Mini-Reviews: Girl, Prince, Single, Throne

Who's That Girl?Prince in Disguise

Mhairi McFarlane, Who’s That Girl? — This novel follows Edie, a young professional whose personal and professional lives are simultaneously ruined when she attends her coworkers’ wedding and the groom spontaneously kisses her. Of course, everyone blames Edie for the catastrophe, so her sympathetic boss sends her on a remote assignment to ghostwrite the autobiography of a hot young actor. The book is primarily a romance, but it also spends a lot of time on Edie’s dysfunctional family and on her growth as an individual. For me, this is another winner by Mhairi McFarlane, and I eagerly await her next book.

Stephanie Kate Strohm, Prince in Disguise — Sixteen-year-old Dylan has always felt invisible beside her beautiful older sister, Dusty. And when Dusty — a Miss America competitor — falls in love with a genuine Scottish lord, she becomes the subject of a reality TV show that documents their courtship. Dylan is less than thrilled about being constantly followed by cameras, even if it does mean she gets to spend Christmas in Scotland. But when she meets an adorably geeky British boy, things start to look up…until the drama (both real and manufactured) surrounding the TV show threatens to ruin everything. If you like your contemporary romance with British accents, secret passageways, and kissing in barns, this is definitely the book for you! In a word, it’s adorable, and I’d definitely recommend it to fans of YA contemporaries!

Note: this book is one of the ARCs I picked up at Book Expo America, and the projected publication date is December 19.

It's Not You- 27 (Wrong) Reasons You're SingleBehind the Throne

Sara Eckel, It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single — If you’re a single woman over a certain age, chances are you’ve received a lot of well-meaning advice about how to find a mate: “You’re too picky.” “You’re too independent.” “You have low self-esteem.” The problem with this advice, according to Eckel, is that it assumes there is something wrong with you, when in reality, meeting the right person is largely a matter of luck. You can increase your odds by, say, participating in group activities that you enjoy, putting more effort into your appearance, or joining an online dating site. But none of this can guarantee that you’ll meet your match. Ultimately, Eckel’s point is that there is nothing wrong with you; you just haven’t met the right person yet. It’s a consoling message, and the writing is often witty and relatable, so I’d recommend the book for its target demographic.

K.B. Wagers, Behind the Throne — Hail Bristol has spent the past several years making a name for herself as one of the toughest, most dangerous gunrunners in the galaxy. But she’s actually a runaway princess of the Indranan Empire, and when her sisters are assassinated by unknown perpetrators, Hail becomes the reluctant heir to the throne. To do her duty, she must return to her home planet and familiarize herself with Indrana’s political situation and the intrigues of the court. She soon realizes that this job may be her toughest one yet. I found this to be an entertaining sci-fi novel, but I didn’t become invested enough in the characters to really love it. I do think the world building is very creative, and the political intrigue is compelling. Overall, this was a good but not great book for me.

Mini-Reviews #2: May books

Still behind on reviews, so here’s a batch of minis for the books I read in May!

Spy Among Friends, AOne Perfect Day

Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal — Guys, if you’re at all interested in espionage in the 20th century, you need to read Ben Macintyre! This is a fascinating stranger-than-fiction account of Kim Philby, an old-school English gentleman who rose to an extremely high position in the Secret Service while actually being a spy for the USSR.

Rebecca Mead, One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding — Mead, a British journalist, examines the contemporary American wedding from a sociological and monetary perspective. If you enjoy weddings but suspect they’ve gone off the rails in recent years decades–particularly in the ever-inflating costs for both the couple getting married and their guests–you’ll find a lot of interesting material here.

Vinegar GirlRaven King, TheLike Water for Chocolate

Anne Tyler, Vinegar Girl — First there was The Austen Project, for which six famous contemporary authors tried their hand at updating the novels of Jane Austen. Now Hogarth Shakespeare is doing a similar project with the Bard’s plays, with Vinegar Girl being a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. Judging it as a novel, I found it a very pleasant read, albeit not particularly original or memorable. But I didn’t think it was a particularly good retelling of The Taming of the Shrew! So whether you enjoy the book will probably depend on what you’re looking for.

Maggie Stiefvater, The Raven King — If you love the series, you’ll love the ending! I thought certain plot elements were resolved a bit too abruptly, but the heart of the book–the relationships between Blue, Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah–remains true. I was also torn on the addition of Henry Cheng as a character. First of all, I should say that I LOVED Henry Cheng! (Maybe he could have his own book? More Henry Cheng, please!) But part of me felt like the book was already crowded enough between the five main players and all the people at Fox Way. Be that as it may, I found this book to be a deeply satisfying ending to a wonderful series. If you love fantasy, you definitely need to read it!

Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate (trans. Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen) — I’d heard a lot of good things about this book; people are always mentioning magical realism and comparing it to Sarah Addison Allen’s books (which I love). But ultimately, it didn’t do much for me. I felt sorry for Tita, doomed to take care of her bullying mother and remain unmarried while the love of her life marries her sister. But I also found the entire situation entirely too melodramatic, and the supernatural elements didn’t charm me. Overall, a disappointing read.

Mini-Reviews #1: Readathon leftovers

It’s pretty obvious that I haven’t spent much time on this blog lately. *blush* What can I say — life has been busy for the past couple of months, and when I’ve had free time, I’ve preferred to spend it doing other things (like reading!). As a result, I have a pretty huge backlog of books that I haven’t written about yet, and the thought of sitting down to compose a full review for each one is incredibly daunting. So, rather than continuing to avoid the task, I’ve decided to do three batches of mini-reviews — just titles and authors of the books I’ve been reading, along with a couple of sentences expressing my opinions. Once I catch up, I plan to go back to my regular style of reviewing. But for now, here are mini-reviews for the books I read during April’s 24-hour readathon:

Love, Lies and SpiesAs If!

Cindy Anstey, Love, Lies and Spies — A fun, lighthearted bit of Regency fluff for those who enjoy YA historical romance. I found the spy storyline weak, and the romance wasn’t quite compelling for me — Georgette Heyer, this is not! But it’s a pleasant enough read for fans of the genre.

Jen Chaney, As If! The Oral History of Clueless as Told by Amy Heckerling, the Cast, and the Crew — This book will only appeal to people who really love the movie “Clueless” and who are fascinated by behind-the-scenes movie knowledge. Fortunately, I fall within this demographic, so I really enjoyed the book!

Hermit of Eyton Forest, TheAlways the BridesmaidWhy Not Me?

Ellis Peters, The Hermit of Eyton Forest — Full disclosure: this installment of the Brother Cadfael series features a male character called Hyacinth. But I still love this series about a 12th-century Benedictine monk who solves crimes! (Who wouldn’t?)

Lindsey Kelk, Always the Bridesmaid — Entertaining British chick lit about a young woman named Maddie whose two best friends are at opposite ends of the romantic spectrum: one just got engaged, while the other is getting divorced. My friend pointed out that Maddie is a huge pushover, which she (my friend) found irritating. While I think that’s a fair criticism, I ultimately enjoyed the book for  its humor and romance, so I’d definitely read more by this author.

Mindy Kaling, Why Not Me? — I think Mindy Kaling is very talented and hilarious, and this book had me giggling pretty much nonstop. I like that she isn’t preachy, she’s very self-aware, and she doesn’t apologize for her confidence (some might say arrogance). As she says in the book, there’s nothing wrong with being confident — as long as you’ve put in the hard work to back it up. Bottom line: if you like Mindy Kaling, you’ll like this book.

Review: Interior Freedom

Interior FreedomJacques Philippe, Interior Freedom (trans. Helena Scott)

Interior Freedom leads one to discover that even in the most unfavorable outward circumstances we possess within ourselves a space of freedom that nobody can take away, because God is its source and guarantee. Without this discovery we will always be restricted in some way and will never taste true happiness. Author Jacques Philippe develops a simple but important theme: we gain possession of our interior freedom in exact proportion to our growth in faith, hope, and love. He explains that the dynamism between these three theological virtues is the heart of the spiritual life, and he underlines the key role of the virtue of hope in our inner growth. Written in a simple and inviting style, Interior Freedom seeks to liberate the heart and mind to live the true freedom to which God calls each one.” (Summary from Amazon.)

Every once in a while, a book comes along that tells you exactly what you need to hear in that moment. Interior Freedom was one of those books for me. I was feeling a lot of stress and anxiety for various reasons, and this book spoke pretty directly to my state of mind at the time. It’s written from a Christian (specifically Catholic) perspective, and I don’t think the solutions it offers would be useful for non-Christians. But it really gave me a new perspective on faith in particular: if I really believe in an almighty and all-loving God (as Christians profess to do), then I must have absolute trust in his love for me and his ability to bring good out of even the toughest situations. Definitely recommended for Christians of all denominations, especially those who are feeling weighed down by circumstances in their lives.

Review: Belief or Nonbelief?

Belief or Nonbelief?Umberto Eco and Cardinal Martini, Belief or Nonbelief?: A Confrontation (trans. Minna Proctor)

This slim volume is a collection of letters written in the 1990s between Umberto Eco, renowned author, scholar, and atheist, and Carlo Maria Martini, a cardinal of the Catholic Church. The letters, which were originally published in an Italian newspaper, present these men’s opposing points of view on a number of philosophical and theological topics, including: secular and religious perspectives on the end of the world, the politically fraught issue of when human life begins, the Catholic Church’s refusal to admit women to the priesthood, and the ultimate source of human ethics. Though Eco and Martini often disagree, their letters maintain a consistent tone of civility and open-mindedness that is all too rare in public discourse nowadays.

