Saturday, August 29, 2015

Review: A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan

Title:  A Window Opens

Author: Elisabeth Egan
Publisher: 25 August 2015 by Simon and Schuster
Pages: 350 pages
How I Read It: ARC ebook
Genre: women's fiction, chick lit, contemporary
My Rating: 2.5 cups
From the beloved books editor at Glamour magazine comes a heartfelt and painfully funny debut about what happens when a wife and mother of three leaps at the chance to fulfill her professional destiny only to learn every opportunity comes at a price.

In A Window Opens, Elisabeth Egan brings us Alice Pearse, a compulsively honest, longing-to-have-it-all, sandwich generation heroine for our social-media-obsessed, lean in (or opt out) age. Like her fictional forebears Kate Reddy and Bridget Jones, Alice plays many roles (which she never refers to as wearing many hats and wishes you wouldn't either). She is a mostly-happily married mother of three, an attentive daughter, an ambivalent dog-owner, a part-time editor, a loyal neighbor, and a Zen commuter. She is not: a cook, a craftswoman, a decorator, an active PTA member, a natural caretaker, or the breadwinner. But when her husband makes a radical career change, Alice is ready to lean and she knows exactly how lucky she is to land a job at Scroll, a hip young start-up which promises to be the future of reading, with its chain of chic literary lounges and dedication to beloved classics. The Holy Grail of working mothers an intellectually satisfying job and a happy personal life seems suddenly within reach.

Despite the disapproval of her best friend, who owns the local bookstore, Alice is proud of her new balancing act (which is more like a three-ring circus) until her dad gets sick, her marriage flounders, her babysitter gets fed up, her kids start to grow up, and her work takes an unexpected turn. Fans of I Don't Know How She Does It,Where'd You Go Bernadette, and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry will cheer as Alice realizes the question is not whether its possible to have it all, but what does she Alice Pearce really want?
My Thoughts
When I read the blurb  for this book, I thought I would both enjoy and relate to it. I like realistic contemporary tales about working women/mothers. However, I have very mixed feelings about this novel. The writing was fine but there was little story, no real plot, even though you quickly got caught up in the frantic pace of life for Alice. She is so busy with kids, parents, job, commute, husband that it's all a bit of a sad whirlwind actually. 
Attempts at what I would call 'Mummy' humour - 
"Margot's tried-on-and-discarded outfits directly into her hamper even though I knew they were clean."
"All those microscopic Polly Pocket shoes I felt guilty throwing out."
- fell rather flat when put up against the two major issues concerning her family and the ethical issues and stress she faced in her new job. When authors try and cover too much they often fail in some ways. What struck a cord with me most was the heartbreaking journey of her father's health. That Egan wrote really well about. However for the most part, it is easy to see where this story will go, all too conveniently at times - stressed-out working mum gets too involved in new job at the expense of her family life. Alice is rather frustrating at times and I struggled with what I would consider inconsistencies of the book as Egan swings between humour and the serious family issues faced. I definitely liked the more serious parts of the book better than the lighter ones. 
I also found the inconsequential stories sprinkled throughout often made little to no sense and rather annoying in their irrelevance.  For example the story of the brownie and the toilet - what was that about? And there were too many unknown specific NY destinations that meant nothing to me as they were not elaborated upon. I remained clueless:
"...the Cloisters, the Intrepid, the quiet garden behind the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine."
So in many ways it felt like reading a journal of the everyday occurrences with little to no reflection or depth.  Most working Mums can relate to the daily chaos but it just felt flat and rather dry.  At times I got bored and struggled to get through some sections. Too much focus on the craziness at the expense of character development and connectedness, especially with the issues between Alice and her husband. Here was another topical issue that could have been really addressed but in the end, conveniently resolved. 
Don't get me wrong, this book was fine but could have been better. Less of the day-to-day logistics and more of the evolving and developing relationships between all the characters would have made for a much richer story. 
"(time) you can't create more of it. You can sleep less, plan more ... set the alarm for a 5:30am spin class...check work email while your family is eating breakfast - but ultimately there are only so many hours in one day, and you have to spend some of them in bed."

