The Legacy – Katherine Webb
(*** of five)
This book took me forever to read. Not because it wasn’t compelling and not because I didn’t like it, but rather because I was ensconced in the second season of ‘Homeland’ and thus unable to read. After that I was off on vacation with friends and unable to read. So by the time I sat down to this book I was feeling sort of ambivalent about it. Not a great way to go into the second half of a book once the first half was finished in stops and starts. Still, I did enjoy this book. It was given a lot of great reviews and I’m not sure it was a great as I was led to believe it was, but it was a solid story in a form that I love (girl now trying to uncover secrets of the past, which in turn unfold for the reader in a separate narrative).
Erica and her sister, Beth, have returned to their ancestral home, Storton Manor, after the death of their bitter grandmother, Meredith. They haven’t been back to the Manor since they were children, the horrible summer when their cousin, Henry, disappeared without a trace. An event that they know more about than what they’ve said. With Erica foundering and Beth suffering from a deep depression, Erica hopes that a time at the Manor will solve some of the mysteries of the past, especially as their childhood friend, Dinny, is still in the area. But some secrets are best never known and Erica discovers that are far more than one buried at Storton Manor, going back to the girl’s great grandmother, Caroline, an American who wed Lord Calcott in 1905 but who might have been harboring a secret past.
There were two stories here; Erica and Beth’s and Caroline’s. Both were fully compelling though I was especially interested in Caroline’s tale of a beautiful New York debutante transplanted to the wilderness of the Oklahoma prairie. Her journey was very interesting, especially the fact that I believe she was destined to be unhappy from the moment she met Corin Massey in New York. A woman of the city she could hardly have been happy on the prairie, but at the same time she could not be happy without Corin. It was an interesting tangle and one that was handled very well in this book. Her journey seemed genuine and conflicted, somewhat tortured but not in a melodramatic way.
Erica was the lead character in the modern storyline and she was worthy of it. Beth would have been difficult to grasp onto given her depression and inability to do much of anything. Erica was lost, switching jobs and apartments as often as she pleased, but she was something to grasp onto. We could learn along with her. But was there anything about her that was particularly great? Not really. I’m not sure I even noticed this while reading, but it is true.
This book is tricky. I liked it, but even a day later I am not sure why. It followed a formula I like, and I enjoyed uncovering the secrets. But most of them were pretty obvious from the beginning and discovering them was more of a a-ha! at being right rather than actually discovering something. I liked Erica and I liked Caroline, I enjoyed spending time with them, but in the end it’s probably best that they are single serving friends.
The Expats – Chris Pavone
(*** of five)
The plot of ‘The Expats’ was really good, the characters were well drawn, and even the writing was not worth complaining about. The problem was pacing. While everything should have gelled in this novel, it didn’t quite. What should have been something I couldn’t put down was really just okay. Not the sort of okay that would prompt me to tell everyone to pick this book up, but okay enough that I wouldn’t be above recounting the story and making it sound more exciting than it was. This book was like the TV show ‘Rubicon’ if you took out all the conspiracy. This is what I imagine is the reality of spies. It’s never quite as exciting as Ian Fleming would lead us to believe. There’s more paper work involved than gun fights.
Kate isn’t terribly reluctant when her husband announces the family should move to Luxembourg. Though she’s lying when she says she doesn’t know where the small country is located she’s never thought of living there. But with Dexter’s paycheck increasing to as much as three quarters of a million dollars a year and the idea of European travel, she quickly agrees and leaves her DC home, friends, and job behind. But Kate’s job is anything but ordinary, a former operative and current desk jockey for the Central Intelligence Agency, and not something she can leave behind so easily. As her family gets settled into their Luxembourgois existence Kate starts to suspect that things are not exactly what they seem, especially when a shady new couple enters their lives. Soon Kate’s not sure what’s true, what’s real, or who to believe. She learns that what is known, and where her instincts lay, can not be unknown. Kate finds that you can stop spying, but you can’t stop thinking like a spy.
I picked this book up because my dad recommended it and he doesn’t recommend a lot. I don’t blame him. There was a lot here that was going for this book. I love espionage, for one. I also love thriller/mysteries where a character is trying to piece together events of their own life. This… almost did it for me. It’s the sort of book that is so close to being good that it’s infuriating. I was genuinely interested to learn what would happen next and where it would end up, but the tepidity and the lack of any real urgency was a problem. There were also a lot of moments that I am certain were meant to be surprising, but weren’t.
I wouldn’t say not to read this, because I did enjoy it, but I wouldn’t say to be expecting a powerhouse of activity and excitement. This book is far quieter than it should have been, perhaps that’s more realistic, but it’s also less entertaining.
