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Book Review: Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella

March 28, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: Twenties Girl by Sophie KinsellaSummary:
Lara Lington’s boyfriend – the one she’s sure is The One – just broke up with her. But that’s ok. She’ll soldier on. He’ll realize his mistake soon enough. And her business partner (in her small business of three people – the two of them plus one secretary) ran off on holiday and just isn’t coming back, but she just needs to keep the place afloat until she gets back. Everything is going to be just fine. That is…it would be if the ghost of her great-aunt Sadie hadn’t decided to start haunting her at her funeral. Now she just won’t leave her alone until Lara finds her precious dragonfly necklace. How exactly is she supposed to do that, keep her business going, win back her boyfriend, and not let anyone think she’s lost her mind?

Review:
I know this may seem like it was an odd read to pick up in the month following my father’s passing. (Yes, I read this eons ago…in December). I was in the mood for a light-hearted chick lit. Something to cheer me up. I knew I liked Sophie Kinsella, and honestly the thought of a loved one haunting you in ghost form sounded kind of nice to me for once. So I picked it up, and I’m glad I did. I think this might be my new favorite Sophie Kinsella.

There’s a lot here that makes this different among chick lit. First there’s the focus on a relationship with the member of a far-flung previous generation of your family. Chick lit often focuses on the heroine’s children, parents, or friends, but a great-aunt is a new one. (For me anyway). Things start out awkward and funny. Lara feels weird being at the funeral for a great-aunt she didn’t really know, and when Sadie shows up, it’s as herself in her 20s in the 1920s…how she continued to imagine herself even in her old age. Since Lara hadn’t previously had a relationship with her, she gets to know her basically as just another 20-something in ghost form. But she also has to inform her of how she’s passed on, and Sadie has to start to come to terms with what her life was.

The ghost looking for her missing necklace plot very quickly turns into a romcom mystery. There’s more to Lara’s family than meets the eye! And while I had my suspicions, how things ultimately work out was still enough of a surprise that I enjoyed seeing how we got there.

There of course also is a love interest and a love triangle that for one didn’t drive me batty (probably because it’s hard to be a real love triangle when one of the sides is a ghost). The book was humorous, the romance fun, and the plot engaging. But what shot it up to 5 stars for me was two themes.

First there’s Sadie coming to terms with what her life was, and Lara realizing that there’s more to the elderly than originally meets the eye. The book says a lot of good stuff about both how we treat the elderly in Western cultures and the process of aging and living your life to its fullest. It also touches upon taking the time to listen to your elders and learn from their success and mistakes. Lara’s life improves once she treats Sadie as a person, rather than just an elderly relic. And Sadie learns to let go once she comes to terms with how she lived her life.

The book also fights against the trope of a heroine being certain that someone is The One and then being proved she is right when she wins him back. Sadie teaches Lara a lot about being brave enough to be on your own. About the value of learning to be alone before finding someone. About how important it is to know who you are before you can find the right match for yourself. It’s only when Lara grows as a person (and a career woman) and actualizes more into who she really is that she’s able to find true romance, and I really liked seeing that theme in a chick lit.

Overall, if you want some gut laughs watching a 1920s-era ghost with her great-grand-niece cavorting around England, you won’t be disappointed in this book. But be prepared to find yourself fighting back tears to as you watch the inter-generational relationship blossom and everyone learn a little more about being true to themselves.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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2015’s 5 Star Reads!

January 1, 2016 2 comments

Since 2011, I’ve been dedicating a separate post from my annual reading stats post to the 5 star reads of the year.  I not only thoroughly enjoy assembling the 5 star reads posts, but I also go back to them for reference periodically.  It’s just useful and fun simultaneously!  Plus it has the added bonus of giving an extra signal boost to the five star reads of the year.  You may view the 5 star reads for 2011, 2012, 2013 , and 2014 by clicking on the years.

