Book Review: The Sweetheart Deal

Sweetheart Deal

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

The poignant story of what happens when a woman who thinks she’s lost everything has the chance to love again.

Leo has long joked that, in the event of his death, he wants his best friend Garrett, a lifelong bachelor, to marry his wife, Audrey. One drunken night, he goes so far as to make Garrett promise to do so. Then, twelve years later, Leo, a veteran firefighter, dies in a skiing accident.

As Audrey navigates her new role as widow and single parent, Garrett quits his job in Boston and buys a one-way ticket out west. Before long, Audrey’s feelings for Garrett become more than platonic, and Garrett finds himself falling for Audrey, her boys, and their life together in Portland. When Audrey finds out about the drunken pact from years ago, though, the harmless promise that brought Garrett into her world becomes the obstacle to his remaining in it.

My Thoughts:

I feel like I’ve read at least 4 or 5 contemporary novels about young widows in the last fews years, and while The Sweetheart Deal is the latest, it’s certainly not the least.

When Audrey’s firefighter husband Leo dies in a tragic ski accident, she’s left alone with three boys to raise. But not entirely alone: Years early, celebrating the Y2K New Year with quite a lot of booze, Leo made his best friend Garrett sign an agreement saying he’d marry Audrey if anything ever happened to Leo.

Audrey never knew about the deal, but Garrett has never forgotten. So when Leo dies, Garret drops everything in his own life to support Audrey and the boys, moving into their guest room and committing to finishing the addition to the house that Leo left half-built.

Needless to say, eventually Audrey emerges from her devastating grief to find comfort and the hint of new love in Garrett’s arms. But will the drunken promise from all those years ago come between them? Dunh, dunh, dunh….

The Sweetheart Deal is actually quite engaging, and I felt that the author did a very good job of portraying how the different family members deal with such a shocking loss. Different characters narrate different chapters, so we see events from the perspective of Audrey and Garrett, as well as each of the boys. It’s interesting to see how the kids come into the story, how their feelings complicate matters, and how Garrett very selflessly immerses himself in doing whatever he can for Leo’s family.

While Audrey has a best friend as well, it’s the friendship between Leo and Garrett that really drives the story. Friends since boyhood, they’re bonded in a way that we don’t often see in female-centric contemporary love stories, where the main friend relationship is usually between women. Garrett’s feelings here are intense and conflicted: He loved Leo truly and faithfully, would do anything for him, and sincerely wants to protect and assist Leo’s family. His feelings for Audrey grow out of his grief and devotion, and he deals with heaping helpings of guilt as well.

Audrey’s initial bereavement is realistic and heartbreaking, and she is really to be admired for her strength in caring for her boys even as she falls apart inside. There’s no suggestion at all that she wasn’t madly in love with her husband. Instead, we see a woman who suffers a great loss trying to figure out if she’s entitled to any future happiness, and trying to understand if what she wants is wrong for herself, for her children, and for the memory of her husband.

The characters are all Catholic and their faith does come into play, but not in a way that feels heavy-handed. Audrey’s religion guides her actions, and she gains strength and insight through the counsel she receives from her priest – but I never felt alienated by the religious aspects or that they took away from the story.

Ultimately, the romance with the husband’s best friend feels deserved and well-developed, given the odd backstory and the guilt everyone feels.

The Sweetheart Deal is a sweet, moving, sad, and finally uplifting love story that deals with challenges that feel all too real. The plot is not complicated, but by focusing on an everyday family and its crisis, the book remains grounded and is quite accessible.

I think, if I hadn’t recently read other books about widows in their 20s or 30s finding their way back to love, I might have been more moved by The Sweetheart Deal, so perhaps it’s not really fair to even mention the other books. I did like this book a lot, and readers who haven’t read other books with similar set-ups should find it fresh and engaging.

The Sweetheart Deal is a quick read, but it hits the sentiment right on the nose and strikes a good balance between grief and hope. Recommended for readers who enjoy contemporary fiction focusing on family and marriage.

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The details:

Title: The Sweetheart Deal
Author: Polly Dugan
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: May 19, 2015
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Adult contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: Our Souls at Night

Our Souls At NightIt’s hard to describe this small, lovely book and explain what makes it just so special — but I’ll try.

In the small Colorado town of Holt, the setting for previous novels by Kent Haruf, Addie Moore lives alone. And around the corner is her neighbor Louis Waters. Both are widowed, and are in their 70s. Both seem to lack real human connection in their lives, although they certainly have friends and acquaintances.

One day, Addie shows up on Louis’s doorstep with a proposal.

I’m listening, Louis said.

I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.

What? How do you mean?

I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.

She asks him to come sleep with her at night. Not for sex, mind you. It’s the closeness she seeks. She wants someone to fall asleep with, to talk with in the dark, to make the nights a little less lonely. And after some thought, Louis agrees.