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Review: The Witch of Bourbon Street by Suzanne Palmieri

Title: The Witch of Bourbon Street
Author: Suzanne Palmieri
Publisher:  St. Martin's Griffin (June 30, 2015)
ISBN: 9781250056191
Pages: 336 pages
How I Read It: eARC
Genre: fiction, magical realism
My Rating: 2 cups

Situated deep in the Louisiana bayou is the formerly opulent Sorrow Estate. Once home to a magical family-the Sorrows-it now sits in ruins, ever since a series of murders in 1902 shocked the entire community. Now the ghosts of girls in white dresses shift in and out of view, stuck in time as they live out the past on repeat.

When Frances Green Sorrow is born carrying the "signs" of the so-called chosen one, it is believed she will bring her family back from the brink of obscurity, finally resurrecting the glory of what it once was and setting the Sorrows ghosts free.

But Frances is no savior.

Fleeing from heartbreak, she seeks solace in the seductive chaos of New Orleans, only to end up married too young in an attempt to live an ordinary life. When her marriage falls apart shortly after having a son, she returns home again-alone-just out of reach from the prying eyes of her family. But when her son disappears, she is forced to rejoin the world she left behind, exposing her darkest secret in order to find him and discovering the truth of what really happened that fateful year in the process.

Set amidst the colorful charm of The French Quarter and remote bayous of Tivoli Parish, Louisiana, Suzanne Palmieri's The Witch of Bourbon Street is a story of family, redemption, and forgiveness. Because sometimes, the most important person you have to forgive.... is yourself.

My Thoughts:

"Serafina’s Bayou is my safe haven, a warm, private place layered with magic and held together by tangled vines of crazy. It’s soft like the quilts we sew and sour like the pickled things we put away for the off-seasons. It echoes sweetly with shouts and screams of strange that make it the most wonderful place on earth."

I have to be honest, this book was not what I expected and left me very disappointed. Having previously read and enjoyed The Witch of Little Italy, I looked forward to opening up Suzanne Palmieri's newest release, The Witch of Bourbon Street, for some magical escapism. It started off well with the intriguing 'confession' of Sister-Nurse Vesta Grace regarding the deaths of nearly an entire family of Sorrows from Serafina's Bayou in 1901. This first chapter was wonderfully enigmatic and immediately sparked my interest; I was eager to learn more.

However, immediately following that tantalizing first chapter, we are thrust into the less appealing contemporary storyline where we spend most of the remainder of the book. Much of this portion of the book is written in a very different style, and while the author admirably seeks to capture the atmosphere and dialects of the setting, some readers may find it a little distracting and unwieldy to read. It certainly took me a few chapters or more to settle into. There are also numerous POV changes which make the narrative feel somewhat disjointed and can be confusing at times.

The modern day Sorrows are a rather dysfunctional lot with plenty of family drama, secrets, and underlying tensions - and lots and lots of bickering (too much, in my opinion). The threads of this tale are interesting but take such a long time to develop and finally intertwine that I found the first part of the book a struggle to get through. I actually considered abandoning this book more than once and did set it aside a few times because it just didn't hold my interest and felt as though the plot was lost somewhere out in the swamp.

Thankfully, things begin to pick up roughly 2/3 of the way through when we start to learn more about the mystery hinted at in the opening pages. I enjoyed discovering the history of that earlier generation of Sorrows and found this aspect of the tale much more engaging. Ultimately, however, I was disappointed with the resolution of this family's tragic end. Having been built up as such a longstanding unsolved puzzle, the eventual answers regarding the suspected murders seemed quite flat to me. And after taking almost the entire book to get back to the mystery, it was dealt with so quickly and summarily that I felt little satisfaction in the solution.

The various characters are unique and quirky, but I felt that many could have been fleshed out more to add greater depth. Palmieri's descriptions of the bayou are lush and evocative, though, and give the reader a great sense of place. Most of the 'magic' here is not particularly overt, although there are several ghosts and many references to the mystical Book of Sorrows, which serves as a sort of combination family Bible/grimoire to the Sorrows. There are plenty of family dynamics which are delved into, however, and some poignant words of wisdom about life, love, choices, and redemption.
"You think mistakes are lessons or just mistakes, Frances?"
"I think it depends...Because a lesson stays a mistake unless you learn something from it."