I enjoyed this book, and I think it’s somewhat unique in that both believers and nonbelievers could get something out of it. As I mentioned, both Eco and Martini approach the conversation with sincerity and goodwill, never mocking or belittling each other’s positions, but actually having a genuine dialogue and hoping to learn from one another. I wish our public figures in general would take the hint! I will say, though, that I don’t think these letters would actually change anyone’s mind; an atheist wouldn’t suddenly convert to Christianity, nor would a religious person lose his/her faith because of this book. Because the letters were originally written for newspaper publication, they couldn’t be long or in-depth enough to explore the topics thoroughly. Basically, I came away from this book wanting more, but I’d still recommend it if the subject matter appeals to you.

Review: Bridge of Spies

Bridge of SpiesGiles Whittell, Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War

This book tells the story of a Cold War prisoner exchange that, in the author’s view, helped to stave off World War Three. William Fisher, a.k.a. Rudolf Abel, was a Soviet agent (actually British by nationality) who was captured in New York city because of his work spying on the U.S. nuclear program. Francis Gary Powers was an American pilot flying reconnaissance over the Soviet Union to get a look at its nuclear arsenal; he was shot down on one of his missions and imprisoned in Russia. And Frederic Pryor actually had nothing to do with the spy game at all — he was simply an American student in Berlin studying Eastern economics, arrested by the Stasi because he fit their profile of what a spy should look like. Cold War tensions were running high at this time, so the agreement to trade Abel for Powers and Pryor was a vital gesture of good faith between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

In my American history classes in school, my teachers would always run out of time at the end of the year, so we’d usually only get as far as World War II in the lesson plan. As a result, I know basically nothing about the Cold War and was excited to read this book to learn more. I have to say, I found it slow going at first, as Whittell takes a long time to set up the three prisoners’ backgrounds. He also goes into stupefying detail about the type of plane Powers flew and the various engineering difficulties that its inventors encountered. But once the prisoners’ arrests are described, the book picks up considerably as it focuses on the political machinations needed to accomplish the prisoner exchange. The book also seems to be very well-researched, as Whittell was able to interview many of the people involved firsthand. I’m not sure it’s a particularly groundbreaking work, but I did find it interesting, and I’m now looking forward to seeing the film version with Tom Hanks.

Review: Spinster

SpinsterKate Bolick, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own

In this book that’s part literary biography, part memoir, journalist Kate Bolick engages with the notion of “spinsterhood” and claims that, rather than being used pejoratively, it should be seen as a term of female autonomy and empowerment. She notes that contemporary society is full of single women (whether never-married, widowed, or divorced), but “spinsterhood” is still largely viewed as an aberration. In other words, as she states in the first sentence of Chapter 1, “Whom to marry, and when it will happen — these two questions define every woman’s existence…” Bolick talks about her own life as a 40-something, never-married woman and how she was inspired to find her own path by the lives of five literary women: Maeve Brennan, Neith Boyce, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edith Wharton. She weaves the biographies of these women into her own autobiography as she explores what it means to be a spinster and concludes that it can actually be a good thing.

This book was an odd read for me; some parts of it were very interesting and thought-provoking, while others made me roll my eyes in annoyance. I think its main problem is that it’s trying to be too many different genres; I was hoping for more of a cultural study and often found Bolick’s personal reminiscences tiresome. I also struggled with her definition of spinsterhood. To me, a spinster would be a woman who remains unmarried and uncoupled throughout her life. But Bolick’s literary inspirations, all of whom she styles as “spinsters,” mostly did get married eventually. Some of the marriages were tempestuous, and some of them ended in divorce, but these women did not live their entire lives uncoupled. Bolick herself, though technically never married, talks at length about her previous and current relationships, and she has even cohabited with some of her romantic partners. So I feel like she’s not really writing from the perspective of a spinster, but rather as a woman who is in a long-term, committed relationship — married in all but name. That said, the little biographies of the five “spinsters” who inspired Bolick were interesting, and I’d like to learn more about these writers and/or read some of their works. But overall, this book disappointed me; it just wasn’t what I expected.

