Review: The Glimpses of the Moon

glimpses-of-the-moon-theEdith Wharton, The Glimpses of the Moon

In the glittering whirl of 1920s New York society, Nick Lansing and Susy Branch are intelligent but impoverished: they survive by living off the generosity of their richer friends. They fall in love with each other and decide to marry, but they agree that if either of them gets a chance to make a better financial match, they’ll divorce amicably. At first the marriage is very successful, and Nick and Susy are able to live off their friends’ extravagant wedding gifts. But when one of their friends lets them stay at her Italian villa during the honeymoon, they soon discover that she requires an ethically dubious favor in return. This favor drives a wedge between Nick and Susy — a wedge that widens even further when a titled Englishman and a rich heiress present themselves as alternative romantic options. In the end, will love or money prevail?

I don’t have much to say about this book except that I really loved it! Wharton’s prose is flawlessly precise, and she has an immense talent for evoking a character’s complete emotional state with a few subtle, well-chosen words. I actually found this book a bit stressful to read at times, because I cared about Nick and Susy so much, and I really wanted their marriage to work out despite the obstacles in their way. I liked the fact that no one is really a villain in the book, not even the wealthier romantic possibilities who are hoping that the marriage will break up. That said, Wharton does include some wonderfully biting satire about the upper classes and the frivolity and emptiness of their lifestyle. I’d recommend this book to anyone, especially those who love comedies of manners and the classics.

Mini-Reviews #8: Losing steam

The last few months of the year always seem to fly by — I can’t believe it’s the middle of November already! Much as I love Christmas and all the hoopla leading up to it, I’m feeling a little burned out this year. I’m behind on reviews again, and I don’t feel particularly enthusiastic about catching up. So it’s back to mini-reviews for the time being, and I think I’m going to stick with this format until the end of 2016. Hopefully I’ll be ready to come back in January with renewed enthusiasm! In the meantime, here are some thoughts on the books I’ve read recently:

most-beautiful-book-in-the-world-thenevernight

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, The Most Beautiful Book in the World (trans. Alison Anderson) — This collection of eight “novellas”/short stories is an interesting meditation on womanhood and the passage of time. Most of the stories have a melancholic aspect, as the (almost always) female protagonists cope with issues like aging, infidelity, illness, and just plain unhappiness. All the same, I enjoyed these stories, particularly “Odette Toulemonde,” which is probably the most uplifting in the bunch. The only one that stood out to me in a negative way was “Intruder,” which has a gimmicky ending. Definitely worth reading if the description sounds interesting to you!

Jay Kristoff, Nevernight — I saw a lot of buzz about this book when it came out, but unfortunately it didn’t live up to the hype for me. The story is about Mia Corvere, a young woman seeking revenge after the political murder of her father and subsequent destruction of her family. She decides to seek out the Red Church, essentially a school for assassins, in order to pursue her revenge. Sounds pretty cool, right? Unfortunately, I could not deal with the writing style, which was completely overblown and trying way too hard to be impressive. I realize this is a very subjective criticism, and other readers may love the style, but it was emphatically not for me.

beginning-with-a-bashp-s-i-like-you

Alice Tilton, Beginning with a Bash — What a fun Golden Age mystery! This is the first book in the Leonidas Witherall series, in which our detective has to solve a murder that occurred in a used bookstore before an innocent man takes the blame. Along the way, Leonidas — who is almost always called Bill Shakespeare because of his resemblance to the Bard — reconnects with an old flame and becomes embroiled in a feud between two notorious gangs. It’s really more of an adventure story than a mystery; the whodunit takes a backseat to the car chases, secret passageways, and assorted goings-on. There’s also some delightful vintage banter, which makes me mad that there’s no film version starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. I’ll definitely be continuing with this series, and thankfully I already own the next book, The Cut Direct!

