane and toxic“). He STILL has growing up to do, and Something Like Normal captures how painful the process of adulthood can be. The the emotion underlying everything Travis says as he narrates underscores it. Every word seems to tell us just how cut up he is about Charlie and how difficult it is for him when he feels nothing near normal, but he’s trying hard – both to cope, and to be a better person. Thankfully this pain is balanced nicely with the thrill of finding a connection with someone who understood it.

If I had one criticism of this book it would be that there was a lot of personal drama and a short time frame. I’d have preferred more time on the romance or with his processing of Charlie’s death over some of the drama, but it’s hard to complain with all the threads so seamlessly interwoven. Travis’ thoughts of Charlie and Afghanistan, to his talks with Harper and his mom, to the friction with his dad, and the non-relationship with his brother – I was never really confused of overwhelmed by all of these, they were just so well integrated into the story.

I should also say – I really rooted for Travis. I wanted him to be happy, to find some peace over the loss of his best friend, and to get the girl. I finished the book hoping Travis would come back safely after the years he had left to serve.

Something Like Normal comes out June 19th

Overall: It doesn’t feel like I get to read many contemporary YA books told from the first person POV of a teen male, much less one in the military. Something Like Normal stands out because of its Marine protagonist, but add Travis’ painfully honest voice and this becomes a very personal, character driven story about a young man who has been changed by his experiences at war. Something Like Normal captures the mix of humility and vulnerability of his hard-earned maturity. The sweet, slow romance makes it all the better.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Angieville – positive
Book Harbinger – positive
See Michelle Read – positive
The Crooked Shelf – positive
Chachic’s Book Nook – positive

Other links:
Trish Doller discusses her photo inspirations for the book

[Edited to add: I realized that my description of Travis' voice as a teenage boy was similar to Chachic's characterization, so I've updated to link to her review in that sentence].

Modern Pride & Prejudice in Vlog form

If you follow my blog, you know that I am a big sucker for modern Jane Austen retellings. So I’m delighted that there’s a web series that just started, styled as a vlog diary from the point of view of a modern Lizzie Bennet – a 24-year old grad student in Mass Communications. Her best friend Charlotte Lu is in school for for TV and film production and holds the camera while Lizzie wryly describes her mother’s quest for her daughters to be married to a rich young man so they can have the White Picket Fence and 2.5 kids. Her sisters Lydia and Jane make appearances, and so far the three episodes (out of a reported eight that have been recorded so far) set up the story where a certain med student named Bing Lee has moved into “that house on Netherfield” (for $3 million).

Episode one:

 

Episode 2 – My Sisters: Problematic to Practically Perfect / Episode 3 – My Parents: Opposingly Supportive

I’m liking it so far – it’s a lot of fun. Here’s the link to the mashable interview with Hank Green and Bernie Su, who are behind this series, and this is Hank Green’s vlog post introducing it, and Bernie Su’s tumblr.

And here are some stills of Lizzie with Charlotte, Lydia, and Jane.

Whiskey Road by Karen Siplin


Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Angie over at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.
 

Whiskey Road
Karen Siplin

I started reading Whisky Road because it was the latest pick by my readalong buddies Chachic and Holly (of Chachic’s Book Nook and The Book Harbinger respectively). The previous couple of books that we’d chosen for our readathons ended up being a little darker than we were expecting them to be, but we were hoping Whisky Road would buck the trend, especially since it came highly recommended by Angie of Angieville, and has the subtitle, “A Love Story”. Thankfully, we were right.
 
The Premise: From the back blurb – “After one too many run-ins with irate A-list celebrities and their bodyguards on the streets of Los Angeles, paparazza Jimi Anne Hamilton has decided to throw in the towel. But when she planned to ride her BMW K 1200 motorcycle from California to New York, she didn’t count on having her cross-country adventure interrupted by a motorcycle thief. After the brutal attack, which sees both her motorcycle and camera equipment stolen, she finds herself left with only her helmet, a few clothes, and a bag of money she swiped from her attacker. Disillusioned and hurt, Jimi chooses to recuperate in a nearby town where she meets Caleb Atwood, a local contractor fighting his own demons.
 
Jimi and Caleb make a mismatched pair: black and white, highbrow and low. But in Caleb, Jimi believes she has found someone who feels as much of an outsider as she is. With Whiskey Road, Karen Siplin again succeeds in giving readers a story about opposites who manage to see what no one else can — that they’re right for each other.”
 