The Darlings – Cristina Alger
(*** of five)
I read the book because it was listed as like another book that I liked. I can’t remember, for the life of me, what that book was now, nor do I think I ever will because this book was quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. And there’s a reason for that. Honestly, I don’t think I would have ever picked out a book about the financial sector. I’m pretty sure I’ve fallen asleep while someone tried to explain a hedge fund to me. I don’t care about Wall Street or investments, and the word Ponzi scheme only mildly catches my attention. So, it seems like this book, which is essentially the story (from many points of view) of a family who’s caught in the middle of a financial crisis, would bore me to tears. But, it didn’t. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this book was excellent, but I’d hazard to say it was fully intriguing.
Paul Ross married into the wealthy New York Darling family and quickly became a full fledged member of their ranks, taking a job at the family Hedge Fund, to the delight of his wife, Merrill, a lawyer. Her sister, Lily, never amounted to much more than a socialite and wife to Julian, the head of PR at Delphic, the company of family head Carter Darling. When news comes in that family friend and investor Morty Reis has driven up to the Tappan Zee Bridge in the middle of the night and jumped off, it becomes immediately clear that not everything was right with his investment company, and as SEC becomes involved and reporters circle the story it becomes more and more clear that this was more than a little discrepancy, it was a full blown Ponzi scheme. But with Morty dead and the sharks circling, it seems obvious that someone is going to take the blame and who better than someone from Delphic, who have thirty three percent of their portfolio invested with Morty. Soon it’s every man for himself as they all scramble to make sure they’re not the one who ends up behind bars. Family loyalties are tested and friendships strained, leading to the question, who can you trust when everything is on the line.
This was one of those books that’s written from about twenty points of view, which isn’t the format of story that I like best. I prefer character driven stories rather than event driven stories. Oh, I know there must be some conflict, but when the story is really about the conflict and we need this many points of view to get a good picture it tends to annoy me. But that’s not to say I don’t end up loving them, I often do. It’s a complicated relationship I have with these sorts of novels. This one did a good job. This is a complicated issue and seeing as I’m not up on the financial market, one that I don’t have many hopes of understanding without lots of explanation. The choice to write this from so many points of view created a full picture that was ultimately satisfying. And the short chapters made the reading speed along. All of the characters came off both well and poorly at the same time, as most people are want to do, and felt complete. The scandal was clearly inspired by the now famous Madoff case, as everything is these days, but examining it from the inside was actually very interesting. Everyone was a little bit in the wrong, but it didn’t seem fair that any of them should receive all the blame. But still, the ending was satisfying.
This was a good read. It wasn’t great, but it was certainly worth looking in to if the description sounds appealing. I’m a sucker for rich families, they’re very Tolstoyian in the fact that they are never happy. But the financial stuff put me off. If you like that sort of thing I think you’ll love this, otherwise you’ll just like it and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
Blue Bloods: Gates of Paradise – Melissa de la Cruz
(**** of five)
I am a huge sucker for this series. Huge. My best friend, in fact, has been subjected to so many of my endless descriptive recountings of the tale that I often feel as though she may whop me about the head. I don’t care. I don’t care that this is completely age inappropriate, as I am no longer sixteen, this is a really good series. It is my complete and end all if I had to pick on guilty pleasure. And this is the end. The last book. We say goodbye to Schuyler, and Oliver, and Jack, and Mimi, and Bliss and Kingsley, and all the rest. It was a good ride and I think the ending lived up to it.
After the many events in the preceding six books Schuyler and Jack are parted once more; she in London searching out the Gate of Promise (which we just learned is a two way road forking one way to Hell and the other back to Paradise) and he forced into serving Lucifer in Hell with his twin sister, both Force twins having forsaken their bond to be with others. Meanwhile, Bliss Llewellyn has joined with the wolves, freshly broken from their bond to the Hounds of Hell (see; Wolf Pact) and are racing to correct a fracture in time gone back to Roman times. With Sky and Oliver searching through her human past and the Force twins acting as double agents and everyone gearing up for the ultimate battle between good and evil the stakes have never been this high.
Yes, yes, I know. I had a hard time writing my synopsis with a straight face. But this series was perhaps one of the most surprising things I’ve come across in awhile. I certainly never thought that when I opened ‘Blue Bloods’ on the beach two years ago I would be actively anticipating the next installment. But, these are very imaginative stories. And they’re probably like the filet mignon of teen supernatural fiction as far as writing goes. I have always felt like the characters were well developed and multidimensional, only veering towards stereotype in the very beginning. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not under any kind of illusion that these are great books. They are what they are and they are very good at being. If vampires and angels and the supernatural are your thing, I’d say check it out. But probably start from the beginning.
