Books I’ve Read – June 2012

Paris to Die For – Maxine Kenneth 

(*** of five)

Basically, this book was just fun. It was exactly what it was supposed to be; a bit cheesy, a bit mysterious, and a bit retro. The basis, of course, is slightly ridiculous. As much as we love to imagine our debutantes have secret lives and secret goals the thought that a young Jacqueline Bouvier was in the CIA in 1951 is sort of stupid. And that they would send her on a mission to Paris with no training and no notice. But, who cares. I didn’t want realism, I wanted to be amused.

‘Paris to Die For’ takes place in the early fifties. Jackie Bouvier has just graduated from a smattering of fabulous colleges (Vassar, the Sorbonne in exchange through Smith, and George Washington), she’s had her debut and is lauded in the press for her classic look and grace, and she’s bored with dating John Husted who her mother wants her to marry. So when Allen Dulles invites her to help out the fledgling CIA by cozying up to a Russian defector in Paris she jumps at the change. But, naturally, it’s not as simple as all that and as the bodies start piling up Jackie must turn to her only contact in the City of Lights, a dashing photographer named Jacques Rivage. Through in an overzealous assassin, the displaced Princess of a small Middle Eastern country, a pair of annoying British hangers on, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and you have a simmering pot of just plain fun.

There were, of course, the moments that were just too precious. Such as, for instance, when Jackie, escaping her would be assassin, enters the House of Dior and runs into a waifish Belgian model named Audrey Hepburn. Or when she visits the bathroom at the Cinematheque Francaise and runs into Truffaut waxing poetic about Hitchcock. Yes, we get it, and there were bound to be these interludes, but they continually left me groaning. Especially Ian Fleming.

This book isn’t going to be winning any awards, it’s not going to change your life. It’s not even especially that good, but that’s not really the point, now is it? It was a quick read, fun for a little while. A great beach read. I may pick up the sequel, ‘Spy in a Little Black Dress’, but it wont rush to the top of my list.

Stitches – David Small

(**** of five)

My mother read this book for her book club and handed it off to me. From what I could tell her main reasoning seemed to be that it only took her an hour to get through, so it stayed on my shelf for a few weeks. I do like graphic novels, and I find them particularly poignant when they come in the form of memoir, but they never seem to be the first thing I grab when I’m trying to decide what to read next. I’m very glad I decided to read this. I don’t know of David Small but he’s apparently a well known cartoonist for many reputable newspapers and magazines, as well as a children’s author. I am willing to bet this is like his other work.

The story begins when David is small and, because of a problem with his sinuses, he’s subjected to countless x-rays by his father. Several years later a growth appears of his neck, which is ignored for far too long, and when it’s finally removed along with it goes his thyroid gland and half is vocal cords. He discovers by himself much later that it was cancer. The book also focuses heavily upon his difficult relationship with both his parents.

Obviously, this being a graphic novel, there are two sides to critique. Firstly, the art. The drawings in this book are done in black and white with simplistic lines and small details that bring to mind the age we are hearing the tales from. It works to great effect. As I said, I am unfamiliar with Small’s other work, but this style was perfect for a memoir story. The other aspect is, of course, the tale, which is wonderful, about illness, childhood fears, and the solitude of everyday life. Highly recommended.

Beautiful Creatures – Cami Garcia & Margaret Stohl

(*** of five)

Well. This was pretty good. It would be pretty easy to write this off as just another fantasyesque novel written for young adults in the wake of Potter and ‘Twilight’ mania, but I’m not sure that’s entirely fair. I say entirely because I’m not sure this novel would have ever been written if not for those two fantastically popular precursors, but who can say for sure.

‘Beautiful Creatures’ is the first in the Caster Chronicles series of young adult books. It’s the story of Ethan Wate. He’s from Gatlin, South Carolina, terminally bored, and can’t wait to get out of his sleepy town, which no one ever seems to escape. That is until Lena Duchannes moves in with her uncle Macon Ravenwood, the town recluse. Lena is literally the girl of Ethan’s dream. Neither can understand the connection between them, but it’s clear it’s strong. And it’s also clear that Lena isn’t exactly normal. She’s a Caster with abilities of the supernatural. On her sixteenth birthday she will be claimed by either the Dark or the Light, and she has no control over which. As her birthday gets closer and closer Ethan and Lena fall more into love until they realize that whatever happens they can’t let each other go.