My Thoughts: When Jimi rolls into the coffee shop Caleb frequents, battered up by some unknown event and dressed in motorcycle leathers but without a bike, most of the people there don’t treat her very nicely. She’s a outsider and a black woman. The only person willing to be helpful is Caleb, but maybe that’s because he’s been treated as a Bad Boy in his hometown long past when he should be. For her part, Jimi’s recent experience on the road makes her wary of a man she sized up as harmless but has traits she associates with racist hillbillies.
 
Over the next few days, the small town of Frenchman’s Bend gives Jimi and Caleb plenty of opportunities to run into each other, and every time they do, they’re surprised. While they are both as different as two people can be — Jimi being a black city girl from a white-collar family, and Caleb a white country boy from a broken home, they are both so alike. Jimi and Caleb have not been perfect – Jimi questions the lengths she has gone to for a photo, and Caleb, reeling from a failed marriage, sleeps with an older married woman who reminds him of his wife.  Each of them are a little hardened and worn by life, but they quietly see things differently from the people around them, making them outsiders in their own communities, and drawn to each other.
 
The story flows very simply from there. Caleb and Jimi begin a subtle relationship where the smallest look and gesture holds vast meaning but hesitation and second guessing comes from both sides. The greatest danger to their fragile new connection is the people that surround them. Jimi’s affluent older brother loves living near Frenchman’s Creek but stays apart from the locals. He’s friendly to the contractors that work in his French-style country house, but would frown on one of them dating his little sister. Caleb friends’ problem is not so much about the class difference and more about Jimi’s race and outsider status. And then there are the things in their recent histories that could spell trouble for both of them if they were to mix: the reason behind Jimi’s bruises, and Caleb’s no good older brother, released from prison.
 
There was a quiet resonance to this story. Fragments stuck in my mind long after reading it: the commentary on racism in little rural towns; how easily one can be sideswiped by that selfish family member; how falling in love is like a beginning. There are some bumps along the way, but was happy when I finished it. The only thing that felt off to me was how abrupt the transition from the climax to the ending was, but I think I was the only one in the readalong that had that quibble, and it was a little one. But then, who hasn’t wanted a bit more time to say goodbye to characters they’ve gotten attached to?
 
Overall: I was pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up liking this contemporary novel. It’s a story that is deceptively quiet and slow moving at times, tense with the promise of unpleasantness at others. It was gritty and real, with small town flavor. And most of all, it has love story with an unlikely couple. Jimi and Caleb weren’t looking for or expecting each other, but it only made me root more for them that they found a kindred spirit in the unlikeliest package.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
 
Reviews from my readalong friends:
Chachic’s Book Nook – “an under-the-radar novel that I’ll recommend to readers who like slow burn, complicated romances”
The Book Harbinger – “not-your-average contemporary romance in the best way”
 
Other reviews:
Angieville- I love what she says about the ending – “Not tied up with a bow, not unrealistic in its perfection, but touched with just the right amount of maturity, rightness, and possibility.”
 

The Trials of the Honorable F. Darcy by Sara Angelini


 

I was curious about this one, touted as “A thoroughly modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice“, with Darcy as a judge, and Elizabeth Bennet as a trial lawyer. Hmm. Liked the idea, wasn’t sure how it would play out.
 
The Premise: (taken from the back blurb) “Judge Fitzwilliam Darcy is terribly bored — ready to hang up his black robe and return to the life of a country gentleman–until he meets Elizabeth Bennet, a fresh-faced attorney with a hectic schedule and no time for the sexy but haughty judge. Sparks fly as the two match wits and battle their overwhelming attraction”
 
My Thoughts: OK, so the very first page of The Trials of the Honorable F. Darcy worried me a little. He’s with Charles Bingley, who is debating whether to buy a Lamborghini Murcielago, and throws out a comment about selling his McLaren to Ralph Lauren a few years back. The in-your-face over-the-top wealth was semi-eye rolly, but Darcy is supposed to be very wealthy. Thankfully, by page two, when Darcy begins what starts off as a typical day at work as a judge, he started to become less like a fantasy and more like a human being. His wealth, thanks to inheritance, and his interest in American law, thanks to an American mother and a barrister father are established, as is why he is a judge at a young age (and why he’s tired of it). Despite his wealth and power as a judge, I thought Darcy was likable, even funny, at least in his head.
 

“Still irked by the sudden transfer of Judge Clayton’s calendar, the Honorable F. Darcy entered the courtroom with an annoyed swirl of black robes. Sometimes he imagined himself as Professor Snape when he wore them. Considering how frequently he wished he could zap some people out of existence, it was fitting.”