"It's important you understand the difference between the words fix and heal. You hear me, child? You can't fix anything, but you can heal it. Broken things are better when they're healed. But once a thing is broken, it never goes back to bein' all nice and new. The trick is to fix it up and make it useful again."

"Sometimes we lost things for a reason. We lost them because we wouldn't ever know their true value otherwise."

Sadly, these sage insights and rich descriptions were not enough, and I found this novel lacking overall. It may resonate more with other readers, but it was not the book for me. I do still look forward to reading more from Palmieri in the future, however, and hope her next book will be more my cup of tea.

"But everything has an end. You get the choice on makin' it happy or sad. Endings are just doorways, Sippie."

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Review: Maybe in Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Title: Maybe in Another Life

Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Publisher: 7 July 2015 by Atria Books - Washington Square Press
Pages: 352 pages
How I Read It: ARC ebook
Genre: women's fiction, chick lit, contemporary, romance
My Rating: 3 cups

From the acclaimed author of Forever, Interrupted and After I Do comes a breathtaking new novel about a young woman whose fate hinges on the choice she makes after bumping into an old flame; in alternating chapters, we see two possible scenarios unfold—with stunningly different results.

At the age of twenty-nine, Hannah Martin still has no idea what she wants to do with her life. She has lived in six different cities and held countless meaningless jobs since graduating college. On the heels of leaving yet another city, Hannah moves back to her hometown of Los Angeles and takes up residence in her best friend Gabby’s guestroom. Shortly after getting back to town, Hannah goes out to a bar one night with Gabby and meets up with her high school boyfriend, Ethan.

Just after midnight, Gabby asks Hannah if she’s ready to go. A moment later, Ethan offers to give her a ride later if she wants to stay. Hannah hesitates. What happens if she leaves with Gabby? What happens if she leaves with Ethan?

In concurrent storylines, Hannah lives out the effects of each decision. Quickly, these parallel universes develop into radically different stories with large-scale consequences for Hannah, as well as the people around her. As the two alternate realities run their course, Maybe in Another Liferaises questions about fate and true love: Is anything meant to be? How much in our life is determined by chance? And perhaps, most compellingly: Is there such a thing as a soul mate?

Hannah believes there is. And, in both worlds, she believes she’s found him.
My Thoughts
"I'm just going to do my best and live under the assumption that if there are things in this life that we are supposed to do, if there are people in this world we are supposed to love, we'll find them. In time".
Can a decision change your life? Fascinating concept to consider, how even the smallest decision could have an impact on the way a life unfolds.  This story does just that - it details the ramifications of one small decision and shows what would have happened in a dual time scenario, the events that unfold from that initial selection. 
I love the idea that 'out there' may be numerous universes with another 'me', living out an alternate reality based upon decisions made differently. I have to admit to being partial to the concept that things have a funny way of working out, even if you are perplexed by them at the time. As the author states herself, she wished to raise questions like, "is anything meant to be? How much in our life is predetermined by chance? And perhaps, most compellingly: "Is there such a thing as a soul mate?"
"Life is long and full of an infinite number of decisions. I have to think that the small ones don't matter, that I'll end up where I need to end up no matter what I do. My fate will find me."
Now don't run away frightened, this is not a deep philosophical book. It does, however, present to the reader an interesting take on how a seemingly inconsequential decision could ultimately effect your long term situation. 
"Nine billion choices I've made over the course of my life could have changed where I am right now and where I'm headed. There's no sense focusing on just one. Unless you want to punish yourself."
The book is written in alternating chapters with each chapter telling one version of the story from the initial decision. So basically it's almost like two books in one. I liked that there were similar things that happened in each universe, regardless.  I found that to be rather clever writing. I also really liked the strong friendship between Hannah and Gabby in both timelines. The strong thread to hold it all together no matter what the situation. I like that this isn't your typical romance novel for obvious reasons - there are two male leads. So it begs the question, what would have been the 'right' decision? Hard to know. Finally, I like that the author makes the characters quite relatable with traits that one can identify with. In many ways they appear just your everyday person: living, making decisions (both good and bad) and where life is never simple. 
"I have to think that there is a method to all of this madness ..... that there is a larger plan out there. Everything happens for a reason."
So all up this is a well-written, thought-provoking tale about the consequences of our actions, fate and destiny.
"Well, I'm sure I'll be seeing you ..... some way or another". "Yeah," he says, "Or maybe in another life."