On the first night, Louis comes through the alley to Addie’s back door with his pajamas and toothbrush in a paper bag, but Addie tells him to come to the front door from now on, if he intends to continue. There will be no sneaking around.

And that’s really it. Small town folks talk, of course, and people seek to create gossip and scandal, but Addie and Louis will have none of it. They refuse to be ashamed, and they refuse to stop. In the night, they talk over their lives, their marriages, their children, the disappointments, the dreams, the pain and the joy. And from these nights, the two form an unusual intimacy, closer than most marriages, that seems like a true meeting of souls.

Just, wow. What a book.

Kent Haruf uses deceptively simple language to paint a gorgeous picture of the inner lives of common people. Our Souls at Night is a short book, under 200 pages, and much of it consists of dialogue between the two characters. Their speech, like their lives, is plain and unadorned. They’ve been through a lot over the course of the years, and they talk to each other directly and openly, no hiding or subterfuge. It’s as though, after all they’ve experienced and all the ups and downs of their lives up to this point, they’re dispensing with the bullshit and getting right to what matters.

This is a beautiful, elegant, graceful book. The writing is spare, pared down to the essentials. There’s nothing fancy about the characters, their speech patterns, or the story. It’s simply a powerful book about the connection between two people who manage to find happiness and true connection at a point in their lives when everyone expects them to simply behave and then fade away.

I read the author’s novel Plainsong years ago and remember that I ended up loving it for its stripped-down beauty. I’m sorry that I haven’t read more by this author, and I do intend to correct that. Our Souls at Night is Kent Haruf’s final novel, as he passed away in 2014 at the age of 71.

This book really swept me up and moved me, and I’d like to page through it for a while longer before I return it to the library. My immediate reaction, though, right after finishing the final pages, is just this: Our Souls at Night is lovely, and should not be missed.

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The details:

Title: Our Souls at Night
Author: Kent Haruf
Publisher: Knopf
Publication date: May 26, 2015
Length: 179 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

Book Review: The Opposite of Maybe

Book Review: The Opposite of Maybe by Maddie Dawson

Rosie and Jonathan are “that” couple — you know, the ones whose lives are massively entertaining to their friends because they just never seem to do things the normal way. While all the rest of their friends were busy getting married, buying houses, and having kids, Rosie and Jonathan stuck to their free-spirited artistic ways, keeping things loose, not needing the standard-issue adult lives that everyone else has. Their escapades become the stuff of legends — when the circle of friends gets together for drinks, nothing makes the crowd laugh more than reminiscing over Rosie and Jonathan stories and the crazy shenanigans that ensue.

But at age 44 and after 15 years together, Rosie isn’t so sure that the free and easy life is really a choice any more — maybe it’s just a mask for an inability to grow up? Rosie was a poet and Jonathan a potter when they met, but now Rosie mixes in teaching community college ESL classes with her writing, and Jonathan has completely given up pottery-making for his newest obsession, collecting antique teacups. (Seriously, teacups.) When Jonathan is contacted by another collector and offered the opportunity to partner on a new teacup museum (seriously, a teacup museum), he’s ready to uproot their lives in Connecticut and move to San Diego in pursuit of his dream… and expects Rosie to share the excitement.

It’s not quite so clear for Rosie, though. For starters, her eccentric, cranky grandmother. Soapie is eighty-eight, falls down a lot, and seems to be losing her edge. Soapie raised Rosie since the age of three, when Rosie’s mother died in a freak accident. Rosie can’t stop worrying about Soapie — even though Soapie insists she’s fine and wishes Rosie would stop fussing. Finally, Jonathan convinces Rosie to move to San Diego, and despite years in agreement that they didn’t need to get married like everyone else, he even proposes and gets Rosie to believe things can work. But then, a last-minute teacup emergency (seriously, a teacup emergency!) means the cancellation of wedding plans, and Rosie finally snaps, sending Jonathan off to San Diego on his own, and moves back into Soapie’s large house, envisioning some quiet time to lick her wounds and act as her grandmother’s caretaker.

And Rosie really is wounded, despairing over what her life amounts to:

If a film crew followed her around, what would they see? Nothing. She might as well be dying, for all she’s accomplished. She never had a family, she never owned a house, she never even bought a brand-new car, had a disastrous love affair with an inappropriate person, or even dyed her hair some ghastly shade of red. How does this happen, that you get to be forty-four and you don’t have anything — not even an ill-advised tattoo — to show for it?

The hitch in Rosie’s short-term plan is that Soapie doesn’t really need her. There’s a charming gardener named Tony who’s already moved in and is doing a great job of keeping Soapie on her feet and looked after, and Soapie’s long-time love George is by her side every evening, drinking and dancing and being a perfect courtly (and, as Soapie puts it, “ardent”) suitor (after visiting his wife Louise, suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s, each afternoon at the nursing home). Before long, this odd foursome has formed a family unit of sorts, and Rosie’s eyes are opened to new and fresh possibilities.