Pretty soon, Darcy meets Elizabeth Bennet, but his toughness as a judge does not make him very likable to her on her first day as a trial lawyer.  Since he also slicks down his hair and wears glasses to appear more experienced, Elizabeth mistakes him as older, not thirty-seven. Later, when she overhears him say about her, “Look, she’s not pretty enough to tempt me. Do you have any idea what kind of a headache even the appearance of impropriety could cause?”, she doesn’t focus on his sensible statement, but on his dismissing her as not pretty. Now she really doesn’t like him, but while she nurses her resentment, an oblivious Darcy notes her attractions:

“Having experienced the mortification of being found not tempting, Elizabeth found it very hard to take Judge Darcy seriously. On the contrary, she thought of him as a sort of joke.  She showed her indifference to him by refusing to take the bait when he said something offensive — as he did on a daily basis. While professionally she was without fault, she danced on the edge of disrespect with pert glances and cryptic Yes, Judge Darcys. She dubbed him Clark Kent — without the sparkling personality– and made fun of him on every opportunity. The ember of resentment had taken root and burst into a full-fledge flame of defiance.
Oblivious to her true feelings, Darcy quickly concluded that she was the most capable and intelligent attorneys he had the privilege to work with, crafting creative settlements and persuasive briefs. He was always impressed by her dedication when he ran into her at the elevator after hours or on the weekends.  She met each of his challenges with spirit and never backed down when he ruled against her; he enjoyed sparring with her. If he found himself looking forward to her cases, it was in a purely intellectual sort of way. It had nothing at all to do with her velvety brown eyes.”

 
While Darcy and Elizabeth are misunderstanding each other in the courtroom, Elizabeth’s sister Jane begins her residency at Meryton Hospital, and meets the very affable pediatric surgeon, Dr. Charles Bingley. Pretty soon they’re dating, which causes Elizabeth and Darcy to run into each other even more. On one occasion, a Halloween party, Darcy is in disguise as a racecar driver complete with helmet, and makes an impression on Elizabeth who doesn’t know who he is. Of course, he doesn’t reveal himself, but later, in a proposal-type scene with a law related twist, he finds out Elizabeth can’t stand him, and is horrified.
 
Until they start their relationship, this is a story with a delicious amount of slow burn and great exchanges where their hidden feelings (Darcy’s crush and Elizabeth’s dislike) bubble beneath the surface. I was enjoying the read, but then, things get VERY physical. I was actually surprised by the level of heat in this book because of the amount of slow burn before it. I had expected the story to continue to be demure, or for there to be a sex scene or two, but no, this Elizabeth and Darcy, they are quite sexually compatible. I feel like a prude, but it was a bit much for me, and I think a big part of this was feeling uncomfortable with all the sex and the characters are named Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. If they were named something else, or if this book wasn’t described as a modern Pride and Prejudice, I’d have felt differently about the sex scenes and their frequency. Maybe it just made me uncomfortably aware of the line between homage and fanfiction.
 
Of course, the characters don’t change just because they had sex. Elizabeth and Darcy continue to be likable, and I enjoyed the banter between them. However, once their relationship changed, so did the story. After they took that step into intimacy, their problem is that it is wrong for a judge to be involved with a lawyer to appears before him in court. This is where the story is most unlike the original — their feelings in the face of their responsibilities. I thought this was a great moral dilemma that they had to wrestle with and I was interested in how it was played out, at least half the book involves this issue and I wished it wasn’t so drawn out! It felt like they were going around in circles and rehashing the problem for a long time until a decision was finally made. It felt a bit like forced drama.
 
I would also say this is pretty loosely based on Pride and Prejudice. Darcy’s aloofness and Elizabeth’s initial dislike, followed by a sort of proposal and rejection, while her sister Jane and Bingley fall in love — these are there, but there are so many differences. Bingley doesn’t need Darcy’s permission to do anything, and is a much less codependent friend. Caroline Bingley is Darcy’s friend with benefits. Charlotte Lucus is a lawyer friend of Elizabeth’s, she’s a lesbian, and Bill Collins has a bit part as a habitual offender. Georgina and Darcy are both close, but Wickham is in Georgina’s past and is practically a non-entity in the story. I wouldn’t read this book expecting the same story as that of Pride and Prejudice, because you would be disappointed. I feel like the characters could have been renamed and the Jane Austen association taken away, and this could be perfectly fine if packaged as a contemporary romance.
 
