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.

Review: Honeymoon Hotel

Honeymoon HotelHester Browne, Honeymoon Hotel

Rosie has loved London’s Bonneville Hotel ever since she was a child. In former years it was a destination spot for Hollywood stars who wanted to conduct their affairs discreetly, but now it’s a bit run-down and has lost some of its sparkle and glamor. As the Bonneville’s events manager, Rosie hopes to restore the hotel to its former glory, specifically by turning it into London’s most desirable wedding venue. She pursues this goal with single-minded practicality and a rigid attention to detail, despite the fact that she herself was once left at the altar. But Rosie’s plans encounter a snag when the owner of the Bonneville brings his son Joe onto the hotel staff. Joe has spent the last several months in America, and his laid-back attitude and ignorance of the wedding industry drive Rosie crazy — especially when his thoughtless comments cause one bride to call off her wedding. But when a well-known model expresses interest in booking her wedding at the Bonneville, Rosie and Joe must find a way to work together despite their differences.

I enjoy a good chick lit novel from time to time, and I’ve liked some of Hester Browne’s previous novels, so I was eager to read her latest offering. Unfortunately, I found this to be a very forgettable read. There’s nothing particularly bad about it, that I recall; it just didn’t do anything special for me. The plot is a bit of a cliché — girl is too uptight, boy is too relaxed, how will they ever get along? — and nothing about the details or characters really elevated it above that level, for me. I especially had trouble seeing the appeal of Joe, whose character really isn’t developed beyond being laid-back and carefree. So I didn’t care very much about the romance. Also, the book focuses a LOT on Rosie’s job and the minutiae of wedding planning, which even I found dull, and I’m interested in that kind of thing! It’s certainly a readable book, and I do recommend the author for fans of British chick lit, but I definitely wouldn’t read it again.

Review: Something New

Something NewElise Mac Adam, Something New: Wedding Etiquette for Rule Breakers, Traditionalists, and Everyone in Between

As the title indicates, this book is a wedding etiquette guide for brides (and others) who don’t quite fit into the traditional wedding mold. They don’t necessarily want to feel like a princess on their “special day,” they don’t want to spend six figures on their wedding reception, and they don’t want to buy a whole bunch of crap and annoy their families in the name of tradition or etiquette. To address this audience, Elise Mac Adam (erstwhile etiquette columnist at the now-defunct Indie Bride website) has written a straightforward, bare-bones approach to wedding etiquette. She describes the most common traditions surrounding various aspects of wedding planning, from the wording of invitations to the etiquette of gift registries. Then she explains why these traditions exist and how they can be modified to work for modern brides. Finally, she shares questions and answers from her days as an advice columnist to give examples of proper etiquette in action.

As I read this book, I couldn’t help comparing it with Meg Keene’s A Practical Wedding, which I think is a fantastic resource for engaged couples. This book is good, too, but it fulfills a somewhat different need. Keene’s book is more philosophical and doesn’t get into very much detail about invitation wording and the like. In contrast, this book gets a little bit more specific about the nitty-gritty aspects of wedding planning. Still, it’s not as detailed as it could be, so brides who are extremely type-A or who dream of the perfect Martha Stewart wedding likely won’t get much out of it. But for brides who want a more laid-back affair and just don’t want to upset their grannies, this book could be a good resource. I’ll likely keep my copy around for future reference!

Review: Miss Manners’ Guide to a Surprisingly Dignified Wedding

Miss Manners' Guide to a Surprisingly Dignified WeddingJudith Martin & Jacobina Martin, Miss Manners’ Guide to a Surprisingly Dignified Wedding

In this book, which is apparently a revised and updated version of her earlier books on the subject, Miss Manners tackles the fraught subject of wedding etiquette. The modern wedding industry tends to use the term “etiquette” to justify a countless number of expensive, stressful, time-consuming tasks. But Miss Manners maintains that etiquette is just a fancy word for treating people with respect — and it has nothing to do with save-the-dates, unity candles, or wedding favors. Using her trademark saucy style, she answers questions on a variety of wedding-related topics and explains that a truly proper wedding is one that leaves both the betrothed couple and the guests as relaxed and joyful as possible.

I had never encountered Miss Manners before, and she definitely has a very distinctive style — sort of a tongue-in-cheek Austenesque tone. I can see how it would get on some people’s nerves, but I absolutely loved it! I also learned a lot of really interesting things about so-called wedding “traditions” that were unheard-of a generation ago. For example, here’s Miss Manners’ remark to a bride who was concerned about wedding favors: “Who told you that you had to give out wedding favors? Etiquette has never thought of weddings as comparable to children’s birthday parties where the guests might need consolation for not being the center of attention.” The problem is, even if favors are unnecessary, most people expect them and will think you’re rude if you don’t provide them. So I’m not sure how useful this book ultimately is…but it’s still a very entertaining read!

Review: A Practical Wedding

A Practical WeddingMeg Keene, A Practical Wedding: Creative Ideas for Planning a Beautiful, Affordable, and Meaningful Celebration

Meg Keene, creator of the blog A Practical Wedding, here sets forth her philosophy of weddings, which basically boils down to a few simple principles: (1) It’s not the greatest day of your life — or at least it shouldn’t be! (2) The only requirement for a perfect wedding is that you end up married at the end of it. And (3) it doesn’t have to cost your entire life’s savings! This book discusses wedding planning in light of these principles, from the engagement to the big day to the marriage that follows. It doesn’t delve too deeply into the details; for example, you’re not going to find a list of inexpensive-yet-chic venues or bakeries or stationery vendors here. Rather, this book takes a big-picture look at some of the most common wedding-related stressors and offers common-sense advice on how to rise above them.

Lately I’ve been very into wedding-related things. I watch all those bridal shows on TLC — “Say Yes to the Dress,” “Four Weddings,” “I Found the Gown,” etc. I’d like to blame some sort of external pressure, but I’m afraid I just like romantic stories and pretty dresses! While I enjoy these shows, though, I often find myself thinking that the women on them must be insane. Spending thousands of dollars on a wedding dress? Throwing a fit because the bridesmaids’ dresses don’t perfectly match the table linens? It’s a strange world we live in, folks. Well, this book is a wonderful antidote for all the wedding craziness out there! It really puts the wedding celebration in perspective without underrating the importance of marriage. It also offers advice on how to deal with the inevitable problems, like financial constraints and meddlesome relatives. I’m not married or engaged right now, but if and when I do take the plunge, I’ll definitely be referring to this book again!