So, yes, it sounds an awful lot like a lot of other young adult series but it was probably better. How else could it’s upcoming film drawn in the likes of Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emma Thompson, and Emmy Rossum? The first thing that saved it is that it’s narrated by Ethan, so right there we escape piles of unnecessary angst, though of course there is some present (the RIGHT amounts cause we do LIKE some angst). Most of the characters, as well, are pretty flushed out. Of course there are some stereotypes but the ones who count are mostly full characters. There’s also a few lessons in tolerance along the way. But the thing that really grabbed me right from the start was the scenery. The picture painted of Gatlin, it’s Southern mentality, and it’s history was very rich and really expanded the story for me.

So, I am giving it a lot of praise, but of course there were irritating things. It was about a hundred pages too long, first off. There were a lot of scenes of Ethan and Lena lying on the grass reading books. Necessary to paint a picture, perhaps, but perhaps not so much. Though perhaps that downfall is one of it’s strengths as we actually got to see the characters fall in love rather than gaze at each other and immediately know they’re the one. But the main reason this book didn’t receive more than three stars from me was that, even though I was entirely engaged and wanted to see how it all ended up, I don’t think I’m going to actively seek out the sequels. I feel satisfied with where the story left off. Maybe that’s another strength.

The Debutante – Kathleen Tessaro

(** of five)

This book was okay. O-k. Nothing good. But it wasn’t terrible either. That doesn’t sound like much to recommend it and I’m honestly not sure if I would. This book had a lot of potential, and showed glimpses of great characters, unfortunately it didn’t follow through on anything.

‘The Debutante’ is, at it’s core, the story of Cate Albion. She’s fresh home to London after a disastrous stint in New York City where she completely abandoned her artistic sensibilities to start painting reproductions and became the mistress to a wealthy older man. It’s also about Jack, a widower who works for Cate’s aunt pricing antiques. Together they travel to Devon, to the house of the recently deceased Lady Irene Avondale who’s sister, Diana ‘Baby’ Blythe, was a famous debutante in the early thirties who mysteriously disappeared during the war. Cate finds an old shoebox containing some items from Baby’s life and goes on a hunt for the truth behind the legend.

This book was lacking something serious; Baby. Throughout the story we get her story through a series of letters written by her and a final tale that clears a lot of stuff up, but we really needed more. I guess maybe I wanted more. Maybe I just wanted a book that Tessaro didn’t write. But the books is entitled ‘The Debutante’ after all, I would have liked more of… well, the debutante. The rest of the story wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t compelling either. Jack felt the most real to me, but only at points. I liked the idea, hell I’ve read the idea, but this didn’t add much to the genre. It was mostly tepid.

Cheerleaders Collectors Edition – R.L. Stine

(*** of five) 

I’ve hit some sort of full fledged nostalgia attack. It started with the Fear Street Saga, which was my favorite of the Fear Street books when I was a kid and that propelled me into trying to remember the one about Sarah Fear. This series was it. Though, they’re not so much about Sarah Fear as about the cheerleaders of Shadyside High who awaken an ancient evil that was once alive in Sarah Fear. That’s probably all you really need to know about this book. Is it good? I mean, yes. I remember being compelled by the plot twists and eager to know what happens next in all three Cheerleaders books; The First Evil, The Second Evil, and (amazingly enough) The Third Evil. This time around I’m not sure if I was too old to be duped or I just remembered enough of the plot to know what was coming. Either way, they were still fun reads, making me remember why I loved this series as much as I did.

The Awakening Evil – R.L. Stine

(*** of five) 

I figured since I was whipping my way through the Cheerleaders Fear Street books that I might as well reread this one as well. I mean, it’s not like it takes that long. This is the story of how the Evil was born. The story of Sarah Fear. My main problem with it is that it doesn’t completely match up to what was already reveled about Sarah Fear in the Cheerleaders series. For example, her hair color is different. Yes, okay, not a big deal, but why? Also we’re told about Sarah’s full life, filled with friends and family before her miraculous recovery from an illness. In this book she’s alone and lonely. It seems a bit silly to be picking apart a Fear Street book, but a book is a book and why contradict what’s already been stated? This could have been a lot better if canon was flushed out instead of creating a new one. Perhaps it was for the sake of brevity. It’s ultimately satisfying though and I guess that’s all you can really ask for.

