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Batch Reviews: An Actual Batch

I know when I started this little random collection of batch reviews, I made it seem like there would be more than 2 reviews per post. Today there actually will be.

We begin with Second Life by SJ Watson. Some of you may have read Watson’s first book, Before I Go To Sleep, which quickly found it’s way among the thriller heavyweights. I could not wait to get my hands on Second Life.

Julia is living a pretty ideal life in London with her son and surgeon husband. A photographer, one of her photos is now hanging in an exhibition in a major gallery. The shot, Marcus in the Mirror, has been replicated on postcards and is showing up all over the place. But then she gets a phone call that changes everything: her sister, Kate, has been murdered in an alley in Paris.

Julia struggles with Kate’s death. They were more or less estranged when Kate died and recently, Kate had been asking for the one thing Julia wasn’t willing to give up: her son. Kate is Connor’s real mum but Julia and Hugh adopted him when he was little. Turns out that Kate was spending a lot of time online and there’s a chance that the person who killed her was one of them. Intent on finding the person responsible, Julia starts her own profile and starts chatting with a man, Lukas. Kate’s roommate, Anna, becomes Julia’s confidante, as both struggle with what happened and how to move on.

Soon it’s about more than finding out what happened to Kate; Julia has fallen for Lukas.

Pacing was an issue for me in this one. It took a looooooooong time for me to feel anything. I just wanted to get on with it. But once you get there, it’s pretty good. Watson is adept at covering his tracks so that when he reveals the real story you are honestly gobsmacked. Like it’s predecessor, Second Life ends abruptly. You know everything that’s happened but that’s all you’re going to get.

If you’re willing to put in the work, Second Life has a pretty solid payoff but it’s not going to be for everyone.

The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie. I got a text from my librarian friend saying she was pretty sure this book would be right up my alley. She was so incredibly right.

Louise, Pauline, Diane, Hortense, and Marie-Anne all became mistresses of Louis XV. It is a completely true story and The Sisters of Versailles tells it in English for the first time. Louise is the first. Married to a man she doesn’t care for she jumps at the chance to escape her country house and go to court. At first she is so good it’s almost a joke but eventually she learns how to navigate this world, embarking on her first affair. Soon she is strategically placed as the king’s mistress – the powers that be think she will do as they want and not challenge anything. She falls in love with the king and leads a pretty enchanted life.

But all is not so rosy for her sisters. After the death of their mother, they have been left to shift for themselves. Pauline and Diane were shipped off to a convent school, while Hortense and Marie-Anne were taken in by an elderly aunt with a very strict moral code. Marie-Anne manages to find a suitable match for herself and soon is living in Burgundy, bored out of her mind. For years, Pauline has been begging Louise to have her stay at court and when she finally relents, she will pay for it dearly: Pauline usurps her as the king’s mistress.

That’s a good start for anyone that thinks they may be interested. This book is littered with sister on sister crime, broken hearts, possible poisonings, court intrigue and all manner of delightful historical detail.

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The best part? The Sisters of Versailles is the first in a promised trilogy. The Rivals of Versailles should be out in April, while The Enemies of Versailles is expected in September.

Finally, let’s discuss the tiny powerhouse that is Helen Phillips’ The Beautiful Bureaucrat. Phillips manages to cram a lot of book into 177 pages. Josephine Anne Newbury has moved to the big city and is desperate for a job, any job. She manages to land a data entry type gig at The Database, a deeply suspect, incredibly impersonal place that frowns on lunch breaks, personal touchs and speaking to your colleagues. (Pretty sure I worked here from 2008-2010, guys)

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But Josephine has a job and at the end of the day she can go “home” to her husband, Joseph. “Home” is a series of temporary sublet spaces, until they can get a little bit up on their feet. They also long for a child of their own.

As Josephine spends more time at her job, she starts seeing strange coincidences and takes it upon herself to investigate. One day she sees something she can’t ignore and when her husband doesn’t return home she risks everything to track him down.

This was a clever little book. A rumination on the kind of soul destroying work we’ve all done and it’s place in our world, the desire for a child and the struggles of infertility and the strains both of these things place on relationships. Joseph and Josephine have very similar jobs and both look forward to the day when their lives are different, committed to building a new life in this big city but they start to see themselves lose bits of humanity, the longer they work there like when Josephine starts referring to her husband by his social security number.

It was a strange little book and definitely not what I normally read but I loved it. I almost want to read it again and read it more closely but it has to go home to the library.

 

15

I caved and read Divergent

I haven’t been fully present in my real life this week.

After months and months of resistance, I finally succumbed to the pressure to read Divergent. Then I raced through Insurgent. And now I’m making my way through Allegiant.

My resolve to be a Divergent holdout has been weakening for a while. Jennine at My Life in Books might have been the final nail in that particular coffin; if an adult teacher, with a love for The Great Gatsby and Les Miserables, intent on passing on a love of real literature to her students could get caught up in Divergent, what the hell was holding me back?

I borrowed the set from my friend. As she wisely pointed out, once I got started on the books I wasn’t going to want to wait around for my next hit.