Overall:  The Trials of the Honorable F. Darcy is the one I would recommend for fans of the Romance genre, but not for those looking for something that exactly follows the Pride and Prejudice formula. This one falls squarely under the contemporary romance label, but it also contains a lot of sexual situations. The sex surprised me – It’s several months into the story before things get physical, but when they do, they really do! A part of me wished the characters were named something other than Elizabeth and Darcy because of this. I also felt the story could be tighter; I wouldn’t have missed some sex scenes or minded if the moral dilemma of a judge dating a lawyer weren’t so drawn out. Other than that, I enjoyed the way Darcy and Elizabeth were re-imagined as a judge and a lawyer, and the author wrote with authority on the judicial system. I also liked the easy humor in the characters and the great natural dialogue.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
 
Other reviews:
I didn’t find any in my blogging social circle, let me know if I missed yours!

Such a Girl by Karen Siplin


 

Such a Girl
Karen Siplin

As a lover of Jane Austen retellings, I HAD to read this book when I heard that it was a retelling of Persuasion. Unfortunately I was disappointed in this one, and I think the big issue I had has to do with my personal aversion to angst in the books I read.
 
The Premise: Kendall Stark is a phone operator in a well-known New York City hotel. Nine years ago, she left the love of her life, Jack Sullivan, because her college friends didn’t think he was going anywhere. Now he’s a successful owner of a brewery who is visiting Kendall’s hotel, and Kendall is stuck in a lowly job and in an unfulfilling relationship with a married man.
 
My thoughts: When I began Such A Girl, expected it to be a light story based on the other modern-day Austen retellings I’ve read, but this story isn’t quite that. It begins with Kendall taking a smoke break and seeing her ex, Jack Sullivan crossing the street towards her. There is an awkward exchange as Kendall realizes that while Jack has done well for himself as the owner of a brewery, she’s still stuck where she is. In the hotel hierarchy, a job as a phone operator is low on the totem pole, and from Kendall’s descriptions of it, it’s a job with backstabbing co-workers, a micromanaging boss, and lots of angry guests screaming in your ear.
 
Kendall’s life of listening in on the hotel guests, hating her job, and her relationship with a man who was married was a big downer. Instead of amusing anecdotes from working at the hotel there is nothing but negative stories about the place.  I hoped that the tone would change as the story progressed, especially when Jack reenters her life, but this was not so. Instead Jack stays at Kendall’s hotel and begins to pay visits to her friend’s dinner parties, as a way of showing off his success. As a result there are arguments between the two (usually when Jack puts his foot in his mouth), that are really uncomfortable to read. Kendall seemed to divide people into those who are like her — living paycheck to paycheck but not looking to do more, and people who do have money, like the guests in her hotel. Jack did not help. I found Jack’s behavior passive aggressive, and Kendall’s reaction defensive. After these fights (which were frankly not sexy at all), I could believe that these two dated nine years ago, but that there was anything still there was harder to buy. Either way, neither Jack nor Kendall acted particularly likable and I had a hard time buying any chemistry between their characters.
 
At this point I figured out that: this is a really loose retelling of Persuasion. The only thing it takes from it is the story of two lovers who are separated and reunite years later, but all the side plots and side characters from that story are not here. Instead of the Elliot family, Kendall has her friends, Amy, Nick, and Gary, who didn’t think Jack’s antisocial and unambitious personality was right for Kendall, who was a sunny girl with goals in college (something she is not now). The rest of it isn’t there. Instead it’s replaced by numerous stories of hotel guests treating employees badly and conflicts with management, or Kendall and Jack’s repetitive fights that go no where.
 
Outside of Kendall’s life at the hotel and dealing with Jack’s return, are her home and love lives, and neither are tranquil. Her home is an apartment she and Gary rent, but a disruptive neighbor moves into the apartment upstairs making Kendall’s life even more miserable. I think I was supposed to side with Kendall, but frankly, I thought she was just as much in the wrong as her neighbor. Their conflicts just made me feel secondary rage. And as for her romantic relationships, Kendall has a casual relationship with Sage, a married man that she doesn’t love. Basically there was no where in Kendall’s life where she wasn’t unhappy or doing something self-destructive.  Things ultimately work out for her at the end of this story, but the ride was not easy.
 
Overall: This is a very readable story but at the same time it is very real.  I think it is best not to approach Such a Girl expecting a light-hearted retelling of Persuasion, because that’s not what this is. I really wanted to like this one because of the promise of a retelling, but every facet of Kendall’s life felt dreary to me.  I couldn’t connect to it.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Prom & Prejudice by Elizabeth Eulberg


 

Prom & Prejudice
Elizabeth Eulberg

This is a review of an ARC copy I forwarded on from another blogger.
 
