Review: Last of Her Name

Last of Her NameJessica Khoury, Last of Her Name

Stacia Androvna has grown up happy on a fringe planet near the edge of the galaxy. She’s never paid much attention to politics, although she knows that things have been fairly bleak since the revolution that overthrew the Leonovan empire. Still, she never expected that the unrest in the galaxy would affect her — until the direktor Eminent himself, the leader of the revolutionary government, shows up on her planet claiming that she is a Leonovan princess. Stacia doesn’t believe it, but she knows she must escape or die. Now on the run with her childhood friend Pol, she is determined to save the rest of her loved ones, especially her best friend Clio. But the direktor Eminent will do whatever it takes to capture Stacia, and there are also Loyalist forces hoping to find and use her for their own ends. Is Stacia really the princess, and if so, will she be able to use what little power she has to save her friends?

I adore the Anastasia animated movie and was excited to read a book that sounded like a sci-fi take on that story. Unfortunately, the plot of the novel is quite different; while the setup is clearly based on the execution of the Romanovs during the Russian Revolution, the rest of the plot is essentially an action movie set in space. Which I have no problem with, but it’s not what I was expecting or hoping for. The book is a fast read that’s jam-packed with plot, which definitely kept me turning the pages. Some of the twists were very clever, although some went a bit too far for my taste — it kept feeling like the book should end, and then there would be yet another attack/betrayal/reversal of fortune. I didn’t really connect to the characters, but maybe that’s my issue and not the book’s; all these spunky YA SFF heroines are starting to feel the same to me, so I found Stacia rather two-dimensional. Overall, I liked this book fine, but I was a bit underwhelmed.

Review: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely FineGail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Thirty-year-old Eleanor Oliphant lives a quiet, routine life. She works in an office — the accounts receivable department of a graphic design company — and usually spends her weekends alone with a book and a couple liters of vodka. She doesn’t much care for her coworkers, and she has no friends, which is just how she likes it. Other people are often too rude or stupid to be congenial companions. But Eleanor’s life begins to change when she meets unprepossessing IT guy Raymond, and the two of them help an old man, Sammy, who has fallen in the street. As Eleanor interacts more with Raymond, Sammy, and their friends and family, she slowly begins to imagine a different life for herself. But when a tragedy from her past resurfaces, it becomes evident how very far from “fine” Eleanor really is.

I keep wanting to describe this book as “light” because it’s a fast read with an engaging style, but the subject matter is absolutely brutal. Honeyman does a painfully vivid job of portraying loneliness — I think it’s no accident that the heroine’s name is Eleanor, because she is definitely one of “all the lonely people.” She’s far from likable at times; she’s aloof and judgmental and can be downright mean to well-intentioned people. But as the story slowly reveals Eleanor’s past and the way she has isolated herself just to survive, I couldn’t help but pity her and root for her to change and grow. I also loved her friendship with Raymond; it’s obvious to the reader when he is hurt or confused by her (although she herself doesn’t perceive it), but he is always patient and kind. Overall, I thought this was an excellent novel with unexpected depth and an uplifting, but still realistic, ending. Highly recommended.

Review: Unmarriageable

UnmarriageableSoniah Kamal, Unmarriageable

This retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in contemporary Pakistan tells the story of the five Binat sisters, whose mother is desperate for them to marry well and thus raise their family’s social status. But the second sister, Alysba Binat, is a staunch feminist who would rather keep her career and independence than submit to a husband. When the entire family is invited to a lavish society wedding, Alys’s older sister Jena catches the eye of “Bungles” Bingla, a rich and handsome bachelor. But Bungles’s friend, the even richer and more handsome Valentine Darsee, is not so impressed with Alys. His dismissive behavior infuriates her, and she promptly writes him off as unmarriageable. But as Alys gets to know Darsee better, all while trying to balance familial and cultural expectations with her own desires, she slowly revises her first impression of him.

This novel is a very faithful and competent retelling of Pride and Prejudice, and I enjoyed experiencing the familiar story in a completely new-to-me setting. But I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to be taking away from this book. It occasionally touches on British colonialism and how it affected—and continues to affect—Pakistani culture; one character even talks explicitly about how English literature is still seen as superior to native literature; and yet this very novel puts Pakistani characters into an English narrative. And rather than subverting or critiquing that narrative, the novel follows the plot of P&P almost exactly. Maybe the point is that Austen’s novels address universal human concerns, which I’m certainly not going to argue with, but it makes the premise of this book a little less interesting, in my opinion. Also, I was annoyed that Alys is an English teacher, intimately familiar with the works of Jane Austen, yet she somehow doesn’t realize that she’s living out the plot of P&P. That said, I actually did enjoy this book, and I think it’s one of the better retellings out there. . . . I just wanted a little bit more from it.

