Saturday, September 30, 2006

In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner

In Her Shoes chronicles the experiences of two sisters, Maggie and Rose, who were brought closer together by the death of their manic-depressive mother when they were young. Their closeness doesn't stop them from being in almost constant conflict, though -- they are sisters, after all. Rose is the smart and successful sister, the one who went to Princeton and is now a lawyer. Maggie tries to fight her feeling of inferiority by being as pretty and sexy as possible, but even she can't escape the fact that her life is a mess, a series of failed relationships and boring retail jobs that she quit after just a few days. Rose resents the way she always has to bail Maggie out of one mess or another, the way Maggie takes whatever she wants from everyone and never seems to understand the need to make a decent living and pay her own way. Maggie, on the other hand, wishes that Rose would just get off her case and try to understand how her lifelong struggle with dyslexia has made everything she tries to do so much more difficult.

Meanwhile, their maternal grandmother, Ella, is still wounded from the way her son-in-law angrily cut her out of Maggie and Rose's lives after her daughter's death. She lives alone in a Florida retirement community, filling her days with volunteer work and avoiding close friendships so she'll never have to revisit the painful memories of her lost family.

I know these women sound like a pretty hopeless trio, but they are all likeable characters who have some personal growth to go through and closer bonds to forge with one another. As the title suggests, each of them needs to spend some time trying to look at life from the other's point of view; as an added chicklit bonus, they all wear the same size shoe so lots of shoe-borrowing symbolism comes into play during the course of the novel.

And so as I complete my blitz through Jennifer Weiner's back catalogue, the question that haunts me is - what the HECK happened with Goodnight Nobody? My conclusion: Weiner should stick to chicklit and stay away from further cross-genre experiments.

Friday, September 29, 2006

One for the Money by Janet Evanovich

Remember those "alphabet mysteries" I've been raving about on this blog - starring sassy PI Kinsey Millhone?

Well, in this book I have discovered the anti-Kinsey.

Meet Stephanie Plum. She's down on her luck, in a big way. No job, no skills, no car, no money, and soon no furniture (because it's all in the pawn shop). Where Kinsey Millhone is street-smart, Stephanie is a smartass. Where Kinsey is a tough loner, Stephanie is saddled with an overbearing New Jersey family (including a crazy grandma who wears spandex biking shorts and shoots roast chickens). Kinsey set up her own PI company after learning everything she needed to know from an old pro; Stephanie takes a job as a bounty hunter for her cousin Vinnie's bail bonding company, and is so clueless that she can find her man four or five times and never bring him in.

This is a terrific book, with a voice so strong it almost reaches out and smacks you (if you haven't already fallen over from laughing). I love the way Evanovich has turned the female detective genre upside down; Stephanie Plum is absolutely hopeless in every way, and yet somehow she manages to get the job done in her own unique and appealing way. I can't wait to read the sequel.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner

Aha... now here is the answer to why Jennifer Weiner ever got published. This is her first novel, and it's quite engrossing. It's the story of Cannie, a young reporter with a terrible self-image who hasn't quite recovered from the end of her last long-term relationship. During the course of this novel, she goes through stages of healing and personal growth while various good and bad things (I won't say what) happen to her. I found the writing far better than previous Weiner novels, and Cannie was a realistic and likeable character.

I'm glad to finally have enjoyed a Jennifer Weiner book, after one dud and one "good but not great" novel by an author who has been so enthusiastically recommended to me. If you think you might like to give Jennifer Weiner a try, this is the one to start with. (Well, I say that now but I'll be reading "In Her Shoes" next, so watch this space for details...)

Friday, September 22, 2006

Little Earthquakes by Jennifer Weiner

Here I got a better answer to the question of "Why Jennifer Weiner's books are so darn popular." This novel was far more engaging than Goodnight Nobody, with more in-depth characterization and an interesting mix of four women's stories of first-time motherhood, each woven together as they become friends and share experiences. The writing was good enough and the story compelling enough that I was able to overlook the occasional annoying foray into clothing descriptions.