The Premise:
This is Pride and Prejudice set in the prestigious world of uber-elite boarding schools where the most important thing in the world is the prom. Prom at Longbourn Academy can make or break a girl, and the student body doesn’t want a repeat of a few years ago, when a scholarship student not only snagged the most eligible boy from neighboring Pemberley, she showed up in a department store-bought dress and was featured in the New York Times Style section. For her predecessor’s faux pas, the newest scholarship student to Longbourn Academy, Elizabeth Bennet, is routinely hazed. The only people who treat Lizzie like a human being are her sweet roommate, Jane, and the other scholarship student at the school, Charlotte. Lizzie perseveres however. She has no interest in the Prom, but she’s delighted for Jane when she falls for the unpretentious Charles Bingley, but can’t stand his best friend, Will Darcy.
 
My Thoughts: This was a very quick read – I read it over the course of one evening in a couple of gulps. There’s only 227 pages and a lot of it is dialog so it goes very fast.
 
I thought that the idea of doing a retelling of Pride and Prejudice around a boarding school and around Prom was a really great one. The wealth of the characters and the visits to different houses translates well to this setting, and the reduced circumstances of the Bennet family is reflected in Lizzie Bennet as a scholarship student and Jane and her sister Lydia as daughters of a recently laid off executive. The core characters of the original are there (Lizzie, Jane, Lydia, Charles, Carolyn, Charlotte, Darcy and Mr Collins – Colin here), without the Bennet parents or any interfering great aunts.
 
That said, this Lizzie and Darcy are very different from the originals. Lizzie is determined and talented, but she doesn’t have the personality that observes the world and remarks upon it that the original does. In fact, she seems to build a wall between herself and the wealthy. Maybe this should be expected from the way she’s treated at school. In any case, Lizzie’s prejudice is against the very rich. Similarly Will Darcy different from the original. For most of the story his character basically stands there while Lizzie willfully misunderstands him and tells him off. I knew very little about him and had no idea why he keeps trying to see Lizzie after she repeatedly yells at him, except that this was a retelling of Pride and Prejudice and that’s just what he’s supposed to do. It is fine that Darcy and Lizzie are not the same as the original, but I didn’t feel any chemistry between them for most of the book, and didn’t understand why Darcy liked Lizzie. It’s only after they figure out their misunderstandings that their relationship becomes more believable and sweet, but the original attraction was something that felt unexplained unless I think about the original and what happens there.
 
Darcy doing something just because that’s what his character is supposed to do exemplifies what I had problems with in this story. I think it’s biggest flaw is a stiffness which seems to be the result in rigidly following a certain path. Take the dialog for example. As I already mentioned, there’s a lot of it, so it was a shame that I’d regularly hit a phrase that has odd, formal quality, especially when it’s coming out of the mouth of a teenager.  Maybe this was done deliberately, but in this setting, it’s jarring.  I had a hard time imagining teens who begin conversations with “Bennet? I’m afraid I don’t know your family. Where do you vacation?” or the a teenage boy saying, “How could you say such a thing to me?” during an argument.  When particular dialog was taken from the original and mirrored in Prom and Prejudice (take Darcy’s first declaration to Lizzie for example), it feels like it’s a pale copy that doesn’t hold the same feeling.
 
Similarly, the brilliant observations of high society that are in the original are missing from this retelling. Instead there’s a stereotypical view of the very rich, which makes any observation about them kind of moot. While I really liked the idea of the boarding school setting, I found the execution very shallow. A whole school is so obsessed with Prom that everyone would pick on some lowly scholarship student because of what another scholarship student did years ago?  Perhaps if it was one pocket of mean girls or some girl with a particular grudge, I’d have gone along with the idea, but this scenario of a whole school holding a grudge didn’t fly.
 
I wanted to like Prom & Prejudice, I really did, but it didn’t quite hit the mark.  It’s only when the story veers away from the original and focuses on Lizzie’s love of music that I felt like the story shone. These were the cute moments in the story and what ultimately made me kept reading and actually like how the story ended. I think that if this book broke script like this more, I would have been happier with it.
 
Overall: There are some cute moments in this high school version of Pride and Prejudice, and I liked the ending, but it has a stiffness throughout that kept me from enjoying it as much as I wanted to. It felt like the book spends too much time trying to emulate the original. I would have been happier if this book veered off into its own path and spent more time making the romance between Darcy and Lizzie believable and its own. However, I may be in the minority in my opinion, as I see a lot of reviews with a more positive response than mine.
 