The Ivy – Lauren Kunze
(**** of five)
There’s nothing to defeat the Winter doldrums quite like no-brainer Teen Fiction, and ‘The Ivy’ is just that. And given my penchant for books about students, academia, and particularly the Ivies, it seems like this would be a slam dunk for me. I’d heard of it long before I picked it up. It was always toted well around the YA fiction readers (I honestly don’t know why I like these sorts of books but they have it all; scandal, trysts, and are just plain fun, the same reason I watch Pretty Little Liars religiously, I suppose). I didn’t pick it up just because I felt like I’d read enough of these sorts of books. But then, for Christmas, I was gifted a Nook. Yes, an ereader, which I have been railing against for years. I figured I should download something and this ended up being the winner. I sped through it and quickly searched out the sequels. I don’t mind the ereader either (though I still prefer books). Yes this is somewhat silly. It’s glossy and romantic and scandalous. But, really, what is the matter with that?
Callie Andrews has been accepted at at Harvard University and substitutes her middle class California lifestyle for that of old money and Finals Clubs. Within these pages Callie makes unlikely friends with her three very different roommates; promiscuous, foreign, and hilarious Mimi, conservative Dana, and New York socialite in training, Vanessa; delves into her mountains of school work, begins the audition process for the Harvard Crimson’s weekly magazine, Fifteen Minutes, headed by a one Alexis Thorndike who takes a disliking to Callie immediately; and then of course there are boys. Torn between Gregory, her ladies man of a cross hall neighbor; Clint, the too perfect ex-boyfriend of Callie’s new nemesis; Matt, who’s probably just a friend; and Evan, her ex who’s done something unforgivable, Callie must tread the waters of a new grown up world where actions have consequences that must be faced, whether she wants to or not.
The book actually reminded me a lot of Penelope, by Rebecca Harrington. Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison, as Callie is much more outgoing an social ept than Harrington’s protagonist, but both are fish out of water as Harvard freshman, and both deal with girls who are suddenly thrown in with the upper classes and upperclassmen who belong to Final Clubs, the all male social clubs that pepper Harvard Square but are now unaffiliated with the school, mostly due to their bizarre refusal to go co-ed. While Callie is an outsider, she does have some very influential friends, and boyfriends, so she becomes a member of the Hasty Pudding Social Club (a social club, not Final Club, which is co-ed) so we do see the insides of these exclusive groups, which is very fun.
This book is definitely Young Adult fiction, but it’s head and shoulders above the rest. The writing is well done, concise, and very fun. Actually, there’s not much of a difference between this and a chick lit book. I realize that’s not much of a compliment, but it’s not exactly an insult either. There are times for heavy, thought provoking, award winning books, and there are times for something a bit less meaty. This is definitely the latter, but it’s very fun.
The Ivy: Secrets – Lauren Kunze
(**** of five)
Callie Andrews is back in this second installment of the Ivy series. It continues the tradition of the first novel, starting right after the first ends in the first semester of her Freshman year at Harvard University. This series is from that rare line these days; fiction for the younger set that’s not a supernatural romance. This is about hazarding the trials and tribulations of… everyday life? Most take place in high school but here author Lauren Kunze stitched together her experiences in the Ivy League into one hell of an entertaining Young Adult series. Yes, there’s a lot of unnecessary drama, a lot of extreme backstabbing, and rivalries that seem a little too high school. But who hasn’t experienced that in their own lives, even if they don’t want to?
After the events in the first book Callie Andrews is left unsure where she stands with… well, anyone. Her roommate and former best friend, Vanessa Von Vorhees, is not speaking to her because of an entanglement with their neighbor across the hall, Gregory, at the Harvard-Yale game; because of a misunderstanding, Gregory is keeping Callie at arm’s length; and to cap it all off she may or may not have cheated on Clint, the upperclassman who’s too good to be true. Between challenging classes, her crumbling social life, and continuing her COMP (the audition process) for Fifteen Minutes Magazine for arch-nemesis Alexis Thorndike Callie can hardly keep her head above water. Especially when Alexis finds out Callie’s deepest, darkest secret. Callie will do anything to keep everyone from finding out, and Alexis is there to make sure she does.
These books are good. I mean, they’re silly and easy to read and don’t really mean much, but for this sort of fiction The Ivy series really goes a bit deeper. In a lot of ways, apart from the simplistic writing style and the copious love triangles and entanglements, these read just like any other (adult) book that’s written about the college experience. And there’s no doubt that that is what Kunze has set out to do. The culture of the best and oldest school in the country is vastly different from what the rest of us experience, and luckily for us; it’s really fun.