In brief, this novel is about the pregnancies and first months of motherhood of four people: Becky (the fat one), Lia (the sad one), Ayinde (the exotic, rich one) and Kelly (the control freak). Yes, I'm being tongue-in-cheek - there's more to these characters than a simple label, and over the course of the novel they have a range of experiences that help to make them more and more "real". Each woman struggles with some aspect of becoming a mother for the first time, and they deal with their life tragedies and challenges by drawing on each other's friendship. There's nothing deep and Naomi-Wolf-ish here, just a simple, charming tale of joy, sadness and friendship. If you're thinking you might like to try this writer and are not averse to "mommy lit", Little Earthquakes wouldn't be the worst place to start.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

Nadezhda has a problem. Well, a few problems. She's still recovering from her mother's death two years ago, she is barely speaking to her older sister Vera, and now her 84-year-old father has dropped a bombshell; he is importing a young, buxom new bride from the Ukraine, his motherland. Her name is Valentina, and according to Pappa, she is an angel. All Nadezhda can see, though, are her father's home, pension, and minimal savings being sucked away by the opportunistic, big-breasted Valentina.

Nadezhda's efforts to get Valentina out of her father's life have some unexpected consequences. She's never seen eye to eye with her sister, but now they have something in common. Pooling their strengths and resources to evict the enemy from their mother's home, the sisters discover a way to see past their differences, and Nadezhda begins to piece together the story of her family's past. Slowly, she begins to understand some of the dynamics in her family as she learns about their wartime life in the Ukraine and the hardships involved in their trek to England.

At first I had mixed feelings about this novel; while it was charming, the characters weren't people I could really connect to or empathize with. Once I got into the book, though, I became intrigued by the situation that this family was in. I wanted to know what would happen. Would Valentina settle down and become a caring wife to her elderly husband during his final years? Would Nadezhda and Vera succeed in bringing about a divorce and having Valentina expelled from Britain by the immigration authorities? And what were the awful secrets buried in this family's past? Most importantly, would the slightly loopy Pappa ever complete his book, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian?

Finding out the answers to these questions made this book a satisfying read. If you're in the mood for a touching, occasionaly hilarious immigrant family drama, you might want to check this out.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Goodnight Nobody by Jennifer Weiner

This is exactly the kind of book I feared to hold in my hands when I avoided reading "chick-lit" for so long.

In the first fifty pages of Goodnight Nobody, I was treated to enough descriptions of people's clothing to make me run away screaming. When you include the excessive description of hair styles, skin, facial features, decor, architecture and the tiresome dropping of brand names left, right and center... well... ARRGGHHHHHH!!!

To give you an idea of how focused on (IMO) the wrong kind of description this author is, let me share with you a passage from page 10, where the protagonist finds a body:

"Oh, God!" I clapped my hand against my mouth and grabbed onto the countertop to keep myself from sliding to the floor. Kitty had gone for the same upgrades that Ben and I had picked. Her countertops were granite, her floors were pickled maple, and the French doors leading to the garden had leaded glass insets. There was a Sub-Zero refrigerator and a Viking range, and between them was Kitty Cavanaugh, facedown on the floor with an eight-inch carbon-steel Henckels butcher's knife protruding from between her shoulder blades.

Umm... hello? You just found your pal stabbed to death on the floor, and you're taking a moment to assess her decor choices, drop a couple of appliance brand names and notice what kind of knife the killer used? This would be the kind of reaction I'd expect from a hardened crime scene detective with a curious preoccupation with kitchen decor, but it doesn't ring true from a suburban mom who has presumably never seen a murder victim in her life.

Unfortunately, though this may well be an interesting mystery, the writing style didn't pull me in. Even if I could get past all the descriptions, I didn't think the people in this book felt real. They all seemed like shallow caricatures: the suburban stepford wives, the world-weary cop, the distant workaholic husband, the single best friend who can't find a husband but is great with your kids... etc, etc.

So I'm going to close this one, and give Jennifer Weiner one more chance with Little Earthquakes.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Darcy's Diary by Amanda Grange

I picked this up at the gift shop at the Jane Austen House museum during my recent visit to England. It was a fun and well-written, if necessarily predictable, retelling of the Pride and Prejudice story from the point of view of Mr Darcy. As such, I don't have too much to say about it - if you haven't read Jane Austen's original, I suggest you go and do that rather than read this first. Then you can pick up this book and enjoy reading the story again, from a slightly different perspective, complete with the "happily ever after" chapters at the end, in which the author gets to indulge her fantasies (in an occasionally un-Austen-like manner) about Elizabeth and Darcy's marriage.