Oh, and minor detail? What Rosie takes for early menopause turns out to be a very unexpected pregnancy… and Jonathan most adamantly does not want to be a father. And then there’s sweet Tony, who adores pregnant women, babies, children, people in general, and pretty much everything about life. Rosie wants to give Jonathan a chance to redeem himself, to become a part of their baby’s life, and to prove his commitment to their relationship — but at what cost? Why is Rosie the one who always has to give things up? Soapie insists that Rosie needs to find her “joie de vivre” — and just maybe, the baby, the new crazy family she’s found, and even Tony can help her find that spark again, but is it the right path for her?

The Opposite of Maybe is a refreshingly charming look at adult life and adult dilemmas. Rosie is a terrific character: a woman who’s spent far too long accepting that her life is the way it should be, rather than questioning whether it’s enough. She’s smart and funny, full of passion, and when she finally gets a backbone, she’s actually quite remarkable. Tony is just a big sweetie — younger than Rosie, sexy (of course), struggling to establish a routine with his 5-year-old son in the wake of a divorce, and one lovely, loving guy. Soapie, too, is a treat, verging perhaps on the stereotype of the crazy, tough old lady with a heart of gold, but with her own secrets and a zest for life that is undiminished by the insults of old age and failing health.

It’s lovely to see the shifting definitions of family as portrayed in The Opposite of Maybe. Clearly, a blood tie is not the be-all and end-all. Jonathan may be the baby’s biological father, but he’s so clearly not daddy material. As Soapie, George, Rosie, and Tony open their home to all the friends and strays who populate their lives, they’re surrounded by chaos, fun, and connections that help to root Rosie more firmly in their Connecticut home.

The writing is clever and quirky, and I really got a kick out of the dialogue, particularly between Rosie and Tony, who make each other laugh even while driving each other crazy. (Tony has the habit of misusing words and mangling the English language, which after a while one suspects is done deliberately just to get a rise out of English-teacher Rosie).

The author portrays the indignities of being pregnant at 44 with both compassion and hilarity: In one scene, Rosie is befriended by a nice young mother and taken to see the local playground where the mommies congregate. When she tells her new friend her age, the woman replies, “Wow, that is seriously so brave of you! Forty-four! I just hope I’m still having sex when I’m that age!” Thud. Not only that, but she also kindly adds as she’s leaving, “This is like the place where everybody comes between naps. Sometimes the grandmothers come, too, ha ha! You’ll like them.”

My only quibble with The Opposite of Maybe is the character of Jonathan. He’s a hapless, well-meaning guy who can’t see beyond the end of his own nose (or his teacups) — and after a while, I simply could not see why Rosie would persist in trying to make things work with him. Even when he commits to trying to be the man Rosie needs, he’s just so clearly NOT, and Rosie is far too smart to go along for as long as she does, thinking that Jonathan can change and that the life she wants is possible with him. It’s a staple of romantic fiction that the female lead doesn’t see what’s so obvious to the reader — the dull guy who needs convincing is just NEVER Mr. Right in this kind of story, and the wrong-on-paper guy with the heart of gold usually is oh-so-right. Given that, the outcome of the love story here is all too certain from the get-go. Jonathan just isn’t the guy for Rosie, and keeping him in the role of the primary man in her life feels like an artificial means of stretching out the romantic complications and uncertainties.

Still, I found The Opposite of Maybe a completely delightful and engaging read. There are moments of real sorrow and emotion, as well as humor and joy that feel deserved and organic. Fast-paced and entertaining, I gobbled this book up in about 24 hours, and just didn’t want to put it down before the end. If you enjoy reading about flawed but lovable adults facing real-life choices, with writing that’s zippy and full of fun, don’t miss The Opposite of Maybe.

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The details:

Title: The Opposite of Maybe
Author: Maddie Dawson
Publisher: Broadway Books
Publication date: April 8, 2014
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Adult contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Broadway Books via NetGalley

Book Review: The Husband’s Secret

Book Review: The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

The Husband's SecretThe Husband’s Secret is one tricky book. It lulls you into thinking that it’s some sort of chick-lit look at married life and motherhood, with its opening chapter introducing a powerhouse of a woman, Cecilia Fitzpatrick, who is perfect at just about everything: She’s president of the PTA of her kids’ Sydney private school, a Tupperware saleswoman par excellence (her not-always-the-swiftest husband doesn’t realize that she actually out-earns him at this point), has her daily routine down to a science, bakes, cleans, and is always just 100% on time, appropriate, and slightly better than everyone else — but never enough so that you’d hate her for it.