These are the kind of books that you think about when you’re not reading, counting down the hours until you can re-immerse yourself in the world, snatching covert reading sessions wherever, whenever you can. I find myself looking around my life, attributing people to different factions: “You would totally be an Amity; she’s Candor without a doubt; you’re wearing Abnegation grey today.”

Since I’m apparently incapable of discussing anything non-Divergent this week, here are some thoughts.

I have always shied away from reading dystopian fiction. It’s not my go-to. But apparently there is room for it in my life. I loved The Hunger Games and when I was younger The Giver and The Chrysalids equally blew my mind. There’s something about reading books where an entire world is created for you, where there is only a hint of the world that you know, that is completely captivating.

Obviously Divergent has been compared to The Hunger Games. A lot. Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth, too, are constantly linked together. I had no idea Roth was so young (22) when the first book was published (another one to really drive home how much I haven’t accomplished in this life!). By the time Collins’ wrote The Hunger Games she had been writing for years, books and for TV. And I think you can tell. But over the course of the Divergent books, you can see Roth’s writing style evolve, feel that her choice of language becomes more thoughtful. That said, I don’t think I’m into the alternating points of view in Allegiant. I don’t know why we suddenly need Tobias’ view of how things go down. But maybe that will become clear later (I’m a little afraid of this 3rd book since everyone seems to have given up on it half way through- I don’t want to fall out of love).

I also normally give YA fiction a wide berth. I know – I’m totally an a-hole since clearly there are so many excellent examples of it out there these days. But I have trouble identifying with fictional teenagers that are making terrible decisions. I read Twilight and spent a lot of time wanting to shake Bella. Obviously Tris isn’t living for a man, and that makes things so much better, but I also seem to have become way more tolerant of fictional teenagers. I don’t seem to be holding Tris to grown up standards of behaviour and I’m certainly not so judgmental of her up and down relationship with Tobias.

Evidently I’ve grown as a person.

Anyway, people in my life are excited that I’m reading these. My 10 year old goddaughter and I are reading the same books. I try not to think about that too much. At least I’ll have someone to see the movie with and make it look like I’m just being a good aunt.

3

The 2012 Review

This is the time of year when everyone looks back on the past 12 months and looks at the best and worst of etc.

I’d like to pretend like I’m different, but I’m not.

This was a big reading year for me.

I’m working through my Top 5 or other arbitrary number list in my head, but in the meantime I thought I’d look back at my reading trends and feelings this year.

Up for it? It’s happening, you don’t actually have a choice.

Like I said – big reading year for me. I make a goal for myself each year. In the past it’s been a bit lofty and I’ve handicapped myself by having to choose books that I think will get me to my goal. At the same time if I choose a goal that’s too low, it’s not going to be any kind of a challenge. This year I settled on 50. Left me room to play around with bigger books but also, 50 books is a lot.

I surpassed my goal. By a lot. As of today I’m working on finishing my 81st book. Which is the most I’ve ever read since I started keeping track of the books I read each year. And let’s face it, probably ever.

This year I discovered the delights of Agatha Christie. I never thought I was a murder mystery kind of reader but I am. I really really am. Aside from Agatha Christie, I devoured works by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and Camilla Lackberg (The Ice Princess, The Preacher, The Stonecutter, The Stranger). I even read a real life crime book about a serial killer in Paris during World War II. That book was a lot more difficult to read. Like terrifying.

My failure to read Les Miserables in time for the movie’s release notwithstanding, I did seem to be drawn to books about the French Revolution. Charles Dickens and I came to an understanding when I fell in love with A Tale of Two Cities and I gave Michelle Moran a chance to wow me (she did) when I picked up Madame Tussaud despite the awful cover. While I was fascinated by the French, I became enamoured of Russian Royals, learning all about Catherine the Great thanks to the incredible biography by Robert K. Massie. That turned into a bit of an obsession with Nicholas and Alexandra and I just picked up a book about Royal Russian women by Julia P. Gelardi (which I’m really excited about because she wrote one of my very favourite royal biographies about the five granddaughters of Queen Victoria who each became a Queen in her own right).

My book club had a big impact on my reading choices this year. Our selections ranged from so-so to downright scandalous once we started on the Fifty Shades phenomenon. I was also on the hunt for anything that might have something to do with Downton Abbey and I finished off all of the available Song of Ice and Fire books. I caved and read The Hunger Games books (which I loved), and tried my best to read War and Peace, but was ultimately foiled when my copy was missing a sizeable chunk of pages. I still haven’t managed to sort that out – when I took a copy out of the library to read the missing pages, it was a completely different version.

It was a pretty low key year for non-fiction, something I plan to work on in the New Year. I did manage to continue my love affair with Malcolm Gladwell (he kind of changed my life with Outliers this year) and was completely fascinated by the lives of the Kennedy Women (Lawrence Leamer) and members of The President’s Club.

This was also a year when I made a lot of book mistakes, which was kind of a first for me. There were a number of books that I read that I just didn’t care for. A couple that I abandoned altogether (Catch-22, Little Shadows, The Vampire Lestat) and others that I struggled through that I wanted to abandon (The Stranger’s Child, The Prague Cemetery, Bride of New France, The Firefly Cloak).

