Review: Bel Canto

Bel CantoAnn Patchett, Bel Canto

In an unnamed Latin American country, the government is hosting a birthday party for Mr. Hosokawa, a Japanese businessman who is deciding whether to build a factory there. Since Mr. Hosokawa loves opera, the world-famous soprano Roxane Coss has been invited to sing. The party begins beautifully but is shockingly disrupted when members of a terrorist organization burst into the vice president’s home and take everyone hostage. The terrorists are looking for the president, but he’s not at the party; he stayed home to watch his favorite soap opera. As a result, the attackers don’t know quite what to do next, and the hostage situation stretches on for days and even weeks. As time passes, the gap between prisoners and captors begins to narrow, and everyone trapped in the vice president’s house is eventually united by their appreciation for beauty and their common humanity.

This isn’t my usual type of book at all, so I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed it. While the inciting incident is a hostage crisis, the novel is neither thrilling nor fast-paced. Rather, it’s very contemplative in tone and spend a lot of time exploring the thoughts and feelings of the various people trapped in the house, both prisoners and guards. It’s hard to single out one protagonist, as the narrative pays equal attention to at least six or seven people. Normally this would frustrate me, but here I think it helps to reinforce the novel’s theme of people from very different backgrounds finding common ground. I liked that even the minor characters are given depth and dimension; no one is a prop or a plot device. Also, as a musician (though not an opera buff by any means!), I very much enjoyed the emphasis on the power of music to bring people together, even if that message does get a bit too heavy-handed at times. Overall, I feel like I’m still processing this book, and I’m sure I will be thinking about it for some time to come.

Review: The Wall of Winnipeg and Me

Wall of Winnipeg and MeMariana Zapata, The Wall of Winnipeg and Me

For the past two years, Vanessa Mazur has been the personal assistant to professional football player Aiden Graves. She’s cooked his meals and cleaned his home, answered his emails and scheduled meet-and-greets with his fans. And in all that time, Aiden has never thanked her for her hard work; in fact, he barely acknowledges her at all. So Vanessa is determined to quit, but when she finally musters the courage to resign, Aiden surprisingly wants her back. And when she resists becoming his assistant again, he makes an even more shocking proposal: she should marry him to help him gain permanent residency (he’s Canadian), and in return he’ll pay off her massive student loans and buy her a house. Vanessa finds the deal appealing but is reluctant to enter into an in-name-only marriage — especially when she finds Aiden so frustratingly attractive.

I find myself with mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I found it a fast and compelling read, despite it being quite long for a contemporary romance (more than 600 pages!). I like a marriage-of-convenience story and a slow burn, so the plot is right up my alley. On the other hand, I do think the book is a little too long and repetitive; better editing could have tightened it up substantially. I also didn’t totally love Aiden as a hero. I have no problem with the strong, silent type, but I want my heroes to grow throughout the novel; love should make them change for the better. In this case, while Aiden opens up to Vanessa very slightly, I never felt like I truly got to know him. And his treatment of her in the beginning is pretty inexcusable; I definitely wanted more groveling from him about that! He also does some things that Vanessa reads as “protective” but that I would consider to be controlling. So overall, the romance just didn’t work for me.

Review: The Flatshare

FlatshareBeth O’Leary, The Flatshare

When Tiffy Moore is dumped by her boyfriend, she needs a new place to live right away. So when she spots an ad for an inexpensive flatshare, she jumps at it, despite the unconventional terms of the agreement. Leon Twomey, the current renter of the flat, works nights and weekends as a palliative care nurse. So he only needs the flat from 9am to 6pm, while Tiffy is at work; meanwhile, she can use the flat while he’s gone. They’ll never even have to meet each other. But then Tiffy leaves a note and some leftover baked goods for Leon, and he leaves a thank-you note in response, and soon they’re corresponding via Post-It notes left all over the flat. And while they seem to have little in common—Tiffy is gregarious and messy, while Leon is quiet and self-contained—their correspondence deepens into a close friendship, and maybe even more. But their complicated lives threaten to derail their fledgling romance: Leon’s brother is in jail fighting a wrongful conviction, and Tiffy’s ex doesn’t want to let her move on.

Despite the somewhat contrived premise, this book is an adorable rom-com that I would wholeheartedly recommend! The story is told in alternating chapters from Tiffy’s and Leon’s points of view. While some reviewers had trouble getting into Leon’s clipped, stilted narrative style, I thought it made for a great contrast to Tiffy’s bubbly voice. The notes between Tiffy and Leon are a joy to read, making the relationship between the characters believable despite their not meeting in person until halfway through the book. I also liked that they both seem like real people: they have jobs (and we actually see them doing those jobs!) and friends and family members whom they care about. The secondary characters are a bit less dynamic—Tiffy’s scary lawyer best friend, Leon’s bitchy girlfriend—but I didn’t mind because I enjoyed the main story so much! The book does deal with some serious issues, but it remains light and optimistic overall. In other words, it’s a perfect summer read!

Review: Field Notes on Love

Field Notes on LoveJennifer E. Smith, Field Notes on Love

Hugo Wilkinson is feeling trapped. He loves his parents and his five siblings, but he’s never particularly enjoyed the notoriety that comes with being a sextuplet. Now all six of them are heading off to their hometown university in the fall, but Hugo is beginning to wonder if it’s truly the right path for him. On top of everything else, he was supposed to be going on a romantic train trip across America with his girlfriend this summer, but she’s just dumped him, and all the tickets and hotels are in her name. Now Hugo is stuck — unless he can find another girl named Margaret Campbell who’d be willing to go with him. Meanwhile, Mae (full name Margaret) Campbell is an aspiring filmmaker in need of a little adventure. She decides to take Hugo up on his offer, and as they travel across the country together, their immediate connection deepens into something that surprises them both.

