Book review: ‘Enthusiasm’ by Polly Shulman

enthusiasmJulie Lefkowitz knows where her allegience lies — and it’s all with Ashleigh Rossi, her childhood best friend and serious Enthusiast. Ashleigh’s whims change without warning and encompass her entire being, dragging Julie along as she suddenly develops an interest in insects, candy-making or King Arthur — and then some.

Usually glad to go along with Ash’s infectious, excited schemes, her latest is causing Julie to feel anxious — Ashleigh is now obsessed with Jane Austen’s classic Pride & Prejudice, Julie’s very own favorite book. And from the moment Ash appears at Julie’s wearing a long gown, speaking in Regency language and begging her to crash a “ball” at neighboring all-boys school Forefield Academy, Julie knows this is no ordinary Enthusiasm.

And it’s not, of course. At the dance they meet Ned Downing and Charles Grandison Parr, two “very suitable” young men who could very clearly resemble their own Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, respectively. But which gentleman will pair off with which young lady? Or are they totally immune to the girls’ charms?

I can’t believe I only discovered this book by browsing through a bargain bookshelf. It was absolutely, totally fun and adorable! That’s really the best way I can describe it. Was the romance a wee bit predictable? Yes. Were there times you wanted to punch Julie, our narrator, in the arm for being so obtuse? Definitely. Was it obvious that, in the tradition of Jane Austen, we would get our very own happy ending? Sure. But let me tell you, it didn’t really hurt this infectious story at all.

What really anchored the whole novel for me was the knowledge that we all have an Ashleigh — or that we’ve all been an Ashleigh. My friends and family have long teased me that I jump from one “obsession” to another, and I absolutely saw myself in Shulman’s whimsical character. Ashleigh’s friendship with Julie was so strong, as was their devotion to each other — and it was so refreshing to see a pair of friends who don’t turn on each other the moment a pimply teenage boy shows them an ounce of attention. Seriously, Ashleigh and Julie were Ashleigh-and-Julie, and I loved that.

The family dynamics here were really strong, too. Goodness knows I love to see a functioning, well-drawn and relatable family! While Julie’s parents are divorced and she divides her time between her mother’s home with an antiques store in front and her father’s place with her new stepmother Amy, the “Irresistable Accountant,” the book doesn’t fall into the mire of “where do I belong, what did I do wrong” that’s so completely played out. Both homes welcomed her, though Julie did occasionally struggle with being kind to Amy. Though I couldn’t exactly blame her . . . I’m sure I would have had a hard time always being nice to Amy, too.

Jane Austen fans will delight in seeing a young woman so engrossed with one of their own favorite novels, as will the many women who have looked for their own Mr. Darcy. Ashleigh’s Enthusiasm is totally contagious, and at just 208 pages, you can whip right through this one in a sitting or two. And I’m so glad I did!

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0142409359 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website

Waiting (a little) for Twenties Girl

twenties_girlI’m cheating a little for this week’s Waiting On Wednesday . . . because this book was just released yesterday, July 21! But it sounds too good not to mention, and I figure that I’m still waiting for it. Right?

This week’s honors go to Sophie Kinsella’s Twenties Girl! Here’s Amazon’s synopsis:

Lara Lington has always had an overactive imagination, but suddenly that imagination seems to be in overdrive. Normal professional twenty-something young women don’t get visited by ghosts. Or do they?

When the spirit of Lara’s great-aunt Sadie–a feisty, demanding girl with firm ideas about fashion, love, and the right way to dance–mysteriously appears, she has one last request: Lara must find a missing necklace that had been in Sadie’s possession for more than seventy-five years, and Sadie cannot rest without it. Lara, on the other hand, has a number of ongoing distractions. Her best friend and business partner has run off to Goa, her start-up company is floundering, and she’s just been dumped by the “perfect” man.

Sadie, however, could care less.

Lara and Sadie make a hilarious sparring duo, and at first it seems as though they have nothing in common. But as the mission to find Sadie’s necklace leads to intrigue and a new romance for Lara, these very different “twenties” girls learn some surprising truths from each other along the way. Written with all the irrepressible charm and humor that have made Sophie Kinsella’s books beloved by millions, Twenties Girl is also a deeply moving testament to the transcendent bonds of friendship and family.