Then there’s Tess O’Leary, whose Melbourne-based life is about to implode after her husband and her first cousin/best friend/business partner confide to her — in oh-so-supportive tones — that they’ve fallen in love, but they’re sure the three of them can make it all work out for the best.

And poor, sad Rachel Crowley, the school secretary, harbors secret hatreds and sorrows stemming back 28 years — back to the day that her teen-age daughter Janie was murdered by an unknown assailant in a crime that remains unsolved.

These three women’s lives intersect and collide with unexpected and life-changing results in The Husband’s Secret  — which I stopped thinking of as chick-lit and realized was just a terrifically well-written contemporary novel by the time I’d read 20 pages or so.

The ball really starts rolling when Cecilia stumbles across a letter from her husband, John-Paul, to be read after his death. The issue, though, is that John-Paul is still very much alive. Cecilia might have just left it alone, tucked away in the file with their wills, until she sees his extreme reaction to her mentioning that she found the letter. Knowing that he’s hiding something potentially explosive (is he gay? is he a child predator? does he have a mistress or second wife somewhere?), Cecilia rushes to open the letter… and what she reads is beyond anything she might have expected, a secret so shocking that their lives will never be the same. And then, of course, Cecilia must not only deal with new truths about the man she thought she knew, but must also decide what to do with this information — which impacts her family’s future, her daughters’ well-being, and the lives of others as well.

The secrets in this novel weigh heavily on the secret-keepers. Knowledge can be a burden, and the characters are in constant struggles to decide what’s right and what’s wrong. But what if what’s right for yourself might be completely wrong for your children? What if you share what you know, and even more lives are ruined? What good is the truth, if it doesn’t ease suffering but only leads to new and different suffering?

There are no easy answers. It seems simple, at first, to judge Cecilia and make assumptions about what she should do. I can’t say that I think she’s correct — but the author skillfully guides us through Cecilia’s thoughts and emotions, so we readers truly understand why her actions unfold as they do, whether we agree or disagree.

Tess’s story was a little less compelling for me, as it relates only tangentially to the other main storylines, and yet her dilemmas are real and potentially life-changing as well. Is it worse that her husband and cousin didn’t actually have an affair? They say they’re in love, but out of respect for Tess, haven’t allowed themselves to sleep together, and it’s the purity of it all that really drives Tess mad — if it had just been a sleazy little affair, perhaps it would be easier to get past. But what does it mean for Tess, all this silent longing and noble sacrifice, and can she reclaim her marriage, if not for herself, then for the sake of the family she and her husband have starting building with their son?

Throughout it all, the writing simply sparkles — and it’s the humor and wit of the writing, which shines through in a myriad of small but telling moments, that lulls you into thinking that this is a light, almost comedic domestic tale before the shocks, deep emotions, and tragic outcomes take over.

A few prime examples — one for each of the three main women:
(and for more, see this week’s Thursday Quotables post, where I share a few other favorite lines from this book):

Tess:

Tess thought about how Will had once told her that he hated walking behind a woman late at night, in case she heard his footsteps and thought he was an ax murderer. “I always want to call out, ‘Its all right, I’m not an ax murderer!'” he said. “I’d run for my life if someone called that out to me,” Tess had told him. “See we can’t win,” said Will.

Cecilia:

All these years there had been a Tupperware container of bad language sitting off to the side in her head, and now she’d opened it and all those crisp, crunchy words were lovely and fresh, ready to be used.

Rachel:

Lauren was the perfect daughter-in-law. Rachel was the perfect mother-in-law. All that perfection hiding all that dislike.

Reading The Husband’s Secret was one of those random odd reading experiences for me, where I went in with one set of expectations, only to realize I had it completely wrong. For whatever reason, I seemed to have remembered reading something about this book comparing it to Gone Girl, and never realized that I must have confused this with another book I’d picked up at about the same time. So, I started The Husband’s Secret expecting a dark, twisted novel full of psychological warfare and endless mindgames… and then, after reading about Tupperware, school projects, and Easter bonnets, started feeling like I was reading something suspiciously like “chick lit” — only to be startled as I went along by the depth of the characters, the seriousness and sadness underlying all the brisk, shiny writing, and the ultimate tragedy of the lives forever changed, for better or worse, by secrets kept and shared.

Australian author Liane Moriarty has crafted a real and honest look into the souls of three women with three very different lives. It’s impossible to read The Husband’s Secret without coming to care deeply about the characters. Agree or disagree with their decisions and actions, you’ll still wish these women well and feel both hope and sorrow for their experiences. I ended the book very satisfied with how the story wraps up, and yet wishing I could know more about the rest of these women’s lives. That, to me, is the sign of a successful novel: A plot that satisfies and engages throughout, wraps up without cliffhangers or loose ends, and leaves you wanting to stay in the characters’ company for just a bit longer.

I definitely recommend The Husband’s Secret… and look forward to reading more by this author.