Kasie West, P.S. I Like You — “You’ve Got Mail” is one of my favorite movies, so I was excited to read this YA contemporary romance with a similar plot. One day while spacing out in chemistry class, Lily absentmindedly scribbles a lyric from her favorite indie song onto her desk. The next day, she discovers that someone has continued the lyric, and before she knows it, she and her unknown correspondent are trading notes about music and a whole lot more. But when Lily discovers the identity of her pen pal, it’s the last person she would ever expect. I really enjoyed this book, despite its utter predictability and Lily’s annoying inability to see what’s right in front of her. It’s an adorable, light romance, and sometimes that’s just what you need.

Mini-Reviews #3: June Books, Part 1

Still making my way through my review backlog, so here are some more short ones:

Lilac GirlsUnexpected Everything, The

Martha Hall Kelly, Lilac Girls — For the past few years, I’ve really gravitated toward books set during World War II, especially those dealing with the “home front” experience rather than the actual fighting. So I think I wanted to like this book more than I did. I found the story of Kasia, a Polish girl imprisoned in Ravensbrück, to be the most compelling. I especially liked how the book follows her (and the other characters) long after the war is over and shows the psychological scars that still remain. But I didn’t like Caroline’s story at all; I found her the least interesting character, and the romance between her and Paul didn’t do anything for me. The book is worth reading if you like the time period, but I’d recommend Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire for a better book on Ravensbrück.

Morgan Matson, The Unexpected Everything — I’ve said it before, but it’s true: Morgan Matson writes the perfect summer reads! I really enjoyed this one, which centers around politician’s daughter Andie and a summer that doesn’t go quite according to plan. One of my favorite aspects of the book is that Andie has a really close group of girlfriends, and those relationships are just as important as her newfound romance. I’d definitely recommend this book as an adorable summer read, especially for those who enjoy YA.

Summer Before the War, TheDarker Shade of Magic, ACocaine Blues

Helen Simonson, The Summer Before the War — I really enjoyed this quiet, character-driven novel, although I wouldn’t recommend it to those who love lots of action and unpredictable twists. The plot (such as it is) centers around a young woman who moves to a rural English village to become the new Latin teacher. As one might expect, she meets with some resistance from the locals because of her youth and gender, but she also wins over some key players, including the unconventional Agatha Kent and her two nephews. Most of the book involves the resulting social politics, although the titular war (World War I) does intrude near the end.

V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic — This book hooked me from the first line: “Kell wore a very peculiar coat. It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.” The novel is an exciting blend of fantasy and sci fi, combining magical artifacts with parallel universes. The hero is a conflicted, magic-wielding prince, and the heroine is a scrappy thief and would-be pirate. In short, I loved it and have already purchased book 2, A Gathering of Shadows!

Kerry Greenwood, Cocaine Blues — After watching and LOVING “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” I decided to pick up the first book in the series. Phryne is a wonderfully entertaining character: intelligent, rich, attractive, and determined to get the most out of life. I also really enjoyed the setting of 1920s Melbourne, where Phryne rubs elbows with all sorts of people, from wealthy blue bloods to socialist cab drivers to feisty maidservants. I did miss Inspector Jack Robinson, who apparently has a much smaller role in the books than he does in the TV series. I also didn’t care too much about the mystery, but I still liked the book for its setting and protagonist.

Review: Rook

RookSharon Cameron, Rook

Centuries after a shift in the Earth’s magnetic poles triggered an apocalyptic event, civilization has been rebuilt, but almost every form of technology is regarded with grave suspicion. In the Sunken City (formerly known as Paris), a revolution has established an oppressive new regime, and everyone who opposes it is ruthlessly executed. But one person dares to flout the authority of this new regime by stealing political prisoners away from their very jail cells: the Red Rook, who boldly leaves a crow’s feather tipped in red in the place of each escapee. No one suspects that the Red Rook is a teenage girl, Sophia Bellamy, who lives in the neighboring Commonwealth. With the help of her brother Tom, her friend Spear, and a small band of loyal friends, Sophia hopes to rescue as many doomed people from the Sunken City as she can. But her plans are complicated by her betrothal to the empty-headed social butterfly René Hasard. Despite her distrust of him, however, Sophia can’t help being attracted — especially when she discovers that his foppish persona might be an act. When a mission goes awry and Tom is captured, Sophia is forced to ask for René’s help, but can she really trust him?