With no further ado, presenting Opinions of a Wolf’s 5 Star Reads for 2015!

cover_dreamsnake

Dreamsnake
By: Vonda N. McIntyre
Publication Date: 1978
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Genre: Scifi, Post-apocalyptic
Themes: Healing, Prejudices, Adoption, Hubris
Summary:
In a far-future, post-apocalyptic Earth, all medical aid is brought by healers.  The healers use a trio of snakes to bring this healing.  One newly-minted healer first visits the desert people, but mistakes lead to the loss of her dreamsnake, the only snake that can bring pain relief to the dying.  She enters a journey to attempt to find a new dreamsnake.
Current Thoughts:
My full review of this book has yet to come, so I’ll keep my current thoughts short.  A 1970s work of scifi by a woman that intrigued me due to many reviews mentioning the positive depiction of snakes.  It wowed me. I read it via my Audible subscription, and I really am going to have to get a vintage paper copy for my female scifi collection.
Full review still to come.

Book Review: The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant

The Kin of Ata Are Waiting For You
By:
Dorothy Bryant
Publication Date: 1971
Publisher: Evan Press
Genre: Scifi
Themes: Redemption, Self-Actualization, Healing, Mindfulness, Community
Summary:
Running from his demons, a man crashes his car and wakes up being assisted by a deceptively primitive people–the kin of Ata. He discovers that he’s been mysteriously brought to an island inhabited only by these people.  As time passes, he comes to learn there is much more to them than first appears.
Current Thoughts:
This is a book I know I will revisit. The parable for self-actualization and the journey of mindfulness is something that rang so strongly with me.  When I think about it, I remember it as a beautiful, touching book.
Full review

cover_twentiesgirl

Twenties Girl
By:
Sophie Kinsella
Publication Date: 2009
Publisher: Bantam Press
Genre: Chick Lit
Themes: Living Fully, Living Authentically
Summary:
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 isn’t having any of it. And soon the question winds up being, who is really helping who?
Current Thoughts:
A book that really shows how great chick lit can be.  What starts out light and ridiculous eventually hands over some real thought-provoking lessons about a life lived versus a life lived well.  It was just the light, humorous take on life and death I needed when I picked it up. Also, I actually laughed out loud while reading it.  A real complement.
Full review still to come.

Book Review: A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts by Ying Chang Compestine (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 16, 2014 11 comments

A bone hand holds chopsticks.Summary:
According to Chinese tradition, those who die hungry or wrongfully come back to haunt the living.  Compestine presents here eight different ghost stories, each correlated along with a course in a banquet and richly steeped in Chinese culture and history.

Review:
I picked this up because I had previously read Compestine’s book Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party (review) and when I looked up what else she had written, I was deeply intrigued by the premise.  This is a strong short story collection, featuring diverse yet related short stories, each beautifully written.

The eight short stories are organized into appetizers, main courses, and desserts.  The titles are for the food being served that course, such as “Tea Eggs” or “Long-life Noodles.”  The food mentioned in the title also appears somewhere in the story as a key part of the plot.  It’s a gorgeous way to organize the short stories and makes them also feel like diverse parts of a whole.

The short stories are mostly set in 20th century China, but a couple feature 20th century characters investigating something from the more distant past or being haunted by more ancient ghosts.  One story is set in New York City and features a Chinese-American family.

The stories, universally, quickly establish the setting and characters.  They all subtly teach some aspect of Chinese culture or history.  For instance, one story looks at medicine under Communism in China, while another features preying mantis fights.  At the end of each story, a brief blurb gives further details about two to three aspects of Chinese culture or history featured in the story.  Most surprising, and incredibly welcome, at the end of each short story, Compestine gives a recipe for the featured food!  It reminded me of how cozy mysteries often feature patterns or recipes at the end of the book, only this time the recipes are found in a shorty story horror collection.  Brilliant!

