July 26, 2012

Bite, Fight or Flight

Vampire Academy Series by Richelle Mead

Release Date: 2007-2010
Publisher: Penguin | Razorbill
Pages: 2,688 total
Source & Format: Library; Hardcover
Series: #1-6

Sum It Up
Rose Hathaway is a Dhampir, and her best friend, Lissa, is a Moroi Vampire Princess.

Rose is in training to become a guardian - a special group trained to protect all the Moroi. She's studying with Dimitri, who is one of the most well-known and respected guardians in the business. Rose is attracted to him, but they both know it's a forbidden romance. In the meanwhile, Lissa is struggling to make sense of her gift and all of its ramifications.

These books detail their adventures and attempts to defeat the Strigoi, the group of truly evil vampires in search of immortality. But, trust me, there's a whole lot more going on than just hunting some bad vampires.

Thoughts on the Vampire Academy series
I seriously hate these covers so much. I would never, never have considered reading them if it wasn't for several posts by Jen at Makeshift Bookmark trying to convince people to read them. Then, I did a little stalking on Good Books and Good Wine to see what April thought of them. After reading her glowing reviews, I figured I ought to at least give them a shot. But, again, the covers aren't doing these books any favors...

With the exception of the first book, which I read like a while ago, I finished all of these books in a week. These are not short books - they were just that addicting. I would also like to throw out a word of caution. Do not read the jacket copy of these books - they contain so many spoilers for previous books. This was an issue for me because I was requesting them from the library all at the same time and lost some of the "surprise" of finding things out while reading.

So many people have reviewed these books, which is why I'm just writing a few thoughts on the series. As I already mentioned, I was convinced that I would hate these books. I'm not huge on things like vampires and such, so I was expecting these not to be my cup of tea. After frantically reading them all, I can definitely say that I was pleasantly surprised.

Richelle Mead has created books that completely suck you in. She's knows how to write characters that are believable, action that is thrilling, and a world that has been carefully developed. There wasn't a lot I didn't like about these books. I had a few minor issues with Rose - she lost a little of her backbone and strength in some of the later books. There were also a few moments where I wished for more Lissa, Christian and some of my other favorite secondary characters. But for the most part, these were great poolside reads.

If you read the first book and don't like it, you probably won't enjoy the rest of the series. But, if you read the first book and can't put it down... get ready to shell out some money or stalk your library so you can get your hands on all these books.

Need a better list of reasons why you should read these books? Here is Jen's list, "The ABCs of Vampire Academy," that convinced me to give these a chance.

Final Verdict: Addicting & Enjoyable
I might not recommend these to every reader, but I'm not surprised that these books have a huge following. Mead is a talented writer, and she knows how to write some pretty dang addicting books. If you're curious at all about these books, you should give them a chance. Don't let the covers discourage you!

July 24, 2012

Culture, Class and the Great Divide


The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

Release Date: February 2007
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 353 pages
Source & Format: Bought; Paperback
Amazon | Goodreads

Sum It Up (from Goodreads)
Poignant, evocative, and unforgettable, The Space Between Us is an intimate portrait of a distant yet familiar world. Set in modern-day India, it is the story of two compelling and achingly real women: Sera Dubash, an upper-middle-class Parsi housewife whose opulent surroundings hide the shame and disappointment of her abusive marriage, and Bhima, a stoic illiterate hardened by a life of despair and loss, who has worked in the Dubash household for more than twenty year.

A powerful and perceptive literary masterwork, author Thrity Umrigar's extraordinary novel demonstrates how the lives of the rich and poor are intrinsically connected yet vastly removed from each other, and how the strong bonds of womanhood are eternally opposed by the divisions of class and culture.

Thoughts on The Space Between Us
This is one of those weird books where I really loved one part of it, but also felt no desire to read it. Does that even make sense? Let me try to explain.

There is no question that Thrity Umrigar is a great writer. Her strength, without a doubt. It's a book where the words take center stage, and you'll enjoy it if you just savor the writing. If all you need is beautiful writing, I have no doubt that this book is for you.