Red Leaves – Paullina Simons 

(** of five)

I don’t know what to say about this book. I even had a hard time deciding how many stars to grant it. It wasn’t good, not really at all. There were parts that were cringe-worthy. But, it had its moments and it was sort of a page turner.

‘Red Leaves’ is the story of two people at heart; Kristina Kim and Spencer O’Malley. Kristina is on the verge of twenty-one, she’s a philosophy major at Dartmouth and shows plenty of promise for the future. Except, she’s kind of a completely idiot (more later). She’s had the same close knit group of friends since Freshman year; Jim Shaw (her boyfriend), Conni Tobias, and Albert Maplethorpe (Conni’s boyfriend with whom she’s having an affair). The first section of the novel belongs to her as she goes through the final few days before Thanksgiving break, culminating in her traditional naked walk across an icy bridge with a 70 foot drop (no, this is never really explained). Her part ends abruptly here because her body is found lying in the woods, and Spencer takes over. Spencer met and was intrigued by Kristina in the days leading up to her death. He becomes obsessed with the case and the reader is taken through twists and turns as Spencer hones in on the killer and stirs up secrets from the past.

We’ll start with the stupidest character put to paper, Kristina. I’ve read a lot of negative reviews of this book and most seem to agree on one point, Kristina makes no sense. She’s forever changing so her motivation is often confusing. At times I had to wonder if she was even a little slow, or perhaps foreign. When events from her past are revealed I think we were supposed to understand her a bit better, but… I didn’t. Also, her reasoning was nonsensical. For example, early in she gets in a car accident that flips and totals her car. While the other driver is searching for help Kristina leave the car and stumbles back to campus, not because she’s in shock or drunk, but because she’s not a fan of hospitals. She spends the rest of her short life in pain. Why? If we’d been given some hospital related trauma maybe I’d understand it, but we weren’t and her obstinance was absurd. And if that’s not stupid enough, after she stumbles home she proceeds to immediately get shit faced so if the cops were to arrive, as one might imagine they would, she’d look as if she were drunk.

Spencer made more sense. It might have improved things if the book had belonged entirely to him. Actually, the whole book improved with Spencer’s arrival. While wading through the first half I stopped to check if English was perhaps not Ms. Simons’ first language. The author is from Russia, but she moved to Queens in childhood so the language explanation seems moot. So, it was a problem. At times it read like a primer. “Kristina got in the car. She started the car. ‘I hate this car!’ she said.” Not good. If the whole thing had been like that I would have quit. Thankfully things improved with the narration switched to Spencer’s point of view.

Also, the book was somewhat steeped in mystery. So many, in fact, that they didn’t all get solved adequately. There were also a couple of plot twists that I was sure were supposed to shocking. And it’s not as if I saw them all coming, I didn’t, but if Ms. Simons wanted to scandalize me she really didn’t go far enough. In the end I wasn’t really satisfied with the knowledge we were left with, morally ambiguous or no. I understood the facts but not all the motivations and that left me, not exactly unsatisfied by the book, but certainly puzzled. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

The Drowning Tree – Carol Goodman

(**** of five)

This was my third Carol Goodman novel and from the outset it’s clear; she definitely has a formula down. Secrets from the past shedding light on the present, tight knit academia, meditations on art and literature, and gripping literary mysteries. I suppose I should feel as if I’ve read this before (and from the same author), but instead I’m waiting for a new one in the mail.

‘The Drowning Tree’ is the story of Juno McKay, former artist and current expert in stained glass. She lives in the same small Hudson Valley enclave where she attended college at fictional Penrose (basically, Vassar) with her kayaking fanatic daughter, Beatrice, and their dogs Paolo and Francesca. Clearly she’s a Dante fan. Beatrice’s father, Neil, is locked up in Briarwood, a mental health facility near Poughkeepsie, where her best friend, Christine, is from, after an incident where he tried to kill himself, Juno, and their baby daughter by drowning. Moving on from exposition, early on Christine makes a speech about secrets of the Penrose family and a stained glass window everyone assumed was a portrait of Augustus Penrose’s wife but who Christine believes to really be his sister in law, Clare, a patient at the same facility where Neil lives. That evening Christine disappears and Juno is propelled into a chase for the truth behind, not just her best friend’s death, but also secrets locked away at both the former Penrose estate, Astolat, and Briarwood itself.