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The details:

Title: The Husband’s Secret
Author: Liane Moriarty
Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
Publication date: 2013
Length: 394 pages
Genre: Adult contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

Book Review: The Lover’s Dictionary

Book Review: The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan

The Lover's DictionaryI’m so glad that I finally picked up a copy of this remarkable book — one of the few remaining books by David Levithan that I had yet to read.

David Levithan is the supremely talented author of incredibly fine works of young adult fiction, as well as an editorial director at Scholastic. But in The Lover’s Dictionary, David Levithan does something completely different: He writes for grown-ups.

To be clear: The Lover’s Dictionary isn’t a YA book that adults will also love. It is a mature look at adult love, and it is astounding.

Am I gushing yet? Because I feel like I’m gushing.

This is a novel, but the title doesn’t lie: It is a novel written in dictionary format. Each page contains an entry — at the least a few lines, at the most a page or two — going from A to Z, offering a word and its part of speech, followed by simply sensational definitions.

From aberrant to zenith, The Lover’s Dictionary tells the story of a relationship, not in chronological order, but in alphabetical order.

The two main characters remained unnamed. All we know is that this man and this woman meet online, begin dating, fall in love, live together, and then deal with what living together and loving together really means.

It’s beautiful and it’s unpredictable. It’s also disturbing and even heartbreaking.

Because the book is written alphabetically, there’s a strange sense of dislocation and confusion throughout. Wait, she cheated? When, exactly? Oh, they had a beautiful day in the park. But was that before or after? When they talk about having hope, are they in the early days, or the days that might possibly be too late?

But isn’t real life full of dislocation and confusion? Real relationships don’t evolve along a timeline, nicely following an outline like the tidy plot of a movie. There are ups and downs, reversals and collapses, leaps forward, near misses. It doesn’t have to go in order to make sense.

What we the readers are left with is a story of two people who seem to love each other intensely, but who also occasionally irritate each other and hurt each other and wish the other person would change, either a lot or a little.

Little snippets of the relationship just feel so real:

belittle, v.

No, I don’t listen to the weather in the morning. No, I don’t keep track of what I spend. No, it hadn’t occurred to me that the Q train would have been much faster. But every time you give me that look, it doesn’t make me want to live up to your standards.

Who hasn’t had these types of highs and lows, even in the same day, in a long-term relationship:

commonplace, adj.

It swings both ways, really.

I’ll see your hat on the table and I’ll feel such longing for you, even if you’re only in the other room. If I know you aren’t looking, I’ll hold the green wool up to my face, inhale that echo of your shampoo and the cold air from outside.

But then I’ll walk into the bathroom and find you’ve forgotten to put the cap back on the toothpaste again, and it will be this splinter that I just keep stepping on.

David Levithan knows words. I’ve admired his use of language in his YA novels as well, and here his verbal flourishes are on full display. He delves into the inner lives of words, twists them apart and finds their hidden selves, finds connections in the most unlikely of places. It’s beautiful to behold, even apart from the story itself, how the author turns the use of everyday language into an elevated art form.

Meanwhile, the story itself is gritty and often sad, yet has moments of real romance, humor and beauty. Interestingly, it’s The Lover’s Dictionary, not The Lovers’ Dictionary. That apostrophe placement makes a big difference. The male narrator is a writer, and this is his record of the relationship. Is he building a case? Is he writing a love letter? Is this a memory or a real-time journal? We don’t know. We don’t see both sides of the story. We just see him, with his devotion and his exasperation, addressing his thoughts to her, with hope and with love.

It’s one of the most unusual books I’ve ever read, but it truly works.

And now I really am gushing.

Clearly, I love this book. It’s not long (211 pages in the hardcover edition), but it’s no more than a reading session of an hour or two, given the white spaces and breathing room around each dictionary entry. Don’t rush, though. Because it’s not chronological, much is open to interpretation. Was this referring to that? Or maybe to that one there? So savor, enjoy the language, puzzle out the connections in time, and then maybe flip back through one more time to see if you still think the same events occurred in the same order, for the same reasons and with the same outcomes. I know I changed my mind a few times along the way.

A final note: If you haven’t had the pleasure, don’t miss out on David Levithan’s young adult novels. His gift for language and his commitment to getting to the essence of communications shine through in everything he writes. If you’re interested, check out my reviews of some of his other books:

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist
(co-authored with Rachel Cohn)
Every Day
Two Boys Kissing

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The details:

Title: The Lover’s Dictionary
Author: David Levithan
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 2011
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Library

Book Review: The Thinking Woman’s Guide To Real Magic

Book Review: The Thinking Woman’s Guide To Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker

16158565I’ll admit right off that I was predisposed to like this book. I mean, is that an awesome title or what?