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Review: The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

Title: The Little Paris Bookshop
Author: Nina George
Publisher:  Crown (June 23, 2015)
ISBN: 9780553418774
Pages: 392 pages
How I Read It: eARC
Genre: fiction
My Rating: 2 cups 

“There are books that are suitable for a million people, others for only a hundred. There are even remedies—I mean books—that were written for one person only…A book is both medic and medicine at once. It makes a diagnosis as well as offering therapy. Putting the right novels to the appropriate ailments: that’s how I sell books.”

Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. Using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls. The only person he can't seem to heal through literature is himself; he's still haunted by heartbreak after his great love disappeared. She left him with only a letter, which he has never opened.

After Perdu is finally tempted to read the letter, he hauls anchor and departs on a mission to the south of France, hoping to make peace with his loss and discover the end of the story. Joined by a bestselling but blocked author and a lovelorn Italian chef, Perdu travels along the country’s rivers, dispensing his wisdom and his books, showing that the literary world can take the human soul on a journey to heal itself.

Internationally bestselling and filled with warmth and adventure, The Little Paris Bookshop is a love letter to books, meant for anyone who believes in the power of stories to shape people's lives.

My Thoughts:

"And the king of this world is Monsieur Perdu, a literary pharmacist who writes prescriptions for the lovesick."

Reading the reviews for this book, people definitely fall into one of two opposing categories - really like it or really don't like it. Unfortunately I fell into the latter group. Upon reading the description for this book I was fascinated by the idea of a 'literary apothecary' operating from a barge moored on the Seine river in Paris. How delightful the possibility of curing one's ills with the perfect book, and indeed, that aspect of the story is appealing, most definitely our cup of tea here at Great Reads. However, this facet of the story soon becomes lost in an onslaught of repetitive agonizing memories. 

"He had been twenty-four....but he had paid for what amounted to those few days with two decades of pain, longing and loneliness."

For, you see, the main character, Perdu, cannot overcome his own ailment of a broken heart of some twenty years past. He decides to confront this and spontaneously takes his book barge on a voyage of discovery, collecting various people and encountering a range of characters along this literal and emotional journey.

"Yes, she had shown him what a hideous life he had chosen, how painful was the loneliness he endured because he didn't have the courage to trust someone again." 

There are, however, some positives to be found. Firstly, you are taken on an interesting journey through the French countryside via waterways on a barge. Secondly, there are a multitude of wonderful bookish quotes and philosophies to be had here.

"He wanted her to sense the boundless possibilities offered by books. There would always be enough. They would never stop loving their readers. They were a fixed point in an otherwise unpredictable world. In life. In love. After death."

Unfortunately, the rest of the story surrounding those quotes is quite lacking. Much of it feels like a collection of little snippets and musings strung together but never truly connected. The concept of a literary apothecary is fabulous, and as the amazing array of quotes I highlighted testify, the author has written some truly excellent prose. Sadly however, for me, the direct connection was never made to the story that was being told and therefore fell decidedly flat.

"Perdu suspected that these small children....would one day grow up to need reading....the feeling of having a film running inside your head, as much as they needed air to breathe."

Thirdly, there is 'Jean Perdu's Emergency Literary Pharmacy' included after the story where you will find 'medicines for mind and heart' as well as a range of recipes from the cuisine of Provence - both are nice touches.

Ultimately, however, the pacing is just too slow and somewhat disjointed, without any real coherent flow or direction. I never really engaged with the characters and therefore their trials became my angst through a lack of investment in any of them. Personally I found the whole romantic element to be somewhat blown out of proportion and, in fact, felt it took away from what could have been a great journey. For much of the book, it's simply tiresome to read - So frustrating as the potential was there to write a great book about books. 