Here's an example of Umrigar's prose:
"Or perhaps it is that time doesn't heal wounds at all, perhaps that is the biggest lie of them all, and instead what happens is that each wound penetrates the body deeper and deeper until one day you find that the sheer geography of your bones - the angle of your hips, the sharpness of your shoulders, as well as the luster of your eyes, the texture of your skin, the openness of your smile - has collapsed under the weight of your griefs."
Gorgeous, right? That was what I loved about this book. The words were fluid and beautiful.

However, I wasn't that engaged in the story. It's a book where class, status and culture matter. Set it India, it shifts between the perspectives of two women - one wealthy (Sera) and one poor (Bhima). They have a connection - Bhima works for Sera as sort of housekeeper/maid.

It's a book that is introspective and thoughtful. The novel is driven more by the women's thoughts than their actions. And while it was an interesting read, it wasn't pulling me in. I wasn't connecting very well to the story or the characters, which didn't leave my dying to pick this book up.

I'm really interested in reading more books set in India and about that culture. I realized while reading The Space Between Us that it's definitely an area of the world that I haven't read much about. I know some have loved this book, and I can see why. It wasn't a perfect read for me, but I think that may have had to do with my mood. There are times when a slow and thoughtful book is just what I'm looking for. This may have been a case of a "not the right time" read, but I can still appreciate the writing.

Final Verdict: I Can't Decide
If I'd been in a different mood, I might have loved this book. Unfortunately, it was slow going for me. I can, however, still appreciate the gorgeous prose! 

July 23, 2012

What's Going On?!

Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson

Release Date: June 2011
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 259 pages
Source & Format: Library; Hardcover
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
'As I sleep, my mind will erase everything I did today. I will wake up tomorrow as I did this morning. Thinking I'm still a child. Thinking I have a whole lifetime of choice ahead of me...'

Memories define us. So what if you lost your every time you went to sleep? Your name, your identity, your past, even the people you love - all forgotten overnight. And the one person you trust may only be telling you half the story. Welcome to Christine's life.

Thoughts on Before I Go To Sleep
I took this book to the pool with me, and I didn't set it down until I was finished. My sister made it a point to mention that I wasn't a fun pool companion because all I wanted to do was read. Guys, this book was such an interesting read. I can honestly say that I've never read anything quite like it.

I usually avoid books that have the potential to be scary. However, this was my kind of thrilling book. Christine wakes up every morning and can't remember where she is. She believes that she's 20... until she looks in the mirror and realizes she's 47 years old. After a terrible accident, Christine can't transfer anything from her short-term moment to her long-term memory. She wakes up every single day unable to remember what's happened in the days before.

The book is written in journal format, so all you know is what Christine knows. Her psychologist advised her to keep the journal, so you're also reading about what she's discovering and finding out in therapy. Will she remember anything more? Is there something sinister going on? Christine doesn't know the whole truth, and neither do you. It seriously plays with your mind. Who is telling the truth? Who is lying? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON? It's such a frustrating read because your emotions are all over the place. You just want to know what is true and what is a lie. And when I say frustrating, I mean that as a compliment. It put you in Christine's shoes and made you feel her frustration and confusion.

It wasn't necessarily a life-changing read, but it was a really exciting read. If you're looking for something new, this is definitely a book you should consider!

Final Verdict: Check It Out
While I really enjoyed this book, it would probably rank as a librar read. For me, that means it's definitely worth reading, but not necessarily something you have on your shelves. This is the kind of book that once you read it, you'll probably never read it again. Not because it isn't good - more because the book rests on the thrill of not knowing what's going to happen. Definitely worth reading though!