But in the end, I read almost 81 books. And that’s pretty badass.

0

Books On Film

Have you guys seen this yet? Anne Hathaway cut off all her hair?! Brave girl – isn’t she getting married? I couldn’t do it even if there was a wedding in my future! (which, there isn’t. Just to be clear)

So evidently she lopped off her luscious locks (can we agree that Anne has lovely hair?) for a part in the movie version of Les Miserables.

I have not *gasp!* read Victor Hugo’s masterpiece. I know. I’m a failure at life. It’s on my list! But so are War and Peace and Bleak House and I haven’t done much about that either.

But like millions of other movie minions, now that there is a movie involved! I might actually get my butt in gear and read it. Amazing how a movie version will do that eh?

Considering The Hunger Games movie mania we are currently experiencing as well (have you seen it yet? I still have to go) I thought it might be fun to talk about some of the better movie adaptations out there. OK super nerdy but also? Super awesome.

I’d say at the top of my list are the Jane Austen adaptations. I’m talking about the BBC Pride and Prejudice (Colin Firth naturally), Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility, Gwyneth Paltrow’s  Emma and Mansfield Park with…actually I don’t know who was in that one. But it was terrific. All of these adaptations managed to capture the humour in all of Austen’s work as well as the swoon worthy aspects of the novels.

The adaptations of Roald Dahl are pretty great – I’m thinking Matilda and the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory of course. While I appreciate the artistic vision of Tim Burton’s version, it just didn’t’ have the same spirit as the Gene Wilder version. Matilda was so perfect from the terrifying Miss Trunchbull to the sweet Miss Honey and the disgusting Wormwood’s – minus the lovely Matilda of course. Considering how I turned out, it should come as no surprise that Matilda especially had a special place in my childhood so I’m glad that they got it right. As for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – there isn’t one among us that doesn’t have a favourite part, or treat or song and if I started singing ‘oompa loompa…’ you could probably help me finish off a verse.

Gone With the Wind. Can you say masterpiece? Margaret Mitchell’s epic tale of a Southern belle was masterfully adapted to the big screen. No expense was spared to create this film and decades later it still shows. The book itself is marvelous but there is nothing like watching Scarlet O’Hara on film.

I love the 1994 version of Little Women with Susan Sarandon and Wynonna Ryder. Kirsten Dunst as Amy was brilliantly spoiled and Clare Danes’ Beth was tragically sweet. It makes me bawl every time. I do love the version with Margaret O’Brien and Elizabeth Taylor but I can never get over how they switched the birth order and so for me, 1994 is always the preference.

My final choice is going to be…I can’t think of another one just now. What’s your favourite adaptation?

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The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games trilogy. Are you on board yet? You’ve seen it though right? Dismissed it as mere fodder for the Twilight crowd?

Like you didn’t love Twilight yourself.

I’ve been there. I basically make it a rule that anything my younger sisters would read, I’m not touching. Something about taking literary recommendations from 12 and 15 year olds that doesn’t sit well with me. But naturally I will force my superior book taste on them.

Naturally.

So The Hunger Games mania is in full swing. You can’t go into any book or grocery store or even scroll through Twitter without running into it. Lots of Twilightcomparisons for the movie, lots of movie executives gleefully rubbing their hands together, anticipating another ridiculous windfall.

I have to say, they are probably right.

These books, they get to you. They make you obsess and you read them back to back as if they are one giant book, the last chapter of the first feeding seamlessly into the first chapter of the second and so on. My bus rides to and from work are so quick when I’m reading these babies. I have no idea where I am half the time, and I’ve definitely been late to one function because I postponed my getting-ready time in favour of finishing Book 2. Basically, Suzanne Collins is a genius.

So it’s the future and we’ve all basically destroyed ourselves in this crazy bloody civil war and out of the ashes of that comes a new country, Panem. Panem is split into 12 districts, most of which are living hand to mouth. And once a year, to remind everyone about the power of the Capitol, there is a Reaping. One boy and one girl from each district is chosen as a tribute to participate in The Hunger Games. Basically a super twisted Olympics whereby children between the ages of 12 and 18 fight each other to the death. Katniss Everdeen volunteers to protect her little sister Prim and well…there’s a lot more to it but that’s the gist.

Initially, when I heard a description of what exactly these Hunger Games were all about, I was totally put off. The idea of reading about kids killing each other is naturally completely abhorrent. And I can’t really explain why it isn’t except that, aside from the actual Games, the things that happen in the books, have happened in history and I don’t think we should shy away from teaching our kids about it.

That said, if your kid has read it, maybe give it a read yourself so that you can talk about it. When I finally finish Book 3 (Mockingjay), I plan to give my sister a call and ask her just what she thought about these books. Because they are a mindf*ck.

In a good way.

And if you have no kids, give them a read, go see the movies. You’ll enjoy it. Just like you said you wouldn’t love Twilight. And look at you now. Yes, you Team Edward.