What about the horror aspect of the short stories?  I found them simultaneously plausible and sufficiently scary.  I was a bit on the edge of my seat without being scared out of my wits, which is exactly what I was looking for.

Overall, I immensely enjoyed each of these short stories, from the touch of horror to the settings to the amount I learned about Chinese culture and history to the wonderful recipes.  Highly recommended to anyone with even a moderate interest in China, Chinese culture, or Chinese food.  Even if horror isn’t usually your genre, give these ghosts a chance.  You’ll be glad you did.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Counts For:
Banner for the RIP IX challenge.

Book Review: The Shining by Stephen King (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Campbell Scott)

November 6, 2013 1 comment

View of an old wooden door from a low perspective. Summary:
Jack Torrance, a writer and schoolteacher, almost let his temper and alcoholism destroy himself and his family.  But he’s joined AA and is determined to get his life, family, and career back on track.  When he hears through a friend about a hotel in rural Colorado need of a winter caretaker, it seems like the perfect solution.  Spend time in seclusion working on his new play and provide for his family simultaneously.  But what Jack doesn’t know is that The Overlook Hotel has a sinister past, and his son, Danny, has a shine.  Psychic abilities that make him very attractive to the sinister forces of the hotel.

Review:
The new release of Doctor Sleep, the surprise sequel to The Shining, at the end of this September made me realize that while I had seen the movie (review), I had never gotten around to reading to the book.  October seemed like the ideal time to immerse myself into an audiobook version of a Stephen King story, and since I knew I loved the movie, I figured I was bound to enjoy the book.  Surprisingly, this is a rare instance where I enjoyed the movie version better than the book.  While the book version is definitely an enjoyable thrill-ride, it never quite reaches the highest heights of terror.

The characterization is the strongest here that I’ve seen in the King books I’ve read so far.  All the characters are three-dimensional, but the Torrance family in particular are well-explored.  Jack and Wendy (his wife) read so much like real people, because while both make some horrible mistakes, neither are truly bad.  Neither had a good childhood or much help to overcome it, and both want so badly to have a good family and a good life but no clear idea on how to do so.  Danny, a five-year-old, is handled well as well.  He speaks appropriately for his age, not too advanced or childish.  The use of a third person narrator helps the reader get to know Danny and his psychic abilities at a deeper level than his five-year-old vocabulary would otherwise allow for.  This level of character development is true to a certain extent for the rest of the characters as well and is handled with true finesse.

The plot starts out strong and frightening on a true-to-life visceral level.  The Torrance home life is not good, and that’s putting it lightly.  Wendy feels she has nowhere to be but with her husband, due to her only relative being her abusive mother.  Jack is terrified of turning into his father, who abused his wife and children, and yet he has broken Danny’s arm while drunk.  And in the midst of this is Danny, a child with special needs.  This was where I was the most engrossed in the story.  Before the hotel is even a real factor.

The Overlook is the supernatural element of the story that is supposed to kick it up a notch into horror territory.  It is never made entirely clear exactly what is up with the hotel but we do know: 1) there is a sinister force at work here 2) that sinister force is out to have people kill others or commit suicide and join their haunting party 3) for some reason, people with a shine are more attractive to this sinister force as someone to have on board 4) the sinister force extorts whatever weaknesses are present in the people in the hotel to get what it wants.  So the sinister force very much wants Danny to be dead, as well as his father and mother, although they are sort of more like side dishes to the whole thing.  The sinister force figures out the family dynamics and extorts them by kicking Jack’s anger and Wendy’s mistrust up a notch.  It also gets Danny to wander off where he’s not supposed to go.  But things don’t really get going until the sinister force possesses Jack.  I get why this might freak some people out.  The sinister force gets the people to do something they normally would never do.  However, personally I found the parts where Jack’s own real shortcomings cause him to do something sinister, like breaking Danny’s arm, to be so much more frightening.  Jack’s regret over his actions and fear of himself are much more frightening because what if you did something like that? Whereas a sinister force is easier to distance oneself from mentally.  It’s gory and thrilling but it’s not terror-inducing evil.  Perhaps if the things Jack does at the hotel were just things inside himself that the hotel allows to come out, it would still be truly terrorizing.  But it is clearly established in the book that the sinister things Jack does in the hotel are due to his being possessed by the hotel.  They are not him.  This removes a certain amount of the terror from the book.