July 22, 2012

Just Forget It


The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

Release Date: April 2009
Publisher: Simon & Schuster | Atria Books
Pages: 552 pages
Source & Format: Gifted; Paperback
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
Cassandra is lost, alone and grieving. Her much loved grandmother, Nell, has just died and Cassandra, her life already shaken by a tragic accident ten years ago, feels like she lost everything dear to me. But an unexpected and mysterious bequest from Nell turns Cassandra's life upside down and ends up challenging everything she thought she knew about herself and her family.

Inheriting a book of dark and intriguing fairytales written by Eliza Makepeace - the Victorian authoress who disappeared mysteriously in the early twentieth century - Cassandra takes her courage in both hands to follow in the footsteps of Nell on a quest to find out the truth about their history, their family, and their past; little knowing that in the process, she will also discover a new life for herself.

Thoughts on The Forgotten Garden
I liked the idea of this book better than the execution. It was just sloppy. My first problem was that it felt like it seriously ripped off The Secret Garden in a few parts - you know, with the secret garden and ill child cooped up inside. Combine that with WAY TOO MANY narrators (like six) who all live in different time periods. It jumps around so much date-wse, which really got on my nerves. Morton could have successfully told this story from one, maybe two, perspectives. Instead, it felt like each new character was somehow deserving of their own narration.

I was also frustrated by the whole "oh big mystery" that ended up not being that mysterious. Morton's foreshadowing basically spells everything out, and I felt like it was a little insulting to my intelligence to act like I couldn't figure out the writing on the wall. It's supposed to be really mysterious, but there were so many obvious references to things that nothing really seemed that surprising when it was finally revealed.

There were also a few story lines that seemed really important and ended up being completely irrelevant. At almost 600 pages, that was really annoying. I wished her editor had taken a little more time on getting the book pared down.

I kept setting it down and didn't have any desire to finish it. I know it sounds like it was terrible, and it really wasn't. But it was pretty frustrating, and I couldn't love it once I noticed some inconsistencies and flaws. My cousin and I were reading it at the same time, and we agreed for most of the book that we'd probably give it 4 stars. And then came the last 200 or so pages, which is when we both officially downgraded it.

My cousin pointed something out that basically sums up our problems with this book. In one chapter, Julia says, "I sometimes feel my life is a series of accidents." On the next page, Julia says to Cassandra, "No such things as accidents." I mean, really?

While there were some things I liked about this book, I can't really remember them. All that has stayed with me are the things that annoyed me.

Final Verdict: Skip
It certainly didn't live up to my expectations, and I likely wouldn't recommend it. There were too many things about it that really frustrated me. I did, however, enjoy Kate Morton's The House at Riverton so maybe check that one out instead.

July 16, 2012

Mystery & Scandal!

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Release Date: 1853
Pages: 880 pages
Source & Format: Bought; Paperback & Kindle

Sum It Up (from Goodreads)
Part romance, part melodrama, part detective story, the novel spreads out among a web of relationships in every level of society, from the simpleminded Sir Leicester Dedlock to Jo the street sweeper. A savage but often comic indictment of a society that is rotten to the core, Bleak House is one of Dicken's most ambitious novels, with a range that extends from the drawing rooms of the aristocracy to the poorest of London slums.

By Its Cover: Big Fat Font
While there are lots of covers to choose from with this book, this is my favorite and the one I own! I found this copy in a very cool bookstore while vacationing in Miami, and I knew I had to get it... even though I could have "purchased" for free on my Kindle. Sometimes I just can't resist a cover dominated by typography.

Amen, Sister Friend: Not a Fan
Oh my goodness gracious, where do I even begin with this book? I read it over a period of three months (March, April and May) for a read-a-long hosted by Wallace at Unputdownables. I had only read one other book by Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities) and loved it, so I thought it was time to try another. When I stumbled about the read-a-long, I was really excited. Here was my chance! I find that it helps me, for books like this, to read them with others. Dickens often has a bazillion characters and side story lines, so it often helps to have others that you can turn to with questions if you're confused. And I needed the accountability and schedule for this book! (Side note: the fact that I'm just now "reviewing" it shows you just how far behind I am in writing about the books I've been reading.)