While I have to admit to not being so crazy about Kinsella’s Remember Me?, which I read last year, there’s no denying her universal appeal and strong draw for readers of women’s fiction — myself included. I read the first of the Shopaholic books years ago and have several of her other titles in my TBR stack. Twenties Girl sounds really fun, and I love the idea of the heroine’s aunt coming back to impart some time-tested wisdom. Who couldn’t use a little bit of that? Throw in some laughs and a little romance and I’ll be off and running with it.

What are you waiting patiently — or impatiently — for this week? Read more responses over at Breaking The Spine!

Everything Austen Challenge

everything_austenI am quite ecstatic to say that I’ve just signed up for another reading adventure — the Everything Austen Challenge, hosted by Stephanie’s Written Word! Running from July 1 through Jan. 1, 2010, this challenge asks participants to pick out six Austen-themed items — books, films, audio books, whatever — and complete them before New Year’s Day.

I’m a mega Austen-o-holic, so I’m thinking this isn’t going to be too challenging for me — especially since I already have two ARCs of Austen fiction to review by August! (Those could be very famous — and public — last words, I know.)

Here’s my tentative list of the Jane-related books I hope to complete:

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (need to buy)

Mr. Darcy, Vampyre by Amanda Grange (ARC, review to come in August)

Cassandra and Jane by Jill Pitkeathley (own, TBR)

Rude Awakenings Of A Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler (need to buy — out June 25!)

Darcy and Anne by Judith Brocklehurt (ARC, review to come in September)

Letters From Pemberly by Jane Dawkins (own, TBR)

And I’m sure I’ll be watching more than a few adaptations of Jane’s beloved novels, not to mention a marathon session of “Becoming Jane” — one of my favorite films of all time! Though I’ve enjoyed Austen since first stumbling across Pride & Prejudice in high school (and seeing the BBC adaptation — le sigh), “Becoming Jane” was what really ignited a major obsession with her work and learning more about her life.

Want to join in the fun? Sign up now!

Beach reading

beach_feetFar more complicated, time-consuming and stressful than making sure I have the right clothes, shoes and sunscreen to take on vacation is deciding which books to take. My family vacations at the Outer Banks every summer — and every summer, I struggle with making sure I have the right novels to accompany me on my much-needed break!

Packing books for London last month was simple — in my “freetime,” I knew I wouldn’t really have my eyes open long enough to actually read anything. So I only brought a book, the I’d saved just for the plane ride to England: Megan McCafferty’s Charmed Thirds. And I picked up a few British books on my way home, of course, including Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone!

But this time I don’t have to worry about the heft of my suitcase and whether or not I can pull it single-handedly up and off the Tube. Oh, no — Dad and I are traveling in the SUV with plenty of space for a ridiculous amount of books! And now I have to comb my TBR stack, near collapse, for the best few to bring.

footprints“Beach reads” are, by their nature, light, breezy and often funny novels that can be read and absorbed quickly while, say, sitting out in the blazing hot sunshine with the dull roar of waves crashing behind you. I happen to think it’s a little mean to narrowly classify books as “beach reads” — often meaning they’re a little silly, not really worth thinking about — but there are some books that are just such fun, it’s easy to label them in that category.

Last summer at the beach, I carried the entire Twilight series around with me! I finished Twilight on the car ride down, began New Moon within the first few days and had a hard time setting it down the whole time I was away. Wanting to pace myself a bit, I picked up Elin Hilderbrand’s A Summer Affair at the end of the week, and I definitely enjoyed that.

And now, standing on the precipice of a fresh new vacation and a new opportunity to read like I might never read again, I think I’ve narrowed this year’s selections down . . .

Meg’s Beach Books ’09

along_for_the_rideSarah Dessen’s Along For The Ride

I rushed out on my lunch break today to grab Dessen’s latest novel, which I eagerly blogged about last Wednesday. After I carefully remove the beautiful dust jacket, that baby will be ready to sail along with me! In fact, I’m pushing it up on the top of the stack — I just have to devour that one whole. I’ll break it out as soon as we’re on the road.

Megan McCafferty’s Fourth Comings

Much like my London adventure, I’ve been saving the fourth installment in McCafferty’s awesome Jessica Darling series for another grand occasion! And I think this is finally it. I can’t wait to see what’s next for Jessica and Marcus, although reading reviews for the last two books has spoiled (a bit of) the fun for me. That’s okay, though — I have to absorb all of it myself!