So what’s it all about? In The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, we meet main character Nora, who is a stuck-in-a-rut grad student at the start of the book. Her dissertation is not going well, she’s been dumped by her boyfriend, and to top it all off, he has the nerve to show up at the weekend wedding she’s attending up in the mountains. Peeved and fed up, Nora sets off on an early-morning walk and gets lost. Really lost.

She doesn’t realize it for quite some time, but Nora has wandered into another world. Here, at the beginning at least, everything is beautiful and serene. Nora finds herself within the walls of a glamorous estate owned by the elegant, enigmatic Ilissa, who takes an immediate shine to Nora and convinces her to stay just a bit longer. Everything in Ilissa’s world is beautiful. The people are gorgeous and fashionable, there is a party every night, and Nora is, much to her own surprise, the belle of the ball. Everyone wants to know her, to dance with her, to talk to her. It’s all just too perfect to believe — and yet Nora does believes it all. But before long, an uglier side comes to light, and eventually Nora grasps at the help offered her by a stranger in order to be rescued from Ilissa’s clutches.

Once rescued, Nora finds herself in the castle belonging to Aruendiel, a famed and mysterious magician, who removes layers of enchantments from Nora and heals her physical wounds as well. As it turns out, Nora had been in the clutches of the Faitoren, a powerfully magical people who are imprisoned in their own lands by magical treaties and wards, and whose queen, Ilissa, wants desperately to break free. Nora finds shelter with Aruendiel, and eventually convinces him to begin teaching her magic — real magic, involving working complex spells in harmony with the elements, as opposed to lower-level wizardry, which relies upon calling upon spirits and demons, and carries much less status and power.

From there, we see Nora progress in her magic lessons, accompany Aruendil to court and socialize with the upper crust, and get involved in a daring rescue and a land battle, among other escapades. Along the way, Nora’s relationship with the prickly Aruendil develops beyond pupil/master to something more complex, involving respect, honesty, and perhaps even… love?

Enough with the summary! Let’s get down to business. Here’s what worked especially well for me:

Nora herself is a nice, refreshing main character: a smart woman with a mind of her own, who wants to feel purposeful and respected, and demands to be treated with consideration. It’s disconcerting to see how far from herself Nora ends up while under enchantment; even before she realizes that something is wrong, we can tell simply by how mindless she seems, reflecting only on the sparkly clothes and jewels and adornments of Ilissa’s world, never seeing beyond the surface of the endless fun.

I liked the magic lessons very much, which make it clear that in this world, magic is a science. There are scholarly papers and research to be studied — it’s as much an intellectual pursuit as a question of mysterious powers or tricks.

The author makes nice use of literary references, sprinkling quotes and passages throughout Nora’s thoughts — as is appropriate for an English literature Ph.D. candidate! As Nora works on translating a copy of Pride and Prejudice into the language of her new world, it’s a nice to way to set up the not-too-obvious parallels between P&P and Nora’s own current situation, coming close but not quite crossing the line into heavy-handedness.

A few things worked less well for me:

For one, this is a long book — much longer than necessary, in my opinion. At 563 pages, the book has a lot of what felt like filler to me, particularly the sections focusing on Nora’s daily chores, life in the village, etc. There’s a lot of detail, and a lot happens, but as a whole, it probably should have been leaner and tighter.

Nora stumbles into this new and strange world — but it’s really not so strange for anyone who’s read any other works of fantasy. The world in which Nora finds herself seems like a pretty standard medieval setting. There are lords and manors, negotiated marriages in order to form alliances and control estates, court gossip and shenanigans, knights and battles. It’s entertaining to read about, but there was nothing that felt particularly new. It wasn’t hard to predict the rumors that would surround Nora’s sheltering with Aruendiel, the breaches of protocol that would ensue when Nora felt the need to be entrepreneurial, or the social niceties that must be observed at all times.

Finally — shoot me now! — there was no ending! There was nothing to indicate that this book is the first in a series, but the ending was so entirely open-ended that I can only imagine that a sequel, or several sequels, must be in the works. As I’ve complained many a time, I really can’t stand reading a book that’s to be continued without knowing up front that that’s what I’m getting involved in. This book ends with the closing of a chapter in Nora’s story, but makes it clear that there’s more to come, and much to be revealed and resolved. And honestly, I felt a bit cheated to have read such a big book and then not get closure at the end.

Still, all that being said, I enjoyed The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic very much. There’s some lovely writing here, with moments of insight as well as humor. A few choice examples:

In all the stories in literature and mythology about women being offered as tribute to beasts or monsters, no one ever spelled out exactly what that meant, or what it might be like for the woman afterward.

Or on a lighter note:

“I worked as a cook, a couple of years ago,” Nora said. “Before I was, um, a fairy princess.”

“Ah,” said Mrs. Toristel, as though this were a well-established career progression.