As someone who finds the idea of traveling across America by train both appealing and romantic, of course I couldn’t resist this book! And as I expected, it was a fun and charming read, although not particularly substantial. I think the book spends a little too much time setting up the plot, trying to make the whole scenario plausible, when in reality we all know it’s implausible and are perfectly willing to suspend our disbelief — otherwise we wouldn’t have picked up the book in the first place! I also didn’t quite buy into Mae’s internal conflict, which is about learning to let her guard down and be vulnerable — but the book never explains why she’s so guarded to begin with. Hugo’s conflict, about balancing his family’s expectations with his own wants and needs, was much more believable for me. I did like the sweet romance and the uniqueness of the road trip, but ultimately this isn’t a book I will ever revisit.

Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer

My Sister, the Serial KillerOyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer

Have you heard this one before? Two girls walk into a room. The room is in a flat. The flat is on the third floor. In the room is the dead body of an adult male. How do they get the body to the ground floor without being seen?” This quote from early in the novel basically sums up its premise: Korede’s little sister, Ayoola, has been killing her boyfriends, and Korede protects her by scrubbing the crime scenes and disposing of the evidence. Ayoola claims she’s justified in her killings — that the men attacked her, and she was just defending herself. But Korede is beginning to have doubts; and when Ayoola starts flirting with the object of Korede’s desire, Korede must decide whether to reveal Ayoola’s secrets or remain loyal to her sister at all costs.

This book certainly has an eye-catching title and hook, but it’s not really a serial killer book at all. We get very little insight into Ayoola’s motives or feelings about what is happening. Rather, this is a book about sisters, and it’s a fascinating study of Korede’s complex relationship with Ayoola. I completely understood Korede’s feelings: her frustration at not understanding her sister; her jealousy that Ayoola is beautiful and desired by men, even the man Korede herself loves; her protectiveness and loyalty despite the monstrosity of Ayoola’s actions. I also enjoyed the writing style; Korede’s deadpan narration gives a lightness to the grim subject matter. I don’t think plot is this novel’s strong point. Despite the high body count, nothing really happens. But overall, this was a fun and thought-provoking read for me, and I would definitely try another book by this author.

Review: Good Riddance

Good RiddanceElinor Lipman, Good Riddance

“Daphne Maritch doesn’t quite know what to make of the heavily annotated high school yearbook she inherits from her mother, who held this relic dear. Too dear. The late June Winter Maritch was the teacher to whom the class of ’68 had dedicated its yearbook, and in turn she went on to attend every reunion, scribbling notes and observations after each one—not always charitably—and noting who overstepped boundaries of many kinds. In a fit of decluttering (the yearbook did not, Daphne concluded, “spark joy”), she discards it when she moves to a small New York City apartment. But when it’s found in the recycling bin by a busybody neighbor/documentary filmmaker, the yearbook’s mysteries—not to mention her own family’s—take on a whole new urgency, and Daphne finds herself entangled in a series of events both poignant and absurd.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

I’d never read anything by Elinor Lipman before, but a combination of the plot summary and cute cover interested me enough to pick it up. Unfortunately, I didn’t find it very enjoyable, mainly because I didn’t connect with any of the characters or understand the decisions they made. For example, why does Daphne go along with Geneva’s filmmaking plan sometimes and resist at other times? Also, the characters all seem very two-dimensional. Geneva is presented as a talentless nightmare (which is how Daphne sees her), and that characterization is never given more nuance. Daphne’s father is “the nicest guy in the world,” and that statement is never questioned. I kept wanting some depth, some irony, some surprise, but none ever came. As for the “mystery” of the yearbook, in one sense the solution is incredibly predictable, but in another sense June’s obsession with the class of ’68 is never actually explained. I did breeze through the book in about three hours, but that’s really the only positive thing I have to say about it.

Review: The Austen Playbook

Austen PlaybookLucy Parker, The Austen Playbook

West End actress Freddy Carlton is at a crossroads in her career. Her family has been extremely influential in the theater world for generations: her grandmother wrote one of the most important plays of the 20th century, and her father was an extremely talented actor. But Freddy would much rather do light-hearted musical comedies than the serious dramatic roles her father is pushing her toward. So she’s thrilled to be cast in The Austen Playbook, an interactive TV special that combines various Austen characters and plots with a murder mystery. Too bad it will be filmed at the estate of James Ford-Griffin, London’s harshest theater critic, who has given Freddy a few negative — yet oddly perceptive — reviews in the past. But as Freddy and Griff get to know each other, they are surprised to discover a mutual attraction. They also discover a shocking secret that may have devastating consequences for Freddy’s career.

I was expecting to adore this book, and I did! I’m a huge Lucy Parker fan and have loved all her books so far, but this one had so many features that appealed to me: a grumpy hero, an English country house party (well, rehearsal), a juicy mystery, and a little Jane Austen flavor. I adored Griff — he may be my favorite Parker hero yet! — and Freddy’s bubbly personality is the perfect foil for his uptight, reserved one. I also enjoyed uncovering the literary/theatrical mystery along with Griff and Freddy, which was interesting in its own right and also provided most of the obstacles to the romance. I do think there was possibly too much going on; because of Freddy’s career/family angst, the mystery, and the romance, the production of The Austen Playbook wasn’t as much of a focus as I wanted it to be. I also found the romantic scenes to be a little more explicit than in Parker’s previous books, which I personally didn’t need. But those minor quibbles aside, I really enjoyed this installment of the London Celebrities series and can’t wait for the next one!

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.