Sarah Strohmeyer’s The Penny Pinchers Club

Okay, this one is cheating a little bit — because I’ve already started it! But I’m almost finished and can’t bear to leave it behind. It’s a really light, funny story about a woman who believes her husband is planning on divorcing her after she spends 20 years working her way through their savings account with her out-of-control spending — and actually a cheeky look at what we think we “need” in our society, and why. With only 40 pages to go, I’m touting it along on the sand!

Meg Cabot’s Airhead

As one of Cabot’s devout followers, I’m ashamed to say I haven’t started this series yet! I purchased the first novel in anticipation of my last trip, but ultimately decided I wouldn’t have time to read it while away. I’m eager to start!

suite_scarlettMaureen Johnson’s Suite Scarlett

Johnson is another author I thought I should have gotten to know a long time ago, but only recently read her European adventure novel 13 Little Blue Envelopes. While I felt that story was just a little too emotionally detached for my tastes, I appreciated the quality of Johnson’s writing and voice! I’m looking forward to reading this one, which seems to have been heralded all over the YA book world.

Book review: ‘The Sugar Queen’ by Sarah Addison Allen

sugar_queenSarah Addison Allen’s The Sugar Queen is one seriously delightful, magical story — and I gobbled it up in two sittings! I probably would have devoured it whole if, you know, real life hadn’t gotten in the way (it always seems to do that!).

Josey Cirrini has been dealing with her mother’s firm disapproval for as long as she can remember — and now, at 27, she’s finally realizing that we can’t try to atone for past mistakes forever, and there certainly comes a time to move forward. She probably wouldn’t have reached this conclusion if Della Lee Baker, a local waitress and ne’er-do-well, hadn’t taken her closet hostage, moving in with a stack of her own worries and a demand to stay for as long as she needs to. After Della Lee discovers Josey’s secret stash of candy (oh, delicious candy!) and paperbacks, the two are bonded through their secrets — and the threat of blackmail.

At Della Lee’s (often tough) encouragement, Josey slowly begins to widen the tiny world in which she’s been sequestered in Bald Slope, North Carolina as the only daughter of local developer and hero Marco Cirrini. She meets Chloe, the owner of a local cafe, and the two strike up an immediate friendship which strengthens as Josey realizes Chloe’s connection to mailman Adam, whom Josey has longed for since the moment she first saw him.

Filled with mystery, suspense, romance and plenty of surprises, I absolutely loved The Sugar Queen. The dynamics between Josey and her mother were intense but realistic, and I adored troubled Della Lee, whose heart was always in the right place. I really related to Chloe and Jake’s relationship — the pull of first love, the intensity of finding someone so special to you. The effort it takes to forgive them for their mistakes… which turns out to take no effort at all. Addison Allen’s descriptions of their relationship really struck a chord with me.

And though magic is a recurring theme through the novel, it never seems strange or unrealistic — it feels right, an awesome and whimsical touch in a very fantastic story. Was it a tad predictable at times? Perhaps — but that bothered me little. I knew the journey getting there would be worth it, and there still plenty of unexpected moments to keep me flipping the pages fast.

I loved Addison Allen’s Garden Spells, and I have to say that I found this one just as entrancing — if not more so. She has a way of immediately drawing you into a story, surrounding you as though you’re caught in a silvery snowstorm. Highly recommended!

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0553384848 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘Looking For Alaska’ by John Green

looking_for_alaska Beginning John Green’s Looking for Alaska, we know two things: the entire novel exists in a “before” and an “after.” Reading this from page one, I was immediately filled with a sense of foreboding — everything was leading up to the “after,” and I was terrified of what that would mean. When the shoe eventually dropped, so to speak, I was prepared for it — but, then again, I wasn’t. This isn’t a book that hits you all at once . . . Alaska, this enigma, washes over you in waves.

Our hero here is Miles “Pudge” Halter, a young man who leaves his family for Alabama, where he enrolls in Culver Creek Boarding School. Pudge — a nickname devised by Chip, or “the Colonel,” his new roommate and eventual best friend — leaves the general ordinariness of his adolescence in Florida seeking “the Great Perhaps,” and brings his penchant for memorizing the famous last words with him. Despite his parents’ warnings, Pudge immediately worries he’s fallen in with “the bad crowd” at Culver Creek — the kids dashing down to the Smoking Hole with contraband cigarettes, sipping on Strawberry Hill wine and generally getting up to mischief.