Anyway, so the main character in this book is Esther Summerson. She has no idea who her parents are and has been raised by someone rather terrible. After her caretakers's death, she eventually ends up with Richard and Ada. They are wards of Mr. Jarndyce, and Esther has been chosen as their like companion (I think that's what she was?).

I had a love/hate relationship with Esther. While I felt sorry for her, she also got on my nerves. She was very modest - in the sense that she'd say, "Oh, I'm so unattractive!" And I'm still undecided on whether or not it was false modesty. She would repeat all the nice things people said about her, but then be like "I can hardly believe someone thinks that!" Basically, it got kind of old after a while.

So, I'm on the fence here with Esther. There's also Ada, but she barely has anything to say or do in the book. I think she's just beautiful. And kind of there to spur other people into action. I'm pretty sure she represents the feminine ideal, but she also has like no personality so that kind of sucks.

Literary Love: Hated One, Loved the Other
There's two love stories in this book. Ada and Richard love each other (I think they're also cousins?), but Richard is kind of a loser. He's obsessed with this legal case - Jarndyce v. Jarndyce - that would make him rich if the ruling was in his favor. But it's been in the court system for ages and ages - and cost a ton of money and caused people to commit suicide. So it's kind of depressing. His obsession with the case leads him to make some terrible choices and alienate people who truly care about him. And, like I already mentioned, Ada was basically a paper doll. Needless to say, I wasn't too invested in their love story.

Esther also has a little love story of her own, which was definitely more interesting. I really enjoyed that aspect of the book! Her suitor/crush was definitely worthy of her interest and love, so that's always nice. His mother, however, was a biyotch. She was all about him being with someone wealthy and in a good social sphere, which Esther is obviously not. I won't tell you who he is or how their story ends, but that was one part of the book I found really enjoyable.

Word Nerd: LOTS of Words
Like with Esther, I've decided I have a love/hate relationship with Charles Dickens. We'll call him Chuck. Mostly because I have some things he needs to hear, and I need us to be one nickname basis to say it.

Chuck is a fabulous writer. This book had like nine million plot strings and characters and yet he tied them all together at the end in this totally makes sense kind of ending. However, that still meant he had like nine million plot strings and characters. In a 900 page book. And for the love of everything it was hard to remember who was who.

He's incredible at characterization - his people come alive off the page. But after so many bumbling fools, vain and pretentious idiots, and mysterious "are they good or bad?" type characters, I could barely keep track. Or be interested. Like, I'm sorry Chuck, but make some edits.

I have to admit, I got weary of this book after awhile. Once I finished, I could appreciate it for its intricacy, storytelling, characterization and general Dickens-ness. While I was reading it, however, I was kind of ready to cast it aside around page 500. Not much had happened at that point. Except there were poor people. And a mysterious case. And Mr. Jarndyce took care of his wards.

Most of the action took place in the last 200 pages or so. That's a lot to read before something finally happens. I mean, things do happen but they're very small scale type incidents. Episodes, if you will. Thank goodness for the read-a-long group that kept me motivated! 

So Quotable
"His family is as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable. He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills, but would be done up without Dedlocks."

"...and at a bookcase full of the most inexpressive-looking books that ever had anything to say for themselves."

"Why, Mrs. Piper has a good deal to say, chiefly in parentheses and without punctuation, but not much to tell."

Bottom Line: Once Was Enough
I know I didn't really tell you barely anything that actually happened in Bleak House. There's a good reason for that. One: the whole book basically hangs on things being secrets that are discovered and brought to light. Two: it's not that fresh in my memory anymore. Unfortunately, I wrote this two months after finishing it (bad blogger!). I have all my notes I took while reading, but these are my general thoughts wayyyyy after the fact.

Dickens is awesome, but his book takes some commitment! I'm glad I read it, but I also won't likely read it again. Once was enough for this book! I plan on reading some more Dickens (I really do love his writing), but I'm going to wait a while to start another by him. My brain needs a break!