I liked Darcy's Diary far better than the hideous and embarrassing Mr Darcy Takes a Wife, which I do not recommend you pick up if you want something told in the same style and spirit as Jane Austen's stories. If only I'd taken note of the title of the other book recommended by the Jane Austen House employee - I'd enjoy reading more P&P sequels, but it's hard to figure out which ones are worth my time.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

About a Boy by Nick Hornby

This is a book that I re-read often enough I had to google my blog to figure out if I'd written about it already!

About a Boy is a charming tale of Will, a vapid, thirtysomething Londoner who has created a nice solitary life of doing absolutely nothing, being shallow, and avoiding being part of any intimate relationship. Will doesn't quite know what to do when twelve-year-old Marcus, an oddly perceptive child, pushes his way into Will's life and insists on being friends. Marcus's relentless campaign to make Will part of his own life - and Will's reaction to suddenly finding himself caring about people - is the basis of this funny, touching novel. A fine example of Nick Hornby - if you haven't tried his books yet, this is a good place to start, along with High Fidelity.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Whitethorn Woods by Maeve Binchy

I should know by now that I shouldn't rush out and buy a new novel in hardcover just because it is written by someone whose previous books I loved. Alas, Maeve Binchy has joined the ranks of such writers as John Irving by producing a novel that was a real disappointment.

Whitethorn Woods returns to one of Binchy's favourite settings, a sleepy Irish town. This particular sleepy town is called Rossmore, and the big drama happening there is that a new bypass road has been proposed, one that will stop heavy traffic from cutting through the town but will also ruin the nearby woods. We are reminded over and over again from the get-go that this road is very controversial and that many people are opposed to it because there's a shrine to St. Ann inside a cave in the woods, and this cave would apparently be demolished in the name of progress.

The main problem with this book is that it fails to make me care. A trademark of Maeve Binchy's writing is that not much happens in her novels, but because her characters are so compelling and believable I get caught up in their lives and want the best for them. Sadly, Binchy has managed to not make that happen this time because of the odd way she is telling the story of Rossmore: this novel consists of a series of disjointed short stories, many of which read like rushed summaries of people's lives and some of which are told twice, from the point of view of more than one person in the story. Each story includes a mention of the increasingly tiresome Rossmore with its boring controversy, so that by the time the writing finally sparked some interest in me (about 2/3 of the way through) I was thoroughly sick and tired of St. Ann's shrine and couldn't care less about the road. Binchy does make an effort to pull some of the disjointed stories together in the final chapter, but unfortunately it's too little, too late. There were just too many people to keep track of and I could barely remember who was who by the final chapter.

Alas! Maeve Binchy is one of those writers I used to be able to count on to consistently produce great novels and who are trying too hard now to be different and innovative, with the result that they just make me feel like I've wasted my money on a boring book. The uninteresting drama of Rossmore is right up there with Jack Burns and his snoozeworthy quest for his absent father in John Irving's Until I Find You, which I just can't muster up the interest to finish.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Love Over Scotland by Alexander McCall Smith

Imagine my delight when, browsing in a bookstore in cold and rainy Middlesbrough a few weeks ago, I came across this book. I didn't realize this before, but the "44 Scotland Street" books are published in hardcover in the UK almost a year before we get them (in trade paperback) in Canada. So only weeks after finishing Espresso Tales, I got another dose of this wonderful series.

Things seem to pick up in this book after a bit of meandering in Espresso Tales. Each of my favourite plots was advanced, and I was left feeling extremely satisfied. Wonderful things happen to Matthew, Domenica, Pat and Bertie; and yet there are some sad events too, as one character dies, Big Lou's hopes for love turn sour and Bertie's mother persists in seeing his life as a project. I encourage you to pick up this series if you haven't before, to meet these charming characters, get to know Alexander McCall Smith's Edinburgh and be treated to his wry and funny observations about human nature.