The audiobook narrator, Campbell Scott, did a good job bringing a unique voice to each character.  His pacing and reading of the book was spot-on.  However, the production quality of the reading didn’t match his acting.  The entire recording was too quiet.  I had to crank my headphones up all the way, and I still had trouble hearing the book when walking around the city, which is not normally a problem for me.  In contrast, whenever Jack yells, it blew out my eardrums.  Some better sound balance was definitely needed.

Overall, this is a thrilling read that begins with a terrifying focus on overcoming flaws and bad dynamics from the family you were raised in then switches to a less frightening focus on a sinister force within a hotel.  It thus ends up being a thrilling read but not a terror-inducing one.  Those seeking a thrilling tale with well-rounded main characters being threatened by the supernatural in the form of ghosts and/or possession will certainly enjoy it.  Those who are less frightened by the supernatural might enjoy it less.  I recommend picking up the print or ebook over the audiobook, due to sound quality.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

August 9, 2010 4 comments

A woman's face and the face of two children.Summary:
Late at night at a party, a gentleman offers to read a ghost story.  He claims this story occurred to a woman he knows personally.  The narrative then switches to the governess’s voice, and she tells of going to work at her first job as a governess caring for an absent uncle’s nephew and niece.  Upon arriving there, she discovers that the property is haunted by the ghosts of the former governess and her lover….or is it?

Review:
I loved the prologue about the party.  It’s full of clearly intelligent and world-wise people, which is rare of the Victorian era.  I was then disappointed when it switched to the governess’s voice.  She is painfully innocent and frankly annoying.  She frequently waxes lyrical about how simply delightful and angelic the children are to an extent that it made me sick to my stomach.  I frankly would have given up on the story if it wasn’t for the fact that it was my audiobook download, the reader had a pleasant voice, and it’s very short, so I figured, why not finish it?  I now am glad I did.

Upon arriving at the end, I found myself wondering if I’d missed something, as I was a bit confused about what happened, and my mind does wander sometimes when listening to an audiobook.  Since it’s a classic, I decided to look a bit at the literature guides online just as I would have gone into lecture in university excited to hear what a professor had to say about a work that I found confusing.  Well, lo and behold, apparently critics have had two distinct opinions on what exactly happens in the story pretty much since the day it was published.  I don’t think it’s a plot spoiler to say that James intentionally wrote it as ambiguous as to whether the ghosts actually exist or the governess is insane.  It can either be read as a straight-up ghost story with some sexual innuendos or as a commentary on the ill effects of the tight-laced Victorian culture on women.  That’s kind of cool, and for the record, I prefer the insane governess reading of the story, as I think that’s actually more creepy than the ghosts.

After reading the commentary and about James’ opinions in general, I realized that James probably found the governess as annoying as I did.  I enjoyed the prologue, and the prologue was a reflection of James and his friends.  This makes so much sense now!  I am certain if I had approached this book with the knowledge of James’ criticisms of Victorian society that I would have enjoyed it much more than I did approaching it as a straight-up traditional ghost story.

Overall, this is a story that will be best enjoyed by readers who thrill to the challenge of ambiguous tales and who are critical of Victorian era mores and norms.  It is not exactly the right fit for readers looking for a traditional ghost story, however.  I also feel it necessary to add that I believe this story is not ideally suited to being an audiobook.  Due to the ambiguity, certain passages lend themselves to a desire to be re-read that is not so easily pulled-off when being listened to.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Librivox recording via the Audiobooks app for the iTouch, iPhone, and iPad

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