Obviously, this book is an homage to one of my very favorite books, The Scarlet Pimpernel, but I was pleased to discover that it’s very much its own story. The basic idea of a daring rescuer with a secret identity is the same, but the plot diverges very significantly from the original story. I wouldn’t have minded a stricter retelling, but I’m glad this book was able to be inspired by the Pimpernel without simply copying it. I’m not sure how I feel about the science fiction elements; technically we’re in a post-apocalyptic world, but that doesn’t really seem to be necessary to the story, and it sometimes felt distracting. On the other hand, there are a few fun moments where the characters speak reverently about little bits of neon plastic, which are great treasures in this anti-technological world. Overall, I enjoyed both the action-filled plot and the romance, although the latter was a bit TOO romance-y for me (a little too much russet hair and piercing blue eyes and whatnot). I also think René’s true nature could have been left in a little more doubt, which would have increased the dramatic tension. But I did like this book a lot, and Pimpernel fans should definitely check it out!

Review: French Leave

French LeaveAnna Gavalda, French Leave (trans. Alison Anderson)

This book centers around four adult siblings — Simon, Lola, Garance, and Vincent — who don’t see each other as often as they used to. But when the eldest three reunite for a family wedding, they spontaneously decide to visit Vincent, the baby of the family, who has a job in the French countryside. Garance narrates the story and paints vivid pictures of her siblings. Simon, the eldest child, is the family’s golden boy, the responsible one, who grew up to obtain a good job and a suitable wife, Carine, whom Lola and Garance tease mercilessly. Lola and Garance are best friends despite their differences; as Garance notes, “She’s romantic, I’m pragmatic. She got married, I flitter and flirt. She can’t sleep with a guy unless she’s in love, I can’t sleep with a guy unless there’s a condom.” When they abandon their relative’s wedding to visit Vincent, the four siblings have a charmed weekend, reminiscing about the past and reevaluating some of the choices they’ve made in their lives.

This novella is like a bite of some frothy dessert, short and sweet. I don’t often read books where the main focus is on sibling relationships, but I enjoyed reading about Garance and her brothers and sister — especially because their relationships are generally good and pleasant rather than dysfunctional. I can relate to their situation somewhat: I only have one sibling, and we get along great, but because we are both adults who live far from each other, we don’t stay in touch as well as I’d like. I think this book captures that bittersweet aspect of adult sibling relationships very well. I also liked the evolution of Garance and Lola’s relationship with Carine; they sort of villainize her at first, but eventually they begin to see where she’s coming from and tolerate her a little more. There’s not much of a plot in this book, but it’s such a quick read that it doesn’t need many events to propel it forward. Overall, I found this book a pleasant diversion, and I’d recommend both it and Hunting and Gathering, a full-length novel by the same author.

Review: The Paris Winter

Paris Winter, TheImogen Robertson, The Paris Winter

In November 1909, young Englishwoman Maud Heighton is in Paris pursuing her dream of becoming a painter. She studies at Lafond’s Academie, one of the few respectable art studios that is open to women. However, despite having some talent as an artist, Maud is living in extreme poverty and will soon have to choose between starving or returning to her family in England, which would be an admission of failure. Fortunately, Maud befriends Tatiana Koltsova, a fellow student at the Academie who is friendly, charming, and rich. Tanya takes Maud under her wing and eventually helps her to get a job as an English tutor for the Morel family. Both Sylvie Morel and her older brother Christian seem eager for Maud to accept their job offer, which includes room and board. But while Maud accepts the job gratefully, she can’t help feeling that it’s a little too good to be true. And the more she learns about the Morels, the more sinister they appear, until eventually she must seek out Tanya’s help to extricate herself from an unbearable situation.