Review: The Proposal

ProposalJasmine Guillory, The Proposal

Nikole Paterson is at an LA Dodgers game with her boyfriend Fisher. She’s been seeing him casually for about five months, but she doesn’t consider their relationship particularly serious. So she’s shocked when Fisher urges her to look at the JumboTron just as it’s flashing a proposal to her, from him — and her name isn’t even spelled correctly! Nik is completely mortified; luckily, Carlos Ibarra is sitting just a couple rows behind her, sees the whole thing, and decides to help extricate her from the situation. Grateful for the save, Nik invites Carlos for a drink with her and her friends. Then they start texting each other, and soon they’re getting to know each other (and, ahem, “know” each other) and spending a ton of time together. Neither one of them is looking for a serious relationship, but as they grow closer despite themselves, they realize they’ve accidentally fallen in love.

I liked but didn’t love Guillory’s previous novel, The Wedding Date, and I find myself having a similar reaction to this book. It’s definitely a fun read, and both Nik and Carlos are likable characters whom I wanted to succeed and be happy. But as in The Wedding Date, there’s very little conflict: this is a book about nice people who are almost uniformly nice to each other. Now, I enjoy books with minimal angst and characters who communicate well; but Nik and Carlos’s relationship is so drama-free that it’s a little boring to read about, honestly. A lot of interesting conflicts lurk beneath the surface — Carlos’s belief that he has to be the rock his family depends on, for example, or Nik’s past relationship with an emotionally abusive man — but they’re barely touched on in the novel. Instead, the only obstacle between them is that they both want a casual fling, then realize they have Feelings. So while I found this a pleasant enough read, I definitely wanted more in terms of dramatic tension.

Review: Enter a Murderer

Enter a MurdererNgaio Marsh, Enter a Murderer

This second installment of the Inspector Alleyn series is set in the London theater world. Arthur Surbonadier, a supporting actor in a new play, has managed to alienate nearly everyone in the cast and crew. He has threatened his uncle, who owns the theater company, in order to be cast in a better role. He has made unwelcome advances to the leading lady, which upsets both her and her new lover, the leading man. So it’s not entirely surprising that Arthur ends up murdered — shot onstage with a prop gun that was supposed to be loaded with dummy cartridges. Luckily, Inspector Alleyn and his journalist friend, Nigel Bathgate, are in the audience. Their investigation uncovers many sordid details about the victim’s past, including blackmail, drug dealing, and the seduction of one of the stagehands. But they are nevertheless unprepared for another murder, which leads to the shocking discovery of the killer’s identity.

I’ve been reading up a little bit about Ngaio Marsh, and one of the most frequent complaints about her novels is that they have a good setup but get very boring once the murder takes place. I can see some validity in that complaint: the first few chapters of this book are very compelling, as they introduce the characters and ratchet up the pre-murder tension, but the rest of the novel follows the relatively mundane police activity of interviewing suspects. Nevertheless, I wasn’t bored by this book — it’s very short, and I didn’t mind the suspect interviews, especially when they allowed Alleyn and Bathgate to bounce off of each other. I still don’t really have a sense of Alleyn as a character, except that he can occasionally be playful and enjoys keeping his friends (i.e., Nigel) in the dark. But perhaps he’ll be fleshed out more in later books. I did enjoy the solution to the mystery, which I didn’t guess ahead of time, and I’m looking forward to reading more in this series.

Review: One Day in December

One Day in DecemberJosie Silver, One Day in December

Laurie has just left university and is living in London with her best friend, Sarah, as she pursues a career in magazine publishing. One December evening, she’s sitting on a bus crowded with Christmas shoppers, when she looks out the window and spots a man standing across the street. Their eyes meet, and Laurie feels a deep, instant connection. She could swear he feels it, too, but the bus drives away before she can get off and speak to him. For the next several months, Laurie searches for “bus boy,” convinced that they’re meant to be. But when she finally does meet him, there’s a catch: he just happens to be Sarah’s new boyfriend, Jack. The book follows Laurie and Jack over the next several years, as they experience career achievements and setbacks, tragedy, love, and heartbreak; but will they ever be able to act on that moment of connection they experienced even before they met?

This book caught my eye because of the adorable cover, and I was interested to read a cute holiday rom-com. In fact, this is much more of a drama than a comedy, and I have mixed feelings about it. I think it’s very well written and executed. The premise made me nervous — I was skeptical about a romance that would presumably end in betrayal of the innocent best friend. But the book managed to make me sympathetic to both Laurie and Jack. I liked that Laurie sincerely tries to put her own feelings aside, not to spend time alone with Jack, and to move on by dating other people. I believed that Laurie and Jack really do become friends who care about each other, regardless of whatever does or doesn’t happen between them. But I’m not sure we needed to follow their story for so many years, especially since the expected confrontation between Laurie and Sarah doesn’t happen until almost the end of the book — and then it’s rushed to a resolution. As a skeptic of love at first sight, I also didn’t buy that both Laurie and Jack would be so affected by their initial brief moment of attraction. Despite my quibbles, though, I did enjoy the book and would recommend it to people who are interested in the premise.