And finally:

There was her low-grade obsession with Aruendiel. Nora had given up calling it a crush; it had lost some of its urgency, and it seemed indecorous now that he was officially her teacher. (Even across the worlds, she felt the invisible constraints of the sexual harassment policy of the Graduate College of Arts and Sciences.)

Despite my quibbles, I do recommend this book. It’s a treat to read about fantasy worlds from the perspective of a very smart, very strong woman. I very much enjoyed Nora’s fight to find a place for herself and her refusal to accept the subservient role that seems to be all that’s available to her in this new and strange world. Assuming there really is a sequel in the works, I look forward to seeing what happens next, knowing that Nora’s adventures have only just begun.

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The details:

Title: The Thinking Woman’s Guide To Real Magic
Author: Emily Croy Barker
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Adult/Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: The Rosie Project

Book Review: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie ProjectThis charming, funny novel was exactly what I needed after a couple of weeks filled with horror, wartime secrets, and violent crime. And you should hear about the books I’ve read! (Kidding, kidding…)

The Rosie Project is a first novel by Australian writer Graeme Simsion, which he originally wrote as a screenplay and then adapted into a novel. And now apparently a movie is expected as well! I can absolutely see this sweet, romantic story working fabulously on the big screen.

The Rosie Project is narrated in the first person by Don Tillman, a professor of genetics who is more than a bit lacking in the social graces department. As it quickly becomes clear, Don most likely falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, although a possible diagnosis has never occurred to him, despite being an incredibly intelligent scientist whose best (and only) friends are psychologists and despite being a guest lecturer on the subject of Asperger’s syndrome. Don’s days are dictated by his schedule, with every moment accounted for and planned for maximum efficiency. He has a seven-day food schedule (Tuesdays are for lobster), so he never has to waste precious brain resources deciding what to eat. His life is fixed and defined — but he’s 39 years old and feeling the need for a life partner.

To solve his problem, Don devises The Wife Project, a 16-page questionnaire scientifically designed to select only the most compatible women for Don to meet and potentially marry. But when Rosie wanders into his office, she throws Don’s careful plans into a tizzy. She’s clearly unsuitable mate material — but why does he enjoy her company quite so much?

The writing zips along quickly, as we hear — from Don’s perspective — all about his adventures in dating and his everyday challenges in dealing with other humans. The Jacket Incident is but one example, featuring a fancy restaurant, an ambiguously worded dress code, and Don’s aikido skills. And then there’s his approach to a medical student who touts “creation theory” as a viable alternative to “evolution theory”. Let’s just say there’s a dead fish involved and leave it at that.

Don has an eidectic memory, which he uses to his advantage not just in academics, but also in a delightful scene in which he becomes a cocktail expert. He also successfully memorizes an entire manual full of sex positions, but doesn’t quite get why it’s not so appealing to the ladies to show them a book and basically instruct them to pick a page. (Note: he strikes out.)

Quirky and funny, the dialogue really enhances the narration:

“If I find a partner, which seems increasingly unlikely, I wouldn’t want a sexual relationship with anyone else. But I’m not good at understanding what other people want.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” said Rosie, for no obvious reason.

I quickly searched my mind for an interesting fact. “Ah… the testicles of drone bees and wasp spiders explode during sex.”

All in all, I found The Rosie Project sweet, funny, and romantic, if a tad implausible in parts. I had a hard time believing that Don would be capable of making some of the substantial changes in his own behavior that he enacts by the end, especially considering how quickly he brings about these changes. Still, this book works because it’s a rom-com at heart, and what’s a rom-com without a happy ending? It’s quite clear all along that the boy will get the girl; the fun part is in seeing how it all works out.

A final thought: As someone who binge-watched five seasons of The Big Bang Theory last year, I couldn’t help but hear Sheldon Cooper as the voice of Don Tillman. To me, Don IS Sheldon, although perhaps a bit more flexible and only a drop less socially awkward. If this wasn’t the portrayal that the author was going for, well, what can I say? I think the comparisons are unavoidable. It didn’t detract from my enjoyment a bit, but it certainly made the character instantly identifiable to me and maybe even a little predictable at times.

That said, I do recommend The Rosie Project most enthusiastically. It’s ultimately a happy book, and I had a great time reading it. The characters are warm and interesting and full of life, the scenario is creative and entertaining, and the book is not without emotional weight and depth. If you’re looking for a fun, engaging read that just may move you as well, check out The Rosie Project.

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The details:

Title: The Rosie Project
Author: Graeme Simsion
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Library

At a Glance: Bellman & Black

Book Review: Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Synopsis:

Caught up in a moment of boyhood competition, William Bellman recklessly aims his slingshot at a rook resting on a branch, killing the bird instantly. It is a small but cruel act, and is soon forgotten. By the time he is grown, with a wife and children of his own, William seems to have put the whole incident behind him. It was as if he never killed the thing at all. But rooks don’t forget . . . Years later, when a stranger mysteriously enters William’s life, his fortunes begin to turn—and the terrible and unforeseen consequences of his past indiscretion take root. In a desperate bid to save the only precious thing he has left, he enters into a rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner. Together, they found a decidedly macabre business. And Bellman & Black is born.