I love historical fiction and was intrigued by the premise of this book, but I ended up with mixed feelings about it. First, I did love the setting, especially because it depicts a less glamorous version of Paris than many other books and movies do. Although Maud comes from the English gentry, she is forced to live a much more bohemian life in Paris, befriending people from each extreme of the class spectrum. And because she is not rich, she doesn’t have much opportunity to participate in the exciting, glamorous activities one usually associates with Paris during the Belle Époque. However, I wasn’t particularly invested in Maud as a character or in the plot involving her relationship with the Morels. It moved very slowly and eventually became a psychological thriller, which isn’t quite what I expected when I picked up the book. I thought both Tanya and Yvette, the artists’ model at the Academie, were more interesting characters, and I wish the book had focused more on their stories. That said, I did like the book’s denouement, which takes place during the great Paris flood of 1910. I would recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, but it’s not my favorite offering in the genre.

Review: All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAnthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

This sprawling novel tells the stories of two children growing up on opposite sides of World War II. Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, who is a locksmith working for the Museum of Natural History. She has been blind since the age of six, so her father has built a tiny replica of the city for her to memorize. But Marie-Laure is uprooted from these familiar surroundings when the Germans invade Paris and she has to flee to her great-uncle’s house on Saint-Malo. Meanwhile, Werner is a German orphan whose knack for fixing radios changes the course of his life. Instead of being doomed to a life of coal mining, he is chosen to attend a school where he will be trained as a Hitler Youth. Werner soon learns that the school is grueling and brutal, a place where weakness is mercilessly punished. But his desire to become a scientist, combined with fear for his own safety, keeps him silent. Werner’s story eventually converges with Marie-Laure’s in 1944, when the Germans are trying to hold Saint-Malo against an Allied invasion.

I was eager to read this novel after seeing several rave reviews, but unfortunately I have mixed feelings about it. I didn’t particularly like the novel’s structure, which constantly moves between Werner’s story and Marie-Laure’s, as well as jumping back and forth in time. Every time I got invested in one storyline, the book would jump to something else, which was frustrating. Also, there’s not a whole lot of plot in the book; it’s more a very detailed depiction of everyday life on both sides of WWII. That’s interesting in its own right, but I often became impatient with the meticulous descriptive language, especially when it came at the expense of the story. On the other hand, I’m very impressed with the character of Werner in this book. It’s easy (and justifiably so) to paint the Nazis as pure villains, but Werner manages to be a complex character whose motives are usually better than his actions. It helps that both he and Marie-Laure are children throughout most of the book, which makes them more sympathetic. Overall, I do think the novel is worth reading, but I’m glad I got it from the library rather than buying it.

Review: The Midnight Queen

Midnight Queen, TheSylvia Izzo Hunter, The Midnight Queen

Gray Marshall is a promising student of magick at Oxford’s prestigious Merlin College, but his life changes instantly when an ill-fated midnight expedition results in the death of one of his classmates. Although Gray had nothing to do with the violence that resulted in this tragedy, he soon learns that everyone is blaming him. His tutor, Professor Appius Callender, whisks him off to the professor’s country house as punishment for his supposed misdeeds. At first Gray is miserable there; his magickal powers seem to have deserted him, and he is forced to work in the professor’s gardens all day. But then he meets Sophie, the professor’s kind and intelligent daughter, and he soon discovers there is more to her than meets the eye. As Gray and Sophie become closer, they begin to uncover shocking secrets about Sophie’s family, as well as a conspiracy that threatens not only Gray but the entire kingdom of Britain.