But any of those fears melt away when he meets Alaska Young, a brilliantly beautiful but mysteriously moody young woman who rooms just a few doors down from the Colonel and Pudge. With Takumi and Lara, the five friends spend the first semester of Pudge’s life at Culver Creek reading, loving, learning and attempting to get back at the Weekend Warriors — the crew of rich kids who attend the school during the week, but are free to return home to their mansions and extravagant lifestyles on the weekends. The regular students hate them — particularly Alaska and the Colonel. And all signs seem to point to making them pay for the slights the Warriors have committed against Pudge and the others . . . until things fall apart.

I’ve heard so much about this novel in the past year or so, it was really hard for me to actually sit down and read it. I knew that my expectations were really high, and I was worried that I was dooming myself to not enjoy it from the start. Still, after reading Green’s An Abundance of Katherines, I was interested in his unique storytelling and awesome descriptions — I had to read Alaska. And I’m so glad I did. It’s for moments like this one:

If only we could see the string of consequences that result from our smallest actions. But we can’t know better until knowing is useless.

Or this:

When adults say, ‘Teenagers think they are invincible’ with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we are never irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they are old. They get scared of losing and failing.

What really holds Looking For Alaska together, for me, was Green’s way with words — and the way in which everything at Culver Creek seems to operate under strict, serious edicts. Until the “after,” life is black and white. Pudge loves Alaska completely, unreservedly, despite his inability to understand her. The Colonel cautions Pudge to “never rat” out the other kids at the school, no matter what offense the other side has committed, and they regard that as a law. Pudge knows that his friends’ incessant drinking and smoking is wrong, but he can’t justify not participating. Unlike in Florida, Pudge needs to be accepted here. He needs to fit in. He chokes on the cigarette the first few times, sure, but then he gets the hang of it. Easy. Black and white.

Of course, in the “after,” nothing is easy. Everything is a mystery. Life continues on for the friends, but none of it is making sense. The pieces don’t fit together — and things fall apart. It’s up to them to make sense of it all — to understand, as Alaska states, the way out of the labyrinth. Even if it takes them, perhaps, their whole lives to determine it.

This novel is powerful — powerful, serious and enveloping. While I never really felt like I was a part of the pranks and adventures, I was definitely content with going along for the ride, though it made my stomach hurt. The structure of this novel — every section serving as a countdown to the “after” — really put me on edge, unable to calm myself down. Everything I read seemed a clue pointing me to the after, where I knew the gravity of whatever happened would be extreme. As the days trickled down and the after approached in earnest, I actually flipped ahead twenty or so pages to see what was going to happen. I really, really had to know. The waiting was the worst — and I figured that the knowing couldn’t be any more terrible.

I don’t know if I was right. But I do know that Looking For Alaska is one of those books that will return to me for quite some time — the tendrils of smoke rings rising up unexpectedly, pulling me back toward them. It raises questions of death and dying, of survival, of loving and of loss. Of how to figure out the things which seem maze-like — impossible. How to move forward. How to seek our own “Great Perhaps.”

And, because I love poetry (and so does Alaska), I’ll leave you with the lines running through my head the entire time I was reading Green’s novel:

“The Second Coming” (1921)
By William Butler Yeats

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 014241221X ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Blog
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘Twisted’ by Laurie Halse Anderson

twisted_anderson After a lifetime of invisibility and bullying, all Tyler Miller wants is to be noticed — and quickly. One “Foul Deed” later, Tyler has earned a reputation as a borderline criminal, has a tanned, muscular build from community service and is suddenly attractive to his classmates. Returning to school after a summer of manual labor, Tyler has changed — and everyone seems to be paying attention.

Including Bethany Milbury, the gorgeous senior girl of Tyler’s often inappropriate dreams. Tyler’s bad boy reputation catches Bethany’s attention for the first time, but her twin brother Chip isn’t going to sit back idly and watch any affection develop between the two of them. Tyler has been dodging Chip’s punches for years and, starting the school year at a new height of 6’3″, he finally has the advantage over him — not that Chip would ever admit it.

And neither of the boys would ever acknowledge, or appreciate, how much they actually have in common. Tyler’s father is a verbally abusive minion of a man, reviled by his wife, son and daughter Hannah. The Miller family portrays the classic “cookie cutter,” white-picket-fence on the outside but can’t conceal the cracks in their “perfect” existence. After Tyler’s “Foul Deed,” Mr. Miller cracks down even harder on his son. Likewise, Chip and Bethany’s parents seem to push them both to a near breaking point, always demanding more and more — nothing less than perfection.

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