Review: Kat, Incorrigible

Kat, IncorrigibleStephanie Burgis, Kat, Incorrigible

“In nineteenth-century England, twelve-year-old Kat Stephenson knows she was born to be a magical Guardian and protector of Society—if she can find true acceptance in the secret order that expelled her mother. She’s ready to upend the rigid Order of the Guardians, whether the older members like it or not. And in a Society where magic is the greatest scandal of all, Kat is determined to use her powers to help her two older sisters find their own true loves, even if she has to turn highwayman, battle wild magic, and confront real ghosts along the way! History seamlessly merges with fantasy in this humorous and lively novel.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

As you know, I’m a sucker for anything that can be described as “Jane Austen plus magic,” and this book delivers on that premise with a fun middle-grade adventure. There are two plots, each in a different genre. Oddly, the Regency romance plot, in which Elissa and Angeline both encounter obstacles on their way to marital bliss, gets most of the emphasis. The fantasy plot, in which Kat discovers her magical abilities and has to figure out what they mean, is somewhat underdeveloped by comparison. But there are (at least) two more books in the series, so hopefully the magical system and Kat’s role in it will become clearer as the series progresses. I think my favorite aspect of the book is the relationship among the three sisters; although they often squabble, they always have each other’s backs when things get tough. All in all, I found this novel charming and look forward to reading the sequels.

Review: I Owe You One

I Owe You OneSophie Kinsella, I Owe You One

Fixie Farr comes by her nickname honestly: she’s an extreme people-pleaser who can’t help trying to fix every problem in her family and friends’ lives. She is the manager of the family store, and while her brother James and sister Nicole are also supposed to help out, Fixie often finds herself picking up their slack. Now James is determined to turn the modest store into a trendy, upscale shop, and Nicole wants to get rid of merchandise and replace it with a yoga studio. Fixie is horrified by these changes but struggles to stand up for herself. She also faces trouble in her personal life, when she’s torn between her childhood crush and a handsome stranger whose laptop she rescues, kick-starting a chain of IOUs and possibly a new relationship.

I generally enjoy Sophie Kinsella’s books, and I had fun reading this one as well, but I must admit that I was bothered by several aspects of the book. The biggest problem is Fixie herself; she’s such a doormat, and it’s incredibly frustrating to see her constantly giving in to her awful siblings. I know that many people, especially women, are people-pleasers and have trouble advocating for themselves, but I couldn’t understand why Fixie was such a pushover. I also hated her obsession on childhood crush Ryan, who is obviously 100% terrible from the moment he’s introduced. Fixie’s deluded belief that he wants a relationship with her just made her seem stupid. I did like her relationship with the stranger, Seb, but even that has some weird pacing issues and questionable logic (why does he go back to his ex-girlfriend?). Despite my complaints, I did find the book an enjoyable experience overall, but it’s definitely not one of Kinsella’s best — try I’ve Got Your Number instead.

Review: To Know Christ Jesus

To Know Christ JesusFrank Sheed, To Know Christ Jesus

“This modern spiritual classic by Frank Sheed, the renowned author, publisher and lecturer, is brought back into print for the benefit of new generations of readers to develop a deeper, more profound knowledge of Jesus Christ. Sheed’s concern with the Gospels is to come to know Christ as he actually lived among us, interacted with all the various people he encountered from his infancy to his passion and death–the God-man who was like us in all things except sin. Sheed has tried especially to see Our Lord in his effect upon others–seeing how they saw him, trying to see why they saw him so. There is much about Mary and Joseph in their task of bringing up a baby who was literally adorable; about John the Baptist; about Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalen; about Nicodemus; about people we meet only for a moment, like the man born blind and the owners of the drowned swine; and why the Pharisees, not only the worst of them but some of the best, would not accept Christ. Faith, doctrine, prayer, worship–all the content and consequences of Christian belief–rest on the person of Christ Jesus as recorded in the Gospels.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

This book does pretty much what it says on the tin: it examines Jesus’s life and teachings as recorded in the four gospels. I really appreciated this deep dive into Scripture, and it definitely gave me a lot to think about. Sheed discusses the historical context of Jesus’s life, including the Roman occupation of Palestine, background on the Pharisees and Sadducees, and contemporary expectations of who the Messiah would be. He also interprets Jesus’s words about the “kingdom of God” in a very interesting and (to me) unique way. This book is definitely written from a Catholic perspective, which may annoy other Christian readers, but I think the focus on the Biblical text would be appreciated by Christians of all denominations. Overall, I would recommend this book to Christian readers and think it might make good supplemental material for a Bible study.

Review: Unapologetic

UnapologeticFrancis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense

“Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic is a wonderfully pugnacious defense of Christianity. Refuting critics such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the “new atheist” crowd, Spufford, a former atheist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, argues that Christianity is recognizable, drawing on the deep and deeply ordinary vocabulary of human feeling, satisfying those who believe in it by offering a ruthlessly realistic account of the grown-up dignity of Christian experience.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

A coworker recommended this book for my Lenten spiritual reading project, and I honestly had no idea what to expect, but I ended up liking it quite a bit. As the summary blurb indicates, Spufford is in some sense responding to popular atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens; so the book’s tone is conversational, informal, and peppered with swear words. Spufford isn’t concerned with making logical arguments in favor of Christianity. Rather, he describes how it fulfills people’s emotional needs in a way that (in his opinion) modern secular culture doesn’t. I liked the premise and found the book a quick, enjoyable read. It doesn’t go into very much depth about Christian theology, but that might make it more accessible to a secular audience.