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
 
Other reviews:
She is Too Fond of Books – positive
Steph Su Reads – 2.5 out of 5
The Compulsive Reader - positive
Amaterasu Reads – 4 out of 5
Galleysmith – mixed
Austenprose – 4 out of 5
 
Loved the trailer for this one:

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Anna and the French Kiss
Stephanie Perkins

The Premise: Anna doesn’t want to go to France for her senior year, but her parents don’t give her a choice. She’s enrolled in a boarding school: The School of America in Paris, and it’s good-bye to her best friend Bridgette and good-bye to Toph, the guy she may have had something with. Instead, Anna is the new girl in a place where all the other students seem so much cooler and more Parisian than her. Then Anna meets Étienne St. Claire, the cute boy with a French name and an English accent — the boy that everyone likes, but who has a girlfriend. Anna and Étienne become good friends, but maybe they could be more, if both of them didn’t appear to be already involved.

My Thoughts: This book made me feel very nostalgic for my youth. Anna and the French Kiss is very much about those first experiences – living in a new place, meeting interesting new people, seeing the world, all for the first time. When you’re seventeen and thrust into the world by yourself, everything is new and terrifying and glorious. I was actually amused that Anna cried as soon as she was alone in her new room in the dorms. Why? Because that is a real and believable reaction and I could relate to it.

At first, Anna is just awkward and self-conscious. Luckily, her next door neighbor, Meredith, takes Anna under her wing and introduces Anna to Josh, Rashmi, and St. Claire. Anna starts off as total newbie about Paris (I was cringing a bit), but she eventually relaxes and settles into the group and is is eating French food, walking to Paris landmarks and enjoying the Paris cinema scene. Despite Anna’s initial hang-ups about being an American and what Parisians must think of her, she’s a cool girl in her own right. She has a quick sense of humor and an interest in film, and while she thinks St. Claire is really hot, she always maintains her dignity around him. I loved that she is a girl who doesn’t have her brains turn to mush just because the guy she likes is looking at her.

The kids at SOAP that Anna falls in with are a self-assured, independent crowd. Their days consist of easy  friendships, hanging out in Paris and their dorms, relaxed in each other’s company. Before long, she and Étienne are close friends, but their relationship is fraught with their unvoiced attraction. Étienne is really good looking with the charm (and accent) to match. Even if he’s not very tall, there are several girls interested in him, including Meredith. Anna isn’t about to go after a boy her friend likes, besides, Étienne has a girlfriend, and Anna likes a boy back home named Toph.

In awkward denial-slash-avoidance, Anna and  Étienne maintain that they are just friends, even though they share moments filled with unvoiced feelings. Reading the story from Anna’s point of view made everything so much more immediate. You could cut the tension with a knife. This is where the story can be frustrating. When I was reading this, I felt exasperated by the way both Anna and Étienne were acting, but at the same time, I couldn’t fault either of them for it (OK, I wanted to fault Étienne, but I couldn’t really do it). There were very good reasons on both sides not to be the first one to admit anything or change anything. Plus they are young, and they have other people to consider. This is a character driven story, and Anna relationships with her old and new friends and her issues with her Nicholas-Sparks-alike father, and Étienne’s own issues with his friends and parents, are all part of the big picture. Luckily, there’s a whole school year to figure things out.

Overall: Anna and the French Kiss is one of those books that stands apart from the pack. I think it’s because it captures this little phase of life (when you’re out of the house, but not quite on your own), in a way that feels so real and relatable. Anna’s life made me nostalgic for my college days, the Parisian backdrop made me want to fly off somewhere, and the romance made me happy that I’m past the limbo of “I wonder if he likes me”. I like you for these things, dear book.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
One More Page – 5 stars (out of 5)
Giraffe Days – 5 giraffes (out of 5)
My Favourite Books – positive
Charlotte’s Library – “good reading, but it wasn’t a perfect book”
In which a girl reads – 8.25/10 (and with some interesting observations on Étienne)
The Book Pushers – A+
Chachic’s Book Nook – “deserves all the hype that it’s been getting in the blogosphere”
Life After Jane – positive
The Book Harbinger – “An incredibly sweet story”
Book Fare Delights – 5 strawberries (out of 5)
intoyourlungs – “seriously one of the best novels I’ve read this year”
christina_reads – positive
Guy Gone Geek – 4 stars (out f 6)