I hardly ever buy books on impulse anymore; usually I’ll only shell out money for an author or series I already know I like. But this book jumped out at me because of its beautiful cover, and then the lure of a Regency-era fantasy with romance totally sold me! Overall, I’m glad I took the plunge in buying this book, because I really enjoyed it. Gray is a very endearing hero: studious, shy, and hardworking, with a stutter that appears when he’s nervous. He’s well matched in Sophie, a heroine who is strong without being abrasive and forward-thinking without being anachronistic. The book moves fairly slowly, which might bother some readers, and I also felt that the plot was a bit scattered. For example, Gray frequently mentions his various siblings, but only one of them is even “on page” in this book, so I was a bit confused and distracted by the other sibling references. Still, I suppose these loose ends and tangents might be resolved in a sequel; if one should materialize, I’ll definitely be seeking it out!

Review: Somewhere in France

Somewhere in FranceJennifer Robson, Somewhere in France

Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford, known to friends and family as Lilly, has always felt stifled by her privileged upbringing. Though she’d like to go to university and embark on a career, it seems her only task in life will be to snare a rich, titled husband. Unfortunately, the only man to catch her eye is Robbie Frasier, a promising young surgeon whom her parents consider quite unsuitable. But with the outbreak of World War I, Lilly suddenly has access to a variety of new opportunities. Hoping to help with the war effort, she learns how to drive and eventually applies to the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, where she becomes an ambulance driver. Meanwhile, she carries on a clandestine correspondence with Robbie, who is working in a field hospital in France. When she and her colleagues are offered a chance to transport injured soldiers from the front lines, Lilly jumps at the chance to be reunited with Robbie. But will the tragic violence of this war ultimately separate them forever?

I picked up this book because I wanted to read something set in World War I for the centennial, but I wasn’t in the mood for something incredibly dark or depressing. Unfortunately, this book goes too far in the other direction; it’s a light, pleasant romance, but the World War I setting is a mere backdrop. I don’t need to read about the horrors of war in graphic detail, but I do want to feel that the characters are in real danger, that they must struggle against real obstacles, and that the war has left some kind of mark on them. Instead, even the descriptions of what Robbie sees on his makeshift operating table are bland, evoking no emotional response whatsoever. Part of the problem is that Lilly and Robbie are both such clichés: she is the naive and enthusiastic upper-class heroine, while he is the overprotective self-made hero. I just didn’t really care about either character, so I wasn’t invested in their romance at all. I was more interested in the secondary characters, Lilly’s brother Edward and her friend Charlotte — I’d love to read the story of their romance! Overall, this book isn’t a bad read, but it is completely and utterly forgettable.

Review: Isla and the Happily Ever After

Isla and the Happily Ever AfterStephanie Perkins, Isla and the Happily Ever After

Isla Martin has had a crush on Josh Wasserstein since their first year together at the School of the Americas in Paris. But because of his relationship with another girl and her own shyness, nothing has ever happened between them, and Isla is convinced nothing ever will. But then, the summer before their senior year, she bumps into Josh in a Manhattan cafe and actually finds the courage to talk to him. It soon becomes obvious that her crush isn’t as unrequited as she thought, and the two embark on a giddy, passionate relationship. But even the intensity of first love can’t blind Isla to the pitfalls ahead of them: Josh is an artistic slacker who might get kicked out of school despite his talent, while Isla is a bright girl who works hard but doesn’t know what to do after graduation. Can Isla and Josh stay together when everything, from geography to family issues to their own future paths, seems determined to keep them apart?

I’ve been waiting for this novel, the companion to Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door, for YEARS, and I was definitely not disappointed! This book really captures the feeling of being young and in love, with its dizzying highs, despairing lows, and all the accompanying drama. Isla is a sweet but spunky heroine, and I personally found her more relatable than Anna or Lola: she’s shy and has a rich interior life, but she has a little more trouble turning her dreams into reality. I like that this book highlights the differences between a crush and a real relationship; even though Isla gets to date the boy of her dreams, their relationship is far from perfect! This book is full of all the swoonworthy romantic moments you’d expect in a Perkins novel, though it’s certainly more explicit than Anna and Lola. The book is definitely geared to a teenage audience (unsurprisingly, since it’s YA), so I did occasionally feel like I was a bit too old for the story. But I still really enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone who wants a dramatic, romantic read!