I’m going to keep this brief (ha! that’ll be a first for me!), largely because I’m just not at all sure what to say.

At a loss for words? Without a ready opinion? This really is a first for me.

rooks 1I’ve been thinking and thinking and thinking about Bellman & Black, and here are the two main points I’ve come up with so far:

1) I found this to be a quick, engrossing read. It zipped along, and I never had to force myself to continue.

2) Every time I tried to talk to my BBB (best book buddy) about B&B (Bellman & Black), all I could say was, “I’m 25%/50%/75% through this book, and I still have no idea what it’s really about.”

So what IS it all about?

It’s about a talented and beloved boy, William Bellman, who seemingly has everything, and grows up with a magical touch for business. Every endeavor he touches seems to thrive. His ideas are golden, his people skills superb. Nothing could be rooks 2better. Yet after a terrible sickness sweeps through his village (scarlet fever, perhaps?) and kills most of his family, he makes a deal — which he doesn’t actually remember — with a mysterious man, and then turns his business acumen to a new enterpise: Bellman & Black, an enormous retail establishment dedicated to death. Bellman & Black specializes in funerary supplies, and succeeds beyond Bellman’s investors’ wildest dreams.

Much of the book is spent in chronicling William’s business skills and ideas. This is a busy, hard-working man. Work becomes his obsession, and he only remembers the mystery man, Black, in bits and pieces. Yet lurking behind all of William’s triumph’s is the sense of a debt to be paid, and sooner or later he knows there must be a reckoning.

rooks 3Rooks — black birds similar to crows — are constantly in the background of the story, and their presence, along with random facts about rooks, pops up repeatedly.

The official title of this book is Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story. And I’m not sure why. The rooks represent death, and being haunted by memories, and all sorts of other things (I guess), but I never felt that this was an actual ghost story, other than William being haunted by his forgotten past and all that he’d lost.

It’s odd: This book definitely held my interest, and I was full of admiration for the author’s gift with words. The language is often beautiful, with unusually graceful descriptions and turns of phrase. But at the same time, I spent the entire book at a bit of a loss as far as seeing the point, and never felt like the story gelled in any real way.

Maybe it’s me. Or maybe this is a well-written novel that lacks a certain oomph. Certainly, for a ghost story, you’d expect a scare or two, or at the very least, a sense of growing dread or doom. Yes, there’s an ominous undercurrent — but that’s about it. So perhaps I missed the point in some major, glaring way. But if not, then I’d have to say that Bellman & Black, while beautifully written, doesn’t live up to its billing as a ghost story and doesn’t deliver an ending that’s as full of impact as it’s probably intended to be.

I read it. I enjoyed the reading experience. But I don’t feel touched or enlightened by this book. The books that I love stay with me after I close the covers. This one, despite its many lovely passages, isn’t one of those.

rooks 4

For what it’s worth, I’m probably one of the last people on the planet who hasn’t read Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. Even though Bellman & Black wasn’t a peak reading experience for me, I admire the author’s talents enough to want to read her earlier novel, and will probably seek out her books in the future as well.

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The details:

Title: Bellman & Black
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Atria via NetGalley

Thursday Quotables: A Spear of Summer Grass

tq7Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

If you’d like to participate, it’s really simple:

  • Follow Bookshelf Fantasies, if you please!
  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now!
  • Link up via the linky below (look for the cute froggy face).
  • Make sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com).
  • Have fun!

tq5This week’s Thursday Quotable:

Don’t believe the stories you have heard about me. I have never killed anyone, and I have never stolen another woman’s husband. Oh, if I find one lying around unattended, I might climb on, but I never took one that didn’t want taking. And I never meant to go to Africa.

Source:  A Spear of Summer Grass
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Harlequin MIRA, 2013

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

Link up, or share your quote of the week in the comments.

Thursday Quotables: Attachments

tq7Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

If you’d like to participate, it’s really simple:

  • Follow Bookshelf Fantasies, if you please!
  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now!
  • Link up via the linky below (look for the cute froggy face).
  • Make sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com).
  • Have fun!

tq5This week’s Thursday Quotable:

“There’s nothing wrong with you, Lincoln,” his sister would tell him. “You’ve been on dates. You’ve had a girlfriend. There is nothing about you that is inherently un-dateable.”

“Is this supposed to be a pep talk? Because all I’m hearing is ‘inherently un-dateable.'”

Source:  Attachments
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Dutton/Penguin Group, 2011

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

Link up, or share your quote of the week in the comments.