"Books are more than doctors, of course. Some novels are loving, lifelong companions; some give you a clip around the ear; others are friends who wrap you in warm towels when you've got those autumn blues."

Sadly, even though I enjoyed the language, sentiment on reading, and observations on life, as a complete tale, The Little Paris Bookshop was not my cup of tea after all. 

"For those few hours Jean Perdu had grasped life's secrets and purposes. He had been at peace with himself, everything in its rightful place. He had known that nothing ever ends, that everything in life flows into everything else and that he could do no wrong."

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Review: The Other Daughter by Lauren Willig

Title: The Other Daughter
Author: Lauren Willig
Publisher:  St. Martin's Press (July 21, 2015)
ISBN: 9781250056283
Pages: 304 pages
How I Read It: eARC
Genre: historical fiction
My Rating: 3 cups 


In 1920s Europe, a young woman discovers that her supposedly dead father is still alive and living in London with his new socially prominent family, whose happiness she sets out to destroy.

Raised in a poor yet genteel household, Rachel Woodley is working in France as a governess when she receives news that her mother has died. Grief-stricken, she returns to the small town in England where she was raised to clear out the cottage...and finds a cutting from a London society magazine, with a photograph of her supposedly deceased father, dated all of three month before. He's an earl, respected and influential, and he is standing with another daughter - his legitimate daughter. Which makes Rachel...not legitimate. Everything she thought she knew about herself and her past-even her very name-is a lie.

Still reeling from the death of her mother, and furious at this betrayal, Rachel sets herself up in London under a new identity. There she insinuates herself into the party-going crowd of Bright Young Things, with a steely determination to unveil her father's perfidy and bring his-and her half-sister's-charmed world crashing down. Very soon, however, Rachel faces two unexpected snags: she finds she genuinely likes her half-sister, Olivia, whose situation isn't as simple it appears; and she might just be falling for her sister's fiancé...

My Thoughts:

"No," said Rachel woodenly.
"Lady Olivia Standish is the Earl of Ardmore's daughter."
"His other daughter, then."

Though she has been on my 'To Be Read' radar for some time, this is the first Lauren Willig novel I have had the opportunity to read, and I'm happy to say I found it to be a pleasant experience. Her writing has a nice style and flow that makes it easy to read and the pages quick to turn.

The Roaring 20s is an iconic era and the setting here is well done. Willig effectively captures the spirit of the time and gives us an entertaining glimpse of the Bright Young Things in all their excesses. The main character, Rachel, is likeable, and it is fun to watch her transform in Pygmalion/Cinderella-style into outrageous party girl "Vera" in order to gain access to her father and his second family. However, I have a few qualms with how easily the supposedly naive and upright Rachel takes on this persona.

"What idiots, thought Rachel angrily. What fools, the lot of them. This is the great and the good? It seemed such a waste, those vast edifices, all the wealth and education and culture, all come to this."

"She might not have meant it, but that was what she had become: an expensive freeloader. What had happened to the Rachel who had always prided herself on paying her own way?"

I think this is primarily because readers are excluded from most of this aspect of the story. Rather than witness her struggle to adapt to this different lifestyle, we simply time jump forward a few months to where she is comfortable with the role. A few more scenes illustrating her difficulties portraying Vera and gradually growing into the role would have made the transformation feel much more authentic, in my opinion, with no detriment to the overall narrative. There is a fair amount of repetition of already presented details - Rachel's situation after having lost her father, for example - which could easily have been eliminated or streamlined in order to focus on such scenes, as well as on further character development and plot points.

That being said, the secondary characters are interesting and more complex than they first appear, showing depth and heartache beneath their shiny exteriors. We learn right along with Rachel that all is not always as it seems. Despite my issues with her initial transformation, Rachel's journey is a satisfying one. Through her alter ego she gains confidence, discovers who she truly is and what she wants, and takes control of her life. The plot held my interest and contains some nice twists as Willig brings everything together in the end. There are a few lingering questions and loose threads, and I personally would have appreciated a bit more resolution to Olivia's and Cece's storylines. However, on the whole, this was a quick and entertaining read, and I would not hesitate to pick up another book by this author in the future.

"You're yourself...Isn't that enough?"

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.