The thing that is immediately apparent in Goodman’s writing is that she really knows how to set a scene. She creates stunning atmosphere. This book made me desperate to go to the Hudson River Valley and see the places she wrote about, real or imagined. It’s something I’ve been impressed with in every one of her novels, all set in Upstate New York, the reader really feels as if they are there.

As formerly stated, this book has the same elements are the two other Goodman books I’ve read, ‘The Lake of Dead Languages’ and ‘Arcadia Falls’; the early on death of a character, the return to an alma mater that hides secrets, a somewhat absent daughter, a policeman love interest, and shadowy pasts. But that doesn’t mean it’s the same book. ‘The Lake of Dead Languages’ has so far been my favorite offering, but I have to wonder if that was just because it was the one I read first. In any event this novel was filled with enough twists and turns that I couldn’t wait to get back and discover who had done it. And, I really didn’t know. Several times I found myself desperate to find out Christine’s killer because all I knew was who much I didn’t want it to be a certain character. I was invested enough to care that much, and I think that’s telling. I can’t imagine this will ever be winning any prizes for great literature, but I’m okay with that because sometimes things are just compelling and that’s enough.

Lost Girls – Alan Moore & Melinda Gebbie

(** of five)

There were a couple of reasons why I picked this up. Firstly, I like Alan Moore. I mean, I am sure that he’s completely batshit crazy, but that often lends itself to some interesting stories. I’ve read ‘Watchmen’, ‘From Hell’, ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’, and ‘V for Vendetta’ and enjoyed them all quite a bit. Which leads to the second reason I picked it up; I thought the idea was creative. Throwing a grown up Wendy, Alice, and Dorothy together and reweaving all their stories into sexual awakening was a really good idea. Unfortunately, it could have been done better than this.

This book is basically porn. Now, don’t dismiss me. I am in no means a prude. There was plenty of awkward cartoon sex in all Moore’s other graphic novels, but that always came hand in hand with a lot of plot and intrigue. This didn’t have either of those. It just had a lot of nudity.

If this is meant as titillation this falls flat for me because I don’t find pictures of women in poses that they are very unlikely to strike while getting it on exciting. It just doesn’t do it for me. If that’s your thing, fine, but it’s not mine. But, if the endless sex is meant as plot line then it really fails because nothing happens. Okay, so Dorothy and Alice are getting it on, big deal. If we were given a look into their heads and reasoning, the journey of them discovering each other, fine; that’s a story. But sex for sex’s sake is not really enough for me to grasp onto. I need more.

I’ll be fair, I’ve only read book one of this. I got it from the library and they only sent me book one, and after reading it I’m not sure I am up for running out and getting books two and three. Perhaps someday, but I don’t see the rush. I don’t need to hurry to the library for my porn, that’s what the internet is for.

** Note; I have since gotten parts two and three. They did nothing to change my mind.

Serpent’s Kiss – Melissa de la Cruz

(**** of five)

 I don’t know what exactly it is about Melissa de la Cruz that I love so much, but I suppose it goes hand in hand with my love of creative YA books. I read her Au Pairs series a while ago followed by ‘Angels on Sunset Boulevard’ (which I thought was very inventive and wish she would have explored a little more) and like them well enough but it wasn’t until last summer that I randomly picked up the ‘Blue Bloods’ series and became obsessed. Okay, so yes, I’m way to old for this stuff but with her penchant for layering mythology on top of mythology I really can’t help myself. The Witches of East End series is a sort of spin off from Blue Bloods. That is to say, they exist in the same universe and while witch Freya Beauchamp made an appearance in a Blue Bloods story, Blue Bloods characters Oliver Hazard-Perry and Mimi Force made their way into the first novel, ‘Witches of East End’. And while the Blue Bloods series is about fallen angels living out their immortal lives as vampires in this world, the Witches of East End series is about Norse gods living out their immortal lives trapped in Midgard after the destruction of the bofrir (which is really the Bifröst, I have never heard the term bofrir before and apparently neither has google), the bridge between Midgard (earth) and Asgard. We don’t find this out until nearly the end of the first book though. Perhaps their were clues I didn’t really pick up one (I mean, the name Freya for one…) but I doubt I was the only one. I would have been much more apt to pick it up if I’d known they were more than just… witches.