Review: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

This book is Mindy Kaling’s memoir of her journey from a chubby, awkward kid who adored SNL and Monty Python to a famous TV writer and actress (and, later, showrunner, although this book came out before “The Mindy Project” got going). She writes about being a relatively unpopular child whose friends’ interests didn’t quite align with her own, about moving to New York City and finding unexpected success with her Off-Broadway play “Matt & Ben,” about meeting Greg Daniels and landing her role as Kelly Kapoor on “The Office,” about her hatred of comedy roasts and her self-described uselessness as a writer (for a brief period) on SNL, and about her funny and frustrating experiences in Hollywood. There’s a little bit about romance, but mostly in the abstract; this book is not a tell-all, by any means. And while Kaling does address her identity as an Indian American, as well as her totally-normal-but-big-for-Hollywood size, these aren’t the focus of her book, and nor should they be. Instead, this memoir offers a fun, lighthearted look at Kaling’s life and career in television.

This book is exactly what you’d expect it to be if you’re familiar with Mindy Kaling’s persona and style of comedy. It’s as if your good friend, the one whose crazy escapades you like to live vicariously though, is chatting to you after a late night of drinking wine and watching romantic comedies. It’s very light and very funny, and I enjoyed it immensely; it would make excellent plane reading. One of my favorite sections was the chapter on “Types of Women in Romantic Comedies Who Are Not Real,” which debunks the myth of the beautiful klutz. (Because seriously, “klutzy” seems to be the go-to flaw for writers who still want their heroines to be cool and witty and gorgeous and without actual flaws. Do any of us really know smart, hot women who fall down the stairs on a regular basis?) I also loved the list of possible Hollywood movies coming to theaters soon, including “Crest Whitestrips,” “Untitled Jennifer Lopez Sonia Sotomayor Project,” “Street Smart,” and “Street Stupid” (“Street Smart” sequel). Some of them do sound frighteningly plausible! So, bottom line: this is a funny, enjoyable book by a woman who is both successful and relatable. If you like Mindy Kaling, you should definitely check it out!

Review: As You Wish

As You WishCary Elwes with Joe Layden, As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of “The Princess Bride”

In this book, Cary Elwes shares his memories of making the beloved movie “The Princess Bride.” He talks about reading the book (by William Goldman) as a child, meeting director Rob Reiner for the first time, and being extremely nervous about his audition. He also reminisces fondly about his fellow cast members, particularly the late André the Giant, whom he describes as a true “gentle giant.” The book also spends a lot of time on the sword fight between Westley and Inigo, for which Elwes and Mandy Patinkin spent almost every free moment training. The filmmakers were determined to produce a duel that could hold its own with some of the greatest sword fights in movie history, and Elwes recalls the intensity of his training in detail. Along with Elwes’ own narrative, this book contains anecdotes from many other people involved with the film, including Rob Reiner (director), Robin Wright (Buttercup), Wallace Shawn (Vizzini), Chris Sarandon (Prince Humperdinck), and Billy Crystal (Miracle Max). Overall, the book presents a fond, nostalgic look at the making of this classic film.

“The Princess Bride” is one of my all-time favorite movies, so I was definitely the intended audience for this book! I must say, it’s clear that Cary Elwes is not a writer by nature…the prose is often a bit stilted, especially when he describes his inner thoughts and reactions to what’s going on. However, the book is very readable, and it provides a great window into Elwes’ experiences in making this movie. I like the fact that other actors’ stories are included, so that it’s not just one person’s point of view. I also learned a lot of interesting tidbits about the process: for example, Elwes badly injured his foot during shooting, so there are a few scenes in which (if you’re looking for it) you can see him limping or favoring his bad foot. Wallace Shawn, who played Vizzini, was terrified of being fired because he’d heard that Danny DeVito had originally been considered for the part. And Billy Crystal apparently improvised some of the funniest lines in the Miracle Max scene, including the bit about the mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich! Overall, I’d definitely recommend this book to fans of the movie — and then I HIGHLY suggest re-watching the film! 🙂

Review: Jane Austen Cover to Cover

Jane Austen Cover to CoverMargaret C. Sullivan, Jane Austen Cover to Cover: 200 Years of Classic Covers

This is a book that delivers exactly what it promises: AustenBlog editrix Margaret C. Sullivan has compiled a large (though not exhausitve) collection of covers of Jane Austen’s novels, from the earliest published editions of the Regency period to the movie tie-in editions of today. The covers are arranged chronologically, giving Sullivan the opportunity to discuss related topics such as the publishing industry in Austen’s day, the waxing and waning of Austen’s popularity in both the U.K. and the U.S., and the Janeite resurgence that began in the 1990s with the iconic image of a wet-shirted Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. The covers themselves are a delightful hodgepodge of different styles, from the somber scholarly editions to the far-out art of the 1970s. Overall, I enjoyed the book but found it rather insubstantial; it doesn’t really have anything to say about the broader cultural relevance (if any) of Austen cover art. Still, it would make a great gift for Janeites or for anyone who judges a book by its cover!