The Ivy: Rivals – Lauren Kunze
(**** of five)
In the third installment of The Ivy series Callie and crew continue where we’ve left off. Gregory realizes the misunderstanding that has kept him and Callie apart, but it may be too late. Now that COMP is over and Callie was rejected from Fifteen Minutes (even after she slaved for editor Alexis Thorndike and broke up with too perfect Clint at Alexis’ bequest) she just might get a new opportunity at the Harvard Crimson. At least if Grace Lee, the intrepid editor, has anything to say about it. But with a new, official, beau Callie might be set to start anew. As old rivals and new frenemies come out to play and Callie grows a little more world weary it’s clear she still has a lot more to learn. As the Hasty Pudding Social Club and a couple Finals Clubs head to the Caribbean for Spring Break the season is high for drama that wont end until they return to campus and the bottom finally falls out of Callie’s strenuously arranged Freshman year.
There’s something about Teen Fiction that I love. Perhaps it’s that I never grew up properly, or perhaps it’s just that I can appreciate all sort of fiction. I can’t help it, I just love a bit of cheese every once in awhile. Which is probably why one of my favorite television shows is ‘Pretty Little Liars’. I don’t care that they introduce plots that disappear without a trace two episodes later. The other day I said to my, also addicted, best friend “Can you imagine how good this show would be if the writing was actually good?” That’s sort of the way I feel about Teen Fiction. It’s quick to read, almost single serving, and I can never wait to get back to see what happens. And The Ivy series is one of the better ones I’ve read. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for the supernatural romance/ teenagers saving the world stuff, but I also like the every day normal ones, as long as the character are well done. And in this they are. Callie is a strong character, her guys multidimensional, and her roommates either hilariously diverse or wickedly reactionary. All of this is a winning combination, clearly, cause The Ivy might not be great reading, but it is great fun.
Sweet Tooth – Ian McEwan
(*** of five)
I’m not sure what to say about this book. On one hand, it’s Ian McEwan and I don’t think I need to go into any effort when trying to convey his skill. On the other hand, I seemed to develop a sort of narrative induced narcolepsy when reading this book. It wasn’t as if I didn’t like it. It wasn’t even that it was slow. There was just something about it that lulled me off into the deepest of sleeps with only the effort it took to lift this book to my face and read.
Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) is a somewhat below average college student, studying the wrong subject in 1970s England when she meets the handsome older man who will introduce her to a whole new life. As Tony Canning grooms Serena for an interview at MI5 she begins to fall in love but when the love affair comes to a crashing end Serena finds herself ensconced in the somewhat boring world of clerical work for an intelligence agency. Living week to week in a tiny bedsit Serena finds comfort in books, her one friend, Shirley, and a potential love interest, Max Greatorex. But then Serena is assigned to Sweet Tooth, a intelligence funded program meant to groom artists and promote their Capitalist work. Tom Haley is a budding novelist and soon he’s Serena’s asset. As Serena finds herself falling in love, once again, and as the lies continue to pile up it becomes less and less likely that Serena can extract herself from the situation with her heart intact.
I wrote in my review of ‘The Expats’ that that book was what I imagined real life espionage to be like. Less James Bond, more paranoid housewife. I was wrong. THIS is what I imagine real life espionage to look like. No one dangles from a window here. No one wields a gun or knife. The double crossing that takes place within ‘Sweet Tooth’ is more liked to games of lovers than games of spies. Serena’s job is not glamorous, she is not paid well, and when she acquires an asset of her own it’s fairly banal. Perhaps what I am really saying here is that this is not a book that’s exciting because it’s about spies. It is about spies and it can be fairly exciting, but the excitement comes from human entanglements rather than spy work. There’s double crossing and deviousness, but not over state secrets. By the time I got about halfway through I was completely invested in Serena, Shirley, Tom, Tony, and Max, but it did take me awhile to get there. This book is slow going but ultimately rewarding. Like any good McEwan it gets there.
Also like any good McEwan it’s nearly completely character driven. Serena is undoubtedly the central character, but all the characters, from the greatly detailed Tony Canning to the supplementary Mr. Frome, also a Bishop, are well drawn and completely believable. This did end up being a very good book, narcolepsy aside, but it did take me a good long time to get into it. It probably didn’t help that the only place I had to read for the six days it took me to complete was my warm, comfy bed. The most gripping, fast paced of fare might have given me narcolepsy too.