July 15, 2012

I Dreamt I Went to Tyneford

The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

Release Date: December 2011
Publisher: Penguin | Plume
Pages: 368 pages
Source & Format: Bought; Kindle e-book

Sum It Up (from Goodreads)
Its the spring of 1983 and no longer safe to be a Jew in Vienna. Nineteen-year-old Elise Landau is forced to leave her glittering life of parties and champagne to become a parlor maid in England. She arrives at Tyneford, the great house on the bay, where servants polish silver and serve drinks on the lawn. But war is coming, and the world is changing. When the master of Tyneford's young son, Kit, returns home, he and Elise strike up an unlikely friendship that will transform Tyneford - and Elise - forever. 

By Its Cover: Can I Visit?
I saw this book on display at Barnes & Noble, and it was recommended for readers who liked Downton Abbey. Since I was in the middle of my DA addiction at the time, I was intrigued. And the cover totally sold me on it. It has such an atmospheric feel - can't you just picture yourself at this great English house?

Amen, Sister Friend: Between Two Worlds
Elise is a Jew in Vienna, Austria. Her mother is a musician, and her father is a writer. They run in wealthy circles, and Elise is able to live in luxury. The Nazi occupation threatens not only their way of life, but their entire existence. Elise is able to secure a visa for herself, and she becomes a servant for an upper class family in England.

Caught between two worlds, Elise doesn't fit in anywhere. She cannot relate to the servants - she is used to having servants for herself, not being one. And while she is able to connect with the master of the house and his son, she is still the help. I felt for Elise as she struggled to fit in and deal with the homesickness. She left her entire family behind, and she wants nothing more than for them to escape Vienna.

I grew to truly love Elise, and I was so happy for her as began to find peace in her new life. Her journey was compelling and swept me away.

Although she doesn't know it, Elise's arrival at Tyneford marks a profound change. She is the precursor to changes that will disrupt everyone's way of life and throw this cozy house by the sea off its axis.

Literary Love: Heartbreaker
I don't want to say too much here for fear of spoiling something. But the love story was both lovely and devastating. Some of the events in this book broke my heart! I found the ending of this book slightly disappointing (only because I was quite surprised at a certain relationship), but this book is certainly worth reading.

And I'll say this about the love story - I was obsessed and seriously swooning. Reading back over the quotes I highlighted from it brought it back to life and reminded just how much I had fallen in love with the love story in this book. So many good moments!

Word Nerd: Setting for the Win
One of my favorite things about this book was the way the author developed the setting. This book is absolutely defined by the house where it takes place. Elise blossoms because of the house and the nearby sea, and I absolutely loved that aspect of this book.

I loved the descriptive writing, but I do recognize that it could be a turn-off for some. I thought it worked perfectly for this book because, in this case, it would be impossible to separate the story from its setting. The place influenced actions, and the actions influenced the ultimate fate of the place.

Extra, Extra: The Viola
Elise's father hides her list novel inside of a viola and gives it to Elise for safekeeping. It becomes such a symbol in this book. At this period in time, people were attempting to silence the Jews. I loved that Elise's father wants his words - his resistance - to survive. The revelation about the book inside is also quite fitting, and it prompts Elise to find her own voice and share her story. 

So Quotable
"On the page we live again, young and unknowing, everything yet to happen."

"If history hadn’t forced me across Europe, would I have discovered that I loved the sea and big sky and fields of grass? It must have been hidden inside me like an oak tree in an acorn, or bluebells beneath the soil."

"It is the storyteller’s prerogative to try to write, every now and then, the ending she might wish for. Even if it exists only on the white page."

Bottom Line: Loved This Book
If you like historical fiction or Downton Abbey or the upstairs/downstairs or World War II... then you should read this book! I finished it in an afternoon by the pool, and I was so sad when it ended. This book lingered in my mind for days after, and I was glad I'd read it. It's not perfect, but I was absolutely enchanted by this book.
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