After the events of the first book have calmed it looks like things are on even keel for witches Joanna, Ingrid, and Freya. But with the return of Freya’s twin brother who’d been lost to Limbo, framed for the bofrir’s destruction, a group of amnesiac pixies, two suitors for mother Joanna, and an over anxious spirit trying to get into contact things are all set to get complicated again. And boy do they. While reading several people asked me to plot and I found I really couldn’t get into it without going on and on and on. Which is obviously ridiculous so we’ll leave any summery at that.

De la Cruz is, if anything, very clever. She’s clearly done a lot of research into Norse mythology for this series but I have to sort of wonder sometimes which sources she’s using. A lot of times her plot points don’t match up to the mythology I’m aware of. Now, of course, she’s an author and she needs to license, but sometimes I have to wonder why.

The writing is top notch for this sort of thing. She wont be winning any awards in masterful word play but she trusts her audience enough not to insult them. This isn’t great literature, it’s great fun and, thankfully, de la Cruz is aware of that.

The Witches series is supposed to be geared to a more adult audience than Blue Bloods and at points you can see that. There’s some profanities and scenes of a sexual nature, but I honestly don’t think this isn’t something most readers of Blue Bloods have seen before. And perhaps it’s best for de la Cruz to stick to what she knows best, the Young Adult market. But either way this book was very entertaining, I couldn’t wait to find out what happens next. Unfortunately I have to wait a year. Or… half a year for the Blue Bloods conclusion. I guess I should be please she doesn’t crank them out as fast as others, her imagination and writing are good enough to wait for.

The Sister – Poppy Adams

(*** of five)

Well. This was quite a book. Quite an interesting book. It didn’t take long to read which usually is something to recommend it since it means the story was compelling enough that I didn’t want to look away. But there are was something , also, seriously wrong with this narrative. And it was intentional. This book might be the poster child for the unreliable narrator. Of course there’s the age old question, can any narrator be reliable. They’re bound to show their bias one way or another, at least if they’re to be any sort of realistic character. This is not in the same vein. This was a first person novel told by a narrator who intentionally lied to herself over and over again.

Virginia and Vivien Stone are sisters, best friends, and confidants. They come from a long line of lepidopterists, whose obsession with moths is well documented in the house’s endless collections. Ginny follows in her family’s footsteps, but Vivien seems determined to get out. They grow up in Bulburrow, a sprawling Victorian house built for an age far different from their own, with their mother, Maud, and father, Clive. At age twenty one Vivien leaves the ancestral home and heads to London permanently and hasn’t set foot in Bulburrow since. Now, at the end of their lives, Vivi is inexplicably back, a source of confusion and anxiety for Ginny who might be closer to madness than she seems.

It’s a very simple story, both on the outside and within. There’s nothing too deep when it comes to the plot. In fact the present of the story takes place over little more than a weekend, though there are plenty of flashbacks and one could argue the story is really about the past. But, the substance comes with characterization. Since the narration is in the first person we follow the tale from Ginny’s perspective and through Ginny’s memory. It’s spotty at times and secrets she had though she kept were really not so much. Her view was skewed by what she knew, but through Adams’ skill as a writer, the reader knows much more.

There are hints that there is something not quite right about Virginia from the beginning. But, I’ll admit, it took me awhile to pick up on them. Where does one draw the line between quirky and ill? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure if that line has been crossed here. There’s no real way to tell. Because Ginny is the one telling the story we only see things from her skewed point of view. And, while some events are easy to piece together both from what Vivi’s said and from what we can infer from Ginny’s experiences, other things seem inexplicable.

Other things seemed to be left deliberately confusing. The audience is never explicitly told about Ginny’s ailments but if, as I suspected at times, she was not quite right in the head then it would hardly be appropriate for her to have been left on her own for an expanse of about fifty years, living alone in a crumbling mansion. Someone would have needed to take responsibility and we’re not even given a hint of that. The only somewhat constant contact Ginny has is with Michael, the former gardener who owns one of the outlying Bulburrow houses. But we’re told he stops by several times a week and sometimes she doesn’t even see him. Not the kind of care one would need if they were mentally handicapped or suffering from dementia.

In the end there were a lot of questions about this story that weren’t answered. The formatting of the story would have made that impossible. And I don’t think it’s necessary a bad thing, because this book is exactly what this book was trying to be; a mystery in the first person. And it was a good read. But I wouldn’t recommended if you’re frustrated easily or hate listening to experts talking about what they like because the original title of this book was ‘The Behavior of Moths’ and I think that title is more appropriate.

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About Lindsay

I have a C'est Moi page, you should probably just read that.
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