Moranthology – Caitlin Moran
(**** of five)
This book was great. Great. I don’t usually read this sort of thing; the books published by women who should really be comedians but instead have talk shows and tv series where they play themselves. Or, you know, are columnists for the London Times. On the front cover Caitlin Moran is compared to Tina Fey, Chelsea Handler, and Lena Dunham when really she’s all her own. And she’s hilarious. She’s like what Carrie Bradshaw would have been if she wasn’t so into finding guys and more in tune with pop culture, didn’t care about fashion, and hero worshiped Benedict Cumberbatch more than a new pair of Manolos. This book is basically a bunch of her columns put together with short introductions into each one. If I lived in England and regularly read her column I’m sure this would have been repetitive and unnecessary. But, I don’t live in England, unfortunately, and I’ve never been exposed to Moran before. Her previous novel, ‘How to Be A Woman’ managed to escape me. I’m not surprised. As I said, I’m not a connoisseur of this sort of book. In fact, the only reason this one caught my attention is because she’s supporting the raddest looking typewriter the world has ever seen on her knees. Improbably. Because really who could possibly type that way. Actually, it looks pretty uncomfortable, as that thing looks pretty heavy. And is so if the photograph of the author on the back is any indication; Moran, jazzily dressed in cuffed jeans and teal Doc Martins, heaving a matching typewriter. But that is hardly the point. Inside ‘Moranthology’ you’ll find articles on everything from vacationing on the Welsh coast (I would now really like to go to Aberystwyth), rants about women copying her unique hair (funny because when my best friend saw the cover she immediately exclaim that that, THAT, was the hair she wanted), and many many thoughts on the BBC’s fantastic show ‘Sherlock’ (I have to disagree with half her assessment of the greatness of A Scandal in Belgravia, which I only found half amazing and reserve the other half to eye-rolling stereotypes). I didn’t always agree (I think she’s trying to take ‘Downton Abbey’ a little too seriously) but was always amused. I found myself laughing out loud rather frequently throughout this book, which I sped through in my eagerness to see what she’d talk about next. And the subjects were very diverse; pop culture, travel, fashion, motherhood, love, all the things that make up a life. This book wasn’t a memoir or biography. It was a collection of articles, essays, and editorials. But, in the end I felt like I walked away with a pretty good idea of who Caitlin Moran is. And I like her.
Spy in a Little Black Dress – Maxine Kenneth
(*** of five)
This is the sequel to ‘Paris to Die For’, an amusing “What If?” book about Jackie Bouvier, before she was Jackie Kennedy, as agent of the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency. In the first book Jackie met with a potential Russian defector, flirted with a French photographer, became ensconced in the plight of an exiled princess, and made a date with an up and coming congressman from Massachusetts. In the sequel we are in for more of the same.
Jacqueline Lee Bouvier has just returned to her stepfather’s Virginia estate after an exciting, yet harrowing, mission in Paris for the CIA. Between putting in social appearances, maintaining her pristine collection of couture, and spy training at the Farm it’s a surprise that Jackie has time for anything else. But when Allen Dulles, director of the intelligence agency, asks Jackie to get close and personal with Jack Kennedy to find out if he supports the fledgling agency, Jackie agrees immediately. But soon Jackie is whisked away on a new mission to Cuba; get a better understanding of revolutionary Fidel Castro’s political leanings should his group manage to overthrow president Batista, and try to find the treasure of a Civil War solider buried on the island. Before she can even click her heels together Jackie is in trouble with three Stooge-looking Stasi agents and the diabolical General Sanchez. Not to mention she’s in danger of loosing her heart to her handsome young Cuban contact, Emiliano. But in a country with this much unrest and this close to the equator things are sure to heat up for our refined young CIA agent, who just so happens to be a future first lady.
This book is just pure fun. It’s not great writing, and the people she meets are just a bit too convenient (at a club in Havana she runs into Hemingway and Sinatra and shares a table with a young Grace Kelly in a Schraft’s in New York) but they are sort of fun. Especially as it’s sort of a game to think who she might run into yet. But, it also helps to keep in mind that the plots and characters in this book are flat out absurd. It’s also interesting to note that Jackie does manage a few dates with her future husband and the epilogue ten years in the future in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis, which brings and interesting view to both Jackie as a character, and wife to the rakish gentleman we’ve seen throughout the book, and to her mission, which she’s never spoken about to anyone.
This book gave a surprisingly sympathetic view to the Cuban revolutionaries, but stopped short before Castro was actually in power. We’re never given Jackie’s views on what Cuba’s fall to communism. Though we’re left with idealistic views that don’t get to a far deeper subject, that’s probably for the best. This is light reading after all. It’s a fun book about the early days of the CIA with an improbable heroine. Not realistic, but I never wanted it to be. Now if they’ll just write FBI Pat Nixon I think we’ll have it covered.